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Research & Innovation Campus

Children’s National pain expert and innovator shares global summit spotlight

Research & Innovation Campus

As a Johnson & Johnson Innovation Quickfire Children’s Challenge awardee, Dr. Finkel and AlgometRx will be among the first group of startups taking up residence at the new JLABS @ Washington, DC, located on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, when it opens in 2021 at the historic former Walter Reed Army Medical Center site.

Medical technology innovator Julia Finkel, M.D., principal investigator for the Pain Medicine Initiative of the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Hospital, recently participated in Galen Growth’s 2020 Global Healthtech Summit on a virtual panel featuring resident companies from Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS who are utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) with the aim to create advanced solutions for diagnostics, treatment and clinical trials. The summit, hosted in Singapore, brought the innovators together to discuss their views on their progress, the challenges and opportunities for bringing medtech innovations to market in the current climate, as well as the tools needed to succeed.

Dr. Finkel’s innovation, AlgometRx, is a real-time pain measurement technology that captures a digital image of a patient’s pupillary response to a non-invasive stimulus and applies proprietary algorithms to measure pain type and intensity. AlgometRx, a spin-off of Children’s National, recently received a JLABS @Washington DC Quickfire Children’s Challenge award.

Joining Dr. Finkel on the panel were JLABS resident company leaders Don Crawford, CEO, Analytics 4 Life; Jim Havelka, CEO, Inform AI; and Kim Walpole, CEO, Trials.ai, which leverages AI to help research teams design more effective clinical trials. The 50-minute program, moderated by Kara Bortone, senior director, Portfolio and Sourcing Management, Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS, focused on topics such as how these startups approached the market and regulatory processes as well as the up-and-coming trends in health technology.

A pediatric anesthesiologist, Dr. Finkel explained the significance of achieving real-time, objective pain measurement. “Pain is one word that represents a myriad of conditions,” she says. “Pain from acute post-operative conditions is very different from peripheral neuropathic pain and different from the type of inflammatory pain seen in lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Being able to discern the drivers of pain, the etiology, is essential to treating it well and to developing better therapeutics in the future.”

Dr. Finkel points out that AlgometRx measures nociception, which is pain fiber activation, and that is also what medications are addressing. “We’re not discounting a patient’s perception of pain, as we recognize that one’s experience of pain is very complex,” she says. “What we aim to measure is the activity being transmitted by the pain nerve and the type of nerve fiber that is doing the transmitting.”

Aiming to identify pain phenotypes is an important part of current AlgometRx development work, says Dr. Finkel, as it could significantly aid clinical decision-making in treating and monitoring patients’ pain. The company’s current regulatory focus is to seek FDA clearance related to its potential use for patients with peripheral neuropathy, which is pain and numbness resulting from damage to the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. The company has also identified fibromyalgia cases as a place where the technology could potentially benefit a large number of patients as it considers regulatory clearance targets.

As the COVID-19 pandemic presented many unique challenges to healthcare startups this year, panel participants were asked to discuss the hurdles they faced and how it impacted device development.

Dr. Finkel notes that the pandemic slowed patient enrollment in AlgometRx clinical studies, but also presented some upside. “At first, that had a negative impact, but it wound up being a good thing,” she says. “It gave us a moment to pause, regroup and examine the data we’d already generated. That break gave us improved information and a new, more powerful approach. It changed our trajectory by altering our regulatory path in terms of the order of things in our pipeline, so we’ve been enormously productive.”

As a Johnson & Johnson Innovation Quickfire Children’s Challenge awardee, Dr. Finkel and AlgometRx will be among the first group of startups taking up residence at the new JLABS @ Washington, DC, located on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, when it opens in 2021 at the historic former Walter Reed Army Medical Center site. Along with a one-year residency at the new JLABS @ Washington DC facility,* AlgometRx will receive mentorship from experts at the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies and grant funding to help support its continued advancement to commercialization.

*Residency at JLABS @ Washington subject to acceptance and execution of a License Agreement with Children’s National.

Kaushalendra Amatya

Measuring quality of life after pediatric kidney transplant

Kaushalendra Amatya

“Overall, children who receive kidney transplants had minimal concerns about quality of life after their operation. While it’s comforting that most pediatric patients had no significant problems, the range of quality of life scores indicate that some patients had remarkable difficulties,” says Kaushalendra Amatya, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist in Nephrology and Cardiology at Children’s National and the study’s lead author.

After receiving a kidney transplant, children may experience quality-of-life difficulties that underscore the importance of screening transplant recipients for psychosocial function, according to Children’s research presented May 4, 2019, during the 10th Congress of the International Pediatric Transplant Association.

