Author: Nancy Fliesler

New Human Neuron Core to analyze ‘disease in a dish’

Human Neuron CoreLast week was a good week for neuroscience. Boston Children’s Hospital received nearly $2.2 million from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) to create a Human Neuron Core. The facility will allow researchers at Boston Children’s and beyond to study neurodevelopmental, psychiatric and neurological disorders directly in living, functioning neurons made from patients with these disorders.

“Nobody’s tried to make human neurons available in a core facility like this before,” says Robin Kleiman, PhD, Director of Preclinical Research for Boston Children’s Translational Neuroscience Center (TNC), who will oversee the Core along with neurologist and TNC director Mustafa Sahin, MD, PhD, and Clifford Woolf, PhD, of Boston Children’s F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center. “Neurons are really complicated, and there are many different subtypes. Coming up with standard operating procedures for making each type of neuron reproducibly is labor-intensive and expensive.”

Patient-derived neurons are ideal for modeling disease and for preclinical screening of potential drug candidates, including existing, FDA-approved drugs. Created from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) made from a small skin sample, the lab-created human neurons capture disease physiology at the cellular level in a way that neurons from rats or mice cannot.

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Melanopsin, lighting and you

color spectrum melanopsin
A deep-dive view of non-image vision may refine our understanding of light and health.

Back in the day, the 1980s to be specific, there was a brief fad around amber-on-black computer screens (as opposed to green-on-black or white-on-black) for supposed ergonomic reasons. My computer had one, along with its 5 ¼” floppy drives (remember those?).

More recently, with kids texting at night and people logging late hours on computers and devices, there’s been a recognition that artificial light at night is bad for sleep and disruptive to physiology overall, with blue light increasingly recognized as the culprit.

That’s given birth to some new fads. You can now download programs to eliminate blue light from your computer screen at night or buy amber-tinted glasses for computing and gaming to “filter the harsh spectra” of light. Airlines are using “mood” lighting to mimic sunrises and sunsets, which supposedly reduces jetlag.

In a paper in Neuron last week, Alan Emanuel and Michael Do, PhD, of the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School provide some science to support and inform these fads, as well as the use of light therapy for conditions like seasonal affective disorder.

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What we’ve been reading: Week of March 2, 2015

What Vector has been readingVector’s picks of recent pediatric healthcare, science and innovation news.

23andMe and the Promise of Anonymous Genetic Testing (New York Times)
Four debators weigh in on direct-to-consumer genetic testing, asking: Is it good for consumers? Is it good for science? And what about privacy? Worth a read.

Internet of DNA (MIT Technology Review)
Emerging projects in Toronta, Santa Cruz and elsewhere are working toward being able compare DNA from sick people around the world via the Internet to identify hard-to-spot causes of disease—analogous to using the “Compare documents” function in Word.

Engineering the perfect baby (MIT Technology Review)
Since the birth of genetic engineering, people have worried about designer babies. Now, with gene editing and CRISPR, they might really be possible. Bioethicists and scientists weigh in on what “germ line engineering” would mean.

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Of bugs, genes, development and intestinal biology

genes intestinal developmentThe collection of bacteria and other microorganisms living in our intestines—our microbiota—is now understood to play an important role in our physiology. Recent research indicates that it helps regulate our metabolism, immune system and other biological processes, and that imbalances in the microbiota are associated with everything from inflammatory bowel disease to diabetes.

Seth Rakoff-Nahoum, MD, PhD, wants to take this understanding to a new level. An infectious disease clinical fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, he has systematically probed how genetics interact with environment—including the microbiota—to shape intestinal biology during different stages of development.

His investigations provide interesting clues to disorders that have their origins early in life, ranging from necrotizing enterocolitis in newborns to Hirschsprung’s disease (marked by poor intestinal motility) to food allergies.

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Epilepsy surgery: When it’s not good to wait

epilepsy surgery life expectancyAbout a third of children with epilepsy do not get better with drug treatment. Many physicians are inclined to try additional drugs to control the seizures—and there are many to choose from. However, analysis of data from tens of thousands of patients suggests that if two or more well-chosen drugs have failed, and surgery is a safe option, there’s no benefit in holding off.

