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x-ray of human skull

Researchers awarded $3.5 million to study brain and cranium development in children

x-ray of human skull

Currently, studies on typical brain and cranium development are limited. One reason for this is that imaging techniques are optimized to best visualize either bone or soft tissue, but not both.

With prevalence of developmental disorders on the rise, the need to understand brain development has never been more critical. Development of the brain is strongly influenced by the cranium, but this relationship has not been adequately studied because of limitations in imaging technology. Now, researchers from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Children’s National Hospital are working together to develop techniques that will provide greater insight into this relationship. Their studies will be funded by The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, which has awarded them $3.5 million.

Natasha Leporé, Ph.D., of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, studies methods to interpret brain imaging data. “There’s a lot of interaction between the skull and the brain,” she says, “and we want to better understand how they grow together.”

Currently, studies on typical brain and cranium development are limited. One reason for this is that imaging techniques are optimized to best visualize either bone or soft tissue, but not both.

The brain — mostly composed of water, protein and fat — doesn’t show up well on computerized tomography (CT) scans, which use X-ray images. In addition, radiation exposure limits the amount of CT scan data available in children. On the other hand, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are excellent for brain images but are not optimal for surrounding bone.

This presents researchers with a dilemma if they want to see the brain and the skull together in one image. Fortunately, research barriers like these are often overcome by collaboration.

Leporé will work with Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil, M.A., MS.c., principal investigator in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Hospital.

Linguraru works on a set of tools for cranial phenotyping, using existing CT images from typically developing children. In their collaboration, Leporé and Linguraru will extend the tools to MRI scans, allowing the team to analyze the brain and cranium simultaneously. The pair has received a $3.5 million award over 5 years.

“The tools we develop together will help us to better understand the healthy growth of children,” says Linguraru. “We will have the ability to analyze the joint cranial and brain development from large medical image datasets of pediatric patients.”

This, the team says, will be invaluable to the medical community.

“These tools will help clinicians to better assess, diagnose and plan treatment for infants with cranial deformities,” says Linguraru.

Collaborations like this allow expertise to be shared across specialties, ultimately benefiting children in need. Exceptional pediatric care is a result of teamwork; not only doctors, nurses and clinical staff, but also biomedical research, which arms clinicians with the information they depend on.

“We need to have a clear idea of what is expected in normal development,” says Leporé. “This allows doctors to detect and better understand differences in development.”

Other members of the research team include: Vidya Rajagopalan, Ph.D.; Marvin Nelson, M.D.; Alexis Johns, Ph.D.; Niharika Gajawelli, Ph.D. (from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and University of Southern California); Robert Keating, M.D. (Children’s National Hospital); Yalin Wang, Ph.D. (Arizona State University); Antonio Porras, Ph.D. (University of Colorado); Sean Deoni, Ph.D. (Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University).

A version of this story appeared on the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles newsroom.

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.

covers of books edited by Children's National faculty

We wrote the book

Children’s National Hospital is proud to have a number of faculty members who literally wrote the books on pediatric cardiology, neonatology, neurology and pulmonology. These texts, edited by experts Gil Wernovsky, M.D., Gordon Avery, M.D., Ricardo Munoz, M.D., Anastassios Koumbourlis, M.D., MPH, Robert Keating, M.D. and Roger Packer, M.D., have become the definitive references for medical students everywhere.

Through these books, generations of children worldwide will benefit from the expertise at Children’s National:

  • Anderson’s Pediatric Cardiology. Wernovsky, G., Anderson, R.H., Kumar, K., Mussatto, K.A., Redington, A.N., Tweddell, J.S., Tretter, J.T. (Eds.). (2019). Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Publishing.
  • Avery’s Neonatology: Pathophysiology and Management of the Newborn. MacDonald, M.G., and Seshia, M.M.K. (Eds.) (2015). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  • Critical Care of Children with Heart Disease: Basic Medical and Surgical Concepts. Munoz, R.A., More, V.O., da Cruz, E.M., Vetterly, C.G., da Silva, J.P. (Eds.). (2010) London, UK: Springer-Verlag London Ltd.
  • Diagnostic Tests in Pediatric Pulmonology. Davis, S.D., Koumbourlis, A.C., and Eber, E. (Eds.). (2015) London, UK: Springer-Verlag London Ltd.
  • Pulmonary Complications of Non-Pulmonary Pediatric Koumbourlis, A.C., and Nevin, M. (Eds.). (2018) London, UK: Springer-Verlag London Ltd.
  • Tumors of the Pediatric Central Nervous system. Keating, R.F., Goodrich, J.T., and Packer, R.J. (Eds.). (2013) New York, NY: Thieme Medical Publishers.

covers of books edited by Children's National faculty