Stories about: chemotherapy

Can old peripheral nerves learn new tricks? Only the Schwann cells know for sure

peripheral nerve injury
Healing from nerve injuries gets slower as we age--here's why.
About six weeks ago, a glass shattered in my hand, severing the nerve in my pinky finger. The feeling in my fingertip still hasn’t returned, and now I know why: I’m too old.

Going back to World War II, it’s been speculated that recovery of peripheral nerve injuries—like those in limbs and extremities—is influenced by age. And studies indicate that peripheral neuropathy is common in people over 65, including those who have received cancer chemotherapy, and often unexplained.

“When you’re very young, the system is very plastic and able to regenerate,” Michio Painter told me recently. He is a graduate student in the laboratory of Clifford Woolf, PhD, director of the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “After that, there’s a gradual decline. By the age of 30, much of this plasticity is gone.”

Traditionally, this decline has been thought to reflect age-related differences in neurons’ ability to regrow, but when Painter studied neurons in a dish, he couldn’t confirm this.

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Predicting cancer drug response: One or two genes don’t always tell the story

Measuring the total amount of DNA damage within a tumor’s cells could help doctors predict its vulnerability to drugs like cisplatin. (Haukeland universitetssjukehus/Flickr)

Drugs like cisplatin that break DNA are some of the strongest weapons we have against breast, ovarian and other cancers. The problem, common to every form of chemotherapy, is that cisplatin doesn’t work for everyone. Given the potential side effects that go along with the drug—including vomiting, hearing loss and muscle cramps, just to name a few—the decision to give it to a patient becomes something of a gamble: Does the benefit outweigh the risk?

There are tests that examine individual genes and which can give doctors a limited view as to which tumors might respond best to cisplatin. But a multicenter team co-led by Zoltan Szallasi, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Informatics Program (CHIP), thinks they may have a solution that looks beyond individual genes to see which tumors might succumb to cisplatin and other drugs like it.

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Unmasking brain tumors with gene therapy

Brain tumors like the diffuse, light gray one in this MRI do a remarkably good job of hiding from the immune system. A new treatment based on gene therapy could strip their camouflage away. (Filip Em/Wikimedia Commons)

If there’s anything that tumors are good at, it’s hiding themselves. Not from things like MRIs or CT scans, mind you, but from the immune system. Since a tumor grows from what were at one time normal, healthy cells it’s still “self,” still one of the tissues that makes you you.

“Tumor cells display very subtle differences that distinguish them from healthy cells, but by and large they look the same to your immune system,” says Mark Kieran, a pediatric neuro-oncologist at the Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center and Children’s Hospital’s Vascular Biology Program. “The question is: How can we unmask tumors so that the immune system can do its job?”

Researchers have worked for years on cancer vaccines aimed at getting the immune system to wake up to the presence of a tumor and turn on it. With a Phase 1 safety trial , Kieran and his colleagues, including Children’s neurosurgical oncologist Lily Goumnerova, are evaluating a different strategy for patients with hard-to-treat brain tumors called malignant gliomas:  They’re giving the tumors a cold.

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The cell from hell: Can we outsmart cancer stem cells?

Cancer stem cells’ clever defenses may be the seeds of their undoing. (Image: leftover bacon/OpenClipArt)

Some scientists still debate the existence of cancer stem cells – rare cells that can singlehandedly perpetuate a tumor, and possibly make it more aggressive.  But others have moved on, isolating candidate cancer stem cells and documenting their distinctive characteristics and markers.

And some are starting to figure out how these cells operate and leverage that knowledge to come up with new approaches to cancer therapy.

Children’s scientist Markus Frank has been building quite a dossier on cancer stem cells, starting with melanoma stem cells. “Many of the features that make a cancer bad seem to be localized in this subpopulation of cells,” he says.

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Frances Jensen at TEDMED: “No more hand-me-down drugs”

Image by Steve Case via TwitPic: http://twitpic.com/31dosf

Before Children’s Hospital Boston’s own Frances Jensen, Director of Epilepsy Research, took the stage yesterday, Richard Saul Wurman, organizer of TEDMED and the TED conferences, spoke warmly of Children’s participation and sponsorship of this year’s event. A generous gift from the Hassenfeld Family Initiatives enabled that participation, and Wurman thanked the Hassenfelds and Children’s for bringing “such interesting people” to TEDMED 2010. With that, Jensen began her talk about the importance of understanding the developing brain.

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