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Dr. Eric Vilain and researcher in a lab

Children’s National Hospital joins the Mendelian Genomics Research Consortium, receiving $12.8 million

Dr. Eric Vilain and researcher in a lab

Dr. Eric Vilain accompanied by a fellow researcher at the new Research & Innovation Campus.

Children’s National Hospital announces a $12.8 million award from the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) to establish the only Pediatric Mendelian Genomics Research Center (PMGRC) as part of a new Mendelian Genomics Research Consortium. Researchers at Children’s National and Invitae — a leading medical genetics company — will identify novel causes of rare inherited diseases, investigate the mechanisms of undiagnosed conditions, enhance data sharing, and generally interrogate Mendelian phenotypes, which are conditions that run in families.

“Our overall approach provides an efficient and direct path for pediatric patients affected with undiagnosed inherited conditions through a combination of innovative approaches, allowing individuals, families and health care providers to improve the management of the disease,” says Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National.

To accelerate gene discovery for Mendelian phenotypes and the clinical implementation of diagnosis, the consortium will leverage the broad pediatric clinical and research expertise of the Children’s National Research Institute and laboratories in partnership with Invitae. The Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at Children’s National will provide genetic testing for patients in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Invitae will provide genetic testing for patients from elsewhere in the U.S., giving the project a national reach and allowing researchers to leverage more robust data. Integrative analyses will be performed jointly with scientists at Children’s National and Invitae.

“Some patients have genetic test results that are ‘negative,’ meaning the results do not explain their condition. When a patient receives a negative result, it is challenging for parents and doctors to know what to do next,” says Meghan Delaney, D.O., M.P.H., chief of the Division of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at Children’s National. “The project will provide an avenue to possibly find an explanation of their child’s condition. Besides filling an important clinical gap, the results will add new knowledge for future patients and the scientific community.”

“Too often parents of children suffering from a rare condition find themselves in a protracted diagnostic odyssey when early intervention could mean better overall outcomes,” says Robert Nussbaum, M.D., chief medical officer of Invitae. “We are proud to partner with Children’s National Research Institute on this important effort to identify the genetic cause of these rare conditions earlier and improve the chances that children with such conditions can receive the appropriate treatments and live healthier lives.”

Deciphering Mendelian conditions will help diagnose more of the estimated 7,000 rare inherited diseases and predict the tremendous variability of clinical presentations in both rare and common conditions caused by the same gene.

There is also a need to establish a new standard of care to bridge the gap in the use of genomic information from diagnosis to improved outcomes. The consortium will establish best practices for obtaining a genetic diagnosis, offering an explanation for the condition to affected patients, and is likely to provide additional explanations for basic biological mechanisms, increasing the knowledge of physiopathology and possibly leading to better condition management.

The PMGRC will enroll an average of 2,600 participants per year with suspected Mendelian phenotypes and previously non-diagnostic tests and their family members. The integration of multiple genomic technologies, including short and long read genome sequencing, optical genome mapping and RNA-sequencing, will enable these discoveries. To disambiguate uncertain variants and candidate genes, the PMGRC will use whole transcriptome analysis, RNA-sequencing, CRE-sequencing and functional modeling.

Since many Mendelian conditions first appear prenatally or during infancy, Children’s National will have a unique bed-to-bench-to-bed symbiosis. Patients eligible for the study will come from across the multiple specialty divisions of Children’s National, including the Children’s National Rare Disease Institute, and nationally through the partnership with Invitae. From there, experts from the Children’s National Center for Genetic Medicine Research will enroll patients and integrate the initial clinical test results with broad-based genomic interrogation, leading to new diagnoses and novel discoveries. Finally, the results will be verified and returned to clinicians, which will help inform targeted therapies.

Typically, the patients eligible for this study jump from specialist to specialist without an answer, have a condition that appears in other family members or they have symptoms involving more than one affected organ, which suggests a complex developmental condition. The PMGRC at Children’s National will help find answers to the causes of many puzzling pediatric conditions, providing faster clinical diagnoses and opening up pathways to potentially better treatments.

Dr. Vilain’s work will be based at the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus on the grounds of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The campus is also home to the Children’s National Rare Disease institute — one of the largest clinical genetics program in the United State that provides care to more than 8,500 rare disease patients.

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.

PeriTorq, a catheter grip tool for use during pediatric cardiac interventional procedures

Five finalists selected in prestigious pediatric medical device pitch competition

Electrophysiology device innovators gain access to pediatric accelerator and will compete in September 2021 final showcase.

antibodies attacking t-cell

Immunocompromised pediatric patients show T-cell activity against SARS-CoV-2

antibodies attacking t-cell

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Immunology, suggests that patients with antibody deficiency disorders, including inborn errors of immunity (IEI) and common variable immunodeficiency (CVID), can mount an immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and proposes that vaccination may still be helpful for this population.

According to data from a cohort of adult and pediatric patients with antibody deficiencies, patients that often fail to make protective immune responses to infections and vaccinations showed robust T-cell activity and humoral immunity against SARS-CoV-2 structural proteins. The new study, led by researchers at Children’s National Hospital, is the first to demonstrate a robust T-cell response against SARS-CoV-2 in immunocompromised patients.

“If T-cell responses to SARS-CoV-2 are indeed protective, then it could suggest that adoptive T-cell immunotherapy might benefit more profoundly immunocompromised patients,” said 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. “Through our developing phase I T-cell immunotherapy protocol, we intend to investigate if coronavirus-specific T-cells may be protective following bone marrow transplantation, as well as in other immunodeficient populations.”

