Stories about: Dana-Farber Boston Children’s

Putting patients first in the translational research pipeline

During a follow-up visit, pediatric hematologist/oncologist Sung-Yun Pai, MD, hugs a patient who received gene therapy for X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency.
During a follow-up visit at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, pediatric hematologist/oncologist Sung-Yun Pai, MD, hugs a patient who received gene therapy for X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency.

This is part II of a two-part blog series recapping the 2018 BIO International Convention. Read part I: Forecasting the convergence of artificial intelligence and precision medicine.

The hope to improve people’s lives is what drives many members of industry and academia to bring new products and therapies to market. At the BIO International Convention last week in Boston, there was lots of discussion about how translational science intersects with patients’ needs and why the best therapeutic developmental pipelines are consistently putting patients first.

As a case in point, Mustafa Sahin, MD, PhD, of Boston Children’s discussed his work to improve testing and translation of new therapies for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As a member of PACT (Preclinical Autism Consortium for Therapeutics) and director of Boston Children’s Translational Neuroscience Program, Sahin aims to bridge the gap between drug discovery and clinical translation.

“Our mission is to de-risk entry of new therapies in the ASD drug discovery and development space,” said Sahin, who is also a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

One big challenge, says Sahin, is knowing how well — or how poorly — autism therapies are actually affecting people with ASD. Externally, ASD is recognized by its core symptoms of repetitive behaviors and social deficits.

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Solving the DIPG puzzle a single cell at a time

Image depicting the cellular makeup of DIPG/DMG tumors vs normal brain tissue development
Scientists have discovered that DIPG/DMG tumors are made up of H3K27M-mutated cell populations that contain many cells stuck in a stem-cell-like state, fueling tumor growth. Cells that can differentiate despite the H3K27M mutation could hold the key to unlocking a new therapy for DIPG/DMG.

For more than 15 years, pediatric neuro-oncologist Mariella Filbin, MD, PhD, has been on a scientific crusade to understand DIPG (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma). She hopes to one day be able to cure a disease that has historically been thought of as an incurable type of childhood brain cancer.

“While I was in medical school, I met a young girl who was diagnosed with DIPG,” Filbin recalls. “When I heard that there was no treatment available, I couldn’t believe that was the case. It really made a huge impression on me and since then, I’ve dedicated all my research to fighting DIPG.”

Her mission brought her to Boston Children’s Hospital for her medical residency program and later, to do postdoctoral research at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Now, she’s starting her own research laboratory focused on DIPG — which has also been called diffuse midline glioma (DMG) in recent years — and continuing to treat children with brain tumors at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s pediatric brain tumor treatment center. She’s also a scientist affiliated with the Broad Institute Cancer Program.

This year, Filbin has made new impact in the field by leveraging the newest single-cell genetic sequencing technologies to analyze exactly how DIPG develops in the first place. Her latest research, published in Science, entailed profiling more than 3,300 individual brain cells from biopsies of six different patients.

Using what’s known as a single-cell RNA sequencing approach to interrogate the makeup of DIPG/DMG tumors, Filbin was able to identify a particularly problematic type of brain cell that acts forever young, constantly dividing over and over again in a manner similar to stem cells.

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A bold strategy to enhance CAR T-cell therapies, capable of targeting DIPG and other tough-to-treat cancers

CAR T-cell therapy uses a patient's own genetically modified T cells to attack cancer, as pictured here, where T cells surround a cancer cell.
T cells surround a cancer cell. Credit: National Institutes of Health

A Boston-based team of researchers, made up of scientists and pediatric oncologists, believe a better CAR T-cell therapy is on the horizon.

They say it could treat a range of cancers — including the notorious, universally-fatal childhood brain cancer known as diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma or DIPG — by targeting tumor cells in an exclusive manner that reduces life-threatening side effects (such as off-target toxicities and cytokine release syndrome). The team, led by Carl Novina, MD, PhD, and Mark Kieran, MD, PhD, of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, calls their approach “small molecule CAR T-cell therapy.”

Their plan is to optimize the ability for CAR T-cell therapies, which use a patient’s genetically modified T cells to combat cancer, to more specifically kill tumor cells without setting off an immune response “storm” known as cytokine release syndrome. The key ingredient is a unique small molecule that greatly enhances the specificity of the tumor targeting component of the therapy.

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Failed cancer drug may extend life in children with progeria

child with progeria and damage to cell nucleus
Image: Wikimedia Commons. (Source: The Cell Nucleus and Aging: Tantalizing Clues and Hopeful Promises. Scaffidi P, Gordon L, Misteli T. PLoS Biology Vol. 3/11/2005, e395 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030395)

Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome, better known as progeria, is a highly rare genetic disease of premature aging. It takes a cruel toll: Children begin losing body fat and hair, develop the thin, tight skin typical of elderly people and suffer from hearing loss, bone problems, hardening of the arteries, stiff joints and failure to grow. They die at an average age of 14½, typically from heart disease resembling that of old age.

An observational study published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that a drug called lonafarnib, originally developed as a potential cancer treatment, can extend these children’s lives.

