Posts

control population and population with Williams-Beuren syndrome.

Machine learning tool detects the risk of genetic syndromes

control population and population with Williams-Beuren syndrome.

(A) Control population. (B) Population with Williams-Beuren syndrome. Average faces were generated for each demographic group after automatic face pose correction.

With an average accuracy of 88%, a deep learning technology offers rapid genetic screening that could accelerate the diagnosis of genetic syndromes, recommending further investigation or referral to a specialist in seconds, according to a study published in The Lancet Digital Health. Trained with data from 2,800 pediatric patients from 28 countries, the technology also considers the face variability related to sex, age, racial and ethnic background, according to the study led by Children’s National Hospital researchers.

“We built a software device to increase access to care and a machine learning technology to identify the disease patterns not immediately obvious to the human eye or intuition, and to help physicians non-specialized in genetics,” said Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil., M.A., M.Sc., principal investigator in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Hospital and senior author of the study. “This technological innovation can help children without access to specialized clinics, which are unavailable in most of the world. Ultimately, it can help reduce health inequality in under-resourced societies.”

This machine learning technology indicates the presence of a genetic syndrome from a facial photograph captured at the point-of-care, such as in pediatrician offices, maternity wards and general practitioner clinics.

“Unlike other technologies, the strength of this program is distinguishing ‘normal’ from ‘not-normal,’ which makes it an effective screening tool in the hands of community caregivers,” said Marshall L. Summar, M.D., director of the Rare Disease Institute at Children’s National. “This can substantially accelerate the time to diagnosis by providing a robust indicator for patients that need further workup. This first step is often the greatest barrier to moving towards a diagnosis. Once a patient is in the workup system, then the likelihood of diagnosis (by many means) is significantly increased.”

Every year, millions of children are born with genetic disorders — including Down syndrome, a condition in which a child is born with an extra copy of their 21st chromosome causing developmental delays and disabilities, Williams-Beuren syndrome, a rare multisystem condition caused by a submicroscopic deletion from a region of chromosome 7, and Noonan syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by a faulty gene that prevents normal development in various parts of the body.

Most children with genetic syndromes live in regions with limited resources and access to genetic services. The genetic screening may come with a hefty price tag. There are also insufficient specialists to help identify genetic syndromes early in life when preventive care can save lives, especially in areas of low income, limited resources and isolated communities.

“The presented technology can assist pediatricians, neonatologists and family physicians in the routine or remote evaluation of pediatric patients, especially in areas with limited access to specialized care,” said Porras et al. “Our technology may be a step forward for the democratization of health resources for genetic screening.”

The researchers trained the technology using 2,800 retrospective facial photographs of children, with or without a genetic syndrome, from 28 countries, such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, France, Morocco, Nigeria, Paraguay, Thailand and the U.S. The deep learning architecture was designed to account for the normal variations in the face appearance among populations from diverse demographic groups.

“Facial appearance is influenced by the race and ethnicity of the patients. The large variety of conditions and the diversity of populations are impacting the early identification of these conditions due to the lack of data that can serve as a point of reference,” said Linguraru. “Racial and ethnic disparities still exist in genetic syndrome survival even in some of the most common and best-studied conditions.”

Like all machine learning tools, they are trained with the available dataset. The researchers expect that as more data from underrepresented groups becomes available, they will adapt the model to localize phenotypical variations within more specific demographic groups.

In addition to being an accessible tool that could be used in telehealth services to assess genetic risk, there are other potentials for this technology.

“I am also excited about the potential of the technology in newborn screening,” said Linguraru. “There are approximately 140 million newborns every year worldwide of which eight million are born with a serious birth defect of genetic or partially genetic origin, many of which are discovered late.”

Children’s National as well recently announced that it has entered into a licensing agreement with MGeneRx Inc. for its patented pediatric medical device technology. MGeneRx is a spinoff from BreakThrough BioAssets LLC, a life sciences technology operating company focused on accelerating and commercializing new innovations, such as this technology, with an emphasis on positive social impact.

