As part of the global observance of Rare Disease Day in February, the NCATS and NIH Clinical Center hosted a special event to raise awareness about rare diseases, the people they affect and NIH research collaborations under way to address scientific challenges and advance new treatments.
This year, Children’s National Hospital orthopaedic surgeon Laura Tosi, M.D., took part in an afternoon panel, Nontraditional Approaches to Improving Access for Rare Diseases, where she outlined her work as the faculty chair of the Rare Bone Disease TeleECHO, a virtual meeting that allows care providers and experts to come together via the Zoom platform, discuss diagnosis of specific disorders and present cases for group input.
Dr. Tosi and the Rare Bone Disease Alliance have called Project ECHO Rare Bone Disease a game changer for care of these complex conditions. Rare bone disorders are only about 5% of all birth defects but include 461 skeletal disorders caused by 437 genes – making it difficult for any physician to see enough cases of any one disorder to correctly diagnose and treat it.
“Most doctors are like me, a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon. I need to know a lot of different rare diseases and it’s hard to keep everybody on the cutting edge,” Dr. Tosi says. “Even though we have found the genes for most of the disorders, the phenotypic overlaps, shortage of specialists and the multi-disciplinary needs of so many of the patients add to the challenges.”
So 7 months ago, Dr. Tosi joined together with colleagues at the Rare Bone Disease Alliance and the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation to launch Project ECHO Rare Bone Disease. The now monthly telehealth meeting engages a distinguished faculty of experts from around the world and from across the spectrum of care for these rare bone disorders, including specialists in genetics, endocrinology, orthopaedics and others.
Project ECHO is a specific model for bridging distance and creating a network of professionals, with the goal of leveling the playing field for all by making vital information accessible to everyone, regardless of their location. In healthcare the model transcends traditional “telemedicine,” however. The program, launched from the University of New Mexico, self-describes itself as “telementoring, a guided practice where the participating clinician retains responsibility for the patient” but is able to discuss diagnosis and therapeutic recommendations with a set of esteemed faculty via a regular virtual meeting series.
In the case of the Rare Bone Disease TeleECHO, the ECHO’s faculty decided on two major foci for the curriculum. Half of the content is about how to make the right diagnosis and the other half shares the latest information about specific diseases. The sessions also offer free CME to attendees.
Dr. Tosi says that while finding cases to discuss can sometimes be challenging when it comes to rare bone diseases, she takes responsibility on herself to make sure the content is robust each month. So far the meetings have attracted between 40 and 90 participants per session – a great engagement rate for such a young teleECHO program.
“I believe ECHO advances knowledge of healthcare and democratizes it by offering universal accessibility across the globe,” Tosi notes.
The Rare Bone Disease Alliance, which consists of 12 organizations, experts and patient families working together, is now deciding what’s next for the Rare Bone Disease TeleECHO. They may develop disorder-specific ECHOs, are studying the frequency of the sessions and how best to improve participation for all sessions. The idea is to increase access to this expertise even further, as it could have critical impacts on patients worldwide living with these rare diseases.
In terms of key take-aways from the panel of experts at Rare Disease Day, the hope is that more disease groups might leverage this type of technology to connect people in nontraditional ways. Doing so has the potential to ensure that everyone with a rare disease receives the best support and care possible because their doctors have the knowledge they need when they need it.
Watch more sessions from the NIH’s Rare Disease Day 2020.
This past fall, Nadia Merchant, M.D., joined Children’s National Hospital as an endocrinologist in the Endocrinology and Diabetes Department. Dr. Merchant received her undergraduate and medical education at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. She completed her pediatric residency at Wright State Boonshoft School of Medicine. She then completed her genetics residency and pediatric endocrine fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Merchant was born with acromesomelic dysplasia, a rare genetic disorder, but that hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her medical career. While at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Merchant was very active in quality improvement projects, research and organizations that raise awareness of endocrine related conditions. For several years, she was a moderator at Baylor College of Medicine for “From Stress to Strength,” at a course for parents of children with genetic disorders and autism. Dr. Merchant also served as an endocrine fellow representative on the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Endocrinology (SOEn) for the last two years and also served on the committee for a Bone and Mineral special interest group within the Pediatric Endocrine Society (PES). During medical school, she worked with Positive Exposure, an organization that uses visual arts to celebrate human diversity for individuals living with genetic, physical, behavioral and intellectual differences.
During the 2019 Endocrine Society Annual Meeting, Dr. Merchant won the Presidential Poster Award for her poster presentation: Assessing Metacarpal Cortical Thickness as a Tool to Evaluate Bone Density Compared to DXA in Osteogenesis Imperfecta a research project assessing whether hand film is an additional tool to detect low bone mineral density in children.
