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Hodgkin lymphoma cells

T-cell therapy alone or combined with nivolumab is safe and persistent in attacking Hodgkin’s lymphoma cells

Hodgkin lymphoma cells

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of cancer that attacks part of the immune system and expresses tumor-associated antigens (TAA) that are potential targets for cellular therapies.

It is safe for patients with relapsed or refractory Hodgkin’s lymphoma (HL) to receive a novel tumor-associated antigen specific T-cell therapy (TAA-T) either alone or combined with a checkpoint inhibitor, nivolumab — a medication used to treat several types of cancer. The study, published in Blood Advances, further suggests that nivolumab aids in T-cell persistence and expansion to ultimately enhance anti-tumor activity. This offers a potential option for patients who do not have a durable remission with checkpoint inhibitors alone or are at a high risk of relapse after a transplant.

“The fact that this combination therapy is so safe was very encouraging for the treatment of patients with lymphomas,” said Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B., director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National Hospital. “In addition, this data allows us to consider this combination immunotherapy for other patients, including those with solid tumors.”

HL is a type of cancer that attacks part of the immune system and expresses tumor-associated antigens (TAA) that are potential targets for cellular therapies. While it may affect children and adults, it is most common in those who are between 20 and 40 years old. The survival rate for this condition has improved due to scientific advances.

A new approach in cancer therapy is the use of “checkpoint inhibitors,” which are a class of drugs that block some of the inhibitory pathways of the immune system to unleash a powerful tumor killing immune response. Similarly, T-cell therapies have also shown to enhance anti-tumor immune response. Therefore, combining these novel immune therapies is an attractive and targeted alternative to conventional untargeted therapies – such as chemotherapy and radiation – which not only kill the tumor cells but also can kill healthy cells and tissues.

“In five to 10 years we can get rid of chemotherapy and radiation therapy and have an immunotherapy focused treatment for this disease,” said Dr. Bollard.

To determine the safety of infusing TAA-T with and without checkpoint inhibitors, eight patients were infused with TAA-specific T-cell products manufactured from their own blood. Two other patients received TAA-T generated from matched healthy donors as adjuvant therapy after hematopoietic stem cell transplant. According to Dave et al., the TAA-T infusions were safe and patients who received TAA-T as adjuvant therapy after transplant remained in continued remission for over two years.

Of the eight patients with active disease, one patient had a complete response, and seven had stable disease at three months, three of whom remained with stable disease during the first year.

“Treating Hodgkin’s lymphoma with cellular therapy has not yet achieved the same success that we have seen for other lymphoma subtypes,” said Keri Toner, M.D., attending physician at Children’s National. “This study brings us closer to overcoming some of the current barriers by developing methods to improve the persistence and function of the tumor-specific T-cells.”

This study builds upon the researchers’ latest findings in another study, which demonstrated that TAA-T manufactured from patients were safe and associated with prolonged time to progression in solid tumors.

“The addition of a checkpoint inhibitor like Nivolumab to the TAA-T treatment is a powerful next step, but previously, the safety of this combination was unknown,” said Patrick Hanley, Ph.D., chief and director of the Cellular Therapy Program at Children’s National, leader of the GMP laboratory and co-author of the study. “Now that we have demonstrated a safety profile, the next step will be to evaluate the efficacy of this combination in a larger subset of patients.”

cancer cell

Muller Fabbri, M.D., Ph.D.: The microRNA journey and the future of cancer therapy

cancer cell

Children’s National Hospital welcomes Muller Fabbri, M.D. Ph.D., as associate director for the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at the Children’s National Research Institute. In this role, he will build and lead the Cancer Biology Program while developing and conducting basic and translational research. Dr. Fabbri will also develop multidisciplinary research projects with various clinical divisions, including oncology, blood and marrow transplantation, pathology and hematology.

Dr. Fabbri shares his journey working with microRNAs, how his work is advancing the field and his vision for the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National.

Q: You have been working with microRNAs for quite some time. How are you exploring the role of microRNAs in cancer?

A: It was well established within the scientific community that a gene, which is a piece of DNA, becomes a piece of RNA and then becomes a protein. This thought process was pretty much a one-way flow of information that we had, going from DNA to protein as part of a cell function. But, almost 30 years ago, it was discovered that this is not entirely true because what happens is that some of these genes that are transcribed into RNA do not become a protein. Instead, they stay as RNA. Some of these RNAs are tiny and have short sequences, which is why they are called microRNAs.

I work primarily on microRNAs and non-coding RNAs and my research studies focus on the role that microRNAs play in cancer. I can take a cancer cell and a healthy cell and observe how these microRNAs are expressed in the two different cell populations. In this way, the microRNAs expressed in cancer cells are profoundly different from the microRNAs expressed in healthy cells.

We conducted a series of studies to observe what happens to a cancer cell if we restore normal levels of certain microRNAs like the ones you would see in a normal cell. We discovered that by restoring some of these microRNAs levels it led to the death of the cancer cells, suggesting that this approach may be used as a cancer treatment. This is one of the research areas that I will further develop at Children’s National as I seek to understand the mechanisms that control microRNA expression and subsequently affect cancer cell proliferation. With this information, we can target these mechanisms and create drugs that interfere with this function and, hopefully, stop cancer cell growth.

Q: Can you tell us about that eureka moment with your best friend during a lunch break?

A: This was a bit of a crazy idea. I will never forget. I shared a theory during a lunch break with a friend. I dared to ask, what if microRNAs worked like hormones? MicroRNAs can be detected in the blood of patients with cancer, and they can be transferred from one cell to another inside of little vesicles called exosomes. If you think about it, I further asked, what other molecules in our body behave like that — i.e. are secreted, circulate in the blood and then transferred to a target cell? My friend replied, “well, those would be hormones.” To which, I added, yes, exactly! Then, why do we not think of RNAs as hormones? And I quote him now, “you are crazy, but if it works it is huge.”

I felt that I had some validation from my best friend, so I decided to invest in this crazy idea, carving extra time on the side while working on my “safe” projects. It was one of those rare cases in science, where in a little over a year, we showed for the first time that microRNAs do not only work the traditional way, but they can also work as hormones. They do have a receptor protein to attach to, and by binding to this protein, they trigger a response in a cell that can be pro-tumoral or anti-tumoral.

Even today, if you open a textbook of endocrinology, under the chapter of hormones, it mentions that there are only two categories, proteins and lipids. Well, it turns out there is a third category, which is nucleic acids because of RNAs.

Q: You mentioned other research areas of interest as it relates to cancer cell biology. What are they?

A: The other line of research that I am developing stems from the original observation that I made in 2012. Cancer cells release tiny vesicles that I like to compare to envelopes containing a written message — the RNA and microRNA. These vesicles released in the surrounding environment contain a message captured by immune cells, known as macrophages. Macrophages act as scavengers in our bodies. In cancer, macrophages are supposed to digest and destroy the cancer cell. However, it turns out that they also have the proper receptor to receive and read the message enclosed in the vesicles. Then, something shocking happens. The macrophage stops fighting the cancer cell and starts producing proteins called cytokines that promote cancer growth. This finding means that we are 180 degrees apart from what we thought at the beginning. A lot of macrophages in the cancer are good news for the patient because they are supposed to kill cancer cells, but because of this mechanism, a lot of macrophages can be bad news since they can also help the cancer cell grow.

