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Steven Hardy

Steven Hardy, Ph.D., awarded prestigious NIH grant for sickle cell research, career development

Steven Hardy

Steven Hardy, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National, has been awarded a K23 Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in recognition of his progress toward a productive, independent clinical research career. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Mentored Career Development Awards are designed to provide early career investigators with the time and support needed to focus on research and develop new research capabilities that will propel them to lead innovative studies in the future.

Dr. Hardy, who has worked at Children’s National since 2013, specializes in the emotional, behavioral and cognitive aspects of children’s health, with a particular emphasis on evaluating and treating psychological difficulties among children with cancer or sickle cell disease. With the K23 award, he will receive nearly $700,000 over a five-year period, which will provide him with an intensive, supervised, patient-oriented research experience. The grant will support Dr. Hardy’s time to conduct research, allow him to attend additional trainings to enhance research skills, and fund a research project titled “Trajectory of Cognitive Functioning in Youth with Sickle Cell Disease without Cerebral Infarction.”

Many children with sickle cell disease (SCD) also have intellectual challenges which stem from two primary pathways – stroke and other disease-related central nervous system effects. While stroke is a major complication of SCD, the majority of children with SCD have no evidence of stroke but may still exhibit cognitive functioning challenges related to their disease. Such cognitive difficulties have practical implications for the 100,000 individuals in the SCD, as 20-40% of youth with SCD repeat a grade in school and fewer than half of adults with SCD are employed. Dr. Hardy’s project will focus on understanding the scope and trajectory of cognitive difficulties in children with SCD without evidence of stroke, as well as the mechanisms that precipitate disease-related cognitive decline. The study will characterize temporal relationships between biomarkers of SCD severity and changes in cognitive functioning to inform future development of risk stratification algorithms to predict cognitive decline. Armed with the ability to predict cognitive decline, families will have additional information to weigh when making decisions and providers will be better able to intervene and tailor treatment.

SIOP logo

Children’s National physicians attend the International Society of Paediatric Oncology in Japan

SIOP logo

From November 16 to 19, medical professionals, clinicians, nurses and oncology patients and families from around the globe gathered for the International Society of Paediatric Oncology (SIOP) in Kyoto, Japan. Pediatric experts in their respective fields Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., AeRang Kim, M.D., Ph.D., Steven Hardy, Ph.D., and Karun Sharma, M.D., attended SIOP representing Children’s National. The four-day scientific programme engaged those in pediatric oncology with educational lectures, keynote speakers, tailored sessions for survivors, families and support organizations, free paper sessions, specialist sessions and Meet the Expert talks.

Dr. Kim, an oncologist with the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders and a member of the solid tumor faculty at Children’s National, presented with Dr. Sharma, director of Interventional Radiology at Children’s, on “Interventional Radiology: Technology and Opportunities” in Meet the Expert talks on both Saturday and Sunday of the programme. They discussed background information, preclinical studies, current, ongoing studies of high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU), HIFU in combination with heat sensitive formulated chemotherapy and future directions. In 2017, Children’s National was the first U.S. children’s hospital to successfully use MR-HIFU to treat osteoid osteoma, and is currently accruing on early phase studies evaluating HIFU ablation and HIFU in combination with lyso-thermosensitive liposomal doxorubicin for pediatric patients with refractory/recurrent solid tumors.

Dr. Hardy, a pediatric psychologist in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s, presented on “Brief Psychosocial Screening to Identify Patients in Need of a Mental Health Treatment Referral in a Childhood Cancer Survivorship Clinic.” In his educational lecture, Dr. Hardy described findings that show a brief mental and behavioral health questionnaire given to patients in the Children’s National survivorship clinic is a sensitive screening tool that can identify patients in need of more formal psychosocial evaluation and treatment. He also presented data supporting the use of a lower threshold of psychological symptoms necessary to trigger discussions about mental health treatment compared to previous reports. The key implication of Dr. Hardy’s work is that survivorship clinics lacking embedded psychology support could adopt this questionnaire, which is publically available and translated into 86 languages, to help identify survivors with mental and behavioral health concerns and ensure appropriate referrals are made.

