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Dr. Natasha Shur shares “Genetics and Telemedicine: Extending Our Reach” at the Future of Pediatrics CME

Virtual visits: A new house call for rare disease treatment

Dr. Natasha Shur shares “Genetics and Telemedicine: Extending Our Reach” at the Future of Pediatrics CME

Natasha Shur, M.D., an attending clinical geneticist at Children’s National Health System, shares “Genetics and Telemedicine: Extending Our Reach” at the Future of Pediatrics CME symposium in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 20.

“For the first time it wasn’t autism, autism, autism,” Shannon Chin says after learning the reason her newborn daughter, Sariyah, who turned 3 in August, couldn’t feed like normal infants was due to a tiny deletion of chromosome 22. This atypical deletion, a variation of a genetic condition known as 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, left Sariyah unable to suck and obtain nourishment as an infant. She was born premature and relied on assisted feeding tubes, inserted through her nose, to help her grow.

At 22-weeks-old, Sariyah received the diagnosis, which affects 1 in 4,000 children born each year. Sariyah’s genetic tests encouraged Chin to follow up with a nagging question: What if her two sons, Rueben and Caleb, both of whom were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), had something else?

Debra Regier, M.D., a medical geneticist at Children’s National Health System, encouraged Chin to follow up with a genetic test to answer these questions and to confirm 22q11.2 deletion syndrome symptoms she observed in Rueben.

A microarray analysis recently revealed Rueben, 17, has atypical  22q11.2 deletion syndrome. Caleb, 5, took the test and has developmental delay and ASD, which is more likely to occur in children with 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. He tested negative for the same deletion as his siblings. Additional tests are underway.

As Chin juggles complex care for her children, she realizes the partial deletion of chromosome 22 presents differently in every child. Sariyah and Rueben share short stature; they fit into tiny clothes. That’s where the phenotypical clues stop. They don’t have a cleft palate or dysmorphic facial features, distinctive of typical cases of 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. Sariyah has physical symptoms. Her intestines merged together, which gastrointestinal surgery fixed. Rueben experiences behavioral and neurological symptoms, including picky eating, aggression and uncontrolled body movements, which led the Chin family to Dr. Regier. Sariyah, Rueben and Caleb all have neurodevelopmental delays that impact their speech and development.

Coordinating multiple visits with geneticists, specialists, surgeons, genetic counselors and pediatricians, while navigating insurance, is a lot for any parent, but especially for those, like Chin, who have special considerations. Her children are non-verbal, so she pays close attention to their physical cues. Simplifying this process is one reason why Natasha Shur, M.D., a medical geneticist at Children’s National, introduced virtual visits to her patients, including Rueben, who had challenges with in-person visits. She thought: How can we make medical care easier for patients and families?

In January, Dr. Shur expanded virtual visits into a pilot program for 50 to 60 patients, including Sariyah and Caleb, with the support of a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the division of telemedicine at Children’s National and the Rare Disease Institute (RDI), the medical home to thousands of pediatric patients living with rare or genetic conditions. This program lets patients with concern for or already diagnosed genetic conditions in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia, where Dr. Shur is licensed to practice medicine, test out virtual visits. Patients can download the HIPAA-compliant app or click through a secure link on a digital device to connect with Dr. Shur or a pediatric subspecialist.

Dr. Shur shares the preliminary findings of a new virtual visits pilot program,

Dr. Shur shares the preliminary findings of a virtual visits pilot program, which 50-60 local patients have tested in conjunction with in-person visits as a flexible way to manage medical care for genetic conditions.

On June 20, Dr. Shur shared a presentation about the program, “Genetics and Telemedicine: Extending Our Reach,” with pediatricians attending the Children’s National Future of Pediatrics continuing medical education (CME) symposium in Bethesda, Maryland.

Instead of a formal pilot program launch and end date with data, Dr. Shur mentions she conducts quality improvement assessments with each patient. She asks what they like about virtual visits. Do they feel comfortable with the software and technology? What types of visits do they prefer to do at home? What works best at the hospital? Do they want to keep using this program?

For Chin and most participants, the answer is yes. These families appreciate saving time, mileage, and being in close access to pediatric subspecialists from the comfort of home.

