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Roberta DeBiasi and Sarah Mulkey

Children’s National experts contribute to new Zika guidelines

Roberta DeBiasi and Sarah Mulkey

Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M. S., and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., members of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program, were among the experts invited to participate in a forum held in Atlanta at CDC headquarters in late August to formulate new Zika recommendations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Oct. 19, 2017 updated guidelines for evaluation of women, fetuses and infants exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy. Although only women with symptoms will now be routinely tested, asymptomatic and symptomatic infants born to these women will still be tested for the Zika virus using blood and urine tests.

Infants who appear normal, whose mothers either had negative Zika results or who had not undergone testing, will not undergo Zika testing. These infants still will undergo a standard evaluation, including a detailed physical exam, hearing screen and routine developmental assessments. The revised Zika guidance includes input from practitioners on the front lines of the Zika epidemic, including Children’s National Health System clinicians.

“These changes in the recommendations for Zika testing should not be interpreted as Zika infection risks subsiding for pregnant women and their infants in the United States. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the limitations of current testing methods – which must occur within a narrow window after Zika exposure – and the poor predictive value of Zika testing right now,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of Children’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. Dr. DeBiasi and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., members of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program, were among the experts invited to participate in the Zika forum held in Atlanta at CDC headquarters in late August to formulate the recommendations.

While all infants will receive a standard evaluation, expanded evaluations that include an ophthalmologic assessment, more detailed hearing evaluation and ultrasound of the newborn’s head will be reserved for infants born to mothers confirmed to be Zika positive or Zika probable, or for infants born with abnormalities potentially consistent with congenital Zika syndrome, regardless of maternal status.

The majority of U.S. infants who have been exposed to Zika in the womb appeared normal at birth, according to CDC registries. Now, the next wave of these normal-appearing babies will receive standard evaluations when they are born, including a newborn hearing screening. At each well-child visit, these infants will receive:

  • A comprehensive physical examination
  • An age-appropriate vision screening
  • Developmental monitoring and screening using validated tools

“This is a natural evolution in the diagnosis and screening strategy now that the peak of the first wave of Zika transmission appears to be over,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “While we continue to evaluate new possible cases of Zika infection among pregnant women in our practice, a sizable proportion of Children’s cases are Zika-exposed infants whose physical exam and neuroimaging appeared normal at birth. Through ongoing monitoring, we hope to learn more about these children’s long-term neurodevelopment outcomes.”

Sarah Mulkey

Fetal MRI plus ultrasound assess Zika-related brain changes

Sarah Mulkey

Magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound provide complementary data needed to assess ongoing changes to the brains of fetuses exposed to Zika in utero, says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

For Zika-affected pregnancies, fetal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used in addition to standard ultrasound (US) imaging can better assess potential brain abnormalities in utero, according to research presented by Children’s National Health System during IDWeek 2017. In cases of abnormal brain structure, fetal MRI can reveal more extensive areas of damage to the developing brain than is seen with US.

“MRI and US provide complementary data needed to assess ongoing changes to the brains of fetuses exposed to Zika in utero,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal/neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Health System and lead author of the research paper. “In addition, our study found that relying on ultrasound alone would have given one mother the false assurance that her fetus’ brain was developing normally while the sharper MRI clearly pointed to brain abnormalities.”

As of Sept. 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 1,901 U.S. women were exposed to Zika at some point during their pregnancies but their infants appeared normal at birth. Another 98 U.S. women, however, gave birth to infants with Zika-related birth defects.  And eight more women had pregnancy losses with Zika-related birth defects, according to CDC registries.

The longitudinal neuroimaging study led by Children’s National enrolled 48 pregnant women exposed to the Zika virus in the first or second trimester whose infection was confirmed by reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, which detects Zika viral fragments shortly after exposure, and/or Immunoglobulin M testing, which reveals antibodies the body produces to neutralize the virus. Forty-six of the study volunteers live in Barranquilla, Colombia, where Zika infection is endemic. Two women live in the Washington region and were exposed to Zika during travel elsewhere.