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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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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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News Note: Why is this eye cancer making headlines?

This illustrations shows a catheter is used during intra-arterial chemotherapy for retinoblastoma.
During intra-arterial chemotherapy for retinoblastoma, a catheter is placed into the common femoral artery and threaded through a child’s vasculature to access the blood vessel of the affected eye and deliver a concentrated dose of chemotherapy. Illustration: Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s.

Retinoblastoma is a rare cancer that originates in the retina, the tissue in the back of the eye that converts light into visual information that is interpreted by the brain.

One retinoblastoma symptom in particular is finding itself in the spotlight. With a rise in social media use in recent years, retinoblastoma has attracted media attention for being a type of cancer that can sometimes be detected through photographs. Across the internet, news stories like this one abound in which friends or relatives have alerted parents to the potential risk of eye cancer after noticing that a child’s pupil appears white instead of red — a symptom called leukocoria — on photos posted to social media.

Fortunately, with proper diagnosis and treatment, 95 percent of children diagnosed with retinoblastoma can be cured. What’s more, a catheter-based treatment approach is now sparing patients from some of the side effects that can be expected from more traditional therapies.

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Sickle cell gene therapy to boost fetal hemoglobin: A 70-year timeline of discovery

sickled cells occluding a blood vessel
Sickled cells occluding a blood vessel. (Image: Elena Hartley)

Boston Children’s Hospital is now enrolling patients age 3 to 35 in a clinical trial of gene therapy for sickle cell disease. Based on technology developed its own labs, it differs from other gene therapy approaches by having a two-pronged action. It represses production of the mutated beta hemoglobin that causes red blood cells to form the stiff “sickle” shapes that block up blood vessels. It also increases production of the fetal form of hemoglobin, which people normally stop making after birth.

Fetal hemoglobin doesn’t sickle and works fine for oxygen transport. The gene therapy being tested now restores fetal hemoglobin production by turning “off” a silencing gene called BCH11A.

BCL11A represses fetal hemoglobin and also activates beta hemoglobin, which is affected by the sickle-cell mutation,” David Williams, MD, the trial’s principal investigator, told Vector last year. Williams is also president of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. “So when you knock BCL11A down, you simultaneously increase fetal hemoglobin and repress sickling hemoglobin, which is why we think this is the best approach to gene therapy in this disease.”

The therapy is the product of multiple discoveries, the first dating back 70 years. Click selected images below to enlarge.

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Cancer researchers hit a bullseye with a new drug target for Ewing sarcoma

Cell staining shows the lethal efficacy of CDK+PARP inhibitors against Ewing sarcoma
Fluorescent staining shows how PARP and CDK12 inhibitors combine to deal a lethal blow to Ewing sarcoma. In the top row, green represents locations of DNA damage incurred by Ewing sarcoma cells. In the bottom row, red represents DNA repair activity. Together, PARP and CDK12 inhibitors lead to Ewing sarcoma cell death.

Screening a class of recently-developed drug compounds — so-called “CDK inhibitors” capable of blocking CDK7/12/13 proteins — against hundreds of different human cancer cell lines, researchers at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center have found that CDK12 inhibitors pack a particularly lethal punch to Ewing sarcoma, a rare cancer typically affecting children and young adults.

“No one has previously considered CDK12 inhibition as a way to combat Ewing sarcoma,” says Kimberly Stegmaier, MD, senior author of the new Cancer Cell paper that describes the findings.

In 2014, Nathaneal Gray, PhD, co-author on the new paper, and his team were the first to develop CDK inhibitors.

Some individuals were entirely cured of the disease

“Now, in mice, we’ve shown that Ewing sarcoma cells die if CDK12 is knocked out genetically or chemically inhibited,” Stegmaier says. What’s more, her team has discovered that CDK12 inhibition can be combined with another drug, called a PARP inhibitor, to double down on Ewing sarcoma cells.

The revelation that CDK12 inhibition can kill Ewing sarcoma cells brings a surge of hope to the field of pediatric oncology, which has long been challenged to find new drugs against childhood cancers.

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Dulling cancer therapy’s double-edged sword: A new way to block tumor recurrence

An immune cell engulfs cancer cells
An immune cell engulfs tumor cells.

Researchers have discovered that killing cancer cells can actually have the unintended effect of fueling the proliferation of residual, living cancer cells, ultimately leading to aggressive tumor progression.

The findings of the multi-institutional research team — including scientists from the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center and the Institute for Systems Biology — contradict the conventional approach to treating cancer.

In their study, published in the January issue of the Journal of Experimental Medicine, the researchers describe how chemotherapy or other targeted therapies create a build-up of tumor cell debris, comprised of dead, fragmented cancer cells. In animal models, the team observed that this cell debris sets off an inflammatory cascade in the body and also encourages lingering, living cancer cells to develop into new tumors.

“Our findings reveal that conventional cancer therapy is essentially a double-edged sword,” says co-senior author on the study Mark Kieran, MD, PhD, who directs the Pediatric Brain Tumor Program at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s and is an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “But more importantly, we also found a pathway to block the tumor-stimulating effects of cancer cell debris — using a class of mediators called resolvins.”

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