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Javad Nazarian

Advancing pediatric cancer research by easing access to data

Javad Nazarian

“This is a tremendous opportunity for children and families whose lives have been forever altered by pediatric cancers,” says Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research and scientific director of the Brain Tumor Institute at Children’s National.

Speeding research into pediatric cancers and other diseases relies not only on collecting good data, but making them accessible to research teams around the world to analyze and build on. Both efforts take time, hard work and a significant amount of financial resources – the latter which can often be difficult to attain.

In a move that could considerably advance the field of pediatric cancer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a body that funds biomedical research in the United States, recently awarded a public-private research collective that includes Children’s National Health System up to $14.8 million to launch a data resource center for cancer researchers around the world in order to accelerate the discovery of novel treatments for childhood tumors. Contingent on available funds, five years of funding will be provided by the NIH Common Fund Gabriella Miller Kids First Pediatric Research Program, named after Gabriella Miller, a 10-year-old child treated at Children’s National.

As principal investigators, researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will lead the joint effort to build out the “Kids First” Data Resource Center. Children’s National in Washington, D.C., will spearhead specific projects, including the Open DIPG project, and as project ambassador will cultivate additional partnerships with public and private foundations and related research consortia to expand a growing trove of data about pediatric cancers and birth defects.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for children and families whose lives have been forever altered by pediatric cancers,” says Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research and scientific director of the Brain Tumor Institute at Children’s National. “From just a dozen samples seven years ago, Children’s National has amassed one of the nation’s largest tumor biorepositories funded, in large part, by small foundations. Meanwhile, research teams have been sequencing data from samples here and around the world. With this infusion of federal funding, we are poised to turn these data into insights and to translate those research findings into effective treatments.”

Today’s NIH grant builds on previous funding that Congress provided to the NIH Common Fund to underwrite research into structural birth defects and pediatric cancers. In the first phase, so-called X01 grantees—including Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., newly named director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National—received funding to sequence genetic data from thousands of patients and families affected by childhood cancer and structural birth defects.

This new phase of funding is aimed at opening access to those genetic sequences to a broader group of investigators around the globe by making hard-to-access data easily available on the cloud. The first project funded will be Open DIPG, run by Nazarian, a single disease prototype demonstrating how the new data resource center would work for multiple ailments.

DIPG stands for diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, aggressive pediatric brain tumors that defy treatment and are almost always fatal. Just as crowd sourcing can unleash the collective brainpower of a large group to untangle a problem swiftly, open data sharing could accomplish the same for childhood cancers, including DIPG. In addition to teasing out molecular alterations responsible for making such cancers particularly lethal, pooling data that now sits in silos could help to identify beneficial mutations that allow some children to survive months or years longer than others.

“It’s a question of numbers,” Dr. Vilain says. “The bottom line is that making sense of the genomic information is significantly increased by working through large consortia because they provide access to many more patients with the disease. What is complicated about genetics is we all have genetic variations. The challenge we face is teasing apart regular genetic variations from those genetic variations that actually cause childhood cancers, including DIPG.”

Nazarian predicts some of the early steps for the research consortium will be deciding nuts-and-bolts questions faced by such a start-up venture, such as the best methods to provide data access, corralling the resources needed to store massive amounts of data, and providing data access and cross correlation.

“One of the major challenges that the data resource center will face is to rapidly establish physical data storage space to store all of the data,” Nazarian says. “We’re talking about several petabytes—1,000 terabytes— of data. The second challenge to address will be data dissemination and, specifically, correlation of data across platforms representing different molecular profiles (genome versus proteome, for example). This is just the beginning, and it is fantastic to see a combination of public and private resources in answering these challenges.”

Eric Vilain explores “Disorders/differences of sex development: A world of uncertainty”

Eric Vilain

In his keynote address at Children’s National’s Research and Education Week, Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., explored the genetics of sex development and sex differences.

After announcing he would be joining Children’s National as the new director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research late last year, internationally-renowned geneticist Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., gave a keynote address entitled “Disorders/Differences of Sex Development: A World of Uncertainty” during Children’s National’s Research and Education Week.

Dr. Vilain explored the genetics of sex development and sex differences – specifically differences of sex development (DSD), congenital conditions in which the development of chromosomal, gonadal or anatomical sex is atypical.

