cell fate map Boston subway

Credit: Samantha Morris, PhD, Boston Children's Hospital

If you’ve lost your way on the Boston subway, you need only consult a map to find the best route to your destination. Now stem cell engineers have a similar map to guide the making of cells and tissues for disease modeling, drug testing and regenerative medicine. It’s a computer algorithm known as CellNet.

As in this map on the cover of Cell, a cell has many possible destinations or “fates,” and can arrive at them through three main stem cell engineering methods:

reprogramming (dialing a specialized cell, such as a skin cell, back to a stem-like state with full tissue-making potential)
differentiation (pushing a stem cell to become a particular cell type, such as a blood cell)
direct conversion (changing one kind of specialized cell to another kind)

Freely available on the Internet, CellNet provides clues to which methods of cellular engineering are most effective—and acts as a much-needed quality control tool. Full story »

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PTSD risk in adolescents after Boston Marathon bombingsDaniel Busso, MSc, is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a researcher in the Sheridan Laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital.

More than 60 percent of teenagers have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime, but only a minority will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For both researchers and clinicians, this raises an important question: Why are some youth at greater risk for mental health problems after trauma? As our lab reports in two recent studies, conducted after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the answer may lie in our neurobiology.

PTSD, which includes intrusive memories, increased anxiety and difficulty concentrating or sleeping, has been linked to a variety of psychosocial and biological risk factors, such as prior experiences of trauma or a history of mental health problems. Other studies suggest that disruptions to the body’s stress response system, or in patterns of brain activity when responding to threat, may predispose people to the disorder.

However, a common problem in this research is that biological and mental health data are collected only once, usually long after the traumatic event itself, Full story »

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Urine Vascular Biology Program netrin brain tumor biomarker Edward Smith Michael Klagsbrun

A good biomarker is one whose levels go up or down as a patient’s disease worsens or wanes. A great biomarker also gives key insights into disease development. A really great biomarker does both of these things and also serves as a treatment target.

With a protein called netrin-1, Edward Smith, MD, and Michael Klagsbrun, PhD, seem to have hit the trifecta. In a recent paper in Cancer Research, they report a clear relationship between urine netrin levels and medulloblastoma, the most common malignant brain tumor of children.

And show that netrin fuels the tumor’s invasion into healthy brain tissue.

And that blocking netrin may, at least in the laboratory, check the tumor’s spread. Full story »

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Wearable health gadgets fitness trackers Apple HealthKit Google fit

Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike, Withings…a lot of companies are already in the wearable/mobile health technology and data tracking game. But a couple of really big players are stepping on to the court.

At their most recent Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced both an app and a framework—Health and HealthKit—that will tie in with various wearable technologies and health apps. HealthKit will also feed data into electronic medical record (EMR) systems like Epic, which runs at some of the largest hospitals in the country. And rumors abound that an upcoming Apple smartwatch (iWatch? iTime? Only Tim Cook knows right now) will carry a host of sensors for tracking activity and health data.

Google also wants to get into the game with a health data framework called Fit that they announced at their I/O conference in June. Unlike Apple, its strategy seems more focused on providing a standard way for trackers, devices and apps from different manufacturers to talk to Android Wear devices.

What will entry of these big players mean? We asked Michael Docktor, MD, Boston Children’s Hospital’s clinical director of innovation. Full story »

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Ebola response ethics experimental treatment therapy ZMapp

Guinean Red Cross volunteers prepare to decontaminate a hospital in the capital, Conakry. (European Commission DG ECHO/Flickr)

The world paused for a moment when the news broke last week that two Ebola-infected American missionaries working in Liberia had received an experimental therapy called ZMapp. As I write this, both patients are back on U.S. soil, and seem to be responding well to the treatment.

But was it ethical?

That difficult question can be divided into two. First is the question of whether it was ethical to give the two patients a drug that, up to that point, had never been tested in people. The second—in some ways thornier—question is: Was it ethical to give the treatment to two Americans but not the nearly 1,850 West Africans infected in the outbreak (as of August 11)? Full story »

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What's drawing lung cancer cells to migrate? (Juan Gaertner/Shutterstock)

What's drawing lung cancer cells to migrate? (Juan Gaertner/Shutterstock)

Ninety percent of lung cancer deaths are caused by the tumor’s spread—or metastasis—to other organs. Researchers have now discovered an approach to blocking metastasis in the most common type of lung cancer, adenocarcinoma, that potentially could be added to chemotherapy treatments aimed at shrinking the primary tumor.