Dr. Dome, Vice President of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, served on the SIOP Scientific Programme Advisory Committee, which selected the topics for presentation.

SIOP provides an international forum for the sharing of new research and ideas related to pediatric oncology. The annual conference furthers the efforts made towards developing new treatments and cures and opens the conversation, encouraging innovation and collaboration with experts from around the world. Children’s National has taken part in SIOP for many years, most recently hosting the meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2017.

ASCAT Conference Attendees

Children’s National represented at ASCAT conference in London

ASCAT Conference Attendees

From left to right: Lisa Thaniel, Ph.D., Brittany Moffitt, Deepika Darbara, M.D., Steven Hardy, Ph.D., Andrew Campbell, M.D., Barbara Speller-Brown, DNP, Stefanie Margulies and Karen Smith-Wong all represented Children’s National at the ASCAT Conference in London.

Deepika Darbari, M.D., Andrew Campbell, M.D., and Steven Hardy, Ph.D., represented Children’s National at the Annual Sickle Cell Disease and Thalassemia (ASCAT) Conference in London in late October. The theme of this year’s conference was Sickle Cell Disease and Thalassemia: Bridging the Gap in Care and Research.

Dr. Darbari, a Children’s National hematologist, was the featured Grand Rounds speaker and led a pain management symposium. Dr. Darbari studies complications of sickle cell disease with an emphasis on pain. She conducts clinical and translational studies to better understand sickle cell pain and its management. She addressed the topics of pain mechanisms and phenotypes in sickle cell disease during her symposium.

Dr. Campbell, Director of the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Disease Program at Children’s National, has served on the steering committee for this annual international conference for the past two years, working alongside colleagues from across the globe to bring together multiple experts who work with children with blood disorders. Dr. Campbell remarks, “I’m pleased to promote and be a part of [this conference] because it’s one of the best sickle cell/thalassemia conferences in the world pushing the field forward with international representation.” He spoke at the conference during Dr. Darbari’s symposium, discussing sickle cell disease pain around the globe.

Dr. Hardy, a pediatric psychologist in the divisions of Blood and Marrow Transplant, Blood Disorders (Hematology) and Oncology and the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National, also presented at the conference on his abstract “Computerized Working Memory Training Improves Cognition in Youth with Sickle Cell Disease.” His abstract received the Best Oral Abstract Award at the conference and was awarded a 500 pound prize. In his work at Children’s National, Dr. Hardy provides evidence-based psychological assessments and treatments for children with cancer, sickle cell disease and other blood disorders, as well as those patients undergoing bone marrow transplants.

Poster presentations were also given by Barbara Speller Brown, NP, DNP, Lisa Thaniel, MSW, Ph.D., Brittany Moffitt, MSW, and Stefanie Margulies, senior clinical research coordinator, all representing Children’s National at the ASCAT Conference.

Steven Hardy presents sickle cell findings at ASPHO annual meeting

Steven Hardy

Steven Hardy, Ph.D.

Steven Hardy, Ph.D. recently joined medical leaders in Montréal for the American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology’s 30th Annual Meeting, where he and his team presented key findings from their cognitive and psychosocial research program involving youth with Sickle Cell Disease (SCD).
The first presentation, “Processing Speed and Academic Fluency in Youth With Sickle Cell Disease,” showed that, on average, children with SCD are less able to quickly and efficiently process information than their healthy counterparts. This weakness negatively impacted their academic performance, particularly in math fluency, and increased the children’s odds of having to repeat a grade in school.

A second presentation, “Quality of Life and School Absences in Children With Sickle Cell Disease With and Without Asthma,” explored the differences in quality of life between children with SCD only and children with both SCD and asthma (a common comorbidity). Dr. Hardy and his team found that children with both diseases tend to experience a greater impact on quality of life. Other factors – such as the child’s IQ and the family’s financial, material and social resources – moderated this risk.

