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little girl with cancer

Pediatric advance care planning linked to families’ positive caregiving appraisals

little girl with cancer

In a first-of-its-kind clinical trial, experts directly measured families’ appraisals of caregiving as one potential benefit to pediatric advance care planning.

Little is known about how families respond to pediatric advance care planning. Physicians often are concerned that initiating pediatric advance care planning conversations with families is too distressing for them.

But a first-of-its-kind clinical trial led by Maureen E. Lyon, Ph.D., F.A.B.P.P., principal investigator, and Jessica Thompkins, B.S.N, R.N., C.P.N., research nurse coordinator, both at Children’s National Hospital, directly measured families’ appraisals of caregiving as one potential benefit to pediatric advance care planning.

The clinical trial, summarized in a video abstract,  shows that compared to controls, families’ participation in Family-Centered Advance Care Planning for Teens with Cancer (FACE®-TC) resulted in positive appraisals of their caregiving for their child with cancer while not significantly burdening them with distress or strain.

“Clinicians can be assured of the benefit and tolerability of this person-centered/family-supported model of pediatric advance care planning,” Thompkins says.

Families randomized to the FACE®-TC pediatric advance care planning intervention showed significantly greater positive family appraisals of caregiving and overwhelmingly, families reported the experience as worthwhile without adding undue distress or strain, compared to controls.

“This evidence meets practice guidelines for an intervention that could be extended to other adolescents living with serious illnesses and their families,” Dr. Lyon adds.

The clinical trial’s results also showed that FACE®-TC families significantly increased positive caregiving appraisals at three months post-intervention compared to controls. No significant differences were found between groups for strain or distress.

Wilm's Tumor

PRAME-specific T cell product may facilitate rapid treatment in cancer settings

Wilms Tumor

PRAME is a cancer-testis antigen that plays a role in cancer cell proliferation and survival and is overexpressed in many human malignancies, including Wilms tumor. “Wilms Tumor (Nephroblastoma)” by euthman is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Generated preferentially expressed antigen in melanoma (PRAME)-specific T cells from healthy donors can kill PRAME-expressing tumor cells in vitro, researchers at Children’s National Hospital found. Several novel epitopes, which are antigens that are recognized by the immune system, were also identified for enhanced matching, making this a potential therapeutic option for a broader patient group, according to a study published in Cytotherapy.

PRAME is a cancer-testis antigen that plays a role in cancer cell proliferation and survival and is overexpressed in many human malignancies, including melanoma, leukemia, sarcoma, renal cell cancer and Wilms tumor. PRAME also acts as a foreign substance in the body that can trigger the immune system by activating T cells, making it a good target for anticancer immunotherapy — especially for immunocompromised patients.

“The development of an effective off-the-shelf adoptive T-cell therapy for patients with relapsed or refractory cancers expressing PRAME antigen requires the identification of epitopes essential to the adaptive immune response, which are presented by major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I and II, and are then recognized by the manufactured PRAME-specific T cell product,” said Amy Hont, M.D., oncologist for the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National Hospital. “We, therefore, set out to extend the repertoire of HLA-restricted PRAME peptide epitopes beyond the few already characterized and demonstrate the cytotoxic activity of PRAME-specific T cells to tumor cells known to express PRAME.”

Immunotherapy options for pediatric patients with high-risk malignancies, especially solid tumors, are few. Tumor-associated antigen-specific T cells (TAA-T) offer a therapeutic option for these patients, and Children’s National is building upon the success of the ongoing clinical trials to optimize this therapy and improve the treatment of our patients.

“These findings will also benefit patients because it better informs the pre-clinical studies of third party TAA-T to treat high-risk malignancies, so that we can move more quickly and safely to clinical trials,” said Dr. Hont.

Stanojevic et al. describes that the T-cell products killed partially HLA-matched tumors, and that this enhanced disintegration of tumor cells compared with non-specific T cells suggests an anti-tumor potential for a clinical trial evaluation to determine the safety and efficacy. Further research about the PRAME-specific T cells will help inform a treatment alternative for patients with solid tumors in the future.

The researchers generated a PRAME-specific T cell bank from healthy donor cells and demonstrated anti-tumor cytolytic activity against tumor lines partially HLA-matched to the T cells and known to express PRAME. By using epitope mapping, they identified several novel epitopes restricted to MHC class I or MHC class II to further inform HLA matching.

“Defining PRAME-specific T cells beyond HLA epitopes could be useful when developing T-cell therapies for worldwide application,” Stanojevic et al. write. “Moreover, creating off-the-shelf products has many potential advantages since such products are readily available for the treatment of patients with aggressive disease or patients for whom an autologous product cannot be manufactured.”

Additional authors from Children’s National are Maja Stanojevic, M.D., Ashley Geiger, M.S., Samuel O’Brien, Robert Ulrey, M.S., Melanie Grant, Ph.D., Anushree Datar, M.S., Ping-Hsien Lee, Ph.D., Haili Lang, M.D., Conrad R.Y. Cruz, M.D., Ph.D.,  Patrick J. Hanley, Ph.D., A. John Barrett, M.D, Michael D. Keller, M.D., and Catherine M. Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B.

Sickle-Cell-Blood-Cells

Treating neurocognitive difficulties in children with sickle cell disease

Sickle-Cell-Blood-Cells

An adaptive cognitive training program could help treat attention and working memory difficulties in children with sickle cell disease (SCD), a new study published in the of Journal of Pediatric Psychology shows.

An adaptive cognitive training program could help treat attention and working memory difficulties in children with sickle cell disease (SCD), a new study published in the of Journal of Pediatric Psychology shows.

These neurocognitive difficulties have practical implications for the 100,000 individuals in the U.S. with SCD, as 20-40% of youth with SCD repeat a grade in school and fewer than half of adults with SCD are employed. Interventions to prevent and treat neurocognitive difficulties caused by SCD have the potential to significantly improve academic outcomes, vocational attainment and quality of life.

