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Veronica-Gomez-Lobo

Multidisciplinary care for children with urogenital differences

Veronica-Gomez-Lobo

Veronica Gomez-Lobo, M.D., brought together a multidisciplinary team to form the Positive Reevaluation of Urogenital Differences (PROUD) Clinic.

When a child is born with urogenital differences, the chromosomes, internal organs or external genitalia are considered to be atypical. While these differences were once thought to be rare, they are more common than people realize, with about 1 in 100 newborns affected.

The complexities of caring for children with urogenital differences, also known as differences of sex development (DSD), were not fully understood for many years. In the past, if a child was born with DSD, the family would see an endocrinologist for hormone therapy and a urologist for surgical options. Counseling was not part of the standard of care, so there was little support available to help families understand the tremendous psychosocial impacts of DSD.

In the last decade, fundamental changes have occurred in the way physicians care for children affected by DSD, with psychosocial health becoming a prominent focus. Veronica Gomez-Lobo, M.D., a Children’s National pediatric and adolescent gynecologist, was one of the physicians who embraced this focus and sought out a new care paradigm for her patients.

Creating the PROUD Clinic

Dr. Gomez-Lobo brought together a multidisciplinary team – including medical geneticist Eyby Leon Janampa, M.D., geneticist Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., urologist Daniel Casella, M.D., endocrinologist Kim Shimy, M.D., psychiatrist David Call, M.D., and psychologist Elaine Goldberg, Ph.D. – to form the Positive Reevaluation of Urogenital Differences (PROUD) Clinic. It can be very challenging to bring together diverse specialists in a complex area like DSD, but her team possesses a similar philosophy – to care for the whole family by managing both the psychosocial and medical aspects of care in one location.

The team meets before each clinic to discuss the patients they will see that day. Patients vary significantly by the type of DSD and also by age – some patients are still in utero, while others may be newborns, children, adolescents or even occasionally adults.

Families see the entire team during their appointment, which can often last two to three hours to ensure that families receive the full support resources offered by the team.

“Even in difficult cases without a clear answer, we present the facts we know to the families, discussing all possibilities about psychosocial issues, gender identity, sexuality, function and fertility,” says Dr. Gomez-Lobo.

Long after the initial appointment, the PROUD Clinic continues to work closely with families and individual providers, following up as needed for medical diagnosis and care and providing continued psychosocial support with the entire team. Due to the efforts of the PROUD Clinic, patients and their families are now receiving compassionate care that looks at all facets of DSD, from childhood through adulthood.

Increasing DSD knowledge in the medical community

In order to give her patients the most thorough understanding of DSD and to expand the medical community’s knowledge, Dr. Gomez-Lobo’s program also participates in the Disorders of Sex Development Translational Research Network (DSD-TRN), which is led by Dr. Vilain. Supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the DSD-TRN provides physicians across the country with the ability to perform research to advance knowledge regarding these conditions, as well as learn how to improve the care of these individuals and families. The DSD-TRN also provides a forum to seek advice about complex cases and to communicate how to transition patients from pediatric to adult medicine.

The relationship with the DSD-TRN helps the PROUD Clinic team further their goal of creating care for their patients that is current, individualized and compassionate.

 

Eric Vilain

Exploring differences of sex development

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D.

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., analyzes the genetic mechanisms of sex development to give families more answers that will help them make better treatment (or non treatment) decisions for a child diagnosed with DSD.

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., is well versed in the “world of uncertainty” that surrounds differences of sex development. Since joining Children’s National as the director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research in 2017, he’s shared with our research and clinical faculty and staff his expertise about the ways that genetic analysis might help address some of the complex social, cultural and medical implications of these differences.

Over the summer, he gave a keynote address entitled “Disorders/Differences of Sex Development: A World of Uncertainty” during Children’s National’s Research and Education Week, an annual celebration of research, education, innovation and scholarship at Children’s National and around the world. In January 2018, he shared a more clinically oriented version of the talk at a special Children’s National Grand Rounds session.

The educational objective of these talks is to inform researchers and providers about the mechanisms of differences of sex development (DSD), which are defined as congenital conditions in which the development of chromosomal, gonadal or anatomical sex is atypical.

The primary goal, though, is to really shine light on the complexity of this hot topic, and share how powerful genetic tools can be used to provide vital, concrete information for care providers, patients and families to assist with difficult treatment (and non-treatment) decisions.

“A minority of DSD cases are able to receive a genetic diagnosis today,” he points out. “But geneticists know how important it is to come to a diagnosis and so we seek to increase the number of patients who receive a concrete genetic diagnosis. It impacts genetic counseling and reproductive options, and provides a better ability to predict long term outcomes.”

“These differences impact physiology and medicine. We want to better understand the biology of reproduction, with an emphasis on finding ways to preserve fertility at all costs, and how these variations may lead to additional complications, including cancer risk.”

At conception, he explains, both XX and XY embryos have bipotential gonads capable of differentiating into a testis or an ovary, though embryos are virtually indistinguishable from a gender perspective up until six weeks in utero.

Whether or not a bipotential gonad forms is largely left up to the genetic makeup of the individual. For example, a gene in the Y chromosome (SRY) triggers a cascade of genes that lead to testis development. If there is no Y chromosome, it triggers a series of pro-female genes that lead to ovarian development.

Dr. Vilain notes that a variation of enzymes or transcription factors can occur at any single step of sex development and alter all the subsequent steps. Depending on the genotype, an individual may experience normal gonadal development, but abnormal development of the genitalia, for example.

He also noted that these genes are critical to determining the differences between men and women in non-gonadal tissues, including differences in gene expression within the brain. One study in the lab of investigator Matt Bramble, Ph.D., investigates if gonadal hormones impact sex differences in the brain by modifying the genome.

This work is a prime example of research informing the care provided to patients and families. Dr. Vilain is also a member of the multidisciplinary clinical team of the PROUD Clinic at Children’s National, a program completely devoted to caring for patients with a wide array of genetic and endocrine issues, including urogenital disorders and variations of sex development.