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Immunology, showed that patients with antibody deficiency disorders, including inborn errors of immunity (IEI) and common variable immunodeficiency (CVID), can mount an immune response to SARS-CoV-2. The findings propose that vaccination may still be helpful for this population.

“This data suggests that many patients with antibody deficiency should be capable of responding to COVID-19 vaccines, and current studies at the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere are addressing whether those responses are likely to be protective and lasting,” said Dr. Keller.

The T-cell responses in all the COVID-19 patients were similar in magnitude to healthy adult and pediatric convalescent participants.

Kinoshita et al. call for additional studies to further define the quality of the antibody response and the longevity of immune responses against SARS-CoV-2 in immunocompromised patients compared with healthy donors. Currently, there is also very little data on adaptive immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 in these vulnerable populations.

The study sheds light on the antibody and T-cell responses to SARS-CoV-2 protein spikes based on a sample size of six patients, including a family group of three children and their mother. All have antibody deficiencies and developed mild COVID-19 symptoms, minus one child who remained asymptomatic. Control participants were the father of the same family, who tested positive for COVID-19, and another incidental adult (not next of kin) experienced mild COVID-19 symptoms. The researchers took blood samples to test the T-cell response in cell cultures and provided comprehensive statistical analysis of the adaptive immune responses.

“This was a small group of patients, but given the high proportion of responses, it does suggest that many of our antibody deficient patients are likely to mount immune responses to SARS-CoV-2,” said Dr. Keller. “Additional studies are needed to know whether other patients with primary immunodeficiency develop immunity following COVID-19 infection and will likely be answered by a large international collaboration organized by our collaborators at the Garvan Institute in Sydney.”

Research & Innovation Campus building entrance

Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus welcomes new resident company, AlgometRx

Research & Innovation Campus building entrance

Located on a nearly 12-acre portion of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus, the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus is the nation’s first campus dedicated to pediatrics, which formally opens in September 2021.

On April 26, 2021, AlgometRx Inc., a Children’s National spinout company developing a handheld device to objectively measure pain by pupillary response, will relocate to Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS @ Washington, DC on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus. The AlgometRx move comes following the company being awarded the JLABS @ Washington, DC Children’s QuickFire Challenge, which includes a one-year residency at the newly opened JLABS @ Washington, DC – a 32,000-square-foot incubator located at the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus in northwest Washington, D.C. As an awardee, AlgometRx also receives access to research and development space, capital equipment, mentorship, resources and programming.

Located on a nearly 12-acre portion of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus, the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus is the nation’s first campus dedicated to pediatrics, which formally opens in September 2021. This campus aims to help address a significant problem: the development of medical and surgical devices for children has long lagged behind that for adults. Over the past decade, only one in four medical devices approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were indicated for use in children, and the majority were for those ages 12 and up.

By bringing together public and private partners, the campus is a one-of-a-kind innovation ecosystem that aims to accelerate breakthrough discoveries into new treatments and technologies.

AlgometRx was founded by pediatric anesthesiologist Julia C. Finkel, M.D., and originated at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National.

“Pain is the only vital sign that is not objectively measured,” Finkel said. “The current standard of measuring pain is the 0-10 scale, which is based on observations and subjective assessment. This technique increases the likelihood for inaccuracies, especially for infants and children who cannot clearly communicate their pain.”

Finkel’s research was inspired by a desire to find an objective measurement of pain in nonverbal pediatric patients so physicians can better determine the appropriate pain treatment or the effectiveness of a treatment.

“The Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus enables AlgometRx to focus almost exclusively on collecting data, which is the most crucial step at this time,” Finkel said.

AlgometRx aims to submit a formal application to the FDA in the next 12-18 months, with the next six months dedicated to validating the device through a clinical trial.

“The campus also allows us to take advantage of a vast network of the nation’s most innovative pediatric researchers who can provide mentorship on subjects like clinical trial design, prototyping and grant applications,” Finkel said. “Just outside the campus, our team has proximity to relevant federal agencies, such as the FDA, meaning that to date, we’ve only met with FDA officials in person. This advantageous environment will accelerate our progress and allow us to use this technology to more quickly benefit children in pain.”

After its September grand opening, the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus aims to expand its role as a biomedical incubator to include about 50 start-up companies, working to translate potential breakthrough discoveries into new treatments and technologies.

Learn more at www.childrensnational.org/innovationinstitute.

doctor examining pregnant woman

Low parental socioeconomic status alters brain development in unborn babies

doctor examining pregnant woman

A first-of-its-kind study with 144 pregnant women finds that socioeconomic status (SES) has an impact in the womb, altering several key regions in the developing fetal brain as well as cortical features.

Maternal socioeconomic status impacts babies even before birth, emphasizing the need for policy interventions to support the wellbeing of pregnant women, according to newly published research from Children’s National Hospital.

A first-of-its-kind study with 144 pregnant women finds that socioeconomic status (SES) has an impact in the womb, altering several key regions in the developing fetal brain as well as cortical features. Parental occupation and education levels encompassing populations with lower SES hinder early brain development, potentially affecting neural, social-emotional and cognitive function later in the infant’s life.

Having a clear understanding of early brain development can also help policymakers identify intervention approaches such as educational assistance and occupational training to support and optimize the well-being of people with low SES since they face multiple psychological and physical stressors that can influence childhood brain development, Lu et al. note in the study published in JAMA Network Open.