The study, led by Steven Hardy, Ph.D., director of Psychology and Patient Care Services at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Hospital, examined a promising approach using an adaptive cognitive training program (known as Cogmed Working Memory Training) that patients complete at home on an iPad.

Using a randomized controlled trial design, children were asked to complete Cogmed training sessions 3 to 5 times per week for about 30 minutes at a time until they completed 25 sessions. The Cogmed program involves game-like working memory exercises that adapt to the user’s performance, gradually becoming more challenging over time as performance improves. The team found that patients with sickle cell disease (SCD) who completed the cognitive training intervention showed significant improvement in visual working memory compared to a waitlist group that used Cogmed after the waiting period. Treatment effects were especially notable for patients who completed a training “dose” of 10 sessions.

“Patients who completed at least 10 cognitive training sessions showed improved visual working memory, verbal short-term memory and math fluency,” Dr. Hardy said.

SCD increases risk for neurocognitive difficulties because of cerebrovascular complications (such as overt strokes and silent cerebral infarcts) and underlying disease characteristics (such as chronic anemia). Neurocognitive effects of SCD most commonly involve problems with attention, working memory and other executive functions.

“This study demonstrates that digital working memory training is an effective approach to treating neurocognitive deficits in youth with sickle cell disease,” Dr. Hardy added. “We also found that benefits of the training extend to tasks that involve short-term verbal memory and math performance when patients are able to stick with the program and complete at least 10 training sessions. These benefits could have a real impact on daily living, making it easier to remember and follow directions in school and at home, organize tasks or solve math problems that require remembering information for short periods of time.”

To date, there have been few efforts to test interventions that address the neurocognitive issues experienced by many individuals with SCD. These findings show that abilities are modifiable and that a non-pharmacological treatment exists.

The Comprehensive Sickle Cell Disease Program at Children’s National is a leader in pediatric SCD research and clinical innovation. This study was funded by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which was the only Innovations in Clinical Research Award ever awarded to a psychologist (out of 31 grants totaling over $15 million), since the award established a focus on sickle cell disease in 2009.

Novel cancer vaccine targets oncogenes known to evade immunity in melanoma and neuroblastoma models

"Neuroblastoma of the Adrenal Gland (2)" by euthman is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Neuroblastoma of the Adrenal Gland (2)” by euthman is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A personalized tumor cell vaccine strategy targeting Myc oncogenes combined with checkpoint therapy creates an effective immune response that bypasses antigen selection and immune privilege, according to a pre-clinical study for neuroblastoma and melanoma. The neuroblastoma model showed a 75% cure with long-term survival, researchers at Children’s National Hospital found.

Myc is a family of regulator genes and proto-oncogenes that help manage cell growth and differentiation in the body. When Myc mutates to an oncogene, it can promote cancer cell growth. The Myc oncogenes are deregulated in 70% of all human cancers.

Myc mutations, like the amplification of c-MYC and MYCN, are associated with host immune suppression in melanoma and neuroblastoma tumors, according to the study published in The Journal for Immunotherapy of Cancer.

“Paradoxically, from an immunotherapeutic perspective, a lack of an immune response may offer an opportunity to target those tumors [melanoma and neuroblastoma] that would be less resistant to host immunity assuming potent cellular immunity can be generated against the tumor,” said the authors.

The findings suggest that small molecule inhibitors — I-BET726 and JQ1 — suppress Myc’s uncontrolled cellular proliferation and enhance the immune response against tumor cells themselves, enabling their use as a tumor cell vaccine. The combination of cell vaccine and available therapies that keep the immune responses in check, also known as checkpoint inhibitor therapy, can help inform a personalized therapeutic tumor vaccine in the future.

“The work is pre-clinical and although we have seen excellent responses in these models, we need to determine whether this will also be effective in humans,” said Xiaofang Wu, staff scientist III at Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation and lead author.  “For this purpose we have started laboratory testing in human cells. Our eventual hope is to translate these basic science findings to clinical application.”

There is a need for more effective therapies for neuroblastoma and melanoma, given the poor outcome of patients experiencing high-risk or advanced disease through traditional chemotherapy methods.  While the field has developed tumor vaccines and immune-based therapies, c-MYC and MYCN seem to protect the tumor against an immune response, so they often evade cure.

The researchers cautioned that both models induced potent immunity but draw different results, which means that this novel therapeutic vaccine is more effective in the neuroblastoma model than in the melanoma model. The neuroblastoma model resulted in a remarkable 75% cure and significantly improved long-term survival despite a larger initial tumor challenge.

“In contrast, the melanoma tumor gained adaptive resistance that is associated with an imbalance between tumor cell growth and cytotoxic killing and thus the vaccine failed to eradicate the tumor,” said the authors. “Despite potent immune effects from the vaccine, other immunosuppressive molecules will need to be targeted to see the full effects of the vaccine protocol in the melanoma model.”

The study proposes a framework that could be translated for therapeutic patient-specific vaccines for MYCN-amplified neuroblastoma tumors resistant to available therapies.

To understand the exact role of c-Myc and MYCN amplification and their association with immune suppression, the researchers examined 21 human neuroblastoma samples — the majority with metastatic disease — and 324 melanoma samples where only 30 were categorized as MYC amplified. Based on the oncogene’s capability to suppress the immune response, the researchers combined checkpoint inhibitors with pharmacologic molecules — I-BET726 and JQ1 — to target Myc oncogenes in mouse neuroblastoma and melanoma models. They also tested for the effects of different doses, drug combinations and incubation times on tumor cell proliferation, differentiation and gene alteration.

Authors on the study from Children’s National Hospital include: Xiaofang Wu, Ph.D., Marie Nelson, M.D., Mousumi Basu, Priya Srinivasan, Ph.D., Christopher Lazarski, Ph.D., and Anthony Sandler, M.D.

