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little boy using asthma inhaler

Searching for the molecular underpinnings of asthma exacerbations

little boy using asthma inhaler

It’s long been known that colds, flu and other respiratory illnesses are major triggers for asthma exacerbations, says asthma expert Stephen J. Teach, M.D., MPH. Consequently, a significant body of research has focused on trying to figure out what’s happening on the cellular or molecular level as these illnesses progress to exacerbations.

People with asthma can be indistinguishable from people who don’t have this chronic airway disease – until they have an asthma attack, also known as an exacerbation. During these events, their airways become inflamed and swollen and produce an abundance of mucus, causing dangerous narrowing of the bronchial tubes that leads to coughing, wheezing and trouble breathing. These events are a major cause of morbidity and mortality, leading to the deaths of 10 U.S. residents every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s long been known that colds, flu and other respiratory illnesses are major triggers for asthma exacerbations, says Children’s National in Washington, D.C., asthma expert Stephen J. Teach, M.D., MPH. Consequently, a significant body of research has focused on trying to figure out what’s happening on the cellular or molecular level as these illnesses progress to exacerbations. Targeted searches have identified several different molecular pathways that appear to be key players in this phenomenon. However, Dr. Teach says researchers have been missing a complete and unbiased snapshot of all the important pathways in illness-triggered exacerbations and how they interrelate.

To develop this big picture view, Dr. Teach and  Inner-City Asthma Consortium colleagues recruited 208 children ages 6-17 years old with severe asthma – marked by the need for daily doses of inhaled corticosteroids, two hospitalizations or systemic corticosteroid treatments over the past year, and a high concentration of asthma-associated immune cells – from nine pediatric medical centers across the country, including Children’s National. (Inhaled corticosteroids are a class of medicine that calms inflamed airways.) The researchers collected samples of nasal secretions and blood from these patients at baseline, when all of them were healthy.

Then, they waited for these children to show symptoms of respiratory illnesses. Within six days of cold symptoms, the researchers took two more samples of nasal secretions and blood. They also administered breathing tests to determine whether these respiratory illnesses led to asthma exacerbations and recorded whether these patients were treated with systemic corticosteroids to stem the associated respiratory inflammation.

The researchers examined nasal fluid samples for evidence of viral infection during illness and used analytical methods to identify the causative virus. They analyzed all the samples they collected for changes in concentrations of various immune cells. They also looked globally in these samples for changes in gene expression compared with baseline and between the two collection periods during respiratory illness.

Together, this information told the molecular story about what took place after these children got sick and after some of them developed exacerbations. Of the 208 patients recruited, 106 got respiratory illnesses during the six-month study period, leading to a total of 154 illness events. Of those, 47 caused exacerbations, and 107 didn’t.

About half the exacerbations appeared to have been triggered by a rhinovirus, a cause of common colds, the research team reports in a study published online April 8, 2019, in Nature Immunology. The other children’s cold-like symptoms could have been triggered by pollution, allergens or other irritants.

In most exacerbations, virally triggered or not, the researchers saw early activation of a network of genes that appeared to be associated with SMAD3, a signaling molecule already known to be involved in airway inflammation. At the same time, genes that control a set of immune cells known as lymphocytes were turned down. However, as the exacerbation progressed and worsened, the researchers saw gene networks turned on that related to airway narrowing, mucus hypersecretion and activation of other immune cells.

Exacerbations triggered by viruses were associated with multiple inflammatory pathways, in contrast to those in which viruses weren’t found, which were associated with molecular pathways that affected cells in the airway lining.

The researchers validated these findings in 19 patients who each got respiratory illnesses at least twice during the study period but only developed an exacerbation during one of these episodes, finding the same upregulated and downregulated molecular pathways in these patients as in the study population as a whole. They also identified a set of molecular risk factors in patients at baseline – signatures of gene activation that appeared to put patients at risk for exacerbations when they got sick. When patients were treated with systemic corticosteroids during exacerbations, these medicines appeared to restore only some of the affected molecular pathways to normal, healthy levels. Other molecular pathways remained markedly changed.

