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Nichole Jefferson and Patrick Gee

African American stakeholders help to perfect the APOLLO study

Nichole Jefferson and Patrick Gee

Nichole Jefferson and Patrick O. Gee

African Americans who either donated a kidney, received a kidney donation, are on dialysis awaiting a kidney transplant or have a close relative in one of those categories are helping to perfect a new study that aims to improve outcomes after kidney transplantation.

The study is called APOLLO, short for APOL1 Long-Term Kidney Transplantation Outcomes Network. Soon, the observational study will begin to enroll people who access transplant centers around the nation to genotype deceased and living African American kidney donors and transplant recipients to assess whether they carry a high-risk APOL1 gene variant.

The study’s Community Advisory Council – African American stakeholders who know the ins and outs of kidney donation, transplantation and dialysis because they’ve either given or  received an organ or are awaiting transplant – are opening the eyes of researchers about the unique views of patients and families.

Already, they’ve sensitized researchers that patients may not be at the same academic level as their clinicians, underscoring the importance of informed consent language that is understandable, approachable and respectful so people aren’t overwhelmed. They have encouraged the use of images and color to explain the apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) gene. The APOL1 gene is found almost exclusively in people of recent African descent, however only 13 percent of these people carry the high-risk APOL1 variant that might cause kidney problems.

One issue arose early, during one of the group’s first monthly meetings, as they discussed when to tell patients and living donors about the APOLLO study. Someone suggested the day of the transplant.

“The Community Advisory Council told them that would not be appropriate. These conversations should occur well before the day of the transplant,” recalls Nichole Jefferson.

“The person is all ready to give a kidney. If you’re told the day of transplant ‘we’re going to include you in this study,’ that could possibly stop them from giving the organ,” Jefferson says. “We still remember the Tuskegee experiments. We still remember Henrietta Lacks. That is what we are trying to avoid.”

Patrick O. Gee, Ph.D., JLC, another Community Advisory Council member, adds that it’s important to consider “the mental state of the patient and the donor. As a patient, you know you are able to endure a five- to eight-hour surgery. The donor is the recipient’s hero. As the donor, you want to do what is right. But if you get this information; it’s going to cause doubt.”

Gee received his kidney transplant on April 21, 2017, and spent 33 days in the hospital undergoing four surgeries. His new kidney took 47 days to wake up, which he describes as a “very interesting journey.” Jefferson received her first transplant on June 12, 2008. Because that kidney is in failure, she is on the wait list for a new kidney.

“All I’ve ever known before APOLLO was diabetes and cardiovascular issues. Nobody had ever talked about genetics,” Gee adds. “When I tell people, I tread very light. I try to stay in my lane and not to come off as a researcher or a scientist. I just find out information and just share it with them.”

As he spoke during a church function, people began to search for information on their smart phones. He jotted down questions “above his pay grade” to refer to the study’s principal investigator. “When you start talking about genetics and a mutated gene, people really want to find out. That was probably one of the best things I liked about this committee: It allows you to learn, so you can pass it on.”

Jefferson’s encounters are more unstructured, informing people who she meets about her situation and kidney disease. When she traveled from her Des Moines, Iowa, home to Nebraska for a transplant evaluation, the nephrologist there was not aware of the APOL1 gene.

And during a meeting at the Mayo Clinic with a possible living donor, she asked if they would test for the APOL1 gene. “They stopped, looked at me and asked: ‘How do you know about that gene?’ Well, I’m a black woman with kidney failure.”

Patrick O. Gee received his kidney transplant on April 21, 2017, and spent 33 days in the hospital undergoing four surgeries. His new kidney took 47 days to wake up, which he describes as a “very interesting journey.”

About 100,000 U.S. children and adults await a kidney transplant. APOLLO study researchers believe that clarifying the role that the APOL1 gene plays in kidney-transplant failure could lead to fewer discarded kidneys, which could boost the number of available kidneys for patients awaiting transplant.

Gee advocates for other patients and families to volunteer to join the APOLLO Community Advisory Council. He’s still impressed that during the very first in-person gathering, all researchers were asked to leave the table. Only patients and families remained.

“They wanted to hear our voices. You rarely find that level of patient engagement. Normally, you sit there and listen to conversations that are over your head. They have definitely kept us engaged,” he says. “We have spoken the truth, and Dr. Kimmel is forever saying ‘who would want to listen to me about a genotype that doesn’t affect me? We want to hear your voice.’ ”

(Paul L. Kimmel, M.D., MACP, a program director at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, is one of the people overseeing the APOLLO study.)