SIOP logo

Jeffrey Dome, M.D., elected SIOP Continental President of North America

Jeffrey Dome

“I’m honored to have been elected as president of a society that is a leader in propelling treatment and advocacy for childhood cancer,” Dr. Dome said. “I look forward to working alongside peers who are committed to efforts to improve outcomes for children with cancer globally.”

Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., vice president of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Hospital, has been elected as the International Society of Paediatric Oncology’s (SIOP) Continental President of North America.

“I’m honored to have been elected as president of a society that is a leader in propelling treatment and advocacy for childhood cancer,” Dr. Dome said. “I look forward to working alongside peers who are committed to efforts to improve outcomes for children with cancer globally.”

SIOP is the only global multidisciplinary society devoted to pediatric and adolescent cancer. With over 2,600 members worldwide – including doctors, nurses, other health-care professionals, scientists and researchers – the society is dedicated to increasing knowledge about all aspects of childhood cancer.

SIOP will officially welcome Dr. Dome to the position at its Annual Business Meeting in October.

light micrograph of wilms tumor

Evolution of risk stratification for Wilms tumor

light micrograph of wilms tumor

Light micrograph of Wilms tumor.

Wilms tumor is a rare kidney cancer that primarily affects children. Also known as nephroblastoma, it is the most common malignant renal tumor in children. Advances in the treatment of Wilms tumor are some of the great achievements in the field of oncology, improving survival to 90% and decreasing the burden of therapy.

A key factor in the success of Wilms tumor treatment has been improved risk stratification, enabling augmentation or reduction of therapy depending on a patient’s risk of relapse. In a review article in Current Opinion in Pediatrics, Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., vice president of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Hospital, Marie V. Nelson, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of Oncology, and their colleagues look at the evolution of clinical and biological factors that have been adopted for Wilms tumor.

The authors found that the original National Wilms Tumor Study Group (NWTSG) and International Society of Pediatric Oncology (SIOP) studies relied solely on tumor stage to define treatment. Over time, however, additional factors were incorporated into the risk stratification schema, allowing for a multifactorial precision medicine approach.

The authors conclude that “the application of new clinical and biological prognostic factors has created unprecedented ability to tailor therapy for Wilms tumor, accompanied with improved outcomes. Current and future trials will continue to enhance precision medicine for Wilms tumor.”

Read the full study in Current Opinion in Pediatrics.

marro replaced with aute lymphoblastic lukemia

New approach to maintenance chemotherapy may improve children’s quality of life

marro replaced with aute lymphoblastic lukemia

Marrow replaced with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

According to a study that accrued over 9,000 patients, a new approach to maintenance therapy lessens the burden of treatment and potential toxicity in children experiencing the most common cancer — B-acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL). The average-risk (AR) B-ALL subset of patients demonstrated an overall five-year survival rate of 98% despite less frequent chemotherapy pulses. Researchers from Children’s National Hospital led the 10-year study published on Jan. 7, 2021, in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

This phase III clinical trial, which opened at over 200 centers, helped inform an alternative maintenance therapy with less frequent administration of vincristine and dexamethasone. These standard drugs are part of a multiagent treatment approach used to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

“For decades, the common maintenance therapy approach [within the Children’s Oncology Group] was administering vincristine or steroid pulses every four weeks. The steroids can trigger disruptive behaviors like moodiness, sleep disturbance, food cravings, poor school attendance or physical aggression and vincristine can cause declines in fine motor and sensory-perceptual performance,” said Anne Angiolillo, M.D., lead author of the study and director of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Program at Children’s National. “We can now lessen the burden of this therapy while still maintaining excellent outcomes, which is a huge benefit to our patients and their families.”

The findings suggest that the decreased frequency of both vincristine and dexamethasone pulses every four weeks to every 12 weeks alleviates the therapy burden and reduces toxicity, potentially improving children’s quality of life.

Simultaneously, the researchers tried increasing the starting dose of oral methotrexate, a standard chemotherapy drug, given once weekly in the maintenance phase to see if it would improve the five-year disease-free survival rate, but, according to the data, it did not improve outcomes.

The world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to pediatric cancer research, the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), adopted the approach of less frequent pulses into the frontlines of their new B-ALL trials, given the study’s findings, to help decrease the therapy burden for patients and their families.

“I am very excited that the results of AALL0932 [the clinical trial] will have a major effect on the schedule of maintenance therapy for children with standard and high-risk B acute lymphoblastic leukemia in all future COG therapeutic trials,” said Dr. Angiolillo.

Dr. Angiolillo, and co-author Reuven Schore, M.D., pediatric oncologist at Children’s National were the chair and vice-chair of the clinical trial, respectively. Dr. Schore is also a member of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Program at Children’s National.

ALL can progress quickly, affect the bone marrow and the blood, including B cells and T cells. Among the children with ALL, approximately 55% comprise of the newly diagnosed National Cancer Institute (NCI) standard-risk (SR) B-ALL.

The study enrolled 9,229 patients with B-ALL between August 2010 and March 2018. Only 2,364 patients classified as average-risk received a random assignment to one of the four maintenance arms at the start of maintenance therapy. The researchers administered either vincristine/dexamethasone pulses every 12 weeks or every four weeks and a starting dose of once-weekly oral methotrexate of 20 mg/m2 or 40 mg/m2 during the maintenance phase.

“This trial establishes that with improved risk stratification utilizing blast cytogenetics and rate of response, a relatively low-intensity premaintenance backbone with a three-drug induction, and lower exposure to chemotherapy in maintenance, results in outstanding outcomes,” said Angiolillo et al.

Roger Packer at lectern

Roger Packer, M.D., presents keynote address at First International Pakistan Neuro-Oncology Symposium

Roger Packer at lectern

During his presentation, he addressed attendees on the topic of the “Modern Management of Medulloblastoma,” discussing results of recently completed clinical trials and the implications of new molecular insights into medulloblastoma, the most common childhood malignant brain tumor.

