Stories about: PCMM

“Teenage” red blood cells could hold the key to a malaria vaccine

A T cell (right) launches an attack on an immature red blood cell called a reticulocyte. This immune response could help design a malaria vaccine.
A T cell (right) launches an attack on an immature red blood cell (left) infected with a malaria parasite called P. vivax. At the arrow, the T cell breaches the infected cell’s membrane to deliver death-inducing enzymes. Credit: Lieberman lab/Boston Children’s Hospital

Malaria parasite infection, which affects our red blood cells, can be fatal. Currently, there are about 200 million malaria infections in the world each year and more than 400,000 people, mostly children, die of malaria each year.

Now, studying blood samples from patients treated for malaria at a clinical field station in Brazil’s Amazon jungle, a team of Brazilian and American researchers has made a surprising discovery that could open the door to a new vaccine.

“I noticed that white blood cells called killer T cells were activated in response to malaria parasite infection of immature red blood cells,” says Caroline Junqueira, PhD, a visiting scientist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (HMS).

For red blood cells, this activity is unusual.

“Infected red blood cells aren’t recognized by our immune system’s T cells in the same way that most other infected cells of the human body are,” says Judy Lieberman, MD, PhD, chair in the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Digging deeper, Junqueira, Lieberman and collaborators have found a completely unexpected immune response to malaria parasites that infect immature blood cells called reticulocytes. The revelation could help to design a new vaccine that might be capable of preventing malaria.

Their findings, published today in Nature Medicineuncover special cellular mechanisms and properties specific to “teenaged” reticulocytes and a strain of malaria called Plasmodium vivax that enable our T cells to recognize and destroy both the infected reticulocytes and the parasites inside them.

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Getting a grip on genetic loops

Chromatin is housed inside the nucleus. A new discovery about its physical arrangement could pave the way for new therapeutics.
Artist’s rendering of chromatin, which is housed inside the nuclei of mammalian cells. A new discovery about its physical arrangement could pave the way for new therapeutics.

A new discovery about the spatial orientation and physical interactions of our genes provides a promising step forward in our ability to design custom antibodies. This, in turn, could revolutionize the fields of vaccine development and infection control.

“We are beginning to understand the full biological impact that the physical structure and movement of our genes play in regulating health and development,” says Frederick Alt, PhD, director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine (PCMM) and the senior author of the new study, published in the latest issue of Cell.

Recent years of research by Alt and others in the field of molecular biology have revealed that it’s not just our genes themselves that determine health and disease states. It’s also the three-dimensional arrangement of our genes that plays a role in keeping genetic harmony. Failure of these structures may trigger genetic mutations or genome rearrangements leading to catastrophe.

The importance of genetic loops

Crammed inside the nucleus, chromatin, the chains of DNA and proteins that make up our chromosomes, is arranged in extensive loop arrangements. These loop configurations physically confine segments of genes that ought to work together in a close proximity to one another, increasingly their ability to work in tandem.

“All the genes contained inside one loop have a greater than random chance of coming together,” says Suvi Jain, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in Alt’s lab and a co-first author on the study.

Meanwhile, genes that ought to stay apart remain blocked from reaching each other, held physically apart inside our chromosomes by the loop structures of our chromatin.

But while many chromatin loops are hardwired into certain formations throughout all our cells, it turns out that some types of cells, such as certain immune cells, are more prone to re-arrangement of these loops.

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Breaking down brain disease one DNA break at a time

DNA breaks are depicted in this artistic renderingCells throughout the human body are constantly being damaged as a part of natural life, normal cellular processes, UV and chemical exposure and environmental factors — resulting in what are called DNA double-strand breaks. Thankfully, to prevent the accumulation of DNA damage that could eventually lead to cell dysfunction, cancer or death, the healthy human body has developed ways of locating and repairing the damage.

Unfortunately, these DNA repair mechanisms themselves are not impervious to genetic errors. Genetic mutations that disrupt DNA repair can contribute to devastating disease.

Across the early-stage progenitor cells that give rise to the human brain’s 80 billion neuronal cells, genomic alterations impacting DNA repair processes have been linked to neuropsychiatric disorders and the childhood brain cancer medulloblastoma. But until now, it was not known exactly which disruptions in DNA repair were involved.

A Boston Children’s Hospital team led by Frederick Alt, PhD, has finally changed that.

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Link found between chronic inflammation, autoimmune disorders and “false alarms”

Viruses (pictured here) have a genetic signature that a receptor called MDA5 recognizes. But when MDA5 confuses the body's own genetic material with that of a virus, disease ensues.
Viruses have a genetic signature that a human receptor called MDA5 recognizes, causing the immune system to attack. But when MDA5 confuses the body’s own genetic material for that of a virus, disease ensues.

The human body’s innate immune system employs a variety of “sensors” for identifying foreign invaders such as viruses. One such viral sensor is a receptor called MDA5, found in every cell of the body.

Inside each cell, MDA5 constantly scans genetic material, checking if it’s native to the body or not. As soon as MDA5 identifies the genetic signature of a viral invader, it trips a system-wide alarm, triggering a cascade of immune activity to neutralize the threat.

But if a genetic mutation to MDA5 causes it to confuse some of the body’s own genetic material for being foreign, “false alarms” can lead to unchecked inflammation and disease. Scientists from Boston Children’s Hospital have discovered a new link between MDA5’s ability to discriminate between “self” and “non-self” genetic material — called RNA duplexes — and a spectrum of autoimmune disorders.