Jefferson encourages other people personally impacted by kidney disease to participate in the APOLLO study.

“Something Dr. Kimmel always says is ‘You’re in the room.’ We’re in the room while it’s happening. It’s a line from Hamilton. That’s a good feeling,” she says. “I knew right off, these are not necessarily improvements I will see in my lifetime. I am OK with that. With kidney disease, we have not had advances in a long time. As long as my descendants don’t have to go through the same things I have gone through, I figure I have done my part. I have done my job.”

Chima Oluigbo examines a patient

Eradicating epilepsy with Visualase

Chima Oluigbo examines a patient

Chima Oluigbo, M.D., and his team are using Visualase to identify and eliminate seizure foci and provide patients with a minimally invasive procedure for treating epilepsy.

About one in 26 people will be diagnosed with epilepsy in their lifetime. That adds up to about 3.4 million people in the U.S., or about 1 percent of the population nationwide. This condition can have huge consequences on quality of life, affecting whether children will learn well in school, eventually drive a car, hold down a job or even survive into adulthood.

For most of those that develop epilepsy, medications can keep seizures in check. However, for about a third of patients, this strategy doesn’t work, says Chima Oluigbo, M.D., an attending neurosurgeon at Children’s National Health System. That’s when he and his team offer a surgical fix.

Epilepsy surgery has come a long way, Dr. Oluigbo explains. When he first began practicing in the early 2000s, most surgeries were open, he says – they involved making a long incision in the scalp that can span half a foot or more. After drilling out a window of skull that can be as long as five inches, surgeons had to dig through healthy brain to find the abnormal tissue and remove it.

Each part of this “maximally invasive” procedure can be traumatic on a patient, Dr. Oluigbo says. That leads to significant pain after the procedure, extended hospital stays of at least a week followed by a long recovery. There are also significant risks for neurological complications including stroke, weakness, paralysis, speech problems and more.

However, open surgery isn’t the only option for epilepsy surgery anymore. Several new minimally invasive alternatives are now available to patients and the most promising, Dr. Oluigbo says, is called Visualase. He and his team are the only surgeons in the region who perform this procedure.

In Visualase surgeries, Dr. Oluigbo and his colleagues start by making a tiny incision, about 5 millimeters, on the scalp. Through this opening, they bore an even tinier hole into the skull and thread a needle inside that’s about 1.6 millimeters wide. “The brain barely notices that it’s there,” he says.

The tip of this wire holds a laser. Once this tip is placed directly at the seizure foci – the cluster of nerve cells responsible for generating a seizure – the patient is placed in an intraoperative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) device. There, after checking the tip’s precise placement, the surgeons turn the laser on. Heat from the laser eradicates the foci, which the surgeons can see in real time using MRI thermography technology. The margins of the destroyed tissue are well-defined, largely sparing healthy tissue.

After the wire is removed, the incision is closed with a single stitch, and patients go home the next day. The majority of patients are seizure free, with rates as high as 90 percent for some types of epilepsy, Dr. Oluigbo says. Although seizure-free rates are also high for open procedures, he adds, Visualase spares them many of open surgeries’ painful and difficult consequences.

“Having done both open surgeries and Visualase,” Dr. Oluigbo says, “I can tell you the difference is night and day.”

Although open procedures will still be necessary for some patients with particularly large foci that are close to the surface, Dr. Oluigbo says that Visualase is ideal for treating medication-resistant cases in which the foci are buried deep within the brain. A typical example is a condition called hypothalamic hamartoma, in which tumors on the hypothalamus lead to gelastic seizures, an unusual seizure type characterized by uncontrollable laughing. He also uses Visualase for another condition called tuberous sclerosis, in which waxy growths called tubers develop in the brain, and for cancerous and benign brain tumors.

It’s gratifying to be able to help these children become seizure-free for the rest of their lives, says Dr. Oluigbo – even more so with the numerous updates he receives from families telling him how much this procedure has improved their children’s lifestyle.

“Visualase has completely changed the way that we approach these patients,” Dr. Oluigbo says. “It’s extraordinary to see the effects that this one procedure can have on the quality of life for patients here at Children’s National.”