About 2,000 children and adolescents younger than 18 are on the national waiting list for an organ transplant, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, with most infants and school-aged children waiting for a heart, liver or kidney and most children older than 11 waiting for a kidney or liver. In 2018, 1,895 U.S. children received transplants.

The research team at Children’s National wanted to hear directly from kids about their quality of life after kidney transplant in order to tailor timely interventions to children. Generally, recipients of kidney transplants have reported impaired quality of life compared with healthy peers, with higher mental health difficulties, disrupted sleep patterns and lingering pain.

The Children’s team measured general health-related quality of life using a 23-item PedsQL Generic Core module and measured transplant-related quality of life using the PedsQL- Transplant Module. The forms, which can be used for patients as young as 2, take about five to 10 minutes to complete and were provided to the child, the parent or the primary care giver – as appropriate – during a follow-up visit after the transplant.

Thirty-three patient-parent dyads completed the measures, with an additional 25 reports obtained from either the patient or the parent. The patients’ mean age was 14.2; 41.4% were female.

“Overall, children who receive kidney transplants had minimal concerns about quality of life after their operation. While it’s comforting that most pediatric patients had no significant problems, the range of quality of life scores indicate that some patients had remarkable difficulties,” says Kaushalendra Amatya, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist in Nephrology and Cardiology at Children’s National and the study’s lead author.

When the study team reviewed reports given by parents, they found their descriptions sometimes differed in striking ways from the children’s answers.

“Parents report lower values on emotional functioning, social functioning and total core quality of life, indicating that parents perceive their children as having more difficulties across these specific domains than the patients’ own self reports do,” Amatya adds.

10th Congress of the International Pediatric Transplant Association presentation

  • “An exploration of health-related quality of life in pediatric renal transplant recipients.”

Kaushalendra Amatya, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist and lead author; Christy Petyak, CPNP-PC, nurse practitioner and co-author; and Asha Moudgil, M.D., medical director, transplant and senior author.

AlgometRX

Breakthrough device objectively measures pain type, intensity and drug effects

AlgometRX

Clinical Research Assistant Kevin Jackson uses AlgometRx Platform Technology on Sarah Taylor’s eyes to measure her degree of pain. Children’s National is testing an experimental device that aims to measure pain according to how pupils react to certain stimuli. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Pediatric anesthesiologist Julia C. Finkel, M.D., of Children’s National Health System, gazed into the eyes of a newborn patient determined to find a better way to measure the effectiveness of pain treatment on one so tiny and unable to verbalize. Then she realized the answer was staring back at her.

Armed with the knowledge that pain and analgesic drugs produce an involuntary response from the pupil, Dr. Finkel developed AlgometRx, a first-of-its-kind handheld device that measures a patient’s pupillary response and, using proprietary algorithms, provides a diagnostic measurement of pain intensity, pain type and, after treatment is administered, monitors efficacy. Her initial goal was to improve the care of premature infants. She now has a device that can be used with children of any age and adults.

“Pain is very complex and it is currently the only vital sign that is not objectively measured,” says Dr. Finkel, who has more than 25 years of experience as a pain specialist. “The systematic problem we are facing today is that healthcare providers prescribe pain medicine based on subjective self-reporting, which can often be inaccurate, rather than based on an objective measure of pain type and intensity.” To illustrate her point, Dr. Finkel continues, “A clinician would never prescribe blood pressure medicine without first taking a patient’s blood pressure.”

The current standard of care for measuring pain is the 0-to-10 pain scale, which is based on subjective, observational and self-reporting techniques. Patients indicate their level of pain, with zero being no pain and ten being highest or most severe pain. This subjective system increases the likelihood of inaccuracy, with the problem being most acute with pediatric and non-verbal patients. Moreover, Dr. Finkel points out that subjective pain scores cannot be standardized, heightening the potential for misdiagnosis, over-treatment or under-treatment.

Dr. Finkel, who serves as director of Research and Development for Pain Medicine at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National, says that a key step in addressing the opioid crisis is providing physicians with objective, real-time data on a patient’s pain level and type, to safely prescribe the right drug and dosage or an alternate treatment.,

She notes that opioids are prescribed for patients who report high pain scores and are sometimes prescribed in cases where they are not appropriate. Dr. Finkel points to the example of sciatica, a neuropathic pain sensation felt in the lower back, legs and buttocks. Sciatica pain is carried by touch fibers that do not have opioid receptors, which makes opioids an inappropriate choice for treating that type of pain.