Parents can conference call from separate locations and share screens with the doctors, which works well if one parent is at work and another is at home – or if they live apart. Children can maintain their normal routine, such as finishing breakfast, homework, playing or staying in bed if they don’t feel well, though it is important to see the child in the virtual visit.

Families can obtain virtual assessments about urgent conditions without taking time off from work or school. Currently, only 10 to 30% of virtual visit patients with concerns about genetic conditions need an in-person, follow-up appointment. Fortunately, many conditions are less urgent than thought at the time of referral. Dr. Shur and specialists also benefit from observing children in their natural environment.

At the symposium, Dr. Shur translates this into clinical terms: reduced no-show visits, the ability to schedule shorter, more flexible visits, the ability to quickly and accurately diagnose conditions and provide care, and the ability to keep children with compromised immune function out of public areas, including waiting rooms. She discussed building rapport with patients, almost all of whom like these flexible care models.

“The idea is that we’re trying to understand what is best done using virtual technology and what is better for those in-person connections. More detailed physical exams take place in person. There are some cases where eye-to-eye contact and sitting in the exam room together is important,” says Dr. Shur. “Virtual visits should never replace in-person care. It’s just a forward way of thinking about: How do we use our time best?”

Case study 1: Saving families time and miles

Dr. Shur notes that for some patients, distance is a deciding factor for scheduling care. One mother’s five-hour round-trip commute to the children’s hospital, without traffic, is now five minutes. As an air-traffic controller, her schedule changes. She values the flexibility of the new program. To connect with Dr. Shur, she logs into the app on her computer or smart phone and brings her 2-year-old son into the video. He has cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome (CFC), a condition that affects 200 to 300 people in the world. As a result of a MAP2K1 gene variant, one of four genes – BRAF, MAP2K1, MAP2K2 and KRAS – associated with CFC, he experiences feeding problems, reflux, constipation and developmental delays.

By scheduling more frequent, but shorter check-ins, Dr. Shur assesses how he responds to treatment and makes recommendations to the mother in real time, such as trying prune juice for digestive health. They talk about rearranging feeding measurements and intervals, including his 2 a.m. dose of a peptide formula, which the mom blends at home to support her son’s growth. This modification equates to more sleep for everyone.

If follow-up tests, such as an X-ray or a blood test are needed, Dr. Shur coordinates these exams with the family at the hospital or at a nearby medical center. Depending on the condition, Dr. Shur may refer the family to an ophthalmologist, cardiologist, neurologist or learning and development specialist.

As a parent, Dr. Shur appreciates the direct approach virtual visits deliver.

“As a mom, if I’m taking my child to the doctor for two hours, I want to know why I’m there,” Dr. Shur says. “What are all the options?”

Case study 2: Observing children at home

Chin, who was also featured in Dr. Shur’s CME presentation, appreciates virtual visits for their convenience and efficiency, but her favorite feature is letting doctors observe her children at home.

“Children act differently outside the home,” says Chin.

For example, instead of describing Rueben’s rapid, rhythmic arm movements, a flinging of the arms, Chin showed neurologists at a scheduled virtual home visit. For Marc DiFazio, M.D., a pediatric neurologist, it was evident that Reuben had a movement disorder commonly seen in children with ASD, which is responsive to medication. In five minutes, her son had a diagnosis. The involuntarily movement wasn’t a behavioral issue, as previously thought, but a movement disorder.

“The regular in-person visit has a beautiful role and it’s very important, but virtual visits bring a different focus,” says Dr. Shur. “We get to see what the child’s life is like, what the home setting is like and what their schedule is like. How can we make their day-to-day life easier?”

Phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare condition that prevents the body from breaking down phenylalanine (Phe), an amino acid in protein, is another condition that pairs well with virtual visits. PKU affects 1 in 10,000 to 15,000 newborns in the U.S. People with PKU often require medication, food-based formulas and a protein-restricted diet to help their body process or regulate Phe.

If a patient with PKU connects through a virtual visit, they (or their parents) can open the refrigerator, talk about low-protein foods, discuss potential barriers to following a low-Phe diet, show the team new supplements or over-the-counter medications they are taking, discuss reactions to new therapies and, for adults, discuss an injectable drug recently approved by the FDA that has side effects but may ultimately allow them to follow a regular diet. These observations may not warrant a traditional trip to the doctor but are important for geneticists and patients to discuss. The goal of these visits is to identify and work around potential health barriers, while preventing adverse health outcomes.

