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Researchers receive $2.5M grant to optimize brain development in babies with CHD

baby cardioilogy patient

Children’s National Health System researchers Richard Jonas, M.D., Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D., and Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., have been awarded a $2.5 million, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct a single-center clinical trial at Children’s National. The study will involve collaboration between the Children’s National Heart Institute, the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, the Center for Neuroscience Research and the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation.

The goal of the study will be to optimize brain development in babies with congenital heart disease (CHD) who sometimes demonstrate delay in the development of cognitive and motor skills. This can be a result of multiple factors including altered prenatal oxygen delivery, brain blood flow and genetic factors associated with surgery including exposure to the heart lung machine.

The award will be used to complete three specific aims of a Phase 1 safety study as described in the NIH grant:

  • Aim 1: To determine the safety and feasibility of delivering allogeneic bone marrow derived mesenchymal stromal cell (BM-MSC) during heart surgery in young infants less than 3 months of age using the heart lung machine. The optimal safe dose will be determined.
  • Aim 2: To determine the impact of MSC infusion on brain structure using advanced neuroimaging and neurodevelopmental outcomes.
  • Aim 3: To determine differences in postoperative inflammatory and patho-physiological variables after MSC delivery in the infant with CHD.

“NIH supported studies in our laboratory have shown that MSC therapy may be extremely helpful in improving brain development in animal models after cardiac surgery,” says Dr. Ishibashi. “MSC infusion can help reduce inflammation including prolonged microglia activation that can occur during surgery that involves the heart lung machine.”

In addition the researchers’ studies have demonstrated that cell-based intervention can promote white matter regeneration through progenitor cells, restoring the neurogenic potential of the brain’s own stem cells that are highly important in early brain development.

The Phase 1 clinical trial is being implemented in two stages beginning with planning, regulatory documentation, training and product development. During the execution phase, the trial will focus on patient enrollment. Staff from the Cellular Therapy Laboratory, led by director Patrick Hanley, Ph.D., manufactured the BM-MSC at the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, led by Dr. Bollard. The Advanced Pediatric Brain Imaging Laboratory, led by Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., will perform MR imaging.

The phase 1 safety study will set the stage for a phase 2 effectiveness trial of this highly innovative MSC treatment aimed at reducing brain damage, minimizing neurodevelopmental disabilities and improving the postoperative course in children with CHD. The resulting improvement in developmental outcome and lessened behavioral impairment will be of enormous benefit to individuals with CHD.

Antonio R. Porras

Antonio R. Porras, Ph.D., awarded prestigious NIH grant for craniosynostosis modeling, career advancement

Antonio R. Porras

Antonio R. Porras, Ph.D., is a staff scientist in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Health System.

Antonio R. Porras, Ph.D., a staff scientist in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Health System, has received the prestigious Pathway to Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This award funds Dr. Porras’ research for the next five years, enabling him to develop two bone growth models that will better inform clinicians treating patients with craniosynostosis and help to optimize outcomes. Also referred to as the K99/R00 grant, this NIH award is for researchers who are either in the postdoctoral/residency period or who are early career investigators. It is designed to transition them from mentored positions to independent, tenure-track or equivalent faculty positions so that they can launch competitive research careers.

Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil., M.A., M.Sc., a principal investigator in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, is Dr. Porras’ primary mentor on this research project along with co-mentors Robert Keating, M.D., division chief of neurosurgery at Children’s National, and Maximilian Muenke, M.D., chief in the Medical Genetics Branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Dr. Porras has taken a research interest in craniosynostosis, the early fusion of one or more cranial sutures that may lead to craniofacial malformations and brain growth constraints during childhood. With this NIH K99/R00 award, Dr. Porras will employ his expertise in computer science, biomedical engineering, quantitative imaging and statistical modeling to create a personalized computational predictive model of cranial bone growth for subjects without cranial pathology and for patients with craniosynostosis. Dr. Porras will also quantify the coupled growth patterns of the cranial bones and the brain using an existing brain growth model.

Affecting one in 2,100 to 2,500 live births, craniosynostosis complications can result in elevated intra-cranial pressure and subsequent impaired brain growth. While treatable, optimal outcomes are stymied by subjectivity in the evaluation of cranial malformations and prediction of cranial bone development. There are currently no personalized clinical tools available to predict healthy or pathological cranial growth and no objective techniques to optimize the long-term outcome of treatment for patients with craniosynostosis.

Gustavo Nino

Gustavo Nino, M.D., honored with national award from American Thoracic Society

Gustavo Nino

Gustavo Nino, M.D., a pulmonologist who directs the Sleep Medicine program at Children’s National, was honored by the American Thoracic Society with The Robert B. Mellins, M.D. Outstanding Achievement Award in recognition of his contributions to pediatric pulmonology and sleep medicine.

“I am humbled and pleased to be recognized with this distinction,” says Dr. Nino. “This national award is particularly special because it honors both academic achievements as well as research that I have published to advance the fields of pediatric pulmonology and sleep medicine.”

