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Andrea Gropman

$5M in federal funding to help patients with urea cycle disorders

Andrea Gropman

Andrea L. Gropman, M.D.: We have collected many years of longitudinal clinical data, but with this new funding now we can answer questions about these diseases that are meaningful on a day-to-day basis for patients with urea cycle disorders.

An international research consortium co-led by Andrea L. Gropman, M.D., at Children’s National Hospital has received $5 million in federal funding as part of an overall effort to better understand rare diseases and accelerate potential treatments to patients.

Urea cycle disorder, one such rare disease, is a hiccup in a series of biochemical reactions that transform nitrogen into a non-toxic compound, urea. The six enzymes and two carrier/transport molecules that accomplish this essential task reside primarily in the liver and, to a lesser degree, in other organs.

The majority of patients have the recessive form of the disorder, meaning it has skipped a generation. These kids inherit one copy of an abnormal gene from each parent, while the parents themselves were not affected, says Dr. Gropman, chief of the Division of Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics and Neurogenetics at Children’s National. Another more common version of the disease is carried on the X chromosome and affects boys more seriously that girls, given that boys have only one X chromosome.

Regardless of the type of urea cycle disorder, when the urea cycle breaks down, nitrogen converts into toxic ammonia that builds up in the body (hyperammonemia), particularly in the brain. As a result, the person may feel lethargic; if the ammonia in the bloodstream reaches the brain in high concentrations, the person can experience seizures, behavior changes and lapse into a coma.

Improvements in clinical care and the advent of effective medicines have transformed this once deadly disease into a more manageable chronic ailment.

“It’s gratifying that patients diagnosed with urea cycle disorder now are surviving, growing up, becoming young adults and starting families themselves. Twenty to 30 years ago, this never would have seemed conceivable,” Dr. Gropman says. “We have collected many years of longitudinal clinical data, but with this new funding now we can answer questions about these diseases that are meaningful on a day-to-day basis for patients with urea cycle disorders.”

In early October 2019, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded the Urea Cycle Disorders Consortium for which Dr. Gropman is co-principal investigator a five-year grant. This is the fourth time that the international Consortium of physicians, scientists, neuropsychologists, nurses, genetic counselors and researchers has received NIH funding to study this group of conditions.

Dr. Gropman says the current urea cycle research program builds on a sturdy foundation built by previous principal investigators Mendel Tuchman, M.D., and Mark Batshaw, M.D., also funded by the NIH. While previous rounds of NIH funding powered research about patients’ long-term survival prospects and cognitive dysfunction, this next phase of research will explore patients’ long-term health.

Among the topics they will study:

Long-term organ damage. Magnetic resonance elastrography (MRE) is a state-of-the-art imaging technique that combines the sharp images from MRI with a visual map that shows body tissue stiffness. The research team will use MRE to look for early changes in the liver – before patients show any symptoms – that could be associated with long-term health impacts. Their aim is spot the earliest signs of potential liver dysfunction in order to intervene before the patient develops liver fibrosis.

Academic achievement. The research team will examine gaps in academic achievement for patients who appear to be underperforming to determine what is triggering the discrepancy between their potential and actual scholastics. If they uncover issues such as learning difficulties or mental health concerns like anxiety, there are opportunities to intervene to boost academic achievement.

“And if we find many of the patients meet the criteria for depression or anxiety disorders, there are potential opportunities to intervene.  It’s tricky: We need to balance their existing medications with any new ones to ensure that we don’t increase their hyperammonemia risk,” Dr. Gropman explains.

Neurologic complications. The researchers will tap continuous, bedside electroencephalogram, which measures the brain’s electrical activity, to detect silent seizures and otherwise undetectable changes in the brain in an effort to stave off epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes seizures.

“This is really the first time we will examine babies’ brains,” she adds. “Our previous imaging studies looked at kids and adults who were 6 years and older. Now, we’re lowering that age range down to infants. By tracking such images over time, the field has described the trajectory of what normal brain development should look like. We can use that as a background and comparison point.”

In the future, newborns may be screened for urea cycle disorder shortly after birth. Because it is not possible to diagnose it in the womb in cases where there is no family history, the team aims to better counsel families contemplating pregnancy about their possible risks.

Research described in this post was underwritten by the NIH through its Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network.

Beth Tarini

Getting to know SPR’s future President, Beth Tarini, M.D., MS

Beth Tarini

Quick. Name four pillar pediatric organizations on the vanguard of advancing pediatric research.