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Why evolution is the challenge — and the promise — in developing a vaccine against HIV

HIV surrounds and attacks a cell.
HIV surrounds and attacks a cell.

To fight HIV, the development of immunization strategies must keep up with how quickly the virus modifies itself. Now, Boston Children’s Hospital researchers are developing models to test HIV vaccines on a faster and broader scale than ever before with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“The field of HIV research has needed a better way to model the immune responses that happen in humans,” says Frederick Alt, PhD, director of the Boston Children’s Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine, who is leading the HIV vaccine research supported by the Gates Foundation.

The researchers are racing against HIV’s sophisticated attack on the human immune system. HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, mutates much faster than other pathogens. Within each infected patient, one virus can multiply by the billions.

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Microbial murder mystery solved

Bacteria, pictured in Petri dish culture here, can become resistant to antibiotics - but not killer cells. Why? New research from Boston Children's Hospital helps solve this microbial murder mystery.Immune cells called “killer cells” target bacteria invading the body’s cells, but how do they do this so effectively? Bacteria can quickly evolve resistance against antibiotics, yet it seems they have not so readily been able to evade killer cells. This has caused researchers to become interested in finding out the exact mechanism that killer cells use to destroy bacterial invaders.

Although one way that killer cells can trigger bacterial death is by inflicting oxidative damage, it has not yet been at all understood how killer cells destroy bacteria in environments without oxygen.

Now, for the first time, researchers have caught killer cells red-handed in the act of microbial murder

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To monitor health, simply trip the ‘nanoswitches’

WATCH: DNA nanoswitches change shape in the presence of biomarkers. The shape change is revealed in a process called gel electrophoresis. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

“Nanoswitches” — engineered, shape-changing strands of DNA — could shake up the way we monitor our health, according to new research. Faster, easier, cheaper and more sensitive tests based on these tools — used in the lab or at point of care — could indicate the presence of disease, infection and even genetic variabilities as subtle as a single-gene mutation.

“One critical application in both basic research and clinical practice is the detection of biomarkers in our bodies, which convey vital information about our current health,” says lead researcher Wesley Wong, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine (PCMM). “However, current methods tend to be either cheap and easy or highly sensitive, but generally not both.”

That’s why Wong and his team have adapted their DNA nanoswitch technology — previously demonstrated to aid drug discovery and the measure of biochemical interactions — into a new platform that they call the nanoswitch-linked immunosorbent assay (NLISA) for fast, sensitive and specific protein detection. It’s described this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Science seen: A “wheel of death” for bacteria

inflammasome innate immunity

The innate immune system acts like a border patrol for the body, picking up bacteria and other invading pathogens using molecular sensors. One key player is the inflammasome, a multi-protein complex depicted here through cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Using structural biology tools like cryo-EM and X-ray crystallography, the Wu lab in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine show how protein components come together in inflammasomes to form a “wheel of death” against bacterial infection.

Once they detect an invader, inflammasomes send out signals that trigger infected cells to die using an inflammatory death pathway called pyroptosis. They also call for backup from the adaptive immune system, in the form of inflammation. (Image: Wu laboratory/Liman Zhang)

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Microptosis: Programmed death for microbes?

trypanosoma parasites immune defense apoptosis microptosis
Trypanosoma parasites in a blood smear. (CDC)

Of the various ways for a cell to die — necrosis, autophagy, etc. — apoptosis is probably the most orderly and contained. Also called programmed cell death (or, colloquially, “cellular suicide”), apoptosis is an effective way for diseased or damaged cells to remove themselves from a population before they can cause problems such as tumor formation.

“Apoptosis has special features,” says Judy Lieberman, MD, PhD, an investigator in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine. “It’s not inflammatory, and it activates death pathways within the cell itself.”

Conventional wisdom holds that apoptosis is exclusive to multicellular organisms. Lieberman disagrees. She thinks that microbial cells — such as those of bacteria and parasites — can die in apoptotic fashion as well. In a recent Nature Medicine paper, she and her team make the case for the existence of what they’ve dubbed “microptosis.” And they think it could be harnessed to treat parasitic and other infections.

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Improved cell cloning technique makes the jump from mice to humans

cells somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning
(Lonely/Shutterstock)

Roughly a year ago we told you about Yi Zhang, PhD — a stem cell biologist in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine — and his efforts to make a cloning technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) more efficient.

With SCNT, researchers take an egg cell and replace its nucleus with that of an adult cell (such as a skin cell) from another individual. The donated nucleus basically reboots an embryonic state, creating a clone of the original cell.

It’s a hot topic in both agriculture and regenerative medicine. SCNT-generated cells can be used to clone an animal (remember Dolly the sheep?) or produce embryonic stem (ES) cell lines for research. But it’s an inefficient process, producing very few animal clones or ES lines for the effort and material it takes.

Zhang’s team reported last year that they could boost SCNT’s efficiency significantly by removing an epigenetic roadblock that kept embryonic genes in the donated nucleus from activating in cloned cells. Now, in a new paper in Cell Stem Cell, Zhang and his collaborators report that they’ve extended their work to improve the efficiency of SCNT in human cells.

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