“The social impact of this technology cannot be underestimated,” said Nasser Hassan, acting chief executive officer of MGeneRx Inc. “We are excited about this licensing agreement with Children’s National Hospital and the opportunity to enhance this technology and expand its application to populations where precision medicine and the earliest possible interventions are sorely needed in order to save and improve children’s lives.”

Dr. Eric Vilain and researcher in a lab

Children’s National Hospital joins the Mendelian Genomics Research Consortium, receiving $12.8 million

Dr. Eric Vilain and researcher in a lab

Dr. Eric Vilain accompanied by a fellow researcher at the new Research & Innovation Campus.

Children’s National Hospital announces a $12.8 million award from the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) to establish the only Pediatric Mendelian Genomics Research Center (PMGRC) as part of a new Mendelian Genomics Research Consortium. Researchers at Children’s National and Invitae — a leading medical genetics company — will identify novel causes of rare inherited diseases, investigate the mechanisms of undiagnosed conditions, enhance data sharing, and generally interrogate Mendelian phenotypes, which are conditions that run in families.

“Our overall approach provides an efficient and direct path for pediatric patients affected with undiagnosed inherited conditions through a combination of innovative approaches, allowing individuals, families and health care providers to improve the management of the disease,” says Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National.

To accelerate gene discovery for Mendelian phenotypes and the clinical implementation of diagnosis, the consortium will leverage the broad pediatric clinical and research expertise of the Children’s National Research Institute and laboratories in partnership with Invitae. The Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at Children’s National will provide genetic testing for patients in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Invitae will provide genetic testing for patients from elsewhere in the U.S., giving the project a national reach and allowing researchers to leverage more robust data. Integrative analyses will be performed jointly with scientists at Children’s National and Invitae.

“Some patients have genetic test results that are ‘negative,’ meaning the results do not explain their condition. When a patient receives a negative result, it is challenging for parents and doctors to know what to do next,” says Meghan Delaney, D.O., M.P.H., chief of the Division of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at Children’s National. “The project will provide an avenue to possibly find an explanation of their child’s condition. Besides filling an important clinical gap, the results will add new knowledge for future patients and the scientific community.”

“Too often parents of children suffering from a rare condition find themselves in a protracted diagnostic odyssey when early intervention could mean better overall outcomes,” says Robert Nussbaum, M.D., chief medical officer of Invitae. “We are proud to partner with Children’s National Research Institute on this important effort to identify the genetic cause of these rare conditions earlier and improve the chances that children with such conditions can receive the appropriate treatments and live healthier lives.”

Deciphering Mendelian conditions will help diagnose more of the estimated 7,000 rare inherited diseases and predict the tremendous variability of clinical presentations in both rare and common conditions caused by the same gene.

There is also a need to establish a new standard of care to bridge the gap in the use of genomic information from diagnosis to improved outcomes. The consortium will establish best practices for obtaining a genetic diagnosis, offering an explanation for the condition to affected patients, and is likely to provide additional explanations for basic biological mechanisms, increasing the knowledge of physiopathology and possibly leading to better condition management.

The PMGRC will enroll an average of 2,600 participants per year with suspected Mendelian phenotypes and previously non-diagnostic tests and their family members. The integration of multiple genomic technologies, including short and long read genome sequencing, optical genome mapping and RNA-sequencing, will enable these discoveries. To disambiguate uncertain variants and candidate genes, the PMGRC will use whole transcriptome analysis, RNA-sequencing, CRE-sequencing and functional modeling.

Since many Mendelian conditions first appear prenatally or during infancy, Children’s National will have a unique bed-to-bench-to-bed symbiosis. Patients eligible for the study will come from across the multiple specialty divisions of Children’s National, including the Children’s National Rare Disease Institute, and nationally through the partnership with Invitae. From there, experts from the Children’s National Center for Genetic Medicine Research will enroll patients and integrate the initial clinical test results with broad-based genomic interrogation, leading to new diagnoses and novel discoveries. Finally, the results will be verified and returned to clinicians, which will help inform targeted therapies.