Most researchers and clinicians can rattle off the names of the Academic Pediatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Pediatric Society. But that fourth one, the Society for Pediatric Research (SPR), is a little trickier. While many know SPR, a lot of research-clinicians simply do not.

Over the next few years, Beth A. Tarini, M.D., MS, will make it her personal mission to ensure that more pediatric researchers get to know SPR and are so excited about the organization that they become active members. In May 2019 Dr. Tarini becomes Vice President of the society that aims to stitch together an international network of interdisciplinary researchers to improve kids’ health. Four-year SPR leadership terms begin with Vice President before transitioning to President-Elect, President and Past-President, each for one year.

Dr. Tarini says she looks forward to working with other SPR leaders to find ways to build more productive, collaborative professional networks among faculty, especially emerging junior faculty. “Facilitating ways to network for research and professional reasons across pediatric research is vital – albeit easier said than done. I have been told I’m a connector, so I hope to leverage that skill in this new role,” says Dr. Tarini, associate director for Children’s Center for Translational Research.

“I’m delighted that Dr. Tarini was elected to this leadership position, and I am impressed by her vision of improving SPR’s outreach efforts,” says Mark Batshaw, M.D., Executive Vice President, Chief Academic Officer and Physician-in-Chief at Children’s National. “Her goal of engaging potential members in networking through a variety of ways – face-to-face as well as leveraging digital platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn – and her focus on engaging junior faculty will help strengthen SPR membership in the near term and long term.”

Dr. Tarini adds: “Success to me would be leaving after four years with more faculty – especially junior faculty – approaching membership in SPR with the knowledge and enthusiasm that they bring to membership in other pediatric societies.”

SPR requires that its members not simply conduct research, but move the needle in their chosen discipline. In her research, Dr. Tarini has focused on ensuring that population-based newborn screening programs function efficiently and effectively with fewer hiccups at any place along the process.

Thanks to a heel stick to draw blood, an oxygen measurement, and a hearing test, U.S. babies are screened for select inherited health conditions, expediting treatment for infants and reducing the chances they’ll experience long-term health consequences.

“The complexity of this program that is able to test nearly all 4 million babies in the U.S. each year is nothing short of astounding. You have to know the child is born – anywhere in the state – and then between 24 and 48 hours of birth you have to do testing onsite, obtain a specific type of blood sample, send the blood sample to an off-site lab quickly, test the sample, find the child if the test is out of range, get the child evaluated and tested for the condition, then send them for treatment. Given the time pressures as well as the coordination of numerous people and organizations, the fact that this happens routinely is amazing. And like any complex process, there is always room for improvement,” she says.

Dr. Tarini’s research efforts have focused on those process improvements.

As just one example, the Advisory Committee on Heritable Disorders in Newborns and Children, a federal advisory committee on which she serves, was discussing how to eliminate delays in specimen processing to provide speedier results to families. One possible solution floated was to open labs all seven days, rather than just five days a week. Dr. Tarini advocated for partnering with health care engineers who could help model ways to make the specimen transport process more efficient, just like airlines and mail delivery services. A more efficient and effective solution was to match the specimen pick-up and delivery times more closely with the lab’s operational times – which maximizes lab resources and shortens wait times for parents.

Conceptual modeling comes so easily for her that she often leaps out of her seat mid-sentence, underscoring a point by jotting thoughts on a white board, doing it so often that her pens have run dry.

“It’s like a bus schedule: You want to find a bus that not only takes you to your destination but gets you there on time,” she says.

Dr. Tarini’s current observational study looks for opportunities to improve how parents in Minnesota and Iowa are given out-of-range newborn screening test results – especially false positives – and how that experience might shake their confidence in their child’s health as well as heighten their own stress level.

“After a false positive test result, are there parents who walk away from newborn screening with lingering stress about their child’s health? Can we predict who those parents might be and help them?” she asks.

Among the challenges is the newborn screening occurs so quickly after delivery that some emotionally and physically exhausted parents may not remember it was done. Then they get a call from the state with ominous results. Another challenge is standardizing communication approaches across dozens of birthing centers and hospitals.

“We know parents are concerned after receiving a false positive result, and some worry their infant remains vulnerable,” she says. “Can we change how we communicate – not just what we say, but how we say it – to alleviate those concerns?”