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Julia Finkel

Two Children’s National spin-outs join Johnson & Johnson–JLABS

Julia Finkel

AlgometRx, which joins JPOD @ Philadelphia, was founded by Julia Finkel, M.D., pediatric anesthesiologist and director of Pain Medicine and Research at Children’s Sheikh Zayed Institute.

AlgometRx and Adipomics, two companies that spun out of innovations discovered at Children’s National Health System, have been selected by Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS to join JPOD @ Philadelphia and JPOD @ Boston, respectively.

JLABS is a global network of no-strings-attached incubators for innovative companies from across the pharmaceutical, medical device, consumer and health technology sectors. Start-up companies are free to pursue their own research priorities independently, with access to state-of-the-art facilities to develop new drugs, medical devices, precision diagnostics and health technologies for people around the world.

Both companies got their start at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National. The Institute focuses on research and innovation that can improve health for children everywhere.

AlgometRx, which joins JPOD @ Philadelphia, was founded by Julia Finkel, M.D., pediatric anesthesiologist and director of Pain Medicine and Research at Children’s Sheikh Zayed Institute. The AlgometRx device is a first-of-its-kind platform technology that aims to objectively measure pain intensity, type and drug effects in real time by capturing a digital image of a patient’s pupillary light response and applying a series of proprietary algorithms to various characteristics.

AlgometRx is designed to provide an objective pain measurement that aims to help physicians select the correct analgesic class of drug and dosage. By optimizing pain assessment, drug selection and drug management, AlgometRx aims to impact the opioid epidemic and the monitoring and management of Opioid Use Disorder.

Robert Freishtat and Evan Nadler

Adipomics, which joins JPOD @ Boston, was co-founded by Robert Freishtat, M.D., M.P.H., senior investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine of the Children’s Research Institute and chief of the Division of Emergency Medicine at Children’s National, and pediatric surgeon Evan P. Nadler, M.D., co-director of the Obesity Program and director of the Bariatric Surgery Program at Children’s National.

Adipomics, which joins JPOD @ Boston, was co-founded by pediatric surgeon Evan P. Nadler, M.D., co-director of the Obesity Program and director of the Bariatric Surgery Program at Children’s National, and Robert Freishtat, M.D., M.P.H., senior investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine of the Children’s Research Institute and chief of the Division of Emergency Medicine at Children’s National. Adipomics was founded with the aim to address the global epidemic of obesity-related diseases including Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. World health experts predict that one billion people worldwide will be obese by 2030.

Drs. Nadler and Freishtat discovered that exosomes released from fat cells (adipocytes) carry genetic material that can mediate various diseases related to obesity. Through their research, they developed a proprietary method that aims to detect how obesity affects an individual patient’s metabolism before the onset of overt disease. Adipomics aims to create the first non-invasive, “anticipatory medicine” diagnostic that detects risk for obesity-related diseases prior to the onset of clinical signs or even biochemical abnormalities. If successful, this predictive methodology would enable treatment much earlier in the disease process, which is likely to improve effectiveness.

A recent news release from Children’s National provides more details on these innovations.

As organizations that share a commitment to improving the pace of healthcare innovation, Children’s National and Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS also recently announced their collaboration to launch JLABS @ Washington, DC,  a 32,000-square foot facility to be located at the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus in Washington, D.C. The JLABS @ Washington, DC will have the capacity to house up to 50 pharmaceutical, medical device, consumer and health technology companies that are aiming to advance the development of new drugs, medical devices, precision diagnostics and health technologies, including applications in pediatrics. The campus is located on a 12-acre portion of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus in the nation’s capital and is slated to open in 2020, coinciding with the 150th Anniversary of Children’s National Health System.

Fat Cells

Cellular signals may increase atherosclerosis risk

Fat Cells

Fat cells from obese patients have the ability to send signals that can accelerate biological processes leading to atherosclerosis.

Obesity has been linked to a variety of adverse health conditions, including Type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart attack and stroke – conditions that may begin as early as childhood in patients whose obesity also begins early. While this much is known, it has been unclear how extra fat mass might lead to these chronic health conditions.

New research from Children’s National Health System scientists might help answer this question. In findings presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, the research team shows that exosomes – nanosized chemical messages that cells send to each other to regulate protein production – isolated from very obese teenage patients behave very differently from those derived from lean patients and could be key players in heightening the risk of developing atherosclerosis. This hardening of the arteries can, in turn, increase the risk of heart disease and stroke in adulthood.

A research team led by Robert J. Freishtat, M.D., M.P.H., chief of emergency medicine at Children’s National, is exploring possible links between extra belly fat and obesity-related diseases, such as atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque in arteries that can harden and restrict blood flow. More precise knowledge of the mechanisms by which obesity ratchets up heart risks holds the promise of helping the next generation of kids avoid experiencing chronic disease.

The working theory is that exosomes derived from belly fat from obese patients have the distinct ability to accelerate biological processes leading to atherosclerosis.