Typically, the patients eligible for this study jump from specialist to specialist without an answer, have a condition that appears in other family members or they have symptoms involving more than one affected organ, which suggests a complex developmental condition. The PMGRC at Children’s National will help find answers to the causes of many puzzling pediatric conditions, providing faster clinical diagnoses and opening up pathways to potentially better treatments.

Dr. Vilain’s work will be based at the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus on the grounds of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The campus is also home to the Children’s National Rare Disease institute — one of the largest clinical genetics program in the United State that provides care to more than 8,500 rare disease patients.

The Children's National Research & Innovation Campus

Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus welcomes Rare Disease Institute as first occupant

The Children's National Research & Innovation Campus

The Rare Disease Institute, which includes the largest clinical group of pediatric geneticists in the nation, focuses on developing the clinical care field of the more than 8,000 rare diseases currently recognized and advancing the best possible treatments for children with these diseases.

The Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus (RIC), the first-of-its-kind pediatric research and innovation hub located in Washington, D.C., now has its first occupant – the Rare Disease Institute (RDI).

The institute, which includes the largest clinical group of pediatric geneticists in the nation, focuses on developing the clinical care field of the more than 8,000 rare diseases currently recognized and advancing the best possible treatments for children with these diseases.

With the advent of advanced DNA sequencing, databanks, informatics, new technology, pediatric consortiums and global partnerships, clinical researchers have never been in a better position to diagnose and treat rare diseases. As this field of medicine continues to rapidly evolve, the benefits provided to patients, families, clinicians and researchers through its new home at the RIC will further accelerate the trajectory of rare disease from an academic specialty into a mainstream medical field.

Marshall Summar, M.D., director of the RDI and chief of the Division of Genetics and Metabolism at Children’s National, is well-known for pioneering work in caring for children diagnosed with rare diseases. He developed and launched the world’s first RDI at Children’s National in 2017, and it became the first Clinical Center of Excellence designated by the National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD). Dr. Summar discusses how this move will positively impact treatment, services and discovery on a national level.

Q: What are the patient benefits of the move to the RIC?

A: Patients with genetic conditions spend a lot of time visiting the hospital. By creating an easy access environment that is designed around their needs, we can provide world-class care to the families we work with. We designed extensive telemedicine capacity into the clinic so we can continue to expand our digital reach to wider areas. The parking facility is also a huge plus for our families with mobility impairments. The garage is only steps away from the clinic entrance. The architectural team worked closely with the clinical team to create a patient-centric facility for a safe and positive experience.

Q: What are the research benefits of being on the RIC?

A: One of our core goals at the RIC was to create research “neighborhoods.” A focus of the first phase of the RIC occupancy is genetics and the RDI is the clinical manifestation of that focus. Having the clinical service that sees patients with genetic disease, sharing space and campus with the Center for Genetic Medicine Research team and the molecular genetics laboratory creates that thematic neighborhood. Some of the best basic science ideas and projects come from the clinical world. Close interaction between the clinicians and the scientists will enhance those “spark” encounters. In addition, the physicians in the RDI who do bench research are also part of the genetic medicine program which furthers these interactions.

Marshall Summar

Marshall Summar, M.D., director of the RDI and chief of the Division of Genetics and Metabolism at Children’s National.

Q: What would you say has been the most significant change to your field in the past decade?

A: The ability to access next-generation genetic sequencing for more and more of our patients. The percentage of patients who can get a meaningful diagnosis with these technologies increases every year. With these techniques, we are finding new links between genes and disease at the rate of 5-10 per week.

Q: What excites you most about the future of medical genetics and rare diseases?

A: Two things are really exciting to me. The first is the ability to diagnose more patients than at any time in history. The second is the rate at which new genetic/rare disease therapies are being developed (around 50% of the FDA new drug approvals per year).

As the largest clinical program in North America and with our new location on this dedicated research and innovation campus in Washington, D.C., Children’s National and the RDI are uniquely poised to dramatically change the field of rare disease medicine. Our clinical models have started spreading to other centers across the country and will help shape the field for years to come. We are evolving rare disease into a true mainstream medical field, and the ability to make this type of change to a field is very unique to Children’s National.

Learn more about the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus.

