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schistosome blood fluke

Therapy derived from parasitic worms downregulates proinflammatory pathways

schistosome blood fluke

A therapy derived from the eggs of the parasitic Schistosoma helps to protect against one of chemotherapy’s debilitating side effects by significantly downregulating major proinflammatory pathways, reducing inflammation.

A therapy derived from the eggs of parasitic worms helps to protect against one of chemotherapy’s debilitating side effects by significantly downregulating major proinflammatory pathways and reducing inflammation, indicates the first transcriptome-wide profiling of the bladder during ifosfamide-induced hemorrhagic cystitis.

The experimental model study findings were published online Feb. 7, 2019, in Scientific Reports.

With hemorrhagic cystitis, a condition that can be triggered by anti-cancer therapies like the chemotherapy drug ifosfamide and other oxazaphosphorines, the lining of the bladder becomes inflamed and begins to bleed. Existing treatments on the market carry their own side effects, and the leading therapy does not treat established hemorrhagic cystitis.

Around the world, people can become exposed to parasitic Schistosoma eggs through contaminated freshwater. Once inside the body, the parasitic worms mate and produce eggs; these eggs are the trigger for symptoms like inflammation. To keep their human hosts alive, the parasitic worms tamp down excess inflammation by secreting a binding protein with anti-inflammatory properties.

With that biological knowledge in mind, a research team led by Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., tested a single dose of IPSE, an Interleukin-4 inducing, Schistosoma parasite-derived anti-inflammatory molecule and found that it reduced inflammation, bleeding and urothelial sloughing that occurs with ifosfamide-related hemorrhagic cystitis.

In this follow-up project, experimental models were treated with ifosfamide to learn more about IPSE’s protective powers.

The preclinical models were given either saline or IPSE before the ifosfamide challenge. The bladders of the experimental models treated with ifosfamide had classic symptoms, including marked swelling (edema), dysregulated contraction, bleeding and urothelial sloughing. In contrast, experimental models “pre-treated” with IPSE were shielded from urothelial sloughing and inflammation, the study team found.

Transcriptional profiling of the experimental models’ bladders found the IL-1-B TNFa-IL-6 proinflammatory cascade via NFkB and STAT3 pathways serving as the key driver of inflammation. Pretreatment with IPSE slashed the overexpression of Il-1b, Tnfa and Il6 by 50 percent. IPSE drove significant downregulation of major proinflammatory pathways, including the IL-1-B TNFa-IL-6 pathways, interferon signaling and reduced (but did not eliminate) oxidative stress.

“Taken together, we have identified signatures of acute-phase inflammation and oxidative stress in ifosfamide-injured bladder, which are reversed by pretreatment with IPSE,” says Dr. Hsieh, a urologist at Children’s National Health System and the study’s senior author. “These preliminary findings reveal several pathways that could be therapeutically targeted to prevent ifosfamide-induced hemorrhagic cystitis in humans.”

When certain chemotherapy drugs are metabolized by the body, the toxin acrolein is produced and builds up in urine. 2-mercaptoethane sulfonate Na (MESNA) binds to acrolein to prevent urotoxicity. By contrast, IPSE targets inflammation at the source, reversing inflammatory changes that damage the bladder.

“Our work demonstrates that there may be therapeutic potential for naturally occurring anti-inflammatory molecules, including pathogen-derived factors, as alternative or complementary therapies for ifosfamide-induced hemorrhagic cystitis,” Dr. Hsieh adds.

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, study co-authors include Lead Author Evaristus C. Mbanefo and Rebecca Zee, Children’s National; Loc Le, Nirad Banskota and Kenji Ishida, Biomedical Research Institute; Luke F. Pennington and Theodore S. Jardetzky, Stanford University; Justin I. Odegaard, Guardant Health; Abdulaziz Alouffi, King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology; and Franco H. Falcone, University of Nottingham.

Financial support for the research described in this report was provided by the Margaret A. Stirewalt Endowment, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases under award R01DK113504, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under award R56AI119168 and a Urology Care Foundation Research Scholar Award.

Dr. Michael Hsieh's clay shield

Innovative urologist Michael Hsieh takes unbeaten path

Dr. Michael Hsieh's clay shield

For an elementary school art project, Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., was instructed to fashion a coat of arms out of clay. In addition to panels for truth, justice and Taiwan, in the shield’s M.D. panel, a snake twists around a rod, like the staff for Asclepius, a Greek god associated with healing.

Children’s urologist Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., knew from age 10 that he would become a doctor. Proof is at his parents’ home. For an elementary school art project, students were instructed to fashion a coat of arms out of clay. In addition to panels for truth, justice and Taiwan, in the shield’s M.D. panel, a snake twists around a rod, like the staff for Asclepius, a Greek god associated with healing.