“While there has been extensive research about the interplay between socioeconomic status and brain development, until now little has been known about the exact time when brain development is altered in people at high-risk for poor developmental outcomes,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Institute and senior author. “There are many reasons why these children can be vulnerable, including high rates of maternal prenatal depression and anxiety. Later in life, these children may experience conduct disorders and impaired neurocognitive functions needed to acquire knowledge, which is the base to thrive in school, work or life.”

The findings suggest that fetuses carried by women with low socioeconomic backgrounds had decreased regional brain growth and accelerated brain gyrification and surface folding patterns on the brain. This observation in lower SES populations may in part be explained by elevated parental stress and may be associated with neuropsychiatric disorders and mental illness later in life.

In contrast, fetuses carried by women with higher education levels, occupation and SES scores showed an increased white matter, cerebellar and brainstem volume during the prenatal period, and lower gyrification index and sulcal depth in the parietal, temporal and occipital lobes of the brain. These critical prenatal brain growth and development processes lay the foundation for normal brain function, which ready the infant for life outside the womb, enabling them to attain key developmental milestones after birth, including walking, talking, learning and social skills.

There is also a knowledge gap in the association between socioeconomic status and fetal cortical folding — when the brain undergoes structural changes to create sulcal and gyral regions. The study’s findings of accelerated gyrification in low SES adds to the scientific record, helping inform future research, Limperopoulos added.

The Children’s National research team gathered data from 144 healthy women at 24 to 40 weeks gestation with uncomplicated pregnancies. To establish the parameters for socioeconomic status, which included occupation and education in lieu of family income, parents completed a questionnaire at the time of each brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) visit. The researchers used MRI to measure fetal brain volumes, including cortical gray matter, white matter, deep gray matter, cerebellum and brain stem. Out of the 144 participants, the scientists scanned 40 brain fetuses twice during the pregnancy, and the rest were scanned once. The 3-dimensional computational brain models among healthy fetuses helped determine fetal brain cortical folding.

Potential proximal risk factors like maternal distress were also measured in the study using a questionnaire accounting for 60% of the participants but, according to the limited data available, there was no significant association with low and high socioeconomic status nor brain volume and cortical features.

Authors in the study from Children’s National include: Yuan-Chiao Lu, Ph.D., Kushal Kapse, M.S., Nicole Andersen, B.A., Jessica Quistorff, M.P.H., Catherine Lopez, M.S., Andrea Fry, B.S., Jenhao Cheng, Ph.D., Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Yao Wu, Ph.D., Kristina Espinosa, Psy.D., Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Adre du Plessis, M.D., and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.

chest x-ray showing pacemaker

Medical device pitch competition focuses on pediatric electrophysiology devices for CHD

chest x-ray showing pacemaker

While the last decade brought great advances in technologies that improve the care of adult arrhythmias, pediatric patients have been left behind, with only five devices approved for use in children in the same period.

Congenital heart disease (CHD) affects six out of 1,000 babies born in the U.S. each year and is often complicated by arrhythmias, a condition where the heart beats too rapidly, too slowly or irregularly due to a misfiring of the body’s electrical impulses. While the last decade brought great advances in technologies that improve the care of adult arrhythmias, pediatric patients have been left behind, with only five devices approved for use in children in the same period. As a result, pediatric specialists are often using off-label or improvised devices to treat pediatric arrhythmias, including the smallest newborns.

Recognizing this unmet need, the National Capital Consortium for Pediatric Device Innovation (NCC-PDI), in collaboration with MedTech Innovator, is accepting applications through April 12, 2021, for its annual “Make Your Medical Device Pitch for Kids!” competition. This year’s competition focuses on innovations in pediatric devices that treat CHD, with an emphasis on electrophysiology devices such as pacemaker systems, ablation catheters, wearable monitoring devices and related technologies that address arrhythmias in children.

“NCC-PDI was created, with the support of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to seek out and address significant unmet needs in pediatric medical devices,” says Kolaleh Eskandanian, Ph.D., M.B.A., P.M.P., vice president and chief innovation officer at Children’s National Hospital and principal investigator of NCC-PDI. “We have learned from the experts that pediatric-specific technologies for treating arrhythmias would be a game changer in the care of their patients, so we are focusing our competition and grant awards on this opportunity.”

Kolaleh-Eskandanian

“We have learned from the experts that pediatric-specific technologies for treating arrhythmias would be a game changer in the care of their patients, so we are focusing our competition and grant awards on this opportunity,” says Kolaleh Eskandanian, Ph.D., M.B.A., P.M.P., vice president and chief innovation officer at Children’s National Hospital and principal investigator of NCC-PDI.

Using a virtual format, semi-finalists chosen from all submissions will make their first pitch on May 12, 2021. Up to 10 finalists selected from this event earn participation in a special pediatric-focused track of the MedTech Innovator accelerator program, the largest medtech accelerator in the world, beginning in June 2021. These innovators then participate in the pediatric competition finals in September 2021 where judges will award up to $150,000 in FDA-sponsored grants to the devices selected as most impactful and commercially viable.

How significant is the need for pediatric devices to address arrhythmias? In a recent survey of members conducted by the Pediatric and Congenital Electrophysiology Society (PACES), the vast majority (96%) said they believe there is a deficiency in devices available to serve the needs of pediatric patients. Conducted with the U.S.FDA, the survey also asked respondents to identify the biggest unmet need, which physicians identified as cardiovascular implantable electronic devices that are smaller, have better battery life and have pediatric-specific algorithms. Specifically, a leadless pacemaker designed for pediatric care was consistently on the most-wanted list.

