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Andrea Gropman

$5M in federal funding to help patients with urea cycle disorders

Andrea Gropman

Andrea L. Gropman, M.D.: We have collected many years of longitudinal clinical data, but with this new funding now we can answer questions about these diseases that are meaningful on a day-to-day basis for patients with urea cycle disorders.

An international research consortium co-led by Andrea L. Gropman, M.D., at Children’s National Hospital has received $5 million in federal funding as part of an overall effort to better understand rare diseases and accelerate potential treatments to patients.

Urea cycle disorder, one such rare disease, is a hiccup in a series of biochemical reactions that transform nitrogen into a non-toxic compound, urea. The six enzymes and two carrier/transport molecules that accomplish this essential task reside primarily in the liver and, to a lesser degree, in other organs.

The majority of patients have the recessive form of the disorder, meaning it has skipped a generation. These kids inherit one copy of an abnormal gene from each parent, while the parents themselves were not affected, says Dr. Gropman, chief of the Division of Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics and Neurogenetics at Children’s National. Another more common version of the disease is carried on the X chromosome and affects boys more seriously that girls, given that boys have only one X chromosome.

Regardless of the type of urea cycle disorder, when the urea cycle breaks down, nitrogen converts into toxic ammonia that builds up in the body (hyperammonemia), particularly in the brain. As a result, the person may feel lethargic; if the ammonia in the bloodstream reaches the brain in high concentrations, the person can experience seizures, behavior changes and lapse into a coma.

Improvements in clinical care and the advent of effective medicines have transformed this once deadly disease into a more manageable chronic ailment.

“It’s gratifying that patients diagnosed with urea cycle disorder now are surviving, growing up, becoming young adults and starting families themselves. Twenty to 30 years ago, this never would have seemed conceivable,” Dr. Gropman says. “We have collected many years of longitudinal clinical data, but with this new funding now we can answer questions about these diseases that are meaningful on a day-to-day basis for patients with urea cycle disorders.”

In early October 2019, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded the Urea Cycle Disorders Consortium for which Dr. Gropman is co-principal investigator a five-year grant. This is the fourth time that the international Consortium of physicians, scientists, neuropsychologists, nurses, genetic counselors and researchers has received NIH funding to study this group of conditions.

Dr. Gropman says the current urea cycle research program builds on a sturdy foundation built by previous principal investigators Mendel Tuchman, M.D., and Mark Batshaw, M.D., also funded by the NIH. While previous rounds of NIH funding powered research about patients’ long-term survival prospects and cognitive dysfunction, this next phase of research will explore patients’ long-term health.

Among the topics they will study:

Long-term organ damage. Magnetic resonance elastrography (MRE) is a state-of-the-art imaging technique that combines the sharp images from MRI with a visual map that shows body tissue stiffness. The research team will use MRE to look for early changes in the liver – before patients show any symptoms – that could be associated with long-term health impacts. Their aim is spot the earliest signs of potential liver dysfunction in order to intervene before the patient develops liver fibrosis.

Academic achievement. The research team will examine gaps in academic achievement for patients who appear to be underperforming to determine what is triggering the discrepancy between their potential and actual scholastics. If they uncover issues such as learning difficulties or mental health concerns like anxiety, there are opportunities to intervene to boost academic achievement.

“And if we find many of the patients meet the criteria for depression or anxiety disorders, there are potential opportunities to intervene.  It’s tricky: We need to balance their existing medications with any new ones to ensure that we don’t increase their hyperammonemia risk,” Dr. Gropman explains.

Neurologic complications. The researchers will tap continuous, bedside electroencephalogram, which measures the brain’s electrical activity, to detect silent seizures and otherwise undetectable changes in the brain in an effort to stave off epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes seizures.

“This is really the first time we will examine babies’ brains,” she adds. “Our previous imaging studies looked at kids and adults who were 6 years and older. Now, we’re lowering that age range down to infants. By tracking such images over time, the field has described the trajectory of what normal brain development should look like. We can use that as a background and comparison point.”

In the future, newborns may be screened for urea cycle disorder shortly after birth. Because it is not possible to diagnose it in the womb in cases where there is no family history, the team aims to better counsel families contemplating pregnancy about their possible risks.

Research described in this post was underwritten by the NIH through its Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network.

Autonomic nervous system appears to function well regardless of mode of childbirth

Late in pregnancy, the human body carefully prepares fetuses for the rigors of life outside the protection of the womb. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, ramp up and spike during labor. Catecholamines, another stress hormone, also rise at birth, helping to kick start the necessary functions that the baby will need to regulate breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure and energy metabolism levels at delivery. Oxytocin surges, promoting contractions for the mother during labor and stimulating milk production after the infant is born.

These processes also can play a role in preparing the fetal brain during the transition to life outside the womb by readying the autonomic nervous system and adapting its cerebral connections. The autonomic nervous system acts like the body’s autopilot, taking in information it needs to ensure that internal organs run steadily without willful action, such as ensuring the heart beats and eyelids blink at steady intervals. Its yin, the sympathetic division, stimulates body processes while its yang, the parasympathetic division, inhibits them.