“I liked science. When I can use it to help patients, that is very rewarding,” says Dr. Hsieh, the first doctor in his family.

These days, Dr. Hsieh’s Twitter profile serves as a digital coat of arms, describing him as “tinker, tailor,” #UTI #biologist, epithelial #immunologist, helminthologist and #urologist.

Tinker/tailor is shorthand for the mystery drama, “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” he explains, adding that the “tinker” part also refers “to the fact that I am always questioning things, and science is about experimentation, trying to seek answers to questions.”

While still in medical school during a rotation Dr. Hsieh saw a bladder operation on a young child and thought it was “amazing.” That experience in part inspired Dr. Hsieh to become a urologist and bladder scientist. His training in immunology and study of the bladder naturally led him to study urinary tract infections and parasitic worms that affect the urinary tract. In addition, thanks to R01 funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Hsieh is co-principal investigator with Axel Krieger, University of Maryland, and Jin U. Kang, Johns Hopkins, on a project to develop imaging robots for supervised autonomous surgery on soft tissue.

The $1 million in NIH funding pushes the boundaries on amazing by using multi-spectral imaging technology and improved techniques to reduce surgical complications.

Anastomosis is a technique used by surgeons to join one thing to another, whether it’s a vascular surgeon suturing blood vessels, an orthopedic surgeon joining muscles or a urologist stitching healthy parts of the urinary tract back together. Complications can set in if their stitching is too tight, prompting scar tissue to form, or too loose, letting fluid seep out.

“The human eye can see a narrow spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. These multi-spectral imaging cameras would see across greater set of wavelengths,” he says.

The project has three aims: figuring out the best way to place sutures using multi-spectral imaging, accurately tracking soft tissue as they model suturing and comparing the handicraft of a robot against anastomosis hand-sewn by surgeons.

“I like challenges, and I like new things. I am definitely not interested in doing permutations of other people’s work,” Dr. Hsieh explains. “I would much rather go on a path that hasn’t been tread. It is more difficult in some ways, but on a day-to-day basis, I know I am making a contribution.”

In another innovative research project, Dr. Hsieh leveraged a protein secreted by a parasitic worm, Schistosoma haematobium, that suppresses inflammation in hosts as a new therapeutic approach for chemotherapy-induced hemorrhagic cystitis, a form of inflammation of the bladder.

Watching his first surgery nearly 30 years ago, he had no idea robots might one day vie to take over some part of that complicated procedure, or that parasite proteins could be harnessed as drugs. However, he has a clear idea which innovations could be on the horizon for urology in the next three decades.

“My hope is 30 years from now, we will have a solid UTI vaccine and more non-antibiotic therapies. UTIs are the second-most common bacterial infection in childhood and, in severe cases, can contribute to kidney failure,” he says.

Globally, parasitic worms pose an ongoing challenge, affecting more than 1 billion worldwide – second only to malaria. People persistently infected by schistosome worms fail to reach their growth potential, struggle academically and lack sufficient energy for exercise or work.


“There is a feeling that the infection prevalence might be decreasing globally, but not as quickly as everyone hopes. In 30 years perhaps with more mass drug administration and additional drugs – including a vaccine – we’ll have it close to eliminated globally. It would become more like polio, casting a slim shadow with small pockets of infection here or there, rather than consigning millions to perpetual poverty.”

Lactobacillis-Bacteria

Does ZIP code factor into genitourinary system health?

Lactobacillis-Bacteria

Clinicians suspect that taking probiotics, such as lactobacillus supplements, and making changes to diet may prevent urinary diseases that occur commonly among pediatric patients. A research team led by Children’s faculty is exploring whether changes in the built environment also affect the urinary microbiome.

Emerging evidence suggests that the variety and volume of bacteria that reside in the bladder – the urinary microbiome – significantly impact whether people’s genitourinary systems remain healthy or become susceptible to disease.

Already, clinicians suspect that taking probiotics and making changes to diet may prevent urinary diseases that occur commonly among pediatric patients. A research team led by Children’s faculty is exploring whether changes in the built environment also affect the urinary microbiome.

Using experimental models, they looked at how stable the urinary microbiome was over time. Then, they measured the potential effect of changing the built environment on the urinary microbiome of preclinical models.

They did this by following six C57BL/6 experimental models for five months, starting from when they were nine weeks old. They collected urine specimens when the study began and repeated sample collections each month. The multidisciplinary team isolated microbial DNA from these specimens to determine the makeup of the bacterial community present in their urinary tracts.

All of the experimental models shared a single cage, drank the same water and ate the exact same chow. At four months, however, they moved the preclinical models to a different facility within the same county. Their chow and bedding remained unchanged, but the water source changed since they received tap water at both locations.

