Stories about: genetics

Severe flu infections linked to underlying genetic variation

Flu virusesThe Center for Disease Control estimates that influenza virus–related illnesses account for more than 200,000 U.S. hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths annually. Young children, the elderly and people with respiratory, cardiac and other chronic health conditions are at particularly high risk for being hospitalized for influenza-related complications. Until now, there has not been a clear reason to explain why some individuals become severely ill from flu and not others.

New findings published in Nature Medicine, however, might change that.

“We’ve identified a genetic variant that we believe may put people at risk of getting life-threatening influenza infections,” says Adrienne Randolph, MD, MSc, a senior associate in pediatric critical care medicine at the Boston Children’s Hospital.

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Newly-discovered epigenetic mechanism switches off genes regulating embryonic and placental development

Artwork depicting DNA and the code of genes

A biological process known as genomic imprinting helps control early mammalian development by turning genes on and off as the embryo and placenta grow. Errors in genomic imprinting can cause severe disorders and profound developmental defects that lead to lifelong health problems, yet the mechanisms behind these critical gene-regulating processes — and the glitches that cause them to go awry — have not been well understood.

Now, scientists at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Boston Children’s Hospital have identified a mechanism that regulates the imprinting of multiple genes, including some of those critical to placental growth during early embryonic development in mice. The results were reported yesterday in Nature.

“A gene that is turned off by epigenetic modifications can be turned on much more easily than a gene that is mutated or missing can be fixed,” said Yi Zhang, PhD, a senior investigator in the Boston Children’s Program in Molecular and Cellular Medicine, a professor of pediatrics at HMS and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “Our discovery sheds new light on a fundamental biological mechanism and can lay the groundwork for therapeutic advances.”

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Late-breaking mutations may play an important role in autism

somatic mutations in autism may occur at different times in the embryo
Post-zygotic mutations, which arise spontaneously in an embryonic cell after sperm meets egg, are important players in autism spectrum disorder, a large study suggests.

Over the past decade, mutations to more than 60 different genes have been linked with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including de novo mutations, which occur spontaneously and aren’t inherited. But much of autism still remains unexplained.

A new study of nearly 6,000 families implicates a hard-to-find category of de novo mutations: those that occur after conception, and therefore affect only a subset of cells. Findings were published today in Nature Neuroscience.

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What genetic changes gave us the human brain? A $10 million center aims to find out

genes and human brain evolution

How did our distinctive brains evolve? What genetic changes, coupled with natural selection, gave us language? What allowed modern humans to form complex societies, pursue science, create art?

While we have some understanding of the genes that differentiate us from other primates, that knowledge cannot fully explain human brain evolution. But with a $10 million grant to some of Boston’s most highly evolved minds in genetics, genomics, neuroscience and human evolution, some answers may emerge in the coming years.

The Seattle-based Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group today announced the creation of an Allen Discovery Center for Human Brain Evolution at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. It will be led by Christopher A. Walsh, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Boston Children’s and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

“To understand when and how our modern brains evolved, we need to take a multi-pronged approach that will reflect how evolution works in nature, and identifies how experience and environment affect the genes that gave rise to modern human behavior,” Walsh says.

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Rare disease therapies: Three strategies to bridge the gap between research and industry

Rare disease research: DNA helix pictured here
Genetic mutations underpin many rare diseases.

Right now, there are about 7,000 rare diseases affecting 10 percent of Americans. Only five percent of these diseases have any FDA-approved treatment options.

Panelists:
David Williams, MD: President, Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center; Senior VP, Chief Scientific Officer and Chief of Hematology/Oncology, Boston Children’s
Wayne Lencer, MD: Chief of Gastroenterology, Hematology and Nutrition, Boston Children’s
Phil Reilly, MD, JD: Venture Partner at Third Rock Ventures
Alvin Shih, MD, MBA: Chief Executive Officer at Enzyvant

Even at a place like Boston Children’s Hospital, where doctors regularly see children with rare diseases from all over the world, there are big challenges when it comes to drug discovery and treatment.

“Roughly 70 percent of drugs to treat children are used off-label,” says David Williams, Boston Children’s chief scientific officer. “That’s because these drugs were initially developed for adults and have not been tested formally in children.”

In order to cure rare diseases in children and adults, scientists must bridge the gap between research and industry. On May 25, Boston Children’s Technology and Innovation Development Office (TIDO) and MassBio held a candid panel discussion about what it will take to advance the development of rare disease therapies. Here are three of the biggest takeaways

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Two resilient dogs point to new targets for Duchenne muscular dystrophy

Duchenne muscular dystrophy protective genes
Suflair, at right, is alive and well at 11 years despite having the DMD mutation (courtesy Natássia Vieira)

Two golden retrievers that had the genetic mutation for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), yet remained healthy, have offered up yet another lead for treating this muscle-wasting disorder.

For several years, Natássia Vieira, PhD, of the University of São Paolo, also a fellow in the Boston Children’s Hospital lab of Louis Kunkel, PhD, has been studying a Brazilian colony of golden retrievers. All have the classic DMD mutation and, as expected, most of these dogs are very weak and typically die by 2 years of age. That’s analogous to children with DMD, who typically lose the ability to walk by adolescence and die from cardiorespiratory failure by young adulthood.

But two dogs appeared unaffected. Both ran around normally. The elder dog, Ringo, lived a full lifespan, and his son Suflair is still alive and well at age 11.

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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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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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Science Seen: Disrupted developmental genes cause ‘split brain’

split brain syndrome
The two halves of the brain on the right, from a patient with the DCC mutation, are almost completely disconnected. The mutation — first recognized in worms — prevents axons (nerve fibers) from crossing the midline of the brain by interfering with guidance cues. Image courtesy Ellen Grant, MD, director, Fetal-Neonatal Neuroimaging and Developmental Science Center.

Tim Yu, MD, PhD, a neurologist and genomics researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, was studying autism genes when he saw something on a list that rang a bell. It was a mutation that completely knocked out the so-called Deleted in Colorectal Carcinoma gene (DCC), originally identified in cancer patients. The mutation wasn’t in a patient with autism, but in a control group of patients with brain malformations he’d been studying in the lab of Chris Walsh, MD, PhD.

Yu’s mind went back more than 20 years. As a graduate student at University of California, San Francisco, he’d conducted research in roundworms, studying genetic mutations that made the worms, which normally move in smooth S-shaped undulations, move awkwardly and erratically.

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Why I’m tall and you’re short: GIANT effort finds rare, potent height genes

height genes that make us tall or short

Height is the “poster child” of complex genetic traits, meaning that it’s influenced by multiple genetic variants working together. Because height is easy to measure, it’s a relatively simple model for understanding traits produced by not one gene, but many.

“Mastering the complex genetics of height may give us a blueprint for studying multifactorial disorders that have eluded our complete understanding, such as diabetes and heart disease,” says Joel Hirschhorn, MD, PhD, a pediatric endocrinologist and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Hirschhorn chairs the Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (GIANT) Consortium, an international group that’s just probed more deeply into the genetics of height than ever before. Its findings, reported today in Nature, reveal previously unknown biological pathways tied to height.

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