Why I’m tall and you’re short: GIANT effort finds rare, potent height genes

height genes that make us tall or short

Height is the “poster child” of complex genetic traits, meaning that it’s influenced by multiple genetic variants working together. Because height is easy to measure, it’s a relatively simple model for understanding traits produced by not one gene, but many.

“Mastering the complex genetics of height may give us a blueprint for studying multifactorial disorders that have eluded our complete understanding, such as diabetes and heart disease,” says Joel Hirschhorn, MD, PhD, a pediatric endocrinologist and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Hirschhorn chairs the Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (GIANT) Consortium, an international group that’s just probed more deeply into the genetics of height than ever before. Its findings, reported today in Nature, reveal previously unknown biological pathways tied to height.

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Seeking a way to keep organs young

Images of mouse hearts with fibrosis
These mouse hearts show differing levels of fibrosis (blue) resulting from cardiac stress. New Boston Children’s Hospital research suggests certain therapies could prevent or reduce fibrosis, like we see in the center and right images.

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.

“As we age, we typically accumulate more fibrosis and our organs become dysfunctional,” says Denisa Wagner, PhD, the Edwin Cohn Professor of Pediatrics in the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine and a member of the Division of Hematology/Oncology at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

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.

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A healthcare Innovator’s Roadmap: 4 steps for developing a business model

healthcare innovation business plan

First in an on-going series of Innovator’s Roadmap posts from Boston Children’s Hospital’s Innovation & Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA). Matt Murphy is Innovation Lead at IDHA.

Seeing an idea go from the lab or clinic to the wider world is exciting. However, clinicians, researchers and administrators don’t always have the time or resources to take their innovations to the next step — that is, build them to scale. At Boston Children’s Hospital, the Innovation & Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA), comprised of 50+ researchers, business strategists and technologists, is dedicated to just that: We identify and vet high-priority health technology innovations at the hospital and provide the resources, funding and momentum to accelerate their development and commercialization.

To date, Boston Children’s has spun off more than 25 startup companies developed directly from clinical and research pain points. Some startups, like Neuromotion and Circulation, stand on their own. Others, including Epidemico, have been acquired by industry leaders. Through this experience, IDHA created the Innovator’s Roadmap – a comprehensive resource for taking ideas from concept to commercially available, impactful, economically sustainable products.

In this first installment, we look at the critical first step: understanding and justifying the business value of a technology or service by developing a business model.

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Rare blood disorder sideroblastic anemia slowly reveals its genetic secrets

congenital sideroblastic anemia
Regardless of the gene, all patients with sideroblastic anemia have sideroblasts: red blood cell precursors with abnormal iron deposits in mitochondria, shown here ringing the cell nucleus. (Paulo Henrique Orlandi Mourao/Wikimedia)

A decade ago, Brooks McMurray’s routine check-up was anything but routine. The suburban Boston boy’s spleen was enlarged. His red blood cell count was low and the cells were very small and very pale, which suggested a serious iron deficiency anemia. The family pediatrician referred McMurray, now a 19-year-old college freshman, to Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

There hematologists discovered the boy had unexpectedly high iron levels. Together with pathologist Mark Fleming, MD, DPhil, they solved the mystery. McMurray has congenital sideroblastic anemia, an inherited blood disorder so rare that fewer than 1,000 cases have been reported worldwide. Iron was getting stuck in the wrong place in the precursor red blood cells developing in his bone marrow.

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Pediatric brain tumor genomics arrives, as the need for new therapies grows

Allison was the first pediatric brain tumor patient in the world to receive a treatment targeting the BRAF mutation, originally developed to treat adults with melanoma who have the same mutation.

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.

The findings, reported online today by the journal Neuro-Oncology, also demonstrate that testing pediatric brain tumor tissue for genetic abnormalities is clinically feasible.

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Soft robot could aid failing hearts by mimicking healthy cardiac muscle

heart-failure

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.

Their proof of concept is reported today in Science Translational Medicine: a soft robotic sleeve that is fitted around the heart, where it twists and compresses the heart’s chambers just like healthy cardiac muscle would do.

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.

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DNA methylation patterns linked to obesity and its complications

DNA methylation obesity
(Methylated DNA: Christoph Bock, Max Planck Institute for Informatics/Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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Clinical simulation training goes to the dogs

clinical simulation

Boston Children’s Hospital’s fast-growing Simulator Program, SIMPeds, creates medical scenarios for clinical teams to practice challenging procedures and situations in a risk-free environment. Now serving 27 departments and divisions at the hospital, SIMPeds’ customized simulations prepare clinicians for everything from a Code Blue to complex surgery to breaking difficult news to parents.

At the Simulation Center this week, there was one special team member being trained: Rafa, a Miniature Australian Shepherd auditioning to be part of Pawprints, Boston Children’s dog visitation program. Not all dogs are behaviorally up to the job when confronted with a hospital environment. So the SIM team created a mock intensive-care-unit patient room, fully equipped and complete with an overly enthusiastic child (overwhelming for some dogs), played by SIM engineer Katie Fitzpatrick. As Rafa interacted with the “patient,” the SIM staff set off alarms, had “doctors” and “nurses” come in and out and staged other hospital things that might distract or make a dog skittish.

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Do children with Down syndrome need modified chemo for leukemia? No, says study

leukemia down syndrome acute lymphoblastic leukemia

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.

What to do with this knowledge has been a source of controversy. Should patients with ALL and Down syndrome receive treatment modified to minimize toxicity from chemotherapy? Or should they be given the same treatment as other children with ALL to minimize the chance for relapse? Recent study results from Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center suggest that full-dose chemo is preferable.

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Infant behavior, dyslexia and war orphans: A portrait of Peter Wolff, MD

Peter Wolff MD
Peter Wolff c. 1977 (Ed Fitzgerald/Boston Globe)

Peter Wolff, MD, recently retired from Boston Children’s Hospital after more than 60 years in service to clinical psychiatry, behavioral science research and ethical oversight of human subject research.

When he started as a psychiatrist at Boston Children’s Hospital in 1956, Peter H. Wolff, MD, was seeking a deeper understanding of infant behavior. At a time when psychoanalysis was the framework for understanding the infant psyche, Wolff applied scientific methods used to study animal behavior — carefully observing an animal in its natural environment and seeking to discern patterns. His approach would revolutionize our understanding of infancy.

“We knew a great deal about a stickleback fish, the graylag goose by just watching what they do in the field — field observations — but nobody had ever done that with humans,” Wolff shared in an interview in 2009, “and it seemed to me a logical thing to try to do that.”

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