“There were no changes in the proportion of specific bacteria in the urinary microbiomes from month zero through month five, which means the urinary microbiomes of healthy experimental models remain stable over time,” says Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., a urologist at Children’s National Health System and senior author of the work presented during the Pediatric Urology Fall Conference. “However, the convergence of the Shannon Diversity Index, the clustering seen on Principal coordinate analyses and changes in functional analyses taken as a whole suggest that an overall shift of the urinary microbiome occurred due to a change in the physical environment.”

This work suggests that where patients live could influence which bacteria grow in the urinary tracts, including during urinary tract infections.

The Societies for Pediatric Urology’s Pediatric Urology Fall Conference

  • “Effects of time and the built environment on the stability of the mouse urinary microbiome: implications for clinical utility.”

Catherine S. Forster, M.D., MS, pediatric hospitalist, Children’s National; James Cody, Ph.D., Biomedical Research Institute; Nirad Banskota, MS, Biomedical Research Institute; Crystal Stroud, MS, Children’s National; Ljubica Caldovic, Ph.D., principal investigator, Children’s National; and Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., urologist, Children’s National.

Bladder cancer’s unique bacterial “fingerprint”

Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

Decades ago, researchers thought that the native bacteria scattered throughout the human body—such as in the gut, the oral cavity and the skin—served little useful purpose. This microbiota, whose numbers at least match those of the cells in the body they live on and in, were considered mostly harmless hitchhikers.

More recently, research has revealed that these natural flora play key roles in maintaining and promoting health. In addition, studies have shown that understanding what a “typical” microbiome looks like and how it might change over time can provide an early warning system for some health conditions, including cancer.

Now, a small, multi-institutional study conducted in experimental models suggests that as bladder cancer progresses, it appears to be associated with a unique bacterial fingerprint within the bladder—a place thought to be bacteria-free except in the case of infection until just a few years ago. The finding opens the possibility of a new way to spot the disease earlier.

Bladder cancer is the fourth-most common malignancy among U.S. men but, despite its prevalence, mortality rates have remained stubbornly high. Patients often are diagnosed late, after bladder cancer has advanced. And, it remains difficult to discern which patients with non-invasive bladder cancer will go on to develop muscle-invasive disease.

Already, researchers know that patients with grade 4 oral squamous cell carcinoma, women with increasingly severe grades of cervical cancer and patients with cirrhosis who develop liver cancer have altered oral, vaginal and gut microbiomes, respectively.

New technological advances have led to identification of a diverse community of bacteria within the bladder, the urinary microbiome. Leveraging these tools, a research team that includes Children’s National Health System investigators studied whether an experimental model’s urinary bacterial community changed as bladder cancer progressed, evolving from a microbiome into a urinary “oncobiome.”

To test the hypothesis, the research team led by Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., a Children’s urologist, exposed an experimental model of bladder cancer to a bladder-specific cancer-causing agent, n-butyl-n-(4-hydroxybutyl) nitrosamine (BBN). Bladder cancers induced by BBN closely resemble human cancers in tissue structure at the microscopic level and by gene expression analyses. Ten of the preclinical models received a .05 percent concentration of BBN in their drinking water over five months and were housed together. Ten other experimental models received regular tap water and shared a separate, adjacent cage.

Researchers collected urine samples ranging from 10 to 100 microliters at the beginning of the longitudinal study, one week after it began, then once monthly. They isolated microbial DNA from the urine and quantified it to determine how much DNA was microbial. All of the bladders from experimental models exposed to BBN and two bladders from the control group were analyzed by a pathologist trained in bladder biology.

According to the study published online July 5, 2018, by the biology preprint server Biorxiv, they found a range of pathologies:

  • Five of the experimental models that received BBN did not develop cancer but had histology consistent with inflammation. Three had precancer on histology: urothelial dysplasia, hyperplasia or carcinoma in situ. Two developed cancer: invasive urothelial carcinomas, one of which had features of a squamous cell carcinoma.
  • The experimental model that developed invasive carcinoma had markedly different urinary bacteria at baseline, with Rubellimicrobium, a gram negative organism found in soil that has not been associated with disease previously, Escherichia and Kaistobacter, also found in soil, as the most prominent bacteria. By contrast, in the other experimental models the most common urinary bacteria were Escherichia, Prevotella, Veillonella, Streptococcus, Staphyloccoccus and Neisseria.
  • By month four, the majority of experimental models exposed to BBN had significantly higher proportion of Gardnerella and Bifidobacterium compared with their control group counterparts.

“Closely analyzing the urinary bacterial community among experimental models exposed to BBN, we saw distinct differences in microbial profiles by month four that were not present in earlier months,” Dr. Hsieh says. “While Gardnerella is associated with the development of cancer, Bifidobacterium has been shown to exert antitumor immunity, and its increasing abundance points to the need for additional research to understand its precise role in oncogenesis.”

