Stories about: Dana-Farber Boston Children’s

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-Guilford 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, osteoporosis, 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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Taking a sideswipe at high-risk neuroblastoma

Microscopy image of human neuroblastoma cells.
Human neuroblastoma cells.

Cancer and other diseases are now understood to spring from a complex interplay of biological factors rather than any one isolated origin. New research reveals that an equally-nuanced approach to treating high-risk neuroblastoma may be the most effective way to curb tumor growth.

One challenge in treating pediatric cancers like neuroblastoma is that they are not initiated from the same kinds of genetic mutations as adult cancers, which usually arise from mutations related to an accumulation of DNA replication errors or environmental factors. In contrast, childhood cancers more often stem from genetic duplications, deletions or translocations, the latter of which occurs when a gene sequence switches its location from one chromosome to another.

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Routing gene therapy directly into the brain

Image of mouse brain that received a transplantation of hematopoietic stem cells. The image shows the transplanted cells (green) rapidly engrafted and gave rise to new cells (also green) that have widely distributed throughout the entire brain. 
Image of a mouse brain that received a direct transplantation of hematopoietic stem cells. The image reveals the transplanted cells (green) rapidly engrafted and gave rise to new cells (also green) that have widely distributed throughout the entire brain.

A therapeutic technique to transplant blood-forming (hematopoietic) stem cells directly into the brain could herald a revolution in our approach to treating central nervous system diseases and neurodegenerative disorders.

The technique, which could be used to transplant donor-matched hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) or a patient’s own genetically-engineered HSCs into the brain, was reported in Science Advances today by researchers from the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and the San Raffaele Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy.

In their study, the team tested the technique in a mouse model to treat lysosomal storage disorders, a group of severe metabolic disorders that affect the central nervous system.

The team’s findings are groundbreaking because, until now, it was thought that HSCs — from a healthy, matched donor or a patient’s own genetically-corrected cells — needed to be transplanted indirectly

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MATCHing precision medicine to all kids with cancer

Image of human neuroblastoma tumor cells. A new nationwide clinical trial called pediatric MATCH will utilize genomic sequencing to match children with individualized, targeted drugs matched to their tumor profile.
Human neuroblastoma cells.

A multi-center clinical trial is now offering nationwide genetic profiling services to pediatric and young adult cancer patients across the U.S. The goal is to identify gene mutations that can be individually matched with targeted drugs.

“This is the first-ever nationwide precision medicine clinical trial for pediatric cancer,” says pediatric oncologist Katherine Janeway, MD, clinical director of the solid tumor center at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

Sponsored by the National Institute of Cancer (NCI) and the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), the so-called NCI-COG Pediatric MATCH trial will screen patients’ tumors for more than 160 gene mutations related to cancer. Nearly 1,000 patients are expected to participate in the trial and it is estimated that 10 percent of those patients will be matched with a targeted therapy.

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