Infants born preterm have reduced autonomic function compared with their full-term peers and also face possible serious neurodevelopmental impairment later in life. But is there a difference in autonomic nervous system function for full-term babies after undergoing labor compared with infants delivered via cesarean section (C-section)?

A team from the Children’s National Inova Collaborative Research Program (CNICA) – a research collaboration between Children’s National in Washington, D.C., and Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Virginia – set out to answer that question in a paper published online July 30, 2019, in Scientific Reports.

They enrolled newborns who had experienced normal, full-term pregnancies and recorded their brain function and heart performance when they were about 2 days old. Infants whose conditions were fragile enough to require observation in the neonatal intensive care unit were excluded from the study. Of 167 infants recruited for the prospective cohort study, 118 newborns had sufficiently robust data to include them in the research.  Of these newborns:

  • 62 (52.5%) were born by vaginal delivery
  • 22 (18.6%) started out with vaginal delivery but ultimately switched to C-section based on failure to progress, failed labor induction or fetal intolerance to labor
  • And 34 (28.8%) were born by elective C-section.

The CNICA research team swaddled infants for comfort and slipped electrode nets over their tiny heads to simultaneously measure heart rate variability and electrocortical function through non-invasive techniques. The team hypothesized that infants who had been exposed to labor would have enhanced autonomic tone and higher cortical electroencephalogram (EEG) power than babies born via C-section.

“In a low-risk group of babies born full-term, the autonomic nervous system and cortical systems appear to function well regardless of whether infants were exposed to labor prior to birth,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetalneonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National and the study’s lead author.

However, infants born by C-section following a period of labor had significantly increased accelerations in their heart rates. And the infants born by C-section during labor had significantly lower relative gamma frequency EEG at 25.2 hours old compared with the other two groups studied.

“Together these findings point to a possible increased stress response and arousal difference in infants who started with vaginal delivery and finished delivery with C-section,” Dr. Mulkey says. “There is so little published research about the neurologic impacts of the mode of delivery, so our work helps to provide a normal reference point for future studies looking at high-risk infants, including babies born preterm.”

Because the research team saw little differences in autonomic tone or other EEG frequencies when the infants were 1 day old, future research will explore these measures at different points in the newborns’ early life as well as the role of the sleep-wake cycle on heart rate variability.

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Srinivas Kota, Ph.D., Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., Tareq Al-Shargabi, MSc, Christopher B. Swisher, BS, Laura Hitchings, BScM, Stephanie Russo, BS, Nicole Herrera, MPH, Robert McCarter, ScD, and Senior Author Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, all of Children’s National; and Augustine Eze Jr., MS, G. Larry Maxwell, M.D., and Robin Baker, M.D., all of Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences under award numbers UL1TR001876 and KL2TR001877.

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.

newborn in incubator

In HIE lower heart rate variability signals stressed newborns

newborn in incubator

In newborns with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), lower heart rate variability correlates with autonomic manifestations of stress shortly after birth, underscoring the value of this biomarker, according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Tethered to an array of machines that keep their bodies nourished, warm and alive, newborns with health issues can’t speak. But Children’s research teams are tapping into what the machinery itself says, looking for insights into which vulnerable infants are most in need of earlier intervention.

Heart rate variability – or the variation between heartbeats – is a sign of health. Our autonomic nervous system constantly sends signals to adjust our heart rate under normal conditions. We can measure heart rate variability non-invasively, providing a way to detect potential problems with the autonomic nervous system as a sensitive marker of health in critically ill newborns,” says An N. Massaro, M.D., co-Director of Research for the Division of Neonatology at Children’s National, and the study’s senior author. “We’re looking for validated markers of brain injury in babies with HIE, and our study helps to support heart rate variability as one such valuable physiological biomarker.”

In most newborns, the autonomic nervous system reliably and automatically receives information about the body and the outside world and, in response, controls essential functions like blood pressure, body temperature, how quickly the baby breathes and how rapidly the newborn’s heart beats. The sympathetic part stimulates body processes, while the parasympathetic part inhibits body processes. When the nervous system’s internal auto-pilot falters, babies can suffer.

The Children’s team enrolled infants with HIE in the prospective, observational study. (HIE is brain damage that occurs with full-term babies who experience insufficient blood and oxygen flow to the brain around the time they are born.) Fifteen percent had severe encephalopathy. Mean age of babies in the observational study was 38.9 weeks gestation. Their median Apgar score at five minutes was 3; the 0-9 Apgar range indicates how ready newborns are for the rigors of life outside the womb.

The team analyzed heart rate variability metrics for three time periods:

  • The first 24 to 27 hours of life
  • The first three hours after babies undergoing therapeutic cooling were rewarmed and
  • The first three hours after babies’ body temperature had returned to normal.

They correlated the relationship between heart rate variability for 68 infants during at least one of these time periods with the stress z-score from the NICU Network Neurobehavioral Scale. The scale is a standardized assessment of newborn’s neurobehavioral integrity. The stress summary score indicates a newborn’s overall stress response, and six test items specifically relate to autonomic function.