Dr. Hsieh adds that although the study is small, its findings are of significance to children who are prone to developing urinary tract infections (UTIs), including children with spina bifida, due to the association between UTIs and bladder cancer. “This work is important because it not only suggests that the urinary microbiome could be used to diagnose bladder cancer, but that it could also perhaps predict cancer outcomes. If the urinary microbiome contributes to bladder carcinogenesis, it may be possible to favorably change the microbiome through antibiotics and/or probiotics in order to treat bladder cancer.”

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, co-authors include Catherine S. Forster, M.D., M.S., and Crystal Stroud, of Children’s National; James J. Cody, Nirad Banskota, Yi-Ju Hsieh and Olivia Lamanna, of the Biomedical Research Institute; Dannah Farah and Ljubica Caldovic, of The George Washington University; and Olfat Hammam, of Theodor Bilharz Research Institute.

Research reported in this news release was supported by the National Institutes of Health under award number R01 DK113504 and the Margaret A. Stirewalt Endowment.

Schistosoma haematobium egg

For hemorrhagic cystitis, harnessing the power of a parasite

Schistosoma haematobium egg

“Urogenital Schistosoma infestation, which is caused by S. haematobium, also causes hemorrhagic cystitis, likely by triggering inflammation when the parasite’s eggs are deposited in the bladder wall or as eggs pass from the bladder into the urinary stream. S. haematobium eggs secrete proteins, including IPSE, that ensure human hosts are not so sickened that they succumb to hemorrhagic cystitis,” says Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of U.S. patients – and even more throughout the world – are prescribed cyclophosphamide or ifosfamide. These two chemotherapy drugs can be life-saving for a wide range of pediatric cancers, including leukemias and cancers of the eyes and nerves. However, these therapies come with a serious side effect: Both cause hemorrhagic cystitis in up to 40 percent of patients. This debilitating condition is characterized by severe inflammation in the bladder that can cause tremendous pain, life-threatening bleeding, and frequent and urgent urination.

Infection with a parasitic worm called Schistosoma haematobium also causes hemorrhagic cystitis, but this organism has a fail-safe: To keep its host alive, the parasite secretes a protein that suppresses inflammation and the associated pain and bleeding.

In a new study, a Children’s-led research team harnessed this protein to serve as a new therapy for chemotherapy-induced hemorrhagic cystitis.

“Urogenital Schistosoma infestation, which is caused by S. haematobium, also causes hemorrhagic cystitis, likely by triggering inflammation when the parasite’s eggs are deposited in the bladder wall or as eggs pass from the bladder into the urinary stream. S. haematobium eggs secrete proteins, including IPSE, that ensure human hosts are not so sickened that they succumb to hemorrhagic cystitis,” says Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., senior author of the study published April 3, 2018, by The FASEB Journal. “This work in an experimental model is the first published report of exploiting an uropathogen-derived host modulatory molecule in a clinically relevant model of bladder disease, and it points to the potential utility of this as an alternate treatment approach.”

S. mansoni IPSE binds to Immunoglobulin E (IgE), an antibody produced by the immune system that is expressed on the surface of basophils, a type of immune cell; and mast cells, another immune cell that mediates inflammation; and sequesters chemokines, signaling proteins that alert white cells to infection sites. The team produced an ortholog of the uropathogen-derived protein. A single IV dose proved superior to multiple doses of 2-Mercaptoethane sulfonate sodium (MESNA), the current standard of care, in suppressing chemotherapy-induced bladder hemorrhaging in an experimental model. It was equally potent as MESNA in dampening chemotherapy-induced pain, the research team finds.

“The current array of medicines we use to treat hemorrhagic cystitis all have shortcomings, so there is a definite need for novel therapeutic options,” says Dr. Hsieh, a Children’s National Health System urologist. “And other ongoing research projects have the potential to further expand patients’ treatment options by leveraging other urogenital parasite-derived, immune-modulating molecules to treat inflammatory bowel diseases and autoimmune disorders.”

Future research will aim to describe the precise molecular mechanisms of action, as well as to generate other orthologs that boost efficacy while reducing side effects.

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, Children’s study co-authors include Lead Author, Evaristus C. Mbanefo; Loc Le and Luke F. Pennington; Justin I. Odegaard and Theodore S. Jardetzky, Stanford University; Abdulaziz Alouffi, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology; and Franco H. Falcone, University of Nottingham.

Financial support for this research was provided by National Institutes of Health under award number RO1-DK113504.

Staphylococcus

How our bladder’s microbiota affect health

Staphylococcus

The presence of bacteria such as Staphylococcus in the urine is linked to the incidence and severity of urge urinary incontinence as well as treatment success.