The presentations were met with enthusiasm from renowned medical professionals from around the world, all of whom came together for collaborative and constructive sessions to move the needle on pediatric care.

In Brief- Fetal Medicine

Cognitive training exercises at home help kids with sickle cell boost visuospatial working memory

A team led by Children’s National Health System clinicians and research scientists attempted to identify novel approaches to boost working memory in children who suffer from sickle cell disease.

A team led by Children’s National Health System clinicians and research scientists attempted to identify novel approaches to boost working memory in children who suffer from sickle cell disease.

Youths with sickle cell disease who used hand-held computers to play game-like exercises that get harder as a user’s skill level rises improved their visuospatial working memory (WM). Children with sickle cell disease, however, completed fewer training sessions during an initial study compared with children with other disease-related WM deficits.

A team led by Children’s National Health System clinicians and research scientists attempted to identify novel approaches to boost WM in children who suffer from sickle cell disease. Kids who have this red blood cell disorder inherit abnormal hemoglobin genes from each parent. Rather than slipping through large and small vessels to ferry oxygen throughout the body, their stiff, sickle-shaped red blood cells stick to vessel walls, impeding blood supply and triggering sudden pain. Children with sickle cell disease have more difficulty completing tasks that place demands on one’s WM, the brain function responsible for temporarily remembering information and manipulating that information to facilitate learning and reasoning. As a result, they’re more likely to repeat a grade, require special academic services, and to have difficulty maintaining employment as adults.

Because computerized cognitive training programs have been used with success to boost WM for children with other health conditions, such as childhood cancer, the research team sought to examine the feasibility of using the technique for kids with sickle cell disease. “This small study highlights the challenges and opportunities of implementing a home-based cognitive training intervention with youths who have sickle cell disease,” says Steven J. Hardy, PhD, a pediatric psychologist in the Divisions of Hematology, Oncology, and Blood and Marrow Transplantation at Children’s National. “While a larger, randomized controlled clinical trial is needed to better characterize efficacy, our initial work indicates that Cogmed is acceptable and moderately feasible in this population.”

Children’s National is home to the Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) Program, one of the nation’s largest, most comprehensive pediatric programs that cares for 1,350 patients younger than 21 annually. Over 15 months, the team recruited youths aged 7 to 16 participating in the program who had an intelligence quotient of at least 70 and an absolute or relative memory deficit. Those who lacked access to a tablet computer were loaned an iPad Mini 2 loaded with Cogmed RM, an interactive audiovisual cognitive training program that consists of exercises that get progressively more challenging. A clinical psychologist provided coaching and moral support through weekly telephone calls to review progress and challenges, and to offer tips on how to optimize the youths’ progress.

Six of 12 eligible participants – all girls – completed by finishing at least 20 sessions of the program. The mean number of sessions completed was 15.83, and the kids spent a median of 725 minutes working actively on Cogmed exercises. “Participants who completed Cogmed indicated that they perceived greater levels of social support from teachers,” Hardy and colleagues write in the study, published by Pediatric Blood & Cancer. “[T]here was not a statistical difference in perceived parent support.”

Among those children who completed Cogmed, standard scores increased an average of 5.05 on a measure of visuospatial short-term memory, 19.72 on a measure of verbal WM, 27.53 on a measure of visuospatial short-term memory, and 23.82 on a measure of visuospatial WM. The researchers also observed a normalizing of memory functioning for those who finished Cogmed, as a significant portion of participants scored below the average range before using Cogmed and most scored in the average range or higher on memory tests after finishing the program.

“In this initial feasibility trial, adherence to Cogmed was lower than expected (50 percent completion) compared to adherence rates of other samples of children with medical histories, including patients with symptomatic epilepsy and youth treated for cancer,” Hardy and co-authors write. “Thus, additional modifications may be needed to achieve consistent delivery of the intervention to youth with SCD.”

Related Resources: Research at a Glance