Stories about: science history

A Manhattan Project for the brain, at age 50

Formation of the IDDRCs in the 1960s launched a Manhattan project for the brain.
Landmark federal legislation in JFK’s final days launched an explosion of neuroscience research. (PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: NANCY FLIESLER/ADOBE STOCK)

On October 30th, 2018, Boston Children’s will be marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of its Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center.

As the African-American civil rights movement was flowering in the 1960s, a less visible civil rights movement was dawning. And so was a revolution in science that may outshine that spurred by the U.S. space program.

It was a time when children with what is now called intellectual disability (ID) or developmental disability (DD) were “excused” from school and routinely abandoned to institutions. “Schools” like the Fernald Center in Massachusetts and the Willowbrook State School in New York housed thousands of residents.

Some participated in research, but not the kind you might think. At Willowbrook, children were deliberately infected with hepatitis to test a new treatment. At Fernald, they were deliberately exposed to radiation in an experiment approved by the Atomic Energy Commission. Institutional review boards did not then exist.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy convened a panel to propose a “National Action to Combat Mental Retardation,” at the strong urging of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Three weeks before JFK’s assassination, the first legislation passed. It changed the course of history.

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Angiogenesis: The slow growth of a science

angiogenesis

Sometimes a scientific idea takes a long time to make its way forward. Angiogenesis is a case in point. As surgeon-in-chief at Boston Children’s Hospital, Judah Folkman, MD, noted that malignant tumors often had a bloody appearance. In The New England Journal of Medicine in 1971, he hypothesized that tumors cannot grow beyond a certain size without a dedicated blood supply, and that “successful” tumors secrete an unknown substance that encourages blood vessel growth, or angiogenesis.

If angiogenesis could be blocked, he argued, tumors might not grow or spread. Rather than waging a toxic chemical and radiation battle with a tumor, one could starve it into submission by shutting down its blood supply.

The idea was roundly criticized.

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Culture shock: Why poliovirus had to live before it could die

Children with polio are treated in an iron lung
Pictured here in the 1950s, polio patients breathe with the help of an iron lung at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Today, stories of polio may seem like echoes from far-away history to those born after 1979, the year that polio was eradicated in the U.S. Since then, it has been customary for children to receive four doses of the polio vaccine to protect them from ever contracting the terrifying disease also known as “infantile paralysis.”

Polio, however, still afflicts people in some areas of the world today. It causes muscle wasting and — in the most severe cases — can completely rob a person of his or her ability to move or breathe, resulting in death.

In the U.S., research efforts to create a polio vaccine lasted much of the 20th century. Although the virus was thriving and spreading among people, researchers repeatedly failed at getting poliovirus to survive in culture.

Then, one of the most crucial breaks in the fight against polio occurred in a Boston Children’s Hospital laboratory in 1949, during the heyday of polio outbreaks.

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