Stories about: hematology

Wine used to toast CGD gene therapy trial linked to decades-long scientific journey

CGD
Brenden Whittaker (left) and David Williams, MD (photo: Sam Ogden)

When Brenden Whittaker of Columbus, Ohio, the first patient treated with gene therapy for chronic granulomatous disease (CGD), showed successful engraftment last winter, the gene therapy team lifted glasses for a celebratory toast. The wine they sipped was no ordinary wine. The 2012 Bordeaux blend came from an award-winning California vineyard owned and operated by Robert Baehner, MD, a pioneering pediatric hematologist with ties to Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

Decades before, Baehner had done fundamental research in CGD, an inherited immune system disorder that occurs when phagocytes, white blood cells that normally help the body fight infection, cannot kill the germs they ingest and thus cannot protect the body from bacterial and fungal infections.

Children with CGD are often healthy at birth, but develop severe infections in infancy and early childhood from bacteria that would cause mild disease or no illness at all in a healthy child. This was true for Whittaker. Diagnosed with CGD when he was 1, his disease became increasingly severe, forcing him to quit school several years ago.

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David Nathan, MD, 85, receives Boston Children’s Lifetime Impact Award

David Nathan Hematology Oncology Lifetime ImpactPeers describe David G. Nathan, MD, president emeritus of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and physician-in-chief emeritus of Boston Children’s Hospital, as a “a once-in-a-generation leader,” a “giant” and a “proverbial triple threat” combining clinical care, research and teaching leadership.

Nathan, whose commitment to pediatric medicine spans nearly six decades, received a standing ovation when presented with Boston Children’s inaugural Lifetime Impact Award Friday afternoon at the hospital’s Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards.

The Lifetime Impact Award recognizes a clinician and/or researcher who has devoted his or her career to accelerating innovation in pediatric medicine and who has made extraordinary and sustained leadership contributions.

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Taking the toxicity out of stem cell transplants

Colombian twins Miranda and Olivia Agudelo (with their parents) were the first patients in a clinical trial aimed at making the bone marrow transplant process less toxic.

One thing that most people don’t realize about stem cell transplants (also called bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplants) is that for patients, the transplant itself is probably the easiest part of the process. The grueling part is the preparation for a transplant, called conditioning.

There’s been a lot done at Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center (DF/CHCC) and elsewhere to make conditioning less toxic. With a new clinical trial in a rare genetic syndrome called dyskeratosis congenita (DC), doctors at DF/CHCC are taking an even bolder step.

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There is a cure for sickle cell disease…for some

Maryam Idan (center), a young Iraqi girl with sickle cell disease, was lucky: she could be cured with a stem cell transplant. Leslie Lehmann, MD, wants to make such transplants an option for more sickle cell patients.

I was surprised when chatting recently with Leslie Lehmann, MD, clinical director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center (DF/CHCC). She turned to me and asked, “Did you know there’s been a cure for sickle cell disease for nearly 40 years?”

I had to admit that I didn’t. I’ve always thought of sickle cell—a painful and debilitating disease caused by an inherited mutation that makes red blood cells stiffen into a characteristic sickled shape—as a chronic disease to be managed, not one that could be cured.

I’m not alone in that belief. Lehmann often asks this question when she give talks for medical students, residents and other physicians. Their reaction is puzzlement, then a shaking of heads.

The cure is there, though. It’s a stem cell (aka bone marrow) transplant. The catch is that it’s not available to everyone—but for reasons that Lehmann thinks can be overcome.

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Stopping the pain of sickle cell disease at its source

sickle cell pain
The pain of sickle cell disease can be unbearable. But there’s a new view emerging on how that pain comes about, one that has spurred a new clinical trial aimed at stopping the pain at its source. (stevendepolo/Flickr)

If there’s one thing most patients with sickle cell disease will agree on, it’s that sickle cell hurts. A lot.

The characteristic rigid, sticky, C-shaped red blood cells of this inherited disease tend to get stuck in the small blood vessels of the body. If so many get stuck in a vessel that they cut off blood flow, the body sends out a warning signal in the form of searing pain that doctors call a pain or vaso-occlusive crisis (at least, that’s the historic view; more on that in a minute). The pain can happen anywhere in the body, but most often occurs in the bones of the arms, legs, chest and spine.

Preventing flare-ups—and stopping them when they happen—is a major part of the care plan for any patient with sickle cell. Right now doctors try to avoid pain crises largely by diluting a patient’s blood with fluids or transfusions, thereby keeping the numbers of sickled cells relatively low.

What these treatments don’t do is tackle the pain directly. Doctors can use pain medications, but over time, patients can become tolerant to painkillers, requiring ever-larger doses. What’s needed is something that can stop the complex cascade of events that ignite a pain crisis.

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Sickle cell: New looks at a neglected disease

sickle cell disease red blood cells
(OpenStax College/Wikimedia Commons)

Sickle-cell anemia was the first disease to have its genetic cause identified, in the 1950s — a milestone in human genetics. Yet today, there’s just one FDA-approved drug, hydroxyurea, developed 20 years ago at Children’s. Though it’s a mainstay of treatment, reducing the frequency of severe pain, acute chest syndrome and the need for blood transfusions, it can cause toxicity, and about half of patients aren’t helped by it. Only a hematopoietic stem-cell transplant is curative.

Research on sickle-cell disease has generally been underfunded compared with other genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis that aren’t as common. But Children’s has been exploring new treatment approaches for decades, and two exciting possibilities have emerged.

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Stem cell experiments in genetic blood diseases

The green tips of these chromosomes are telomeres, whose length is a measure of cellular "aging" and determines how many times a cell can divide.

In a roomful of kids’ cancer specialists, like those listening to the keynote speech by George Daley, closing an international pediatric oncology meeting in Boston, the Myc gene is better known as a mutated weapon of mass destruction.

But this driver of cancer growth is also part of a four-gene cocktail that can reprogram an adult skin cell back into an embryonic-like stem cell that holds great therapeutic potential.

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Helping disease cells handle the stress of reprogramming

Fanconi anemia cells have multiple defects in response to DNA damage, making it hard to create iPS cells from them.

I’m attending an international pediatric oncology meeting in Boston with about 2,000 other people. In a session on gene therapy, David Williams, chief of Hematology/ Oncology at Children’s, talked about trying to treat a rare inherited bone marrow failure syndrome, Fanconi anemia, by correcting the gene in the patient’s blood stem cells. It didn’t work the first time, but he has a new tactic.

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