Maddox and family

Family love and the right care for neurofibromatosis type 1 give Maddox a fresh start

Maddox and family

Maddox and his family in early 2020.

13-year-old Maddox Gibson is learning to cook. He says he wants to be a chef and wants to make meals for people who need it most — the homeless and the hungry.

It makes sense that he’s eager to help people who need it. As a young child growing up in a group home in his native country of China, he knows firsthand how important that support can be. In 2017 at age 10, he found his own endless supply of love and support when he met and was adopted by the Gibson family.

Zhen Chao, now called Maddox, was born in China with a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis type 1 that can cause painful or disfiguring tumors called plexiform neurofibromas. Zhen Chao had two on his head when he arrived — on his scalp and on his left optic nerve — which had been largely untreated for most of his life in China. On top of that, his right leg had been fractured and not fixed properly years before, causing him pain and weakness that left him wheelchair bound.

Adoptive mom Lindsey, a registered nurse, knew he would need special care to meet all the unique challenges he faced, and she’d done her homework — he needed the expertise of Miriam Bornhorst, M.D.,  and the Gilbert Family Neurofibromatosis Institute at Children’s National Hospital to help him thrive in his new life in the U.S. Since shortly after he came to the U.S., Lindsey has been driving Maddox the 6-plus hours from their home in North Carolina to Washington, D.C., regularly, to get care for all of his health challenges.

Maddox’s optic neurofibroma was too large when he arrived at Children’s National for a simple surgical removal. Due to her role as the lead investigator on a cutting edge clinical trial for the orphan drug selumetinib — a so-called MEK inhibitor that has shown early promise at reducing the cell growth of tumors like plexiform neurofibromas, Dr. Bornhorst enrolled Maddox in a compassionate use program for the drug, an opportunity that is not widely available. The drug was initially developed for something completely different — treatment of melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer in adults–but has been adapted through its FDA orphan drug designation for pediatric clinical trials in NF1. In the time since Maddox started taking it, it was approved for use in NF1 patients by the FDA.

The trial drug did its job — in late 2019, Maddox’s tumor had shrunk enough that chief neurosurgeon Robert Keating, M.D., and plastic surgeon Michael Boyajian, M.D., were able to successfully remove it. Follow-up procedures led by that team have also worked to repair the tissue that was impacted by the optic neurofibroma.

In addition to treatment of his neurofibromas, Maddox and his mom are able to see every service they need during one stay in D.C. The Neurofibromatosis Institute works closely across specialties, so his corrective surgery for his leg from Children’s chief of orthopaedics, Matthew Oetgen, M.D., MBA, in September 2019. He was assessed and prescribed physical therapy early in the process and even before surgery, so now he’s stronger than ever and walking. Learning difficulties, including autism and ADHD are common in NF1 patients, and so the NF Institute’s neuropsychology team has evaluated him and worked with the family to find resources and strategies near home that will support him. It should be noted, those learning difficulties only became apparent after Maddox taught himself English from scratch in only two years’ time with the help of his school’s ESOL program.

This kind of full spectrum care, from clinical assessment to surgical treatment and psychological supports, is crucial to the lives of patients with neurofibromatosis type 1 and is only available at a pediatric specialty care institution like Children’s National. The hospital has gathered some of the preeminent researchers, surgeons, and physicians within the NF Institute to make sure that the care families will travel hundreds of miles to receive is the best possible, using the latest evidence-based treatments for every challenge they face.

Though his care and follow-ups will continue at Children’s National Hospital and his condition may pose  new challenges in the future, for now, Maddox is able to focus on exploring new things and doing what he loves — playing outdoors with his family, learning to cook and building with Legos.

Vote for STAT Madness

It’s a three-peat! Children’s National again competes in STAT Madness

Vote for STAT Madness

Children’s National Hospital collects patients’ blood, extracts T-cells and replicates them in the presence of specific proteins found on cancer cells which, in essence, teaches the T-cells to target specific tumor markers. Training the T-cells, growing them to sufficient quantities and ensuring they are safe for administration takes weeks. But when patients return to the outpatient clinic, their T-cell infusion lasts just a few minutes.