All of the women underwent at least one diagnostic imaging session while pregnant, receiving an initial MRI or US at 25.1 weeks’ gestational age. Thirty-six women underwent a second MRI/US imaging pair at roughly 31 weeks’ gestation. Children’s National radiologists read every image.

Three of 48 pregnancies, or 6 percent, were marked by abnormal fetal MRIs:

  • One fetus had heterotopias (clumps of grey matter located at the wrong place) and abnormal cortical indent (a deformation at the outer layer of the cerebrum, a brain region involved in consciousness). The US taken at the same gestational age for this fetus showed its brain was developing normally.
  • Another fetus had parietal encephalocele (an uncommon skull defect) and Chiari malformation Type II (a life-threatening structural defect at the base of the skull and the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance). The US for this fetus also detected these brain abnormalities.
  • The third fetus had a thin corpus callosum (bundle of nerves that connects the brain’s left and right hemispheres), an abnormally developed brain stem, temporal cysts, subependymal heterotopias and general cerebral/cerebellar atrophy. This fetal US showed significant ventriculomegaly (fluid-filled structures in the brain that are too large) and a fetal head circumference that decreased sharply from the 32nd to 36th gestational week, a hallmark of microcephaly.

After they were born, infants underwent a follow-up MRI without sedation and US. For nine infants, these ultrasounds revealed cysts in the choroid plexus (cells that produce cerebrospinal fluid) or germinal matrix (the source for neurons and glial cells that migrate during brain development). And one infant’s US after birth showed lenticulostriate vasculopathy (brain lesions).

“Because a number of factors can trigger brain abnormalities, further studies are needed to determine whether the cystic changes to these infants’ brains are attributable to Zika exposure in the womb or whether some other insult caused these troubling results,” Dr. Mulkey says.

Sarah Mulkey Columbia Zika Study

Damage may lurk in “normal” Zika-exposed brains

Sarah Mulkey Columbia Zika Study

An international study that includes Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., aims to answer one of the most vexing questions about Zika: If babies’ brains appear “normal” at birth, have they survived Zika exposure in the womb with few neurological repercussions? Dr. Mulkey presented preliminary findings at PAS2017.

It has been well established by researchers, including scientists at Children’s National Health System, that the Zika virus is responsible for a slew of birth defects – such as microcephaly, other brain malformations and retinal damage – in babies of infected mothers. But how the virus causes these often devastating effects, and who exactly is affected, has not been explained fully.

Also unknown is whether exposed babies that appear normal at birth are truly unaffected by the virus or have hidden problems that might surface later. The majority of babies born to Zika-infected mothers in the United States appear to have no evidence of Zika-caused birth defects, but that’s no guarantee that the virus has not caused lingering damage.

Recently, Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., made a trip to Colombia, where Children’s National researchers are collaborating on a clinical study. There, she tested Zika-affected babies’ motor skills as they sat, stood and lay facing upward and downward. The international study aims to answer one of the most vexing questions about Zika: If babies’ brains appear “normal” at birth, have they survived Zika exposure in the womb with few neurological repercussions?

“We don’t know the long-term neurological consequences of having Zika if your brain looks normal,” says Dr. Mulkey, a fetal-neonatal neurologist who is a member of Children’s Congenital Zika Virus Program. “That is what’s so scary, the uncertainty about long-term outcomes.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 10 pregnancies across the United States with laboratory-confirmed Zika virus infection results in birth defects in the fetus or infant. For the lion’s share of Zika-affected pregnancies, then, babies’ long-term prospects remain a mystery.

“This is a huge number of children to be impacted and the impact, as we understand, has the potential to be pretty significant,” Dr. Mulkey adds.

