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Children’s National Hospital and NIAID launch large study on long-term impacts of COVID-19 and MIS-C on kids

coronavirus

Up to 2,000 children and young adults will be enrolled in a study from Children’s National Hospital in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) that will examine the long-term effects of COVID-19 and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) after these patients have recovered from a COVID-19 infection.

This $40 million multi-year study will provide important information about quality of life and social impact, in addition to a better understanding of the long-term physical impact of the virus, including effects on the heart and lung. The researchers hope to detail the role of genetics and the immune response to COVID-19, so-called “long COVID” and MIS-C, including the duration of immune responses from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It is fully funded by a subcontract with the NIH-funded Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research operated by Leidos Biomedical Research, Inc.

“We don’t know the unique long-term impact of COVID-19 or MIS-C on children so this study will provide us with a critical missing piece of the puzzle,” says Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National and lead researcher for this study. “I am hopeful that the insights from this enormous effort will help us improve treatment of both COVID-19 and MIS-C in the pediatric population both nationally and around the world.”

Over the past year, more than 3.6 million children have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and over 2,800 cases of MIS-C have been reported throughout the U.S. While the vast majority of children with primary SARS-CoV-2 infection may have mild or no symptoms, some develop severe illness and may require hospitalization, including life support measures. In rare cases, some children who have previously been infected or exposed to someone with SARS-CoV-2 have developed MIS-C, a serious condition that may be associated with the virus. MIS-C symptoms can include fever, abdominal pain, bloodshot eyes, trouble breathing, rash, vomiting, diarrhea and neck pain, and can progress to shock with low blood pressure and insufficient cardiac function. Long COVID is a wide range of symptoms that can last or appear weeks or even months after being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

The study is designed to enroll at least 1,000 children and young adults under 21 years of age who have a confirmed history of symptomatic or asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection or MIS-C. Participants who enroll within 12 weeks of an acute infection will attend study visits every three months for the first six months and then every six months for three years. Participants who enroll more than 12 weeks after acute infection will attend study visits every six months for three years. The study will also enroll up to 1,000 household contacts to serve as a control group, and up to 2,000 parents or guardians (one parent per participant) will complete targeted questionnaires.

“The large number of patients who will be enrolled in this study should provide us with a truly comprehensive understanding of how the virus may continue to impact some patients long after the infection has subsided,” says Dr. DeBiasi.

The study primarily aims to determine incidence and prevalence of, and risk factors for, certain long-term medical conditions among children who have MIS-C or a previous SARS-CoV-2 infection. The study will also evaluate the health-related quality of life and social impacts for participants and establish a biorepository that can be used to study the roles of host genetics, immune response and other possible factors influencing long-term outcomes.

Children’s National was one of the first U.S. institutions to report that children can become very ill from SARS-CoV-2 infection, despite early reports that children were not seriously impacted. In studies published in the Journal of Pediatrics in May of 2020 and June of 2021, Children’s National researchers found that about 25% of symptomatic COVID patients who sought care at our institution required hospitalization. Of those hospitalized, about 25% required life support measures, and the remaining 75% required standard hospitalization. Of patients with MIS-C, 52% were critically ill.

Study sites include Children’s National Hospital inpatient and outpatient clinics in the Washington, D.C. area, and the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Those interested in participating should submit this form. You will then be contacted by a study team member to review the study details and determine whether you are eligible to participate.

You can find more information about the study here.

little boy at doctor

Demographic, clinical and biomarker features of MIS-C

little boy at doctor

In a new observational study, researchers provide insight into key features distinguishing MIS-C patients to provide a more realistic picture of the burden of disease in the pediatric population and aid with the early detection of disease and treatment for optimal outcomes.

Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) significantly affected more Black and Latino children than white children, with Black children at the highest risk, according to a new observational study of 124 pediatric patients treated at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. Researchers also found cardiac complications, including systolic myocardial dysfunction and valvular regurgitation, were more common in MIS-C patients who were critically ill. Of the 124 patients, 63 were ultimately diagnosed with MIS-C and were compared with 61 patients deemed controls who presented with similar symptoms but ultimately had an alternative diagnosis.

