In 1989, two undergraduate students at the Free University
of Brussels were asked to test frozen blood serum from camels, and stumbled on
a previously unknown kind of antibody. It was a miniaturized version of a human
antibody, made up only of two heavy protein chains, rather than two light and
two heavy chains. As they
eventually reported, the antibodies’ presence was confirmed not only in
camels, but also in llamas and alpacas.
Fast forward 30 years. In the journal PNAS this week, researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and MIT show that these mini-antibodies, shrunk further to create so-called nanobodies, may help solve a problem in the cancer field: making CAR T-cell therapies work in solid tumors.
Cytokines are small proteins produced by the body’s cells that have a big impact on our immune system. Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital believe that modulating their presence in our bodies could be the key to improving outcomes in life-threatening cases of trauma, hemorrhage and many other conditions including sepsis, which alone impacts nearly one million Americans each year.
The reason? Cells essentially use cytokines to talk to one another. In response to their surroundings, cells release different types of cytokines that encourage inflammatory or anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Infection or trauma causes cells to pump out more cytokines that produce inflammation. Altogether, an escalating chorus of cytokines can sometimes tip a person’s body into overwhelming inflammation that can turn fatal, which is what happens during sepsis.
But what if scientists could remove the problematic cytokines to bring the choir into perfect tune, allowing the immune system to respond with just the right amount of inflammation for healing? …
A new discovery about the spatial orientation and physical interactions of our genes provides a promising step forward in our ability to design custom antibodies. This, in turn, could revolutionize the fields of vaccine development and infection control.
Recent years of research by Alt and others in the field of molecular biology have revealed that it’s not just our genes themselves that determine health and disease states. It’s also the three-dimensional arrangement of our genes that plays a role in keeping genetic harmony. Failure of these structures may trigger genetic mutations or genome rearrangements leading to catastrophe.
The importance of genetic loops
Crammed inside the nucleus, chromatin, the chains of DNA and proteins that make up our chromosomes, is arranged in extensive loop arrangements. These loop configurations physically confine segments of genes that ought to work together in a close proximity to one another, increasingly their ability to work in tandem.
“All the genes contained inside one loop have a greater than random chance of coming together,” says Suvi Jain, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in Alt’s lab and a co-first author on the study.
Meanwhile, genes that ought to stay apart remain blocked from reaching each other, held physically apart inside our chromosomes by the loop structures of our chromatin.
But while many chromatin loops are hardwired into certain formations throughout all our cells, it turns out that some types of cells, such as certain immune cells, are more prone to re-arrangement of these loops. …
It began with the proteins. Before Watson and Crick unraveled DNA’s double helix in the 1950s, biochemists snipped, ground and pulverized animal tissues to extract and study proteins, the workhorses of the body.
Then, in 1990, the Human Genome Project launched. It promised to uncover the underpinnings of all human biology and the keys to treating disease. Funding for DNA and RNA tools and studies skyrocketed. Meanwhile, protein science fell behind.
While genomics unveiled a wealth of information, including the identity of genes that lead to disease when mutated, researchers still do not fully understand what all the genes really do and how mutations change their function and cause disease.
Now proteins are promising to provide the missing link. …
Since 2009, Boston Children’s Hospital has committed $6.2 million to support 58 hospital innovations ranging from therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices and vaccines to regenerative medicine and healthcare IT projects. What a difference six years makes.
The Technology Development Fund (TDF) was proposed to Boston Children’s senior leadership in 2008 after months of research. As a catalyst fund, the TDF is designed to transform seed-stage academic technologies at the hospital into independently validated, later-stage, high-impact opportunities sought by licensees and investors. In addition to funds, investigators get access to mentors, product development experts and technical support through a network of contract research organizations and development partners. TDF also provides assistance with strategic planning, intellectual property protection, regulatory requirements and business models.
Seeking some “metrics of success” beyond licensing numbers and royalties (which can come a decade or so after a license), I asked recipients of past TDF awards to report back any successes that owed at least in part to data generated with TDF funds. While we expected some of the results, we would have never anticipated such a large impact. …
Today we bring more good news: Following a successful Phase III trial, rFIXFc recently received the green light for marketing from the FDA and from Health Canada.
Developed by Biogen Idec under the trade name Alprolix™, rFIXFc—a modified version of clotting factor IX—is the fruition of a technology first envisioned by three researchers—gastroenterologists Wayne Lencer, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital, and Richard Blumberg, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and immunologist Neil Simister, DPhil, of Brandeis University—for large protein drugs. Their idea: to extend the drugs’ half-lives by protecting them from being ground up by cells. …
Getting drugs to stay in the bloodstream longer is a big deal when it comes to treating chronic diseases. You see, a drug’s half-life—the time it takes for half of a given dose to be cleared from the body—determines how long its effect(s) last.
If a drug’s half-life is short—meaning it’s cleared quickly—patients will have to take the drug frequently. Given that someone with a chronic condition could be on the medication for many years—say, patients with severe hemophilia, who endure frequent infusions of clotting factors—a short half-life can translate into high cost. Depending on side effects and how the drug is administered, quality of life may also suffer.
Your immune system’s B cells can produce antibodies against an amazing number of pathogens—viruses, bacteria, etc.—without ever having encountered them. That’s because, as they develop, your B cells reshuffle their antibody-producing genes into an amazing number of possible combinations—more than 100 million—to produce what’s called your primary pre-immune B cell repertoire.
It’s long been thought that in people and in mice this reshuffling process—called V(D)J recombination, after the B cells’ antibody-coding V, D and J gene segments—takes place in two places: the bone marrow and the spleen. But new research from a team led by Frederick Alt, PhD, and Duane Wesemann, MD, PhD, suggests that there may be one more place B cells go to undergo recombination: the gut. What’s more, that reshuffling in the gut may be influenced by the microbes that live there.
Imagine for a moment, that you are your immune system. On any given day, you’re faced with host of threats: a virus here, a bacterium there, a new fungus. And don’t forget those wayward cells lurking around the corner, the ones that might become a tumor.
Now, you have to respond to these challenges, but how you do it? Each looks different, meaning that you have to produce a new T or B cell (your two main tools) that can find, mark and guide the attack against each new threat.
Luckily, your T and B cells can turn to three sets of gene segments that, together, contain the genetic raw material for the variety you need. Called the variable (V), diversity (D) and joining (J) segments, they are constantly cut up, shuffled and rejoined by the genome to make new genes – a process called V(D)J recombination – for new receptors (on T cells) or antibodies (from B cells), giving your immune system the most diverse arsenal possible. …
Every year, the flu tries to outwit humanity. By shifting parts of its outer coat, the virus renders the flu vaccine from the previous year obsolete, bringing another season of misery. And every year, we fight back with a new vaccine, finding a new chink in the virus’s armor and giving ourselves another brief window of protection.
But if Stephen Harrison, chief of Children’s Division of Molecular Medicine, is right, we might be able to train our immune systems to look past the flu virus’s annual trickery and build up resistance that spans multiple seasons. That could reduce the need to develop, produce, and distribute a new flu vaccine nearly every year, a process of selection, growth, packaging, and distribution that can take upwards of seven months. …