To support this model, a 60-minute in-person visit scheduled every six months to a year can be broken into 15-minute video appointments at more frequent intervals. The result, based on the same amount of clinical time, is a targeted and detailed assessment to support personalized treatment and to help the patient adapt to a low-Phe meal plan.

During the video call, Dr. Shur and the team may prescribe a different medication, order a diagnostic procedure or schedule a follow-up appointment, if necessary. Depending on the situation, the patient will still likely come in for in-person annual visits.

Program assessment: Evaluating visits for each patient

Despite the popularity of virtual visits, Dr. Shur mentions this program isn’t a good fit for everyone – depending on a patient’s preferences. There are also limitations to consider. If a parent is hesitant to try this platform or if the comprehensive physical examination is the first key step, they should schedule in-person visits. The goal is to give parents who are requesting or curious about virtual visits a chance to try the platform. Having a secure area, preferably a private space at home, is important. A Wi-Fi connection and a digital device are required, which may create barriers for some patients.

However, Dr. Shur finds the program can alleviate hurdles – such as transportation challenges. One patient lives two hours away and couldn’t make it in for routine medical visits due to car problems. Now she makes every virtual appointment. For the first time in her life, she can manage medical care for herself and for her children.

Most insurance companies Dr. Shur works with cover virtual visits. The key is to have the virtual connection, or video, so Dr. Shur can still physically see the patient. Otherwise, the visit doesn’t count. A grant from CareFirst covers the costs of visits for patients who are using Medicaid or who don’t have medical insurance.

Parallel trends are happening across the country and for other conditions. Officials at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are reviewing a three-year pilot to expand the use of connected care services, like virtual visits, for low-income Americans living in rural areas. The Rural Health Care Program, funded by the FCC, supports hospitals that implement telehealth programs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a statement in 2015 about telemedicine technologies, noting that if these technologies are applied in a synergistic model under one health care system or are guided by a family doctor, they can transform pediatric health care.

The key is to avoid a fragmented virtual health system.

The AAP applauds virtual connections that support collaborations among pediatric physicians, subspecialists and surgeons, reduce travel burdens for families, alleviate physician shortages, improve the efficiency of health care and enhance the quality of care and quality of life for children with special health care needs.

Planning for the future, investing in physician-patient partnerships

A poster at the Future of Pediatrics conference

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports telemedicine technologies that enhance the quality of care and the quality of life for children with special health care needs.

“The feedback has been phenomenal,” Dr. Shur says about the future of virtual visits for genetics. “Virtual visits will never replace in-person visits. They will be used in conjunction with in-person visits to maximize care.”

Dr. Regier and Jamie Frasier, M.D., Ph.D., medical geneticists at Children’s National, are introducing virtual visits to their patients, and many providers plan to do so as the program expands.

Sarah Viall, PPCNP, a nurse practitioner and newborn screening specialist, works with Dr. Shur and the geneticists during some visits to explain non-urgent newborn screening results to parents through virtual connections. Some parents find it’s easier to dial in during lunch or while they are together at home.

To improve education for patients and families, the education and technology committees at the RDI – led by geneticists and genetic counselors in partnership with the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National – launched a new smartphone app called BearGenes. Families can watch 15 videos about genetics on the pin-protected app or view them online. The interactive guide serves as a gene glossary for terms patients may hear in a clinical setting. Topics range from genetics 101, describing how DNA is encrypted in the body through four letters – A, T, C and G – to different types of genetic tests, such as whole exome sequencing, to look for differences in the spelling of genes, which the genetic counselors explain are genetic mutations.

“As we unite patients with virtual health platforms and new forms of technology, we want to see what works and what doesn’t. We want their feedback,” Dr. Shur reemphasizes. “Virtual visits are a dynamic process. These visits only work through patient partnership and feedback.”

As Chin navigates atypical 22q11.2 deletion syndrome and ASD, she continues to appreciate the virtual waiting room and the ease of access virtual visits provides.