“Alpha exponent and root mean square in short timescales, root mean square in long timescales, as well as low and high frequency powers positively correlated with stress scores and, even after adjusting for covariates, remained independently associated at 24 hours,” says Allie Townsend, the study’s lead author.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Heart rate variability (HRV) measures of autonomic nervous system (ANS) function relates to neonatal neurobehavioral manifestations of stress in newborn with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).”
    • Monday, April 29, 2019, 5:45 p.m. (EST)

Allie Townsend, lead author; Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., staff scientist, Advanced Physiological Signals Processing Lab and co-author; Penny Glass, Ph.D., director, Child Development Program and co-author; Judy Brown, co-author; Tareq Al-Shargabi, M.S., co-author; Taeun Chang, M.D., director, Neonatal Neurology and Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program and co-author; Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, chief of the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine and co-author; An N. Massaro, M.D., co-Director of Research for the Division of Neonatology and senior author, all of Children’s National.

Catherine Limperopoulos

Breastfeeding boosts metabolites important for brain growth

Catherine Limperopoulos

“Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites that may play a critical role for growth and explain what makes breastfeeding beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.

Micro-preemies who primarily consume breast milk have significantly higher levels of metabolites important for brain growth and development, according to sophisticated imaging conducted by an interdisciplinary research team at Children’s National.

“Our previous research established that vulnerable preterm infants who are fed breast milk early in life have improved brain growth and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It was unclear what makes breastfeeding so beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National. “Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites essential for growth and answer that lingering question.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 U.S. infants is born preterm. The Children’s research team presented their findings during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

The research-clinicians enrolled babies who were very low birthweight (less than 1,500 grams) and 32 weeks gestational age or younger at birth when they were admitted to Children’s neonatal intensive care unit in the first week of life. The team gathered data from the right frontal white matter and the cerebellum – a brain region that enables people to maintain balance and proper muscle coordination and that supports high-order cognitive functions.

Each chemical has its own a unique spectral fingerprint. The team generated light signatures for key metabolites and calculated the quantity of each metabolite. Of note:

  • Cerebral white matter spectra showed significantly greater levels of inositol (a molecule similar to glucose) for babies fed breast milk, compared with babies fed formula.
  • Cerebellar spectra had significantly greater creatine levels for breastfed babies compared with infants fed formula.
  • And the percentage of days infants were fed breast milk was associated with significantly greater levels of both creatine and choline, a water soluble nutrient.

“Key metabolite levels ramp up during the times babies’ brains experience exponential growth,” says Katherine M. Ottolini, the study’s lead author. “Creatine facilitates recycling of ATP, the cell’s energy currency. Seeing greater quantities of this metabolite denotes more rapid changes and higher cellular maturation. Choline is a marker of cell membrane turnover; when new cells are generated, we see choline levels rise.”

Already, Children’s National leverages an array of imaging options that describe normal brain growth, which makes it easier to spot when fetal or neonatal brain development goes awry, enabling earlier intervention and more effective treatment. “Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy may serve as an important additional tool to advance our understanding of how breastfeeding boosts neurodevelopment for preterm infants,” Limperopoulos adds.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Improved cerebral and cerebellar metabolism in breast milk-fed VLBW infants.”
    • Monday, April 29, 2019, 3:30–3:45 p.m. (EST)

Katherine M. Ottolini, lead author; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Attending, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine and co-author; Kushal Kapse, research and development staff engineer and co-author; Sudeepta Basu, M.D., neonatologist and co-author; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain and senior author, all of Children’s National.

An-Massaro

Looking for ‘help’ signals in the blood of newborns with HIE

An Massaro

“This data support our hypothesis that a panel of biomarkers – not a one-time test for a single biomarker – is needed to adequately determine the risk and timing of brain injury for babies with HIE,” says An N. Massaro, M.D.

Measuring a number of biomarkers over time that are produced as the body responds to inflammation and injury may help to pinpoint newborns who are more vulnerable to suffering lasting brain injury due to disrupted oxygen delivery and blood flow, according to research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) happens when blood and oxygen flow are disrupted around the time of birth and is a serious birth complication for full-term infants. To lessen the chance of these newborns suffering permanent brain injury, affected infants undergo therapeutic cooling, which temporarily lowers their body temperatures.

“Several candidate blood biomarkers have been investigated in HIE but we still don’t have one in clinical use.  We need to understand how these markers change over time before we can use them to direct care in patients,” says An N. Massaro, M.D., co-director of the Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “The newborns’ bodies sent out different ‘help’ signals that we detected in their bloodstream, and the markers had strikingly different time courses. A panel of plasma biomarkers has the potential to help us identify infants most in need of additional interventions, and to help us understand the most optimal timing for those interventions.”

Past research has keyed in on inflammatory cytokines and Tau protein as potential biomarkers of brain injury for infants with HIE who are undergoing therapeutic cooling. The research team led by Children’s faculty wanted to gauge which time periods to measure such biomarkers circulating in newborns’ bloodstreams. They enrolled 85 infants with moderate or severe HIE and tapped unused blood specimens that had been collected as cooling began, as well as 12, 24, 72 and 96 hours later. The infants’ mean gestational age was 38.7 weeks, their mean birth weight was about 7 pounds (3.2 kilograms), and 19% had severe brain disease (encephalopathy).