After completing a mentored career development award (K Award) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Nino established an independent research program at Children’s National funded by three different NIH R-level grants, an R01 research project grant; an R21 award for new, exploratory research; and an R4 small business/technology transfer award to stimulate research innovation.

The research team Dr. Nino leads has made important contributions to developing novel models to study the molecular mechanisms of airway epithelial immunity in newborns and infants. He also has pioneered the use of computer-based lung imaging tools and physiological biomarkers to predict early-life respiratory disease in newborns and infants.

Dr. Nino has published roughly 60 peer-review manuscripts including in the “Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology,” the “European Respiratory Journal,” and the “American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine,” the three top journals in the field of respiratory medicine. He has been invited to chair sessions about sleep medicine during meetings held by the Pediatric Academic Societies, American College of Chest Physicians and the American Thoracic Society (ATS).

Dr. Nino also has served as NIH scientific grant reviewer of the Lung Cellular and Molecular Immunology Section; The Infectious, Reproductive, Asthma and Pulmonary Conditions Section; and The Impact of Initial Influenza Exposure on Immunity in Infants NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Special Emphasis Panel.

In addition to his research and academic contributions, over the past five years Dr. Nino has led important clinical and educational activities at Children’s National and currently directs the hospital’s Sleep Medicine program, which has grown to become one of the region’s largest programs conducting more than 1,700 sleep studies annually.

He has developed several clinical multidisciplinary programs including a pediatric narcolepsy clinic and the Advanced Sleep Apnea Program in collaboration with the Division of Ear, Nose and Throat at Children’s National. In addition, Dr. Nino started a fellowship program in Pediatric Sleep Medicine accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education in collaboration with The George Washington University and has served as clinical and research mentor of several medical students, pediatric residents and fellows.

Steven Hardy

Steven Hardy, Ph.D., awarded prestigious NIH grant for sickle cell research, career development

Steven Hardy

Steven Hardy, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National, has been awarded a K23 Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in recognition of his progress toward a productive, independent clinical research career. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Mentored Career Development Awards are designed to provide early career investigators with the time and support needed to focus on research and develop new research capabilities that will propel them to lead innovative studies in the future.

Dr. Hardy, who has worked at Children’s National since 2013, specializes in the emotional, behavioral and cognitive aspects of children’s health, with a particular emphasis on evaluating and treating psychological difficulties among children with cancer or sickle cell disease. With the K23 award, he will receive nearly $700,000 over a five-year period, which will provide him with an intensive, supervised, patient-oriented research experience. The grant will support Dr. Hardy’s time to conduct research, allow him to attend additional trainings to enhance research skills, and fund a research project titled “Trajectory of Cognitive Functioning in Youth with Sickle Cell Disease without Cerebral Infarction.”

Many children with sickle cell disease (SCD) also have intellectual challenges which stem from two primary pathways – stroke and other disease-related central nervous system effects. While stroke is a major complication of SCD, the majority of children with SCD have no evidence of stroke but may still exhibit cognitive functioning challenges related to their disease. Such cognitive difficulties have practical implications for the 100,000 individuals in the SCD, as 20-40% of youth with SCD repeat a grade in school and fewer than half of adults with SCD are employed. Dr. Hardy’s project will focus on understanding the scope and trajectory of cognitive difficulties in children with SCD without evidence of stroke, as well as the mechanisms that precipitate disease-related cognitive decline. The study will characterize temporal relationships between biomarkers of SCD severity and changes in cognitive functioning to inform future development of risk stratification algorithms to predict cognitive decline. Armed with the ability to predict cognitive decline, families will have additional information to weigh when making decisions and providers will be better able to intervene and tailor treatment.

Zhe Han

$2M NIH grant for treating disease linked to APOL1

Zhe Han

Children’s researcher Zhe Han, Ph.D., has received a $2 million award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study new approaches to treat kidney disease linked to inheriting Apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) risk alleles. These risk alleles are particularly common among persons of recent African descent, and African Americans are disproportionately affected by the increased risk in kidney disease associated with these risk alleles.

Han, an associate professor in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research, has established a leading research program that uses the fruit fly Drosophila as a model system to study how genetic mutations lead to disease.

Drosophila is a very basic model, but studies in the fly have led to major breakthroughs in understanding fundamental biological processes that underlie health and disease in humans,” Han says. “Since coming to Children’s National five years ago, I have focused a significant part of my research studying particular fly cells called nephrocytes that carry out many of the important roles of human kidney glomeruli, units within the kidney where blood is cleaned. Working together with clinician colleagues here, we have demonstrated that these Drosophila cells can be used to very efficiently study different types of renal disease caused by genetic mutations.”