In late November 2020,  Roger Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neurosciences and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Hospital, presented as the inaugural keynote speaker for the First International Pakistan Neuro-Oncology Symposium in Karachi, Pakistan.

During his virtual presentation, he addressed attendees on the topic of the “Modern Management of Medulloblastoma,” discussing results of recently completed clinical trials and the implications of new molecular insights into medulloblastoma, the most common childhood malignant brain tumor.

The symposium attracted participants from 57 countries across the globe. There were over 1,000 attendees and as a result of the success of this symposium, there is now a monthly pediatric neuro-oncology lecture series. Dr. Packer agreed to lecture again to the group in mid-January 2021 on “Pediatric Neural Tumors Associated with NF1” as part of an international lecture series hosted by the Aga Khan University in Pakistan.

This is one of multiple national and international activities led by the Brain Tumor Institute at Children’s National Hospital. Directed by Dr. Packer with Eugene Hwang, M.D. as his co-director, and who is associate division chief of oncology at Children’s National Hospital, the multidisciplinary institute holds a monthly tumor board for colleagues at Dmitry Rogachev National Research Center and the Burdenko Neurosurgery Institute in Moscow, Russia, and a monthly brain tumor board coordinated by the Pediatric Oncology Program for colleagues across São Paulo, Brazil.

This also leads to a bi-monthly regional tumor board, which is attended by staff of the National Cancer Institute, the University of Virginia, Inova Children’s Hospital, the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters Health System, Yale University, Geisinger Medical Center, Georgetown University and Carilion Clinic.

conceptual image of bladder cancer

Sensitivity to physical versus chemical factors in CAP

conceptual image of bladder cancer

To date, reactive oxygen species and reactive nitrogen species have been regarded as the key factors causing the observable cellular death of cold atmospheric plasma (CAP)-treated cancer cells. The chemical basis of the conventional CAP treatment highlights apoptosis as the main CAP-triggered cell death mechanism.

However, in a recent study published in the Journal of Physics, Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of Transitional Urology at Children’s National Hospital, and other experts demonstrated a strong anti-melanoma effect based on physically-based CAP treatment. The study, which also tested bladder cancer, compared the anti-cancer effect of chemically-based versus physically-based CAP treatment on four typical cancer cell lines in vitro.

blood cells with sickle cell anemia

Advances in therapy for sickle cell disease and hemophilia

blood cells with sickle cell anemia

Despite having a network of providers and a national database, access to care and treatment burden continue to be issues that affect quality of life in the hemophilia population.

Hemophilia and sickle cell are disorders that are associated with comorbidities and significant treatment burden, discussed Christine Guelcher, PPCNP-BC, lead advanced practice provider for the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Hospital, during the virtual 62nd ASH Annual Meeting and Exposition.

During the satellite symposia, Guelcher explained a network of hemophilia treatment centers (HTCs) was developed in the 1970s. The model of multi-disciplinary care in the HTC network has demonstrated improved outcomes. Despite having a network of providers and a national database, access to care and treatment burden continue to be issues that affect quality of life in the hemophilia population.

“While similar programs were developed in sickle cell with similar improvements in care, the funding was not sustained,” Guelcher said. However, efforts are underway to develop multi-disciplinary care and data infrastructure in the sickle cell community.

“The lack of specialized providers, particularly adult hematologists, continues to be an issue for both non-malignant hematologic disorders,” she added.

Advances in care

While hemophilia is rare, it is an expensive disease. Controlling bleeding with medications is expensive and associated with significant treatment burden. Failure to prevent bleeding due to lack of access or adherence can result in debilitating bleeding that impacts on productivity and quality of life. Additionally, clinical trials with gene therapy are ongoing, though questions remain about sustained levels and durability.

“Recent development of drugs that can reduce the frequency of intravenous infusions (extended half-life factor replacement products or subcutaneous novel non-factor prophylaxis) have improved the treatment burden,” Guelcher said. “But access to care continues to be an issue for up to 30% of the patients with bleeding disorders in the U.S.” Sickle cell disease affects mostly Black/African American and Hispanic patients, many of whom already experience health care disparities. While newborn screening, antibiotic prophylaxis and immunizations have decreased life-threatening infections, vaso-occlusive (pain) crisis continues to be a debilitating complication. Furthermore, stroke, pulmonary, cardiac and renal disease are significant comorbidities.

While advances in therapies for sickle cell have provided new treatment options to decrease the frequency of vaso-occlusive crisis, the pathophysiology that results in all of the sequalae is not fully understood. While Bone marrow transplant is potential treatment of the underlying sickle cell disease process, only 20% of patients have a matched sibling donor. Currently, clinical trials are investigating the safety and efficacy of gene therapy. Despite all of these advances, the life expectancy of somebody with sickle cell is 30 years shorter than the general U.S. population.

Access to care

The multi-disciplinary panel presentation at ASH gave participants an opportunity to hear about the challenges facing these patients and families. The overview of new and emerging treatment options gave providers an understanding of treatment options.

“Hopefully, presentations like this will inspire providers to consider a career in non-malignant hematology (particularly adult providers),” Guelcher added.

As one of the nation’s hemophilia and thrombosis treatment centers, Children’s National Hospital provides comprehensive, multi-disciplinary care. Patients can participate in two national registries in order to collect aggregate data that are used to identify trends that impact bleeding disorder patients. Our sickle cell program also offers multi-disciplinary clinics for infants, integrative care for chronic pain and transition, addressing some of the unmet needs that continue to be an issue nationally.

“We also participate in industry sponsored clinical trials to ensure that new therapies, including gene therapy, are safe and effective,” Guelcher explained. “This gives our patients access to state-of-the-art care. Numerous clinical trials to ensure that recently licensed products and gene therapy are safe for use in a pediatric patient with hemophilia and sickle cell are ongoing.”

cystic kidney disease

NIH $4 million grant funds new core center for childhood cystic kidney disease

cystic kidney disease

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), in collaboration with Children’s National Hospital has received a five-year, $4 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create a core center for childhood cystic kidney disease (CCKDCC). The UAB-CCKDCC will conduct and facilitate research into the causes of and possible treatments for cystic kidney diseases, particularly those that present in childhood.

