Stories about: translational research

Science to care: Q&A with Boston Children’s Hospital’s new Chief Scientific Officer

David Williams, MD
David Williams, MD

When Boston Children’s Hospital decided to hire its first chief scientific officer (CSO) in eight years, the institution sought an individual who could spotlight the hospital’s robust scientific enterprise and effectively connect it to clinical medicine and industry. David Williams, MD, president of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and director of clinical and translational research at Boston Children’s, was the ideal choice.

An award-winning researcher, Williams trained in the clinic but also pursued basic science, developing techniques for introducing genes into mouse and human blood cells. He focused on blood stem cell biology, leukemia and gene therapy to correct genetic blood disorders, becoming a 16-year Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, a Member of the National Academy of Medicine and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has secured multiple patents for techniques still in use today.

Williams spoke about his vision as CSO to align basic research and clinical care at Boston Children’s and the challenges ahead.

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Intravenous oxygen delivery edges toward the clinic

intravenous-oxygen-delivery
Engineered microparticles that deliver oxygen straight to the bloodstream in emergency situations

Sudden oxygen deprivation can happen for many reasons, from choking to aspiration to cardiac arrest. In these emergency situations, rapid oxygen delivery can mean the difference between life and death. But what if the person cannot breathe?

In the summer of 2012, John Kheir, MD, of the Heart Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, published a study in Science Translational Medicine describing an alternative oxygen delivery system. Kheir used tiny, gas-filled microparticles with a thin outer layer of lipids (fatty molecules) that combined to form a liquid foam-like substance. Injected into the bloodstream, the particles rapidly dissolved and delivered oxygen gas directly to the red blood cells in animal models. But the bubbles were very unstable and not suitable for clinical use.

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First six months of life are best for stimulating child heart growth

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In these sample sections of mouse heart, the color blue signifies scar tissue. Damage from scarring was minimized by early administration of the drug neuregulin.

Developing a child-centric approach to treating heart failure is no easy task. For one thing, the underlying causes of decreased cardiac function in children vastly differ from those in adults. While most adults with heart failure have suffered a heart attack, heart failure in children is more likely the result of congenital heart disease (CHD), or a structural defect present at birth that impairs heart function. And most therapies designed for adults haven’t proven equally effective in children.

Stimulating heart muscle cells to regenerate is one way cardiac researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Translational Research Center hope to restore function to children’s ailing hearts. In this area, children actually have an advantage over adults: their young heart cells are better suited for regrowth.

Reporting in the April 1 Science Translational Medicine, Brian Polizzotti, PhD, and Bernhard Kuhn, MD, demonstrate that not only does the drug neuregulin trigger heart cell regeneration and improve overall heart function in newborn mice, but its effects are most potent for humans within the first six months of life.

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Meet the researcher behind “heart on a chip”

Pu and wife and waterfallFrom a series on researchers and innovators at Boston Children’s Hospital.

With all of the recent buzz about precision medicine, it’s no wonder that William Pu, MD is gaining recognition for his innovative application of stem cell science and gene therapy to study Barth syndrome, a type of heart disease that severely weakens heart muscle. Pu’s research was recently recognized by the American Heart Association as one of the top ten cardiovascular disease research advances of 2014.

Can you describe your work and its potential impact on patient care?

We modeled a form of heart-muscle disease in a dish. To do this, we converted skin cells from patients with a genetic heart muscle disease into stem cells, which we then instructed to turned into cardiomyocytes (heart-muscle cells) that have the genetic defect. We then worked closely with bioengineers to fashion the cells into contracting tissues, a “heart-on-a-chip.”

How was the idea that sparked this innovation born?

This innovation combined the fantastic, ground-breaking advances from many other scientists. It is always best to stand on the shoulders of giants.

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De-risking drug development: Funding science with financial engineering

401k drug financing
A new proposal suggests spreading drug development risk among many small investors.
Ed Anderson, CCRP, is a clinical research specialist for the Clinical Research Center’s Development and Operations Core at Boston Children’s Hospital.

There’s no way around it. Obtaining approval to market a new drug is lengthy, complex, costly and fraught with uncertainty and risk. Financial engineers at MIT propose a strategy to minimize that risk—one that deserves a close look.

In the last 10 years, the aggregate cost of pharmaceutical research and development has doubled, but the number of approved products has remained the same. To compound the problem, a $1.6 billion reduction in NIH funding, caused by the 2013 sequester, has stalled research projects at more than 2,500 research institutions supported by grants. Pressure from investors and stakeholders is pushing pharmaceutical companies to focus on projects with a greater chance of financial success.

As a result, translational studies—those that bridge the gap between basic research and clinical trials—continue to be neglected and account for less than 12 percent of total research funding.

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