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Dr. Michael Hsieh's clay shield

Innovative urologist Michael Hsieh takes unbeaten path

Dr. Michael Hsieh's clay shield

For an elementary school art project, Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., was instructed to fashion a coat of arms out of clay. In addition to panels for truth, justice and Taiwan, in the shield’s M.D. panel, a snake twists around a rod, like the staff for Asclepius, a Greek god associated with healing.

Children’s urologist Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., knew from age 10 that he would become a doctor. Proof is at his parents’ home. For an elementary school art project, students were instructed to fashion a coat of arms out of clay. In addition to panels for truth, justice and Taiwan, in the shield’s M.D. panel, a snake twists around a rod, like the staff for Asclepius, a Greek god associated with healing.

“I liked science. When I can use it to help patients, that is very rewarding,” says Dr. Hsieh, the first doctor in his family.

These days, Dr. Hsieh’s Twitter profile serves as a digital coat of arms, describing him as “tinker, tailor,” #UTI #biologist, epithelial #immunologist, helminthologist and #urologist.

Tinker/tailor is shorthand for the mystery drama, “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” he explains, adding that the “tinker” part also refers “to the fact that I am always questioning things, and science is about experimentation, trying to seek answers to questions.”

While still in medical school during a rotation Dr. Hsieh saw a bladder operation on a young child and thought it was “amazing.” That experience in part inspired Dr. Hsieh to become a urologist and bladder scientist. His training in immunology and study of the bladder naturally led him to study urinary tract infections and parasitic worms that affect the urinary tract. In addition, thanks to R01 funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Hsieh is co-principal investigator with Axel Krieger, University of Maryland, and Jin U. Kang, Johns Hopkins, on a project to develop imaging robots for supervised autonomous surgery on soft tissue.

The $1 million in NIH funding pushes the boundaries on amazing by using multi-spectral imaging technology and improved techniques to reduce surgical complications.

Anastomosis is a technique used by surgeons to join one thing to another, whether it’s a vascular surgeon suturing blood vessels, an orthopedic surgeon joining muscles or a urologist stitching healthy parts of the urinary tract back together. Complications can set in if their stitching is too tight, prompting scar tissue to form, or too loose, letting fluid seep out.

“The human eye can see a narrow spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. These multi-spectral imaging cameras would see across greater set of wavelengths,” he says.

The project has three aims: figuring out the best way to place sutures using multi-spectral imaging, accurately tracking soft tissue as they model suturing and comparing the handicraft of a robot against anastomosis hand-sewn by surgeons.

“I like challenges, and I like new things. I am definitely not interested in doing permutations of other people’s work,” Dr. Hsieh explains. “I would much rather go on a path that hasn’t been tread. It is more difficult in some ways, but on a day-to-day basis, I know I am making a contribution.”

In another innovative research project, Dr. Hsieh leveraged a protein secreted by a parasitic worm, Schistosoma haematobium, that suppresses inflammation in hosts as a new therapeutic approach for chemotherapy-induced hemorrhagic cystitis, a form of inflammation of the bladder.

Watching his first surgery nearly 30 years ago, he had no idea robots might one day vie to take over some part of that complicated procedure, or that parasite proteins could be harnessed as drugs. However, he has a clear idea which innovations could be on the horizon for urology in the next three decades.

“My hope is 30 years from now, we will have a solid UTI vaccine and more non-antibiotic therapies. UTIs are the second-most common bacterial infection in childhood and, in severe cases, can contribute to kidney failure,” he says.

Globally, parasitic worms pose an ongoing challenge, affecting more than 1 billion worldwide – second only to malaria. People persistently infected by schistosome worms fail to reach their growth potential, struggle academically and lack sufficient energy for exercise or work.


“There is a feeling that the infection prevalence might be decreasing globally, but not as quickly as everyone hopes. In 30 years perhaps with more mass drug administration and additional drugs – including a vaccine – we’ll have it close to eliminated globally. It would become more like polio, casting a slim shadow with small pockets of infection here or there, rather than consigning millions to perpetual poverty.”