The UAB/Children’s National grant is a U54 center grant, an NIH funding mechanism to develop a multidisciplinary attack on a specific disease entity or biomedical problem area. With this grant, UAB joins with investigators at the University of Kansas and the University of Maryland-Baltimore as part of the NIH Polycystic Kidney Disease Research Resource Consortium. The NIH describes the consortium as a framework for effective collaboration to develop and share research resources, core services and expertise to support innovation in research related to polycystic kidney disease.

“Infants with childhood cystic kidney disease may develop kidney failure within a few years after birth and some need dialysis and kidney transplantation before they reach adulthood,” said Lisa Guay-Woodford, M.D., director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National and co-director of the UAB-CCKDCC. “In many cases, the earlier the onset of symptoms, the more severe the outcome.”

“The intent is to accelerate the science and advance research into new therapies for cystic kidney disease through enhanced sharing of resources and the establishment of a robust research community,” said Bradley K. Yoder, Ph.D., professor and chair of the UAB Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology and co-director of the UAB-CCKDCC. “Childhood polycystic disease can be a devastating condition for children and their families.”

The UAB-CCKDCC will focus primarily on childhood polycystic kidney disease, a condition that affects about one in 20,000 infants in the United States. The center’s primary goals are:

  • Provide the Polycystic Kidney Disease Research Resource Consortium members with access to phenotypic, genetic and clinical information and biomaterials from CCKD patients
  • Analyze pathways involved in cyst pathogenesis through the generation of verified genetic model systems and biosensor/reporter systems
  • Assess the impact of patient variants on cystic disease proteins through generation and validation of innovative models
  • Provide ready access to biological materials from genetic CCKD models
  • Develop efficient pipelines for in vitro and in vivo preclinical testing of therapeutic compounds

Dr. Guay-Woodford is an internationally recognized pediatric nephrologist with a research program focused on identifying clinical and genetic factors involved in the pathogenesis of inherited renal disorders, most notably autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD). Her laboratory has identified the disease-causing genes in several experimental models of recessive polycystic kidney disease and her group participated in the identification of the human ARPKD gene as part of an international consortium. In addition, her laboratory was the first to identify a candidate modifier gene for recessive polycystic kidney disease. For her contributions to the field, she was awarded the Lillian Jean Kaplan International Prize for Advancement in the Understanding of Polycystic Kidney Disease, given by the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation and the International Society of Nephrology.

Yuan Zhu

Study suggests glioblastoma tumors originate far from resulting tumors

Yuan Zhu

“The more we continue to learn about glioblastoma,” Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., says, “the more hope we can give to these patients who currently have few effective options.”

A pre-clinical model of glioblastoma, an aggressive type of cancer that can occur in the brain, suggests that this recalcitrant cancer originates from a pool of stem cells that can be a significant distance away from the resulting tumors. The findings of a new study, led by Children’s National Hospital researchers and published July 22 in the journal Nature Communications, suggest new ways to fight this deadly disease.

Despite decades of research, glioblastoma remains the most common and lethal primary brain tumor in adults, with a median survival of only 15 months from diagnosis, says study leader Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., the scientific director and endowed professor of the Gilbert Family Neurofibromatosis Institute at Children’s National. Unlike many cancers, which start out as low-grade tumors that are more treatable when they’re caught at an early stage, most glioblastomas are almost universally discovered as high-grade and aggressive lesions that are difficult to treat with the currently available modalities, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

“Once the patient has neurological symptoms like headache, nausea, and vomiting, the tumor is already at an end state, and disease progression is very rapid,” Dr. Zhu says. “We know that the earlier you catch and treat cancers, the better the prognosis will be. But here, there’s no way to catch the disease early.”

However, some recent research in glioblastoma patients shows that the subventricular zone (SVZ) – an area that serves as the largest source of stem cells in the adult brain – contains cells with cancer-driving mutations that are shared with tumors found in other often far-distant brain regions.

To see if the SVZ might be the source for glioblastoma tumors, Dr. Zhu and his colleagues worked with pre-clinical models that carried a single genetic glitch: a mutation in a gene known as p53 that typically suppresses tumors. Mutations in p53 are known to be involved in glioblastoma and many other forms of cancer.

Using genetic tests and an approach akin to those used to study evolution, the researchers traced the cells that spurred both kinds of tumors back to the SVZ. Although both single and multiple tumors had spontaneously acquired mutations in a gene called Pten, another type of tumor suppressor, precursor cells for the single tumors appeared to acquire this mutation before they left the SVZ, while precursor cells for the multiple tumors developed this mutation after they left the stem cell niche. When the researchers genetically altered the animals to shut down the molecular pathway that loss of Pten activates, it didn’t stop cancer cells from forming. However, rather than migrate to distal areas of the brain, these malignant cells remained in the SVZ.

Dr. Zhu notes that these findings could help explain why glioblastoma is so difficult to identify the early precursor lesions and treat. This work may offer potential new options for attacking this cancer. If new glioblastoma tumors are seeded by cells from a repository in the SVZ, he explains, attacking those tumors won’t be enough to eradicate the cancer. Instead, new treatments might focus on this stem cell niche as target for treatment or even a zone for surveillance to prevent glioblastoma from developing in the first place.

Another option might be to silence the Pten-suppressed pathway through drugs, a strategy that’s currently being explored in various clinical trials. Although these agents haven’t shown yet that they can stop or reverse glioblastomas, they might be used to contain cancers in the SVZ as this strategy did in the pre-clinical model — a single location that might be easier to attack than tumors in multiple locations.

“The more we continue to learn about glioblastoma,” Dr. Zhu says, “the more hope we can give to these patients who currently have few effective options.”

