In honor of Rare Disease Day (Feb. 28), we salute “citizen scientists” Jocelyn and John Duff.
When Talia Duff was born, her parents realized life would be different, but still joyful. They were quickly adopted by the Down syndrome parent community and fell in love with Talia and her bright smile.
But when Talia was about four, it was clear she had a true problem. She started losing strength in her arms and legs. When she got sick, which was often, the weakness seemed to accelerate.
Talia was initially diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP), an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own nerve fibers. Treated with IV immunoglobulin infusions to curb the inflammation, she seemed to grow stronger — but only for a time. Adding prednisone, a steroid, seemed to help. But it also caused bone loss, and Talia began having spine fractures.
“We tried a lot of different things, but she never got 100 percent better,” says Regina Laine, NP, who has been following Talia in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Neuromuscular Center the past several years, together with Basil Darras, MD. “That’s when we decided to readdress the possibility that it was genetic.” …
For more than two decades, Alan Beggs, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital has explored the genetic causes of congenital myopathies, disorders that weaken children’s muscles, and investigated how the mutations lead to muscle weakness. For one life-threatening disorder, X-linked myotubular myopathy (XLMTM), the work is approaching potential payoff, in the form of a clinical gene therapy trial.
Boys with XLMTM are born so weak that they are dependent on ventilators and feeding tubes to survive. Almost half die before 18 months of age. …
Diamond Blackfan anemia (DBA) has long been a disease waiting for a cure. First described in 1938 by Louis K. Diamond, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital and his mentor, Kenneth Blackfan, MD, the rare, severe blood disorder prevents the bone marrow from making enough red blood cells. It’s been linked to mutations affecting a variety of proteins in ribosomes, the cellular organelles that themselves build proteins. The first mutation was reported in 1999.
But scientists have been unable to connect the dots and turn that knowledge into new treatments for DBA. Steroids are still the mainstay of care, and they help only about half of patients. Some people eventually stop responding, and many are forced onto lifelong blood transfusions.
Researchers have tried for years to isolate and study patients’ blood stem cells, hoping to recapture the disease process and gather new therapeutic leads. Some blood stem cells have been isolated, but they’re very rare and can’t be replicated in enough numbers to be useful for research.
Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, first created in 2006 from donor skin cells, seemed to raise new hope. They can theoretically generate virtually any specialized cell, allowing scientists model a patient’s disease in a dish and test potential drugs.
There’s been just one hitch. “People quickly ran into problems with blood,” says hematology researcher Sergei Doulatov, PhD. “iPS cells have been hard to instruct when it comes to making blood cells.” …
The ear is a part of the body that’s readily accessible to gene therapy: You can inject a gene delivery vector (typically a harmless virus) and it has a good chance of staying put. But will it ferry the corrected gene into the cells of the hearing and/or vestibular organs where it’s most needed?
Back in 2015, a Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School team reported using gene therapy to restore rudimentary hearing in mice with genetic deafness. Previously unresponsive mice began jumping when exposed to abrupt loud sounds. But the vector used could get the corrected genes only into the cochlea’s inner hair cells. To really restore significant hearing, the outer hair cells need to be treated too. …
The wear and tear of life takes a cumulative toll on our bodies. Our organs gradually stiffen through fibrosis, which is a process that deposits tough collagen in our body tissue. Fibrosis happens little by little, each time we experience illness or injury. Eventually, this causes our health to decline.
Ironically, fibrosis can stem from our own immune system’s attempt to defend us during injury, stress-related illness, environmental factors and even common infections.
But a Boston Children’s team of scientists thinks preventative therapies could be on the horizon. A study by Wagner and her team, published recently by the Journal of Experimental Medicine, pinpoints a gene responsible for fibrosis and identifies some possible therapeutic solutions. …
Precision cancer medicine – the vision of tailoring diagnosis and treatments to a tumor’s genetic susceptibilities – is now ready to impact the care of a majority of children with brain tumors. The molecular “signatures” of brain tumors were first characterized in 2002 in a study led by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital. This has led to the creation of new tumor subgroups and changes in cancer treatment: For example, a current clinical trial is testing the anti-melanoma drug dabrafenib in a variety of brain tumors with the same BRAF mutation – including metastatic anaplastic astrocytoma and low-grade glioma.
In the largest study of its kind to date, investigators at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center genetically tested more than 200 brain tumor samples. They found that many had genetic irregularities that could guide treatment, in some cases with approved drugs or agents being evaluated in clinical trials.
Every year, about 2,100 people receive heart transplants in the U.S., while 5.7 million suffer from heart failure. Given the scarcity of available donor hearts, clinicians and biomedical engineers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University have spent several years developing a mechanical alternative.
Heart failure occurs when one or both of the heart’s ventricles can no longer collect or pump blood effectively. Ventricular assist devices (VADs) are already used to sustain end-stage heart failure patients awaiting transplant, replacing the work of the ventricles through tubes that take blood out of the heart, send it through pumps or rotors and power it back into a patient’s bloodstream. But while VADs extend lives, they can cause complications. …
Why do some people seem to be prone to weight gain? Obesity has been linked to a variety of genetic changes, yet these differences don’t fully explain the variation in people’s body mass index (BMI). “Even though we’ve genetically sequenced more and more people at greater and greater breadth and depth, we haven’t completely explained who develops obesity and why,” says Michael Mendelson, MD, ScM, a pediatric cardiologist with Boston Children’s Hospital’s Preventive Cardiology Program.
Nor do prior studies explain why some overweight people develop health complications from obesity, like cholesterol problems, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, while others don’t. Now comes strong evidence that an important factor is DNA methylation — a so-called epigenetic modification that influences whether genes are turned on or off. …
Clinicians have long known that children with Down syndrome carry an elevated risk of developing acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common pediatric cancer. Research consistently shows that children with Down syndrome are more likely to suffer complications from chemotherapy. At the same time, some studies have suggested that children with Down syndrome and ALL may have a higher chance of relapsing.
But at best, these methods get only about 1 percent of the injured nerve fibers to regenerate and reconnect the retina to the brain. That’s because most of the damaged cells, known as retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), eventually die, says Larry Benowitz, PhD, of the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Benowitz and colleagues now show a surprising new approach that gets RGCs to live longer and regenerate robustly: using chelating agents to bind up zinc that’s released as a result of the injury.
These studies, too, were done in mice. If the findings hold up in human studies, they could spell hope for people with optic nerve injury due to trauma, glaucoma or other causes, and possibly even spinal cord injury. …