About half of the cells in our bodies aren’t really “ours” at all. They’re the microbiota: The vast array of microorganisms that live in our gut, skin, oral cavity and other places. Decades ago, researchers thought that these organisms simply happened to colonize these areas, playing only a tangential role in health, for example, helping to break down food in the intestines or causing cavities. More recent work has revealed the incredibly complex role they play in diseases ranging from diabetes and schizophrenia.

The bladder is no exception. Just a single decade ago, the bladder was thought to be a sterile environment. But that view has shifted radically, with more sensitive cultivation methods and precise 16S rRNA gene-sequencing techniques revealing a significant bladder microbiome that could have an enormous impact on pediatric urologic diseases. These findings have opened brand new fields of research aimed at clarifying the role that the bladder’s microbiome plays in common urological diseases that affect children, according to a review article published online Feb. 22, 2018, by Current Urology Reports.

“There is a growing appreciation for the role of diverse bacteria in contributing to improved health as well as triggering disease processes or exacerbating illness,” says Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Clinic for Adolescent and Adult Pediatric Onset Urology (CAPITUL) at Children’s National Health System and study senior author. “Already, we know that probiotics and dietary modifications have the potential to play powerful roles in preventing urinary diseases that commonly occur among pediatric patients,” Dr. Hsieh says. This underscores the importance of conducting even more studies to improve our understanding and to identify new therapies for health conditions that resist current treatment options.”

The review conducted by Dr. Hsieh and co-authors highlights the effects of the microbiome on a number of urologic diseases that affect children, including:

  • Urinary tract infection A number of studies point to the association between decreased microbial diversity and the incidence of what is commonly called urinary tract infection (UTI) or “dysbiosis.” This relationship suggests that using probiotics to replace or supplement antibiotics could favorably alter the urinary microbiome. Future research will focus on the pathophysiological role of the microbiome to determine whether it can be manipulated to prevent or treat UTIs.
  • Urge urinary incontinence While data vary by study, the presence of bacteria in the urine, especially certain bacterial species – such as Gardnerella, Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Actinomyces, Aerococcus, Corynebacterium and Oligella – are linked to the incidence and severity of urge urinary incontinence (UUI) as well as treatment success. Most studies find an association between greater genitourinary biodiversity and reduced incidence and lessened severity of UUI as well as improved treatment response. Future research will focus on further clarifying this relationship.
  • Urolithiasis Calcium oxalate stones, the most common type of kidney stone, have a microbiome that differs from the urinary microbiome leading researchers to question whether the stone’s own bacterial makeup could help to predict recurrence of future kidney stones. What’s more, Oxalobacter formigenes, a gram-negative bacterium, lowers oxalate levels in the blood and are associated with a 70 percent reduction in the risk of kidney stones forming. In an experimental model, fecal transplants with the full microbiome represented had a pronounced and persistent effect on oxalate production. Patients who receive some antibiotics often have reduced rates of formigenes colonization. However, the bacteria are resistant to amoxicillin, augmentin, ceftriaxone and vancomycin, which could point to preferential use of these antibiotics to stave off disease and ward off kidney stone formation.

Additional authors include Daniel Gerber, study lead author, The Georgetown University School of Medicine and Health Sciences; and Catherine Forster, M.D., study co-author, Children’s National.

Love is in the air and, for parasites, inside our bodies

Michael H. Hsieh

As featured in a PBS video, schistosome worms form lifelong bonds and females produce thousands of eggs daily only when they live inside human hosts, says Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

“Love is in the air, the sea, the earth and all over and inside our bodies,” the PBS Valentine’s Day-themed video begins. As the public television station notes, what humans consider romance can look vastly different for creatures big and small, including serenading mice, spiders who wrap their gifts in silk and necking giraffes.

The “spooning” parasites segment of the video is where viewers see research conducted by Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Clinic for Adolescent and Adult PedIatric OnseT UroLogy at Children’s National Health System, and video filmed in his lab.

Schistosomiasis, a chronic infection with schistosome worms, is a distinctly one-sided love affair. As shown in Dr. Hsieh’s video clips, the male worm is shorter and fatter and equipped with a groove, a love canal where the longer, thinner female lodges, enabling the pair to mate for decades. This lifelong bond and the thousands of eggs it produces daily can only occur when the worms are inside the human host, Dr. Hsieh says.

While the video stresses Valentine’s Day romance, there are few rosy outcomes for humans who are the subject of the schistosome worms’ attention.

“Heavily and chronically infected individuals can have lots of problems,” Dr. Hsieh says. “This is a stunting and wasting health condition that prevents people from reaching their growth potential, impairs their academic performance and leaves them sapped of the energy needed to exercise or work. It truly perpetuates a cycle of poverty, particularly for affected children.”

Even the potential bright spot in this sobering story, the ability of the body’s immune system to fend off the parasitic worms, is only partly good news.