For the third consecutive year, Children’s National was selected to compete in STAT Madness, an annual bracket-style competition that chooses the year’s most impactful biomedical innovation by popular vote. Children’s entry, “Immunotherapy of relapsed and refractory solid tumors with ex vivo expanded multi-tumor associated antigen specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes,” uses the body’s own immune system to attack and eliminate cancer cells in pediatric and adult patients with solid tumor malignancies.

In 2018, Children’s first-ever STAT Madness entry advanced through five brackets in the national competition and, in the championship round, finished second. That innovation, which enables more timely diagnoses of rare diseases and common genetic disorders, helping to improve kids’ health outcomes around the world, also was among four “Editor’s Pick” finalists, entries that spanned a diverse range of scientific disciplines.

An estimated 11,000 new cases of pediatric cancer were diagnosed in children 14 and younger in the U.S. in 2019. And, when it comes to disease, cancer remains the leading cause of death among children, according to the National Institutes of Health. An enterprising research team led by Children’s National faculty leveraged T-cells – essential players in the body’s immune system – to treat pediatric and adult patients with relapsed or refractory solid tumors who had exhausted all other therapeutic options.

“We’re using the patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer, rather than more traditional chemotherapy drugs,” says Catherine M. Bollard, M.D., director of the Center for Cancer & Immunology Research at Children’s National and co-senior author of the study. “It’s more targeted and less toxic to the patient. These T-cells home in on any cancer cells that might be in the body, allowing healthy cells to continue to grow,” Dr. Bollard adds.

That means patients treated in the Phase I, first-in-human trial didn’t lose their hair and weren’t hospitalized for the treatment. After a quick clinical visit for their treatment, they returned to normal activities, like school, with good energy levels.

“With our specially trained T-cell therapy, many patients who previously had rapidly progressing disease experienced prolonged disease stabilization,” says Holly J. Meany, M.D., a Children’s National oncologist and the study’s co-senior author. “Patients treated at the highest dose level showed the best clinical outcomes, with a six-month, progression-free survival of 73% after tumor-associated antigen cytotoxic T-cell (TAA-T) infusion, compared with 38% with their immediate prior therapy.”

The multi-institutional team published their findings from the study online July 29, 2019, in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

“Our research team and our parents are delighted that some patients treated in our study continue to do well following T-cell therapy without additional treatment. In some cases, two years after treatment, patients do not appear to have active disease and are maintaining an excellent quality of life,” says Amy B. Hont, M.D., the study’s lead author. “One of these was a patient whose parents were told his only other option was palliative care. Our innovation gives these families new hope,” Dr. Hont adds.

The 2020 STAT Madness #Core64 bracket opened March 2, and the champion will be announced April 6.

In addition to Drs. Hont, Meany and Bollard, Children’s National co-authors include C. Russell Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., Robert Ulrey, MS, Barbara O’Brien, BS, Maja Stanojevic, M.D., Anushree Datar, MS, Shuroug Albihani, MS, Devin Saunders, BA, Ryo Hanajiri, M.D., Ph.D., Karuna Panchapakesan, MS, Payal Banerjee, MS, Maria Fernanda Fortiz, BS, Fahmida Hoq, MBBS, MS, Haili Lang, M.D., Yunfei Wang, DrPH, Patrick J. Hanley, Ph.D., and Jeffrey S. Dome, M.D., Ph.D.; and Sam Darko, MS, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the Children’s National Hospital Heroes Gala, Alex’s Army Foundation, the Children’s National Board of Visitors and Hyundai Hope on Wheels Young Investigator Grant to Support Pediatric Cancer Research, the Children’s National Research Institute Bioinformatics Unit, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the National Institutes of Health under award No. UL1-TR001876.

Andrea Gropman

$5M in federal funding to help patients with urea cycle disorders

Andrea Gropman

Andrea L. Gropman, M.D.: We have collected many years of longitudinal clinical data, but with this new funding now we can answer questions about these diseases that are meaningful on a day-to-day basis for patients with urea cycle disorders.