Dr. Mulkey, the lead author, presented the research group’s preliminary findings during the 2017 annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS). The presentation was one of several that focused on the Zika virus. Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National, organized two invited symposia devoted to the topic of Zika: Clinical perspectives and knowledge gaps; and the science of Zika, including experimental models of disease and vaccines. Dr. DeBiasi’s presentation included an overview of the 68 Zika-exposed or infected women and infants seen thus far by Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program.

“As the world’s largest pediatric research meeting, PAS2017 is an ideal setting for panelists to provide comprehensive epidemiologic and clinical updates about the emergence of Congenital Zika Syndrome and to review the pathogenesis of infection as it relates to the fetal brain,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “With temperatures already rising to levels that support spread of the Aedes mosquito, it is imperative for pediatricians around the world to share the latest research findings to identify the most effective interventions.”

As one example, Dr. Mulkey’s research sought to evaluate the utility of using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to evaluate fetal brain abnormalities in 48 babies whose mothers had confirmed Zika infection during pregnancy. Forty-six of the women/infant pairs enrolled in the prospective study are Colombian, and two are Washington, D.C. women who were exposed during travel to a Zika hot zone.

The women were infected with Zika during all three trimesters and experienced symptoms at a mean gestational age of 8.4 weeks. The first fetal MRIs were performed as early as 18 weeks’ gestation. Depending upon the gestational age when they were enrolled in the study, the participants had at least one fetal MRI as well as serial ultrasounds. Thirty-six fetuses had a second fetal MRI at about 31.1 gestational weeks. An experienced pediatric neuroradiologist evaluated the images.

Among the 48 study participants, 45 had “normal” fetal MRIs.

Three fetuses exposed to Zika in the first or second trimester had abnormal fetal MRIs:

  • One had heterotopia and an early, abnormal fold on the surface of the brain, indications that neurons did not migrate to their anticipated destination during brain development. This pregnancy was terminated at 23.9 gestational weeks.
  • One had parietal encephalocele, a rare birth defect that results in a sac-like protrusion of the brain through an opening in the skull. According to the CDC, this defect affects one in 12,200 births, or 340 babies, per year. It is not known if this rare finding is related to Zika infection.
  • One had a thin corpus callosum, dysplastic brainstem, heterotopias, significant ventriculomegaly and generalized cerebral/cerebellar atrophy.

“Fetal brain MRI detected early structural brain changes in fetuses exposed to the Zika virus in the first and second trimester,” Dr. Mulkey says. “The vast majority of fetuses exposed to Zika in our study had normal fetal MRI, however. Our ongoing study, underwritten by the Thrasher Research Fund, will evaluate their long-term neurodevelopment.”

Adré J. du Plessis, MB.Ch.B., M.P.H., director of the Fetal Medicine Institute and senior author of the paper, notes that this group “is a very important cohort to follow as long as Dr. Mulkey’s funding permits. We know that microcephaly is among the more devastating side effects caused by Zika exposure in utero. Unanswered questions remain about Zika’s impact on hearing, vision and cognition for a larger group of infants. Definitive answers only will come with long-term follow-up.”

Many of the Colombian families live in Sabanalarga, a relatively rural, impoverished area with frequent rain, leaving pockets of fresh water puddles that the mosquito that spreads Zika prefers, Dr. Mulkey adds. Families rode buses for hours for access to fetal MRI technology, which is not common in Colombia.

“The mothers are worried about their babies. They want to know if their babies are doing OK,” she says.

Sarah Mulkey receives NIH career development grant

Sarah Mulkey

Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal-neonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Translational Medicine at Children’s National Health System, has received a KL2 award from the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National, which is funded through the National Institutes of Health. This grant, totaling $135,000 over two years, will allow Dr. Mulkey to reserve dedicated research time — apart from her clinical duties — to pursue a research project studying the autonomic nervous system in newborns.

