Stories about: precision medicine

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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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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2017 predictions for biomedicine

2017 predictions for biomedicine

David Williams, MD, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s newly appointed Chief Scientific Officer. He is also president of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and director of Clinical and Translational Research at Boston Children’s. Vector connected with him to get his forecast on where biomedical research and therapeutic development will go in the year ahead.

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Pediatric brain tumor responding well to melanoma drug, targeting a shared mutation

low grade glioma dabrafenib

When Danny Powers showed gross motor delays and poor balance as a toddler, early intervention specialists told his mother, Christi, that the problem was likely weak muscle tone. But when Danny developed severe headaches at age 4 during a family vacation, Christi took him to a local emergency room, where a CT scan revealed a mass in his head. His eventual diagnosis back home in Massachusetts was low-grade glioma, the most common pediatric brain tumor.

Fortunately, low-grade gliomas are non-malignant, slow-growing and highly curable, and most children can look forward to decades of survival. Unfortunately, the standard treatment — chemotherapy and, in some cases, radiation, in addition to surgery — is toxic and can damage the developing brain and body. Moreover, the tumors often regrow, requiring retreatment. By the time Danny was 13, he had been treated twice with surgery and once with a year of chemotherapy, which Mark Kieran, MD, PhD, clinical director of the Brain Tumor Center at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, likens to carpet bombing.

Instead of undergoing another course of chemotherapy when his tumor regrew yet again, Danny entered a clinical trial of a new, targeted drug that acts more like a guided missile — aimed directly at his cancer-causing mutation. 

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BabySeq: Early results of newborn genomic sequencing are mixed

BabySeq
While a previous study indicated parents were very interested in newborn sequencing, just 7 percent of those approached have enrolled in BabySeq so far.

It seems like a great idea. We all have our genomes sequenced at birth, and any findings that suggest a future medical problem are addressed with early interventions, optimizing our health and extending our lives. But are parents of newborns ready to embrace the vision? Yes and no, according to interim results of a first-of-its-kind randomized trial of newborn sequencing. Findings from what’s known as the BabySeq Project were presented last week at the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) 2016 Annual Meeting.

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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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Beyond appearances: Molecular genetics revises brain tumor classification and care

What a brain tumor looks like isn’t the best predictor of prognosis. (Jensflorian/Wikimedia Commons)
What a brain tumor looks like isn’t the best predictor of prognosis. (Jensflorian/Wikimedia Commons)

Scott PomeroyScott Pomeroy, MD, PhD, is Neurologist-in-Chief at Boston Children’s Hospital. He practices in the Brain Tumor Center and is a member of the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center.

For almost a century, brain tumors have been diagnosed based on their appearance under a microscope and classified by their resemblance to the brain cells from which they are derived. For example, astrocytoma ends with “-oma” to designate that it is a tumor derived from astrocytes. In some cases, especially in children, brain tumors resemble cells in the developing brain and are named for the cells from which they are presumed to arise, such as pineoblastoma for developing cells within the pineal gland or medulloblastoma for developing cells within the cerebellum or brainstem.

In June, the World Health Organization (WHO), which sets the worldwide standard, released an updated brain tumor classification scheme that, for the first time, includes molecular and genetic features.

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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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Tissue models of heart disease provide testing ground for treatments

Pink heart circuit board EKG-shutterstock_322058528Scientists are now able to create cardiac heart muscle cells from patients with heart disease. But cells alone aren’t enough to fully study cardiac disorders — especially rhythm disorders that require the activity of multiple cells assembled into tissues.

William Pu, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Heart Center and his team are honing the art of modeling heart disease in a dish. With an accurate lab model, they hope to test drug therapies without posing a risk to living patients (or even live animals).

Together with researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, Pu’s lab recently modeled a rare rhythm disorder called catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT). CPVT is a dangerous disease in which the heart’s rhythm can suddenly jolt abnormally without warning. Undetectable on a resting electrocardiogram (EKG), CPVT does not affect patients at rest. However, exercise or emotional upset trigger high levels of adrenaline, which can lead to life-threatening arrhythmia, cardiac arrest and possibly sudden death.

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Creating a blueprint for rare disease medicine

blueprint for rare disease medicinePresident Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, first laid out in his 2015 State of Union Address, aims to develop individualized care that empowers patients and takes into account genetic, environmental and lifestyle differences. Obama is asking Congress for $309 million for the initiative next year.

One big component is the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Million Veteran Program, which has signed up more than 450,000 veterans to date and is now open to active-duty military personnel. Another is NIH support for cancer trials that match treatments with patients’ genomic profiles.

Parent/citizen scientist Matt Might has in mind another group: patients with undiagnosed genetic disorders. In searching for a diagnosis for his son Bertrand, Might came up with a precision medicine algorithm that outlines step by step what a patient and family can do — from genomic sequencing to finding similar patients to working with biomedical researchers to find therapeutic strategies. It’s an impressively comprehensive blueprint for citizen science.

As Might detailed today at a White House summit on the Precision Medicine Initiative, he now has worms at the University of Utah modeling his son’s disease, whose symptoms include seizures, extreme developmental delay and an inability to make tears. He also has a molecular target and a list of 70 compounds that hit it, including 14 that are already approved by the FDA.

Can Might’s vision be scaled and made part of routine medical care, keeping the patient front and center?

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