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little girl with cancer

Pediatric advance care planning linked to families’ positive caregiving appraisals

little girl with cancer

In a first-of-its-kind clinical trial, experts directly measured families’ appraisals of caregiving as one potential benefit to pediatric advance care planning.

Little is known about how families respond to pediatric advance care planning. Physicians often are concerned that initiating pediatric advance care planning conversations with families is too distressing for them.

But a first-of-its-kind clinical trial led by Maureen E. Lyon, Ph.D., F.A.B.P.P., principal investigator, and Jessica Thompkins, B.S.N, R.N., C.P.N., research nurse coordinator, both at Children’s National Hospital, directly measured families’ appraisals of caregiving as one potential benefit to pediatric advance care planning.

The clinical trial, summarized in a video abstract,  shows that compared to controls, families’ participation in Family-Centered Advance Care Planning for Teens with Cancer (FACE®-TC) resulted in positive appraisals of their caregiving for their child with cancer while not significantly burdening them with distress or strain.

“Clinicians can be assured of the benefit and tolerability of this person-centered/family-supported model of pediatric advance care planning,” Thompkins says.

Families randomized to the FACE®-TC pediatric advance care planning intervention showed significantly greater positive family appraisals of caregiving and overwhelmingly, families reported the experience as worthwhile without adding undue distress or strain, compared to controls.

“This evidence meets practice guidelines for an intervention that could be extended to other adolescents living with serious illnesses and their families,” Dr. Lyon adds.

The clinical trial’s results also showed that FACE®-TC families significantly increased positive caregiving appraisals at three months post-intervention compared to controls. No significant differences were found between groups for strain or distress.

Wilm's Tumor

PRAME-specific T cell product may facilitate rapid treatment in cancer settings

Wilms Tumor

PRAME is a cancer-testis antigen that plays a role in cancer cell proliferation and survival and is overexpressed in many human malignancies, including Wilms tumor. “Wilms Tumor (Nephroblastoma)” by euthman is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Generated preferentially expressed antigen in melanoma (PRAME)-specific T cells from healthy donors can kill PRAME-expressing tumor cells in vitro, researchers at Children’s National Hospital found. Several novel epitopes, which are antigens that are recognized by the immune system, were also identified for enhanced matching, making this a potential therapeutic option for a broader patient group, according to a study published in Cytotherapy.

PRAME is a cancer-testis antigen that plays a role in cancer cell proliferation and survival and is overexpressed in many human malignancies, including melanoma, leukemia, sarcoma, renal cell cancer and Wilms tumor. PRAME also acts as a foreign substance in the body that can trigger the immune system by activating T cells, making it a good target for anticancer immunotherapy — especially for immunocompromised patients.

“The development of an effective off-the-shelf adoptive T-cell therapy for patients with relapsed or refractory cancers expressing PRAME antigen requires the identification of epitopes essential to the adaptive immune response, which are presented by major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I and II, and are then recognized by the manufactured PRAME-specific T cell product,” said Amy Hont, M.D., oncologist for the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National Hospital. “We, therefore, set out to extend the repertoire of HLA-restricted PRAME peptide epitopes beyond the few already characterized and demonstrate the cytotoxic activity of PRAME-specific T cells to tumor cells known to express PRAME.”

Immunotherapy options for pediatric patients with high-risk malignancies, especially solid tumors, are few. Tumor-associated antigen-specific T cells (TAA-T) offer a therapeutic option for these patients, and Children’s National is building upon the success of the ongoing clinical trials to optimize this therapy and improve the treatment of our patients.

“These findings will also benefit patients because it better informs the pre-clinical studies of third party TAA-T to treat high-risk malignancies, so that we can move more quickly and safely to clinical trials,” said Dr. Hont.

Stanojevic et al. describes that the T-cell products killed partially HLA-matched tumors, and that this enhanced disintegration of tumor cells compared with non-specific T cells suggests an anti-tumor potential for a clinical trial evaluation to determine the safety and efficacy. Further research about the PRAME-specific T cells will help inform a treatment alternative for patients with solid tumors in the future.

The researchers generated a PRAME-specific T cell bank from healthy donor cells and demonstrated anti-tumor cytolytic activity against tumor lines partially HLA-matched to the T cells and known to express PRAME. By using epitope mapping, they identified several novel epitopes restricted to MHC class I or MHC class II to further inform HLA matching.

“Defining PRAME-specific T cells beyond HLA epitopes could be useful when developing T-cell therapies for worldwide application,” Stanojevic et al. write. “Moreover, creating off-the-shelf products has many potential advantages since such products are readily available for the treatment of patients with aggressive disease or patients for whom an autologous product cannot be manufactured.”

Additional authors from Children’s National are Maja Stanojevic, M.D., Ashley Geiger, M.S., Samuel O’Brien, Robert Ulrey, M.S., Melanie Grant, Ph.D., Anushree Datar, M.S., Ping-Hsien Lee, Ph.D., Haili Lang, M.D., Conrad R.Y. Cruz, M.D., Ph.D.,  Patrick J. Hanley, Ph.D., A. John Barrett, M.D, Michael D. Keller, M.D., and Catherine M. Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B.

Sickle-Cell-Blood-Cells

Treating neurocognitive difficulties in children with sickle cell disease

Sickle-Cell-Blood-Cells

An adaptive cognitive training program could help treat attention and working memory difficulties in children with sickle cell disease (SCD), a new study published in the of Journal of Pediatric Psychology shows.

An adaptive cognitive training program could help treat attention and working memory difficulties in children with sickle cell disease (SCD), a new study published in the of Journal of Pediatric Psychology shows.