The research team isolated exosomes from five obese teenagers and compared them to five sex-matched lean adolescents. It turns out that exosomes derived from fat pick up their marching orders from microRNA content likely to target cholesterol efflux genes, which help reduce cholesterol buildup in cells.

The research team looked at differences in cholesterol efflux gene expression in THP-1 macrophages. Uptake of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, “bad” cholesterol, was 92 percent higher than in those exposed to exosomes from obese patients compared with their lean counterparts. Exposure to obese exosomes also reduced cholesterol efflux.

“Atherogenic properties of fat-cell derived exosomes from obese patients differ markedly from the non-atherogenic profile of exosomes from lean patients. It is especially concerning that we see biological clues of heightened risk in teenagers, and the finding underscores how the seeds for atherosclerosis can be planted very early in life,” Dr. Freishtat says.

The presentation is the latest finding from a research team that, over years of work, is unraveling the mechanisms of cellular signaling by fat cells.  By closely examining very obese children – who have the most severe cardiometabolic disease – the team identified strong molecular signals of disease risk that they can search for in leaner patients who may be at risk for disease years from now.

“We know that morbidly obese patients have cardiovascular issues,” explains Dr. Freishtat. “An unanswered question is for patients with no clinical symptoms who are a little overweight. Can we look at them and say whether they are at risk for developing atherosclerosis, insulin resistance or Type 2 diabetes five or 10 years down the line? That’s the whole rationale for doing this work.”

The critical issue is what exosomes are up to. Dr. Freishtat says in lean people, they’re active and are very important in maintaining stable metabolism and homeostatic processes.

“When a person becomes obese, however, exosomes evolve,” he says. “They no longer support insulin signaling, which is helpful, and drive processes in the reverse direction, repressing insulin signaling – which can be harmful,” he adds.

Ultimately, the research team aims to revolutionize how chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes are diagnosed. For far too long, clinicians have relied on symptoms like high glucose levels and excess urination to diagnose diabetes.

“By the time you have symptoms, it’s too late,” says Dr. Freishtat. “In many cases, damage has been done by relentless exposure to high sugar levels. The biological processes that underlie the Type 2 diabetes process began five, 10, 15 years earlier. If we can detect it earlier, before symptoms arise, intervention is going to have a more significant impact on improving and extending patients’ lives.”

Scientist with centrifuge

Giving fat cell messages a positive spin

Woman on a scale

Study findings offer hope to the nearly 2 billion adults who are overweight or obese worldwide that detrimental effects of carrying too much weight can recede. (Image source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Losing weight appears to reset the chemical messages that fat cells send to other parts of the body that otherwise would encourage the development of Type 2 diabetes, substantially reducing the risk of that disease, a team led by Children’s National Health System researchers report in a new study. The findings offer hope to the nearly 2 billion adults who are overweight or obese worldwide that many of the detrimental effects of carrying too much weight can recede, even on the molecular level, once they lose weight.

In 2015, Robert J. Freishtat, M.D., M.P.H., Chief of Emergency Medicine at Children’s National and Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Emergency Medicine and Integrative Systems Biology at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences, and colleagues showed that fat cells (also known as adipocytes) from people who are obese send messages to other cells that worsen metabolic function. These messages are in the form of exosomes, nanosized blobs whose contents regulate which proteins are produced by genes. Exosomes are like “biological tweets,” Dr. Freishtat explains — short signals designed to travel long distances throughout the body.

Dr. Freishtat’s earlier research showed that the messages contained in exosomes from patients who are obese alter how the body processes insulin, setting the stage for Type 2 diabetes. However, says Dr. Freishtat, it has remained unclear since that publication whether these aberrant messages from adipocytes improve after weight loss.

“We’ve known for a long time that too much adipose tissue is bad for you, but it’s all moot if you lose the weight and it’s still bad for you,” he explains. “We wanted to know whether these negative changes are reversible. If you reduce fat, does the disease risk that goes along with excess fat also go away?”

Details of the study

To investigate this question, Dr. Freishtat and colleagues worked with six African American adults scheduled to receive gastric bypass surgery — a nearly surefire way to quickly lose a large amount of weight. The volunteers, whose average age was 38 years, started out with an average body mass index (BMI) of 51.2 kg/m2. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a healthy BMI to range between 18.5 to 24.9.)

Two weeks before these volunteers underwent surgery, researchers collected blood samples and took a variety of measurements. The researchers then performed a repeat blood draw and measurements one year after the surgery took place, when the volunteers’ average BMI had dropped to 32.6.

Dr. Freishtat and colleagues drew out the adipocyte-derived exosomes from both sets of blood samples and analyzed their contents. The team reports in the January 2017 issue of Obesity that at least 168 microRNAs — the molecules responsible for sending specific messages — had changed before and after surgery. Further analyses showed that many of these microRNAs were involved in insulin signaling, the pathways that the body uses to regulate blood sugar. By changing these outgoing microRNAs for the better, Dr. Freishtat says, adipocytes actively were encouraging higher insulin sensitivity in other cells, warding off Type 2 diabetes.