Each finding could represent a new target for drugs that could prevent or more effectively treat exacerbations, keeping more patients with asthma healthy and out of the hospital.

“Our consortium study found increased gene expression of enzymes that produce molecules that contribute to narrowed airways and dilated blood vessels,” Dr. Teach adds. “This is especially intriguing because drugs that target kallikreins or bradykinin may help treat asthma attacks that aren’t caused by viruses.”

In addition to Dr. Teach, study co-authors include Lead Author Matthew C. Altman, University of Washington; Michelle A. Gill, Baomei Shao and Rebecca S. Gruchalla, all of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; Elizabeth Whalen and Scott Presnell of Benaroya Research Institute; Denise C. Babineau and Brett Jepson of Rho, Inc.; Andrew H. Liu, Children’s Hospital Colorado; George T. O’Connor, Boston University School of Medicine; Jacqueline A. Pongracic, Ann Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago; Carolyn M. Kercsmar and Gurjit K. Khurana Hershey, , Cincinnati Children’s Hospital; Edward M. Zoratti and Christine C. Johnson, Henry Ford Health System; Meyer Kattan, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons; Leonard B. Bacharier and Avraham Beigelman, Washington University, St. Louis; Steve M. Sigelman, Peter J. Gergen, Lisa M. Wheatley and Alkis Togias, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and James E. Gern, William W. Busse and Senior author Daniel J. Jackson, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Funding for research described in this post was provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under award numbers 1UM1AI114271 and UM2AI117870; CTSA under award numbers UL1TR000150, UL1TR001422 and 5UL1TR001425; the National Institutes of Health under award number UL1TR000451;  CTSI under award number 1UL1TR001430; CCTSI under award numbers UL1TR001082 and 5UM1AI114271; and NCATS under award numbers UL1 TR001876 and UL1TR002345.

Katie Donnelly

Firearm injuries disproportionately affect African American kids in DC Wards 7 and 8

Katie Donnelly

“Because the majority of patients in our analyses were injured through accidental shootings, this particular risk factor can help to inform policy makers about possible interventions to prevent future firearm injury, disability and death,” says Katie Donnelly, M.D.

Firearm injuries disproportionately impact African American young men living in Washington’s Wards 7 and 8 compared with other city wards, with nearly one-quarter of injuries suffered in the injured child’s home or at a friend’s home, according to a hot spot analysis presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

“We analyzed the addresses where youths were injured by firearms over a nearly 12-year period and found that about 60 percent of these shootings occurred in Ward 7 or Ward 8, lower socioeconomic neighborhoods when compared with Washington’s six other Wards,” says Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE, assistant chief of Children’s Division of Emergency Medicine and Trauma Services and the study’s senior author. “This granular detail will help to target resources and interventions to more effectively reduce firearm-related injury and death.”

In the retrospective, cross-sectional study, the Children’s research team looked at all children aged 18 and younger who were treated at Children’s National for firearm-related injuries from Jan. 1, 2006, to May 31, 2017. During that time, 122 children injured by firearms in Washington were treated at Children’s National, the only Level 1 pediatric trauma center in the nation’s Capitol:

  • Nearly 64 percent of these firearm-related injuries were accidental
  • The patients’ mean age was 12.9 years old
  • More than 94 percent of patients were African American and
  • Nearly 74 percent were male.

Of all injuries suffered by children, injuries due to firearms carry the highest mortality rates, the study authors write. About 3 percent of patients in Children’s study died from their firearm-related injuries. Among surviving youth:

  • Patients had a mean Injury Severity Score of 5.8. (The score for a “major trauma” is greater than 15.)
  • 54 percent required hospitalization, with a mean hospitalization of three days
  • Nearly 28 percent required surgery, with 14.8 percent transferred directly from the emergency department to the operating room and
  • Nearly 16 percent were admitted to the intensive care unit.

“Regrettably, firearm injuries remain a major public health hazard for our nation’s children and young adults,” adds Katie Donnelly, M.D., emergency medicine specialist and the study’s lead author. “Because the majority of patients in our analyses were injured through accidental shootings, this particular risk factor can help to inform policy makers about possible interventions to prevent future firearm injury, disability and death.”