My contribution to this discovery was to investigate how the macrophage response is mediated. I discovered that macrophages operate, at least in part, by expressing receptors that bind to microRNAs released by the cancer cell, thereby favoring cancer growth. In the pediatric cancer field we discovered that because of this microRNA–receptor interaction, the pediatric tumor neuroblastoma becomes resistant to chemotherapy. Therefore, one of the strategies we are working on now is to interfere or impair these negative communications between the cancer cell and immune cell. We want to disrupt these communications so the macrophage cannot read the message from the cancer cell anymore and instead keeps doing its job to fight the cancer. We hope that we can leverage this approach to develop novel cancer treatments or create strategies that improves immune cell function in the presence of the patient’s current therapy to enhance an anti-cancer treatment response.

Q: What is your vision for the Center of Cancer and Immunology Research?

A: I am very excited about what I saw at Children’s NationalI was delighted to talk to many faculty members, and I recognized the immense talent within the Center. I would like to help elevate and enhance the cancer biology program focused on solid tumors, and augment the work being done in this space by the cell therapy program. The clinicians are clearly eager to collaborate with the basic scientists including the sharing of samples and ideas, which is not typical of many scientific environments. My other goal is to ensure that the Cancer Biology Program plays a central role in acquiring an NCI-Designated Cancer Center recognition often given to institutions that stand out in scientific leadership and clinical research. Finally, I want to create the first national center that develops extracellular vesicles as an innovative treatment strategy for cancer. Importantly, I think that we have all the resources and connections at Children’s National that are necessary to realize this vision!

 

inside a GMP lab

Cell therapy manufacturing process ramps up to meet increased demand for T-cell products

inside a GMP lab

The new laboratory space includes floor-to-ceiling windows and brand new, state-of-the-art GMP lab suites.

Since Children’s National Hospital began its pediatric cellular therapy program in 2013, it has received more than $5 million in annual funding, treated over 200 patients, manufactured more than 400 cell-based products and supported over 25 clinical trials.

One of the in-house programs supporting this work is the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility. Patrick Hanley, Ph.D., chief and director of the cellular therapy program at Children’s National and leader of the GMP laboratory, explained that the first patient received a dose of less than 10 million cells in May 2014. Fast forward to now, the lab uses liters of media, automated bioreactors and multiple staff, making upwards of 12 billion cells per run — a growing production scale that enables many different options. Using cells as an off-the-shelf technology is one of those.

The cell therapy program exports these off-the-shelf products beyond Children’s National to make them available for kids across the country. Catherine Bollard, M.D., MBChB., director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National, and Michael Keller, M.D., director of the Translational Research Laboratory in the Program for Cell Enhancement and Technologies for Immunotherapy (CETI) at Children’s National, each led clinical trials with hospitals across the United States, including the first-ever cellular therapy clinical trial run through the Children’s Oncology Group.

To meet the high demand for cell therapy trials at Children’s National, the GMP lab moved to a larger space, doubling the team’s capacity to produce alternative treatment options for patients and facilitate the lab’s ability to support clinical divisions throughout the hospital.

The GMP lab is exploring how to make cell products more consistent — regardless of patient-to-patient variability. They are also hoping to delineate the characteristics that ensure quality cell products, educate other facilities, enhance the overall knowledge of how to safely manufacture these products and make these technologies more available and affordable to the patients who need them.

Among Hanley’s many goals for the GMP lab, one is to improve the transition from when an investigator discovers a product in the translational research lab to when it is manufactured for patients.

“To improve this transition, we have started a process development team that will learn the process alongside the research team, replicate it, and then train the staff who manufacture the product for patients,” said Hanley. “In addition to providing a better training opportunity for the manufacturing staff, it allows us to work with the investigators earlier on to identify changes that will need to be made to translate the products to patients, ultimately resulting in safer, more potent immunotherapy products.”

While cell therapy has seen increased interest in the last 10 years, there are still some challenges in the field, given that it is not as mature as other scientific areas. The lack of trained staff, scalability of cell and gene therapy, the variability between patients and products, delayed FDA approvals and rejection of licensing applications for cell therapy products — are barriers that scientists and companies often face.

“Each of us has a unique immune system, and that means that if we try and make a product from it, it will not behave like any other, so the number of cells, the potency the alloreactivity — it is all different,” said Hanley. “T-cells are a living drug that expand in the body at different rates, are composed of different types of T-cells, and release different cytokines and in different amounts.”

This all ties back to the process development and basic research. The better researchers can characterize the products under development, the more they will know about how the products work and the easier it will be to tie these products to patient outcomes.

Meet some of the Children’s National multidisciplinary experts who join forces to lead the cell therapy space.

Jay Tanna, M.S., quality assurance manager, has extensive experience with drug development at Children’s National as well as Sloan Kettering, another premier cell therapy institution. He has a Masters in Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and a Regulatory Affairs Certification (RAC) in U.S. FDA drugs and biologics regulations from the Regulatory Affairs Professional Society (RAPS).

Kathryn Bushnell, M.T. (ASCP), the cell therapy lab manager, oversees Stem Cell Processing. She has 20 years of experience with hematopoietic progenitor cells and cellular therapy, starting her career as a medical technologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Nan Zhang, Ph.D., assistant director of manufacturing at Children’s National, has worked at Wake Forest and the National Institutes of Health developing various cellular therapies. Zhang chaired the cell processing session at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology in 2020.

Abeer Shibli, M.T., is a specialist in the cellular therapy laboratory with extensive experience in the processing of cellular therapy products. She has over 10 years of experience as a medical technologist, is specialized in blood banking and transfusion medicine and is one of the senior technologists in the lab.

Chase McCann, M.S.P.H., Ph.D., is the cell therapy lab lead for manufacturing at Children’s National Hospital. He recently completed his Ph.D. training in Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. Much of his graduate research focused on developing and enhancing cellular therapies for HIV while identifying common mechanisms of escape, shared by both HIV and various cancers, which limit the efficacy of current cell therapies. Previously, McCann worked as the laboratory coordinator for the HIV Prevention Trials Network, and now oversees the manufacturing of many cell therapies supporting the many clinical trials currently underway at Children’s National.

Anushree Datar, M.S., the cell therapy lab lead for immune testing and characterization, oversees the release testing of products manufactured in the GMP for safety and function before they can be infused in patients. She also leads a part of the research team investigating the improvement in immune function after cell infusion.

Dr. Bollard is also the director of the Program for Cell Enhancement and Technologies for Immunotherapy and president of the Foundation for the Accreditation for Cellular Therapy (FACT). Additionally, in 2019, she became a member of the Frederick National Laboratory Advisory Committee (FNLAC) for the NIH and an ad hoc member of the Pediatric Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee (ODAC) for the FDA. She has been an associate editor for the journal Blood since 2014 and in 2020 was appointed editor-in-chief of Blood Advances (starting Fall 2021). Dr. Bollard has 21 years of cell therapy experience as a physician, sponsor and principal investigator.

Dr. Hanley serves as the commissioning editor of the peer-reviewed journal Cytotherapy, as the vice-president-elect (North America) of the International Society of Cell and Gene Therapy (ISCT), and board of directors member at FACT, which provides him visibility into various cell and gene therapies, manufacturing approaches, and other intangibles that make Children’s National facility one of the leaders in the field.

To find the full research program list and their experts, click here.