Cytokines – chemicals like Interleukin (IL) 6, 8 and 10 that regulate how the body responds to infection, inflammation and trauma – peaked in the first 24 hours of cooling for most of the newborns. However, the highest measure of Tau protein for the majority of newborns was during or after the baby’s temperature was restored to normal.

“After adjusting for clinical severity of encephalopathy and five-minute Apgar scores, IL-6, IL-8 and IL-10 predicted adverse outcomes, like severe brain injury or death, as therapeutic hypothermia began. By contrast, Tau protein measurements predicted adverse outcomes during and after the infants were rewarmed,” Dr. Massaro says.

IL-6 and IL-8 proteins are pro-inflammatory cytokines while IL-10 is considered anti-inflammatory.  These chemicals are released as a part of the immune response to brain injury. Tau proteins are abundant in nerve cells and stabilize microtubules.

“This data support our hypothesis that a panel of biomarkers – not a one-time test for a single biomarker – is needed to adequately determine the risk and timing of brain injury for babies with HIE,” she adds.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Serial plasma biomarkers of brain injury in infants with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) treated with therapeutic hypothermia (TH).”
    • Saturday, April 27, 2019, 6 p.m. (EST)

Meaghan McGowan, lead author; Alexandra C. O’Kane, co-author; Gilbert Vezina, M.D.,  director, Neuroradiology Program and co-author; Tae Chang, M.D., director, Neonatal Neurology Program and co-author; and An N. Massaro, M.D., co-director of the Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program and senior author; all of Children’s National; and co-author Allen Everett, of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Ololade Okito

Parents of older, healthier newborns with less social support less resilient

Ololade Okito

“We know that having a child hospitalized in the NICU can be a high-stress time for families,” says Ololade Okito, M.D., lead author of the cross-sectional study. “The good news is that as parental resiliency scores rise, we see a correlation with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Parents of older, healthier newborns who had less social support were less resilient during their child’s hospitalization in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), a finding that correlates with more symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Resiliency is the natural born, yet adaptable ability of people to bounce back in the face of significant adversity. Published research indicates that higher resilience is associated with reduced psychological distress, but the phenomenon had not been studied extensively in parents of children hospitalized in a NICU.

“We know that having a child hospitalized in the NICU can be a high-stress time for families,” says Ololade Okito, M.D., lead author of the cross-sectional study. “The good news is that as parental resiliency scores rise, we see a correlation with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Parents who feel they have good family support also have higher resilience scores.”

The project is an offshoot of a larger study examining the impact of peer mentoring by other NICU parents who have experienced the same emotional rollercoaster ride as their tiny infants sometimes thrived and other times struggled.

The research team enrolled 35 parents whose newborns were 34 weeks gestation and younger and administered a battery of validated surveys, including:

Forty percent of these parents had high resilience scores; parents whose infants were a mean of 27.3 gestational weeks and who had more severe health challenges reported higher resilience. Another 40% of these parents had elevated depressive symptoms, while 31% screened positive for anxiety. Parental distress impairs the quality of parent-child interactions and long-term child development, the research team writes.

“Higher NICU-related stress correlates with greater symptoms of depression and anxiety in parents,” says Lamia Soghier, M.D., MEd, medical director of Children’s neonatal intensive care unit and the study’s senior author. “Specifically targeting interventions to these parents may help to improve their resilience, decrease the stress of parenting a child in the NICU and give these kids a healthier start to life.”

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Parental resilience and psychological distress in the neonatal intensive care unit (PARENT) study”
    • Tuesday, April 30, 2019, 7:30 a.m. (EST)

Ololade Okito, M.D., lead author; Yvonne Yui, M.D., co-author; Nicole Herrera, MPH, co-author; Randi Streisand, Ph.D., chief, Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health, and co-author; Carrie Tully, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-author; Karen Fratantoni, M.D., MPH, medical director, Complex Care Program, and co-author; and Lamia Soghier, M.D., MEd, medical unit director, neonatal intensive care unit, and senior author; all of Children’s National.

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

Research and Education Week honors innovative science

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

Billie Lou Short, M.D., received the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Clinical Science.

People joke that Billie Lou Short, M.D., chief of Children’s Division of Neonatology, invented extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, known as ECMO for short. While Dr. Short did not invent ECMO, under her leadership Children’s National was the first pediatric hospital to use it. And over decades Children’s staff have perfected its use to save the lives of tiny, vulnerable newborns by temporarily taking over for their struggling hearts and lungs. For two consecutive years, Children’s neonatal intensive care unit has been named the nation’s No. 1 for newborns by U.S. News & World Report. “Despite all of these accomplishments, Dr. Short’s best legacy is what she has done as a mentor to countless trainees, nurses and faculty she’s touched during their careers. She touches every type of clinical staff member who has come through our neonatal intensive care unit,” says An Massaro, M.D., director of residency research.

For these achievements, Dr. Short received the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Clinical Science.

Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., has provided new insights into the central role that the placental hormone allopregnanolone plays in orderly fetal brain development, and her research team has created novel experimental models that mimic some of the brain injuries often seen in very preterm babies – an essential step that informs future neuroprotective strategies. Dr. Penn, a clinical neonatologist and developmental neuroscientist, “has been a primary adviser for 40 mentees throughout their careers and embodies Children’s core values of Compassion, Commitment and Connection,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D.

