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Hodgkin lymphoma cells

T-cell therapy alone or combined with nivolumab is safe and persistent in attacking Hodgkin’s lymphoma cells

Hodgkin lymphoma cells

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of cancer that attacks part of the immune system and expresses tumor-associated antigens (TAA) that are potential targets for cellular therapies.

It is safe for patients with relapsed or refractory Hodgkin’s lymphoma (HL) to receive a novel tumor-associated antigen specific T-cell therapy (TAA-T) either alone or combined with a checkpoint inhibitor, nivolumab — a medication used to treat several types of cancer. The study, published in Blood Advances, further suggests that nivolumab aids in T-cell persistence and expansion to ultimately enhance anti-tumor activity. This offers a potential option for patients who do not have a durable remission with checkpoint inhibitors alone or are at a high risk of relapse after a transplant.

“The fact that this combination therapy is so safe was very encouraging for the treatment of patients with lymphomas,” said Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B., director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National Hospital. “In addition, this data allows us to consider this combination immunotherapy for other patients, including those with solid tumors.”

HL is a type of cancer that attacks part of the immune system and expresses tumor-associated antigens (TAA) that are potential targets for cellular therapies. While it may affect children and adults, it is most common in those who are between 20 and 40 years old. The survival rate for this condition has improved due to scientific advances.

A new approach in cancer therapy is the use of “checkpoint inhibitors,” which are a class of drugs that block some of the inhibitory pathways of the immune system to unleash a powerful tumor killing immune response. Similarly, T-cell therapies have also shown to enhance anti-tumor immune response. Therefore, combining these novel immune therapies is an attractive and targeted alternative to conventional untargeted therapies – such as chemotherapy and radiation – which not only kill the tumor cells but also can kill healthy cells and tissues.

“In five to 10 years we can get rid of chemotherapy and radiation therapy and have an immunotherapy focused treatment for this disease,” said Dr. Bollard.

To determine the safety of infusing TAA-T with and without checkpoint inhibitors, eight patients were infused with TAA-specific T-cell products manufactured from their own blood. Two other patients received TAA-T generated from matched healthy donors as adjuvant therapy after hematopoietic stem cell transplant. According to Dave et al., the TAA-T infusions were safe and patients who received TAA-T as adjuvant therapy after transplant remained in continued remission for over two years.

Of the eight patients with active disease, one patient had a complete response, and seven had stable disease at three months, three of whom remained with stable disease during the first year.

“Treating Hodgkin’s lymphoma with cellular therapy has not yet achieved the same success that we have seen for other lymphoma subtypes,” said Keri Toner, M.D., attending physician at Children’s National. “This study brings us closer to overcoming some of the current barriers by developing methods to improve the persistence and function of the tumor-specific T-cells.”

This study builds upon the researchers’ latest findings in another study, which demonstrated that TAA-T manufactured from patients were safe and associated with prolonged time to progression in solid tumors.

“The addition of a checkpoint inhibitor like Nivolumab to the TAA-T treatment is a powerful next step, but previously, the safety of this combination was unknown,” said Patrick Hanley, Ph.D., chief and director of the Cellular Therapy Program at Children’s National, leader of the GMP laboratory and co-author of the study. “Now that we have demonstrated a safety profile, the next step will be to evaluate the efficacy of this combination in a larger subset of patients.”

A transient low-dose MEKi treatment in a pre-clinical model prevents NF1-OPG formation

Using targeted signaling pathway therapy to prevent pediatric glioma formation

Researchers at Children’s National Hospital identified a vulnerability in a developmental signaling pathway that can be hijacked to drive pediatric low-grade glioma (pLGG) formation, according to a pre-clinical study published in Developmental Cell. The study demonstrated that targeted treatment prevents tumor formation, long before irreversible damage to the optic nerve can cause permanent loss of vision. This finding will inform chemo-prevention therapeutic trials in the future.

Brain tumors are the most common solid tumors in children, the most prevalent of which are pLGGs. Approximately 10% to 15% of pLGGs arise in patients with the familial cancer predisposition syndrome known as neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1). This is a genetic condition that increases risks of developing tumors along the nerves and in the brain.