The APOL1 risk alleles are genetic variants, termed G1 and G2, found almost exclusively in people of African ancestry and can lead to a four-fold higher risk of end-stage kidney disease, the last of five stages of chronic kidney disease. Exactly how inheriting these risk alleles increases the risk of kidney disease remains an unanswered question and the focus of considerable research activity. Han’s laboratory has developed a Drosophila model of APOL1-linked renal disease by producing the G1 and G2 forms of APOL1 specifically in nephrocytes. This led to defects in fly renal cells that strikingly overlap with disease-associated changes in experimental model and human kidney cells expressing APOL1 risk alleles.

The new NIH award will fund large-scale screening and functional testing to identify new treatment targets and new drugs to treat kidney disease linked to APOL1. Using a genetic screening approach, Han’s lab will identify nephrocyte “modifier” genes that interact with APOL1 proteins and counter the toxic effects of risk-associated G1 and G2 variants.

The team also will identify nephrocyte genes that are turned on or off in the presence of APOL1 risk alleles, and confirm that such “downstream” APOL1-regulated genes are similarly affected in experimental model and human kidney cells. The potential of the newly identified “modifier” and “downstream” genes to serve as targets of novel therapeutic interventions will be experimentally tested in fly nephrocytes in vivo and in cultured mammalian kidney cells.

Finally, the Drosophila model will be used as a drug screening platform for in vivo evaluation of positive “hits” from a cell-based APOL1 drug screening study in order to identify compounds that are most effective with the fewest side effects.

“These types of studies can be most efficiently performed in Drosophila,” Han adds.  “They take advantage of the speed and low cost of the fly model system and the amazing array of well-established, sophisticated genetic tools available for the fly. Using this model to elucidate human disease mechanisms and to identify new effective therapies has truly become my research passion.”

Zhe Han lab 2018

$2 million NIH grant to study nephrotic syndrome

Zhe Han lab 2018

A Children’s researcher has received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study nephrotic syndrome in Drosophila, a basic model system that has revealed groundbreaking insights into human health. The award for Zhe Han, Ph.D., an associate professor in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research, is believed to be the first ever NIH Research Project grant (R01)  to investigate glomerular kidney disease using Drosophila. Nephrotic syndrome is mostly caused by damage of glomeruli, so it is equivalent to glomerular kidney disease.

“Children’s National leads the world in using Drosophila to model human kidney diseases,” Han says.

In order to qualify for the five-year funding renewal, Han’s lab needed to successfully accomplish the aims of its first five years of NIH funding.  During the first phase of funding, Han established that nephrocytes in Drosophila serve the same functions as glomeruli in humans, and his lab created a series of fly models that are relevant for human glomerular disease.

“Some 85 percent of the genes known to be involved in nephrotic syndrome are conserved from the fly to humans. They play similar roles in the nephrocyte as they play in the podocytes in human kidneys,” he adds.

Pediatric nephrotic syndrome is a constellation of symptoms that indicate when children’s kidneys are damaged, especially the glomeruli, units within the kidney that filter blood. Babies as young as 1 year old can suffer proteinuria, which is characterized by too much protein being released from the blood into the urine.

“It’s a serious disease and can be triggered by environmental factors, taking certain prescription medicines or inflammation, among other factors.  Right now, that type of nephrotic syndrome is mainly treated by steroids, and the steroid treatment works in many cases,” he says.

However, steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome occurs primarily due to genetic mutations that affect the kidney’s filtration system: These filters are either broken or the protein reabsorption mechanism is disrupted.

“When genetics is to blame, we cannot turn to steroids. Right now there is no treatment. And many of these children are too young to be considered for a kidney transplant,” he adds. “We have to understand exactly which genetic mutation caused the disease in order to develop a targeted treatment.”

With the new funding, Han will examine a large array of genetic mutations that cause nephrotic syndrome. He’s focusing his efforts on genes involved in the cytoskeleton, a network of filaments and tubules in the cytoplasm of living cells that help them to maintain shape and carry out important functions.

“Right now, we don’t really understand the cytoskeleton of podocytes – highly specialized cells that wrap around the capillaries of the glomerulus – because podocytes are difficult to access. To change a gene requires time and considerable effort in other experimental models. However, changing genes in Drosophila is very easy, quick and inexpensive. We can examine hundreds of genes involving the cytoskeleton and see how changing those genes affect kidney cell function,” he says.

Han’s lab already found that Coenzyme Q10, one of the best-selling nutrient supplements to support heart health also could be beneficial for kidney health. For the cytoskeleton, he has a different targeted medicine in mind to determine whether Rho inhibitors also could be beneficial for kidney health for patients with certain genetic mutations affecting their podocyte cytoskeleton.

“One particular aim of our research is to use the same strategy as we employed for the Coq2 gene to generate a personalized fly model for patients with cytoskeleton gene mutations and test potential target drugs, such as Rho inhibitors.” Han added. “As far as I understand, this is where the future of medicine is headed.”

Zhe Han

$3 million NIH grant to study APOL1 and HIV synergy

Zhe Han

Zhe Han, Ph.D., (pictured) and Patricio E. Ray, M.D., have received a $3 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the mechanisms behind APOL1 and HIV nephropathies in children, using a combination of Drosophila models, cultured human podocytes and a preclinical model.