E coli bacteria

Urinary bacteria in spinal cord injury cases may tip balance toward UTIs

E coli bacteria

Patients with spinal cord injuries nearly universally have bacteria present in their urine regardless of whether they have a urinary tract infection.

The fallout from spinal cord injury doesn’t end with loss of mobility: Patients can have a range of other issues resulting from this complex problem, including loss of bladder control that can lead to urine retention. One of the most serious implications is urinary tract infections (UTIs), the most common cause of repeat hospitalization in people with spinal cord injuries, explains Hans G. Pohl, M.D., associate chief in the division of Urology at Children’s National Health System.

Diagnosing UTIs in people with spinal cord injuries is trickier than in people who are otherwise healthy, Dr. Pohl explains. Patients with spinal cord injuries nearly universally have bacteria present in their urine regardless of whether they have a UTI. It’s unclear whether these bacteria are innocent bystanders or precursors to UTIs in patients who don’t yet show symptoms. And although antibiotics can wipe out this bacterial population, these drugs can have undesirable side effects and frequent use can promote development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Although clinical dogma has long promoted the idea that “healthy” urine is sterile, Dr. Pohl and colleagues have shown that a variety of bacteria live in urine, even in people without symptoms. These microorganisms, like the intestinal microbiome, live in harmony with their hosts and may even help promote health. However, it’s unclear what this urinary microbiome might look like for patients with spinal cord injury before, during and after UTIs.

To start investigating this question, Dr. Pohl and co-authors recently reported a case study they published online Sept. 21, 2018, in Spinal Cord Series and Cases. The case report about a 55-year-old man who had injured the thoracic segment of his spinal cord—about the level of the bottom of his shoulder blades—in a skiing accident when he was 19 was selected as “Editor’s Choice” for the journal’s October 2018 issue.  The patient had a neurogenic bladder, which doesn’t function normally due to impaired communication with the spinal cord. To compensate for this loss of function, this patient needed to have urine removed every four to six hours by catheterization.

Over eight months Dr. Pohl, the study’s senior author, and colleagues collected 12 urine samples from this patient:

  • One was collected at a time the patient didn’t show any symptoms of a UTI
  • Nine were collected when the patient had UTI symptoms, such as bladder spasticity
  • Two samples were collected when the patient had finished antibiotic treatment for the UTI.

The researchers split each sample in half. One part was put through a standard urinalysis and culture, much like what patients with a suspected UTI would receive at the doctor’s office. The other part was analyzed using a technique that searched for genetic material to identify bacteria that might be present and to estimate their abundance.

The researchers found a variety of different bacteria present in these urine samples. Regardless of the patient’s health status and symptoms, the majority of these bacterial species are known to be pathogenic or potentially pathogenic. By contrast, this patient’s urine microbiome appeared to largely lack bacterial species known to be either neutral or with potentially probiotic properties, such as Lactobacillus.

All of the bacteria that grew in culture also were identified by their genetic material in the samples. However, genetic sequencing also identified a possible novel uropathogenic species called Burkholderia fungorum that didn’t grow in the lab in five of the samples. This bacterium is ubiquitous in the environment and has been identified in soil- and plant-based samples. It also has been discovered in the respiratory secretions of patients with cystic fibrosis, in patients with a heart condition called infectious endocarditis, in the vaginal microbiota of patients with bacterial vaginosis, and in the gut of patients with HIV who have low T-cell counts. Dr. Pohl says it’s unclear whether this species played an infectious role in this patient’s UTI or whether it’s just part of his normal urine flora.

“Consistent with our previous work, this case report demonstrates that rather than healthy urine being sterile, there is a diverse urine bacterial ecosystem during various states of health and disease,” Dr. Pohl says. “Rather than UTIs resulting from the growth or overgrowth of a single organism, it’s more likely that a change in the healthy balance of the urine ecosystem might cause these infections.”

By monitoring the relative abundance of different bacteria types present in the urine of patients with spinal cord injury and combining this information with a patient’s symptoms, Dr. Pohl says doctors may be able to make more accurate UTI diagnoses in this unique population.