Nearly 20% of children with NF1 develop pLGGs along the optic pathway, also known as NF1-associated optic pathway glioma (NF1-OPG). Despite many advances in cancer therapy, there are no definitive therapies available that prevent or alleviate the neurological deficits (i.e. vision loss) and that could improve the quality of life.

“The evidence presented can inform chemoprevention therapeutic trials for children with NF1-OPG,” said Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., scientific director and Gilbert Family Endowed professor at the Gilbert Family Neurofibromatosis Institute and associate director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, both part of Children’s National. “This therapeutic strategy may also be applicable to children with the developmental disorders that are at high risk of developing pediatric tumors, such as other RASopathies.”

The mechanism of vulnerability to pLGGs during development is not fully understood. It has been implied that the cell population of origin for this debilitating tumor is transiently proliferative during development. The NF1 gene produces a protein that helps regulate normal cell proliferation, survival and differentiation by inhibiting MEK/ERK signaling. When there is loss of function in NF1, it abnormally activates the MEK/ERK signaling pathway and leads to tumor formation.

Certain cells that exist transiently during the normal development of the brain and optic nerve are vulnerable to tumor formation because they depend on the MEK/ERK signaling. In this study, researchers in Zhu’s lab identified cells that were MEK/ERK pathway dependent and grew during a transient developmental window as the lineage-of-origin for NF1-OPG in the optic nerve. The researchers used a genetically engineered pre-clinical model to design a transient, low-dose chemo-preventative strategy, which prevented these tumors entirely.

“When we provided a dose-dependent inhibition of MEK/ERK signaling, it rescued the emergence and increase of brain lipid binding protein-expressing (BLBP+) migrating GPs glial progenitors, preventing NF1-OPG formation,” wrote Jecrois et al. “Equally importantly, the degree of ERK inhibition required for preventing NF1-OPG formation also greatly improved the health and survival of the NF1-deficient model.”

Ongoing clinical trials using MEK inhibitors (MEKi) are being performed for children as young as 1 month old. Thus, it becomes increasingly feasible to design a chemo-preventative trial using a MEKi to treat children with NF1. These treatment paradigms may have the potential to not only prevent OPG formation, but also other NF1-associated and RASopathies-associated developmental defects and tumors.

A transient low-dose MEKi treatment in a pre-clinical model prevents NF1-OPG formation

A transient low-dose MEKi treatment in a pre-clinical model prevents NF1-OPG formation. The middle panels highlighted by a red dashed box show an OPG in the optic nerve (arrows, top), exhibiting abnormal triply-labeled tumor cells, inflammation and nerve damage (the bottom three panels), which are absent in the normal (left panels) or MEKi-treated Nf1-deficient optic nerves (right panels). [Credit: Jecrois et al., Developmental Cell, (2021)]

Yuan Zhu

Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., receives Outstanding Scientist Award

Yuan Zhu

The George Washington University (GW) Cancer Center recently announced the selection of the 2021 GW Cancer Center Awards, recognizing excellence in research, mentorship and early career contributions.

The GW Cancer Center Outstanding Scientist Award was presented to Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) and Children’s National Hospital. The award is presented to faculty members who make a noteworthy contribution in the areas of basic science, clinical science, translational science or population science.

In his nomination, Dr. Zhu was cited for his contributions to the understanding of the mechanisms underlying the development of tumors and altered brain development arising in the setting of the inherited condition neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1). “Throughout his career, Dr. Zhu has had a remarkable consistency of focus in his scholarly work, where he has sought to advance new molecular and mechanistic insights to understand the biological basis of NF1 and the cancers arising in individuals affected by this genetic disease.”

You can find a full list of award winners here.

cancer cell

Muller Fabbri, M.D., Ph.D.: The microRNA journey and the future of cancer therapy

cancer cell

Children’s National Hospital welcomes Muller Fabbri, M.D. Ph.D., as associate director for the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at the Children’s National Research Institute. In this role, he will build and lead the Cancer Biology Program while developing and conducting basic and translational research. Dr. Fabbri will also develop multidisciplinary research projects with various clinical divisions, including oncology, blood and marrow transplantation, pathology and hematology.