These neurocognitive difficulties have practical implications for the 100,000 individuals in the U.S. with SCD, as 20-40% of youth with SCD repeat a grade in school and fewer than half of adults with SCD are employed. Interventions to prevent and treat neurocognitive difficulties caused by SCD have the potential to significantly improve academic outcomes, vocational attainment and quality of life.

The study, led by Steven Hardy, Ph.D., director of Psychology and Patient Care Services at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Hospital, examined a promising approach using an adaptive cognitive training program (known as Cogmed Working Memory Training) that patients complete at home on an iPad.

Using a randomized controlled trial design, children were asked to complete Cogmed training sessions 3 to 5 times per week for about 30 minutes at a time until they completed 25 sessions. The Cogmed program involves game-like working memory exercises that adapt to the user’s performance, gradually becoming more challenging over time as performance improves. The team found that patients with sickle cell disease (SCD) who completed the cognitive training intervention showed significant improvement in visual working memory compared to a waitlist group that used Cogmed after the waiting period. Treatment effects were especially notable for patients who completed a training “dose” of 10 sessions.

“Patients who completed at least 10 cognitive training sessions showed improved visual working memory, verbal short-term memory and math fluency,” Dr. Hardy said.

SCD increases risk for neurocognitive difficulties because of cerebrovascular complications (such as overt strokes and silent cerebral infarcts) and underlying disease characteristics (such as chronic anemia). Neurocognitive effects of SCD most commonly involve problems with attention, working memory and other executive functions.

“This study demonstrates that digital working memory training is an effective approach to treating neurocognitive deficits in youth with sickle cell disease,” Dr. Hardy added. “We also found that benefits of the training extend to tasks that involve short-term verbal memory and math performance when patients are able to stick with the program and complete at least 10 training sessions. These benefits could have a real impact on daily living, making it easier to remember and follow directions in school and at home, organize tasks or solve math problems that require remembering information for short periods of time.”

To date, there have been few efforts to test interventions that address the neurocognitive issues experienced by many individuals with SCD. These findings show that abilities are modifiable and that a non-pharmacological treatment exists.

The Comprehensive Sickle Cell Disease Program at Children’s National is a leader in pediatric SCD research and clinical innovation. This study was funded by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which was the only Innovations in Clinical Research Award ever awarded to a psychologist (out of 31 grants totaling over $15 million), since the award established a focus on sickle cell disease in 2009.

SIOP logo

Jeffrey Dome, M.D., elected SIOP Continental President of North America

Jeffrey Dome

“I’m honored to have been elected as president of a society that is a leader in propelling treatment and advocacy for childhood cancer,” Dr. Dome said. “I look forward to working alongside peers who are committed to efforts to improve outcomes for children with cancer globally.”

Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., vice president of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Hospital, has been elected as the International Society of Paediatric Oncology’s (SIOP) Continental President of North America.

“I’m honored to have been elected as president of a society that is a leader in propelling treatment and advocacy for childhood cancer,” Dr. Dome said. “I look forward to working alongside peers who are committed to efforts to improve outcomes for children with cancer globally.”

SIOP is the only global multidisciplinary society devoted to pediatric and adolescent cancer. With over 2,600 members worldwide – including doctors, nurses, other health-care professionals, scientists and researchers – the society is dedicated to increasing knowledge about all aspects of childhood cancer.

SIOP will officially welcome Dr. Dome to the position at its Annual Business Meeting in October.

Roger Packer at lectern

Roger Packer, M.D., presents keynote address at First International Pakistan Neuro-Oncology Symposium

Roger Packer at lectern

During his presentation, he addressed attendees on the topic of the “Modern Management of Medulloblastoma,” discussing results of recently completed clinical trials and the implications of new molecular insights into medulloblastoma, the most common childhood malignant brain tumor.

In late November 2020,  Roger Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neurosciences and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Hospital, presented as the inaugural keynote speaker for the First International Pakistan Neuro-Oncology Symposium in Karachi, Pakistan.

During his virtual presentation, he addressed attendees on the topic of the “Modern Management of Medulloblastoma,” discussing results of recently completed clinical trials and the implications of new molecular insights into medulloblastoma, the most common childhood malignant brain tumor.

The symposium attracted participants from 57 countries across the globe. There were over 1,000 attendees and as a result of the success of this symposium, there is now a monthly pediatric neuro-oncology lecture series. Dr. Packer agreed to lecture again to the group in mid-January 2021 on “Pediatric Neural Tumors Associated with NF1” as part of an international lecture series hosted by the Aga Khan University in Pakistan.

This is one of multiple national and international activities led by the Brain Tumor Institute at Children’s National Hospital. Directed by Dr. Packer with Eugene Hwang, M.D. as his co-director, and who is associate division chief of oncology at Children’s National Hospital, the multidisciplinary institute holds a monthly tumor board for colleagues at Dmitry Rogachev National Research Center and the Burdenko Neurosurgery Institute in Moscow, Russia, and a monthly brain tumor board coordinated by the Pediatric Oncology Program for colleagues across São Paulo, Brazil.

This also leads to a bi-monthly regional tumor board, which is attended by staff of the National Cancer Institute, the University of Virginia, Inova Children’s Hospital, the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters Health System, Yale University, Geisinger Medical Center, Georgetown University and Carilion Clinic.

Roger Packer with patient

A lifetime of achievements: Roger Packer, M.D.

Roger Packer with patient

Over the years, Dr. Packer and his team in Washington, D.C., have made meaningful contributions to children all around the world diagnosed with childhood brain tumors, including medulloblastoma and gliomas.