In the study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers provide insight into key features distinguishing MIS-C patients to provide a more realistic picture of the burden of disease in the pediatric population and aid with the early detection of disease and treatment for optimal outcomes. The COVID-linked syndrome has affected nearly 4,000 children in the United States in the past year. Early reports showed severe illness, substantial variation in treatment and mortality associated with MIS-C. However, this study demonstrated that with early recognition and standardized treatment, short-term mortality can be nearly eliminated.

“Data like this will be critical for the development of clinical trials around the long-term implications of MIS-C,” says Dr. Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., lead author and chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National. “Our study sheds light on the demographic, clinical and biomarker features of this disease, as well as viral load and viral sequencing.”

Of the 63 children with MIS-C, 52% were critically ill, and additional subtypes of MIS-C were identified including those with and without still detectable virus, those with and without features meeting criteria for Kawasaki Disease, and those with and without detectable cardiac abnormalities. While median age (7.25 years) and sex were similar between the MIS-C cohort and control group, Black (46%) and Latino (35%) children were overrepresented in the MIS-C group, especially those who required critical care. Heart complications were also more frequent in children who became critically ill with MIS-C (55% vs. 28%). Findings also showed MIS-C patients demonstrated a distinct cytokine signature, with significantly higher levels of certain cytokines than those of controls. This may help in the understanding of what drives the disease and which potential treatments may be most effective.

In reviewing viral load and antibody biomarkers, researchers found MIS-C cases with detectable virus had a lower viral load than in primary SARS-CoV-2 infection cases, but similar to MIS-C controls who had alternative diagnoses, but who also had detectable virus. A larger proportion of patients with MIS-C had detectable SARS-CoV-2 antibodies than controls. This is consistent with current thinking that MIS-C occurs a few weeks after a primary COVID-19 infection as part of an overzealous immune response.

Viral sequencing was also performed in the MIS-C cohort and compared to cases of primary COVID-19 infection in the Children’s National geographic population. 88% of the samples analyzed fell into the GH clade consistent with the high frequency of the GH clade circulating earlier in the pandemic in the U.S. and Canada, and first observed in France.

“The fact that there were no notable sequencing differences between our MIS-C and primary COVID cohorts suggests that variations in host genetics and/or immune response are more likely primary determinants of how MIS-C presents itself, rather than virus-specific factors,” says Dr. DeBiasi. “As we’ve seen new variants continue to emerge, it will be important to study their effect on the frequency and severity of MIS-C.”

Researchers are still looking for consensus on the most efficacious treatments for MIS-C. In a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. DeBiasi calls 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.

Francis Collins

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. from NIH: The future of genomic medicine and research funding opportunities

Kurt Newman and Francis Collins

Genomic medicine, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), a world post-COVID-19 and pediatric research funding were among the topics discussed during the “Special Fireside Chat” keynote lecture at the 2021 Children’s National Hospital Research, Education and Innovation Week.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is well known for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the international Human Genome Project, which culminated in April 2003 with the completion of a finished sequence of the human DNA instruction book.

The President and CEO of Children’s National, Kurt Newman, M.D., joined Dr. Collins during the “Special Fireside Chat” keynote lecture. Dr. Newman posed several health care-related questions to Dr. Collins over the course of 30 minutes. Dr. Collins’s responses shed light on what it takes to advance various research fields focused on improving child health and develop frameworks that advocate for DEI in order to foster a more just society.

Q: You have been involved with genomic medicine since its inception. You discovered the gene causing cystic fibrosis and led the Human Genome project. What do you see as the future of genomic medicine, especially as it relates to improving child health?

A: Thank you for the question, Kurt. First, I wanted to say congratulations on your 150th anniversary. Children’s National Hospital has been such a critical component for pediatric research and care in the Washington, D.C., area, and at the national and international levels. We at the NIH consider it a great privilege to be your partner in many of the things that we can and are doing together.