Dr. Fabbri shares his journey working with microRNAs, how his work is advancing the field and his vision for the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National.

Q: You have been working with microRNAs for quite some time. How are you exploring the role of microRNAs in cancer?

A: It was well established within the scientific community that a gene, which is a piece of DNA, becomes a piece of RNA and then becomes a protein. This thought process was pretty much a one-way flow of information that we had, going from DNA to protein as part of a cell function. But, almost 30 years ago, it was discovered that this is not entirely true because what happens is that some of these genes that are transcribed into RNA do not become a protein. Instead, they stay as RNA. Some of these RNAs are tiny and have short sequences, which is why they are called microRNAs.

I work primarily on microRNAs and non-coding RNAs and my research studies focus on the role that microRNAs play in cancer. I can take a cancer cell and a healthy cell and observe how these microRNAs are expressed in the two different cell populations. In this way, the microRNAs expressed in cancer cells are profoundly different from the microRNAs expressed in healthy cells.

We conducted a series of studies to observe what happens to a cancer cell if we restore normal levels of certain microRNAs like the ones you would see in a normal cell. We discovered that by restoring some of these microRNAs levels it led to the death of the cancer cells, suggesting that this approach may be used as a cancer treatment. This is one of the research areas that I will further develop at Children’s National as I seek to understand the mechanisms that control microRNA expression and subsequently affect cancer cell proliferation. With this information, we can target these mechanisms and create drugs that interfere with this function and, hopefully, stop cancer cell growth.

Q: Can you tell us about that eureka moment with your best friend during a lunch break?

A: This was a bit of a crazy idea. I will never forget. I shared a theory during a lunch break with a friend. I dared to ask, what if microRNAs worked like hormones? MicroRNAs can be detected in the blood of patients with cancer, and they can be transferred from one cell to another inside of little vesicles called exosomes. If you think about it, I further asked, what other molecules in our body behave like that — i.e. are secreted, circulate in the blood and then transferred to a target cell? My friend replied, “well, those would be hormones.” To which, I added, yes, exactly! Then, why do we not think of RNAs as hormones? And I quote him now, “you are crazy, but if it works it is huge.”

I felt that I had some validation from my best friend, so I decided to invest in this crazy idea, carving extra time on the side while working on my “safe” projects. It was one of those rare cases in science, where in a little over a year, we showed for the first time that microRNAs do not only work the traditional way, but they can also work as hormones. They do have a receptor protein to attach to, and by binding to this protein, they trigger a response in a cell that can be pro-tumoral or anti-tumoral.

Even today, if you open a textbook of endocrinology, under the chapter of hormones, it mentions that there are only two categories, proteins and lipids. Well, it turns out there is a third category, which is nucleic acids because of RNAs.

Q: You mentioned other research areas of interest as it relates to cancer cell biology. What are they?

A: The other line of research that I am developing stems from the original observation that I made in 2012. Cancer cells release tiny vesicles that I like to compare to envelopes containing a written message — the RNA and microRNA. These vesicles released in the surrounding environment contain a message captured by immune cells, known as macrophages. Macrophages act as scavengers in our bodies. In cancer, macrophages are supposed to digest and destroy the cancer cell. However, it turns out that they also have the proper receptor to receive and read the message enclosed in the vesicles. Then, something shocking happens. The macrophage stops fighting the cancer cell and starts producing proteins called cytokines that promote cancer growth. This finding means that we are 180 degrees apart from what we thought at the beginning. A lot of macrophages in the cancer are good news for the patient because they are supposed to kill cancer cells, but because of this mechanism, a lot of macrophages can be bad news since they can also help the cancer cell grow.

My contribution to this discovery was to investigate how the macrophage response is mediated. I discovered that macrophages operate, at least in part, by expressing receptors that bind to microRNAs released by the cancer cell, thereby favoring cancer growth. In the pediatric cancer field we discovered that because of this microRNA–receptor interaction, the pediatric tumor neuroblastoma becomes resistant to chemotherapy. Therefore, one of the strategies we are working on now is to interfere or impair these negative communications between the cancer cell and immune cell. We want to disrupt these communications so the macrophage cannot read the message from the cancer cell anymore and instead keeps doing its job to fight the cancer. We hope that we can leverage this approach to develop novel cancer treatments or create strategies that improves immune cell function in the presence of the patient’s current therapy to enhance an anti-cancer treatment response.