For these achievements, Dr. Penn was selected to receive the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Basic and Translational Science.

The mentorship awards for Drs. Short and Penn were among dozens of honors given in conjunction with “Frontiers in Innovation,” the Ninth Annual Research and Education Week (REW) at Children’s National. In addition to seven keynote lectures, more than 350 posters were submitted from researchers – from high-school students to full-time faculty – about basic and translational science, clinical research, community-based research, education, training and quality improvement; five poster presenters were showcased via Facebook Live events hosted by Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Two faculty members won twice: Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for research about mindfulness-based stress reduction and Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for research related to HIV. So many women at every stage of their research careers took to the stage to accept honors that Naomi L.C. Luban, M.D., Vice Chair of Academic Affairs, quipped that “this day is power to women.”

Here are the 2019 REW award winners:

2019 Elda Y. Arce Teaching Scholars Award
Barbara Jantausch, M.D.
Lowell Frank, M.D.

Suzanne Feetham, Ph.D., FAA, Nursing Research Support Award
Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for “Psychosocial and biological effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in adolescents with CHD/CIEDs: a randomized control trial”
Renee’ Roberts Turner for “Peak and nadir experiences of mid-level nurse leaders”

2019-2020 Global Health Initiative Exploration in Global Health Awards
Nathalie Quion, M.D., for “Latino youth and families need assessment,” conducted in Washington
Sonia Voleti for “Handheld ultrasound machine task shifting,” conducted in Micronesia
Tania Ahluwalia, M.D., for “Simulation curriculum for emergency medicine,” conducted in India
Yvonne Yui for “Designated resuscitation teams in NICUs,” conducted in Ghana
Xiaoyan Song, Ph.D., MBBS, MSc, “Prevention of hospital-onset infections in PICUs,” conducted in China

Ninth Annual Research and Education Week Poster Session Awards

Basic and Translational Science
Faculty:
Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for “Differences in the gut microbiome of HIV-infected versus HIV-exposed, uninfected infants”
Faculty: Hayk Barseghyan, Ph.D., for “Composite de novo Armenian human genome assembly and haplotyping via optical mapping and ultra-long read sequencing”
Staff: Damon K. McCullough, BS, for “Brain slicer: 3D-printed tissue processing tool for pediatric neuroscience research”
Staff: Antonio R. Porras, Ph.D., for “Integrated deep-learning method for genetic syndrome screening using facial photographs”
Post docs/fellows/residents: Lung Lau, M.D., for “A novel, sprayable and bio-absorbable sealant for wound dressings”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Kelsey F. Sugrue, Ph.D., for “HECTD1 is required for growth of the myocardium secondary to placental insufficiency”
Graduate students:
Erin R. Bonner, BA, for “Comprehensive mutation profiling of pediatric diffuse midline gliomas using liquid biopsy”
High school/undergraduate students: Ali Sarhan for “Parental somato-gonadal mosaic genetic variants are a source of recurrent risk for de novo disorders and parental health concerns: a systematic review of the literature and meta-analysis”

Clinical Research
Faculty:
Amy Hont, M.D., for “Ex vivo expanded multi-tumor antigen specific T-cells for the treatment of solid tumors”
Faculty: Lauren McLaughlin, M.D., for “EBV/LMP-specific T-cells maintain remissions of T- and B-cell EBV lymphomas after allogeneic bone marrow transplantation”

Staff: Iman A. Abdikarim, BA, for “Timing of allergenic food introduction among African American and Caucasian children with food allergy in the FORWARD study”
Staff: Gelina M. Sani, BS, for “Quantifying hematopoietic stem cells towards in utero gene therapy for treatment of sickle cell disease in fetal cord blood”
Post docs/fellows/residents: Amy H. Jones, M.D., for “To trach or not trach: exploration of parental conflict, regret and impacts on quality of life in tracheostomy decision-making”
Graduate students: Alyssa Dewyer, BS, for “Telemedicine support of cardiac care in Northern Uganda: leveraging hand-held echocardiography and task-shifting”
Graduate students: Natalie Pudalov, BA, “Cortical thickness asymmetries in MRI-abnormal pediatric epilepsy patients: a potential metric for surgery outcome”
High school/undergraduate students:
Kia Yoshinaga for “Time to rhythm detection during pediatric cardiac arrest in a pediatric emergency department”

Community-Based Research
Faculty:
Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for “Recent trends in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area”
Staff: Gia M. Badolato, MPH, for “STI screening in an urban ED based on chief complaint”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Christina P. Ho, M.D., for “Pediatric urinary tract infection resistance patterns in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area”
Graduate students:
Noushine Sadeghi, BS, “Racial/ethnic disparities in receipt of sexual health services among adolescent females”

Education, Training and Program Development
Faculty:
Cara Lichtenstein, M.D., MPH, for “Using a community bus trip to increase knowledge of health disparities”
Staff:
Iana Y. Clarence, MPH, for “TEACHing residents to address child poverty: an innovative multimodal curriculum”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Johanna Kaufman, M.D., for “Inpatient consultation in pediatrics: a learning tool to improve communication”
High school/undergraduate students:
Brett E. Pearson for “Analysis of unanticipated problems in CNMC human subjects research studies and implications for process improvement”