Earlier in December, Roger Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neurosciences and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Hospital, received the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology at the meeting organized in Karuizawa, Japan. The prestigious recognition is a testament to the years of commitment and dedication Dr. Packer has devoted to the care of children with brain tumors and as such, have placed him as a top leader.

This award is a recognition of how the field has grown since the first International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Dr. Packer organized in Seattle in 1989. “It grew from a small gathering of investigators to now a multidisciplinary group of over 2,000 investigators,” Dr. Packer says.

Over the years, Dr. Packer and his team in Washington, D.C., have made meaningful contributions to children all around the world diagnosed with childhood brain tumors, including medulloblastoma and gliomas. These findings have contributed to an increase of the survival rate from 50% to over 80% for children with medulloblastoma. In addition, his contributions have led to newer molecular targeted therapies and improved the quality of life of children who are long-term survivors.

“The field, especially in the last decade, rapidly transitioned to a more biologically informed field,” Dr. Packer explains. “We are now utilizing new, exciting discoveries in biology and genetics to inform new approaches to treatment. This kind of transition gives us great hope for the future.”

In his early career, Dr. Packer worked with two neuro-oncology patients who died and would impact his decision to further study this field. At that time, there was minimal understanding of the nature of neuro-oncology diseases or how to best treat them. As a neurologist, he was frustrated by the lack of understanding and as a pediatrician, he was frustrated at the lack of ability to do success management.

“I saw this as a gap in my personal knowledge and found that the field was struggling to come up with new answers and new approaches,” he says. “But at the same time other, advances were being made in child cancer care, such as with leukemia. However, there was no wide focus on pediatric brain tumors.”

Combining his knowledge of neurology with his curiosity and relying on other leaders that surrounded him in the same field, Dr. Packer worked on driving this new work forward. Today, he is still heavily involved in the development of treatment protocols that are increasingly transitional for a variety of brain tumors, including low-grade and high-grade gliomas.

“With the help of our great colleagues at Children’s National, we continue to try to develop new means to treat these tumors, including immunological approaches and the incorporation in the use of novel means, such as low-intensity and high-intensity focused ultrasound,” he says. “We also have an excellent multidisciplinary team at Children’s National that has grown over the last decade some of whom are acknowledged national leaders in the fields of brain tumors, clinical research and clinical care. We also have a robust program focusing on the neurocognitive outcome of children and ways to intervene to ameliorate intellectual compromise and improve quality of life.”

blood cells with sickle cell anemia

Advances in therapy for sickle cell disease and hemophilia

blood cells with sickle cell anemia

Despite having a network of providers and a national database, access to care and treatment burden continue to be issues that affect quality of life in the hemophilia population.

Hemophilia and sickle cell are disorders that are associated with comorbidities and significant treatment burden, discussed Christine Guelcher, PPCNP-BC, lead advanced practice provider for the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Hospital, during the virtual 62nd ASH Annual Meeting and Exposition.

During the satellite symposia, Guelcher explained a network of hemophilia treatment centers (HTCs) was developed in the 1970s. The model of multi-disciplinary care in the HTC network has demonstrated improved outcomes. Despite having a network of providers and a national database, access to care and treatment burden continue to be issues that affect quality of life in the hemophilia population.

“While similar programs were developed in sickle cell with similar improvements in care, the funding was not sustained,” Guelcher said. However, efforts are underway to develop multi-disciplinary care and data infrastructure in the sickle cell community.

“The lack of specialized providers, particularly adult hematologists, continues to be an issue for both non-malignant hematologic disorders,” she added.

Advances in care

While hemophilia is rare, it is an expensive disease. Controlling bleeding with medications is expensive and associated with significant treatment burden. Failure to prevent bleeding due to lack of access or adherence can result in debilitating bleeding that impacts on productivity and quality of life. Additionally, clinical trials with gene therapy are ongoing, though questions remain about sustained levels and durability.

“Recent development of drugs that can reduce the frequency of intravenous infusions (extended half-life factor replacement products or subcutaneous novel non-factor prophylaxis) have improved the treatment burden,” Guelcher said. “But access to care continues to be an issue for up to 30% of the patients with bleeding disorders in the U.S.” Sickle cell disease affects mostly Black/African American and Hispanic patients, many of whom already experience health care disparities. While newborn screening, antibiotic prophylaxis and immunizations have decreased life-threatening infections, vaso-occlusive (pain) crisis continues to be a debilitating complication. Furthermore, stroke, pulmonary, cardiac and renal disease are significant comorbidities.

While advances in therapies for sickle cell have provided new treatment options to decrease the frequency of vaso-occlusive crisis, the pathophysiology that results in all of the sequalae is not fully understood. While Bone marrow transplant is potential treatment of the underlying sickle cell disease process, only 20% of patients have a matched sibling donor. Currently, clinical trials are investigating the safety and efficacy of gene therapy. Despite all of these advances, the life expectancy of somebody with sickle cell is 30 years shorter than the general U.S. population.

Access to care

The multi-disciplinary panel presentation at ASH gave participants an opportunity to hear about the challenges facing these patients and families. The overview of new and emerging treatment options gave providers an understanding of treatment options.

“Hopefully, presentations like this will inspire providers to consider a career in non-malignant hematology (particularly adult providers),” Guelcher added.

As one of the nation’s hemophilia and thrombosis treatment centers, Children’s National Hospital provides comprehensive, multi-disciplinary care. Patients can participate in two national registries in order to collect aggregate data that are used to identify trends that impact bleeding disorder patients. Our sickle cell program also offers multi-disciplinary clinics for infants, integrative care for chronic pain and transition, addressing some of the unmet needs that continue to be an issue nationally.