The decision analysis, published in the February issue of Epilepsia, found that average life expectancy was more than five years greater when eligible children had surgery rather than prolonged drug treatment. And children spent more of their lives seizure-free.

Although clinical guidelines currently do call for earlier surgery, physicians tend to use it as a last resort—even when brain-mapping studies indicate that it’s unlikely to endanger vital brain structures.

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Can rare disease genes be protective?

Carriers of the rare disease Niemann-Pick C1 may be protected against Ebola.
Carriers of the rare disease Niemann-Pick C1 may be protected against Ebola.
First of several posts to commemorate (Feb 28, 2015).

Evolution is a strange thing: sometimes it favors keeping a mutation in the gene pool, even when a double dose of it is harmful—even fatal. Why? Because a single copy of that mutation is protective in certain situations.

A classic example is the sickle-cell mutation: People carrying a single copy don’t develop sickle cell disease, but they make enough sickled red blood cells to keep the malaria parasite from getting a toe-hold. (Certain other genetic disorders affecting red blood cells have a similar effect.)

Or consider cystic fibrosis. Carriers of mutations in the CFTR gene—some 1 in 25 people of European ancestry—appear to be protected from typhoid fever, cholera and possibly tuberculosis.

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A link between cystic fibrosis and arsenic poisoning?

boys playing in arsenic-endemic area of Bangladesh

Since its causative gene was sequenced in the 1980s, cystic fibrosis (CF) has been the “textbook” genetic disease. Several thousand mutations have been identified in the CFTR protein, which regulates the flow of chloride in and out of cells. When CFTR is lost or abnormal, thick mucus builds up, impairing patients’ lungs, liver, pancreas, and digestive and reproductive systems, and making their lungs prone to opportunistic infections.

But new research could add a chapter to the textbook, pinpointing an unexpected environmental cause of CF-like illness. A study reported in the February 5 New England Journal of Medicine found that people with arsenic poisoning have high chloride levels in their sweat—the classic diagnostic sign of CF.

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Autism-like behaviors, impaired nerve tracts found in institutionalized children

Sad child-shutterstock_92102072 croppedThe sad experience of abandoned children in Romanian orphanages continues to provide stark lessons about the effects of neglect and deprivation of social and emotional interactions. The long-running Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) has been able to transfer some of these institutionalized children, selected at random, into quality foster care homes—and documented the benefits.

In a review article in the January 29 Lancet, BEIP investigator Charles A. Nelson, PhD, and medical student Anna Berens, MsC, both of Boston Children’s Hospital, make a strong case for global deinstitutionalization—as early in a child’s life as possible. Currently, it’s estimated that at least 8 million children worldwide are growing up in institutional settings.

The BEIP studies have documented a series of problems in institutionalized children, especially those who aren’t placed in foster care or are placed when they are older:

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What we’ve been reading: Week of January 26, 2015

What we are reading 4Vector’s picks of recent pediatric healthcare, science and innovation news.

U.S. proposes effort to analyze DNA from 1 million people (Reuters)
President Obama provided more detail last week on his Precision Medicine Initiative, which would allocate $215 million toward developing treatments tailored to patients’ genetic makeup, including $70 million for cancer research. The initiative is being hailed as a shot in the arm for research and innovation (this cancer example is but one of many), but skeptics question whether precision medicine will live up to its touted potential, citing the shortcomings of genomics in determining disease risk or in reversing diseases, even when genetic variants have been well studied.

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Live imaging captures how blood stem cells take root in the body

For years, the lab of Leonard Zon, MD, director of the Stem Cell Research Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, has sought ways to enhance bone marrow transplants for patients with cancer, serious immune deficiencies and blood disorders. Using zebrafish as a drug-screening platform, the lab has found a number of promising compounds, including one called ProHema that is now in clinical trials.

But truthfully, until now, Zon and his colleagues have largely been flying blind.

“Stem cell and bone marrow transplants are still very much a black box: cells are introduced into a patient and later on we can measure recovery of their blood system, but what happens in between can’t be seen,” says Owen Tamplin, PhD, in the Zon Lab. “Now we have a system where we can actually watch that middle step.”

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