“The first step in sex development is looking at genetic sex and how it results in gonadal sex,” Dr. Vilain said. “From a scientific perspective, we are trying to take a step back and assess how cells become more typically male or female.”

He explained that, at conception, the fundamental difference between male and female embryos exists in the sex chromosome complement. Both XX and XY embryos have bipotential gonads capable of differentiating into a testis or an ovary, though embryos are virtually indistinguishable from a gender perspective up until six weeks in utero.

Eric Vilain - sex differences

According to Dr. Vilain, the fundamental difference between male and female embryos exists in the sex chromosome complement, though embryos are virtually indistinguishable until six weeks in utero.

Whether or not a bipotential gonad forms is largely left up to the genetic makeup of the individual. For example, a gene in the Y chromosome (SRY) triggers a cascade of genes that lead to testis development. If there is no Y chromosome, it triggers a series of pro-female genes that lead to ovarian development.

However, genetic mutations can alter the subsequent steps of sex differentiation. Dr. Vilain explained that, depending on the genotype, an individual may experience normal gonadal development, but abnormal development of the genitalia.

He also noted that these genes are critical to determining the differences between men and women in non-gonadal tissues as well.

In addition to exploring the genetics of sex development and sex differences, Dr. Vilain’s research explores the biological bases of sex variations in predisposition to disease. His clinic at Children’s National is completely devoted to caring for patients with a wide array of genetic and endocrine issues, particularly cases dealing with variations of sex development.

For seven years, Children’s National’s Research and Education Week has celebrated the excellence in research, education, innovation and scholarship at Children’s National and around the world. This year, the annual event focused how “Collaboration Leads to Innovation” and celebrated the development of ideas that aim to transform pediatric care.

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D.

Eric Vilain to lead genetic medicine research

Eric Vilain

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., emphasizes the idea of health and disease as a compound process that will transform children’s health and impact a patient throughout life.

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally renowned geneticist well known for groundbreaking studies of gender based biology, will soon lead the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National Health System.

Dr. Vilain joins Children’s National from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where he serves as Professor of Human Genetics, Pediatrics and Urology, Chief of Medical Genetics, and attending physician in the Department of Pediatrics.

As the Director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, Dr. Vilain will emphasize the idea of health and disease as a compound process, which he believes “can transform children’s health and help the treatment and prevention of illness, not only in childhood, but throughout a patient’s life.”

The Center for Genetic Medicine Research currently houses a highly interdisciplinary faculty of over 50 scientists and physician investigators and brings together a variety of clinical and scientific disciplines to coordinate scientific and clinical investigations simultaneously from multiple angles. The Center also provides access to the leading edge innovative technologies in genomics, microscopy, proteomics, bioinformatics, pre-clinical drug trials, and multi-site clinical trial networks for faculty within the Children’s Research Institute, the academic arm of Children’s National.

Dr. Vilain’s current laboratory focuses on the genetics of sexual development and sex differences – specifically the molecular mechanisms of gonad development and the genetic variants of brain sexual differentiation. His research also explores the biological bases of sex variations in predisposition to disease. His work crosses several disciplines (genetics, neuroscience, psychology) leading to findings with major societal implications. In addition to scientific investigation, Dr. Vilain created a clinic devoted to caring for patients with a wide array of genetic and endocrine issues, particularly those with variations of sexual development.

He brings nearly 30 years of expertise with him to Children’s National. He has authored seminal articles regarding the field of sexual development, and his research program has continuously been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Vilain is a Fellow of the American College of Medical Genetics and a member of numerous professional committees. The recipient of numerous awards, he has been recognized by organizations ranging from the NIH to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, March of Dimes, and the Society for Pediatric Research. He has served as an advisor to the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission since 2011 and has been a member of the Board of Scientific Counselors of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development since 2015.

Mark Batshaw, M.D., Executive Vice President, Physician-in-Chief, and Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National says, “Dr. Vilain’s vision and expertise in the study and use of precision medicine approaches, and the development of novel treatments for diseases of childhood, will lead to drastically different and improved outcomes for some of the most devastating diseases, such as cancer.”

“I am honored to join the world-renowned team at Children’s National, and look forward to continuing to find new, innovative ways to research, diagnose and treat rare and common disorders,” Dr. Vilain adds.