An international research consortium co-led by Andrea L. Gropman, M.D., at Children’s National Hospital has received $5 million in federal funding as part of an overall effort to better understand rare diseases and accelerate potential treatments to patients.

Urea cycle disorder, one such rare disease, is a hiccup in a series of biochemical reactions that transform nitrogen into a non-toxic compound, urea. The six enzymes and two carrier/transport molecules that accomplish this essential task reside primarily in the liver and, to a lesser degree, in other organs.

The majority of patients have the recessive form of the disorder, meaning it has skipped a generation. These kids inherit one copy of an abnormal gene from each parent, while the parents themselves were not affected, says Dr. Gropman, chief of the Division of Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics and Neurogenetics at Children’s National. Another more common version of the disease is carried on the X chromosome and affects boys more seriously that girls, given that boys have only one X chromosome.

Regardless of the type of urea cycle disorder, when the urea cycle breaks down, nitrogen converts into toxic ammonia that builds up in the body (hyperammonemia), particularly in the brain. As a result, the person may feel lethargic; if the ammonia in the bloodstream reaches the brain in high concentrations, the person can experience seizures, behavior changes and lapse into a coma.

Improvements in clinical care and the advent of effective medicines have transformed this once deadly disease into a more manageable chronic ailment.

“It’s gratifying that patients diagnosed with urea cycle disorder now are surviving, growing up, becoming young adults and starting families themselves. Twenty to 30 years ago, this never would have seemed conceivable,” Dr. Gropman says. “We have collected many years of longitudinal clinical data, but with this new funding now we can answer questions about these diseases that are meaningful on a day-to-day basis for patients with urea cycle disorders.”

In early October 2019, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded the Urea Cycle Disorders Consortium for which Dr. Gropman is co-principal investigator a five-year grant. This is the fourth time that the international Consortium of physicians, scientists, neuropsychologists, nurses, genetic counselors and researchers has received NIH funding to study this group of conditions.

Dr. Gropman says the current urea cycle research program builds on a sturdy foundation built by previous principal investigators Mendel Tuchman, M.D., and Mark Batshaw, M.D., also funded by the NIH. While previous rounds of NIH funding powered research about patients’ long-term survival prospects and cognitive dysfunction, this next phase of research will explore patients’ long-term health.

Among the topics they will study:

Long-term organ damage. Magnetic resonance elastrography (MRE) is a state-of-the-art imaging technique that combines the sharp images from MRI with a visual map that shows body tissue stiffness. The research team will use MRE to look for early changes in the liver – before patients show any symptoms – that could be associated with long-term health impacts. Their aim is spot the earliest signs of potential liver dysfunction in order to intervene before the patient develops liver fibrosis.

Academic achievement. The research team will examine gaps in academic achievement for patients who appear to be underperforming to determine what is triggering the discrepancy between their potential and actual scholastics. If they uncover issues such as learning difficulties or mental health concerns like anxiety, there are opportunities to intervene to boost academic achievement.

“And if we find many of the patients meet the criteria for depression or anxiety disorders, there are potential opportunities to intervene.  It’s tricky: We need to balance their existing medications with any new ones to ensure that we don’t increase their hyperammonemia risk,” Dr. Gropman explains.

Neurologic complications. The researchers will tap continuous, bedside electroencephalogram, which measures the brain’s electrical activity, to detect silent seizures and otherwise undetectable changes in the brain in an effort to stave off epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes seizures.

“This is really the first time we will examine babies’ brains,” she adds. “Our previous imaging studies looked at kids and adults who were 6 years and older. Now, we’re lowering that age range down to infants. By tracking such images over time, the field has described the trajectory of what normal brain development should look like. We can use that as a background and comparison point.”

In the future, newborns may be screened for urea cycle disorder shortly after birth. Because it is not possible to diagnose it in the womb in cases where there is no family history, the team aims to better counsel families contemplating pregnancy about their possible risks.

Research described in this post was underwritten by the NIH through its Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network.

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.