Two Children’s researchers have received a $3 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the mechanisms of APOL1 and HIV nephropathies in children, using a combination of Drosophila models, cultured human podocytes and a preclinical model.

The APOL1 genetic variants G1 and G2, found almost exclusively in people of African ancestry, lead to a four-fold higher risk of end-stage kidney disease. HIV infection alone also increases the risk of kidney disease but not significantly. However, HIV-positive people who also carry the APOL1 risk alleles G1 or G2 are about 30 times more likely to develop HIV-nephropathy (HIVAN) and chronic kidney disease.

For more than 25 years, Children’s pediatric nephrology program has studied HIV/renal diseases and recently developed Drosophila APOL1-G0 and G1 transgenic lines. That pioneering research suggests that HIV-1 acts as a “second hit,” precipitating HIV-renal disease in children by infecting podocytes through a mechanism that increases expression of the APOL1-RA beyond toxic thresholds.

With this new infusion of NIH funding, labs led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., and Patricio E. Ray, M.D., will determine the phenotype of Drosophila Tg lines that express APOL1-G0/G1/G2 and four HIV genes in nephrocytes to assess how they affect structure and function. The teams also will determine whether APOL1-RA precipitates the death of nephrocytes expressing HIV genes by affecting autophagic flux.

“Our work will close a critical gap in understanding about how HIV-1 interacts with the APOL1 risk variants in renal cells to trigger chronic kidney disease, and we will develop the first APOL1/HIV transgenic fly model to explore these genetic interactions in order to screen new drugs to treat these renal diseases,” says Dr. Ray, a Children’s nephrologist.

While a large number of people from Africa have two copies of APOL1 risk alleles, they do not necessarily develop kidney disease. However, if a patient has two copies of APOL1 risk alleles and is HIV-positive, they almost certainly will develop kidney disease.

Patricio Ray

“Our work will close a critical gap in understanding about how HIV-1 interacts with the APOL1 risk variants in renal cells to trigger chronic kidney disease, and we will develop the first APOL1/HIV transgenic fly model to explore these genetic interactions in order to screen new drugs to treat these renal diseases,” says Dr. Ray, a Children’s nephrologist.

“Many teams want to solve the puzzle of how APOL1 and HIV synergize to cause kidney failure,” says Han, associate professor in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research. “We are in the unique position of combining a powerful new kidney disease model system, Drosophila, with long-standing human podocyte and HIVAN studies.”

The team hypothesizes that even as an active HIV infection is held in check by powerful new medicines, preventing the virus from proliferating or infecting new cells, HIV can act as a Trojan horse by making the human cells it infects express HIV protein.

To investigate this hypothesis, the team will create a series of fly models, each expressing a major HIV protein, and will test the genetic interaction between these HIV genes with APOL1. Similar studies also will be performed using cultured human podocytes. Identified synergy will be studied further using biochemical and transcription profile analyses.

Drosophila is a basic model system, but it has been used to make fundamental discoveries, including genetic control of how the body axes is determined and how the biological clock works – two studies that led to Nobel prizes,” Han adds. “I want to use the fly model to do something close to human disease. That is where my research passion lies.”

NephCure Kidney International logo

Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D., named NephCure Kidney International scientific adviser

NephCure Kidney International logo

Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D., chief of the Division of Nephrology at Children’s National Health System, has been named to the Scientific Advisory Board for NephCure Kidney International, a non-profit that aims to accelerate research for rare forms of nephrotic syndrome.

Dr. Moxey-Mims and two additional scientific advisers were selected for their commitment to improving care for patients with glomerular disease, diseases that impair kidney function by attacking blood cleaning units within the kidney.

During her tenure at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Moxey-Mims launched the Chronic Kidney Disease in Children Cohort Study, a prospective study to investigate chronic kidney disease risk factors and outcomes, and helped launch the Cure Glomerulonephropathy Network, a multi-site study with the overarching aim to advance the diagnosis and care of patients with four different glomerular diseases.

“I am truly honored to join this distinguished group of scientific advisers and look forward to leveraging our combined strengths and research knowledge in order to deliver cures for kidney diseases faster,” says Dr. Moxey-Mims.

Dr. Michael Hsieh's clay shield

Innovative urologist Michael Hsieh takes unbeaten path

Dr. Michael Hsieh's clay shield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Andrew Dauber

Growth disorder study starts by analyzing DNA

The National Institutes of Health has awarded Andrew Dauber, M.D., MMSc, the chief of endocrinology at Children’s National Health System, a five-year grant that will allow four pediatric health systems to compile and study clinical and genetic markers of severe pediatric growth disorders.

The study will use the electronic health records of large health systems combined with DNA samples from dozens of children, with the goal of enabling endocrinologists to detect children with previously undiagnosed severe genetic growth disorders.