Kerstin Sinkevicius, PhD, a research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, started with this question: Is there anything in a lung tumor’s environment that makes it metastasize? She sampled tissue from human lymph nodes—the first place cancers typically spread to—to see if the cells there were secreting anything that might lure cancer cells to migrate.

One chemical stood out: a growth factor called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. Secreted near maturing neurons, BDNF is best known for its role in stimulating the developing nervous system. Full story »

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global health innovationZulfiqar Bhutta, MBBS, PhD, inaugural chair in global child health at the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, and founding director of the Center of Excellence in Women and Child Health, Aga Khan University, Pakistan, is a global child health superstar. Presidents, prime ministers and princes welcome his advice. Yet India ignored him when he called its proposed innovation to curb infant mortality “nonsense.” “I was dead wrong,” says Bhutta. “What happened is remarkable.”

The simple innovation, which Bhutta now publicly commends, cut perinatal mortality 25 percent. Full story »

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This interactive map of the Ebola outbreak, produced by HealthMap, paints a picture of the epidemic's course from its first public signs in March. Mouse around, scroll down, zoom and explore. And click play to see how events have unfolded thus far.

Sobering news keeps coming out of the West African Ebola outbreak. According to numbers released on August 6, the virus has sickened 1,711 and claimed 932 lives across four nations. The outbreak continues to grow, with a high risk of continued regional spread, according to a threat analysis released by HealthMap (an outbreak tracking system operated out of Boston Children’s Hospital) and Bio.Diaspora (a Canadian project that monitors communicable disease spread via international travel).

“What we’ve seen here—because of inadequate public health measures, because of general fear—is [an outbreak that] truly hasn’t been kept under control,” John Brownstein, PhD, co-founder of HealthMap and a computational epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told ABC News. “The event started, calmed down and jumped up again. Now, we’re seeing movement into densely populated areas, which is highly concerning.”

If you’re interested in keeping tabs on the outbreak yourself, there are several tools that can help. Full story »

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(Pyh2/Wikimedia Commons)

(Pyh2/Wikimedia Commons)

Geoffrey Horwitz, PhD, is a business development associate in the Technology and Innovation Development Office (TIDO) at Boston Children’s Hospital. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffHorwitz

At the recent 2014 Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) International Convention, the message was clear: Digital health is the new blockbuster. For the first time ever, BIO spotlighted digital health, with a specific focus on how digital health is influencing the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Also featured was a digital health zone where companies and other exhibitors from all over the world could demo their products and services to thousands of attendees.

In pharmaceutical lingo, a blockbuster is a drug that generates revenues of at least $1 billion. Digital health certainly fits this definition. By 2018, reports suggest that revenues will exceed $6 billion for wearable wireless devices alone. A recent McKinsey study found that 75 percent of consumers surveyed, of various ages and located throughout the world, would like to use digital health devices. Full story »

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Mast cell food allergy

Mast cells don’t simply cause acute allergic reactions. They also turn off immune tolerance. But that could change. (Bruce Blaus/Wikimedia Commons)

Hans Oettgen, MD, PhD, is Associate Chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Boston Children’s Hospital.  He leads a research group investigating mechanisms of allergic diseases.

Not long ago I received a wonderful email from “Sam,” an 18-year-old young man with peanut allergy. He was participating in a clinical trial of oral immunotherapy (OIT) being carried out by colleagues here at Boston Children’s Hospital.

In OIT, patients receive initially minute doses of the food to which they are allergic. Then, over many weeks, they ingest increasing amounts, under close medical monitoring at the hospital.

OIT’s goal is to get patients to tolerate previously allergenic foods by inducing their bodies to produce Treg cells, or regulatory T cells. These are the master controllers of our immune responses, and their actions include suppressing allergic responses to foods. Food ingestion, as in OIT, will eventually induce food-specific Treg cells, but it can be a long and cumbersome process. For Sam, ingesting escalating doses of peanuts proved difficult: His email described frequent reactions ranging from stomachaches and itchiness to difficulty breathing. Full story »

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