Stat Madness 2019

Vote for Children’s National in STAT Madness

Stat Madness 2019

Children’s National Health System has been selected to compete in STAT Madness for the second consecutive year. Our entry for the bracket-style competition is “Sensitive liquid biopsy platform to detect tumor-released mutated DNA using patient blood and CSF,” a new technique that will allow kids to get better treatment for an aggressive type of pediatric brain tumor.

In 2018, Children’s first-ever STAT Madness entry advanced through five brackets in the national competition and, in the championship round, finished second. That innovation, which enables more timely diagnoses of rare diseases and common genetic disorders, helping to improve kids’ health outcomes around the world, also was among four “Editor’s Pick” finalists, entries that spanned a diverse range of scientific disciplines.

“Children’s National researchers collaboratively work across divisions and departments to ensure that innovations discovered in our laboratories reach clinicians in order to improve patient care,” says Mark Batshaw, M.D., Children’s Executive Vice President, Chief Academic Officer and Physician-in-Chief. “It’s gratifying that Children’s multidisciplinary approach to improving the lives of children with brain tumors has been included in this year’s STAT Madness competition.”

Pediatric brain cancers are the leading cause of cancer-related death in children younger than 14. Children with tumors in their midline brain structures have the worst outcomes, and kids diagnosed with diffuse midline gliomas, including diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, have a median survival of just 12 months.

“We heard from our clinician colleagues that many kids were coming in and their magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) suggested a particular type of tumor. But it was always problematic to identify the tumor’s molecular subtype,” says Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., MSC, a principal investigator in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research. “Our colleagues wanted a more accurate measure than MRI to find the molecular subtype. That raised the question of whether we could actually look at their blood to determine the tumor subtype.”

Children’s liquid biopsy, which remains at the research phase, starts with a simple blood draw using the same type of needle as is used when people donate blood. When patients with brain tumors provide blood for other laboratory testing, a portion of it is used for the DNA detective work. Just as a criminal leaves behind fingerprints, tumors shed telltale clues in the blood. The Children’s team searches for the histone 3.3K27M (H3K27M), a mutation associated with worse clinical outcomes.

“With liquid biopsy, we were able to detect a few copies of tumor DNA that were hiding behind a million copies of healthy DNA,” Nazarian says. “The blood draw and liquid biopsy complement the MRI. The MRI gives the brain tumor’s ZIP code. Liquid biopsy gives you the demographics within that ZIP code.”

Working with collaborators around the nation, Children’s National continues to refine the technology to improve its accuracy. The multi-institutional team published findings online Oct. 15, 2018, in Clinical Cancer Research.

Even though this research technique is in its infancy, the rapid, cheap and sensitive technology already is being used by people around the globe.

“People around the world are sending blood to us, looking for this particular mutation, H3K27M, ” says Lindsay B. Kilburn, M.D., a Children’s neurooncologist, principal investigator at Children’s National for the Pacific Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium, and study co-author. “In many countries or centers, children do not have access to teams experienced in taking a biopsy of tumors in the brainstem, they can perform a simple blood draw and have that blood processed and analyzed by us. In only a few days, we can provide important molecular information on the tumor subtype previously only available to patients that had undergone a tumor biopsy.”

“With that DNA finding, physicians can make more educated therapeutic decisions, including prescribing medications that could not have been given previously,” Nazarian adds.

The STAT Madness round of 64 brackets opened March 4, 2019, and the championship round voting concludes April 5 at 5 p.m. (EST).

In addition to Nazarian and Dr. Kilburn, study co-authors include Eshini Panditharatna, Madhuri Kambhampati, Heather Gordish-Dressman, Ph.D., Suresh N. Magge, M.D., John S. Myseros, M.D., Eugene I. Hwang, M.D. and Roger J. Packer, M.D., all of Children’s National; Mariam S. Aboian, Nalin Gupta, Soonmee Cha, Michael Prados and Co-Senior Author Sabine Mueller, all of University of California, San Francisco; Cassie Kline, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital; John R. Crawford, UC San Diego; Katherine E. Warren, National Cancer Institute; Winnie S. Liang and Michael E. Berens, Translational Genomics Research Institute; and Adam C. Resnick, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Financial support for the research described in the report was provided by the V Foundation for Cancer Research, Goldwin Foundation, Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, Smashing Walnuts Foundation, The Gabriella Miller Kids First Data Resource Center, Zickler Family Foundation, Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National under award 5UL1TR001876-03, Piedmont Community Foundation, Musella Foundation for Brain Tumor Research, Matthew Larson Foundation, The Lilabean Foundation for Pediatric Brain Cancer Research, The Childhood Brain Tumor Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and American Society of Neuroradiology.