Dr. Mulkey’s project will focus on developing a better understanding of this part of the nervous system — responsible for unconscious control of basic bodily functions, such as heart rate and breathing — in healthy, full-term babies, and how this system integrates with other brain regions responsible for mood and stress responses. Dr. Mulkey and colleagues then will compare these findings to those from babies whose autonomic nervous systems might have abnormal development, such as infants born pre-term or those with congenital heart defects or intrauterine growth restriction. The findings could help researchers develop new interventions to optimize autonomic nervous system development in vulnerable patients and improve long-term neurologic and psychological health in children.

“This award is an incredible opportunity for a young investigator since it provides protected time both for research and career development,” Dr. Mulkey says. “We need more clinicians in pediatric research to improve medical care and outcomes for children. This award makes it possible for me to devote significant time to research in order to contribute to new knowledge about babies throughout my career.”

To that end, NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences has created a new LinkedIn page to highlight the innovative work of KL2 scholars.

Drs. DeBiasi and du Plessis

Zika virus, one year later

Drs. DeBiasi and du Plessis

A multidisciplinary team at Children’s National has consulted on 66 Zika-affected pregnancies and births since May 2016.

The first pregnant patient with worries about a possible Zika virus infection arrived at the Children’s National Health System Fetal Medicine Institute on Jan. 26, 2016, shortly after returning from international travel.

Sixteen months ago, the world was just beginning to learn how devastating the mosquito-borne illness could be to fetuses developing in utero. As the epidemic spread, a growing number of sun-splashed regions that harbor mosquitoes that efficiently spread the virus experienced a ballooning number of Zika-affected pregnancies and began to record sobering birth defects.

The Washington, D.C. patient’s concerns were well-founded. Exposure to Zika virus early in her pregnancy led to significant fetal brain abnormalities, and Zika virus lingered in the woman’s bloodstream months after the initial exposure — longer than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) then thought was possible.

The research paper describing the woman’s lengthy Zika infection, published by The New England Journal of Medicine, was selected as one of the most impactful research papers written by Children’s National authors in 2016.

In the intervening months, a multidisciplinary team at Children National has consulted on 66 pregnancies and infants with confirmed or suspected Zika exposure. Thirty-five of the Zika-related evaluations were prenatal, and 31 postnatal evaluations assessed the impact of in utero Zika exposure after the babies were born.

The continuum of Zika-related injuries includes tragedies, such as a 28-year-old pregnant woman who was referred to Children’s National after imaging hinted at microcephaly. Follow-up with sharper magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) identified severe diffuse thinning of the cerebral cortical mantle, evidence of parenchymal cysts in the white matter and multiple contractures of upper and lower extremities with muscular atrophy.

According to a registry of Zika-affected pregnancies maintained by the CDC, one in 10 pregnancies across the United States with laboratory-confirmed Zika virus infection has resulted in birth defects in the fetus or infant.

“More surprising than that percentage is the fact that just 25 percent of infants underwent neuroimaging after birth – despite the CDC’s recommendation that all Zika-exposed infants undergo postnatal imaging,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-director of the Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National. “Clinicians should follow the CDC’s guidance to the letter, asking women about possible exposure to Zika and providing multidisciplinary care to babies after birth. Imaging is an essential tool to accurately monitor the growing baby’s brain development.”

Adré du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., director of the Fetal Medicine Institute and Congenital Zika Virus Program co-leader, explains the challenges: ”When it comes to understanding the long-term consequences for fetuses exposed to the Zika virus, we are still on the steepest part of the learning curve. Identifying those children at risk for adverse outcomes will require a sustained and concerted multidisciplinary effort from conception well beyond childhood.”

In addition to counseling families in the greater Washington, D.C. region, the Children’s research team is collaborating with international colleagues to conduct a clinical trial that has been recruiting Zika-infected women and their babies in Colombia. Pediatric Resident Youssef A. Kousa, D.O., Ph.D., M.S., and Neurologist Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., will present preliminary findings during Research and Education Week 2017.

In Colombia as well as the District of Columbia, a growing challenge continues to be assessing Zika’s more subtle effects on pregnancies, developing fetuses and infants, says Radiologist Dorothy Bulas, M.D., another member of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program.