GMP group photo

Lab members celebrate the expansion of the GMP Laboratory.

boy in hospital bed

Long-term, controlled studies needed to chart optimal MIS-C immunotherapy

boy in hospital bed

Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National Hospital, cautions that two new studies in the New England Journal of Medicine present seemingly conflicting findings about which treatments for MIS-C are optimal.

Multisystem inflammatory disease in children (MIS-C) has affected nearly 4,000 children in the United States in the last year. Two major studies appearing in the June edition of the New England Journal of Medicine seek to better define which immunotherapy treatments or combinations of treatments — intravenous immune globulin (IVIG), glucocorticoids or biologics — do the best job of combating the syndrome’s effects.

But Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National Hospital, cautions that though these two studies present seemingly conflicting findings about which treatments are optimal, neither study can provide a complete picture of efficacy, in part due to their retrospective and observational study design and population made up of patients from many different centers. True consensus will likely be found, she writes in an editorial that accompanies the studies in the journal, through single-center prospective cohort studies with standardized treatment approaches and long-term follow-up on outcomes.

“While there is a diagnostic criterion and an agreed upon need to induce a rapid therapy for MIS-C, the scientific community has not been able to agree on specific and optimal forms of immunomodulatory therapy,” she writes.

Despite efforts by the study authors to use statistical methods and modeling to control for variations in treatment applications from center to center, the study data is limited by the fact that the therapies have already been administered, in various combinations, based on conditions at each center where a  child was treated and not on a common set of treatment criteria.

Another challenge for generalizing from the findings of these studies is a mismatch in time. The data collected from the two published studies have two different time frames: before and after variants emerged or at various points during different waves of COVID-19 circulation in the U.S.

“Depending on the strain of initial infection and/or subsequent exposure, the dysregulated hyperimmune response of MIS-C could change,” Dr. DeBiasi says. And along with it, how patients respond to a particular treatment or combination of treatments.

Also, she notes it is too soon for any consortia to assess the impact of these therapies on longer-term outcomes, “specifically, comparative efficacy for progression or resolution of coronary abnormalities and prolonged or permanent cardiac dysfunction or scarring.”

Dr. DeBiasi concludes her editorial with a call for well-characterized large prospective cohort studies at single centers, and systematic and long-term follow-up for cardiac and non-cardiac outcomes in children with MIS-C. Data from these studies will be a crucial determinant of the best set of treatment guidelines for immunotherapies to treat MIS-C. Without findings from these types of studies, the selection of the most efficacious treatments is still unknown.

Read the full editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine: Immunotherapy for MIS-C: IVIG, Glucocorticoids, and Biologics

Muller Fabbri

Children’s National Hospital welcomes Muller Fabbri, M.D., Ph.D.

Muller Fabbri

Dr. Fabbri joins Children’s National from the University of Hawaii Cancer Center, where he was a tenured associate professor and leader of the Cancer Biology Program. He received his medical degree at the University of Pisa in Italy and his Ph.D. degree at the Second University of Naples in Italy.

Children’s National Hospital is pleased to announce it has selected Muller Fabbri, M.D. Ph.D., as associate director for the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at the Children’s National Research Institute. In this role, he will build and lead the Cancer Biology Program while developing and conducting basic and translational research. Dr. Fabbri will also develop multidisciplinary research projects with various clinical divisions, including oncology, blood and marrow transplantation, pathology and hematology.

A distinguished lecturer, instructor, researcher, public speaker and mentor, Dr. Fabbri’s research interest focuses on decoding cancer cellular biology riddles that lead to personalized medicine. He has pioneered a theory that explains non-coding RNAs’ functioning in intercellular communication that promotes cancer cell growth, dissemination and drug resistance. To better understand the immune response against cancer cells, he has investigated the role of exosomes and other extracellular vesicles. Inflammation, tumor microenvironment and immunity, as it relates to cancer, are other research areas of interest.

“I feel fortunate to be working with Dr. Catherine Bollard and her team at an extraordinary research center,” said Dr. Fabbri. “I am eager to join Children’s National, and I look forward to learning from this leadership team, which also includes Dr. Vittorio Gallo, Dr. Mark Batshaw and Dr. Jeffery Dome.”

Dr. Fabbri was drawn to Children’s National because of its proximity to partners like the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Food Drug Administration (FDA), various universities and the private sector, fostering a rich scientific environment. One of Dr. Fabbri’s many goals, is to make sure that the Cancer Biology Program plays a central role in the acquisition of an NCI-Designated Cancer Center recognition often given to institutions that stand out in scientific leadership and clinical research.

Dr. Fabbri joins Children’s National from the University of Hawaii Cancer Center, where he was a tenured associate professor and leader of the Cancer Biology Program. He received his medical degree at the University of Pisa in Italy and his Ph.D. degree at the Second University of Naples in Italy.

Dr. Catherine Bollard is accompanied by her mentees

Catherine Bollard, M.D., awarded two notable recognitions

Dr. Catherine Bollard is accompanied by her mentees

Dr. Catherine Bollard and some of her mentees.

For her work on developing cell-based therapies and dedication to her trainees, Catherine Bollard, M.D., MBChB, director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National hospital, receives two outstanding awards in her field.

Celebrating the minds behind the architecture of modern medicine and influencing the drug industry, The Medicine Maker, through an international panel of judges, added Dr. Bollard to the 2021 Power List in the category of advanced medicine.

Dr. Bollard mentioned that it is encouraging to see mRNA vaccine technology successfully fighting the COVID-19 pandemic because it paves the way for cancer vaccine advancements. Still, there are challenges affecting drug development. The centralized manufacturing hinders the large-scale production of patient-specific products as more cell therapies are getting approval, she added.

“Looking to the future, cell-based therapies will not be sustainable with a purely patient-specific centralized manufacturing model and, therefore, the field must move into the development of off-the-shelf cell therapies,” said Dr. Bollard. “The success of off-the-shelf virus-specific T-cells is especially exciting because it has the potential to be the platform for other antigen-specific and CAR-T cell therapies.”

A global society of clinicians, researchers, regulators, technologists and industry partners, The International Society for Cell & Gene Therapy (ISCT), will bestow Dr. Bollard the 2021 ISCT Darwin J. Prockop Mentoring Award on May 26. Her ongoing commitment to mentorship has advanced the careers of many aspiring professionals that have worked alongside her. The ISCT Award Committee selected someone that can inspire the current and future growing workforce. Dr. Bollard is highly recognized across the industry for her leadership, passion and dedication to her mentees, and her extraordinary efforts to advance their skills, capabilities and opportunities.

Dr. Catherine Bollard is accompanied by her mentees

To Patrick Hanley, Ph.D., chief and director of the Cellular Therapy Program at Children’s National, Dr. Bollard is the most deserving mentor for this award. She has provided advice and guidance to over 93 individuals, including 22 junior faculty, 27 post-doctoral fellows and 12 graduate students. Dr. Bollard also acts as a mentor to other senior investigators at Children’s National, particularly those in the Bone Marrow Transplantation division.

“For the past 15 years, Cath has been a strong mentor, friend, advocate, and voice of reason for me and has been instrumental in my success, both at Baylor College of Medicine and now at Children’s National,” said Hanley. “With her support and mentorship, I have been fortunate to publish high impact papers, earn a number of awards and receive prestigious grants. Without her guidance this wouldn’t have been possible.”