Dr. Nadia Merchant is currently one of the endocrinologists in the multidisciplinary bone health clinic at Children’s National, a clinic dedicated to addressing and improving bone health in children. Dr. Merchant also manages endocrine manifestations in children with rare genetic disorders.
The Endocrinology department at Children’s National is ranked among the best in the nation by “U.S. News & World Report”.
On Sunday, April 28, 2019 a team of researchers received the 2019 Human Growth Award at the Pediatric Endocrine Society’s Annual Meeting for their abstract, entitled “Clinical Characterization and Trial of Growth Hormone in Patients with Aggrecan Deficiency: 6 Month Data,” and presented this at the PES Presidential Poster Session.
Eirene Alexadrou, M.D., a fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, accepted the award and honorarium, while ongoing research is underway. This study started in 2017, with the objective of characterizing the phenotypic spectrum and response to a standardized regimen of growth hormone in a small cohort of 10 patients and their families.
In 2017, Andrew Dauber, M.D., MMSc., the division chief of endocrinology at Children’s National Health System, led an international consortium of researchers in publishing a manuscript describing the phenotypic spectrum of 103 individuals – 70 adults and 33 children, including 57 females and 46 males – from 20 families with aggrecan gene (ACAN) mutations.
Dr. Dauber and his colleagues have established that short stature and accelerated bone age is common among people with ACAN mutations. In a review of retrospective data, including patients treated with a variety of growth-promoting therapies at varying doses, the research team found that over the first one, two and three years of treatment, the standard deviation scores (SDS) for height increased by .4, .7 and 1, respectively. The current abstract now describes seven children enrolled in a prospective standardized trial of growth hormone therapy. After six months of treatment, the children have increased their height SDS by an average of 0.46.
Additionally, the researchers are performing an in-depth look at the joint effects, including special MRIs of the knees. They found that two of the children had a problem with their knee cartilage called osteochondritis dissecans. They had not yet presented with clinical symptoms. The researchers hope that early intervention with physical therapy can help prevent significant joint disease in the future.
“Providing growth hormone therapy to children with ACAN gene mutations is relatively new in the field of pediatric endocrinology,” notes Dr. Dauber. “Previously, the assumption was that this was just short stature. We’ll continue to diagnose ACAN mutations in a clinical setting and work with families to reduce the risk of complications, such as joint problems or early-onset arthritis, which may co-occur with this gene mutation.”
As an example, Dr. Dauber met an 8-year-old patient several months ago who presented with symptoms of short stature. The patient is healthy, confident and still growing so her mother wasn’t worried about her but she made the appointment to see if there was an underlying cause to her daughter’s short stature. Her family history revealed clues to an ACAN mutation, which was later confirmed through genetic tests. Her mom, M, stands 4’8; her grandmother is 4’9. Her great grandmother was short and her great, great grandfather was 5’1. Short stature and joint problems run in the family. Once M mentioned she had osteochondritis dissecans and a hip replacement, she provided a textbook case study for carrying the ACAN mutation.
After the appointment, M shared the news with her mother about the possibility of having aggrecan deficiency. After taking genetic tests, M, her mother and M’s daughter learned they all have the ACAN mutation, and enrolled in the study that Dr. Dauber is guiding. Suddenly, it all made sense. After examining family photos, they traced the ACAN mutation back through four generations.
They could tell what relatives had an altered copy of the ACAN gene. M had it, while her two sisters did not. M’s mother was an only child, so she didn’t have aunts or uncles to compare her mother’s height to, but M’s grandmother was short, while her grandmother’s brother was average height. Although her mother’s family was from Germany, she learned that there is no specific ancestry associated with this mutation. It happens by chance and is passed down from a single parent to, on average, half of their children, a form of genetic inheritance called autosomal dominant transmission.
Through further research, M learned that the ACAN gene provides instructions for producing aggrecan protein, which is essential for bone growth, as well as for the stability of cartilage that lines bones and joints, explaining her recurring joint problems.
She also looked into the future, examining potential risk factors for her daughter: joint pain and bone conditions, which could contribute to arthritis, hip dysplasia and back problems.
The diagnosis now makes it easier for M and her daughter to favor bone-building activities that are easy on the joints, like swimming or water aerobics, instead of gymnastics and weight lifting. After having a hip replacement, M was careful to supplement with calcium and vitamin D. Now, she’ll take the same steps to ensure optimal bone health for her daughter. She’ll work with orthopedic specialists as her daughter grows into her pre-teen and adolescent years, carefully monitoring joint pain – altering activities that are tough on the joints, as necessary.
M let her daughter make a decision about growth hormone therapy, which she decided to try. The benefits of the treatment, increased height, carry inconveniences, such as taking daily shots, but they are sticking with it.