“We also participate in industry sponsored clinical trials to ensure that new therapies, including gene therapy, are safe and effective,” Guelcher explained. “This gives our patients access to state-of-the-art care. Numerous clinical trials to ensure that recently licensed products and gene therapy are safe for use in a pediatric patient with hemophilia and sickle cell are ongoing.”

Roger Packer

Roger Packer, M.D., receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Roger Packer

“I am very honored and humbled to receive this recognition from the International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology,” says Roger Packer, M.D. “I am proud of the contributions my team and I have made in this field and we look forward to continue to lead research focused on the advancement of the crucial areas neuro-oncology.”

Roger Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neurosciences and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Hospital, will receive the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology. Dr. Packer was selected as a recipient for the prestigious award for his substantial contributions to pediatric oncology and scientific achievements.

“I am very honored and humbled to receive this recognition from the International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology,” says Dr. Packer. “I am proud of the contributions my team and I have made in this field and we look forward to continue to lead research focused on the advancement of the crucial areas neuro-oncology.”

Dr. Packer is also a Gilbert Distinguished Professor of Neurofibromatosis and is Director of both the Gilbert Neurofibromatosis Institute and the Brain Tumor Institute of Children’s National Hospital. Most of the current studies Dr. Packer coordinates are studies evaluating innovative agents aimed at the molecular underpinnings of neurologic disease. He has published over 400 original articles and 350 reviews and chapters.

The award will be presented at ISPNO 2020, the 19th International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology, December 13-16, 2020, in Karuizawa, Japan.

Children’s National Hospital is incredibly proud of the work Dr. Packer has done in the neuro-oncology community.

cystic kidney disease

NIH $4 million grant funds new core center for childhood cystic kidney disease

cystic kidney disease

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), in collaboration with Children’s National Hospital has received a five-year, $4 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create a core center for childhood cystic kidney disease (CCKDCC). The UAB-CCKDCC will conduct and facilitate research into the causes of and possible treatments for cystic kidney diseases, particularly those that present in childhood.

The UAB/Children’s National grant is a U54 center grant, an NIH funding mechanism to develop a multidisciplinary attack on a specific disease entity or biomedical problem area. With this grant, UAB joins with investigators at the University of Kansas and the University of Maryland-Baltimore as part of the NIH Polycystic Kidney Disease Research Resource Consortium. The NIH describes the consortium as a framework for effective collaboration to develop and share research resources, core services and expertise to support innovation in research related to polycystic kidney disease.

“Infants with childhood cystic kidney disease may develop kidney failure within a few years after birth and some need dialysis and kidney transplantation before they reach adulthood,” said Lisa Guay-Woodford, M.D., director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National and co-director of the UAB-CCKDCC. “In many cases, the earlier the onset of symptoms, the more severe the outcome.”

“The intent is to accelerate the science and advance research into new therapies for cystic kidney disease through enhanced sharing of resources and the establishment of a robust research community,” said Bradley K. Yoder, Ph.D., professor and chair of the UAB Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology and co-director of the UAB-CCKDCC. “Childhood polycystic disease can be a devastating condition for children and their families.”

The UAB-CCKDCC will focus primarily on childhood polycystic kidney disease, a condition that affects about one in 20,000 infants in the United States. The center’s primary goals are:

  • Provide the Polycystic Kidney Disease Research Resource Consortium members with access to phenotypic, genetic and clinical information and biomaterials from CCKD patients
  • Analyze pathways involved in cyst pathogenesis through the generation of verified genetic model systems and biosensor/reporter systems
  • Assess the impact of patient variants on cystic disease proteins through generation and validation of innovative models
  • Provide ready access to biological materials from genetic CCKD models
  • Develop efficient pipelines for in vitro and in vivo preclinical testing of therapeutic compounds

Dr. Guay-Woodford is an internationally recognized pediatric nephrologist with a research program focused on identifying clinical and genetic factors involved in the pathogenesis of inherited renal disorders, most notably autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD). Her laboratory has identified the disease-causing genes in several experimental models of recessive polycystic kidney disease and her group participated in the identification of the human ARPKD gene as part of an international consortium. In addition, her laboratory was the first to identify a candidate modifier gene for recessive polycystic kidney disease. For her contributions to the field, she was awarded the Lillian Jean Kaplan International Prize for Advancement in the Understanding of Polycystic Kidney Disease, given by the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation and the International Society of Nephrology.

The Children’s National Division of Oncology is consistently recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top programs in the nation.

2020 at a glance: Oncology at Children’s National

The Children’s National Division of Oncology is consistently recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top programs in the nation.

pastel colored DNA strands

Germline microsatellite genotypes differentiate children with medulloblastoma

pastel colored DNA strands

A new study suggests that medulloblastoma-specific germline microsatellite variations mark those at-risk for medulloblastoma development.

Brian Rood, M.D., oncologist and medical director at the Brain Tumor Institute, and Harold “Skip” Garner, Ph.D., associate vice provost for research development at Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, published a report in the Society for Neuro-Oncology’s Neuro-Oncology Journal about using a novel approach to identify specific markers in germline (non-tumor) DNA called microsatellites that can differentiate children who have the brain tumor medulloblastoma (MB) from those who don’t.

“Ultimately, the best way to save children from brain tumors and prevent them from bearing long-term side effects from treatment is to prevent those tumors from occurring in the first place,” says Dr. Rood. “New advancements hold the potential to finally realize the dream of cancer prevention, but we must first identify those children at-risk.”