Amy Hont, M.D., oncologist for the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National, mentioned that Dr. Bollard is endlessly dedicated to her mentees and staff. “Dr. Bollard has been incredibly supportive of my research career throughout my training and progression to faculty. I feel very fortunate that I have been able to benefit not only from her unparalleled knowledge and expertise, but also her career advice and resources.”

Dr. Bollard leads clinical and research efforts to fight cancer and other inflammatory diseases by strengthening the immune system using adoptive cell therapy. She is a former president of the International Society of Cellular Therapy, and the current president of the Foundation for the Accreditation for Cellular Therapy (FACT). As a distinguished hematologist, immunologist and immunotherapist, she is working to develop cell and gene therapies for patients with cancer, viral infections and immune mediated diseases. She is especially interested in bone marrow and cord blood transplantation and improving outcomes after such transplant by decreasing infectious complications and preventing relapse. Dr. Bollard also has a specific interest in targeting viral infections in immune-suppressed patient populations, including individuals living with the human immunodeficiency virus.

mother measuring sick child's temperature

Connections between Kawasaki disease and MIS-C

mother measuring sick child's temperature

A new review article enumerates some key similarities and differences between MIS-C and Kawasaki disease.

Since May 2020, there has been some attention in the general public and the news media to a specific constellation of symptoms seen in children with COVID-19 or who have been exposed to COVID-19. For a time, headlines even called it a “Kawasaki-like” disease. At first glance, both the symptoms and the effective treatments are remarkably similar. However, a new review published in Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine finds that under closer scrutiny, the two conditions have some interesting differences as well.

“At the beginning of this journey, we thought we might be missing actual cases of Kawasaki disease because we identified a few patients who presented late and developed coronary artery abnormalities,” says Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., senior author of the review article, “Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children: Is there a linkage to Kawasaki disease?” and a cardiologist at Children’s National Hospital. “But as time passed, children exposed to COVID-19 started to present with a particular constellation of symptoms that actually had some important similarities and distinctions from Kawasaki.”

Similarities between Kawasaki disease and MIS-C

Both disease patterns seem to have a common trigger that provokes the inflammatory cascade reaction in genetically susceptible children, the authors write. However, there is also early evidence that children with each disease have different genetic markers, meaning different populations are genetically susceptible to each disease.

Additionally, the authors found that the massive activation of pro-inflammatory cytokines seen in MIS-C, also known as a “cytokine storm,” overlaps with a similar occurrence seen in Kawasaki disease, adult COVID-19 patients, toxic shock syndrome and some other viral infections.

Primary differences between Kawasaki disease and MIS-C

Overall, when compared to Kawasaki disease, children with MIS-C tend to:

  • Present at an older age
  • Have a more profound form of inflammation
  • Have more gastrointestinal manifestation
  • Show different laboratory findings
  • Have greater risk of left ventricle dysfunction and shock

Further study of both Kawasaki and MIS-C needed

Despite noted differences, the authors are also careful to credit the documented similarities between Kawasaki disease and MIS-C as a key to the quick identification of the new syndrome in children. The study of Kawasaki disease also gave clinicians a valid basis to begin developing diagnostic recommendations and treatment protocols.

The review’s first author Yue-Hin Loke, M.D., who is also a cardiologist at Children’s National, says, “The quick recognition of MIS-C is only possible because of meticulous research conducted by Dr. Tomisaku Kawasaki, who recently passed away on June 5th, 2020. Even though some aspects of both are still shrouded in mystery, the previous research and clinical advancements made in Kawasaki disease set the stage for our immediate response to MIS-C.”

“Previous research provided key information for cardiologists facing this new syndrome, including the necessity of routine echocardiograms to watch for coronary artery abnormalities (CAAs) and for use of  intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) to mitigate  the development of CAAs,” says Charles Berul, M.D., chief of Cardiology at Children’s National and a co-author. “Both of these factors have played a key role in reducing the mortality of MIS-C to almost zero.”

The authors note that more research is needed to understand both Kawasaki disease and the specifics of MIS-C, but that what is learned about the mechanisms of one can and should inform study and treatment of the other. And in the meantime, caution and continued surveillance of these patients, especially with respect to coronary artery and myocardial function, will continue to improve the long-term outcomes for both syndromes.

Vittorio Gallo and Mark Batshaw

Children’s National Research Institute releases annual report

Vittorio Gallo and Marc Batshaw

Children’s National Research Institute directors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., and Mark Batshaw, M.D.

The Children’s National Research Institute recently released its 2019-2020 academic annual report, titled 150 Years Stronger Through Discovery and Care to mark the hospital’s 150th birthday. Not only does the annual report give an overview of the institute’s research and education efforts, but it also gives a peek in to how the institute has mobilized to address the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our inaugural research program in 1947 began with a budget of less than $10,000 for the study of polio — a pressing health problem for Washington’s children at the time and a pandemic that many of us remember from our own childhoods,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., chief research officer at Children’s National Hospital and scientific director at Children’s National Research Institute. “Today, our research portfolio has grown to more than $75 million, and our 314 research faculty and their staff are dedicated to finding answers to many of the health challenges in childhood.”

Highlights from the Children’s National Research Institute annual report

  • In 2018, Children’s National began construction of its new Research & Innovation Campus (CNRIC) on 12 acres of land transferred by the U.S. Army as part of the decommissioning of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus. In 2020, construction on the CNRIC will be complete, and in 2012, the Children’s National Research Institute will begin to transition to the campus.
  • In late 2019, a team of scientists led by Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to collect samples from 60 individuals that will form the basis of a new reference genome data set. The researchers hope their project will generate better reference genome data for diverse populations, starting with those of Central African descent.
  • A gift of $5.7 million received by the Center for Translational Research’s director, Lisa Guay-Woodford, M.D., will reinforce close collaboration between research and clinical care to improve the care and treatment of children with polycystic kidney disease and other inherited renal disorders.
  • The Center for Neuroscience Research’s integration into the infrastructure of Children’s National Hospital has created a unique set of opportunities for scientists and clinicians to work together on pressing problems in children’s health.
  • Children’s National and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are tackling pediatric research across three main areas of mutual interest: primary immune deficiencies, food allergies and post-Lyme disease syndrome. Their shared goal is to conduct clinical and translational research that improves what we know about those conditions and how we care for children who have them.
  • An immunotherapy trial has allowed a little boy to be a kid again. In the two years since he received cellular immunotherapy, Matthew has shown no signs of a returning tumor — the longest span of time he’s been tumor-free since age 3.
  • In the past 6 years, the 104 device projects that came through the National Capital Consortium for Pediatric Device Innovation accelerator program raised $148,680,256 in follow-on funding.
  • Even though he’s watched more than 500 aspiring physicians pass through the Children’s National pediatric residency program, program director Dewesh Agrawal, M.D., still gets teary at every graduation.

Understanding and treating the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

In a short period of time, Children’s National Research Institute has mobilized its scientists to address COVID-19, focusing on understanding the virus and advancing solutions to ameliorate the impact today and for future generations. Children’s National Research Institute Director Mark Batshaw, M.D., highlighted some of these efforts in the annual report:

  • Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, is looking at whether or not the microbiome of bacteria in the human nasal tract acts as a defensive shield against COVID-19.
  • Catherine Bollard, M.D., MBChB, director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, and her team are seeing if they can “train” T cells to attack the invading coronavirus.
  • Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., an investigator in the Center for Neuroscience Research and the Fetal Medicine Institute, is studying the effects of, and possible interventions for, coronavirus on the developing brain.

