Stories about: Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine

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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Science Seen: New microscope reveals biological life as you’ve never seen it before

Various images of cells captured by a new microscope reported in Science
A new microscope allows us to see how cells behave in 3D and real time inside living organisms.

Astronomers developed a “guide star” adaptive optics technique to obtain the most crystal-clear and precise telescopic images of distant galaxies, stars and planets. Now a team of scientists, led by Nobel laureate Eric Betzig, PhD, are borrowing the very same trick. They’ve combined it with lattice light-sheet to create a new microscope that’s able to capture real-time, incredibly detailed and accurate images, along with three-dimensional videos of biology on the cellular and sub-cellular level.

The work — a collaboration between researchers at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School —  is detailed in a new paper just published in Science.

“For the first time, we are seeing life itself at all levels inside whole, living organisms,” said Tom Kirchhausen, PhD, co-author on the new study, who is a senior investigator in the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor of cell biology and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School (HMS).

“Every time we’ve done an experiment with this microscope, we’ve observed something novel — and generated new ideas and hypotheses to test,” Kirchhausen said in a news story by HMS. “It can be used to study almost any problem in a biological system or organism I can think of.”

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News Note: A fresh perspective on RNA with big implications for drug development 

RNA-based drugs are the future of therapeuticsRibonucleic acid, or RNA, has long been underappreciated for its role in gene expression. Until recent years, RNA has been thought of merely as a messenger, shuttling DNA’s instructions to the genetic machinery that synthesizes proteins.

But new discoveries of RNA functions, modifications and its ability to transcribe sections of the genome that were previously considered “junk DNA” has led to the discovery of a huge number of new druggable targets.

These new insights into RNA’s complex purposes have largely been uncovered through ever-increasingly sensitive and affordable sequencing methods. As a result, RNA-based drugs now stand to greatly extend our ability to treat diseases beyond the scope of what’s possible with small molecules and biologics.

Although several RND-based drug approaches have already been established, some barriers still prevent these strategies from working broadly. In a review paper for Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, Judy Lieberman, MD, PhD, of the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine of Boston Children’s Hospital, lays out where RNA-based drug development currently stands.

Lieberman, who has helped pioneer the RNA-based drug revolution herself, was the first scientist to show in an animal disease model that small, double-stranded RNAs could be used as drugs and leveraged to knock down genes in cells.

Read Lieberman’s review: “Tapping the RNA world for therapeutics.”

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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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Finding what fuels the “runaway train” of autoimmune diseases

Competing B cells, pictured here, produce autoantibodies that contribute to autoimmune disease
Natural selection on a small scale: Immune cells called B cells battle each other to produce the best antibody. Here, green represents the B cells that are producing the “winning” antibody, which stamp out competing B cells (other colors). Credit: Carroll lab

A newly-unveiled discovery, four years in the making, could change the way we look at autoimmune diseases and our understanding of how and why immune cells begin to attack different tissues in the body.

“Once your body’s tolerance for its own tissues is lost, the chain reaction is like a runaway train,” says Michael Carroll, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (HMS). “The immune response against your own body’s proteins, or antigens, looks exactly like it’s responding to a foreign pathogen.”

A team led by Carroll has spent years investigating mouse models of lupus to better understand the ins and outs of autoimmune diseases. Its latest findings, published in Cell, reveal that rogue B cells — immune cells that produce antibodies and program the immune system to attack certain antigens — can trigger an “override” that launches the body into an autoimmune attack. Adding insult to injury, B cells’ immune targeting instructions can rapidly expand to order an attack on additional tissue types within the body.

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“Shapeshifter” that regulates blood clotting is visually captured for the first time

GIF of VWF, which regulates blood clotting, elongating and relaxing on loop
A single molecule of von Willebrand factor is visually captured, as it elongates and relaxes in response to blood flow conditions, for the very first time. Credit: Springer/Wong labs (Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School)

We are normally born with a highly sophisticated array of molecules that act as “sentries,” constantly scanning our bodies for injuries such as cuts and bruises. One such molecular sentry, known as von Willebrand factor (VWF), plays a critical role in our body’s ability to stop bleeding.

To prevent hemorrhage or life-threatening blood clots, VWF must strike a delicate balance between clotting too little or too much. Researchers have long suspected that the mechanical forces and shear stress of blood flow could be closely-related to VWF’s function.

“In some ways, like in the movie Star Wars, VWF may be considered a Jedi knight in our body that can use ‘the force’ to guard the bloodstream,” says Timothy Springer, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (HMS).

It has not been possible to witness exactly how VWF senses and harnesses these mechanical forces — until now.

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