“If you’re a pediatrician treating an 8-year-old patient who has stopped growing, the first thing you’ll want to do is determine the underlying cause, which could be due to many factors including a genetic mutation,” says Dr. Dauber. “There are many reasons why children grow poorly and it is often very difficult to figure out what is causing the problem. However, the various causes may be treated quite differently and may alert us to other medical issues that we need to watch out for. We need to be able to identify clues from the patient’s clinical presentation that may point us to the right diagnosis.”

Dr. Dauber and endocrinology researchers from Children’s National Health System, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Boston Children’s Hospital and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will use electronic health records to identify children who likely have rare genetic growth disorders. They will then use cutting-edge DNA sequencing technologies, whole exome sequences, to identify novel genetic causes of severe growth disorders. Patients with growth hormone resistance, resistance to insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-I) and severe short stature inherited from a single parent will be recruited for the initial phases of the study.

“It’s rare to find patients meeting criteria for each of these subgroups, which is why it’s critical to work collaboratively across institutions,” says Dr. Dauber. “This type of genetic sorting and sharing brings us closer to identifying new markers for severe or treatment-resistant growth disorders, which will help alert pediatricians and parents to potential risks earlier on in a child’s life.”

In addition to assessing genetic markers for short stature, the endocrinologists will conduct pilot studies of targeted interventions, such as IGF-I therapy in patients with mutations in the growth hormone pathway, based on these genetic underpinnings.

“Ideally, by identifying markers of severe growth disorders first, we’ll be able to provide targeted treatments and therapies later on to help patients throughout their lifespan,” adds Dr. Dauber.

Typical treatments for atypical growth patterns include growth hormone or less commonly insulin-like growth factor, or IGF-1, for short stature and hormone-inhibiting treatments for precocious puberty.

The multicenter clinical trial is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), under grant Ro1HD093622, and runs through June 30, 2023.

boy on a treadmil

Therapeutic targets in African-American youth with type 2 diabetes

boy on a treadmil

Ongoing research is helping to define the broad spectrum and multi-faceted nature of type 2 diabetes in terms of its presentation, its rapidity of progression and its underlying genetic susceptibilities. In a recent study of 8,980 adults published in The Lancet, diabetes was further classified into five clusters, ranging from insulin-deficient, typically referred to as type 1, to groups of patients with primary insulin-resistance, traditionally classified as type 2 diabetes, with the caveat that each cluster had a distinct risk profile for disease progression and risk for diabetes complications.

Moreover, investigators have recently demonstrated, through the Restoring Insulin Secretion (RISE) Consortium, that youth compared to adults with early type 2 diabetes have greater insulin resistance relative to insulin secretion. Understanding variances on the diabetes spectrum, especially as it relates to risk for disease progression in youth, helps researchers develop targeted therapies that may help reduce complications and the burden of this chronic disease.

Ongoing research

Stephanie Chung, M.B.B.S., a pediatric endocrinologist at the National Institutes of Health and an adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s National, is one researcher who hopes to use this knowledge to transform public health outcomes. Dr. Chung is studying how teens and young adults with severe insulin-resistant diabetes (SIRD) respond to new treatment, paired with lifestyle-based interventions.

Here is a Q&A with Dr. Chung about her latest research:

Tell Innovation District readers more about your diabetes research. How has your previous research influenced this study?

My research and publications are focused on understanding how genes, environment and lifestyle factors contribute to the pathology of diabetes, obesity and insulin resistance in populations of African descent and on identifying more effective screening and treatment options.

We know that African-American youth with type 2 diabetes have the highest complication and treatment failure rates among minority youth. However, the reasons underlying this health disparity are still not fully understood. Metformin, the only approved oral diabetes treatment for youth with type 2 diabetes, works less than half of the time in African-American youth. Although new evidence suggests that gut bacteria and genetics may influence the efficacy of metformin, this data is insufficient in African-American youth.

What is your goal with this diabetes clinical study?

The primary objective of this new study, entitled Therapeutic Targets in African-American Youth with Type 2 Diabetes, is to compare the combination of metformin and liraglutide versus metformin alone to reduce excess glucose produced by the liver in African-American youth with type 2 diabetes.

Additional objectives will evaluate the mechanism of action in the liver of these two agents and the influence of genetics and gut bacteria. This project brings together the research expertise of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Human Genome Research Institute and the Children’s National Medical Center.

Do you envision this type of dual therapy, a combination of drugs and lifestyle interventions, will serve as a bridge to optimal insulin function?

While metformin, diet and lifestyle changes remain the mainstay of diabetes treatment, our study will evaluate whether this combination regimen could help to slow the progression of type 2 diabetes in African American youth. Our ultimate goal is the development of new precision medicine treatment options that can address the disparities in outcomes for African-American youth with type 2 diabetes.

What lessons do you see participants learning as they progress through the trial?

