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Javad Nazarian

Liquid biopsy spots aggressive brainstem cancer earlier

Javad Nazarian

A Children’s National research team led by Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., tested whether circulating tumor DNA in patients’ blood and cerebrospinal fluid would provide an earlier warning that pediatric brainstem tumors were growing.

A highly aggressive pediatric brain cancer can be spotted earlier and reliably by the genetic fragments it leaves in biofluids, according to a study presented by Children’s National Health System researchers at the Society for Neuro-Oncology (SNO) 2017 Annual Meeting. The findings may open the door to non-surgical biopsies and a new way to tell if these tumors are responding to treatment.

Children diagnosed with diffuse midline histone 3 K27M mutant (H3K27M) glioma face a poor prognosis with a median survival time of only nine months after the pediatric brainstem cancer is diagnosed. Right now, clinicians rely on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to gauge how tumors are growing, but MRI can miss very small changes in tumor size. The Children’s research team led by Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., scientific director of Children’s Brain Tumor Institute, tested whether circulating tumor DNA in patients’ blood and cerebrospinal fluid would provide an earlier warning that tumors were growing. Just as a detective looks for fingerprints left at a scene, the new genetic analysis technique can detect telltale signs that tumors leave behind in body fluids.

“We continue to push the envelope to find ways to provide hope for children and families who right now face a very dismal future. By identifying these tumors when they are small and, potentially more responsive to treatment, our ultimate aim is to help children live longer,” says Eshini Panditharatna, B.A., study lead author. “In addition, we are hopeful that the comprehensive panel of tests we are constructing could identify which treatments are most effective in shrinking these deadly tumors.”

The researchers collected biofluid samples from 22 patients with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) who were enrolled in a Phase I, Pacific Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium clinical trial. Upfront and longitudinal plasma samples were collected with each MRI at various stages of disease progression. The team developed a liquid biopsy assay using a sensitive digital droplet polymerase chain reaction system that precisely counts individual DNA molecules.

“We detected H3K27M, a major driver mutation in DIPG, in about 80 percent of cerebrospinal fluid and plasma samples,” Panditharatna says. “Similar to adults with central nervous system (CNS) cancers, cerebrospinal fluid of children diagnosed with CNS cancers has high concentrations of circulating tumor DNA. However, after the children underwent radiotherapy, there was a dramatic decrease in circulating tumor DNA for 12 of the 15 patients (80 percent) whose temporal plasma was analyzed.”

Nazarian, the study senior author adds: “Biofluids, like plasma and cerebrospinal fluid, are suitable media to detect and measure concentrations of circulating tumor DNA for this type of pediatric glioma. Liquid biopsy has the potential to complement tissue biopsies and MRI evaluation to provide earlier clues to how tumors are responding to treatment or recurring.”

Support for this liquid biopsy study was provided by the V Foundation, Goldwin Foundation, Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, Smashing Walnuts Foundation, the Zickler Family Foundation, the Piedmont Community Foundation, the Musella Foundation, the Mathew Larson Foundation and Brain Tumor Foundation for Children.

Javad Nazarian

Advancing pediatric cancer research by easing access to data

Javad Nazarian

“This is a tremendous opportunity for children and families whose lives have been forever altered by pediatric cancers,” says Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research and scientific director of the Brain Tumor Institute at Children’s National.

Speeding research into pediatric cancers and other diseases relies not only on collecting good data, but making them accessible to research teams around the world to analyze and build on. Both efforts take time, hard work and a significant amount of financial resources – the latter which can often be difficult to attain.

In a move that could considerably advance the field of pediatric cancer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a body that funds biomedical research in the United States, recently awarded a public-private research collective that includes Children’s National Health System up to $14.8 million to launch a data resource center for cancer researchers around the world in order to accelerate the discovery of novel treatments for childhood tumors. Contingent on available funds, five years of funding will be provided by the NIH Common Fund Gabriella Miller Kids First Pediatric Research Program, named after Gabriella Miller, a 10-year-old child treated at Children’s National.

As principal investigators, researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will lead the joint effort to build out the “Kids First” Data Resource Center. Children’s National in Washington, D.C., will spearhead specific projects, including the Open DIPG project, and as project ambassador will cultivate additional partnerships with public and private foundations and related research consortia to expand a growing trove of data about pediatric cancers and birth defects.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for children and families whose lives have been forever altered by pediatric cancers,” says Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research and scientific director of the Brain Tumor Institute at Children’s National. “From just a dozen samples seven years ago, Children’s National has amassed one of the nation’s largest tumor biorepositories funded, in large part, by small foundations. Meanwhile, research teams have been sequencing data from samples here and around the world. With this infusion of federal funding, we are poised to turn these data into insights and to translate those research findings into effective treatments.”

Today’s NIH grant builds on previous funding that Congress provided to the NIH Common Fund to underwrite research into structural birth defects and pediatric cancers. In the first phase, so-called X01 grantees—including Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., newly named director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National—received funding to sequence genetic data from thousands of patients and families affected by childhood cancer and structural birth defects.