You can view the entire Children’s National Research Institute academic annual report online.

Hodgkin lymphoma cells

Clinical Trial Spotlight: Can Nivolumab make cellular therapy more effective for treating relapsed lymphomas?

Hodgkin lymphoma cells

Each year, about 9,000 new patients are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, 10-15% of them children.

Each year, about 9,000 new patients are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, 10-15% of them children. Despite a relatively high cure rate for children with Hodgkin lymphoma, there are many debilitating long-term side effects of the treatments currently used. Additionally, 15-20% of children have a relapse and only half of them experience a long-term cure. Diffuse large B cell Lymphomas are another type of aggressive lymphoma that are difficult to cure, especially when they do not respond to upfront chemotherapy (refractory). Patients who experience relapse have to undergo more intensive chemotherapy followed by autologous stem cell transplantation and yet often times their lymphoma comes back.

Physicians at Children’s National Hospital, in partnership with the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah School of Medicine, are enrolling patients in a clinical trial to test the safety of administering PD-1 inhibitor Nivolumab given prior to and following the infusions of the patients’ own TAA-T cells which have been trained to target tumor cells in the laboratory. Nivolumab is currently approved by the FDA for relapsed Hodgkin lymphoma. Nivolumab acts by unleashing the brakes put on by the lymphoma cells, and by doing so, Nivolumab allows the immune system to overcome the tumor’s escape mechanism.

“We believe that if our T cells are deemed safe when given in combination with already approved drugs, we may be able to impact multiple lives and reduce long-term toxicities from conventional chemotherapies,” said Hema Dave, M.D., an oncologist at Children’s National. “We’re hopeful that combination immunotherapies will produce more durable responses than when immunotherapies are given alone as a single agent and, additionally, that they will reduce the use of cytotoxic chemotherapy.”

The investigators will collect blood from the patients to isolate peripheral blood mononuclear cells. They will then make special cells called dendritic cells to stimulate the T cells. Then they will add special mixtures of tumor proteins WT1, PRAME and Survivin and provide a cytokine milieu favorable to T cell expansion/activation, inducing selective expansion of T cells targeted to kill tumor cells. This process trains the T cells to recognize the tumor proteins and become specialized TAA-T cells. The cells will be grown and frozen until ready for use. While the T cells are growing, the patients will be given Nivolumab.

“We’re really trying to test if priming the patients with Nivolumab will make their T cells more effective when they get infused,” says Dr. Dave. “The Nivolumab will help prepare the immune system. Then, when we infuse the T cells, our hope is that the environment is primed for the T cells to expand, grow and work to attack the cancer. If we can prime the immune system and make it more conducive for the T cells, then maybe they will have a better chance to get to the lymphoma cells and thus have a more sustained response.”

Patients will then receive two infusions of the TAA-T cells and be monitored for side effects. The anticipated enrollment is 18 patients over the next 2-3 years. If there is a positive response in patients enrolled in this safety trial, it could expand to test for efficacy of the novel combination immunotherapy.

Phase 1 Study Utilizing Tumor Associated Antigen Specific T Cells (TAA-T) with PD1 Inhibitor Nivolumab for Relapsed/Refractory Lymphoma

  • PI: Hema Dave, M.D.
  • Status: Recruiting

For more information about this trial, contact:

Hema Dave, M.D.
202-476-6397
hkdave@childrensnational.org

Fahmida Hoq, MBBS, MS
202-476-3634
fhoq@childrensnational.org

Click here to view Open Phase 1 and 2 Cancer Clinical Trials at Children’s National.

The Children’s National Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders is committed to providing the best care for pediatric patients. Our experts play an active role in innovative clinical trials to advance pediatric cancer care. We offer access to novel trials and therapies, some of which are only available here at Children’s National. With research interests covering nearly every aspect of pediatric cancer care, our work is making great advancements in childhood cancer.

Vote for STAT Madness

It’s a three-peat! Children’s National again competes in STAT Madness

Vote for STAT Madness

Children’s National Hospital collects patients’ blood, extracts T-cells and replicates them in the presence of specific proteins found on cancer cells which, in essence, teaches the T-cells to target specific tumor markers. Training the T-cells, growing them to sufficient quantities and ensuring they are safe for administration takes weeks. But when patients return to the outpatient clinic, their T-cell infusion lasts just a few minutes.

For the third consecutive year, Children’s National was selected to compete in STAT Madness, an annual bracket-style competition that chooses the year’s most impactful biomedical innovation by popular vote. Children’s entry, “Immunotherapy of relapsed and refractory solid tumors with ex vivo expanded multi-tumor associated antigen specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes,” uses the body’s own immune system to attack and eliminate cancer cells in pediatric and adult patients with solid tumor malignancies.

In 2018, Children’s first-ever STAT Madness entry advanced through five brackets in the national competition and, in the championship round, finished second. That innovation, which enables more timely diagnoses of rare diseases and common genetic disorders, helping to improve kids’ health outcomes around the world, also was among four “Editor’s Pick” finalists, entries that spanned a diverse range of scientific disciplines.

An estimated 11,000 new cases of pediatric cancer were diagnosed in children 14 and younger in the U.S. in 2019. And, when it comes to disease, cancer remains the leading cause of death among children, according to the National Institutes of Health. An enterprising research team led by Children’s National faculty leveraged T-cells – essential players in the body’s immune system – to treat pediatric and adult patients with relapsed or refractory solid tumors who had exhausted all other therapeutic options.

“We’re using the patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer, rather than more traditional chemotherapy drugs,” says Catherine M. Bollard, M.D., director of the Center for Cancer & Immunology Research at Children’s National and co-senior author of the study. “It’s more targeted and less toxic to the patient. These T-cells home in on any cancer cells that might be in the body, allowing healthy cells to continue to grow,” Dr. Bollard adds.

That means patients treated in the Phase I, first-in-human trial didn’t lose their hair and weren’t hospitalized for the treatment. After a quick clinical visit for their treatment, they returned to normal activities, like school, with good energy levels.

“With our specially trained T-cell therapy, many patients who previously had rapidly progressing disease experienced prolonged disease stabilization,” says Holly J. Meany, M.D., a Children’s National oncologist and the study’s co-senior author. “Patients treated at the highest dose level showed the best clinical outcomes, with a six-month, progression-free survival of 73% after tumor-associated antigen cytotoxic T-cell (TAA-T) infusion, compared with 38% with their immediate prior therapy.”

The multi-institutional team published their findings from the study online July 29, 2019, in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

“Our research team and our parents are delighted that some patients treated in our study continue to do well following T-cell therapy without additional treatment. In some cases, two years after treatment, patients do not appear to have active disease and are maintaining an excellent quality of life,” says Amy B. Hont, M.D., the study’s lead author. “One of these was a patient whose parents were told his only other option was palliative care. Our innovation gives these families new hope,” Dr. Hont adds.

The 2020 STAT Madness #Core64 bracket opened March 2, and the champion will be announced April 6.