While analyzing germline sequencing data from a training set of 120 MB subjects and 425 controls, the doctors identified 139 individual microsatellites whose genotypes differ significantly between the groups. Using a genetic algorithm, they were able to construct a subset of 43 microsatellites that distinguish MB subjects from controls with a sensitivity and specificity of 92% and 88% respectively.

“We made discoveries in an untapped part of the human genome, enabled by unique bioinformatics data mining approaches combined with clinical insight,” said Dr. Garner. “Our findings establish new genomic directions that can lead to high accuracy diagnostics for predicting susceptibility to medulloblastoma.”

What the doctors discovered and demonstrated in the study was that MB-specific germline microsatellite variations mark those at risk for MB development and suggest that other mechanisms of cancer predisposition beyond heritable mutations exist for MB.

“This work is the first to demonstrate the ability of specific DNA sequences to differentiate children with cancer from their healthy counterparts,” added Dr. Rood.

Contributing Authors to this research study included:  Brian R. Rood, M.D., Harold R. Garner, Ph.D., Samuel Rivero-Hinojosa, Ph.D., and Nicholas Kinney, Ph.D.

proton center

Johns Hopkins Proton Therapy Center opens in collaboration with Children’s National

proton center

The Center at Sibley offers state-of-the-art, pencil beam proton therapy equipment, as well as next-generation imaging technologies such as dual energy CT-guided treatment that reduces the range of error, and the latest innovation in biomatrix magnetic resonance imaging designed to target moving tumors in organs like the lung and liver.

Pediatric cancer patients in the Greater Washington region now have access to one of the most advanced, lifesaving proton therapy technologies offered in the U.S. The Johns Hopkins Proton Therapy Center opened Oct.28, 2019, at Sibley Memorial Hospital in collaboration with Children’s National Hospital.

The proton collaboration with Children’s National expands an existing collaboration between Children’s National and Johns Hopkins Medicine that established the pediatric radiation oncology program at Sibley, which treats a wide range of children’s cancer. Now, Sibley will offer the only proton center in the Washington D.C. region with a dedicated pediatric team, staff who are trained in pediatrics instead of adult providers who also treat children.

“This collaboration allows us to bring the latest technology to the region and offer the most advanced cancer treatment to help children live better lives,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO at Children’s National. “As one of the Top 10 children’s hospitals in the nation, our goal is to ensure that patients and families are receiving the best care possible.”

The Center at Sibley offers state-of-the-art, pencil beam proton therapy equipment, as well as next-generation imaging technologies such as dual energy CT-guided treatment that reduces the range of error, and the latest innovation in biomatrix magnetic resonance imaging designed to target moving tumors in organs like the lung and liver. A large mechanical arm called a gantry can move the beam 360 degrees around the patient, treating the tumor from several angles as it destroys tumor cells layer by layer.

“Proton therapy is an advanced technology that allows radiation to be delivered precisely to cancer tissue,” says Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., vice president for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National. “This provides a significant advantage compared with conventional radiation therapy, especially in children, where sparing the healthy tissue that surrounds the tumor may be critical for normal growth and development. Proton therapy shows great promise to reduce long-term side effects of radiation treatment.”

The Center at Sibley will have a fully integrated research room, which will allow clinical, basic science and medical physics faculty to advance clinical trial research, translational research and technology development research in proton therapy. Leading experts and oncologists will study proton outcomes for sarcoma, gynecological tumors, pancreatic and liver tumors, lymph node cancers and tumors located near the heart and major blood vessels, such as lung or breast cancers. In addition, the researchers will examine how the proton energy that kills cancer cells interacts with non-cancerous cells and tissue surrounding the tumors.

The JJohns Hopkins Proton Therapy Center opens in phases. The first treatment room opened October 2019. The second room is scheduled to open in spring 2020, and the third room and fixed beam research room are scheduled to open in fall 2020.

Chromosomes

Precision medicine for Wilms tumor patients

Chromosomes

Previously, researchers discovered that loss of heterozygosity (LOH) on chromosomes 1 and 16 is associated with a significantly increased risk of relapse of Wilms tumor.

About 650 children are diagnosed each year in the U.S. with Wilms tumor, the most common pediatric kidney cancer. The vast majority of patients respond well to the current standard of care involving a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. However, approximately 20% of patients with “favorable histology” Wilms tumor experience recurrence.

Previously, researchers discovered that loss of heterozygosity (LOH) on chromosomes 1 and 16 is associated with a significantly increased risk of relapse. A research team in the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), led by Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., vice president of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Hospital, sought to determine whether an augmented chemotherapy regimen can overcome the negative effect of LOH.

More than 2,500 patients with Wilms tumor were enrolled in the biology and classification study over a 7–year period. Tumor tissue was tested for LOH and patients with LOH at both chromosomes 1 and 16 received more intensive chemotherapy regimens compared to the standard approach. The results showed that the increased treatment provided a statistically significant benefit in the 4-year event-free survival, with trends toward improved overall survival. For low-stage disease (stage I-II), the four-year event-free survival was 87.3%, compared to a historical rate of 68.8%. Similarly, for advanced stage disease (stage III/IV) four-year event-free survival was 90.2%, compared with 61.3% historically.

Although the new regimens involved additional chemotherapy agents compared to the standard regimens, the short-term toxicities were expected and manageable. There is an increased risk of long-term toxicity including infertility and second malignancies, which requires careful discussion with families. Future studies will seek to mitigate these risks with newer chemotherapy agents.

By better understanding which patients might benefit from more intensive treatment regimens through precision medicine, doctors can tailor therapy according to the risk of relapse, Dr. Dome says.