Schistosome worms have co-evolved with their human hosts, learning to take advantage of human vulnerabilities. Take the immune system. If it kicks too far into overdrive in trying to wall off the eggs from the rest of the body, it can interfere with organ function and trigger liver failure, kidney failure and early onset of bladder cancer, he says.

However, Dr. Hsieh and other schistosomiasis researchers are working on ways to positively harness the human immune response to schistosome worms, including developing diagnostics, drugs and vaccines. He says he and his colleagues would “love” to eliminate schistosomiasis as a global scourge.

Twitter Pediatric Urology Journal Club @pedurojc

Journal club, with a 140-character limit

Twitter Pediatric Urology Journal Club @pedurojc

@perforin & @chrbayne have launched a new journal club focused on pediatric urology via Twitter, a platform that democratizes and distills the academic discussion.

Journal club is a rite of passage for nearly everyone who works in an academic laboratory. What might sound like an exclusive group of readers and authors united by a secret handshake is actually a regular meeting of scientists – faculty members and young trainees alike – who gather to discuss a highlighted paper in their field of expertise.

Some of these gatherings might involve a handful of people from the same lab; others might include a larger group from the same institutional department or division. Typically, one person presents a paper, sharing all the relevant details about a study’s methodology and conclusions. Afterward, everyone has the chance to pose questions, make comments and thoroughly discuss conclusions.

“It’s an excellent academic opportunity in terms of teaching and training of early career scientists and clinicians, and it remains useful no matter what stage you are in your career,” says Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., a urologist who directs the Clinic for Adolescent and Adult PedIatric OnseT UroLogy (CAPITUL) at Children’s National Health System who has participated in a heavy share of journal club meetings over the years.

But, what if journal club didn’t have to adhere to this traditional format? What if this academic discussion could move to a venue more fitting for the 21st century, more inclusive of scientists in different geographic locations, with varying viewpoints and expertise?

That’s what Dr. Hsieh and others are trying to accomplish with a new pediatric urology-focused journal club on Twitter. When Christopher Bayne, a second-year fellow training in pediatric urology at Children’s National under Dr. Hsieh’s mentorship, approached him with the idea, Dr. Hsieh said that he jumped at the chance.

Traditional journal clubs, the two explain, can be hindered by several factors. One is a tendency toward “group think,” Dr. Hsieh says – members of the same lab, or even the same institution, tend to have the same training and practices, so they’re less likely to feel comfortable introducing new ideas about these areas into the discussion. Journal club discussions also are limited by uncertainties about what a study author might have had in mind with their methodology and conclusions. Study authors are rarely included in the discussion, Dr. Hsieh adds.

Michael Hsieh

“It’s an excellent academic opportunity in terms of teaching and training of early career scientists and clinicians, and it remains useful no matter what stage you are in your career,” says Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., a urologist who directs the Clinic for Adolescent and Adult PedIatric OnseT UroLogy (CAPITUL) at Children’s National Health System.

Twitter, Bayne says, offers an easy way around these barriers. Rather than including just members of the same lab, their Pediatric Urology Journal Club (PUJC) can accommodate any registered Twitter user in their discussions. That means that any interested person around the world – researchers, clinician-scientists, other health care providers, as well as patients and their families, for example – can participate in the monthly discussions.

Participation also isn’t dictated by geography. During recent PUJC meetings, individuals joined the thread from Brazil, Ireland and Turkey. The meetings, sponsored by the Journal of Pediatric Urology, take place in the first days to weeks after the selected paper has been available under “open access,” giving anyone a chance to read it – even if they lack a journal subscription. This format enables all participants to join threads, erasing the restrictions of geography or busy clinical and research schedules.

Thus far, the meetings have included papers on:

  • A comparison of the cost and complications of performing a surgery either robotically or through an open procedure to fix the tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder in patients with a condition known as vesicouretal reflux, in which urine flows in the wrong direction.
  • The pros and cons of treating varicoceles, enlarged veins inside the scrotum that potentially cause fertility problems. The condition is asymptomatic in adolescents.
  • The importance of the diameter of the ureter, the part of the tube closest to the outside of the body that carries urine to be expelled, for resolving vesicouretal reflux, an abnormal flow of urine.

This new platform has attracted a core group of relatively young and young-at-heart devotees, Bayne says. He and other organizers have included study authors in every meeting thus far, often guiding older and Twitter-naive scientists through the process of creating an account.

And the typical 140-character limit Twitter imposes on comments known as tweets? “It might be counterintuitive,” Bayne says, “but I see the character limit as one of this journal club’s biggest strengths.” This cutoff encourages discussion members to distill their thoughts, often including two or three distinct points, into concise and deeply meaningful statements. “Participants have really latched on to the efficiency of this approach to learning about a topic and having a lively discussion.”