Our patients and their families are equal partners in care. Our comprehensive team of doctors, nurses, dietitians and counselors work closely with the patients and their families to help empower them to take charge of managing their diabetes. We teach them skills that include regularly monitoring their blood glucose levels and understanding how their activity and foods affect these levels. They are coached on making healthy food choices and incorporating exercise into their daily lives.

How do you teach children and teens about how their body responds to different foods?

This education starts as soon as participants enter the study. While patients are at the NIH for the inpatient study, we provide them with meals containing different ratios of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and help them to analyze how their blood sugar responds to these levels, both before and after they take the medication. This type of education is important since participants will also have to monitor their blood sugar twice a day at home during the study. Most of the time, we use real-life situations as teaching moments. For example, if a participant had pizza for dinner, we will discuss with them why their blood sugar spiked and suggest alternative food choices. We provide this type of coaching every week. I often joke that after three months they become tired of hearing from us. But one of the strengths of this study is that participants receive personalized feedback that enables them to make healthy food choices for the rest of their life.

Can you tell us more about targeted food choices for teens?

A very enlightening procedure that we conduct on all of our study participants is measuring their basal metabolic rate (energy expenditure at rest). We show them how many calories they need to consume each day to maintain their body’s normal functions and compare that number with an estimate of how many calories they usually consume in a day. For many participants this is the first time that they have insight into the reasons for their weight gain.

How does this lab work help with meal planning?

After we create a participant’s metabolic chart we make food plans that support their lifestyle and caloric needs and are realistic to follow. For example, a 2,000 calorie per day diet can be separated into 400 calories for breakfast, 600 calories for lunch, 200 calories for snack and 800 calories for dinner.

How do you envision personalizing the field of diabetes research and treatment?

A precision medicine approach to type 2 diabetes will help us to better explore if and how factors like genes, environment and lifestyle impact insulin and glucose metabolism in populations with significant treatment outcomes disparities. With this approach we hope to uncover novel targeted treatment and prevention strategies that demonstrate more efficacy and cost-efficiency than current treatment approaches for high-risk populations.

Where can people learn more about the trial?

Learn more about the study by watching this informational video. If you’re interested in joining the study, please contact the NIH Office of Clinical Trial Recruitment at 866-999-1116.

Nikki Gillum Posnack

Examining BPA’s impact on developing heart cells

Nikki Gillum Posnack

“We know that once this chemical enters the body, it can be bioactive and therefore can influence how heart cells function,” says Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D. “This is the first study to look at the impact BPA exposure can have on heart cells that are still developing.”

More than 8 million pounds of bisphenol A (BPA), a common chemical used in manufacturing plastics, is produced each year for consumer goods and medical products. This endocrine disruptor reaches 90 percent of the population, and excessive exposure to BPA, e.g., plastic bottles, cash register receipts, and even deodorant, is associated with adverse cardiovascular events that range from heart arrhythmias and angina to atherosclerosis, the leading cause of death in the U.S.

To examine the impact BPA could have in children, researchers with Children’s National Heart Institute and the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation evaluated the short-term risks of BPA exposure in a preclinical setting. This experimental research finds developing heart cells respond to short-term BPA exposure with slowed heart rates, irregular heart rhythms and calcium instabilities.

While more research is needed to provide clinical recommendations, this preclinical model paves the way for future study designs to see if young patients exposed to BPA from medical devices or surgical procedures have adverse cardiac events and altered cardiac function.

“Existing research explores the impact endocrine disruptors, specifically BPA, have on adults and their cardiovascular and kidney function,” notes Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D., a study author and assistant professor at Children’s National and The George Washington University. “We know that once this chemical enters the body, it can be bioactive and therefore can influence how heart cells function. This is the first study to look at the impact BPA exposure can have on heart cells that are still developing.”

The significance of this research is that plastics have revolutionized the way clinicians and surgeons treat young patients, especially patients with compromised immune or cardiac function.

Implications of Dr. Posnack’s future research may incentivize the development of alternative products used by medical device manufacturers and encourage the research community to study the impact of plastics on sensitive patient populations.

“It’s too early to tell how this research will impact the development of medical devices and equipment used in intensive care settings,” notes Dr. Posnack. “We do not want to interfere with clinical treatments, but, as scientists, we are curious about how medical products and materials can be improved. We are extending this research right now by examining the impact of short-term BPA exposure on human heart cells, which are developed from stem cells.”

This research, which appears as an online advance in Nature’s Scientific Reports, was supported by the National Institutes of Health under awards R00ES023477, RO1HL139472 and UL1TR000075, Children’s Research Institute and the Children’s National Heart Institute. NVIDIA Corporation provided GPUs, computational devices, for this study.

Nobuyuki Ishibashi

Children’s receives NIH grant to study use of stem cells in healing CHD brain damage

Nobuyuki Ishibashi

“Bone marrow stem cells are used widely for stroke patients, for heart attack patients and for those with developmental diseases,” explains Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D. “But they’ve never been used to treat the brains of infants with congenital heart disease. That’s why we are trying to understand how well this system might work for our patient population.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded researchers at Children’s National Health System $2.6 million to expand their studies into whether human stem cells could someday treat and even reverse neurological damage in infants born with congenital heart disease (CHD).