“This study represents a significant milestone in the treatment of Wilms tumor because it is the first to demonstrate that patient outcome can be improved using a molecular biomarker to guide treatment,” he explains. “We have entered the age of precision medicine for Wilms tumor.”

Epstein Barr virus

Fighting lymphoma with targeted T-cells

Epstein-Barr virus

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is best known as the cause of mononucleosis, the ubiquitous “kissing disease” that most people contract at some point in their life. But in rare instances, this virus plays a more sinister role as the impetus of lymphomas, cancers that affect the white blood cells known as lymphocytes.

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is best known as the cause of mononucleosis, the ubiquitous “kissing disease” that most people contract at some point in their life. But in rare instances, this virus plays a more sinister role as the impetus of lymphomas, cancers that affect the white blood cells known as lymphocytes. EBV-associated lymphomas account for about 40% of Hodgkin lymphomas, 20% of diffuse large B-cell lymphomas, and more than 90% of natural killer/T-cell lymphomas. This latter type of lymphoma typically has a very poor prognosis even with the “standard of care” lymphoma treatments such as chemotherapy and/or radiation.

When these interventions fail, the only curative approach is an allogeneic  hematopoietic stem cell transplant from a healthy donor, a treatment that’s tough on patients’ bodies and carries significant risks, says Lauren P. McLaughlin, M.D., a pediatrician specializing in hematology and oncology at Children’s National in Washington, D.C. Patients who receive these allogenic transplants are immune-compromised until the donor cells engraft; the grafts can attack patients’ healthy cells in a phenomenon called graft versus host disease; and if patients relapse or don’t respond to this treatment, few options remain.

To help improve outcomes, Dr. McLaughlin and colleagues tested an addition to the allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplant procedure for patients with EBV-associated lymphomas: infusion of a type of immune cell called T cells specifically trained to fight cells infected with EBV.

Dr. McLaughlin, along with Senior Author Catherine M. Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B., director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research and the Program for Cell Enhancement and Technologies for Immunotherapy at Children’s National, and colleagues tested this therapy in 26 patients treated at Children’s National or Baylor College of Medicine. They published these results online on Sept. 27, 2018, in the journal Blood. The study was a Phase I clinical trial, meaning that the therapy was tested primarily for safety, with efficacy as a secondary aim.

Seven patients who received the therapy had active disease that had not responded to conventional therapies. The other 19 were patients deemed to be at high risk for relapse.

Before each patient received their stem cell transplant, their donors gave an additional blood sample to generate the cancer-fighting T cells. Over the next 8 to 10 weeks, the researchers painstakingly manufactured the immune cells known as T-cells that specifically targeted EBV, growing these cells into numbers large enough for clinical use. Then, as early as 30 days after transplant, the researchers infused these T-cells into patients administering at least two doses, spaced two weeks apart.

Over the next several weeks, the researchers at CNMC and Baylor College of Medicine monitored patients with comprehensive exams to see how they fared after these transplants. The results showed that adverse effects from the treatment were exceedingly rare. There were no immediate infusion-related toxicities to the T-cell therapy and only one incident of dose-limiting toxicity.

This therapy may be efficacious, depending on the individual patients’ circumstances, Dr McLaughlin adds. For those in complete remission but at high risk of relapsing, the two-year survival rate was 78%, suggesting that the administration of this novel T-cell therapy may give the immune system a boost to prevent the lymphoma from returning after transplant. For patients with active T-cell lymphomas, two-year survival rates were 60%. However, even these lower rates are better than the historical norm of 30-50%, suggesting that the targeted T-cell therapies could help fight disease in patients with this poor prognosis lymphoma.

Dr. McLaughlin, the study’s lead author and a Lymphoma Research Foundation grantee, notes that researchers have more work to do before this treatment becomes mainstream. For example, this treatment will need to be tested in larger populations of patients with EBV-related lymphoma to determine who would derive the most benefit, the ideal dose and dose timing. It also may be possible to extend targeted T-cell treatments like this to other types of cancers. In the future, Dr. McLaughlin adds, it may be possible to develop T-cells that could be used “off the shelf”—in other words, they wouldn’t need to come from a matched donor and would be ready to use whenever a recipient needs them. Another future goal is using this therapy as one of the first lines of treatment rather than as a last resort.

“Our ultimate goal is to find a way to avoid chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy while still effectively treating a patient’s cancer,” she says. “Can you use the immune system to do that job? We’re working to answer that question.”

In addition to Drs. McLaughlin and Bollard, study co-authors include Rayne Rouce, Stephen Gottschalk, Vicky Torrano, George Carrum, Andrea M. Marcogliese, Bambi Grilley, Adrian P. Gee, Malcolm K. Brenner, Cliona M. Rooney and Helen E. Heslop, all of Baylor College of Medicine; Meng-Fen Wu from the Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center; and Fahmida Hoq and Patrick J. Hanley, Ph.D. from Children’s National in Washington, D.C.

2019 at a glance: Oncology at Children’s National

Oncology at Children's National
Holly Meany

TAA-Ts as therapy for tumors

Holly Meany

“The T cell immunotherapy regimen resulted in prolonged disease stabilization in patients who previously experienced rapid tumor progression,” says Holly Meany, M.D. “The therapy could prove to be an important component of immunotherapy for patients with solid tumor malignancies.”

In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers from Children’s National Health System uncovered tumor-associated antigen cytotoxic T cells (TAA-Ts) that represent a new and potentially effective nontoxic therapeutic approach for patients with relapsed or refractory solid tumors.

