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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.”

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.”

Javad Nazarian

Children’s National launches Open DIPG Initiative

Javad Nazarian

Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., MSC, has played an important role in establishing the Open DIPG Initiative. He hopes that the Open DIPG Initiative will serve as a model for centralized disease-specific efforts that will bring research findings one step closer to clinical translation.

A collaborative team of doctors and researchers at Children’s National Health System today announced the launch of the Open DIPG Initiative through the Children’s Brain Tumor Tissue Consortium (CBTTC).

The primary goals for the project will be to generate DIPG Omics which will help decipher major molecular characteristics of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). Specifically, these will include genomics, proteomics, transcriptomics and epigenomics for primary analyses, centralize all DIPG Omics for secondary analyses, integrate the new DIPG data and unify DIPG expertise (data scientists, researchers, new talent, etc.) to analyze the DIPG genomic data.

CBTTC Scientific Co-Chairs Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., MSC, principal investigator, and Adam Resnick, Ph.D., have played important roles in establishing the Open DIPG Initiative. They hope that the Open DIPG Initiative will serve as a model for centralized disease-specific efforts that will bring research findings one step closer to clinical translation.

Pediatric brain tumors are the leading cause of disease-related death in children. Unlike many adult cancers, the causes of pediatric brain tumors remain largely unknown, and common therapies have remained mostly unchanged over the last four decades. To address these challenges, clinicians and researchers have embraced the emergence of sequencing technologies and deep molecular characterization of tumors to define novel, targeted approaches and individualized therapies.

However, harnessing such data-driven approaches has been a challenge due to limited accessibility to datasets and shared discovery platforms that can empower large-scale integration of datasets for worldwide access and cross-disease analyses.

As a part of this initiative, the Open DIPG Initiative has collected, generated and annotated the largest cohort of DIPG genome data to date. Specifically, these datasets contain more than 1,000 genomes associated with pediatric high-grade gliomas, with over 500 DIPG cases. The Open DIPG has been a part of a larger effort known as the Pediatric Brain Tumor Atlas, which aims to uncover the molecular basis of childhood cancers.

Committed to accelerated discovery, the CBTTC is partnering with the Kids First Data Resource Center (DRC) and the newly developed Kids First Data Resource Portal, which was also launched today.

“The combination of consortia-based initiatives, partnerships with foundations and new discovery platforms being announced today, with the support of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), provides for entirely new and transformative ways of doing science on behalf of children with brain tumors,” said Adam Resnick, Ph.D., principal investigator of the Kids First DRC.

The Open DIPG initiative will be launched as a part of the Pediatric Brain Tumor Atlas and has been funded by families as well as the NIH Gabriella Miller Kids First Act fund. The fund was launched in 2015 and named after Gabriella Miller, a former patient at Children’s National who lost her life to DIPG.

NPosnack-Heart-image

NIH funding to improve devices and safeguard cardiovascular health

Nearly 15 million blood transfusions are performed each year in the U.S., and pediatric patients alone receive roughly 425,000 transfused units. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as bisphenol A and di-2-ethylhexyl-phthalate (DEHP), can leach from some plastic devices used in such transfusions. However, it remains unclear how many complications following a transfusion can be attributed to the interplay between local and systemic reactions to these chemical contaminants.

NPosnack-Heart-image

Top: Live, excised heart that is being perfused with a crystalloid buffer via the aorta. The heart is stained with a voltage-sensitive fluorescent dye, which is excited by an LED light source. Bottom, right: Cardiac action potentials are optically mapped across the epicardial surface in real-time by monitoring changes in the fluorescence signal that are proportional to changes in transmembrane voltage. Bottom, left: An activation map (middle) depicts the speed of electrical conduction across the heart surface. Credit: Rafael Jaimes, Ph.D.; Luther Swift, Ph.D.; Manelle Ramadan, B.S.; Bryan Siegel, M.D.; James Hiebert, B.S., all of Children’s National Health System; and Daniel McInerney, student at The George Washington University.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute within the National Institutes of Health has awarded a $3.4 million, five-year grant to Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Children’s National Heart Institute within the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation (SZI) at Children’s National Health System, to answer that question and to provide insights that could accelerate development of safer biomaterials.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, patients who are undergoing IV therapy, blood transfusion, cardiopulmonary bypass or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation or who receive nutrition through feeding support tubes have the potential to be exposed to DEHP.

Posnack led a recent study that found that an experimental model exposed to DEHP experienced altered autonomic regulation, heart rate variability and cardiovascular reactivity and reported the findings Nov. 6, 2017, in the American Journal of Physiology. The pre-clinical model study is the first to show such an association between phthalate chemicals used in everyday medical devices like IV tubing and cardiovascular health.

In the follow-on research, Posnack and colleagues will:

  • Use in vivo and whole heart models to define the extent to which biomaterial leaching and chemical exposure alters cardiovascular and autonomic function in experimental models
  • Determine whether biocompatibility and incidental chemical exposure are linked to cardiovascular and autonomic abnormalities experienced by pediatric patients post transfusion
  • Compare and contrast alternative biomaterials, chemicals and manufacturing techniques to identify safer transfusion device options.

“Ultimately, we hope to strengthen the evidence base used to inform decisions by the scientific, medical and regulatory communities about whether chemical additives that have endocrine-disrupting properties should be used to manufacture medical devices,” Posnack says. “Our findings also will highlight incentives that could accelerate development of alternative biomaterials, additives and fabrication techniques to improve safety for patients undergoing transfusion.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.