Thus far, their approach has been increasing in popularity. Their very first PUJC meeting in February 2017 attracted a modest number of just 24 active participants who sent 310 tweets, but generated nearly 136,000 impressions, or views.

The researchers plan to continue the monthly PUJC meetings through the Twitter handle @pedurojc. You can follow updates from Dr. Hsieh on his handle: @perforin and updates from Bayne’s on his: @chrbayne.

Michael Hsieh

Michael Hsieh receives grant to explore parasite proteins for pain relief

Michael Hsieh

Michael Hsieh, M.D., hopes to use parasite proteins to alleviate pain in multiple types of bladder inflammation.

Children’s National Health System Urologist Michael Hsieh, M.D., was awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to optimize a set of parasite proteins that could alleviate pain in multiple types of bladder inflammation.

The $1 million R01 grant will fund a five-year study to exploit a parasite-derived protein, IPSE, as a candidate therapeutic. Dr. Hsieh hypothesizes that IPSE may have the ability to modulate host immune and non-immune responses to bladder injury. IPSE could be optimized for therapeutic potential, while minimizing toxicity, by generating forms that have the ability to modulate host responses via three distinct mechanisms: IL-4-binding, chemokine-binding and nuclear localization.

Finding new ways to fight hemorrhagic cystitis for cancer patients

Michael Hsieh

Children diagnosed with cancer face fear and uncertainty, a series of medical appointments, and multiple diagnostic tests and treatments.

Children diagnosed with cancer face fear and uncertainty, a series of medical appointments, and multiple diagnostic tests and treatments. On top of these challenges, says Children’s National Health System urologist Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., many patients contend with additional issues: Treatment side effects, discomforts, and dangers that nearly eclipse that of the cancer itself. One of the most common side effects is hemorrhagic cystitis (HC), a problem marked by extreme inflammation in the bladder that can lead to tremendous pain and bleeding.

HC often results from administering two common chemotherapy drugs, cyclophosphamide and ifosfamide, used to treat a wide variety of pediatric cancers, including leukemias and cancers of the eye and nerves. In the United States alone, nearly 400,000 patients of all ages receive these drugs annually. Of these, up to 40 percent develop some form of HC, from symptomatic disease characterized by pain and bloody urine to cellular changes to the bladder detected by microscopic analysis.

“Having to deal with therapy complications makes the cancer ordeal so much worse for our patients,” says Dr. Hsieh, Director of the Clinic for Adolescent and Adult Pediatric Onset Urology at Children’s National. “Being able to eliminate this extremely detrimental side effect once and for all could have an enormous impact on patients at our hospital and around the world.”

Preventing complications with mesna

The severity of side effects from cyclophosphamide and ifosfamide can vary from mild and fleeting to bladder bleeding so extensive that patients require multiple transfusions and surgery to remove blood clots that can obstruct urinary release, says Dr. Hsieh, who frequently treats patients with this condition. But HC isn’t inevitable, he adds. A drug called mesna has the potential to prevent this complication when prescribed before a patient receives chemotherapy.

The problem is for a fraction of patients, mesna simply doesn’t work. For others, mesna can cause its own serious side effects, such as life-threatening malfunctions of the heart’s electrical system or allergic reactions.

“These kids are often already very sick from their cancers and treatments, and then you compound it with these complications,” says Dr. Hsieh. “There’s a desperate need for alternatives to mesna.”

Looking at alternative treatments

In a new review of the scientific literature, published August 24 by Urology, senior author Dr. Hsieh and a colleague detail all the substitutes for this drug that researchers have examined over several years.

One of these is hyperhydration, or delivering extra fluid intravenously to help flush the bladder and keep dangerous chemotherapy drug metabolites from accumulating and causing damage. Hyperhydration, however, isn’t an option for some patients with kidney, lung, or liver problems, who can’t tolerate excess fluid.

Researchers also have invested heavily in antioxidants as alternative treatments. Because much of the damage caused by these chemotherapy agents is thought to result from a cascade of oxidizing free radicals that cyclophosphamide and ifosfamide launch in the bladder, antioxidants might prevent injury by halting the free radical attack. Antioxidants that researchers have explored for this purpose include cytokines, or immune-signaling molecules, known as interleukin-1 and tumor necrosis factor, and a compound called reduced glutathione. Other studies have tested plant-based antioxidants, including a component of red wine known as resveratrol; a compound called diallyl disulfide isolated from garlic oil; and extracts from Uncaria tomentosa, a woody vine commonly known as “cat’s claw” that grows in the jungles of Central and South America.

Researchers also have tested options that focus on reducing the intense inflammation that cyclophosphamide and ifosfamide cause in the bladder, including the corticoid steroid drug dexamethasone as well as another cytokine known as interleukin-4.