The Phase 1 study led by Children’s National pediatric oncologists Holly Meany, M.D., and Amy B. Hont, M.D., represented the first in-human trial investigating the safety of administering TAA-Ts that target Wilms Tumor gene 1, a preferentially expressed antigen of melanoma and survivin in patients with relapsed/refractory solid tumors.

“These are exciting clinical results using a novel ‘first in-human’ T cell therapy,” said Catherine Bollard, MB.Ch.B., M.D., director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s Research Institute. “This T cell therapy was safe and appeared to prolong patients’ time to progression which suggests that we can now use this novel treatment as a combination therapy to hopefully achieve long-term remissions in pediatrics and adults with relapsed/refractory solid tumors.”

During the Phase 1 trial, TAA-Ts products were generated from autologous peripheral blood and were infused over three dose levels. Patients were then eligible for up to eight infusions that were administered four to seven weeks apart.

Of the 15 evaluable patients, 11 were with stable disease or better at 45 days post-infusion and were defined as responders. Patients who were treated at the highest dose level showed the best clinical outcomes, with a 6-month progression-free survival rate of 73% after TAA-Ts infusion, an improvement as compared with prior therapy.

Overall, the Phase 1 trial of TAA-Ts resulted in safely induced disease stabilization and was associated with antigen spreading and a reduction in circulating tumor-associated antigen DNA levels in patients with relapsed/refractory solid tumors before infusion.

“The T cell immunotherapy regimen resulted in prolonged disease stabilization in patients who previously experienced rapid tumor progression,” said Dr. Meany. “The therapy could prove to be an important component of immunotherapy for patients with solid tumor malignancies,” she added.

The other researchers that contributed to this work are as follows: Amy B. Hont, M.D.; C. Russell Cruz, M.D., Ph.D.; Robert Ulrey, M.S.; Barbara O’Brien, B.S.; Maja Stanojevic, M.D.; Anushree Datar, M.S.; Shuroug Albihani, M.S.; Devin Saunders, B.A.; Ryo Hanajiri, M.D., Ph.D.; Karuna Panchapakesan, M.S.; Sam Darko, M.S.; Payal Banerjee, M.S.; Maria Fernanda Fortiz, B.S.; Fahmida Hoq, MBBS, M.S.; Haili Lang, M.D.; Yunfei Wang, Dr.PH.; Patrick J. Hanley, Ph.D.; Jeffrey S. Dome, M.D., Ph.D.; Catherine M. Bollard, M.D.; and Holly J. Meany, M.D.

Catherine Bollard

Engineering TGFB receptor to enhance NK cells and fight neuroblastoma

Catherine Bollard

“In this study, we have genetically engineered cord blood derived NK cells so that they are not only resistant to the devastating effects of TGFb, but they are not able to become activated in the presence of TGFb,” said, Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D.

Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D., and her research team published results showing potential efficacy of a novel cell therapy for treatment of pediatric patients with relapsed/refractory neuroblastoma.

The research paper, entitled, “Engineering the TGFβ receptor to Enhance the Therapeutic Potential of Natural Killer Cell as an Immunotherapy for Neuroblastoma,” was published on April 29, 2019 by Clinical Cancer Research and is being recognized for the potential efficacy of the “off the shelf” treatment for patients with relapsed/refractory neuroblastoma.

The researcher’s approach allows them to manipulate Natural Killer (NK) cells, expand and reinfuse them within a patient so they can fight cancer and disease.

“In this study, we have genetically engineered cord blood derived NK cells so that they are not only resistant to the devastating effects of TGFb, but they are not able to become activated in the presence of TGFb,” said, Dr. Bollard, who is the senior corresponding author of the study and director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at the Children’s Research Institute. “In other words, turning the negative effects of TGFb into positive effects enhances the persistence and anti-tumor activity of these tumor-killing NK cells in vivo.”

NK cells are highly cytolytic, and their potent antitumor effects can be rapidly triggered by a lack of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) expression on interacting target cells, as in the case for a majority of solid tumors, including neuroblastoma. With neuroblastoma being a leading cause of pediatric cancer-related deaths, it presents as an ideal candidate for NK cell therapy.

“This manuscript encompasses a significant portion of work, in which we generated genetically-modified NK cells as an enhanced form of immunotherapy for neuroblastoma,” said Rachel Burga, Ph.D., lead author and graduate of the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at George Washington and Children’s National Health System.  “We’re very excited to share our pre-clinical findings which demonstrate the efficacy of approaches to “hijack” the TGFb receptor and target TGFb in the tumor microenvironment.”

She added that the approach will allow for the NK cells to simultaneously resist the immune suppression in the microenvironment and initiate activation to increase their ability to target tumor cells.

Pre-clinical testing and research for this trial began in 2016 and ended in 2019. “The idea came from a Department of Defense award given to Dr. Bollard and Dr. Cruz and they took the idea and reduced it to practice and showed feasibility for pre-clinical trial,” said Rohan Fernandes, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at George Washington University and senior author on the manuscript.

Fernandes added that the timeframe to start the clinical trial is within the next two to four years at Children’s National.

Additional authors include Rachel A. Burga, Ph.D., Eric Yvon, Rohan Fernandes, Conrad Russell Cruz, and Catherine M. Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D.

Maureen E Lyon

Maureen E. Lyon receives American Cancer Society grant

Maureen E Lyon

Children’s Clinical Health Psychologist Maureen E. Lyon, Ph.D., has received the “Judy White Memorial Clinical Research Pilot Exploratory Projects in Palliative Care of Cancer Patients and their Families” grant from the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Over two years, Lyon will be allotted $144,000 to translate Children’s evidence-based Family-Centered (FACE) pediatric advance care planning (ACP) protocol into Spanish through a process of community-based participatory research for teens with cancer.