NCC-PDI is one of five members in the FDA’s Pediatric Device Consortia Grant Program created to support the development and commercialization of medical devices for children, which lags significantly behind the advancement of adult medical devices. NCC-PDI is led by the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Hospital and the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland with support from partners MedTech Innovator, BioHealth Innovation and design firm Archimedic.

Eskandanian says that enhancing access to resources for pediatric innovators is also one of the aims of the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, a first-of-its-kind focused on pediatric health care innovation, with the first phase currently open on the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus in Washington, D.C. With its proximity to federal research institutions and agencies, universities, academic research centers, as well as on-site incubator Johnson and Johnson Innovation – JLABS, the campus provides a rich ecosystem of public and private partners which, like the NCC-PDI network, will help bolster pediatric innovation and commercialization.

For more information and to apply for the upcoming NCC-PDI pitch competition, visit the NCC-PDI website.

 

Purkinje cell

Premature birth disrupts Purkinje cell function, resulting in locomotor learning deficits

Purkinje cell

Children’s National Hospital researchers explored how preterm birth disrupts Purkinje cell function, resulting in locomotor learning deficits.

As the care of preterm babies continues to improve, neonatologists face new challenges to ensure babies are protected from injury during critical development of the cerebellum during birth and immediately after birth. How does this early injury affect locomotor function, and to what extent are clinicians able to protect the brain of preterm babies?

A new peer-reviewed study by Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., Ph.D., and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), explores exactly what neural circuitry of the cerebellum is affected due to complications that occur around the time of birth causing these learning deficits, and finds a specific type of neurons — Purkinje cells — to play a central role.

Up until now, there has been a sparsity of techniques available to measure neuronal activity during locomotor learning tasks that engage the cerebellum. To surmount this challenge, Children’s National used a multidisciplinary approach, bringing together a team of neuroscientists with neonatologists who leveraged their joint expertise to devise a novel and unique way to measure real-time Purkinje cell activity in a pre-clinical model with clinical relevance to humans.

Researchers measured neural circuit function by pairing GCaMP6f fiber photometry, used to measure neuronal activity in the brain of a free moving subject, with an ErasmusLadder, in which it needs to travel from point A to point B on a horizontal ladder with touch-sensitive rungs that register the type and length of steps. By introducing a sudden obstacle to movement, researchers observed how the subject coped and learned accordingly to avoid this obstacle. By playing a high-pitch tone just before the obstacle was introduced, researchers were able to measure how quickly the subjects were able to anticipate the obstacle and adjust their steps accordingly. Subjects with neonatal brain injury and normal models were run through a series of learning trials while simultaneously monitoring brain activity. In this way, the team was able to quantify cerebellum-dependent locomotor learning and adaptive behavior, unlocking a functional and mechanistic understanding of behavioral pathology that was previously unseen in this field.

In addition to showing that normal Purkinje cells are highly active during movement on the ErasmusLadder, the team explored the question of whether Purkinje cells of injured pre-clinical models were generally non-responsive to any kind of stimuli. They found that while Purkinje cells in injured subjects responded to puffs of air, which generally cue the subject to start moving on the ErasmusLadder, dysfunction in these cells was specific to the period of adaptive learning. Lastly, through chemogenetic inhibition, which specifically silences neonatal Purkinje cell activity, the team was able to mimic the effects of perinatal cerebellar injury, further solidifying the role of these cells in learning deficits.

The study results have implications for clinical practice. As the care of premature babies continues to improve, neonatologists face new challenges to ensure that babies not only survive but thrive. They need to find ways to prevent against the lifelong impacts that preterm birth would otherwise have on the cerebellum and developing brain.

Read the full press release here.

Read the full journal article here.

Injury triggered change in ER calcium of a muscle cell

ER maintains ion balance needed for muscle repair

Injury triggered change in ER calcium of a muscle cell

A new study led by Jyoti Jaiswal, M.Sc., Ph.D., principal investigator at Children’s National Hospital, identifies that an essential requirement for the repair of injured cells is to cope with the extracellular calcium influx caused by injury to the cell’s membrane. Credit: Goutam Chandra, Ph.D.

Physical activity can injure our muscle cells, so their ability to efficiently repair is crucial for maintaining muscle health. Understanding how healthy muscle cells respond to injury is required to understand and treat diseases caused by poor muscle cell repair.

A new study led by Jyoti Jaiswal, M.Sc., Ph.D., principal investigator at Children’s National Hospital, identifies that an essential requirement for the repair of injured cells is to cope with the extracellular calcium influx caused by injury to the cell’s membrane.

This study, published in the Journal of Cell Biology, identifies endoplasmic reticulum (ER) – a network of membranous tubules in the cell – as the site where the calcium entering the injured cell is sequestered. Using limb girdle muscular dystrophy 2L (LGMD2L) patient cells and a model for this genetic disease, the study shows impaired ability of diseased muscle cells to cope with this calcium excess. It also shows that a drug to sequester excess calcium counters this ion imbalance and reverses the diseased cell’s repair deficit.

“The study provides a novel insight into how injured cells in our body cope with calcium ion imbalance during injury,” Dr. Jaiswal explained. “This work also addresses how calcium homeostasis is compromised by a genetic defect that leads to LGMD2L. It also offers a proof of principle approach to restore calcium homeostasis, paving the path for future work to develop therapies targeting this disease.”

According to Dr. Jaiswal, this work also addresses the current lack of understanding of the basis for exercise intolerance and other symptoms faced by LGMD2L patients.

“This study opens the path for developing targeted therapies for LGMD2L and provides a fundamental cellular insight into a process crucial for cell survival,” said Goutam Chandra, Ph.D., research fellow and lead author of this study.

The Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National is among only a handful across the world to study this rare disease. These findings are unprecedented in providing the mechanistic insights needed to develop treatment for it.

In addition to Dr. Jaiswal and Chandra, the study co-authors include Sreetama Sen Chandra, Ph.D., Davi Mazala, Ph.D., and Jack VanderMeulen, Ph.D., from Children’s National, and Karine Charton, Ph.D., and Isabelle Richard, Ph.D., from Université Paris-Saclay.

Natasha Shur

NORD names Natasha Shur, M.D., as hero of rare disease

Natasha Shur

Dr. Shur has a career working as a clinical geneticist for over a decade. She has been a part of the Children’s National community for more than two years. Dr. Shur as well serves as the lead for the Telemedicine Genetics Program under the Rare Disease Institute.

For her advancements in telemedicine genetics and rare diseases, Medical Geneticist Natasha Shur, M.D., received the 2021 Rare Impact Award from the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). The recognition is the highest honor given to individuals that developed exceptional work benefiting the rare disease community.

“Despite the pandemic and the challenges we have faced, there are still heroes to be found among us from whom we can draw inspiration and motivation to keep moving forward,” said Peter L. Saltonstall, NORD president and CEO.

Given her involvement with several innovative projects at Children’s National Hospital, Dr. Shur built an active in-home telemedicine program where patients are being seen for first visits and follow-ups. Her work is helping families, including those with autistic children.

“Recently, in our division, we have been talking a lot about the concept of ‘failing forward.’ The idea is to try new approaches. These methods may not work, but the status quo does not always work either,” said Dr. Shur. “Since we have such a supportive and wonderful group, we can try new ways of working and new models of care.”

During the pandemic, the division led by Marshall Summar,.M.D., also created a telehealth first model of care and augmented educational apps and opportunities. The goal was to ensure that patients with rare disease would not lose access to care. The medical geneticists, genetic counselors, dieticians and administrative team met daily and cohesively to explore and improve new clinical approaches in order to put patients and families first.

Dr. Shur has a career working as a clinical geneticist for over a decade. She has been a part of the Children’s National community for more than two years. Dr. Shur as well serves as the lead for the Telemedicine Genetics Program under the Rare Disease Institute.

The Rare Disease Institute recently opened its new location on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, a first-of-its-kind pediatric research and innovation hub located in Washington, D.C. The campus will provide a unique, state-of-the-art home for clinical genetic and specialty services.

illustration of lungs with coronavirus inside

Pediatric asthma exacerbations during the COVID-19 pandemic

illustration of lungs with coronavirus inside

The authors found that in 2020, the District of Columbia did not experience the typical “September asthma epidemic” of exacerbations seen in past years.

In the United States, pediatric asthma exacerbations typically peak in the fall due to seasonal factors such as increased spread of common respiratory viruses, increased exposure to indoor aeroallergens, changing outdoor aeroallergen exposures and colder weather. In early 2020, measures enacted to reduce spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) — such as social distancing, quarantines and school closures — also reduced pediatric respiratory illnesses and asthma morbidity. Children’s National Hospital immunologist and allergist William J. Sheehan, M.D., and colleagues sought to determine if these measures also affected the 2020 fall seasonal asthma exacerbation peak in Washington, D.C.

The authors found that in 2020, the District of Columbia did not experience the typical “September asthma epidemic” of exacerbations seen in past years. Emergency department visits, hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions for asthma during the 2020 fall season were significantly reduced compared to previous years.

The authors conclude that, “this is likely due to social distancing, quarantines and school closures enacted during the pandemic. This is a small silver lining in a very difficult year. As 2021 brings optimism for gradual improvements of the pandemic, careful monitoring is necessary to recognize and prepare for childhood asthma morbidity to return to pre-pandemic levels.”

Additional study authors include: Shilpa J. Patel, M.D., M.P.H., Rachel H.F. Margolis, Ph.D., Eduardo R. Fox, M.D., Deborah Q. Shelef, M.P.H., Nikita Kachroo, B.S., Dinesh Pillai, M.D. and Stephen J. Teach, M.D., M.P.H.

Read the full study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice.

Asthma-Related Healthcare Utilization by Month

Asthma-Related Healthcare Utilization by Month (2016-2020). Asthma-related emergency department (ED) visits, hospitalizations and pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) admissions over time by month between 2016 and 2020. The p-values are for comparisons of mean monthly numbers for fall seasons of 2016-2019 to fall season of 2020. Image courtesy of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice.

Dr. Martin interacts with a patient

Gerard Martin, M.D., F.A.C.C, recognized with American College of Cardiology top honor

Dr. Martin interacts with a patient

Gerard Martin, M.D., F.A.C.C., has been awarded the 2021 Master of the ACC Award by the American College of Cardiology in honor of contributions to the cardiovascular profession.

Gerard Martin, M.D., F.A.C.C., has been awarded the 2021 Master of the ACC Award by the American College of Cardiology in honor of contributions to the cardiovascular profession. Dr. Martin will be recognized for these achievements along with all 2021 Distinguished Award winners during Convocation at the hybrid 70th Annual Scientific Session & Expo taking place May 15-17, 2021 in Atlanta and virtually.

“Dr. Martin has made lasting contributions to the field of cardiovascular medicine through his dedication to improving cardiovascular health and enhancing patient care,” said ACC President Athena Poppas, MD, F.A.C.C. “It is an honor to be able to recognize Dr. Martin with the Master of the ACC Award and celebrate his tremendous achievements in the cardiovascular field.”

