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More than 90 percent of the genes in our bodies do not come from our own cells. Instead, the vast majority of this genetic material is found within the trillions of microorganisms that call our bodies home. Collectively known as the microbiome, these communities of bacteria and other microbes play a significant role in the functioning of the digestive tract, immune system, skin, and other body systems.
In recent years, the microbiome has attracted increasing attention for its role in health and disease. This week, MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) announce the launch of the Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics, a new interdisciplinary center dedicated to advancing the understanding of the microbiome’s role in human biology and harnessing this knowledge to develop treatments for related illnesses.
Crucial information about disease outbreaks can be gleaned earlier.
Problem: Our systems for detecting outbreaks of disease are unreliable. Typically, word of outbreaks bubbles up as patients see health professionals, who report cases to authorities. Those authorities often can’t piece the reports together in time to prevent significant numbers of other people from getting sick.
Solution: Rumi Chunara, a researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, is mining social media and other online sources for information outside of medical settings. In one study, Chunara found that a rise in cholera-related Twitter posts in Haiti correlated with an outbreak of the disease. “That’s important, because it takes the ministry of health in Haiti a couple of weeks to get their data aggregated,” she says. In future outbreaks, tweets could help direct medical workers earlier and ensure that supplies like water purification tablets get where they’re needed.
Small RNA molecules, including microRNAs (miRNAs) and small interfering RNAs (siRNAs), offer tremendous potential as new therapeutic agents to inhibit cancer-cell growth. However, delivering thesesmall RNAs to solid tumors remains a significant challenge, as the RNAs must target the correct cells and avoid being broken down by enzymes in the body. To date, most work in this area has focused on delivery to the liver, where targeting is relatively straightforward.
This week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT report that they have successfully delivered small RNA therapies in a clinically relevant mouse model of lung cancer to slow and shrink tumor growth. Their research offers promise for personalized RNA combination therapies to improve therapeuticresponse.