Stories about: Dana-Farber Boston Children’s

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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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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BCL11A-based gene therapy for sickle cell disease passes key preclinical test

sickle cell gene therapy coming
(unsplash/Pixabay)

Research going back to the 1980s has shown that sickle cell disease is milder in people whose red blood cells carry a fetal form of hemoglobin. The healthy fetal hemoglobin compensates for the mutated “adult” hemoglobin that makes red blood cells stiffen and assume the classic “sickle” shape.

Normally, fetal hemoglobin production tails off after birth, shut down by a gene called BCL11A. In 2008, researchers Stuart Orkin, MD, and Vijay Sankaran, MD, PhD, at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center showed that suppressing BCL11A could restart fetal hemoglobin production; in 2011, using this approach, they corrected sickle cell disease in mice.

Now, the decades-old discovery is finally nearly ready for human testing — in the form of gene therapy. Today in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s researchers report that a precision-engineered gene therapy vector suppressing BCL11A production overcame a key technical hurdle.

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Treating relapsed child leukemia by matching therapy to the mutations

next generation sequencing cancer drugs child leukemia
(Bainscou / National Cancer Institute / Wikimedia Commons)

Although current treatments can cure 80 to 90 percent of cases, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) remains the second leading cause of cancer deaths in children. Patients with a resistant form of the disease, who relapse following successful treatment or who have other high risk features have few treatment options. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is also difficult to treat in children.

In a first-of-its-kind study, investigators at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center are testing precision cancer medicine in children and young adults with relapsed or high-risk leukemias. The goal is to determine whether powerful next-generation DNA sequencing can spot mutations or genetic changes in leukemia cells that can be targeted by cancer drugs.

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Double stem cell transplant and other tools are helping children survive neuroblastoma

neuroblastoma double stem cell transplant
Emily Coughlin during her neuroblastoma treatment

When Emily Coughlin complained of a sore knee in May 2009, doctors initially suspected Lyme disease. After antibiotics failed to relieve the pain, Emily was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer that begins in nerve cells outside the brain, just shy of her fourth birthday. Though neuroblastomia is rare — about 700 new cases occur annually in the United States — it is the most common cancer in infants and toddlers.

In the early 1990s, when Lisa Diller, MD, was starting her career at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, Emily would have faced five-year survival odds of less than 15 percent. “It was a devastating diagnosis,” recalls Diller, now chief medical officer of Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s.

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Tool helps interpret subtle DNA variants from genome-wide association studies

Genome-wide association studies are huge undertakings that compare the genomes of large populations. They can turn up thousands to tens of thousands of genetic variants associated with disease. But which GWAS variants really matter?

That question becomes exponentially harder when the variants lie in the vast stretches of DNA that don’t encode proteins, but instead have regulatory functions.

“It’s hard to know which hits are causal hits, and which are just going along for the ride,” says Vijay Sankaran, MD, PhD, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and an associate member of the Broad Institute.

Reporting in Cell, Sankaran’s team and two other groups at the Broad Institute describe a new tool that can looks at hundreds of thousands of genetic elements at once to pinpoint variants that truly affect gene expression or function. Called the massively parallel reporter assay (MPRA), it could help reveal subtle genetic influences on diseases and traits.

In Sankaran’s case, the MPRA is helping him understand how common variants contribute to blood disorders in children. “Most of the common variation is just tuning genetic function,” he says. “Just slightly, not turning it on or off, but actually just tuning it like a dimmer switch.”

The above video explains how the assay works – via DNA “barcodes.” Read more on the Broad Institute’s blog, Broad Minded.

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Forty years waiting for a cure: ALD gene therapy trial shows early promise

Ethan, who was diagnosed with ALD when he was 9, with his sister Emily
Ethan and me, June 1977

A small piece of notepaper, folded twice, sits tucked in a slot of the secretary desk in the living room. Every so often, I pull it out, read it, then reread.

Addressed to my mom, the paper has a question and two boxes, one “yes” and one “no,” written with the careful precision of a 7-year-old.

I am sad of Ethan. You too?

A check marks the box.

Yes. Yes, I am sad too.

Learning about adrenoleukodystrophy

My brother Ethan Williams was 9 years old in the fall of 1976, when he began to lose his sight. For my parents, that winter brought an endless round of doctor visits, therapists and lab tests.

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