The Master of the ACC (MACC) Award recognizes and honors fellows of the American College of Cardiology who have consistently contributed to the goals and programs of the college and who have provided leadership in important college activities. MACC designees have been members of the college for at least 15 years and have served with distinction and provided leadership on various college programs and committees. Only four distinguished members of the American College of Cardiology are selected for this honor each year.

Dr. Martin is a cardiologist at Children’s National Hospital, where he has been in practice since 1986. He founded the Children’s National Heart Institute in 2004 and was named the C. Richard Beyda Professor of Cardiology in 2007. He has published over 150 peer-reviewed manuscripts, book chapters and invited publications and has presented abstracts at over 125 meetings. Dr. Martin is an invited lecturer who has traveled to over 200 meetings, hospitals and universities within the U.S. and around the world.

Dr. Martin is an advocate for congenital heart disease (CHD) efforts nationally and internationally. He played integral roles in the development and dissemination of critical congenital heart disease screening in using pulse oximetry — a practice that is now standard for all newborns across the United States. He also has volunteered on countless medical missions to developing countries.

Dr. Martin is board-certified in pediatric cardiology, a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Cardiology and is also a member of the Society for Pediatric Research and the American Board of Pediatrics.

Nineteen Distinguished Awards will be presented at ACC.21 this year, each recognizing an individual who has made outstanding contributions to the field of cardiovascular medicine. Recipients are nominated by their peers and then selected by the American College of Cardiology Awards Committee.

The American College of Cardiology envisions a world where innovation and knowledge optimize cardiovascular care and outcomes. As the professional home for the entire cardiovascular care team, the mission of the College and its 54,000 members is to transform cardiovascular care and to improve heart health. The ACC bestows credentials upon cardiovascular professionals who meet stringent qualifications and leads in the formation of health policy, standards and guidelines. The College also provides professional medical education, disseminates cardiovascular research through its world-renowned JACC Journals, operates national registries to measure and improve care, and offers cardiovascular accreditation to hospitals and institutions. For more, visit acc.org.

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.

illustration of brain with stem cells

Innovative phase 1 trial to protect brains of infants with CHD during and after surgery

A novel phase 1 trial looking at how best to optimize brain development of babies with congenital heart disease (CHD) is currently underway at Children’s National Hospital.

Children with CHD sometimes demonstrate delay in the development of cognitive and motor skills. This can be a result of multiple factors including altered prenatal oxygen delivery, brain blood flow and genetic factors associated with surgery including exposure to cardiopulmonary bypass, also known as the heart lung machine.

This phase 1 trial is the first to deliver mesenchymal stromal cells from bone marrow manufactured in a lab (BM-MSC) into infants already undergoing cardiac surgery via cardiopulmonary bypass. The hypothesis is that by directly infusing the MSCs into the blood flow to the brain, more MSCs quickly and efficiently reach the subventricular zone and other areas of the brain that are prone to inflammation. The trial is open to eligible patients ages newborn to six months of age.


Learn more in this overview video.

The trial is part of a $2.5 million, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) led by Richard Jonas, M.D.Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D., and Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D.. The project involves collaboration between the Prenatal Cardiology program of Children’s National Heart Institute, the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, the Center for Neuroscience Research and the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation.

“NIH supported studies in our laboratory have shown that MSC therapy may be extremely helpful in improving brain development in animal models after cardiac surgery,” says Dr. Ishibashi. “MSC infusion can help reduce inflammation including prolonged microglia activation that can occur during surgery that involves the heart lung machine.”

Staff from the Cellular Therapy Laboratory, led by director Patrick Hanley, Ph.D., manufactured the BM-MSC at the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, led by Dr. Bollard.

The phase 1 safety study will set the stage for a phase 2 effectiveness trial of this highly innovative MSC treatment aimed at reducing brain damage, minimizing neurodevelopmental disabilities and improving the postoperative course in children with CHD. The resulting improvement in developmental outcome and lessened behavioral impairment will be of enormous benefit to individuals with CHD.

For more information about this new treatment, contact the clinical research team: Gil Wernovsky, M.D., Shriprasad Deshpande, M.D., Maria Fortiz.

t-cells attacking cancer cell

Children’s National spin-out cell therapy company receives funding

t-cells attacking cancer cell

Ongoing efforts by researchers at Children’s National Hospital to improve T-cell therapies have led to a spin-out company MANA Therapeutics which has announced a $35 million Series A financing. MANA is a clinical stage company creating nonengineered, allogeneic and off-the-shelf cell therapies that target multiple cancer antigens. Its EDIFY™ platform aims to educate T-cells that target multiple target multiple cell surface and intracellular tumor-associated antigens across a broad range of liquid and solid tumors, with an initial focus on relapsed acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

MANA was founded in 2017, and was based on the research and human proof-of-concept clinical trials conducted by Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B., Conrad Russell Y. Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., Patrick Hanley, Ph.D. and other investigators at Children’s National along with their colleagues at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. The trials demonstrated safety and anti-tumor activity of MANA’s approach, and Children’s National provided an exclusive license to MANA to further develop this promising technology into commercial products in the field of immuno-oncology.

MANA Therapeutics recruited an experienced leadership team from industry including Martin B. Silverstein, M.D., president and CEO, who is a former senior executive at Gilead Sciences when they acquired Kite Pharma, one of the leading cell therapy companies, as well as Madhusudan V. Peshwa, Ph.D., chief technology officer, who joined from GE Health Care where he had been Chief Technology Officer and Global Head of R&D for Cell and Gene Therapies.

