Stories about: Science

Snaps from the lab: Developing better autism interventions

How can we better understand and support people with autism? And how can we tell if an intervention is working? Those are among the questions being asked in the Faja Laboratory, where Susan Faja, PhD, and her team study social and cognitive development in children, teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), using a variety of tools.

Originally on Snapchat, this video walks through some of these studies, including:

  • Individual Development of Executive Attention (IDEA), looking at executive functioning in 2- to 6-year-olds with autism, developmental disability or no developmental concerns. Executive functions include the ability to plan, manage complex or conflicting information, problem-solve and shift between different rules in different situations. By observing young children while they play hands-on tabletop games, Faja’s team is trying to find out: do kids with autism have problems with executive functioning early on, or do problems emerge later as a result of autism itself? The study is an extension of the ongoing GAMES project for 7- to 11-year-olds, in which children play video games designed to boost their executive functions. Faja is also looking to teach parents to use the games with their children at home.
  • Autism Biomarkers Consortium for Clinical Trials (ABC-CT), a multi-institution study that’s seeking objective, reliable measurements of social function and communication in people with autism. “Language, IQ and social assessments are not so sensitive when you’re looking for changes in autism symptoms, especially subtle ones,” says Faja. So her team is using physiologic measures — like EEGs to measure brain activity and eye-tracking technology to measure visual attention — and correlating them with behavioral and cognitive assessments. The ultimate goal is to validate a set of tools that can be used in clinical trials — and in day-to-day practice — to objectively measure and predict how children with ASD will respond to treatment.​
  • Competence in Romance and Understanding Sexual Health (CRUSH), a new study, will enroll young adults with autism and their parents. The goal is to develop curriculum around dating and sexual health that meets the needs of the ASD population, starting with interviews to determine their needs and interests. No evidence-based curricula currently exist for adults on the spectrum, says Faja.

Learn more about current and future projects in the Faja Lab.

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Mutant ferrets and kids with microcephaly shed light on brain evolution

ASPM, ferrets, microcephaly and brain evolution
Fawn Gracey illustration

Mouse brains are tiny and smooth. Ferret brains are larger and convoluted. And ferrets, members of the weasel family, could provide the missing link in understanding how we humans acquired our big brains.

Children with microcephaly, whose brains are abnormally small, have a part in the story too. Microcephaly is notorious for its link to the Zika virus, but it can also be caused by mutations in various genes. Some of these genes have been shown to be essential for growth of the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that handles higher-order thinking.

Reporting in Nature today, a team led by Christopher A. Walsh, MD, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital and Byoung-Il Bae, PhD, at Yale University, inactivated the most common recessive microcephaly gene, ASPM, in ferrets. This replicated microcephaly and allowed the team to study what regulates brain size.

“I’m trained as a neurologist, and study kids with developmental brain diseases,” said Walsh in a press release from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which gave him a boost to his usual budget to support this work. “I never thought I’d be peering into the evolutionary history of humankind.”

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A new tactic for antibiotic-resistant pneumonia: Making neutrophils stronger, but fewer in number

bacterial pneumonia with neutrophils

Antibiotic resistance is a growing threat in bacterial pneumonia. While treatments that stimulate the immune system can help the body fight the invaders, these treatments can also cause inflammation that damages and weakens lung tissue.

Now, research in Science Translational Medicine suggests a way to have the best of both worlds: enhanced bacterial killing with reduced inflammation.

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Two-drug approach halts lung tumors by starving them metabolically

(Illustration: Fawn Gracey)

Non-small-cell lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. Roughly 1 in 4 cases are driven by the mutant KRAS oncogene. Though scientists have tried for more than three decades to target KRAS with drugs, they’ve had little success.

In a new study led by Nada Kalaany, PhD, and colleagues at Boston Children’s Hospital took a different approach, looking at what these deadly lung tumors need metabolically to live and grow. Reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), they show that a combination of two existing drugs can effectively starve tumors in a mouse model.

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Zeroing in on the fetal-to-adult hemoglobin switch and a new way to combat sickle cell disease

Normal red blood cell vs. sickle-shaped blood cell, which is found in sickle cell disease
Normal red blood cell vs. sickle-shaped blood cell.

It’s been known for more than 40 years that in rare individuals, lingering production of the fetal form of hemoglobin — the oxygen-transporting protein found in red blood cells — can reduce the severity of certain inherited blood disorders, most notably sickle cell disease and thalassemia. Typically, however, a protein called BCL11A switches off fetal hemoglobin production past infancy, but exactly how this happens has not been well understood until now.

In a new paper in Cell, researchers at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center have revealed how BCL11A controls the switch in the body’s production of fetal hemoglobin to adult hemoglobin. It does so by binding to a DNA sequence — made up of the bases T-G-A-C-C-A — that lies just in front of the fetal hemoglobin genes.

Another approach to curing sickle cell disease is already being evaluated in a new clinical trial at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s. The novel gene therapy restores fetal hemoglobin production by genetically suppressing BCL11A, which prevents it from blocking fetal hemoglobin production. Learn more.

“Genetically modifying this TGACCA segment could be another possible strategy to cure sickle cell disease by blocking BCL11A’s ability to bind to this DNA site and switch off fetal hemoglobin production,” says Stuart Orkin, MD, senior author on the study.