The most severe cases from Brazil were characterized by interrupted fetal brain development, smaller-than-normal infant head circumference, brain calcifications, enlarged ventricles, seizures and limbs folded at odd angles. In the United States and many other Zika-affected regions, Zika-affected cases with such severe birth defects are outnumbered by infants who were exposed to Zika in utero but have imaging that appears normal.

In a darkened room, Dr. Bulas pores over magnified images of the brains of Zika-infected babies, looking for subtle differences in structure that may portend future problems.

“There are some questions we have answered in the past year, but a number of questions remain unanswered,” Dr. Bulas says. “For neonates, that whole area needs assessment. As the fetal brain is developing, the Zika virus seems to affect the progenitor cells. They’re getting hit quite early on. While we may not detect brain damage during the prenatal period, it may appear in postnatal images. And mild side effects that may not be as obvious early on still have the potential to be devastating.”

Sarah B. Mulkey

Researchers tackle Zika’s unanswered questions

Youssef A. Kousa

Youssef A. Kousa, D.O., Ph.D., M.S., is examining whether interplays between certain genes make some women more vulnerable to symptomatic Zika infections.

A Maryland woman traveled to the Dominican Republic early in her pregnancy, spending three weeks with family. She felt dizzy and tired and, at first, attributed the lethargy to jet lag. Then, she experienced a rash that lasted about four days. She never saw a bite or slapped a mosquito while in the Dominican Republic but, having heard about the Zika virus, asked to be tested.

Her blood tested positive for Zika.

Why was this pregnant woman infected by Zika while others who live year-round in Zika hot zones remain free of the infectious disease? And why was she among the slim minority of Zika-positive people to show symptoms?

Youssef A. Kousa, D.O., Ph.D., M.S., a pediatric resident in the child neurology track at Children’s National Health System, is working on a research study that will examine whether interplays between certain genes make some women more vulnerable to symptomatic Zika infections during pregnancy, leaving  some fetuses at higher risk of developing microcephaly.

Dr. Kousa will present preliminary findings during Research and Education Week 2017 at Children’s National.

At sites in Puerto Rico, Colombia and Washington D.C., Dr. Kousa and his research collaborators are actively recruiting study participants and drawing blood from women whose Zika infections were confirmed in the first or second trimester of pregnancy. The blood is stored in test tubes with purple caps, a visual cue that the tube contains an additive that binds DNA, preventing it from being cut up. Additional research sites are currently being developed.

When the blood arrives at Children’s National, Dr. Kousa will use a centrifuge located in a sample preparation room to spin the samples at high speed for 11 minutes. The sample emerges from the centrifuge in three discrete layers, separated by weight. The rose-colored section that rises to the top is plasma. Plasma contains tell-tale signs of the immune system’s past battles with viruses and will be analyzed by Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National, and Dr. Kousa’s mentor.

A slender line at the middle indicates white blood cells. The dark red layer is heavier red blood cells that sink to the bottom. This bottom half of the test tube, where the DNA resides, is where Dr. Kousa will perform his genetic research.

For years, Dr. Kousa has worked to identify genetic risk factors that influence which fetuses develop cleft lip and palate. In addition to genetic variances that drive disease, he looks at environmental overlays that can trigger genes to respond in ways that cause pediatric disease. When Zika infections raced across the globe, he says it was important to apply the same genetic analyses to the emerging disease. Genes make proteins that carry out instructions, but viral infection disrupts how genes interact, he says. Cells die. Other cells do not fully mature.

While certain poverty-stricken regions of Brazil have recorded the highest spikes in rates of microcephaly, more is at play than socioeconomics, he says. “It didn’t feel like all of the answers lie in the neighborhood. One woman with a Zika-affected child can live just down the street from a child who is more or less severely affected by Zika.”