In addition to Drs. Hont, Meany and Bollard, Children’s National co-authors include C. Russell Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., Robert Ulrey, MS, Barbara O’Brien, BS, Maja Stanojevic, M.D., Anushree Datar, MS, Shuroug Albihani, MS, Devin Saunders, BA, Ryo Hanajiri, M.D., Ph.D., Karuna Panchapakesan, MS, Payal Banerjee, MS, Maria Fernanda Fortiz, BS, Fahmida Hoq, MBBS, MS, Haili Lang, M.D., Yunfei Wang, DrPH, Patrick J. Hanley, Ph.D., and Jeffrey S. Dome, M.D., Ph.D.; and Sam Darko, MS, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the Children’s National Hospital Heroes Gala, Alex’s Army Foundation, the Children’s National Board of Visitors and Hyundai Hope on Wheels Young Investigator Grant to Support Pediatric Cancer Research, the Children’s National Research Institute Bioinformatics Unit, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the National Institutes of Health under award No. UL1-TR001876.

T cell

Clinical Trial Spotlight: Is more really better? Dose escalation of multi-antigen targeted T cells to illicit a more robust response

T cell

As the promise of immunotherapy in treating patients with cancer becomes more evident, physician researchers at Children’s National are pushing the needle further along. Holly Meany, M.D., is leading a Phase 1 dose-escalation trial to determine the safety and efficacy of administering rapidly generated tumor multi-antigen associated specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (TAA CTL) to patients who have undergone allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) or traditional therapy for a high-risk solid tumor due to the presence of refractory, relapsed and/or residual detectable disease.

“In the escalation portion of our trial, we found that the highest dose evaluated did not have unfavorable toxicity in these patients and is our recommended dose,” Dr. Meany said. “Our next step is an expansion of the trial in five distinct disease categories – Wilms tumor, neuroblastoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, adenocarcinoma and esophageal carcinoma – to examine efficacy on a broader level at the recommended dose.”

Dr. Meany and fellow research clinicians at Children’s National will evaluate not only what happens to the patients when given the additional dosage, but also what happens to the cells – How long will they last? Will they remain targeted against the same antigens or will they shift to target other proteins?

This novel trial is currently enrolling patients at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.

  • PI: Holly Meany, M.D.
  • Title: Research Study Utilizing Expanded Multi-antigen Specific Lymphocytes for the Treatment of Solid Tumors (REST)
  • Status: Currently enrolling

For more information about this trial, contact:

Holly Meany, M.D.
202-476-5697
hmeany@childrensnational.org 

Click here to view Open Phase 1 and 2 Cancer Clinical Trials at Children’s National.

The Children’s National Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders is committed to providing the best care for pediatric patients. Our experts play an active role in innovative clinical trials to advance pediatric cancer care. We offer access to novel trials and therapies, some of which are only available here at Children’s National. With research interests covering nearly aspect of pediatric cancer care, our work is making great advancements in childhood cancer.

Eugene Hwang in an exam room

Clinical Trial Spotlight: Creating a super army to target CNS tumors

Eugene Hwang in an exam room

Following the noted success of CAR-T cells in treating leukemia, Eugene Hwang, M.D., and a team of physicians at Children’s National are studying the efficacy of using these white blood cell “armies” to fight central nervous system (CNS) tumors.

Following the noted success of CAR-T cells in treating leukemia, physicians at Children’s National are studying the efficacy of using these white blood cell “armies” to fight central nervous system (CNS) tumors. Employing a strategy of “supertraining” the cells to target and attack three tumor targets as opposed to just one, Eugene Hwang, M.D., and the team at Children’s are optimistic about using this immunotherapy technique on a patient population that hasn’t previously seen much promise for treatment or cure. The therapy is built on the backbone of T cell technology championed by Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D., director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, which is only available at Children’s National. Hwang sees this trial as an exciting start to using T cells to recognize resistant brain cancer. “We have never before been able to pick out markers on brain cancer and use the immune system to help us attack the cancer cells. This strategy promises to help us find treatments that are better at killing cancer and lessening side effects,” he says.

This Phase 1 dose-escalation is designed to determine the safety and feasibility of rapidly generated tumor multiantigen associated specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (TAA-T) in patients with newly diagnosed diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas (DIPGs) or recurrent, progressive or refractory non-brainstem CNS malignancies. Pediatric and adult patients who have high-risk CNS tumors with known positivity for one or more Tumor Associated Antigens (TAA) (WT1, PRAME and/or surviving) will be enrolled in one of two groups: Group A includes patients with newly diagnosed DIPGs who will undergo irradiation as part of their upfront therapy and Group B includes patients with recurrent, progressive or refractory CNS tumors including medulloblastoma, non-brainstem high-grade glioma, and ependymoma, among others. TAA-T will be generated from a patient’s peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) or by apheresis. This protocol is designed as a phase 1 dose-escalation study. Group A patients: TAA-T will be infused any time >2 weeks after completion of radiotherapy. Group B patients: TAA-T will be infused any time >2 after completing the most recent course of conventional (non-investigational) therapy for their disease AND after appropriate washout periods as detailed in eligibility criteria.

For more information about this trial, contact:

Eugene Hwang, M.D.
202-476-5046
ehwang@childrensnational.org

Click here to view Open Phase 1 and 2 Cancer Clinical Trials at Children’s National.

The Children’s National Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders is committed to providing the best care for pediatric patients. Our experts play an active role in innovative clinical trials to advance pediatric cancer care. We offer access to novel trials and therapies, some of which are only available here at Children’s National. With research interests covering nearly aspect of pediatric cancer care, our work is making great advancements in childhood cancer.

Assorted foods

Food allergies: a research update

Assorted foods

Promising new therapies for food allergies are on the horizon, including an experimental immunotherapy awaiting federal approval that enables people who are very allergic to eat peanut protein without suffering serious side effects.

Good news, right?

As it turns out, the idea of a child who is highly allergic to a specific food eating that same food item makes kids with lifelong food allergies and their parents a bit queasy.

“It’s a very big paradigm shift. From diagnosis, children are told to avoid their food triggers at all cost. But now they may be counseled to approach the very thing that scares them, put it in their body and see what happens,” says Linda Herbert, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Children’s Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health.

“On the flip side, these new protections could reduce long-term anxieties, replacing daily anxiety about accidental exposure with a newfound sense of empowerment. Either way, a lot of families will need support as they try these new treatments that enable them to ingest a food allergen daily or wear a patch that administers a controlled dose of that food allergen,” Herbert says.

She will discuss food allergy treatments in the pipeline and families’ psychosocial concerns related to daily life as she presents a research update during the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) 2019 Annual Meeting. A select group, including Herbert, has been recognized with an AAAAI Foundation Heritage Lectureship, which honors distinguished AAAAI members with a special lecture and plaque.

Herbert’s symposium targets allied health professionals at the annual meeting, including psychologists, dietitians and nurse practitioners who attend to a host of psychosocial concerns felt by families affected by allergies to foods like eggs, nuts and cow’s milk.

“When patients arrive for outpatient therapy, they feel anxious about being safe when they’re out in public. They have anxieties about their children feeling safe at school as well as managing restaurant meals. They explain difficulties being included in social events like birthday parties, field trips and shared vacations,” Herbert says. “Some families restrict social activities due to stress and anxiety.”

Children’s National Health System takes a multidisciplinary approach for complex conditions like food allergies, she says, combining the expertise of psychologists, medical providers, research nurses, clinical nurses, registered dietitians and other allied health professionals.

“When we all communicate, we can see the complete picture. It strengthens the care that the child receives, and it’s especially powerful that it can happen all at once – rather than going to multiple appointments,” she adds.

During such group huddles, the team agrees on a plan together that is communicated to the family. One ongoing challenge is that one-third of school children with food allergies are bullied or teased.