“MANA is building upon the strong foundational science established at Children’s National with a unique approach that promises to produce off-the-shelf allogeneic therapies that do not compromise on safety or efficacy,” said Marc Cohen, co-founder and executive chairman of MANA Therapeutics. “I look forward to continuing to support the MANA team as they advance their internal pipeline for the treatment of AML and select solid tumors, and expand the potential of EDIFY through strategic partnerships focused on new target antigens and cancer types.”

An international leader in the immunotherapy field, Dr. Bollard was an early believer in the potential of immune cell therapies to dramatically improve the treatment of patients with cancer and patients with life-threatening viral infections. Recently, she and her team at the Children’s National Center for Cancer and Immunology Research published findings in Blood showing T-cells taken from the blood of people who recovered from a COVID-19 infection can be successfully multiplied in the lab and maintain the ability to effectively target proteins that are key to the virus’s function.

“Over the past decade we have seen tremendous progress in cancer research and treatment and are beginning to unlock the potential of cell therapy for a variety of tumor types,” said Dr. Bollard. “The human proof-of-concept trials conducted by my team and colleagues showed potential for a nonengineered approach to educating T-cells to attack multiple tumor antigens, which MANA is expanding even further through refinement of the manufacturing process for an allogeneic product and application to a broader set of antigens in a variety of clinical indications and settings.”

Read more about how the Series A funding will enable rapid progress with MANA’s programs.

MRI of the patient's head close-up

Early versus late MRI in newborn brain injury

MRI of the patient's head close-up

A single magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) performed in the first week after birth is adequate to assess brain injury and offer prognostic information in newborn infants with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) treated with therapeutic hypothermia, according to a new study published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

A collaborative team of neonatology, neurology and neuroradiology experts from Children’s National Hospital that included Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Taeun Chang, M.D., and An N. Massaro, M.D., came together to evaluate the agreement in brain injury findings between early and late MRI in newborn infants with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) treated with therapeutic hypothermia. The team then compared the ability of early versus late MRI to predict early neurodevelopmental outcomes.

This was a prospective longitudinal study of 49 patients with HIE who underwent therapeutic hypothermia and had MRI performed at both <7 and ≥7 days of age. MRIs were reviewed by an experienced neuroradiologist and assigned brain injury severity scores according to established systems. Scores for early and late MRIs were assessed for agreement using the kappa statistic. The ability of early and late MRI scores to predict death or developmental delay at 15-30 months of age was assessed by logistic regression analyses.

The results of the study found agreement between the early and late MRI was substantial to near perfect (k>0.75, p<0.001) across MRI scoring systems. In cases of discrepant scoring, early MRI was more likely to identify severe injury when compared with late MRI. Early MRI scores were more consistently predictive of adverse outcomes compared with late MRI.

Read the full study in The Journal of Pediatrics.

Karun-Sharma-and-kids-MR-HIFU

FDA approves MR-HIFU system to treat osteoid osteoma

Karun-Sharma-and-kids-MR-HIFU

“This FDA approval encourages and further motivates our focused ultrasound program to continue to develop and expand clinical applications of MR-HIFU in the pediatric population,”  said Karun Sharma, M.D., Ph.D.

After garnering successful clinical trial results at Children’s National Hospital, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced the approval of Profound Medical’s Sonalleve MR-guided High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (MR-HIFU) system for the treatment of osteoid osteoma (OO) in the extremities. OO is a benign, but painful bone tumor that occurs most commonly in children and young adults. This marks the first focused ultrasound regulatory approval that will directly impact pediatric patients and it is the sixth indication to earn approval in the United States.

Nine patients were treated in a pilot trial designed to evaluate the safety and feasibility of MR-HIFU ablation treatment in patients with painful OO. The procedure was performed without any technical difficulties or serious adverse events in all nine patients, and resulted in complete pain relief with no further pain medication usage in eight out of nine patients.

“This FDA approval encourages and further motivates our focused ultrasound program to continue to develop and expand clinical applications of MR-HIFU in the pediatric population,” said Karun Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., director of Interventional Radiology and associate director of clinical translation at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation (SZI) at Children’s National. “This completely non-invasive and radiation-free aspects of this therapy are especially relevant for growing children.”

Researchers at Children’s National have moved beyond OO are also evaluating MR-HIFU treatment for patients with relapsed and refractory bone and soft tissue tumors. “This is especially important as these patients don’t have any other good treatment options,” said Dr. Sharma. “For these tumors, we are using not only thermal ablation, but also other modes and biomechanisms of focused ultrasound such as mild hyperthermia to facilitate targeted, enhanced drug delivery and histotripsy (i.e., mechanical tissue fractionation) to enhance cancer immunotherapy. We also hope to move into MR-HIFU brain application in pediatrics.”

At Children’s National, a multidisciplinary team of physicians and scientists use MR-HIFU to focus an ultrasound beam into lesions to heat and destroy the tissue in that region, with no incisions at all. In 2015, Children’s National doctors became the first in the U.S. to use MR-HIFU to treat pediatric osteoid osteoma. The trial, led by Dr. Sharma, demonstrated early success in establishing the safety and feasibility of noninvasive MR-HIFU in children as an alternative to the current, more invasive approaches to treat these tumors. Since then, the Children’s National team has built an active clinical trials program and become a leader in translation of focused ultrasound for the treatment of relapsed pediatric solid tumors.

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.

Research & Innovation Campus

Virginia Tech, Children’s National Hospital award $100,000 to fund collaborative cancer research pilot projects

Research & Innovation Campus

This pilot research program represents a growing academic research partnership between Children’s National and Virginia Tech. Last year, the two institutions announced that Virginia Tech will establish a biomedical research facility on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus.