As a father, Dr. Kousa is particularly concerned about how Zika stunts growth of the fetal brain at a time when it should expand exponentially. “I have three kids. You see them as they achieve milestones over time. It makes you happy and proud as a parent,” he says.

Sarah B. Mulkey

Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., is studying whether infants exposed to Zika in utero achieve the same developmental milestones as uninfected infants.

While Dr. Kousa concentrates on Zika’s most devastating side effects, his colleague Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., is exploring more subtle damage Zika can cause to fetuses exposed in utero. In the cohort of Colombian patients that Dr. Mulkey is researching, just 8 percent had abnormal fetal brain magnetic resonance images (MRIs). At first glance, the uncomplicated MRIs appear to be reassuring news for the vast majority of pregnant women.

Dr. Mulkey also will present preliminary findings during Research and Education Week 2017 at Children’s National.

In the fetus, the Zika virus makes a beeline to the developing brain where it replicates with ease and can linger after birth. “We need to be cautious about saying the fetal MRI is ‘normal’ and the infant is going to be ‘normal,’ ” Dr. Mulkey says. “We know with congenital cytomegalovirus that infected infants may not show symptoms at birth yet suffer long-term consequences, such as hearing deficits and vision loss.”

Among Zika-affected pregnancies in Colombia in which late-gestational age fetal MRIs were normal, Dr. Mulkey will use two different evaluation tools at 6 months and 1 year of age to gauge whether the babies accomplish the same milestones as peers. One evaluation tool is a questionnaire that has been validated in Spanish.

At 6 months and 1 year of age, the infants’ motor skills will be assessed, such as their ability to roll over in both directions, sit up, draw their feet toward their waist, stand, take steps independently and purposefully move their hands. Videotapes of the infants performing the motor skills will be scored by Dr. Mulkey and her mentor, Adre du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., Chief of the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National. The Thrasher Research Fund is funding the project, “Neurologic outcomes of apparently normal newborns from Zika virus-positive pregnancies,” as part of its Early Career Award Program.

Both research projects are extensions of a larger multinational study co-led by Drs. du Plessis and DeBiasi that explores the impact of prolonged Zika viremia in pregnant women, fetuses and infants; the feasibility of using fetal MRI to describe the continuum of neurological impacts in Zika-affected pregnancies; and long-term developmental issues experienced by Zika-affected infants.

Sarah B. Mulkey

Puzzling symptoms lead to collaboration

Sarah B. Mulkey, explaining the research

Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., is lead author of a study that describes a brand-new syndrome that stems from mutations to KCNQ2, a genetic discovery that began with one patient’s unusual symptoms.

Unraveling one of the greatest mysteries of Sarah B. Mulkey’s research career started with a single child.

At the time, Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal-neonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National Health System, was working at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Rounding one morning at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), she met a new patient: A newborn girl with an unusual set of symptoms. The baby was difficult to wake and rarely opened her eyes. Results from her electroencephalogram (EEG), a test of brain waves, showed a pattern typical of a severe brain disorder. She had an extreme startle response, jumping and twitching any time she was disturbed or touched, that was not related to seizures. She also had trouble breathing and required respiratory support.

Dr. Mulkey did not know what to make of her new patient: She was unlike any baby she had ever cared for before. “She didn’t fit anything I knew,” Dr. Mulkey remembers, “so I had to get to the bottom of what made this one child so different.”

Suspecting that her young patient’s symptoms stemmed from a genetic abnormality, Dr. Mulkey ran a targeted gene panel, a blood test that looks for known genetic mutations that might cause seizures or abnormal movements. The test had a hit: One of the baby’s genes, called KCNQ2, had a glitch. But the finding deepened the mystery even further. Other babies with a mutation in this specific gene have a distinctly different set of symptoms, including characteristic seizures that many patients eventually outgrow.