This new phase of funding is aimed at opening access to those genetic sequences to a broader group of investigators around the globe by making hard-to-access data easily available on the cloud. The first project funded will be Open DIPG, run by Nazarian, a single disease prototype demonstrating how the new data resource center would work for multiple ailments.

DIPG stands for diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, aggressive pediatric brain tumors that defy treatment and are almost always fatal. Just as crowd sourcing can unleash the collective brainpower of a large group to untangle a problem swiftly, open data sharing could accomplish the same for childhood cancers, including DIPG. In addition to teasing out molecular alterations responsible for making such cancers particularly lethal, pooling data that now sits in silos could help to identify beneficial mutations that allow some children to survive months or years longer than others.

“It’s a question of numbers,” Dr. Vilain says. “The bottom line is that making sense of the genomic information is significantly increased by working through large consortia because they provide access to many more patients with the disease. What is complicated about genetics is we all have genetic variations. The challenge we face is teasing apart regular genetic variations from those genetic variations that actually cause childhood cancers, including DIPG.”

Nazarian predicts some of the early steps for the research consortium will be deciding nuts-and-bolts questions faced by such a start-up venture, such as the best methods to provide data access, corralling the resources needed to store massive amounts of data, and providing data access and cross correlation.

“One of the major challenges that the data resource center will face is to rapidly establish physical data storage space to store all of the data,” Nazarian says. “We’re talking about several petabytes—1,000 terabytes— of data. The second challenge to address will be data dissemination and, specifically, correlation of data across platforms representing different molecular profiles (genome versus proteome, for example). This is just the beginning, and it is fantastic to see a combination of public and private resources in answering these challenges.”

Javad Nazarian named scientific director of the Brain Tumor Institute

Javad Nazarian

Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., has been named scientific director of the Brain Tumor Institute of the Children’s National Health System. Since 2006, Dr. Nazarian has been an active member of the Brain Tumor Institute, contributing to the advancement in understanding pediatric brain tumors.

He has been instrumental in his role as a Principal Investigator in the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research where his laboratory actively investigates the molecular mechanisms of diffuse intrinsic pontine gilomas (DIPGs) and establishes preclinical models of pediatric brain tumors.

Dr. Nazarian has also contributed to the expansion of the comprehensive biorepository at Children’s National, growing from 12 samples six years ago to more than 3,000 specimens donated by more than 900 patients with all types of pediatric brain tumors, including DIPG. Recently he was appointed Scientific Co-chair of the Children’s Brain Tumor Tissue Consortium.

Analysis of a progressive diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma: a case report

rg_histological-dipg-image

What’s Known
Despite multiple clinical trials testing an assortment of new treatments, the survival rate for diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) remains abysmal, with most children succumbing to the pediatric brainstem tumor within 12 months of diagnosis. Focal radiation therapy, the primary treatment approach, has not improved overall survival. While the majority of DIPG tumors grow within the brainstem, metastases can occur elsewhere in the brain. Due to recent availability of tissue, new data are emerging about the biologic behavior of tumors, details that could be instrumental in constructing optimal treatment strategies.

What’s New
An otherwise healthy 9-year-old girl developed weakness in the left side of her face; magnetic resonance imagining revealed T2/FLAIR hyperintensity centered within and expanding the pons. Despite various treatments, her pontine lesion increased in size and new metastases were noted. The team led by Children’s National Health System researchers is the first to report comprehensive phenotypic analyses comparing multiple sites in primary and distant tumors. All tumor sites displayed positive staining for the H3K27M mutation, a mutation described in more than two-thirds of DIPGs that may portend a worse overall survival. Persistence of mutational status across multiple metastatic sites is particularly important since the effectiveness of some therapeutic approaches relies on this occurring. mRNA analyses, by contrast, identified a small number of genes in the primary tumor that differed from one metastatic tumor. This divergence implies that a single biopsy analysis for mRNA expression has the potential to be misleading.

Questions for Future Research
Q: Because a small cohort of genes in the girl’s primary tumor were different from genes in portions of the metastatic tumor, would genomic and proteomic analyses provide additional details about this genetic evolution?
Q: How do site-specific differences in mRNA expression affect decisions about which therapies to provide and in which order?

Source: Histological and Molecular Analysis of a Progressive Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma and Synchronous Metastatic Lesions: A Case Report.” J. Nazarian, G.E. Mason, C.Y. Ho, E. Panditharatna, M. Kambhampati, L.G. Vezina, R.J. Packer, and E.I. Hwang. Published by Oncotarget on June 14, 2016.