In addition to Dr. Pohl, study co-authors include Marcos Pérez-Losada, Ljubica Caldovic, Ph.D., Bruce Sprague and Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Children’s National; Emma Nally, Suzanne L. Groah and Inger Ljungberg, MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital; and Neel J. Chandel, Montefiore Medical Center.

Bladder cancer’s unique bacterial “fingerprint”

Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

Decades ago, researchers thought that the native bacteria scattered throughout the human body—such as in the gut, the oral cavity and the skin—served little useful purpose. This microbiota, whose numbers at least match those of the cells in the body they live on and in, were considered mostly harmless hitchhikers.

More recently, research has revealed that these natural flora play key roles in maintaining and promoting health. In addition, studies have shown that understanding what a “typical” microbiome looks like and how it might change over time can provide an early warning system for some health conditions, including cancer.

Now, a small, multi-institutional study conducted in experimental models suggests that as bladder cancer progresses, it appears to be associated with a unique bacterial fingerprint within the bladder—a place thought to be bacteria-free except in the case of infection until just a few years ago. The finding opens the possibility of a new way to spot the disease earlier.

Bladder cancer is the fourth-most common malignancy among U.S. men but, despite its prevalence, mortality rates have remained stubbornly high. Patients often are diagnosed late, after bladder cancer has advanced. And, it remains difficult to discern which patients with non-invasive bladder cancer will go on to develop muscle-invasive disease.

Already, researchers know that patients with grade 4 oral squamous cell carcinoma, women with increasingly severe grades of cervical cancer and patients with cirrhosis who develop liver cancer have altered oral, vaginal and gut microbiomes, respectively.

New technological advances have led to identification of a diverse community of bacteria within the bladder, the urinary microbiome. Leveraging these tools, a research team that includes Children’s National Health System investigators studied whether an experimental model’s urinary bacterial community changed as bladder cancer progressed, evolving from a microbiome into a urinary “oncobiome.”

To test the hypothesis, the research team led by Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., a Children’s urologist, exposed an experimental model of bladder cancer to a bladder-specific cancer-causing agent, n-butyl-n-(4-hydroxybutyl) nitrosamine (BBN). Bladder cancers induced by BBN closely resemble human cancers in tissue structure at the microscopic level and by gene expression analyses. Ten of the preclinical models received a .05 percent concentration of BBN in their drinking water over five months and were housed together. Ten other experimental models received regular tap water and shared a separate, adjacent cage.

Researchers collected urine samples ranging from 10 to 100 microliters at the beginning of the longitudinal study, one week after it began, then once monthly. They isolated microbial DNA from the urine and quantified it to determine how much DNA was microbial. All of the bladders from experimental models exposed to BBN and two bladders from the control group were analyzed by a pathologist trained in bladder biology.

According to the study published online July 5, 2018, by the biology preprint server Biorxiv, they found a range of pathologies:

  • Five of the experimental models that received BBN did not develop cancer but had histology consistent with inflammation. Three had precancer on histology: urothelial dysplasia, hyperplasia or carcinoma in situ. Two developed cancer: invasive urothelial carcinomas, one of which had features of a squamous cell carcinoma.
  • The experimental model that developed invasive carcinoma had markedly different urinary bacteria at baseline, with Rubellimicrobium, a gram negative organism found in soil that has not been associated with disease previously, Escherichia and Kaistobacter, also found in soil, as the most prominent bacteria. By contrast, in the other experimental models the most common urinary bacteria were Escherichia, Prevotella, Veillonella, Streptococcus, Staphyloccoccus and Neisseria.
  • By month four, the majority of experimental models exposed to BBN had significantly higher proportion of Gardnerella and Bifidobacterium compared with their control group counterparts.

“Closely analyzing the urinary bacterial community among experimental models exposed to BBN, we saw distinct differences in microbial profiles by month four that were not present in earlier months,” Dr. Hsieh says. “While Gardnerella is associated with the development of cancer, Bifidobacterium has been shown to exert antitumor immunity, and its increasing abundance points to the need for additional research to understand its precise role in oncogenesis.”