Sure enough, each volunteer had better insulin sensitivity and other improved markers of metabolic health post-surgery, including lower branched chain amino acids and a two-fold reduction in their glutamate to glutamine ratio.

“These volunteers were essentially cured of their diabetes after surgery. The changes we saw in their surgery-responsive microRNAS correlated with the changes we saw in their metabolic health,” Dr. Freishtat says.

A glimpse into the future

Dr. Freishtat and colleagues plan to study this phenomenon in other types of weight loss, including the slower and steadier paths that most individuals take, such as improving diet and doing more exercise. The team expects to see similar changes in exosomes of patients who lose weight in non-surgical ways.

By further examining the aberrant messages in microRNAs being sent out from adipocytes, he says, researchers eventually might be able to develop treatments to reverse metabolic problems in overweight and obese patients before they lose the weight, improving their health even before the often challenging process of weight loss begins.

“Then, if you can disrupt this harmful signaling in combination with weight-loss strategies,” Dr. Freishtat says, “you’re really getting the best of both worlds.”

Eventually, he adds, tests might be available so that doctors can warn patients that their fat cells are sending out harmful messages before disease symptoms start. By giving patients an early heads up, Dr. Freishtat says, patients might be more likely to heed advice from physicians and make changes before it’s too late.

“If doctors could warn patients that their fat is telling their blood vessels to fill up with plaque and trigger a heart attack in 10 to 20 years,” he says, “patients might be more compliant with treatment regimens.”

Robert J. Freishtat

A game changer for detecting complications from obesity

Robert J. Freishtat

The work that Children’s National Health System physician-scientist Robert J. Freishtat, M.D., M.P.H., and colleagues are doing could soon be a game changer when it comes to early intervention and prevention of obesity-related illnesses.

They already knew there’s a direct relationship between the amount of visceral adipose, or belly fat, a person has and development of some of the most common and life-threatening complications of obesity, including cardiovascular disease and the insulin resistance that leads to diabetes. What remained unclear, until recently, were the precise mechanisms for how the increase in belly fat triggers the onset of additional disease.

Dr. Freishtat, senior author of “Adipocyte-Derived Exosomal miRNAs: A Novel Mechanism for Obesity-Related Disease,” published by Pediatric Research, studies the adipocytes, or fat cells, of visceral adipose in both lean and obese patients to understand exactly how these fat cells can and do wreak havoc — not just locally but throughout the body. Cells leverage exosomes to communicate among themselves, but in overweight patients those cellular communications can go awry.

“As the body’s visceral fat grows, somewhere on the path to obesity the fat cells change and begin to release different exosomes than lean adipose cells do. These new messages disrupt some important processes that eventually prevent the body from effectively dealing with sugar and cholesterol,” says Dr. Freishtat, chief of Emergency Medicine at Children’s National, and associate professor of Pediatrics, Emergency Medicine, and Integrative Systems Biology at the George Washington University.

Dr. Freishtat describes exosomes as “biological tweets”— short messages shed by all cells that allow for intercellular communication and alter gene expression. In the case of the adipocytes that exist in large quantities of visceral fat, these “tweets” actually cause the downregulation of proteins impacting two key signaling pathways — TGF-β and Wnt/β-catenin — associated with controlling chronic inflammation and fibrotic disease throughout the body. These signaling changes make morbidly obese patients more vulnerable to systemwide issues, such as cholesterol accumulation and changes to how the liver processes fat.

Details of the study

The study authors surgically collected fat tissue from lean and obese female patients aged 11 to 19 and used modified bead-based flow cytometry to separate, identify, and compare the exosomal RNA shed by the fat cells in both lean and obese samples. To confirm the unique impact of the obese adipose exosomes on gene expression, the research team then exposed lung cells in vivo to the exosomes shed by both lean and obese adipose. They measured the impact of exposure and uptake on a single receptor type — activin receptor type-2B — known to have a major influence on the TGF-β pathway. The exosomes from obese adipose caused the receptor to slow down, leading to significant changes in the function of the TGF-β pathway.

The team continues to explore how the exosomes shed from excess amounts of visceral adipose spread throughout the body and how the function of organs such as the liver, the heart, and the brain are impacted by the migrating fat cells.

A Look into the future

Successfully identifying and isolating these exosomes also has opened the door to developing a test to detect them, an idea that may permit even earlier intervention to delay or prevent the onset of obesity-related illnesses.

“It is entirely plausible, and is on its way to happening very soon, that someone could walk into their physician’s office for a routine physical and, via a urine test, find out that they are on the road to some dangerous additional side effects of significant weight gain,” says Dr. Freishtat. “That type of early detection could really be a game changer for the millions of Americans who are on track to developing heart, liver, and other diseases resulting from morbid obesity.”