Other Children’s National researchers who contributed to this study include Yinghua Li, Ph.D., Wei Li, Ph.D., Yuan Wang, Ph.D., Seckin Akgul, Ph.D., Daniel M. Treisman, Ph.D., Brianna R. Pierce, B.S., Cheng-Ying Ho, M.D. /Ph.D.

This work is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (2P01 CA085878-10A1, 1R01 NS053900 and R35CA197701).

The Children’s National Division of Oncology is consistently recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top programs in the nation.

2020 at a glance: Oncology at Children’s National

The Children’s National Division of Oncology is consistently recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top programs in the nation.

US News Badges

Children’s National ranked a top 10 children’s hospital and No. 1 in newborn care nationally by U.S. News

US News Badges

Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., was ranked No. 7 nationally in the U.S. News & World Report 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals annual rankings. This marks the fourth straight year Children’s National has made the list, which ranks the top 10 children’s hospitals nationwide.

In addition, its neonatology program, which provides newborn intensive care, ranked No.1 among all children’s hospitals for the fourth year in a row.

For the tenth straight year, Children’s National also ranked in all 10 specialty services, with seven specialties ranked in the top 10.

“Our number one goal is to provide the best care possible to children. Being recognized by U.S. News as one of the best hospitals reflects the strength that comes from putting children and their families first, and we are truly honored,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National Hospital.

“This year, the news is especially meaningful, because our teams — like those at hospitals across the country — faced enormous challenges and worked heroically through a global pandemic to deliver excellent care.”

“Even in the midst of a pandemic, children have healthcare needs ranging from routine vaccinations to life-saving surgery and chemotherapy,” said Ben Harder, managing editor and chief of Health Analysis at U.S. News. “The Best Children’s Hospitals rankings are designed to help parents find quality medical care for a sick child and inform families’ conversations with pediatricians.”

The annual rankings are the most comprehensive source of quality-related information on U.S. pediatric hospitals. The rankings recognize the nation’s top 50 pediatric hospitals based on a scoring system developed by U.S. News. The top 10 scorers are awarded a distinction called the Honor Roll.

The bulk of the score for each specialty service is based on quality and outcomes data. The process includes a survey of relevant specialists across the country, who are asked to list hospitals they believe provide the best care for patients with the most complex conditions.

Below are links to the seven Children’s National specialty services that U.S. News ranked in the top 10 nationally:

The other three specialties ranked among the top 50 were cardiology and heart surgery, gastroenterology and gastro-intestinal surgery, and urology.

Vote for STAT Madness

It’s a three-peat! Children’s National again competes in STAT Madness

Vote for STAT Madness

Children’s National Hospital collects patients’ blood, extracts T-cells and replicates them in the presence of specific proteins found on cancer cells which, in essence, teaches the T-cells to target specific tumor markers. Training the T-cells, growing them to sufficient quantities and ensuring they are safe for administration takes weeks. But when patients return to the outpatient clinic, their T-cell infusion lasts just a few minutes.

For the third consecutive year, Children’s National was selected to compete in STAT Madness, an annual bracket-style competition that chooses the year’s most impactful biomedical innovation by popular vote. Children’s entry, “Immunotherapy of relapsed and refractory solid tumors with ex vivo expanded multi-tumor associated antigen specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes,” uses the body’s own immune system to attack and eliminate cancer cells in pediatric and adult patients with solid tumor malignancies.

In 2018, Children’s first-ever STAT Madness entry advanced through five brackets in the national competition and, in the championship round, finished second. That innovation, which enables more timely diagnoses of rare diseases and common genetic disorders, helping to improve kids’ health outcomes around the world, also was among four “Editor’s Pick” finalists, entries that spanned a diverse range of scientific disciplines.

An estimated 11,000 new cases of pediatric cancer were diagnosed in children 14 and younger in the U.S. in 2019. And, when it comes to disease, cancer remains the leading cause of death among children, according to the National Institutes of Health. An enterprising research team led by Children’s National faculty leveraged T-cells – essential players in the body’s immune system – to treat pediatric and adult patients with relapsed or refractory solid tumors who had exhausted all other therapeutic options.

“We’re using the patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer, rather than more traditional chemotherapy drugs,” says Catherine M. Bollard, M.D., director of the Center for Cancer & Immunology Research at Children’s National and co-senior author of the study. “It’s more targeted and less toxic to the patient. These T-cells home in on any cancer cells that might be in the body, allowing healthy cells to continue to grow,” Dr. Bollard adds.

That means patients treated in the Phase I, first-in-human trial didn’t lose their hair and weren’t hospitalized for the treatment. After a quick clinical visit for their treatment, they returned to normal activities, like school, with good energy levels.

“With our specially trained T-cell therapy, many patients who previously had rapidly progressing disease experienced prolonged disease stabilization,” says Holly J. Meany, M.D., a Children’s National oncologist and the study’s co-senior author. “Patients treated at the highest dose level showed the best clinical outcomes, with a six-month, progression-free survival of 73% after tumor-associated antigen cytotoxic T-cell (TAA-T) infusion, compared with 38% with their immediate prior therapy.”

The multi-institutional team published their findings from the study online July 29, 2019, in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

“Our research team and our parents are delighted that some patients treated in our study continue to do well following T-cell therapy without additional treatment. In some cases, two years after treatment, patients do not appear to have active disease and are maintaining an excellent quality of life,” says Amy B. Hont, M.D., the study’s lead author. “One of these was a patient whose parents were told his only other option was palliative care. Our innovation gives these families new hope,” Dr. Hont adds.

The 2020 STAT Madness #Core64 bracket opened March 2, and the champion will be announced April 6.