Q: What is your vision for the Center of Cancer and Immunology Research?

A: I am very excited about what I saw at Children’s NationalI was delighted to talk to many faculty members, and I recognized the immense talent within the Center. I would like to help elevate and enhance the cancer biology program focused on solid tumors, and augment the work being done in this space by the cell therapy program. The clinicians are clearly eager to collaborate with the basic scientists including the sharing of samples and ideas, which is not typical of many scientific environments. My other goal is to ensure that the Cancer Biology Program plays a central role in acquiring an NCI-Designated Cancer Center recognition often given to institutions that stand out in scientific leadership and clinical research. Finally, I want to create the first national center that develops extracellular vesicles as an innovative treatment strategy for cancer. Importantly, I think that we have all the resources and connections at Children’s National that are necessary to realize this vision!

 

T cell

Children’s National Hospital scientists shortlisted for Cancer Grand Challenges funding

T cell

If successful, the team would seek to tackle the challenge of solid tumors in children. The vision is to bring engineered T-cell therapies to the routine treatment of these children within a decade.

A diverse, global team of scientists, led by University College of London and Children’s National Hospital/George Washington University, has been selected for the final stages of Cancer Grand Challenges – and is in with a chance of securing a share of £80 million (c.$111 million) of funding to take on one of cancer’s toughest problems.

Nearly 170 teams submitted ideas for this round of awards, and the NGTC team, which stands for ‘Next Generation T-cell therapies for childhood cancers, led by Martin Pule, Ph.D., University College of London, and Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D., Children’s National Hospital and George Washington University, is one of 11 shortlisted groups.

The team draws together a unique set of expertise, uniting researchers from the U.K., U.S. and France. Other team members from Children’s National include Conrad Russell Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., principal investigator for the Program for Cell Enhancement and Technologies for Immunotherapies, and Nitin Agrawal, Ph.D., associate professor in the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research (CCIR). Up to four winning teams will be announced in early 2022.

If successful, the NGTC team would seek to tackle the challenge of solid tumors in children. The team says that the scientific and medical communities are beginning to understand that solid tumors in children are very different from those in adults – if they could understand more about these differences and find new ways to target them, they could create new ways to better treat children’s cancers.

The NGTC team’s vision is to bring engineered T-cell therapies to the routine treatment of these children within a decade.

Through a series of ambitious studies, the team hopes to identify suitable, pediatric tumor-specific targets for engineered T-cells, including previously unexplored options like glycolipids or the immunopeptidome. They also hope to explore whether treatment effectiveness can be boosted by modulating the tumor microenvironment – which can inhibit T-cell therapies but is yet to be suitably studied in children’s cancers. The team has a strong translational focus and the most promising new treatment avenues would be explored in preclinical and early clinical studies.

“We’re tremendously excited to have this opportunity to work together and strive closer to our vision – to improve the lives of the patients we serve,” says joint team lead Dr. Bollard, who is also the director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National.

“This round of Cancer Grand Challenges has demonstrated the fresh thinking that can be sparked when global teams unite across disciplines to bring new perspectives to tough challenges,” says Dr. David Scott, Ph.D., director of Cancer Grand Challenges. “We were thrilled to receive such a strong response from the global research community.”

Find out more at cancergrandchallenges.org.

inside a GMP lab

Cell therapy manufacturing process ramps up to meet increased demand for T-cell products

inside a GMP lab

The new laboratory space includes floor-to-ceiling windows and brand new, state-of-the-art GMP lab suites.

Since Children’s National Hospital began its pediatric cellular therapy program in 2013, it has received more than $5 million in annual funding, treated over 200 patients, manufactured more than 400 cell-based products and supported over 25 clinical trials.

One of the in-house programs supporting this work is the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility. Patrick Hanley, Ph.D., chief and director of the cellular therapy program at Children’s National and leader of the GMP laboratory, explained that the first patient received a dose of less than 10 million cells in May 2014. Fast forward to now, the lab uses liters of media, automated bioreactors and multiple staff, making upwards of 12 billion cells per run — a growing production scale that enables many different options. Using cells as an off-the-shelf technology is one of those.