Sharing screens during virtual visits enables Chin to examine and better understand her children’s abdomen and kidney sonograms, cardiology reports and hearing exams. It forces everyone in the visit to focus on one topic or image at a time, strengthening the connection.

Chin still has questions about her children’s DNA, but she’s getting close to having more answers. She’s eager to see Caleb’s genetic test results and to work with Hillary Porter, M.S., CGC, the family’s genetic counselor, to interpret the data.

“We’re all learning together,” Dr. Shur says about the new pilot program, which applies to genomics at large.

As research about 22q11.2 deletion syndrome advances, geneticists, pediatric subspecialists and pediatricians are unifying efforts to work as one diagnostic and treatment team. Virtual visits enable faster consultations and can shorten diagnostic odysseys, some of which may take up to five years for children with rare disorders.

Attendees at the Future of Pediatrics conference

Nearly 400 pediatricians attend the Children’s National Future of Pediatrics CME symposium to learn about the future of pediatrics and about ways to work together as a diagnostic and treatment team.

For Chin, by better understanding how a tiny fragment of a missing chromosome may influence her children’s growth and development, she is already making long-term plans and coordinating multidisciplinary medical treatment for each child.

She hopes that by sharing her story and knowledge about 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, she can help other parents navigate similar situations. Heradvice to parents is to follow up on lingering questions by bringing them up with your medical team.

Chin is optimistic and happy she did. She’s grateful for the virtual visits program, which simplifies complex care for her family. And she’s still waiting, but she hopes to learn more about her middle child’s DNA, unraveling another medical mystery.

Read more about the virtual visits pilot program at Becker’s Hospital Review and listen to an interview with Dr. Shur and Shannon Chin on WTOP.

Kwitkin-family-photo

A rare diet: Could you survive on six grams of protein a day?

Clara Barton

Clara Rose Kwitkin was born at a healthy 7 pounds, 14 ounces on Nov. 12, 2018.

Children’s National Health System introduces clinic to help adults with phenylketonuria, a rare inherited disorder, experiment with Palynziq, an FDA-approved drug that helps the body process phenylalanine.

“What can you eat?” is a common question for picky eaters, particularly individuals with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare inherited metabolic condition that prevents an enzyme in the body from processing the amino acid phenylalanine (Phe), a building block of protein.

About one in 10,000 or 15,000 people in the U.S. with PKU, approximately 50,000 people worldwide, understand this line of questioning. 

“It’s emotional,” says 27-year-old Ashley Kwitkin, a Northern Va. resident and new mom, about the complexities of following a low-Phe diet.

When Kwitkin previously went “off diet,” meaning eating more than six grams of protein a day, the equivalent of a handful of almonds, she felt the consequences: irritability, moodiness and poor concentration. Her body couldn’t process Phe.

The National Institutes of Health mentions excessive levels of Phe can lead to toxic levels in the blood and tissues, and even cause brain damage.

Kwitkin’s motivation during pregnancy quickly changed. “It’s not just me anymore,” notes Kwitkin, who gave birth to Clara Rose Kwitkin on Nov. 12. “It’s me and my child. The moment we met her, our lives changed forever.”  

If Kwitkin went off her PKU-approved diet while pregnant, she may have increased the chance that her baby would have been born with intellectual disabilities, heart problems, delayed growth, microcephaly or behavioral problems.

Fortunately, Kwitkin received medical clearance from her doctors to move forward with a safe and healthy pregnancy. While she is a carrier for PKU, her husband is not – which meant their child had less than a 1 percent change of being born with this rare disease.

Like many adults with PKU, Kwitkin is grateful for advancements with early disease detection and treatment. If she had been born six decades earlier, she may have been hospitalized for neurological impairments, before PKU was recognized, screened for and treated with a low-Phe diet to support cognitive development.

Kwitkin is grateful for the popularity of gluten-free, PKU-friendly products and specialty food stores – compared to when she was growing up and had to order medical bread, which cost $13 a loaf and came out of a can. This trend makes it easy to find PKU-friendly meals to eat.

Expanding her palate is one of the reasons Kwitkin is following the results of a new clinic at Children’s National to help people with PKU experiment with Palynziq, an enzyme substitution therapy that helps people with PKU digest Phe.