In addition to Drs. Hont, Meany and Bollard, Children’s National co-authors include C. Russell Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., Robert Ulrey, MS, Barbara O’Brien, BS, Maja Stanojevic, M.D., Anushree Datar, MS, Shuroug Albihani, MS, Devin Saunders, BA, Ryo Hanajiri, M.D., Ph.D., Karuna Panchapakesan, MS, Payal Banerjee, MS, Maria Fernanda Fortiz, BS, Fahmida Hoq, MBBS, MS, Haili Lang, M.D., Yunfei Wang, DrPH, Patrick J. Hanley, Ph.D., and Jeffrey S. Dome, M.D., Ph.D.; and Sam Darko, MS, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the Children’s National Hospital Heroes Gala, Alex’s Army Foundation, the Children’s National Board of Visitors and Hyundai Hope on Wheels Young Investigator Grant to Support Pediatric Cancer Research, the Children’s National Research Institute Bioinformatics Unit, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the National Institutes of Health under award No. UL1-TR001876.

Schistosoma

Parasitic eggs trigger upregulation in genes associated with inflammation

Schistosoma

Of the 200 million people around the globe infected with Schistosomiasis, about 100 million of them were sickened by the parasite Schistosoma haematobium.

Of the 200 million people around the globe infected with Schistosomiasis, about 100 million of them were sickened by the parasite Schistosoma haematobium. As the body reacts to millions of eggs laid by the blood flukes, people can develop fever, cough and abdominal pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Schistosomiasis triggered by S. haematobium can also include hematuria, bladder calcification and bladder cancer.

Despite the prevalence of this disease, there are few experimental models specifically designed to study it, and some tried-and-true preclinical models don’t display the full array of symptoms seen in humans. It’s also unclear how S. haematobium eggs deposited in the host bladder modulate local tissue gene expression.

To better understand the interplay between the parasite and its human host, a team led by Children’s National Hospital injected 6,000 S. haematobium eggs into the bladder wall of seven-week-old experimental models.

After four days, they isolated RNA for analysis, comparing differences in gene expression in various treatment groups, including those that had received the egg injection and experimental models whose bladders were not exposed to surgical intervention.

Using the Database for Annotation, Visualization and Integrated Discovery (DAVID) – a tool that helps researchers understand the biological meaning of a long list of genes – the team identified commonalities with other pathways, including malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and the p53 signaling pathway, the team recently presented during the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 2019 annual meeting. Some 325 genes were differentially expressed, including 34 genes in common with previous microarray data.

“Of particular importance, we found upregulation in genes associated with inflammation and fibrosis. We also now know that the body may send it strongest response on the first day it encounters a bolus of eggs,” says Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of transitional urology at Children’s National, and the research project’s senior author. “Next, we need to repeat these experiments and further narrow the list of candidate genes to key genes associated with immunomodulation and bladder cancer.”

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, presentation co-authors include Lead Author Kenji Ishida, Children’s National; Evaristus Mbanefo and Nirad Banskota, National Institutes of Health; James Cody, Vigene Biosciences; Loc Le, Texas Tech University; and Neil Young, University of Melbourne.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award No. R01-DK113504.

clatharin cage viewed by electron microscopy

IPSE infiltrates nuclei through clathrin-mediated endocytosis

clatharin cage viewed by electron microscopy

IPSE, one of the important proteins excreted by the parasite Schistosoma mansoni, infiltrates human cellular nuclei through clathrin-coated vesicles, like this one.

IPSE, one of the important proteins excreted by the parasite Schistosoma mansoni infiltrates human cellular nuclei through clathrin-mediated endocytosis (a process by which cells absorb metabolites, hormones and proteins), a research team led by Children’s National Hospital reported during the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 2019 annual meeting.

Because the public health toll from the disease this parasite causes, Schistosomiasis, is second only to malaria in global impact, research teams have been studying its inner workings to help create the next generation of therapies.

In susceptible host cells – like urothelial cells, which line the urinary tract – IPSE modulates gene expression, increasing cell proliferation and angiogenesis (formation of new blood vessels). On a positive note, neurons appear better able to fend off its nucleus-infiltrating ways.

“We know that IPSE contributes to the severity of symptoms in Schistosomiasis, which leads some patients to develop bladder cancer, which develops from the urothelial lining of the bladder. Our team’s carefully designed experiments reveal IPSE’s function in the urothelium and point to the potential of IPSE playing a therapeutic role outside of the bladder,” says Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of transitional urology at Children’s National and the research project’s senior author.

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, research co-authors include Evaristus Mbanefo, Ph.D.; Kenji Ishida, Ph.D.; Austin Hester, M.D.; Catherine Forster, M.D.; Rebecca Zee, M.D., Ph.D.; and Christina Ho, M.D., all of Children’s National; Franco Falcone, Ph.D., University of Nottingham; and Theodore Jardetzky, Ph.D., and Luke Pennington, M.D., Ph.D., candidate, both of Stanford University.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award No. R01-DK113504.

pastel colored DNA strands

Germline microsatellite genotypes differentiate children with medulloblastoma

pastel colored DNA strands

A new study suggests that medulloblastoma-specific germline microsatellite variations mark those at-risk for medulloblastoma development.

Brian Rood, M.D., oncologist and medical director at the Brain Tumor Institute, and Harold “Skip” Garner, Ph.D., associate vice provost for research development at Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, published a report in the Society for Neuro-Oncology’s Neuro-Oncology Journal about using a novel approach to identify specific markers in germline (non-tumor) DNA called microsatellites that can differentiate children who have the brain tumor medulloblastoma (MB) from those who don’t.

“Ultimately, the best way to save children from brain tumors and prevent them from bearing long-term side effects from treatment is to prevent those tumors from occurring in the first place,” says Dr. Rood. “New advancements hold the potential to finally realize the dream of cancer prevention, but we must first identify those children at-risk.”

While analyzing germline sequencing data from a training set of 120 MB subjects and 425 controls, the doctors identified 139 individual microsatellites whose genotypes differ significantly between the groups. Using a genetic algorithm, they were able to construct a subset of 43 microsatellites that distinguish MB subjects from controls with a sensitivity and specificity of 92% and 88% respectively.