Researchers estimate that 1.3 million infants are born each year with CHD, making it the most common major birth defect. Over the past 30 years, advances in medical technology and surgical practices have dramatically decreased the percentage of infants who die from CHD – from a staggering rate of nearly 100 percent just a few decades ago to the current mortality rate of less than 10 percent.

The increased survival rate comes with new challenges: Children with complex CHD are increasingly diagnosed with significant neurodevelopmental delay or impairment. Clinical studies demonstrate that CHD can reduce oxygen delivery to the brain, a condition known as hypoxia, which can severely impair brain development in fetuses and newborns whose brains are developing rapidly.

Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., the study’s lead investigator with the Center for Neuroscience Research and director of the Cardiac Surgery Research Laboratory at Children’s National, proposes transfusing human stem cells in experimental models through the cardio-pulmonary bypass machine used during cardiac surgery.

“These cells can then identify the injury sites,” says Dr. Ishibashi. “Once these cells arrive at the injury site, they communicate with endogenous tissues, taking on the abilities of the damaged neurons or glia cells they are replacing.”

“Bone marrow stem cells are used widely for stroke patients, for heart attack patients and for those with developmental diseases,” adds Dr. Ishibashi. “But they’ve never been used to treat the brains of infants with congenital heart disease. That’s why we are trying to understand how well this system might work for our patient population.”

Dr. Ishibashi says the research team will focus on three areas during their four-year study – whether the stem cells:

  • Reduce neurological inflammation,
  • Reverse or halt injury to the brain’s white matter and
  • Help promote neurogenesis in the subventricular zone, the largest niche in the brain for creating the neural stem/progenitor cells leading to cortical growth in the developing brain.

At the conclusion of the research study, Dr. Ishibashi says the hope is to develop robust data so that someday an effective treatment will be available and lasting neurological damage in infants with congenital heart disease will become a thing of the past.

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D

Internationally renowned pediatric nephrologist named to NIH advisory council

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D

Pediatric nephrologist Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D., has been named to a three-year term as adviser serving on the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) Kidney, Urologic and Hematologic Diseases subcouncil.

Dr. Guay-Woodford, Director of the Center for Translational Science at Children’s National, is an internationally recognized expert in the mechanisms that modulate the clinical severity of certain inherited renal disorders, such as autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease. She holds the Richard L. and Agnes F. Hudson Professorship in Health Services Research at Children’s National.

NIDDK, like other grant-awarding institutes within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), looks to its advisory councils for feedback on procedures that govern staff and manage its grant portfolios. The institute, the fifth largest at the NIH, supports clinical research about internal medicine and related subspecialties for many of the most common chronic health conditions.

“It is a tremendous honor to be asked to serve on this important council. I look forward to providing advice and perspective on the exciting portfolio of NIDDK-funded projects,” Dr. Guay-Woodford says.

Zhe Han, PhD

Lab led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., receives $1.75 million from NIH

Zhe Han, PhD

A new four-year NIH grant will enable Zhe Han, Ph.D., to carry out the latest stage in the detective work to determine how histone-modifying genes regulate heart development and the molecular mechanisms of congenital heart disease caused by these genetic mutations.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $1.75 million to a research lab led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., principal investigator and associate professor in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, in order to build models of congenital heart disease (CHD) that are tailored to the unique genetic sequences of individual patients.

Han was the first researcher to create a Drosophila melanogaster model to efficiently study genes involved in CHD, the No.1 birth defect experienced by newborns, based on sequencing data from patients with the heart condition. While surgery can fix more than 90 percent of such heart defects, an ongoing challenge is how to contend with the remaining cases since mutations of a vast array of genes could trigger any individual CHD case.

In a landmark paper published in 2013 in the journal Nature, five different institutions sequenced the genomes of more than 300 patients with CHD and their families, identifying 200 mutated genes of interest.

“Even though mutations of these genes were identified from patients with CHD, these genes cannot be called ‘CHD genes’ since we had no in vivo evidence to demonstrate these genes are involved in heart development,” Han says. “A key question to be answered: How do we efficiently test a large number of candidate disease genes in an experimental model system?”

In early 2017, Han published a paper in Elife providing the answer to that lingering question. By silencing genes in a fly model of human CHD, the research team confirmed which genes play important roles in development. The largest group of genes that were validated in Han’s study were histone-modifying genes. (DNA winds around the histone protein, like thread wrapped around a spool, to become packed into a higher-level structure.)

The new four-year NIH grant will enable Han to carry out the next stage of the detective work to determine precisely how histone-modifying genes regulate heart development. In order to do so, his group will silence the function of histone-modifying genes one by one, to study their function in the fly heart development and to identify the key histone-modifying genes for heart development. And because patients with CHD can have more than one mutated gene, he will silence multiple genes simultaneously to determine how those genes work in partnership to cause heart development to go awry.

