Stories about: Dana-Farber Boston Children’s

CRISPR enables cancer immunotherapy drug discovery

Artwork depicting cancer cells with different genes deleted by CRISPR-Cas9, performed to identify novel cancer immunotherapy targets
These cancer cells (colored shapes) each have a different gene deleted through CRISPR-Cas9 technology. In a novel genetic screening approach, the T cells (red) destroy those cancer cells that have lost genes essential for evading immune attack, revealing potential drug targets for enhancing PD-1-checkpoint-based cancer immunotherapy. Credit: Haining Lab 

A novel screening method using CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology has revealed new drug targets that could potentially enhance the effectiveness of PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors, a promising new class of cancer immunotherapy.

The method, developed by a team at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, uses CRISPR-Cas9 to systematically delete thousands of tumor genes to test their function in a mouse model. In findings published today by Nature, researchers led by pediatric oncologist W. Nick Haining, BM, BCh report that deletion of one gene, Ptpn2, made tumor cells more susceptible to PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors. Other novel drug targets are likely around the corner.

PD-1 inhibition “releases the brakes” on immune cells, enabling them to locate and destroy cancer cells. But for many patients, it’s not effective enough on its own.

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An unclassified tumor — with a precisely targeted therapy

Jesus (who received targeted therapy for his tumor) pictured with his father
Jesus and his father, Nathaneal

Early last year, at his home in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Jesus Apolinaris Cruz’s leg hurt so much he could barely sleep. “All day,” the 13-year-old recalls. “It was constant pain.” His parents took him to two local pediatricians, who examined him, drew blood, tested his platelets. No diagnosis. Finally, in April 2016, a physician ordered an MRI. No wonder Jesus’s leg hurt. He had a large, cancerous tumor lodged in his hip.

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One family, one researcher: How Mikey’s journey is fueling an attack on DIPG

Picture of Mikey on 11th birthday, shortly after his DIPG diagnosis
Mikey and his family at his 11th birthday party, just one week after he was diagnosed with DIPG, a devastating tumor in his brain stem. Since Mikey’s passing in 2008, his family has been committed to supporting DIPG research.

“It’s a brutal disease; there’s just no other way to describe DIPG,” says Steve Czech. “And what’s crazy is that there aren’t many treatment options because it’s such a rare, orphan disease.”

Czech’s son, Mikey, was diagnosed with a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) on Jan. 6, 2008. It was Mikey’s 11th birthday. The fast growing and difficult-to-treat brainstem tumors are diagnosed in approximately 300 children in the U.S. each year.

Sadly, the virtually incurable disease comes with a poor prognosis for most children. The location of DIPG tumors in the brainstem — which controls many of the body’s involuntary functions, such as breathing — has posed a huge challenge to successful treatment thus far.

“Typically, they give kids about nine months,” says Czech. “Our lives changed forever the day that Mikey was diagnosed.”

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GALLERY: Forecasting the future of pediatric hematology/oncology

Title image for pediatric hematology/oncology predictionsRecently, the annual ASPHO (American Society for Pediatric Hematology/Oncology) meeting brought together more than 1,100 pediatric hematologists and oncologists, including a team from the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancers and Blood Disorders Center. Some of the delegates from Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s included:

Based on their discussions with their peers, these are their key takeaways from the meeting:

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Naturally-occurring molecule in tree leaves could treat anemia, other iron disorders

Hinoki cypress

“Without iron, life itself wouldn’t be feasible,” says Barry Paw, MD, PhD. “Iron transport is very important because of the role it plays in oxygen transport in blood, in key metabolic processes and in DNA replication.”

Although iron is crucial to many aspects of health, it needs the help of the body’s iron-transporting proteins. Which is why new findings reported in Science could impact a whole slew of iron disorders, ranging from iron-deficiency anemia to iron-overload liver disease. The team has discovered that a small molecule found naturally in Japanese cypress tree leaves, hinokitiol, can transport iron to overcome iron disorders in animals.