Quality and Performance Improvement
Faculty:
Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for “Implementing a mindfulness-based stress reduction curriculum in a congenital heart disease program”
Staff:
Caleb Griffith, MPH, for “Assessing the sustainability of point-of-care HIV screening of adolescents in pediatric emergency departments”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Rebecca S. Zee, M.D., Ph.D., for “Implementation of the Accelerated Care of Torsion (ACT) pathway: a quality improvement initiative for testicular torsion”
Graduate students:
Alysia Wiener, BS, for “Latency period in image-guided needle bone biopsy in children: a single center experience”

View images from the REW2019 award ceremony.

Preemie Baby

Getting micro-preemie growth trends on track

Preemie Baby

According to Children’s research presented during the Institute for Healthcare Improvement 2018 Scientific Symposium, standardizing feeding practices – including the timing for fortifying breast milk and formula with essential elements like zinc and protein – improves growth trends for the tiniest preterm infants.

About 1 in 10 infants is born before 37 weeks gestation. These premature babies have a variety of increased health risks, including deadly infections and poor lung function.

Emerging research suggests that getting their length and weight back on track could help. According to Children’s research presented during the Institute for Healthcare Improvement 2018 Scientific Symposium, standardizing feeding practices – including the timing for fortifying breast milk and formula with essential elements like zinc and protein – improves growth trends for the tiniest preterm infants.

The quality-improvement project at Children’s National Health System targeted very low birth weight infants, who weigh less than 3.3 pounds (1,500 grams) at birth. These fragile infants are born well before their internal organs, lungs, brain or their digestive systems have fully developed and are at high risk for ongoing nutritional challenges, health conditions like necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and overall poor development.

The research team measured progress by tracking the micro-preemies’ mean delta weight Z-score for weight gain, which measures nutritional status.

“In this cohort, mean delta weight Z-scores improved by 43 percent, rising from -1.8 to the goal of -1.0, when we employed an array of interventions. We saw the greatest improvement, 64 percent, among preterm infants who had been born between 26 to 28 weeks gestation,” says Michelande Ridoré, MS, Children’s NICU quality-improvement program lead who presented the group’s preliminary findings. “It’s very encouraging to see improved growth trends just six months after introducing these targeted interventions and to maintain these improvements for 16 months.”

Within Children’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), micro-preemies live in an environment that mimics the womb, with dimmed lighting and warmed incubators covered by blankets to muffle extraneous noise. The multidisciplinary team relied on a number of interventions to improve micro-preemies’ long-term nutritional outcomes, including:

  • Reducing variations in how individual NICU health care providers approach feeding practices
  • Fortifying breast milk (and formula when breast milk was not available), which helps these extra lean newborns add muscle and strengthen bones
  • Early initiation of nutrition that passes through the intestine (enteral feeds)
  • Re-educating all members of the infants’ care teams about the importance of standardized feeding and
  • Providing a decision aid about feeding intolerance.

Dietitians were included in the daily rounds, during which the multidisciplinary team discusses each infant’s care plan at their room, and used traffic light colors to describe how micro-preemies were progressing with their nutritional goals. It’s common for these newborns to lose weight in the first few days of life.

  • Infants in the “green” zone had regained their birth weight by day 14 of life and possible interventions included adjusting how many calories and protein they consumed daily to reflect their new weight.
  • Infants in the “yellow” zone between day 15 to 18 of life remained lighter than what they weighed at birth and were trending toward lower delta Z-scores. In addition to assessing the infant’s risk factors, the team could increase calories consumed per day and add fortification, among other possible interventions.
  • Infants in the “red” zone remained below their birth weight after day 19 of life and recorded depressed delta Z-scores. These infants saw the most intensive interventions, which could include conversations with the neonatologist and R.N. to discuss strategies to reverse the infant’s failure to grow.

Future research will explore how the nutritional interventions impact newborns with NEC, a condition characterized by death of tissue in the intestine. These infants face significant challenges gaining length and weight.

Institute for Healthcare Improvement 2018 Scientific Symposium presentation

  • “Improved growth of very low birthweight infants in the neonatal intensive care unit.”

Caitlin Forsythe, MS, BSN, RNC-NIC, NICU clinical program coordinator, Neonatology, and lead author; Michelande Ridoré, MS, NICU quality-improvement program lead; Victoria Catalano Snelgrove, RDN, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric clinical dietitian; Rebecca Vander Veer, RD, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric clinical dietitian; Erin Fauer, RDN, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric clinical dietitian; Judith Campbell, RNC, IBCLC, NICU lactation consultant; Eresha Bluth, MHA, project administrator; Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., neonatologist; Lamia Soghier, M.D., MEd, Medical Unit Director, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit; and Mary Revenis, M.D., NICU medical lead on nutrition and senior author; all of Children’s National Health System.

newborn kangaroo care

Boosting parental resilience in the NICU

newborn kangaroo care

Preliminary findings from an ongoing cross-sectional study presented during the American Academy of Pediatrics 2018 National Conference & Exhibition suggests a strong relationship between resilience and the presence of social support, which may help parents to better contend with psychological distress related to their preterm infant being in the NICU.

