Stories about: Ofer Levy

Forecasting the convergence of artificial intelligence and precision medicine

Image of artificial DNA, which in combination with other artificial intelligence could contribute to an artificial model of the immune system
Will an artificial model of the immune system be the key to discovering new, precision vaccines?

This is part I of a two-part blog series recapping the 2018 BIO International Convention.

At the 2018 BIO International Convention last week, it was clear what’s provoking scientific minds in industry and academia — or at least those of the Guinness-world-record-making 16,000 people in attendance. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and their implications for tailor-made medicine bubbled up across all BIO’s educational tracks and a majority of discussions about the future state of biotechnology. Panelists from Boston Children’s Hospital also contributed their insights to what’s brewing at the intersection of these burgeoning fields.

Isaac Kohane, MD, PhD, former chair of Boston Children’s Computational Health and Informatics Program, spoke on a panel about how large-scale patient data — if properly harnessed and analyzed for health and disease trends — is a virtual goldmine for precision medicine insights. Patterns gleaned from population health data or electronic health records, for example, could help identify which subgroups of patients who might respond better to specific therapies.

According to Kohane, who is currently the Marion J. Nelson Professor of Biomedical Informatics and Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School (HMS), we will soon be leveraging artificial intelligence to go through patient records and determine exactly what doctors were thinking when they saw patients.

“We’ve seen again and again that data abstraction by artificial intelligence is better than abstraction by human analysts when performed at the scale of millions of clinical notes across thousands of patients,” said Kohane.

And based on what we heard at BIO, artificial intelligence will revolutionize more than patient data mining. It will also transform the way we design precision therapeutics — and even vaccines — from the ground up.

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Single-shot protection? Building a better hepatitis B vaccine for newborns

newborn vaccines
(Illustrations: Elena Hartley)

The hepatitis B vaccine is one of only three vaccines that are routinely given to newborns in the first days of life. But the current hepatitis B vaccine has limitations: multiple “booster” doses are needed, and it can’t be given to premature babies weighing less than 2 kg.

Annette Scheid, MD, a neonatologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is interested in leveraging infant immune differences to create a better hepatitis B vaccine for newborns. “The reality is that we have to vaccinate several times,” she says. “But we all dream of a vaccine that you give only once.”

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Six technologies we backed in 2017

Boston Children's Hospital technology

Boston Children’s Hospital’s Technology Development Fund (TDF) to designed to transform early-stage academic technologies into validated, high-impact opportunities for licensees and investors. Since 2009, the hospital has committed $7.6 million to support 76 promising technologies, from therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices and vaccines to regenerative medicine and healthcare IT projects. The TDF also assists with strategic planning, intellectual property protection, regulatory requirements and business models. Investigators can access mentors, product development experts and technical support through a network of contract research organizations, development partners and industry advisors.

Eight startup companies have spun out since TDF’s creation, receiving $82.4 million in seed funding. They include Affinivax, a vaccine company started with $4 million from the Gates Foundation, and Epidemico, a population health-tracking company acquired by Booz Allen Hamilton. TDF has also launched more than 20 partnerships, received $26 million in follow-on government and foundation funding and generated $4.45 million in licensing revenue.

Here are the projects TDF awarded in 2017, with grants totaling $650,000:

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Effective vaccination of newborns: Getting closer to the dream

newborn vaccines global health

In many parts of the world, babies have just one chance to be vaccinated: when they’re born. Unfortunately, newborns’ young immune systems don’t respond well to most vaccines. That’s why, in the U.S., most immunizations start at two months of age.

Currently, only BCG, polio vaccine and hepatitis B vaccines work in newborns, and the last two require multiple doses. But new research raises the possibility of one-shot vaccinations at birth — with huge implications for reducing infant mortality.

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A vaccine of one’s own: Precision medicine comes to immunization

precision vaccines
When it comes to vaccines, one size doesn’t fit all, researchers are finding.

Once upon a time, an English country doctor forged a treatment out of cow pus. Edward Jenner squeezed fluid from a cowpox sore on a milkmaid’s hand, and with it, successfully inoculated an eight-year-old boy, protecting him from the related smallpox virus.

It was the world’s first successful vaccination and laid the foundation for modern vaccinology: researchers formulate vaccines from a dead or disabled microbe — or its virulent components — and people sigh with relief when they don’t succumb to the disease.

But investigators are now finding holes in traditional vaccine dogma. “Vaccines were developed under the assumption that one size fits all,” says Ofer Levy, MD, PhD, a physician-scientist in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital and director of the collaborative Precision Vaccines Program. “That you develop a vaccine and it will protect the same way whether the patient is young, middle aged or elderly; male or female; living in a city or rural environment; northern or southern hemisphere; whether given day or night; summer or winter.”

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Protecting the brain in newborn bloodstream infections

NICU%20baby-Shutterstock-cropped

Preterm infants in neonatal intensive care units, particularly those with catheters and intravenous lines, are at high risk for bacteremia—bloodstream infections that can cause lasting brain injury. A new study may change how people think about these infections, suggesting that inflammation is as important to address as the infection itself.

Using a novel mouse model of bloodstream infections in newborns, infectious disease physician-researcher Ofer Levy, MD, PhD, demonstrates that bacteremia can damage the brain even when the bacteria don’t actually get into the central nervous system. Findings were published online last week in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

“There has been a lot of indirect epidemiologic evidence for a link between bacteremia, inflammation and cerebral injury, but it showed only a correlation, not causation,” says Levy. “Here we demonstrate directly in an animal model that inflammation alone can cause brain injury in newborns with bacteremia, even without entry of the bacteria to the central nervous system.”

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