Dr. Hsieh adds that although the study is small, its findings are of significance to children who are prone to developing urinary tract infections (UTIs), including children with spina bifida, due to the association between UTIs and bladder cancer. “This work is important because it not only suggests that the urinary microbiome could be used to diagnose bladder cancer, but that it could also perhaps predict cancer outcomes. If the urinary microbiome contributes to bladder carcinogenesis, it may be possible to favorably change the microbiome through antibiotics and/or probiotics in order to treat bladder cancer.”

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, co-authors include Catherine S. Forster, M.D., M.S., and Crystal Stroud, of Children’s National; James J. Cody, Nirad Banskota, Yi-Ju Hsieh and Olivia Lamanna, of the Biomedical Research Institute; Dannah Farah and Ljubica Caldovic, of The George Washington University; and Olfat Hammam, of Theodor Bilharz Research Institute.

Research reported in this news release was supported by the National Institutes of Health under award number R01 DK113504 and the Margaret A. Stirewalt Endowment.

Presidnet's Award for Innovation in Research

President’s Award highlights innovative work by early-career researchers

Presidnet's Award for Innovation in Research

As part of Research and Education Week 2018, two Presidential awardees were recognized for their research contributions, Catherine “Katie” Forster, M.D., M.S., and Nathan Anthony Smith, Ph.D.

Catherine “Katie” Forster, M.D., M.S., and Nathan Anthony Smith, Ph.D., received the President’s Award for Innovation in Research honoring their respective research efforts to explore an understudied part of the microbiome and to shed light on an underappreciated player in nerve cell communication.

Drs. Forster and Smith received their awards April 19, 2018, the penultimate day of Research and Education Week 2018, an annual celebration of the excellence in research, education, innovation and scholarship that takes place at Children’s National Health System. This year marks the fifth time the President’s Award honor has been bestowed to Children’s faculty.

Dr. Forster’s work focuses on preventing pediatric urinary tract infections (UTIs). Frequently, children diagnosed with illnesses like spina bifida have difficulty urinating on their own, and they often develop UTIs. These repeated infections are frequently treated with antibiotics which, in turn, can lead to the child developing antibiotic-resistant organisms.

“The majority of the time if you culture these children, you’ll grow something. In a healthy child, that culture would indicate a UTI,” Dr. Forster says. “Children with neurogenic bladder, however, may test positive for bacteria that simply look suspect but are not causing infection. Ultimately, we’re looking for better ways to diagnose UTI at the point of care to better personalize antibiotic treatment and limit prescriptions for children who do not truly need them.”

Powered by new sequencing techniques, a research group that includes Dr. Forster discovered that the human bladder hosts a significant microbiome, a diverse bacterial community unique to the bladder. Dr. Forster’s research will continue to characterize that microbiome to determine how that bacterial community evolves over time and whether those changes are predictable enough to intervene and prevent UTIs.

“Which genes are upregulated in Escherichia coli and the epithelium, and which genes are upregulated by both in response to each other? That can help us understand whether genes being upregulated are pathogenic,” she adds. “It’s a novel and exciting research area with significant public health implications.”

Smith’s work focuses on the role of astrocytes, specialized star-shaped glial cells, in modulating synaptic plasticity via norepinephrine. Conventional thinking describes astrocytes as support cells but, according to Smith, astrocytes are turning out to be more instrumental.

Norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that plays an essential role in attention and focus, is released by a process known as volume transmission, which is a widespread release of a neurotransmitter at once, says Smith, a principal investigator in Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research. Astrocytes, which outnumber neurons in the brain, are strategically and anatomically located to receive this diffuse input and translate it into action to modulate neural networks.

“We hypothesize that astrocytes are integral, functional partners with norepinephrine in modulating cortical networks,” Smith adds. “Since astrocytes and norepinephrine have been implicated in many central nervous system functions, including learning and attention, it is critical to define mechanistically how astrocytes and norepinephrine work together to influence neural networks. This knowledge also will be important for the development of novel therapeutics to treat diseases such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and epilepsy.”