Dr. Mulkey knew that she needed to dig deeper, but she also knew that she could not do it alone. So, she reached out first to Boston Children’s Hospital Neurologist Philip Pearl, M.D., an expert on rare neurometabolic diseases, who in turn put her in touch with Maria Roberto Cilio, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco and Edward Cooper, M.D., Ph.D., of Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Cilio, Cooper and Pearl study KCNQ2 gene variants, which are responsible for causing seizures in newborns.

Typically, mutations in this gene cause a “loss of function,” causing the potassium channel to remain too closed to do its essential job properly. But the exact mutation that affected KCNQ2 in Dr. Mulkey’s patient was distinct from others reported in the literature. It must be doing something different, the doctors reasoned.

Indeed, a research colleague of Drs. Cooper, Cilio and Pearl in Italy — Maurizio Taglialatela, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Naples Federico II and the University of Molise — had recently discovered in cell-based work that this particular mutation appeared to cause a “gain of function,” leaving the potassium channel in the brain too open.

Wondering whether other patients with this same type of mutation had the same unusual constellation of symptoms as hers, Dr. Mulkey and colleagues took advantage of a database that Dr. Cooper had started years earlier in which doctors who cared for patients with KCNQ2 mutations could record information about symptoms, lab tests and other clinical findings. They selected only those patients with the rare genetic mutation shared by her patient and a second rare KCNQ2 mutation also found to cause gain of function — a total of 10 patients out of the hundreds entered into the database. The researchers began contacting the doctors who had cared for these patients and, in some cases, the patients’ parents. They were scattered across the world, including Europe, Australia and the Middle East.

Dr. Mulkey and colleagues sent the doctors and families surveys, asking whether these patients had similar symptoms to her patient when they were newborns: What were their EEG results? How was their respiratory function? Did they have the same unusual startle response?

She is lead author of the study, published online Jan. 31, 2017 in Epilepsia, that revealed a brand-new syndrome that stems from specific mutations to KCNQ2. Unlike the vast majority of others with mutations in this gene, Dr. Mulkey and her international collaborators say, these gain-of-function mutations cause a distinctly different set of problems for patients.

Dr. Mulkey notes that with a growing focus on precision medicine, scientists and doctors are becoming increasingly aware that knowing about the specific mutation matters as much as identifying the defective gene. With the ability to test for more and more mutations, she says, researchers likely will discover more cases like this one: Symptoms that differ from those that usually strike when a gene is mutated because the particular mutation differs from the norm.

Such cases offer important opportunities for researchers to come together to share their collective expertise, she adds. “With such a rare diagnosis,” Dr. Mulkey says, “it’s important for physicians to reach out to others with knowledge in these areas around the world. We can learn much more collectively than by ourselves.”

Neonatal baby

Thrasher to fund Children’s project

Neonatal baby

The Thrasher Research Fund will fund a Children’s National Health System project, “Defining a new parameter for post-hemorrhagic ventricular dilation in premature infants,” as part of its Early Career Award Program, an initiative designed to support the successful training and mentoring of the next generation of pediatric researchers.

The proposal was submitted by Rawad Obeid, M.D., a neonatal neurology clinical research fellow at Children’s National who will serve as the project’s principal investigator. The competition for one-year Thrasher Research Fund awards is highly competitive with just two dozen granted across the nation. Research clinicians at Children’s National received two awards this funding cycle, with another awarded to support a neurologic outcomes study about Zika-affected pregnancies led by Fetal-Neonatal Neurologist Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

“Preterm infants born earlier than the 29th gestational week are at high risk for developing cerebral palsy and other brain injuries,” Dr. Obeid says. “Infants with intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH) followed by hydrocephalus (post-hemorrhagic hydrocephalus) face the highest risks of such brain injuries.”

Dr. Obeid hypothesizes that measuring distinct frontal and temporal horn ratio trajectories in extremely premature infants with and without IVH will help to definitively characterize post-hemorrhagic ventricular dilation (PHVD). Right now, experts disagree about the degree of PHVD that should trigger treatment to avoid life-long impairment.