“We’re at the tip of the iceberg with research that explores this gene mutation,” says Dr. Dauber. “We’ll continue to study these families, and more, over time to assess growth patterns and gene expression, which may reveal other mutations associated with short stature or joint problems, and guide future treatment options. It was a coincidence that this family had the ACAN mutation and scheduled an appointment, while we’re conducting this study. Otherwise, they may not have had an answer since this is fairly new research.”
M and her daughter are happy to be part of this study, which they will participate in for the next few years. M’s mother is also glad to participate. She made a different choice, decades ago, to reject hormone treatment when it was offered to her for undiagnosed short stature, but she’s sharing genetic clues, which may influence treatment options for her granddaughter and for her family’s next generation.
The original study, “Clinical Characterization of Patients with Autosomal Dominant Short Stature due to Aggrecan Muations,” appeared in the Feb. 2017 issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, and published as an online advance on Nov. 21, 2016.
Thirty-six researchers collaborated on this original paper, which was funded by 16 international health institutes and foundations, including the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health, the Swedish Research Council, the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems, the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation, the Stockholm County Council, the Swedish Society of Medicine, Byggmastare Olle Engkvist’s Foundation, the Sao Paulo Research Foundation, the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, the Czech Health Research Council and the Ministry of Health, Czech Republic.
With the influx of increasingly effective technology at our fingertips, the landscape of patient care for complex diseases has changed for the better in recent years. Doctors and researchers can accelerate new discoveries and improvements in patient care by querying and utilizing patient data gathered from all over the world.
For Laura L. Tosi, M.D., director of the Bone Health Program at Children’s National Health System, these changes have galvanized years of research into patients with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), a population that is particularly difficult to trace into adulthood.
OI is a rare genetic disorder characterized by excessively fragile bones with a high susceptibility to recurrent fractures. Commonly known as “brittle bone disease,” OI is mostly caused by mutations in type I collagen genes. The severity of the disease varies widely and a cure for OI still remains to be found. Currently, treatment methods include medications, physical and occupational therapy, as well as surgery – all of which aim to reduce risk of further fracture, help patients manage pain and promote a healthy lifestyle.
Two of the most critical challenges that accompany the treatment of rare diseases, however, are the paucity of data on the adult patient experience and the challenge of transitioning patients safely from the multispecialty clinics frequently available in childhood to adult care givers who may have never seen the disorder in their career.
Through her research, Dr. Tosi aims to fill these critical knowledge gaps, and has found the Patient-Reported Outcome Measurement Information System (PROMIS®), the patient-reported outcome platform funded by the National Institutes of Health, to be particularly advantageous.
PROMIS® harnesses a set of measurement tools that uses computer adaptive technology and person-centered measurements to evaluate and monitor physical, mental and social health in adults and children. These tools quickly tailor themselves to individual responses and, because of their user-friendly design, provide a level of convenience and easy accessibility that other platforms lack.
“I have a number of OI patients moving into adulthood who cannot get care in the adult world, because my colleagues who care for adults have less experience with the disease and because caring for OI adult patients is largely uncharted territory,” says Dr. Tosi. Realizing the importance of giving voice to adults with OI, Dr. Tosi has harnessed a diverse range of standardized PROMIS® tools to attempt to capture a more complete understanding of the patient experience, ranging from the quality of social participation and peer relationships to physical and emotional distress.
When her first PROMIS®-based mailing to patients received an overwhelming response of more than 1,100 respondents in just 90 days, Dr. Tosi knew that pushing this research forward and out into the community was imperative. The results from that first survey, published in 2015 in the Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases, demonstrated that adults with OI generally reported lower physical health status and were more likely to struggle with auditory and musculoskeletal problems.
Continued research in this area will not only generate much-needed knowledge about long-term healthcare issues and needs for OI patients, but also help clinicians improve their current treatment methodologies to anticipate these concerns ahead of time, if possible.
“The number of responses to our first survey demonstrated that patients really want to be heard. When you give them tools and ask them to tell you about themselves in ways that they hope will change how you practice, they want to help,” says Dr. Tosi, “because everyone wants to grow old well.”
At the end of August, Dr. Tosi will present her research at the 13th International Conference on Osteogenesis Imperfecta in Oslo, Norway. She also presented her research at the 8th International Conference on Children’s Bone Health as well as at the 17th Annual OI Foundation Scientific Meeting.
Now taking part in designing and executing a national natural history study of patients with OI, Dr. Tosi plans to lead the charge for incorporating and implementing PROMIS® tools into the study. “Once we improve our tools, we will have the ability to query individuals from Alaska to Timbuktu, and provide a far more comprehensive understanding of this very complex and multi-faceted disorder. Harnessing the power of the internet and engaging the patient in delineating their disorder as well as their response to treatment offer a giant step forward in caring for individuals with rare diseases,” she says.
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