The multi-institutional research team is from the University of Illinois, Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Northeastern University. Paw, co-senior author on the new paper and a physician at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s, and members of his lab demonstrated that hinokitiol can successfully reverse iron deficiency and iron overload in zebrafish disease models.

“Amazingly, we observed in zebrafish that hinokitiol can bind and transport iron inside or out of cell membranes to where it is needed most,” says Paw.

This gives hinokitiol big therapeutic potential.

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Science then & now: Progress that you can see

Click and drag to compare and contrast archive photos from the lab with current-day images of research at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Then, 1986: Stuart H. Orkin, MD, examines the DNA sequence of a gene.

Now, 2017: Today, Orkin is associate chief of Hematology/Oncology and chairman of Pediatric Oncology at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center (DF/BC). In this photo, he examines a rendering of a gene regulatory molecule’s structure. Orkin’s lab investigates gene regulation of stem cell development, genetic vulnerabilities to cancer and gene and other therapies for treating hemoglobin disorders. 

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New dataset reveals the individuality of childhood cancers

Tumor cells, like the ones pictured here, have unique genetic profiles across childhood cancers
Imaging of tumor cells. A new dataset, one of the largest of its kind, contains the genomic profiles of 1,215 pediatric tumors.

Childhood cancers are rare and account for about one percent of U.S. cancer diagnoses. They differ from adult tumors in that they often arise from many more diverse kinds of cells, including embryonal tissues, sex-cord stromal cells of the ovary or testis, the brain’s neural and glial cells and more.

Yet although improved tumor detection and treatment have increased survival rates for many different cancer subtypes, more than 1,900 children across the U.S. still lose their battle each year.

A new dataset — comprising the genomic profiles of a huge array of pediatric tumors — could help change that.

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Discovering a rare anemia in time to save an infant’s life

Illustration of the erythropoietin hormone. A newly-discovered genetic mutation, which switches one amino acid in EPO's structure, resulted in two cases of rare anemia.
An illustration showing the structure of a cell-signaling cytokine called erythropoietin (EPO). It has long been thought that when EPO binds with its receptor, EPOR, it functions like an on/off switch, triggering red blood cell production. New findings suggest that this process is more nuanced than previously thought; even slight variations to cytokines like EPO can cause disease.

While researching a rare blood disorder called Diamond-Blackfan anemia, scientists stumbled upon an even rarer anemia caused by a previously-unknown genetic mutation. During their investigation, the team of scientists — from the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and Yale University — had the relatively unusual opportunity to develop an “on-the-fly” therapy.

As they analyzed the genes of one boy who had died from the newly-discovered blood disorder, the team’s findings allowed them to help save the life of his infant sister, who was also born with the same genetic mutation. The results were recently reported in Cell.

“We had a unique opportunity here to do research, and turn it back to a patient right away,” says Vijay Sankaran, MD, PhD, the paper’s co-corresponding author and a principal investigator at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. “It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to bring research full circle to impact a patient’s life.”

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Mining similarities in pediatric and canine bone cancer to help both children and pets

dogs aid fight against osteosarcoma

In March 2016, Ollie, a therapy dog at Boston Children’s Hospital, paid a bedside visit to 7-year-old Carter Mock. The pug and the boy had something in common: Both had lost limbs to the bone cancer osteosarcoma. Ollie’s left front leg had been amputated at the shoulder, while Carter had just had a new knee fashioned from his ankle in a procedure called rotationplasty.

Biologically, the osteosarcoma that dogs develop is remarkably similar to osteosarcoma in children and youths. The tumors develop primarily in the long bones, and the spread of tumor cells to the lungs represents the most significant threat and challenge. Similar chemotherapy agents are used in both dogs and human patients to kill residual cancer cells. Researchers are now mining these similarities in a quest for new treatments to benefit pets and people alike.

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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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