Debra Regier

U.S. leads the pack in medical genetics and genomic medicine

Debra Regier

Debra S. Regier, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatric geneticist who is the director of education in the Rare Disease Institute at Children’s National Health System.

It long has been recognized that traits can be passed down from parents to offspring in humans, just as occurs with other species. But medical genetics – the scientific field that covers the diagnoses and management of heritable diseases – didn’t get its start until recently. Only in the past century or so have researchers devoted significant resources to better understanding the patterns of inheritance or syndromes that have a genetic cause.

Although this research has taken place around the world, the United States is well established as a leader in this field, say authors of an article published in the July 2017 issue of Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine.

This article covers the history of the field, demographics of genetic conditions, legislation that relates to genetic disease and its burdens and highlights a long list of American researchers who have genetic diseases named after them. The list, comprising 86 scientists in a diverse array of fields including pediatrics, pathology, dermatology and oncology, is a testament to the devotion of these researchers to understanding a specific condition or, sometimes, group of related conditions.

Their dedication, often spanning the entirety of their career, contributed to the wealth of knowledge now available that’s improved the outcomes of many individuals with these diseases, says article co-author Debra S. Regier, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatric geneticist who is the director of education in the Rare Disease Institute at Children’s National Health System.

“Because these researchers spent their lives characterizing these disorders,” Dr. Regier says, “we can use that information when we find a child who fits the scheme of a particular disorder to tell families what they can expect – and in many instances – explain how best to treat them.”

Beyond tracking heritable disease traits through families, modern genomics also has led to the ability to recognize specific genes that cause various disorders, speeding the process of diagnosis and intervention.

“There are about 7,000 rare diseases, and sometimes it’s hard to know where to start with patients because it’s unclear which one they have,” Dr. Regier says. “By doing genetic testing, we can give families information, offer a prognosis and start treatments that have helped children who came before them with the same genetic mutation.”

Dr. Regier speculates that U.S. leadership in this field is largely due to the presence of large academic centers that are devoted to the study of genetic disorders, like Children’s National. Such centers give researchers dedicated time and space to better understand genetic diseases, both on a basic and an applied level. Despite the country’s stature as a frontrunner in this research arena, the United States has a relatively small medical genetics community, which researchers can use to their advantage.

“If I find a child with a rare genetic disorder, I can call up the world expert on this condition to share and receive information,” Dr. Regier adds. “That’s relatively rare in science, but it happens all the time in our field because we’re so small.”

Although the United States has contributed to many medical genetics and genomic medicine advances that have helped patients worldwide, the history of the field in this country wasn’t always laudable, Dr. Regier says. The article also addresses the eugenics movement during the early 20th century. For example, in 1907, Indiana became the first state to enact involuntary sterilization legislation, an effort to remove “flawed” individuals from the gene pool that was followed by similar laws in several other states. In 1924, Virginia enacted a law that allowed eugenic sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927.

After atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II, when the repercussions of these policies became more clear, these laws were gradually abolished.

More recent legislation, the article’s authors write, aims to protect individuals from discrimination for genetic disorders. Thus far, 35 states have laws on the books protecting against employment discrimination, and 48 states passed legislation against health insurance discrimination based on genetic information. Twenty-four states endorsed statutes that limit the use of genetic information for other types of insurance, including life, long-term care and disability.

The article is the first of a two-part series and was followed Nov. 26, 2017 by a second article addressing the current status of prenatal testing, reproductive options and reproductive law in the United States, as well as newborn screening, genetic services, rare disease registries, and education and training in genetics.

“We can take pride in our progress, while still acknowledging that we have a long way to go in this field,” Dr. Regier says.