He will be mentored by Anna A. Penn, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Translational Research for Hospital-Based Services & Board of Visitors Cerebral Palsy Prevention Program; Taeun Chang, M.D., Director of the Neonatal Neurology Program within the Division of Neurophysiology, Epilepsy & Critical Care; and Dorothy Bulas, M.D., F.A.C.R., F.A.I.U.M., F.S.R.U., Vice Chief of Academic Affairs.

In the award nomination letter, Dr. Penn noted that in “clinical settings and in the laboratory, I have supervised many trainees, but a trainee like Dr. Obeid is rare. He has pursued his research interests with great commitment. Before coming to Children’s National, he already had multiple job offers, but chose further training to enhance his research skills. While I have worked with many accomplished students, residents and fellows, Dr. Obeid stands out not only for his strong clinical skills, but also for his eagerness to learn and his dedication to both his patients and his research.”

 

Thrasher Research Fund supports Zika virus neurologic outcomes study

The Thrasher Research Fund will fund a Children’s National project, “Neurologic Outcomes of Apparently Normal Newborns From Zika Virus-Positive Pregnancies,” as part of its Early Career Award Program, an initiative designed to support the successful training and mentoring of the next generation of pediatric researchers.

The project was submitted by Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal-neonatal neurologist who is a member of the Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National. During the award period, Dr. Mulkey will be mentored by Adre du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., director of the Fetal Medicine Institute, and Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. Drs. du Plessis and DeBiasi co-direct the multidisciplinary Zika program, one of the nation’s first.

In the award letter, the fund mentioned Children’s institutional support for Dr. Mulkey, as demonstrated by the mentors’ letter of support, as “an important consideration throughout the funding process.”

The search for precise blood biomarkers of neonatal brain injury

Bloodbiomarkers

What’s Known:
Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) is characterized by reduced blood and oxygen flow to a baby’s brain around birth and may cause neurologic disability or death. It occurs most commonly after intrauterine asphyxia brought on by such difficulties as circulatory problems, placental abruption, or inflammatory processes. Newborns with HIE may suffer seizures, difficulty feeding, and disturbed control of heart rate and breathing. Cooling therapy, which is the standard of care, offers some protection to the developing brain, but up to 50 percent of HIE-affected infants still have poor outcomes.

What’s New:
Research scientists at Children’s National Health System are involved in a multi-center clinical trial to determine if erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone naturally secreted by the kidneys and commonly used to treat anemia, helps to prevent brain injury in these infants. The trial, called the HEAL Study (High Dose Erythropoietin for Asphyxia and Encephalopathy), is exploring whether EPO, given in addition to hypothermia, further lowers the risk of brain injury in HIE-affected babies. As a part of this study, researchers at Children’s National are leading the investigation to identify biomarkers of brain injury. Biomarkers are telltale chemicals in the blood and are used in tests that evaluate whether patients have suffered a heart attack. While available biomarkers warn when the heart, kidney, or liver is in trouble, there is no blood biomarker that signals ongoing brain injury. Such blood biomarkers could help to determine which infants are responding to treatment as well as to precisely identify which HIE-affected infants are still struggling and require additional treatments, such as EPO, to protect the brain and improve outcomes.

Questions for Future Research: 

  • Does EPO, in tandem with hypothermia, improve long- term neurodevelopmental outcomes in newborns with HIE?
  • Which biomarkers, or panel of biomarkers, best reflect the timing and severity of neonatal brain injury?
  • Can biomarkers direct which types of treatments are best for specific patients and when they should be used?

Source: Plasma Biomarkers of Brain Injury in Neonatal HIE (Hypoxic-Ischemic Encephalopathy).” A.N. Massaro, Y. Wu, T.K. Bammler, A. Mathur, R.C. McKinstry, T. Chang, D.E. Mayock, S. Mulkey, K. Van Meurs, L. Dong, R. Ballard, and S. Juul. Presented during the 2016 Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD. May 3, 2016.