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Why does bariatric surgery ease diabetes?

diabetes gastric bypass

Many people who have Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery for obesity experience a striking but welcome side effect. In up to 80 percent of patients who also have type 2 diabetes, the diabetes abates even before they lose weight. A new study helps explain why, and suggests possible ways to combat diabetes (and obesity) without having to actually perform bariatric surgery.

“Our aim is to ‘reverse engineer’ the surgery, to find how it works and apply the mechanisms to new, less invasive treatments,” said study lead author Margaret Stefater, MD, PhD, a fellow in the lab of Nicholas Stylopoulos, MD, in a press release.

The Stylopoulos Lab, in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Division of Endocrinology, previously showed in a seminal 2013 paper that the bypass operation causes the small intestine to ramp up its sugar intake. In rodents, this appeared to account for resolution of their diabetes. Stylopoulos, together with collaborator Anita Courcoulas, MD, MPH of the University of Pittsburgh, then started an NIH-funded observational study of people undergoing Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery.

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The softer the nanoparticle, the better the drug delivery to tumors

Nanolipogels, pictured here, are a promising drug delivery system
Nanolipogels of different stiffness, as seen through a transmission electron microscope. Credit: Moses lab/Boston Children’s Hospital.

For the first time, scientists have shown that the elasticity of nanoparticles can affect how cells take them up in ways that can significantly improve drug delivery to tumors.

A team of Boston Children’s Hospital researchers led by Marsha A. Moses, PhD, who directs the Vascular Biology Program, created a novel nanolipogel-based drug delivery system that allowed the team to investigate the exclusive role of nanoparticle elasticity on the mechanisms of cell entry.

Their findings — that softer nanolipogels more efficiently enter cells using a different internalization pathway than their stiffer counterparts — were recently published in Nature Communications.

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Could poop transplants treat peanut allergy? A clinical trial begins

FMT peanut allergy

Increasing evidence supports the idea that the bacteria living in our intestines early in life help shape our immune systems. Factors like cesarean birth, early antibiotics, having pets, number of siblings and formula feeding (rather than breastfeeding) may affect our microbial makeup, or microbiota, and may also affect our likelihood of developing allergies.

Could giving an allergic person the microbiota of a non-allergic person prevent allergic reactions? In a new clinical trial, a team led by Rima Rachid, MD, of Boston Children’s Division of Allergy and Immunology, is testing this idea in adults with severe peanut allergies. The microbiota will be delivered through fecal transplants — in the form of frozen, encapsulated poop pills.

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Prescriptions for accelerating neuroscience translation: Q&A with Mustafa Sahin, MD, PhD

Mustafa Sahin Translational Neuroscience CenterMustafa Sahin, MD, PhD, a neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, directs the Translational Neuroscience Center, which he founded several years ago to accelerate neuroscience research to the clinic. He also directs the hospital’s Translational Research Program. In this interview with Boston Children’s Technology and Innovation Development Office (TIDO), Sahin talks about his motivations as a clinician-scientist and how he works with industry partners to move discoveries forward.

What drives you as a scientist? 

What drives me as a scientist has changed over the course of my career. It was my fascination with experimentation that first got me interested in biology. In high school, I took vials of fruit flies to a radiation oncology department and tested the effects of radiation on the mutation rate. When I came to the U.S. to study biochemistry in college, I was drawn to the mysteries of the brain. While my PhD and postdoctoral work continued on very fundamental questions about how neurons connect to each other, advances in genetics and neuroscience allowed me to bring rigorous basic science approaches to clinical questions. So more and more, my science is driven by a need to bring treatments to the patients I see in the clinic. Fortunately, this is no longer a long-term, aspirational goal, but something within reach in my career.

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A breakthrough in our understanding of how red blood cells develop

Artist's rendering of red blood cells
Red blood cells.

By taking a deep dive into the molecular underpinnings of Diamond-Blackfan anemia, scientists have made a new discovery about what drives the development of mature red blood cells from the earliest form of blood cells, called hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells.

For the first time, cellular machines called ribosomes — which create proteins in every cell of the body — have been linked to blood stem cell differentiation. The findings, published today in Cell, have revealed a potential new therapeutic pathway to treat Diamond-Blackfan anemia. They also cap off a research effort at Boston Children’s Hospital spanning nearly 80 years and several generations of scientists.

Diamond-Blackfan anemia — a severe, rare, congenital blood disorder — was first described in 1938 by Louis Diamond, MD, and Kenneth Blackfan, MD, of Boston Children’s. The disorder impairs red blood cell production, impacting delivery of oxygen throughout the body and causing anemia. Forty years ago, David Nathan, MD, of Boston Children’s determined that the disorder specifically affects the way blood stem cells become mature red blood cells.

Then, nearly 30 years ago, Stuart Orkin, MD, also of Boston Children’s, identified a protein called GATA1 as being a key factor in the production of hemoglobin, the essential protein in red blood cells that is responsible for transporting oxygen. Interestingly, in more recent years, genetic analysis has revealed that some patients with Diamond-Blackfan have mutations that block normal GATA1 production.

Now, the final pieces of the puzzle — what causes Diamond-Blackfan anemia on a molecular level and how exactly ribosomes and GATA1 are involved — have finally been solved by another member of the Boston Children’s scientific community, Vijay Sankaran, MD, PhD, senior author of the new Cell paper.

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