“We made discoveries in an untapped part of the human genome, enabled by unique bioinformatics data mining approaches combined with clinical insight,” said Dr. Garner. “Our findings establish new genomic directions that can lead to high accuracy diagnostics for predicting susceptibility to medulloblastoma.”

What the doctors discovered and demonstrated in the study was that MB-specific germline microsatellite variations mark those at risk for MB development and suggest that other mechanisms of cancer predisposition beyond heritable mutations exist for MB.

“This work is the first to demonstrate the ability of specific DNA sequences to differentiate children with cancer from their healthy counterparts,” added Dr. Rood.

Contributing Authors to this research study included:  Brian R. Rood, M.D., Harold R. Garner, Ph.D., Samuel Rivero-Hinojosa, Ph.D., and Nicholas Kinney, Ph.D.

proton center

Johns Hopkins Proton Therapy Center opens in collaboration with Children’s National

proton center

The Center at Sibley offers state-of-the-art, pencil beam proton therapy equipment, as well as next-generation imaging technologies such as dual energy CT-guided treatment that reduces the range of error, and the latest innovation in biomatrix magnetic resonance imaging designed to target moving tumors in organs like the lung and liver.

Pediatric cancer patients in the Greater Washington region now have access to one of the most advanced, lifesaving proton therapy technologies offered in the U.S. The Johns Hopkins Proton Therapy Center opened Oct.28, 2019, at Sibley Memorial Hospital in collaboration with Children’s National Hospital.

The proton collaboration with Children’s National expands an existing collaboration between Children’s National and Johns Hopkins Medicine that established the pediatric radiation oncology program at Sibley, which treats a wide range of children’s cancer. Now, Sibley will offer the only proton center in the Washington D.C. region with a dedicated pediatric team, staff who are trained in pediatrics instead of adult providers who also treat children.

“This collaboration allows us to bring the latest technology to the region and offer the most advanced cancer treatment to help children live better lives,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO at Children’s National. “As one of the Top 10 children’s hospitals in the nation, our goal is to ensure that patients and families are receiving the best care possible.”

The Center at Sibley offers state-of-the-art, pencil beam proton therapy equipment, as well as next-generation imaging technologies such as dual energy CT-guided treatment that reduces the range of error, and the latest innovation in biomatrix magnetic resonance imaging designed to target moving tumors in organs like the lung and liver. A large mechanical arm called a gantry can move the beam 360 degrees around the patient, treating the tumor from several angles as it destroys tumor cells layer by layer.

“Proton therapy is an advanced technology that allows radiation to be delivered precisely to cancer tissue,” says Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., vice president for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National. “This provides a significant advantage compared with conventional radiation therapy, especially in children, where sparing the healthy tissue that surrounds the tumor may be critical for normal growth and development. Proton therapy shows great promise to reduce long-term side effects of radiation treatment.”

The Center at Sibley will have a fully integrated research room, which will allow clinical, basic science and medical physics faculty to advance clinical trial research, translational research and technology development research in proton therapy. Leading experts and oncologists will study proton outcomes for sarcoma, gynecological tumors, pancreatic and liver tumors, lymph node cancers and tumors located near the heart and major blood vessels, such as lung or breast cancers. In addition, the researchers will examine how the proton energy that kills cancer cells interacts with non-cancerous cells and tissue surrounding the tumors.

The JJohns Hopkins Proton Therapy Center opens in phases. The first treatment room opened October 2019. The second room is scheduled to open in spring 2020, and the third room and fixed beam research room are scheduled to open in fall 2020.

tube labeled "CRISPR"

$2M from NIH to extract meaningful data from CRISPR screens

tube labeled "CRISPR"

Protein-coding genes comprise a mere 1% of DNA. While the other 99% of DNA was once derided as “junk,” it has become increasingly apparent that some non-coding genes enable essential cellular functions.

Wei Li, Ph.D., a principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., proposes to develop statistical and computational methods that sidestep existing hurdles that currently complicate genome-wide CRISPR/Cas9 screening. The National Institutes of Health has granted him $2.23 million in funding over five years to facilitate the systematic study of genes, non-coding elements and genetic interactions in various biological systems and disease types.

Right now, a large volume of screening data resides in the public domain, however it is difficult to compare data that is stored in one library with data stored at a different library. Over the course of the five-year project, Li aims to:

  • Improve functional gene identification from CRISPR screens.
  • Develop new analyses algorithms for screens targeting non-coding elements.
  • Study genetic interactions from CRISPR screens targeting gene pairs.

Ultimately, Li’s work will examine a range of disease types. Take cancer.

“There is abundant information already available in the public domain, like the Project Achilles  from the Broad Institute. However, no one is looking to see what is going in inside these tumors,” Li says. “Cancer is a disease of uncontrolled cell growth that makes tumors grow faster.”

Li and colleagues are going to ask which genes control this process by looking at genes that hit the brakes on cell growth as well as genes that pump the gas.

“You knock out one gene and then look: Does the cell grow faster or does it grow more slowly? If the cell grows more slowly, you know you are knocking out a gene that has the potential to stop tumor growth. If cells are growing faster, you know that you’re hitting genes that suppress cancer cell growth.”

In a nutshell, CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) screens knock out different genes and monitor changes in corresponding cell populations. When CRISPR first became popular, Li decided he wanted to do something with the technology. So, as a Postdoc at Harvard, he developed comprehensive computational algorithms for functional screens using CRISPR/Cas9.

To reach as many people as possible, he offered that MAGeCK/MAGeCK-VISPR software free to as many researchers as possible, providing source code and offering internet tutorials.

“So far, I think there are quite a lot of people using this. There have been more than 40,000 software downloads,” he adds. “It’s really exciting and revolutionary technology and, eventually, we hope the outcomes also will be exciting. We hope to find something really helpful for cancer patients.”

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health under award number R01HG010753.