Palynziq was approved by the Food and Drug administration on May 24, 2018 and a team of metabolic dietitians and geneticists at Children’s National have been helping a handful of adult PKU patients test out the treatment, slowly, over a preliminary period.

To prescribe the drug in a medically-supervised setting, the doctors introduced the injectable enzyme treatment to participants in small .25-mg doses, which started on Aug. 20, 2018, and monitored their progress as they worked up to the standard 20-mg treatment, a milestone many in the group reached in November 2018.

If the treatment continues to go well, based on the results of the FDA’s recommended titration schedule, the medical team will enroll additional participants in its clinic and share the results with other medical centers.

The timing of the new Palynziq clinic is also perfect for Kwitkin. If the drug works for her in the future, she won’t have to make three dinners: one for her, one for her husband and one for Clara Rose. While Kwitkin is currently off the low-Phe diet, she looks forward to resuming a PKU-friendly diet in the future – especially as she and her husband consider having a second child.

Kwitkin’s PKU-friendly diet consists of “safe” foods, such as unlimited amounts of peaches, apples, cabbage and green beans, which contain zero traces of Phe, and portioned amounts of low-Phe foods: pasta, bread, baked potatoes and specialty-ordered, low-protein items.

While planning for pregnancy, Kwitkin adjusted her protein intake to eight grams of protein a day. During pregnancy, she ate up to 19 grams of daily protein – to satiate her body’s needs and the needs of her baby – and regularly checked in with Erin MacLeod, Ph.D., a metabolic dietitian at Children’s National who is guiding the Palynziq clinic.

Kwitkin-family-photo

Ashley Kwitkin and her husband look forward to expanding their family in the future.

While the new Palynziq therapy carries potential benefits, such as the ability to join a family potluck without counting grams of protein, have second servings of broccoli, a carefully-portioned vegetable on the PKU diet, or thinking clearly while eating a low-Phe diet, a motivating factor for many of MacLeod’s patients, the treatment also carries risks. 

Potential side effects of Palynziq include severe allergic reactions – swelling of the face, lips, eyes and tongue – as well as shortness of breath, a faster heart rate, rashes, confusion, lightheadedness, nausea and vomiting.

So far, minor side effects, such as rashes and injection-site soreness, are noted among participants in the Palynziq trial at Children’s National. The full 20-mg prescription could be increased or decreased, based on how a person’s immune system responds to the foreign agent. If all continues to go well for the participants, they will take the recommended dose, equivalent to about 20 injections a week, and check in with the medical team every three months during the first year. Based on their benefit-risk assessment of the new drug, they can then segue into bi-annual visits if they want to continue with the treatment.  

“Our goal is to help participants decide if this therapy is a good fit for them, based on their lifestyle and health preferences,” notes MacLeod. For some people, MacLeod explains, such as those entering college or who form strong social connections around food, and who may experience the impact of going ‘off diet,’ this treatment could change their lives. Others, such as those who are in the process of moving to a new city or are in a busy period of their lives, may prefer following a strict low-protein diet compared to taking daily enzyme injections.

Another factor Kwitkin and MacLeod will keep in mind as the Palynziq clinics advance is the treatment’s variability. For example, Kuvan, the first drug of its kind is an enzyme therapy developed to help the body break down Phe. The drug was approved by the FDA in 2007, but only works in a small portion of the PKU population – about 10 percent of patients with a mild form of the condition. Instead of eating high-Phe foods, Kuvan users follow a mild-protein diet.

MacLeod views this type of individualized meal planning and how her patients react to food as a science, which drew her to the field. She works with 70 to 100 PKU patients each year from infancy to adulthood, including patients in their 60s, to help them meet their unique metabolic needs.

MacLeod is also tracking the use of gene therapy in metabolic disorders in addition to how the gut flora, or gut bacteria, helps PKU patients modulate and break down Phe.

“A lot of research is happening right now,” adds MacLeod about accelerations with PKU therapy. “I’ve seen how patients respond to new treatments, including a carefully-measured, low-Phe diet, and how their lives start to change once they can think clearly and feel better, which is a motivating factor and goal for many of our patients. I’ve also seen others pursue their dreams, which in Kwitkin’s case was to become a parent and history teacher.”

Like Kwitkin and others impacted by PKU, MacLeod looks forward to ongoing developments and research for this rare disease.