Children’s National Hospital and Virginia Tech have awarded two $50,000 one-year pilot grants to multi-institutional teams of scientists for pediatric brain cancer research.

The inter-institutional program, which launched in December, promotes cross-disciplinary collaborations among researchers at both institutions. At Virginia Tech, the program is part of the Virginia Tech Cancer Research Alliance. Financial support for the program was provided by the Offices of the Physician-in-Chief and Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National, and by Virginia Tech’s Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology.

“We were delighted to see so many innovative and competitive research proposals for our first round of pilot grants in the area of brain cancer. By forging new research collaborations with our partners at Children’s National, we hope to make major strides in addressing one of the most common and devastating groups of cancers in children,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology, and the executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. “The pilot funding will bootstrap several programs to be able to acquire ongoing sustainable funding by providing the opportunity to test novel high impact ideas for new strategies for treating these disorders. There are simply too few good options for children in this space now and this partnership can change that for the better.”

The collaborative research initiative began through an agreement between the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the Children’s National Research Institute. The collaborative teams formed through a series of interactive discussions among Virginia Tech’s Cancer Research Alliance faculty members from the university’s Blacksburg and Roanoke campuses, and Children’s National’s neuro-oncology researchers.

“I am extremely excited by this collaboration between VT and CNH that is focused on pediatric brain tumors which is such an area of unmet need,” said Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B.,, director of Children’s National’s Center for Cancer and Immunology Research. “I am confident that the funded proposals will soon advance our understanding of pediatric brain tumors and, more importantly, facilitate more joint efforts between two world-class institutions which is especially timely with the development of the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus.”

Yanxin Pei, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Center for Cancer Immunology Research at Children’s National, and Liwu Li, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Science, were awarded one of the pilot research grants to study how white blood cells called neutrophils are involved in metastatic MYC-driven medulloblastoma, an aggressive type of brain tumor in children that often resists conventional radiation and chemotherapies.

Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., the Gilbert Family Professor of Neurofibromatosis Research at Children’s National, and Susan Campbell, Ph.D., an assistant professor of animal and poultry sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, were awarded funds to study glioma-induced seizures in mice with a genetic mutation that inhibits the production of P53, a key protein involved in suppressing cancer cell growth and division.

The successful applicants will receive funding starting this month and are expected to deliver preliminary data to support an extramural research application by 2024.

This pilot research program represents a growing academic research partnership between Children’s National and Virginia Tech. Last year, the two institutions announced that Virginia Tech will establish a biomedical research facility on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus. It will be the first research and innovation campus in the nation focused on pediatrics when it opens later this year and will house newly recruited teams of pediatric brain cancer researchers.

Liwu Li, Yanxin Pei, Susan Campbell, and Yuan Zhu

Liwu Li, Ph.D., Yanxin Pei, Ph.D., Susan Campbell, Ph.D., and Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., were awarded funding through the new pilot research program.

neuron on teal background

Primary cilia safeguard cortical neurons from environmental stress-induced dendritic degeneration

neuron on teal background

Fetus and neonates are under the risk of exposure to various external agents, such as alcohol and anesthetics taken by the mother. However, primary cilia can protect neurons by activating cilia-localized molecular signaling that inhibits degeneration of neuronal processes, according to the study’s findings.

A new study led by Kazue Hashimoto-Torii, Ph.D. and Masaaki Torii, Ph.D., both principal investigators for the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Hospital, found that primary cilia – tiny hair-like protrusions from the body of neuronal cells – protect neurons in the developing brain from adverse impacts of prenatal exposure.

Fetus and neonates are under the risk of exposure to various external agents, such as alcohol and anesthetics taken by the mother. However, primary cilia can protect neurons by activating cilia-localized molecular signaling that inhibits degeneration of neuronal processes, according to the study’s findings.

“Remarkably, the developing brain is equipped with intrinsic cell protection that helps to minimize the adverse impacts of to various external agents,” said Dr. Hashimoto-Torii. “However, the mechanisms of such protection have been unclear. Our study provides the first evidence that the tiny hair-like organelle protects neurons in the perinatal brain from adverse impacts of such external agents taken by the mother.”

The findings suggest that subtle alterations in primary cilia due to genetic conditions may lead to various neurodevelopmental disorders if combined with exposure to external agents from the environment. The findings also suggest that ciliopathy patients who have abnormal ciliary function due to genetic causes may have increased risk of abnormal brain development upon exposure to external agents.

“Clarifying diverse roles of cilia provides essential information for clinicians and patients with potential deficits in primary cilia to take extra precautions to avoid the risks for long-term negative impacts of external factors,” Dr. Torii explained. “We hope that further studies will define the whole picture of cilia-mediated neuroprotection and help us to advance our understanding of its importance in the pathogenesis of neurodevelopmental disorders.

This may ultimately lead to the development of treatment for various neurodevelopmental disorders,” he added.

The uniqueness of the study stems from the investigation of the role of cilia in brain development at the risk of exposure to various external factors that occur in the real world. Little is known about how the normal and abnormal brain development progresses in an environment where many external factors interact with intrinsic cellular mechanisms.

The study is a collaboration with researchers at Yale University and Keio University, Japan. Other Children’s National researchers who contributed to this study include Seiji Ishii, Ph.D.; Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D.; Toru Sasaki, M.D., Ph.D.; Shahid Mohammad, Ph.D.; Hye Hwang; Edwin Tomy; and Fahad Somaa.