However, Dr. Hsieh says, studies have shown that each of these treatments is inferior to mesna. To truly combat HC, researchers not only need to find new drugs and methods that outperform mesna but also new ways to reverse HC after other measures fail—problems he’s working to solve in his own lab.

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Cryopreservation of testicular tissue gives cancer patients fertility hope

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One of the most common causes of premature death is cancer. But today, survival rates for many childhood cancers have surpassed 90 percent and the emphasis of care has shifted from survival to quality of life after survival. That’s according to Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., who is leading the program at Children’s National Health System and getting much support from oncology and neonatology.

“One of the important aspects of quality of life is fertility,” Dr. Hsieh says. “For those adult survivors of childhood cancer who want to have children, I think it’s imperative that we do whatever we can to help them.”

The program at Children’s National, part of a multi-institutional consortium based at the University of Pittsburgh, had one of the highest recruitment of all the satellite sites for this study, which offers cryopreservation of boys’ testicular tissue. From Dr. Hsieh’s program, tissue from 11 patients has been harvested in a year and a half.

Radiation and chemotherapy are toxic to the gonads, which have testicular and ovarian function. “The idea is that if we can freeze the testicular tissue until the technology catches up in such that we can restore fertility down the road, that’s a wonderful thing. Most of these children are in grade school and not interested in having children until at least 15-20 years.”

Getting the tissue samples

For the first time, parents of young cancer patients are having this discussion, and Hsieh says they are extremely appreciative, even if they decline to participate in the study.

Young men can provide a sperm sample, which can easily be frozen. For boys who haven’t gone through puberty or boys who are not able to give a sample because they are too sick or unwilling to do so, a biopsy can collect a tissue sample, which can then be frozen.

Storing samples at a cost

Hsieh says his work also is focused on improving funding for storage of tissues. The out-of-pocket costs to store samples are several hundred dollars a year, and it can be cost-prohibitive for some patients and families.

Hsieh has applied for financial assistance from Children’s National internal funding opportunities for the program to help even the playing field.

“I don’t think it’s fair that a child who is born into a poor family is unable to participate in fertility preservation whereas a child who happens to be born more affluent is able to,” Hsieh says.

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Transitional urology bridges care for those with pediatric-onset conditions

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A hot topic at national urology meetings is how to transition patients with pediatric-onset urologic conditions as they grow into adults. Michael Hsieh, MD, PhD, is leading the way in the U.S. by serving as a bridge for patients at the first dedicated transitional urology program in the mid-Atlantic region. The Clinic for Adolescent and Adult PedIatric OnseT UroLogy (CAPITUL) is a joint venture between Children’s National and George Washington University Hospital that started two years ago.

What’s most unique about the clinic is that Dr. Hsieh has a foot in both the pediatric world of urology and one in the adult world, with clinical privileges at both institutions. He sees the full span of pediatric urology patients, including expectant moms with fetuses that have suspected urologic anomalies to adults who may have congenital conditions that require follow-up. However, he sees more teenagers and young adults than his urology colleagues both at hospitals.

The clinic’s patients have included a 19-year-old man with multiple urethrocutaneous fistulas after failed hypospadias repairs, a 25-year-old woman with cloacal exstrophy and continent urinary diversion with a urinary tract infection and stones, and a 25-year-old man with spina bifida with incontinence urethral erosion from an indwelling catheter.

A number of significant urological conditions until recently led to premature death because of medical complications, Dr. Hsieh says. Today, 90 percent of spina bifida patients live past the age of 30. “There’s a synchronized wave of patients who are all now young adults with spina bifida, and they are facing issues of reproduction and sexuality,” Dr. Hsieh says. “These are issues that pediatric urologists generally speaking are not comfortable in managing. It makes sense: It’s been many, many years since they did that type of urology.”

The program is specifically following this transitional group on conditions that are long term and that may affect fertility, such as cancer and varicoceles.

One in five teenage boys have varicoceles, or varicose veins on the scrotum. “The relationship between having varicocele as a teenager and infertility as an adult is not clear, so we felt it important to include this diagnosis in the transitional program so we can follow these patients long term and monitor their testicular growth,” Dr. Hsieh says.

Proof that the program’s working

Dr. Hsieh tracks the messages from colleagues referring patients from one institution to the other. “Unfortunately, some patients and families—for a range of issues—fall through the cracks, so it is really important to have that direct link. If we didn’t have the program set up as it is, there would be fewer successful transitions between institutions,” he says.

Another way Dr. Hsieh knows the program is working is because of the uptick in adolescent and young adult patients in his practices at Children’s and at GW.

Dr. Hsieh says the optimal time to begin transition is at age 12, when the team makes the patient and family aware of the transition policy. From ages 14-16, it’s time to initiate the health care transition plan and begin discussing the adult model of care. By age 18, Dr. Hsieh recommends the transition to adult care, and by ages 23-26, patients are integrated into adult care.