“A lot of parents don’t necessarily know to ask or how to ask. I frequently suggest that clinicians discuss peer concerns more in clinic.”

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Allied Health Plenary – Food Allergy Updates.”

Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, 4:15-5:30 p.m. (PST)

Linda Herbert, Ph.D., director of Children’s Division of Allergy and Immunology’s psychosocial clinical program.

Javad Nazarian

Meeting of the minds: Children’s National hosts first DIPG Round Table Discussion

Javad Nazarian at DIPG Round Table Discussion

Spearheaded by Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., MSC, Scientific Director of the Children’s National Brain Tumor Institute, the focused DIPG Round Table Discussion brought investigators, neurosurgeons and clinicians from North America, Europe and Australia to Children’s National in Washington, D.C.

Over 40 experts involved in the study and treatment of diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas (DIPG) convened at the inaugural DIPG Round Table Discussion at Children’s National Health System Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

Spearheaded by Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., MSC, Scientific Director of the Children’s National Brain Tumor Institute, the focused DIPG Round Table Discussion brought investigators, neurosurgeons and clinicians from North America, Europe and Australia to Children’s National in Washington, D.C., to engage in dialogue and learn about the changing landscape of DIPG tumor biology and therapeutics. Attendees discussed the recent discoveries in DIPG research, precision medicine, preclinical modeling, immunotherapy, data sharing and the design of next generation clinical trials.

Families affected by DIPG also had an opportunity to participate in day 2 of the event. Many voiced the necessity of data sharing to ensure progress in the field. Dr. Nazarian seconded that point of view: “It is critical to get raw data and have it harmonized and integrated so that the end users (researchers) can utilize and do cross-data analysis…We need to break down the silos.” The highlight of the data sharing session was the Open DIPG Initiative that is spearheaded by Dr. Nazarian and the Children’s Brian Tumor Tissue Consortium (CBTTC).

Nazarian Lab at DIPG Roundtable Meeting

Eshini Panditharatna, Ph.D., Madhuri Kambhampati, Sridevi Yadavilli, M.D., Ph.D., and Erin Bonner of Children’s National at the DIPG Round Table.

As recent technological and molecular advances in DIPG biology have pushed the field forward, focus groups have become essential to share data, ideas and resources with the overarching goal of expediting effective treatments for children diagnosed with DIPG. An extremely aggressive form of pediatric brain cancer, DIPG accounts for roughly 10 to 15 percent of all brain tumors in children. Between 300 and 400 children in the United States are diagnosed with DIPG each year, but the 5-year survival for the brain tumor is less than 5 percent, a strikingly low number in comparison with other types of childhood cancer. DIPG research and clinical initiatives have changed in the past years mainly due to the generous support of families for basic research. The DIPG Open Table meeting was designed to coalesce a team of experts to expedite the first crack at curing this devastating childhood cancer.

Michael Keller

Virus-specific t-cells show promise before transplant in SCID patients

Michael Keller

“Today, we know that virus-specific T-cells can help protect patients from dangerous viruses after stem cell transplants,” says Michael Keller, M.D. “Through this research, we used the same therapy and approach, but applied it pre-transplant with the hope of providing the same benefit of protection against life-threatening viruses to patients who need it the most.”

Experts at Children’s National Health System have been successfully studying the use of virus-specific T-cells (VST) to help protect immunocompromised patients from life-threatening viruses after bone marrow transplants. Research published recently in the Biology of Blood and Marrow Transplantation presents promising new findings from testing the use of these same VSTs before transplant to help give patients with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) a better chance at long-term survival.

Babies born with SCID are highly susceptible to severe infections that are often fatal if not treated with immune-restoring treatments, like hematopoietic stem cell transplants (HSCT). However, undergoing an HSCT with an infection present has shown to lead to a decrease in survival at two years old for SCID patients when compared to those who start the HSCT infection-free. The study lead, Michael Keller, M.D., hypothesized that the success of HSCTs in SCID patients may be improved by controlling severe viral infections before the patient undergoes the transplant.

“Today, we know that virus-specific T-cells can help protect patients from dangerous viruses after stem cell transplants,” says Dr. Keller. “Through this research, we used the same therapy and approach, but applied it pre-transplant with the hope of providing the same benefit of protection against life-threatening viruses to patients who need it the most.”

Dr. Keller administered the VSTs from a healthy third-party donor in a five-month-old infant fighting adenovirus before undergoing a HSCT to cure him of SCID. Today, the baby is healthy and has a normal immune system. Ultimately, this research shows that the use of VSTs is likely safe in the pre-HSCT period in patients with SCID and may be an effective therapy for viral infections when they are resistant to antiviral therapy.

“I believe this VST therapy could make a real and lasting impact for patients with SCID,” said Dr. Keller. “It gives them a real chance at a long life.”

Anthony Sandler

Treatment of neuroblastoma with immunotherapy and vaccine combination shows promise

Anthony Sandler

“Treatment options like these that help the body use its own immune system to fight off cancer are incredibly promising, and we look forward to continuing this work to understand how we can best help our patients and their families,” said Anthony Sandler, M.D.

Despite being the most common extracranial solid tumor found in children and having multiple modes of therapy, neuroblastoma continues to carry a poor prognosis. However, a recent cutting-edge pre-clinical study, PD-L1 checkpoint inhibition and anti-CTLA-4 whole tumor cell vaccination counter adaptive immune resistance: A mouse neuroblastoma model that mimics human disease, published in PLOS Medicine shows the first signs of success in treating high-risk neuroblastoma, a promising step not only for neuroblastoma patients, but potentially for other types of cancer and solid tumors as well. While the research was conducted on mouse models and is in the early stages, the lead author of the study, Anthony Sandler, M.D., senior vice president and surgeon-in-chief of the Joseph E. Robert, Jr., Center for Surgical Care at Children’s National, believes these findings are an encouraging development for the field.

The treatment method combines a novel personalized vaccine and a combination of drugs that target checkpoint inhibitors enabling the immune system to identify and kill cancer cells. When these checkpoints are blocked, it’s similar to taking the brakes off the immune system so that the body’s T cells can be primed by the vaccine, identify the tumor and allow for targeted tumor cell killing. The vaccine then brings in reinforcements to double down on the attack, helping to eradicate the tumor. The vaccine could also be used as a way to prevent recurrence of disease. After a patient has received the vaccine, the T cells would live in the body, remembering the tumor cells, and attack reemerging cancer in a similar way that a flu vaccine helps fight off the flu virus.

“Treatment options like these that help the body use its own immune system to fight off cancer are incredibly promising, and we look forward to continuing this work to understand how we can best help our patients and their families,” said Dr. Sandler.

Allistair Abraham

Q&A with leading blood and marrow transplantation specialist

Allistair Abraham

Children’s National Health System is proud to be the home of some of the world’s leading hematology experts, including Allistair Abraham, M.D., blood and marrow transplantation specialist within the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, who was recently selected to participate in the American Society of Hematology-Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program (ASH-AMFDP). Designed to increase the number of underrepresented minority scholars in the field of hematology, the ASH-AMFDP has awarded Dr. Abraham $420,000 that includes an annual stipend and research grant over the next four years. Here, Dr. Abraham tells us more about his research and what it means for the future of patients with sickle cell disease.

Q: What does this award mean to you?
A: This award comes at a critical time in my early career as I learn how to become an independent grant-funded researcher. It gives me an opportunity to dedicate 70 percent of my time to research for the next four years, during which I will hone my research skills and have access to highly accomplished mentors at Children’s National and from the ASH-AMFDP faculty.