Spatial and temporal homogeneity of driver mutations in diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma

What’s Known
Needle biopsies help to guide diagnosis and targeted therapies for diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas (DIPGs), which make up 10 percent to 15 percent of all pediatric brain tumors but carry a median survival of 9 to 12 months. This dismal survival rate compares with a 70 percent chance of children surviving other central nervous system tumors five years post diagnosis. In DIPG, tumors appear in the pons, an area of the brain that houses cranial nerve nuclei. Surgical options are limited. Spatial and temporal tumor heterogeneity is a major obstacle to accurate diagnosis and successful targeted therapy.

What’s New
The team sought to better define DIPG heterogeneity. They analyzed 134 specimens from nine patients and found that H3K27M mutations were ubiquitous in all 41 samples with oncogenic content, and always were associated with at least one partner driver mutation: TP53, PPM1D, ACVR1 or PIK3R1. These H3K27M mutations are the initial oncogenic event in DIPG, writes the research team led by Children’s National Health System. “Driver” mutations, such as H3K27M, are essential to begin and sustain tumor formation. This main driver partnership is maintained throughout the course of the disease, in all cells across the tumor, and as tumors spread throughout the brain. Because homogeneity for main driver mutations persists for the duration of illness, efforts to cure DIPG should be directed at the oncohistone partnership, the authors write. Based on early tumor spread, efforts to cure DIPG should aim for early systemic tumor control, rather focused exclusively on the pons.

Questions for Future Research
Q: If a larger sample size were analyzed, what would it reveal about the true heterogeneity/homogeneity status of DIPGs?
Q: “Accessory” driver mutations are not absolutely essential but do help to further promote and accelerate tumor growth. What is their precise role?

Source: Spatial and Temporal Homogeneity of Driver Mutations in Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma.” H. Nikbakht, E. Panditharatna, L.G. Mikael, R. Li, T. Gayden, M. Osmond, C.Y. Ho, M. Kambhampati, E.I. Hwang, D. Faury, A. Siu, S. Papillon-Cavanagh, D. Bechet, K.L. Ligon, B. Ellezam, W.J. Ingram, C. Stinson, A.S. Moore, K.E. Warren, J. Karamchandani, R.J. Packer, N. Jabado, J. Majewski, and J. Nazarian. Published by Nature Communications on April 6, 2016.

The role of NG2 proteoglycan in glioma

A large number of staffers contribute to the Children's National team effort to unravel the mysteries of DIPG. We photograph a few essential players in Dr. Nazarian's lab.

What’s Known
Neuron glia antigen-2 (NG2) is a protein expressed by many central nervous system cells during development and differentiation. NG2-expressing oligodendrocyte progenitor cells have been identified as the cells of origin in gliomas, tumors that arise from the brain’s gluey supportive tissue. What’s more, NG2 expression also has been associated with childhood diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) an aggressive tumor that accounts for 10 percent to 20 percent of pediatric central nervous system (CNS) tumors. Radiation can prolong survival by a few months, but children diagnosed with DIPG typically survive less than one year.

What’s New
Researchers are searching for appropriate targets and effective drugs that offer some chance of benefit. A team of Children’s National Health System researchers investigated whether NG2 – which plays a critical role in proliferation and development of new blood vessels and promotes tumor infiltration – could be a potential target for cancer treatment. Of the various options, antibody-mediated mechanisms of targeting NG2 are feasible, but the size of antibodies limits their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier. “Due to its role in maintaining a pluripotent pool of tumor cells, and its role in tumor migration and infiltration, NG2 provides multiple avenues for developing therapeutics,” the research team concludes. “Moreover, the large extracellular domain of NG2 provides an excellent antigen repertoire for immunotherapeutic interventions. As such, further research is warranted to define the role and expression regulation of NG2 in CNS cancers.”

Questions for Future Research

Q: Because healthy oligodendrocyte progenitor cells are important for the child’s developing brain, how could further characterization of NG2 isoforms help prevent drugs from damaging those beneficial cells?

Q: Could NG2-binding peptides cross the blood-brain barrier to deliver anti-cancer therapies precisely to tumor sites?

Source: The Role of NG2 Proteoglycan in Glioma.” S. Yadavilli, E.I. Hwang, R. J. Packer, and J. Nazarian. Published by Translational Oncology on February 2016.

Clinicopathology of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma and its redefined genomic and epigenomic landscape

Dr. Nazarian's lab

What’s Known
Fewer than 150 U.S. children per year are diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), one of the most lethal pediatric central nervous system cancers. Despite an increasing number of experimental therapies tested via clinical trials, more than 95 percent of these children die within two years of diagnosis. Molecular studies have yielded additional insight about DIPG, including that mutations in histone-encoding genes are associated with 70 percent of cases. Understanding mutations that drive tumors and the genomic landscape can help to guide development of targeted therapies.

What’s New: Frequently found genetic alterations prevalent in DIPGs

dipg-gene-mutations-and-biological-consequences

Source: Clinicopathology of Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma and Its Redefined Genomic and Epigenomic Landscape.” E. Panditharatna, K. Yaeger, L.B. Kilburn, R.J. Packer, and J. Nazarian. Published by Cancer Genetics on May 1, 2015.