The cell therapy program exports these off-the-shelf products beyond Children’s National to make them available for kids across the country. Catherine Bollard, M.D., MBChB., director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National, and Michael Keller, M.D., director of the Translational Research Laboratory in the Program for Cell Enhancement and Technologies for Immunotherapy (CETI) at Children’s National, each led clinical trials with hospitals across the United States, including the first-ever cellular therapy clinical trial run through the Children’s Oncology Group.

To meet the high demand for cell therapy trials at Children’s National, the GMP lab moved to a larger space, doubling the team’s capacity to produce alternative treatment options for patients and facilitate the lab’s ability to support clinical divisions throughout the hospital.

The GMP lab is exploring how to make cell products more consistent — regardless of patient-to-patient variability. They are also hoping to delineate the characteristics that ensure quality cell products, educate other facilities, enhance the overall knowledge of how to safely manufacture these products and make these technologies more available and affordable to the patients who need them.

Among Hanley’s many goals for the GMP lab, one is to improve the transition from when an investigator discovers a product in the translational research lab to when it is manufactured for patients.

“To improve this transition, we have started a process development team that will learn the process alongside the research team, replicate it, and then train the staff who manufacture the product for patients,” said Hanley. “In addition to providing a better training opportunity for the manufacturing staff, it allows us to work with the investigators earlier on to identify changes that will need to be made to translate the products to patients, ultimately resulting in safer, more potent immunotherapy products.”

While cell therapy has seen increased interest in the last 10 years, there are still some challenges in the field, given that it is not as mature as other scientific areas. The lack of trained staff, scalability of cell and gene therapy, the variability between patients and products, delayed FDA approvals and rejection of licensing applications for cell therapy products — are barriers that scientists and companies often face.

“Each of us has a unique immune system, and that means that if we try and make a product from it, it will not behave like any other, so the number of cells, the potency the alloreactivity — it is all different,” said Hanley. “T-cells are a living drug that expand in the body at different rates, are composed of different types of T-cells, and release different cytokines and in different amounts.”

This all ties back to the process development and basic research. The better researchers can characterize the products under development, the more they will know about how the products work and the easier it will be to tie these products to patient outcomes.

Meet some of the Children’s National multidisciplinary experts who join forces to lead the cell therapy space.

Jay Tanna, M.S., quality assurance manager, has extensive experience with drug development at Children’s National as well as Sloan Kettering, another premier cell therapy institution. He has a Masters in Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and a Regulatory Affairs Certification (RAC) in U.S. FDA drugs and biologics regulations from the Regulatory Affairs Professional Society (RAPS).

Kathryn Bushnell, M.T. (ASCP), the cell therapy lab manager, oversees Stem Cell Processing. She has 20 years of experience with hematopoietic progenitor cells and cellular therapy, starting her career as a medical technologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Nan Zhang, Ph.D., assistant director of manufacturing at Children’s National, has worked at Wake Forest and the National Institutes of Health developing various cellular therapies. Zhang chaired the cell processing session at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology in 2020.

Abeer Shibli, M.T., is a specialist in the cellular therapy laboratory with extensive experience in the processing of cellular therapy products. She has over 10 years of experience as a medical technologist, is specialized in blood banking and transfusion medicine and is one of the senior technologists in the lab.

Chase McCann, M.S.P.H., Ph.D., is the cell therapy lab lead for manufacturing at Children’s National Hospital. He recently completed his Ph.D. training in Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. Much of his graduate research focused on developing and enhancing cellular therapies for HIV while identifying common mechanisms of escape, shared by both HIV and various cancers, which limit the efficacy of current cell therapies. Previously, McCann worked as the laboratory coordinator for the HIV Prevention Trials Network, and now oversees the manufacturing of many cell therapies supporting the many clinical trials currently underway at Children’s National.

Anushree Datar, M.S., the cell therapy lab lead for immune testing and characterization, oversees the release testing of products manufactured in the GMP for safety and function before they can be infused in patients. She also leads a part of the research team investigating the improvement in immune function after cell infusion.