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting poster presentatio

  • “Pediatric firearm-related injuries and outcomes in the District of Columbia.”
    • Monday, April 29, 2019, 5:45 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. (EST)

Katie Donnelly, M.D., emergency medicine specialist and lead author; Shilpa J. Patel, M.D., MPH, emergency medicine specialist and co-author; Gia M. Badolato, co-author; James Jackson, co-author; and Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE, assistant chief of Children’s Division of Emergency Medicine and Trauma Services and senior author.

Other Children’s research related to firearms presented during PAS 2019 includes:

April 27, 8 a.m.: “Protect kids, not guns: What pediatric providers can do to improve firearm safety.” Gabriella Azzarone, Asad Bandealy, M.D.; Priti Bhansali, M.D.; Eric Fleegler; Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE;  Alex Hogan; Sabah Iqbal; Kavita Parikh, M.D.; Shilpa J. Patel, M.D., MPH; Noe Romo; and Alyssa Silver.

April 29, 5:45 p.m.: “Emergency department visits for pediatric firearm-related injury: By intent of injury.” Shilpa J. Patel, M.D., MPH; Gia M. Badolato; Kavita Parikh, M.D.; Sabah Iqbal; and Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE.

April 29, 5:45 p.m.: “Assessing the intentionality of pediatric firearm injuries using ICD codes.” Katie Donnelly, M.D.; Gia M. Badolato; James Chamberlain, M.D.; and Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE.

April 30, 9:45 a.m.: “Defining a research agenda for the field of pediatric firearm injury prevention.” Libby Alpern; Patrick Carter; Rebecca Cunningham, Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE; Fred Rivara; and Eric Sigel.

Ololade Okito

Parents of older, healthier newborns with less social support less resilient

Ololade Okito

“We know that having a child hospitalized in the NICU can be a high-stress time for families,” says Ololade Okito, M.D., lead author of the cross-sectional study. “The good news is that as parental resiliency scores rise, we see a correlation with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Parents of older, healthier newborns who had less social support were less resilient during their child’s hospitalization in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), a finding that correlates with more symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Resiliency is the natural born, yet adaptable ability of people to bounce back in the face of significant adversity. Published research indicates that higher resilience is associated with reduced psychological distress, but the phenomenon had not been studied extensively in parents of children hospitalized in a NICU.

“We know that having a child hospitalized in the NICU can be a high-stress time for families,” says Ololade Okito, M.D., lead author of the cross-sectional study. “The good news is that as parental resiliency scores rise, we see a correlation with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Parents who feel they have good family support also have higher resilience scores.”

The project is an offshoot of a larger study examining the impact of peer mentoring by other NICU parents who have experienced the same emotional rollercoaster ride as their tiny infants sometimes thrived and other times struggled.

The research team enrolled 35 parents whose newborns were 34 weeks gestation and younger and administered a battery of validated surveys, including:

Forty percent of these parents had high resilience scores; parents whose infants were a mean of 27.3 gestational weeks and who had more severe health challenges reported higher resilience. Another 40% of these parents had elevated depressive symptoms, while 31% screened positive for anxiety. Parental distress impairs the quality of parent-child interactions and long-term child development, the research team writes.

“Higher NICU-related stress correlates with greater symptoms of depression and anxiety in parents,” says Lamia Soghier, M.D., MEd, medical director of Children’s neonatal intensive care unit and the study’s senior author. “Specifically targeting interventions to these parents may help to improve their resilience, decrease the stress of parenting a child in the NICU and give these kids a healthier start to life.”

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Parental resilience and psychological distress in the neonatal intensive care unit (PARENT) study”
    • Tuesday, April 30, 2019, 7:30 a.m. (EST)

Ololade Okito, M.D., lead author; Yvonne Yui, M.D., co-author; Nicole Herrera, MPH, co-author; Randi Streisand, Ph.D., chief, Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health, and co-author; Carrie Tully, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-author; Karen Fratantoni, M.D., MPH, medical director, Complex Care Program, and co-author; and Lamia Soghier, M.D., MEd, medical unit director, neonatal intensive care unit, and senior author; all of Children’s National.