Resilience is the remarkable ability of some people to bounce back and overcome stress, trauma and adversity. Being resilient is especially important for parents whose babies are born prematurely – a condition that predisposes these children to numerous health risks both immediately and far into the future and that often triggers a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 U.S. infants was born preterm in 2016.

Parents of these vulnerable newborns who feel less resilient may experience more symptoms of psychological distress, including depression and anxiety. However, preliminary findings from an ongoing cross-sectional study presented during the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference & Exhibition suggests a strong relationship between resilience and the presence of social support, which may help parents to better contend with psychological distress related to their preterm infant being in the NICU.

“Oftentimes, parenting a child in the NICU can be a time of crisis for families,” says Ololade A. Okito, M.D., FAAP, a Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Fellow at Children’s National Health System who presented the preliminary study results during the 2018 AAP conference. “Studies have indicated a relationship between higher resilience and a reduction in psychological stress in other groups of people. However, it was unclear whether that finding also applies to parents of infants in the NICU.”

Because parental psychological distress can impact the quality of parent-child interactions, the Children’s research team wants to evaluate the relationship between resilience and psychological distress in these parents and to gauge whether activities that parents themselves direct, like the skin-to-skin contact that accompanies kangaroo care, helps to bolster resiliency.

So far, they have analyzed data from 30 parents of preterm infants in the NICU and used a number of validated instruments to assess parental resilience, depressive symptoms, anxiety, NICU-related stress and perceived social support, including:

The infants were born at a mean gestational age of 29.2 weeks. When their newborns were 2 weeks old:

  • 44 percent of parents (16 of 30) reported higher resilience
  • 37 percent of parents (11 of 30) screened positive for having elevated symptoms of depression and
  • 33 percent of parents had elevated anxiety.

“These early findings appear to support a relationship between low parental resilience scores and higher scores for depression, anxiety and NICU-related stress. These same parents were less likely to participate in kangaroo care and had lower social support. By contrast, parents who had more social support – including  receiving support from family, friends and significant others – had higher resilience scores,” says Lamia Soghier, M.D., FAAP, CHSE, Medical Unit Director of Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and senior study author.

The study is an offshoot from “Giving Parents Support (GPS) after NICU discharge,” a large, randomized clinical trial exploring whether providing peer-to-peer parental support after NICU discharge improves babies’ overall health as well as their parents’ mental health. The research team hopes to complete study enrollment in early 2019.

American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition presentation

  • “Parental resilience and psychological distress in the neonatal intensive care unit (PARENT) study.”

Ololade A. Okito, M.D., FAAP, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Fellow and presenting author; Yvonne Yui, M.D.; Nicole Herrera, MPH, Children’s Research Institute; Randi Streisand, Ph.D., Chief, Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health; Carrie Tully, Ph.D.; Karen Fratantoni, M.D., MPH, Medical Director of the Complex Care Program; and Senior Author, Lamia Soghier, M.D., FAAP, CHSE, Medical Unit Director, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit; all of Children’s National Health System.

Lamia Soghier and Billie Lou Short

The ‘secret sauce’ for high-performing NICUs

Lamia Soghier and Billie Lou Short

Quoting the literature, Lamia Soghier, M.D., Children’s NICU medical unit director, and Billie Lou Short, M.D., chief of Children’s Division of Neonatology, write that hospitals with strong performance-improvement programs share eight critical factors in common.

Leaders of neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) across the nation share the same play books as they strive to provide safe, high-quality medical and surgical care for vulnerable newborns. A growing number of quality collaborations share best practices and evidence-based guidelines across the nation in the hopes of replicating quality and safety success stories while minimizing harms.

Still, NICUs that use similar interventions in similar fashions often do not achieve identical results.

“This unexplained variability in outcomes between NICUs begs the question: What is the secret sauce? Why do some NICUs consistently outshine others in spite of the application of the same ‘potentially best practices,’ ” the leaders of Children’s award-winning NICU ask in an editorial published online July 12, 2018, by Archives of Disease in Childhood (ADC) – Fetal & Neonatal edition.

Quoting the literature, Lamia Soghier, M.D., Children’s NICU medical unit director, and Billie Lou Short, M.D., chief of Children’s Division of Neonatology, write that hospitals with strong performance-improvement programs share eight critical factors in common:

  • Strong performance-improvement leadership at the administrative and executive levels
  • Boards of Trustees who are actively involved and provide continuity in vision regardless of changes in senior hospital leadership
  • An effective oversight structure that avoids duplicating efforts
  • Expert performance-improvement staff who are trained in quality and safety and able to carry out projects successfully
  • Physicians who are involved and held accountable
  • Staff who are actively involved
  • Effective use of data in decision-making
  • Effective communication strategies for all stakeholders

The “‘secret sauce’ may lie in establishing systems that promote the culture of quality and safety rather than waiting for a reduction in morbidity,” write Drs. Soghier and Short.