Lyon’s research focuses on enabling families to understand their adolescents’ treatment preferences and describing patient-reported palliative care needs for teens with cancer. Ultimately, the research will help identify the wants, values, goals and beliefs of teens with cancer.

Along with the ACS research grant, Lyon and Jessica Thompkins, BSN, R.N., CPN, research nurse coordinator at Children’s National, will present at the Annual Assembly of Hospice & Palliative Medicine conference, March 13-16, 2019 in Orlando, Fla. on data from the current multi-site, five-year randomized clinical trial funded by National Institute of Health/ National Institute of Nursing Research for English-speaking teens with cancer.

During the presentation, they will speak about the effect of FACE ACP on families’ appraisals of caregiving for their teens with cancer and describing advance care planning communication approaches.

Lyon and other researchers at Children’s National look forward to making significant contributions to the science of advance care planning aimed to minimize suffering and enhancing quality of life for young adults. Their contributions give teens a voice in their future medical care and help families “break the ice,” by providing an extra level of support to treating clinicians.

Roger Packer

Roger J. Packer, M.D. presents keynote address for BRAIN 2019

Roger Packer

2019 Otto Lien Da Wong visiting professor in neuro-oncology at BRAIN 2019, Roger J. Packer, M.D. presented the keynote address.

 

More than 400 neurologists, neurosurgeons, pathologists, pediatricians, clinical and basic scientists gathered in Hong Kong for Brain 2019, a conjoint congress of the 3rd Asian Central Nervous System Germ Cell Tumour Conference (CNSGCT), the 9th Interim Meeting of the International Chinese Federation of Neurosurgical Sciences (ICFNS) and the 16th Asia Pacific Multidisciplinary Meeting for Nervous System Diseases (BRAIN) which is also jointly organized by The Chinese University of Hong Kong. This three-day convention discussed advances in pediatric neuro-oncology and neuro-rehabilitation.

Invited as the 2019 Otto Lien Da Wong (OLDW) visiting professor in neuro-oncology, Roger J. Packer, M.D., senior vice president for the Center of Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine and director at the Gilbert Neurofibromatosis and Brain Tumor Institutes, presented a keynote address titled “Advances in Pediatric Brain Tumors.” Established in 2009, the purpose of the visiting professorship is to advance surgical knowledge and techniques in neuro-oncology between Hong Kong and major medical centers around the world. Dr. Packer was selected from an international field of acclaimed academic surgeons and scholars in the field of neuro-oncology. Two additional presentations included “Pediatric Brain Tumors in Molecular Era: Germ Cell Tumors” as an invited guest of the BRAIN conference and a presentation on “Treatment of Medulloblastoma and PNET” as a session presented by the ICFNS.

In addition to his presentations, Dr. Packer will participate in surgical teaching and scholastic exchange with local surgeons, surgical trainees and medical students.

SIOP logo

Children’s National physicians attend the International Society of Paediatric Oncology in Japan

SIOP logo

From November 16 to 19, medical professionals, clinicians, nurses and oncology patients and families from around the globe gathered for the International Society of Paediatric Oncology (SIOP) in Kyoto, Japan. Pediatric experts in their respective fields Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., AeRang Kim, M.D., Ph.D., Steven Hardy, Ph.D., and Karun Sharma, M.D., attended SIOP representing Children’s National. The four-day scientific programme engaged those in pediatric oncology with educational lectures, keynote speakers, tailored sessions for survivors, families and support organizations, free paper sessions, specialist sessions and Meet the Expert talks.

Dr. Kim, an oncologist with the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders and a member of the solid tumor faculty at Children’s National, presented with Dr. Sharma, director of Interventional Radiology at Children’s, on “Interventional Radiology: Technology and Opportunities” in Meet the Expert talks on both Saturday and Sunday of the programme. They discussed background information, preclinical studies, current, ongoing studies of high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU), HIFU in combination with heat sensitive formulated chemotherapy and future directions. In 2017, Children’s National was the first U.S. children’s hospital to successfully use MR-HIFU to treat osteoid osteoma, and is currently accruing on early phase studies evaluating HIFU ablation and HIFU in combination with lyso-thermosensitive liposomal doxorubicin for pediatric patients with refractory/recurrent solid tumors.

Dr. Hardy, a pediatric psychologist in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s, presented on “Brief Psychosocial Screening to Identify Patients in Need of a Mental Health Treatment Referral in a Childhood Cancer Survivorship Clinic.” In his educational lecture, Dr. Hardy described findings that show a brief mental and behavioral health questionnaire given to patients in the Children’s National survivorship clinic is a sensitive screening tool that can identify patients in need of more formal psychosocial evaluation and treatment. He also presented data supporting the use of a lower threshold of psychological symptoms necessary to trigger discussions about mental health treatment compared to previous reports. The key implication of Dr. Hardy’s work is that survivorship clinics lacking embedded psychology support could adopt this questionnaire, which is publically available and translated into 86 languages, to help identify survivors with mental and behavioral health concerns and ensure appropriate referrals are made.

Dr. Dome, Vice President of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, served on the SIOP Scientific Programme Advisory Committee, which selected the topics for presentation.

SIOP provides an international forum for the sharing of new research and ideas related to pediatric oncology. The annual conference furthers the efforts made towards developing new treatments and cures and opens the conversation, encouraging innovation and collaboration with experts from around the world. Children’s National has taken part in SIOP for many years, most recently hosting the meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2017.