Dr. Bollard is also the director of the Program for Cell Enhancement and Technologies for Immunotherapy and president of the Foundation for the Accreditation for Cellular Therapy (FACT). Additionally, in 2019, she became a member of the Frederick National Laboratory Advisory Committee (FNLAC) for the NIH and an ad hoc member of the Pediatric Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee (ODAC) for the FDA. She has been an associate editor for the journal Blood since 2014 and in 2020 was appointed editor-in-chief of Blood Advances (starting Fall 2021). Dr. Bollard has 21 years of cell therapy experience as a physician, sponsor and principal investigator.

Dr. Hanley serves as the commissioning editor of the peer-reviewed journal Cytotherapy, as the vice-president-elect (North America) of the International Society of Cell and Gene Therapy (ISCT), and board of directors member at FACT, which provides him visibility into various cell and gene therapies, manufacturing approaches, and other intangibles that make Children’s National facility one of the leaders in the field.

To find the full research program list and their experts, click here.

GMP group photo

Lab members celebrate the expansion of the GMP Laboratory.

US News badges

For fifth year in a row, Children’s National Hospital nationally ranked a top 10 children’s hospital

US News badges

Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., was ranked in the top 10 nationally in the U.S. News & World Report 2021-22 Best Children’s Hospitals annual rankings. This marks the fifth straight year Children’s National has made the Honor Roll 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 fifth year in a row.

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

“It is always spectacular to be named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals, but this year more than ever,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National. “Every member of our organization helped us achieve this level of excellence, and they did it while sacrificing so much in order to help our country respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“When choosing a hospital for a sick child, many parents want specialized expertise, convenience and caring medical professionals,” said Ben Harder, chief of health analysis and managing editor at U.S. News. “The Best Children’s Hospitals rankings have always highlighted hospitals that excel in specialized care. As the pandemic continues to affect travel, finding high-quality care close to home has never been more important.”

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 surgerygastroenterology and gastro-intestinal surgery, and urology.

Muller Fabbri

Children’s National Hospital welcomes Muller Fabbri, M.D., Ph.D.

Muller Fabbri

Dr. Fabbri joins Children’s National from the University of Hawaii Cancer Center, where he was a tenured associate professor and leader of the Cancer Biology Program. He received his medical degree at the University of Pisa in Italy and his Ph.D. degree at the Second University of Naples in Italy.

Children’s National Hospital is pleased to announce it has selected Muller Fabbri, M.D. Ph.D., as associate director for the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at the Children’s National Research Institute. In this role, he will build and lead the Cancer Biology Program while developing and conducting basic and translational research. Dr. Fabbri will also develop multidisciplinary research projects with various clinical divisions, including oncology, blood and marrow transplantation, pathology and hematology.

A distinguished lecturer, instructor, researcher, public speaker and mentor, Dr. Fabbri’s research interest focuses on decoding cancer cellular biology riddles that lead to personalized medicine. He has pioneered a theory that explains non-coding RNAs’ functioning in intercellular communication that promotes cancer cell growth, dissemination and drug resistance. To better understand the immune response against cancer cells, he has investigated the role of exosomes and other extracellular vesicles. Inflammation, tumor microenvironment and immunity, as it relates to cancer, are other research areas of interest.

“I feel fortunate to be working with Dr. Catherine Bollard and her team at an extraordinary research center,” said Dr. Fabbri. “I am eager to join Children’s National, and I look forward to learning from this leadership team, which also includes Dr. Vittorio Gallo, Dr. Mark Batshaw and Dr. Jeffery Dome.”

Dr. Fabbri was drawn to Children’s National because of its proximity to partners like the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Food Drug Administration (FDA), various universities and the private sector, fostering a rich scientific environment. One of Dr. Fabbri’s many goals, is to make sure that the Cancer Biology Program plays a central role in the acquisition of an NCI-Designated Cancer Center recognition often given to institutions that stand out in scientific leadership and clinical research.

Dr. Fabbri joins Children’s National from the University of Hawaii Cancer Center, where he was a tenured associate professor and leader of the Cancer Biology Program. He received his medical degree at the University of Pisa in Italy and his Ph.D. degree at the Second University of Naples in Italy.

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).