For the second year running, Children’s neonatology division ranked No. 1 among NICUs ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Despite challenges inherent in being a “busy level IV NICU in a free-standing children’s hospital with a rapidly growing capacity, higher levels of complex patients, [the] presence of trainees on rounds and routine 3:1 and 2:1 staffing models,” Children’s NICU has continued to have the lowest rates of such objective quality measures as central line-associated bloodstream infections and unintended extubations, they write.

“We attribute our success to direct involvement of all levels of leadership in our unit in [performance improvement] PI initiatives, a dedicated local PI team, quality trained medical unit director, engagement of front-line staff in PI, the presence of local subject-matter experts, multidisciplinary diverse team both within the NICU and with other departments that bring an array of experiences and opinions and a supportive data infrastructure through local information technology, and use of the Children’s Hospital Neonatal Database that allows benchmarking to other non-delivery NICUs, Drs. Soghier and Short write. “Our team finds motivation in solving local issues routine in our work, and leadership prioritises these issues and promotes engagement of front-line staff.”

The commentary was a companion to “Using a Composite Morbidity Score and Cultural Survey to Explore Characteristics of High Proficiency Neonatal Intensive Care Units,” also published by ADC Fetal & Neonatal.

Sarah Mulkey

MRI finds novel brain defects in Zika-exposed newborns

Sarah Mulkey

“Imaging is constantly helping us make new discoveries with this virus, and in these two cases we found things that had not been previously described,” says Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has identified two brain abnormalities never before reported in newborns with prenatal exposure to the Zika virus. Children’s National Health System researchers reported these findings from a study of more than 70 fetuses or newborns with Zika exposure in utero. The study was published in the January 2018 edition of Pediatric Neurology.

The two novel defects – cranial nerve enhancement and cerebral infarction – may join the growing list of neurological findings associated with congenital Zika infection.

“Imaging is constantly helping us make new discoveries with this virus, and in these two cases we found things that had not been previously described,” says Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s lead author and a fetal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National. Dr. Mulkey works in Children’s Congenital Zika Virus Program, one of the nation’s first comprehensive, dedicated Zika programs.

The research team recommends that postnatal brain MRI be considered in addition to ultrasound for newborns exposed to Zika in utero. “Brain MRI can be performed in the newborn often without sedation and provides an opportunity to look for brain abnormalities we might not catch otherwise – or might not detect until much later,” says Dr. Mulkey.

Birth defects are seen in 6 to 11 percent of pregnancies affected by Zika, and some of the neurological complications in infants are not apparent until well after birth.

Of the two infants in which the new abnormalities were observed, both had normal head size at birth. Neither had smaller-than-normal head size (microcephaly), one of the more severe effects associated with congenital Zika syndrome.

One infant had a normal neurological evaluation at 2 days of age. However, a brain MRI conducted the following day, using gadolinium contrast due to concern of infection, showed enhancement of multiple cranial nerves. “Nerve root enhancement is very rare in a newborn and had not been described with Zika before,” Dr. Mulkey says. “Yet, there was no neurological deficit that we could identify by physical exam.”

The research team acknowledges that the clinical significance of this finding is not yet known.

In the second patient, brain MRI conducted without contrast at 16 days of age revealed a small area consistent with chronic infarction (ischemic stroke) that likely occurred during the third trimester.

“We followed the mother throughout her pregnancy, and both MRI and ultrasound imaging were normal at 28 weeks gestation,” Dr. Mulkey says. “A postnatal ultrasound was also normal, but the postnatal MRI showed a stroke that had occurred at least one month prior to the MRI and after the last fetal study.”

She adds: “This is the first published report of fetal stroke associated with Zika infection, and it may add to our knowledge of what can occur with congenital Zika infection.”

Unlike most congenital infections, Zika virus does not appear to cause viral-induced placental inflammation, which can lead to fetal stroke. So, the authors say they cannot be sure that congenital Zika contributed to the infarct in this case. However, they write, “Given the relatively low incidence of perinatal ischemic infarct and the lack of other maternal- or birth-related risk factors for this patient, Zika infection is considered a possible etiology.”

In both patients, neonatal brain MRI identified subclinical findings that had not previously been described as part of congenital Zika syndrome. As the body of evidence about the Zika virus has grown, the spectrum of associated brain abnormalities has expanded to include considerably more findings than isolated microcephaly.

Data gathered in 2017 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Zika pregnancy and infant registry indicates that 25 percent of eligible U.S. infants receive recommended postnatal imaging. Dr. Mulkey said this represents many possible missed opportunities for earlier identification of brain abnormalities.

“Brain MRI should be considered in all newborns exposed to Zika virus in utero, even in the presence of normal birth head circumference, normal cranial ultrasound and normal fetal imaging,” she says. “In both of these patients, the changes we observed were not evident on cranial ultrasound or on fetal MRI and fetal ultrasound.”

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, Children’s co-authors include L. Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Neuroradiology Program director; Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D., chief of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology; Zarir Khademian, M.D., radiologist; Anna Blask, M.D., radiologist; Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., child neurology fellow; Lindsay Pesacreta, FNP; Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., Fetal Medicine Institute director; and Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., senior author and Pediatric Infectious Disease division chief; and Caitlin Cristante, B.S.

Financial support for this research was provided by the Thrasher Research Fund.