Q: Your research for this grant focuses on improving curative hematopoietic stem cell transplantation for sickle cell disease. Why do they need to be improved?

A: Sickle cell disease causes significant health problems for children, which can worsen as they become adults, and even shorten their lifespan. Curative therapies to date are limited for many patients since most do not have a suitably matched donor for a curative bone marrow transplant. Many of us in the field hope we can provide a safe option for as many patients as possible so they can be cured in childhood and not have to face the negative impacts of the disease as they grow older.

Q: You will also be evaluating virus-specific T-cell (VST) recovery after transplantation. What will this mean for patients?

A: As we explore more transplant donor options such as unrelated donors and mismatched family donors, we have observed delayed immune system recovery. Viral infections are particularly problematic, as they can be life-threatening and respond poorly to available medications. Ultimately, a recovered immune system would address the infection problem. We hope to generate immune cells that are protective against viruses from the transplant donor and give them to patients as part of their transplant procedure.

Q: How do you envision your research improving the future of treatment for sickle cell patients?

A: My hope is that we get closer to having a safer transplant option for most patients who, despite optimal therapy, continue to suffer from complications of sickle cell disease. Ideally, these transplants would not only be widely available, but the treatment would also be simplified to the point where most of the therapy could take place in an outpatient setting.

Q:  Why did you decide to work in this field?

A:  Sickle cell disease has lagged behind other disorders in terms of new treatment strategies for quite some time. I experienced this as a medical trainee and struggled when parents would ask me to “do something” for their child when most of the time all I could offer was pain medication. In the last five years or so, there has been more focus on sickle cell disease from the field and the community, so now is the time to work toward developing a widely available cure.

American Society of Hematology logo

Leading blood disorder experts from Children’s National convene in Atlanta for 59th American Society of Hematology annual meeting

In early December 2017, more than 25,000 attendees from around the world, including several experts from Children’s National Health System, convened in Atlanta for the American Society of Hematology’s annual meeting and exposition, the world’s premiere hematology event. For four days, physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals attended sessions, listened to speakers and collaborated with each other, focusing on enhancing care and treatment options for patients with blood disorders and complications, including leukemia, sickle cell disease and transplants.

As nationally recognized leaders in the field, the Children’s National team led educational sessions and gave keynote speeches highlighting groundbreaking work underway at the hospital, which sparked engaging and productive conversations among attendees. Highlights from the team include:

  • Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B., Director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, educating global experts on cellular immunotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Kirsten Williams, M.D., bone and marrow transplant specialist, presenting novel work utilizing TAA-specific T cells for hematologic malignancies with Dr. Bollard, the sponsor of this first-in-man immunotherapy; moderating sessions on immunotherapy and late complications and survivorship after hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT).
  • Allistair Abraham, M.D., blood and marrow transplantation specialist, moderating a session on hemoglobinopathies.
  • David Jacobsohn, M.D., ScM, Division Chief of Blood and Marrow Transplantation, moderating a session on allogeneic transplantation results.
  • Naomi Luban, M.D., hematologist and laboratory medicine specialist, introducing a plenary speaker on the application of CRISPR/Cas 9 technology for development of diagnostic reagents for diagnosis of alloimmunization from stem cells.

Additional presentations from the Children’s National team included an oral abstract on the hospital’s work to improve hydroxyurea treatment for sickle cell disease by pediatric resident Sarah Kappa, M.D., who also received an ASH Abstract Achievement Award; another key session on hemoglobinopathies moderated by Andrew Campbell, M.D., director of the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Disease Program; an abstract on the clinical use of CMV- specific T-cells derived from CMV-native donors, presented by Patrick Hanley, Ph.D.; a leukemia study presented by Anne Angiolillo, M.D., oncologist; and a presentation about pain measurement tools in sickle cell disease by Deepika Darbari, M.D., hematologist.

Advances in T-cell immunotherapy at ISCT

Healthy Human T Cell

T-cell immunotherapy, which has the potential to deliver safer, more effective treatments for cancer and life-threatening infections, is considered one of the most promising cell therapies today. Each year, medical experts from around the world – including leaders in the field at Children’s National Health System – gather at the International Society for Cellular Therapy (ISCT) Conference to move the needle on cell therapy through several days of innovation, collaboration and presentations.

Dr. Catherine Bollard, Children’s National chief of allergy and immunology and current president of ISCT, kicked off the week with a presentation on how specific approaches and strategies have contributed to the success of T-cell immunotherapy, a ground-breaking therapy in this fast-moving field.

Later in the week, Dr. Kirsten Williams, a blood and marrow transplant specialist, presented encouraging new findings, demonstrating that T-cell therapy could be an effective treatment for leukemia and lymphoma patients who relapse after undergoing a bone marrow transplant. Results from her phase 1 study showed that four out of nine patients achieved complete remission. Other medical options for the patients involved – those who relapsed between 2 and 12 months post-transplant – are very limited. Looking to the future, this developing therapy, while still in early stages, could be a promising solution.

Other highlights include:

  • Both Allistair Abraham, blood and marrow transplantation specialist, and Dr. Michael Keller, immunologist, presented oral abstracts, the former titled “Successful Engraftment but High Viral Reactivation After Reduced Intensity Unrelated Umbilical Cord Blood Transplantation for Sickle Cell Disease” and the latter “Adoptive T Cell Immunotherapy Restores Targeted Antiviral Immunity in Immunodeficient Patients.
  • Patrick Hanley engaged attendees with his talk, “Challenges of Incorporating T-Cell Potency Assays in Early Phase Clinical Trials,” and his poster presentation “Cost Effectiveness of Manufacturing Antigen-Specific T-Cells in an Academic GMP Facility.” He also co-chaired a session titled “Early Stage Professionals Session 1 – Advanced Strategic Innovations for Cell and Gene Therapies.”
  • To round out this impressive group, Shabnum Piyush Patel gave a talk on genetically modifying HIV-specific T-cells to enhance their anti-viral capacity; the team plans to use these HIV-specific T-cells post-transplant in HIV-positive patients with hematologic malignancies to control their viral rebound.

This exciting team is leading the way in immunology and immunotherapy, as evidenced by the work they shared at the ISCT conference and their ongoing commitment to improving treatments and outcomes for patients at Children’s National and across the country. To learn more about the team, visit the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders site.

Cell therapy virtuoso: Catherine Bollard

Catherine Bollard

In the Medicine Maker piece, Cell Therapy Virtuoso, Children’s National Medical System’s Chief of Allergy and Immunology, Catherine Bollard M.D., discusses why she chose a career in medicine, the personal experience that ignited her interest in cell therapies, and her insights on the current state and future of the immunotherapy field. Highlights from the interview include:

  • On the promise of T-cell therapy: “We’ve now developed several T-cell therapies that give complete remission rates of approximately 75% and two-year progression-free survival rates ranging from 50 percent to over 90 percent depending on the patient population.”
  • Regarding the future of immunotherapy: “The field has expanded dramatically over the last 25 years. In particular, T-cell therapies for cancer have grown rapidly and now the field is expanding into other areas, such as regulatory T-cells for autoimmune disease and virus T-cells for HIV. Given what the immune system can do, the applications are almost limitless.”

Dr. Bollard was featured for her role as president of the International Society for Cellular Therapy.