By the end of the four-year research project, Han hopes to be able to identify all of the histone-modified genes that play pivotal roles in development of the heart in order to use those genes to tailor make personalized fly models corresponding to individual patient’s genetic makeup.

Parents with mutations linked to CHD are likely to pass heart disease risk to the next generation. One day, those parents could have an opportunity to sequence their genes to learn the degree of CHD risk their offspring face.

“Funding this type of basic research enables us to understand which genes are important for heart development and how. With this knowledge, in the near future we could predict the chances of a baby being born with CHD, and cure it by using gene-editing approaches to prevent passing disease to the next generation,” Han says.

zika virus

Will the Zika epidemic re-emerge in 2017?

Anthony Fauci

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, discussed the possibility of a reemergence of Zika virus at Children’s National Research and Education Week.

Temperatures are rising, swelling the population of Aedes mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus and prompting an anxious question: Will the Zika epidemic re-emerge in 2017?

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), sketched out contrasting scenarios. Last year in Puerto Rico, at least 13 percent of residents were infected with Zika, “a huge percentage of the population to get infected in any one outbreak,” Dr. Fauci says. But he quickly adds: “That means that 87 percent of the population” did not get infected. When the chikungunya virus swept through the Caribbean during an earlier outbreak, it did so in multiple waves. “We are bracing for a return of Zika, but we shall see what happens.” Dr. Fauci says.

When it comes to the continental United States, however, previous dengue and chikungunya outbreaks were limited to southern Florida and Texas towns straddling the Mexican border. Domestic Zika transmission last year behaved in much the same fashion.

“Do we think we’re going to get an outbreak [of Zika] that is disseminated throughout the country? The answer is no,” Dr. Fauci adds. “We’re not going to see a major Puerto Rico-type outbreak in the continental United States.”

Dr. Fauci’s remarks were delivered April 24 to a standing-room-only auditorium as part of Research and Education Week, an annual celebration of the cutting-edge research and innovation happening every day at Children’s National. He offered a sweeping, fact-filled summary of Zika’s march across the globe: The virus was first isolated from a primate placed in a treehouse within Uganda’s Zika forest to intentionally become infected; Zika lurked under the radar for the first few decades, causing non-descript febrile illness; it bounced from country to country, causing isolated outbreaks; then, it transformed into an infectious disease of international concern when congenital Zika infection was linked to severe neural consequences for babies born in Brazil.

zika virus

Zika virus lurked under the radar for several decades, causing non-descript febrile illness; it bounced from country to country, resulting in isolated outbreaks; then, it transformed into an infectious disease of international concern.

“I refer to Brazil and Zika as the perfect storm,” Dr. Fauci told attendees. “You have a country that is a large country with a lot of people, some pockets of poverty and economic depression –  such as in the northeastern states –  without good health care there, plenty of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and, importantly, a totally immunologically naive population. They had never seen Zika before. The right mosquitoes. The right climate. The right people. The right immunological status. And then, you have the explosion in Brazil.”

In Brazil, 139 to 175 babies were born each year with microcephaly – a condition characterized by a smaller than normal skull – from 2010 to 2014. From 2015 through 2016, that sobering statistic soared to 5,549 microcephaly cases, 2,366 of them lab-confirmed as caused by Zika.

Microcephaly “was the showstopper that changed everything,” says Dr. Fauci. “All of a sudden, [Zika] went from a relatively trivial disease to a disease that had dire consequences if a mother was infected, particularly during the first trimester.”

As Zika infections soared, ultimately affecting more than 60 countries, the virus surprised researchers and clinicians a number of times, by:

  • Being spread via sex
  • Being transmitted via blood transfusion, a finding from Brazil that prompted the Food and Drug Administration to recommend testing for all U.S. donated blood and blood products
  • Decimating developing babies’ neural stem cells and causing a constellation of congenital abnormalities, including vision problems and contractions to surviving infants’ arms and legs
  • Causing Guillain-Barré syndrome
  • Triggering transient hearing loss
  • Causing myocarditis, heart failure and arrhythmias

When it comes to the U.S. national response, Dr. Fauci says one of the most crucial variables is how quickly a vaccine becomes available to respond to the emerging outbreak. For Zika, the research community was able to sequence the virus and launch a Phase I trial in about three months, “the quickest time frame from identification to trial in the history of all vaccinology,” he adds.

Zika is a single-stranded, enveloped RNA virus that is closely related to dengue, West Nile, Japanese encephalitis and Yellow fever viruses, which gives the NIH and others racing to produce a Zika vaccine a leg up. The Yellow fever vaccine, at 99 percent effectiveness, is one of the world’s most effective vaccines.

“I think we will wind up with an effective vaccine. I don’t want to be over confident,” Dr. Fauci  says. “The reason I say I believe that we will is because [Zika is] a flavivirus, and we have been able to develop effective flavivirus vaccines. Remember, Yellow fever is not too different from Zika.”

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.