Robin Steinhorn in the NICU

Coming together as a team for the good of the baby

Robin Steinhorn in the NICU

Children’s National has a new program to care for children who have severe bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a serious complication of preterm birth.

Around the 1-year-old’s crib is a tight circle of smiling adults, and at the foot of his bed is a menagerie of plush animals, each a different color and texture and shape to spark his curiosity and sharpen his intellect.

Gone are the days a newborn with extremely complex medical needs like Elijah would transfer from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to the pediatric intensive care unit and transition through a couple of other hospital units by the time he was discharged. Gone are the days when he’d see a variety of new physician faces at every stop. And gone are the days he’d be confined to his room, divorced from the sights and sounds and scents of the outside world, stimulation that helps little baby’s neural networks grow stronger.

Children’s National has a new program designed to meet the unique needs of children like Elijah who have severe bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), a common complication of preterm birth.

“It’s more forward-thinking – and I mean thinking for the future of each individual baby, and it’s allowing the baby to have one team and one location to take advantage of a deep knowledge of and relationship with that baby and family,” says Robin Steinhorn, M.D. Dr. Steinhorn is senior vice president of the Center for Hospital-Based Specialties and one of Children’s multidisciplinary team members who visited Elijah’s bed twice weekly during his lengthy hospitalization and who continues to see him regularly during outpatient visits.

“The pulmonologist, the neonatologist, the respiratory therapist, the physical therapist, the dietitian, the cardiologist – we all come as a team to work together for the good of the baby,” Dr. Steinhorn adds. “We stick with these babies through thick and thin. We will stick with that baby with this team and this location until they are ready to go home – and beyond.”

BPD, a serious lung condition, mostly affects extremely low birthweight preterm babies whose lungs were designed to continue developing inside the womb until the pregnancy reaches full term. Often born months before their due dates, these extremely vulnerable newborns have immature organs, including the lungs, which are not ready for the task of breathing air. Children’s program targets infants who experience respiratory failure from BPD. The respiratory support required for these infants ranges from oxygen delivered through a nasal cannula to mechanical ventilators.

Robin Steinhorn and Colleague

“It’s more forward-thinking – and I mean thinking for the future of each individual baby, and it’s allowing the baby to have one team and one location to take advantage of a deep knowledge of and relationship with that baby and family,” says Robin Steinhorn, M.D.

About 1 percent of all preterm births are extremely low birthweight, or less than 1,500 grams. Within that group, up to 40 percent will develop BPD. While they represent a small percentage of overall births, these very sick babies need comprehensive, focused care for the first few years of their lives. And some infants with severe BPD also have pulmonary hypertension which, at Children’s National, is co-managed by cardiology and pulmonary specialists.

Children’s BPD team not only focuses on the child’s survival and medical care, they focus on the neurodevelopmental and social care that a baby needs to thrive. From enhanced nutrition to occupational and physical therapy to a regular sleep cycle, the goal is to help these babies achieve their full potential.

“These babies are at tremendous risk for long-term developmental issues. Everything we do is geared to alleviate that,” adds John T. Berger III, M.D., director of Children’s Pulmonary Hypertension Program.

“Our NICU care is more focused, comprehensive and consistent,” agrees Mariam Said, M.D., a neonatologist on the team. “We’re also optimizing the timing of care and diagnostic testing that will directly impact health outcomes.”

Leaving no detail overlooked, the team also ensures that infants have age-appropriate developmental stimuli, like toys, and push for early mobility by getting children up and out of bed and into a chair or riding in a wagon.

“The standard approach is to keep the baby in a room with limited physical or occupational therapy and a lack of appropriate stimulation,” says Geovanny Perez, M.D., a pulmonologist on the team. “A normal baby interacts with their environment inside the home and outside the home. We aim to mimic that within the hospital environment.”

Dr. Steinhorn, who had long dreamed of creating this comprehensive team care approach adds that “it’s been so gratifying to see it adopted and embraced so quickly by Children’s NICU caregivers.”