A pain biomarker could rapidly advance both clinical practice and pain research, Dr. Finkel adds. For clinicians, the power to identify the type and magnitude of a patient’s nociception (detection of pain stimuli) would provide a much-needed scientific foundation for approaching pain treatment. Nociception could be monitored through the course of treatment so that dosing is targeted and personalized to ensure patients receive adequate pain relief while reducing side effects.

“A validated measure to show whether or not an opioid is indicated for a given patient could ease the health care system’s transition from overreliance on opioids to a more comprehensive and less harmful approach to pain management,” says Dr. Finkel.

She also notes that objective pain measurement can provide much needed help in validating complementary approaches to pain management, such as acupuncture, physical therapy, virtual reality and other non-pharmacological interventions.

Dr. Finkel’s technology, called AlgometRx, has been selected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to participate in its “Innovation Challenge: Devices to Prevent and Treat Opioid Use Disorder.” She is also the recipient of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Femoral fracture

Broken system? Pain relief for fractures differs by race/ethnicity

Femoral fracture

Data collected by a multi-institutional research team show that kids’ pain from long bone fractures may be managed differently in the emergency department depending on the child’s race and ethnicity.

Children who experience broken bones universally feel pain. However, a new multi-institutional study presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2018 National Conference & Exhibition suggests that emergency treatment for this pain among U.S. children is far from equal. Data collected by the research team show that kids’ pain may be managed differently in the emergency department depending on the child’s race and ethnicity. In particular, while non-Latino black children and Latino children are more likely to receive any analgesia, non-white children with fractured bones are less likely to receive opioid pain medications, even when they arrive at the emergency department with similar pain levels.

“We know from previously published research that pain may be treated differentially based on a patient’s race or ethnicity in the emergency department setting. Our prior work has demonstrated that racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to receive opioid analgesia to treat abdominal pain, even when these patients are diagnosed with appendicitis,” says study leader Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE, assistant division chief and director of Academic Affairs and Research in the Division of Emergency Medicine at Children’s National Health System. “Emergency departments delivering evidence-based care should treat all pediatric patients consistently. These findings extend our work by demonstrating that children presenting with long bone fractures also experience differential treatment of pain based on their race or ethnicity.”

The AAP calls appropriately controlling children’s pain and stress “a vital component of emergency medical care” that can affect the child’s overall emergency medical experience. Because fractures of long bones – clavicle, humerus, ulna, radius, femur, tibia, fibula – are commonly managed in the emergency department, the research team tested a hypothesis about disparities in bone fracture pain management.

They conducted a retrospective cohort study of children and adolescents 21 and younger who were diagnosed with a long bone fracture from July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2017. They analyzed deidentified electronic health records stored within the Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network Registry, which collects data from all patient encounters at seven pediatric emergency departments.

During that time, 21,642 patients with long bone fractures met the study inclusion criteria and experienced moderate to severe pain, rating four or higher on a 10-point pain scale. Some 85.1 percent received analgesia of any type; 41.5 percent received opioid analgesia. Of note:

  • When compared with non-Hispanic white children, minority children were more likely to receive pain medication of any kind (i.e. non-Latino black patients were 58 percent more likely to receive any pain medication, and Latino patients were 23 percent more likely to receive any pain medication).
  • When compared with non-Latino white children, minority children were less likely to receive opioid analgesia (i.e., non-Latino black patients were 30 percent less likely to receive opioid analgesia, and Latino patients were 28 percent less likely to receive opioid analgesia).

“Even though minority children with bone fractures were more likely to receive any type of pain medication, it is striking that minority children were less likely to receive opioid analgesia, compared with white non-Latino children,” Dr. Goyal says. “While it’s reassuring that we found no racial or ethnic differences in reduction of patients’ pain scores, it is troubling to see marked differences in how that pain was managed.”

Dr. Goyal and colleagues are planning future research that will examine the factors that inform how and why emergency room physicians prescribe opioid analgesics.

American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition presentation

  • “Racial and ethnic differences in the management of pain among children diagnosed with long bone fractures in pediatric emergency departments.”

Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE, and James M. Chamberlain, M.D., Children’s National; Tiffani J. Johnson, M.D., MSc, Scott Lorch, M.D., MSCE, and Robert Grundmeier, M.D., Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Lawrence Cook, Ph.D., Michael Webb, MS, and Cody Olsen, MS, University of Utah School of Medicine; Amy Drendel, DO, MS, Medical College of Wisconsin; Evaline Alessandrini, M.D., MSCE, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital; Lalit Bajaj, M.D., MPH, Denver Children’s Hospital; and Senior Author, Elizabeth Alpern, M.D., MSCE, Lurie Children’s Hospital.