Genomic medicine has certainly come a long way. The word genomics was invented in 1980, so we have not been at this for that long. Yet, the success of the Human Genome Project and the access to cost-effective tools for rapid DNA sequencing have made many things possible. It took a lot of effort, time and money to discover the gene that causes cystic fibrosis. Kurt, if you look at what we did, while it was rewarding, it was a challenging problem that occupied the hearts of the scientific community in 1980. Now, a graduate student at Children’s National that has access to DNA samples, a thermal cycler, a DNA sequencer and the internet could do in about a week what it took us a decade and with 50 people.

We have been able to rocket forward as far as identifying the genetic causes of 6,500 diseases, where we know precisely the molecular glitch responsible for those conditions. While most of those are rare diseases, it leads to the opportunity for immediate diagnosis, which used to be a long and troubled journey.

DNA sequencing has increasingly become an essential tool in newborns, especially when trying to sort out puzzling diagnosis for specific syndromes or phenotypes that are not immediately clear. Additionally, DNA sequencing significantly impacted clinical care in cancer because it made it possible to look at the mutations driving the malignancy and its genetic information that can lead to interventions. This approach is going forward in the next few years in ways that we can see now. Although I am a little reluctant to make predictions because I have to be careful about that, it may be possible to obtain complete genome sequences that can be yours for life and place them into the medical record to make predictions about future risks and choices about appropriate drugs. This path costs less than any imaging tests.

Q: The racial justice movement that was brought back to the forefront this past year has, once again, reaffirmed that this country has so much more work to do in order to end systemic racism. You have been at the forefront of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in research and at the NIH. What do you and the NIH plan to do further DEI efforts in research and in general so that we can be a more just and equitable society?

A: I appreciate you raising this, Kurt. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is an issue where everyone should be spending a lot of time, energy and passion. You are right. 2020 will be remembered for COVID-19. I also think it will be remembered for the things that occurred around the killing of George Floyd, and the recognition of the very foundation that is still infected by this terribly difficult circumstance of structural racism. I convened a group of about 75 deep thinkers about these issues, many of them are people of color from across the NIH’s different areas of activities. I asked the group to come forward with a bold set of proposals. This effort is how the program UNITE came together to work hard on this, which is now making recommendations that I intend to follow. We are determined to close that gap and pursue additional programs that will allow us to be more successful in recruiting and retaining minority groups, for example. We need to do something with our health disparity and research portfolio as well to ensure that we are not just looking around the edges of the causes for racial inequities. We are digging deeper into what the structural racism underpinnings are and what we can do about it. I am particularly interested in supporting research projects that test intervention and not just catalog the factors involved. We have been, at times, accused and maybe rightly so of being more academic about this, and, less kindly, we have been accused of admiring the problem of health disparities as opposed to acting on it. We are ready to act.

Q: COVID has affected us all in so many ways. Could you tell us what this past year has been like for you? Also, how is the NIH preparing for a soon-to-be post-COVID pandemic?

A: This is the time to contemplate the lessons learned as everyone knows that the last worst pandemic happened over a century ago. One thing that maybe will vex us going forward, which we already started to invest in a big way, is this whole long COVID syndrome, also referred to post-acute sequelae, to understand precisely the consequences and mechanisms like Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). Before moving to the next pandemic, we must think about how we will help understand those who suffer from long COVID syndrome. As far as the broader lessons learn, Kurt, we must expect that there will be other pandemics because humans are interacting more with animals, so zoonosis is likely to emerge. We need to have a clear sense of preparation for the next one. For instance, we are working on this right now, but we need to have a stronger effort to develop small molecules of anti-viral drugs aimed at the major viral classes, so we do not have to start from scratch. We also need clinical trial networks warm all the time, ready to go and to learn how valuable public partnerships can be to get things done in a hurry.

Editor’s Note: The responses in this Q+A have been modified to fit the word count.