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Searching for the molecular underpinnings of asthma exacerbations

little boy using asthma inhaler

It’s long been known that colds, flu and other respiratory illnesses are major triggers for asthma exacerbations, says asthma expert Stephen J. Teach, M.D., MPH. Consequently, a significant body of research has focused on trying to figure out what’s happening on the cellular or molecular level as these illnesses progress to exacerbations.

People with asthma can be indistinguishable from people who don’t have this chronic airway disease – until they have an asthma attack, also known as an exacerbation. During these events, their airways become inflamed and swollen and produce an abundance of mucus, causing dangerous narrowing of the bronchial tubes that leads to coughing, wheezing and trouble breathing. These events are a major cause of morbidity and mortality, leading to the deaths of 10 U.S. residents every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s long been known that colds, flu and other respiratory illnesses are major triggers for asthma exacerbations, says Children’s National in Washington, D.C., asthma expert Stephen J. Teach, M.D., MPH. Consequently, a significant body of research has focused on trying to figure out what’s happening on the cellular or molecular level as these illnesses progress to exacerbations. Targeted searches have identified several different molecular pathways that appear to be key players in this phenomenon. However, Dr. Teach says researchers have been missing a complete and unbiased snapshot of all the important pathways in illness-triggered exacerbations and how they interrelate.

To develop this big picture view, Dr. Teach and  Inner-City Asthma Consortium colleagues recruited 208 children ages 6-17 years old with severe asthma – marked by the need for daily doses of inhaled corticosteroids, two hospitalizations or systemic corticosteroid treatments over the past year, and a high concentration of asthma-associated immune cells – from nine pediatric medical centers across the country, including Children’s National. (Inhaled corticosteroids are a class of medicine that calms inflamed airways.) The researchers collected samples of nasal secretions and blood from these patients at baseline, when all of them were healthy.

Then, they waited for these children to show symptoms of respiratory illnesses. Within six days of cold symptoms, the researchers took two more samples of nasal secretions and blood. They also administered breathing tests to determine whether these respiratory illnesses led to asthma exacerbations and recorded whether these patients were treated with systemic corticosteroids to stem the associated respiratory inflammation.

The researchers examined nasal fluid samples for evidence of viral infection during illness and used analytical methods to identify the causative virus. They analyzed all the samples they collected for changes in concentrations of various immune cells. They also looked globally in these samples for changes in gene expression compared with baseline and between the two collection periods during respiratory illness.

Together, this information told the molecular story about what took place after these children got sick and after some of them developed exacerbations. Of the 208 patients recruited, 106 got respiratory illnesses during the six-month study period, leading to a total of 154 illness events. Of those, 47 caused exacerbations, and 107 didn’t.

About half the exacerbations appeared to have been triggered by a rhinovirus, a cause of common colds, the research team reports in a study published online April 8, 2019, in Nature Immunology. The other children’s cold-like symptoms could have been triggered by pollution, allergens or other irritants.

In most exacerbations, virally triggered or not, the researchers saw early activation of a network of genes that appeared to be associated with SMAD3, a signaling molecule already known to be involved in airway inflammation. At the same time, genes that control a set of immune cells known as lymphocytes were turned down. However, as the exacerbation progressed and worsened, the researchers saw gene networks turned on that related to airway narrowing, mucus hypersecretion and activation of other immune cells.

Exacerbations triggered by viruses were associated with multiple inflammatory pathways, in contrast to those in which viruses weren’t found, which were associated with molecular pathways that affected cells in the airway lining.

The researchers validated these findings in 19 patients who each got respiratory illnesses at least twice during the study period but only developed an exacerbation during one of these episodes, finding the same upregulated and downregulated molecular pathways in these patients as in the study population as a whole. They also identified a set of molecular risk factors in patients at baseline – signatures of gene activation that appeared to put patients at risk for exacerbations when they got sick. When patients were treated with systemic corticosteroids during exacerbations, these medicines appeared to restore only some of the affected molecular pathways to normal, healthy levels. Other molecular pathways remained markedly changed.

Each finding could represent a new target for drugs that could prevent or more effectively treat exacerbations, keeping more patients with asthma healthy and out of the hospital.

“Our consortium study found increased gene expression of enzymes that produce molecules that contribute to narrowed airways and dilated blood vessels,” Dr. Teach adds. “This is especially intriguing because drugs that target kallikreins or bradykinin may help treat asthma attacks that aren’t caused by viruses.”

In addition to Dr. Teach, study co-authors include Lead Author Matthew C. Altman, University of Washington; Michelle A. Gill, Baomei Shao and Rebecca S. Gruchalla, all of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; Elizabeth Whalen and Scott Presnell of Benaroya Research Institute; Denise C. Babineau and Brett Jepson of Rho, Inc.; Andrew H. Liu, Children’s Hospital Colorado; George T. O’Connor, Boston University School of Medicine; Jacqueline A. Pongracic, Ann Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago; Carolyn M. Kercsmar and Gurjit K. Khurana Hershey, , Cincinnati Children’s Hospital; Edward M. Zoratti and Christine C. Johnson, Henry Ford Health System; Meyer Kattan, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons; Leonard B. Bacharier and Avraham Beigelman, Washington University, St. Louis; Steve M. Sigelman, Peter J. Gergen, Lisa M. Wheatley and Alkis Togias, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and James E. Gern, William W. Busse and Senior author Daniel J. Jackson, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Funding for research described in this post was provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under award numbers 1UM1AI114271 and UM2AI117870; CTSA under award numbers UL1TR000150, UL1TR001422 and 5UL1TR001425; the National Institutes of Health under award number UL1TR000451;  CTSI under award number 1UL1TR001430; CCTSI under award numbers UL1TR001082 and 5UM1AI114271; and NCATS under award numbers UL1 TR001876 and UL1TR002345.

Epstein Barr virus

Fighting lymphoma with targeted T-cells

Epstein-Barr virus

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is best known as the cause of mononucleosis, the ubiquitous “kissing disease” that most people contract at some point in their life. But in rare instances, this virus plays a more sinister role as the impetus of lymphomas, cancers that affect the white blood cells known as lymphocytes.

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is best known as the cause of mononucleosis, the ubiquitous “kissing disease” that most people contract at some point in their life. But in rare instances, this virus plays a more sinister role as the impetus of lymphomas, cancers that affect the white blood cells known as lymphocytes. EBV-associated lymphomas account for about 40% of Hodgkin lymphomas, 20% of diffuse large B-cell lymphomas, and more than 90% of natural killer/T-cell lymphomas. This latter type of lymphoma typically has a very poor prognosis even with the “standard of care” lymphoma treatments such as chemotherapy and/or radiation.

When these interventions fail, the only curative approach is an allogeneic  hematopoietic stem cell transplant from a healthy donor, a treatment that’s tough on patients’ bodies and carries significant risks, says Lauren P. McLaughlin, M.D., a pediatrician specializing in hematology and oncology at Children’s National in Washington, D.C. Patients who receive these allogenic transplants are immune-compromised until the donor cells engraft; the grafts can attack patients’ healthy cells in a phenomenon called graft versus host disease; and if patients relapse or don’t respond to this treatment, few options remain.

To help improve outcomes, Dr. McLaughlin and colleagues tested an addition to the allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplant procedure for patients with EBV-associated lymphomas: infusion of a type of immune cell called T cells specifically trained to fight cells infected with EBV.

Dr. McLaughlin, along with Senior Author Catherine M. Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B., director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research and the Program for Cell Enhancement and Technologies for Immunotherapy at Children’s National, and colleagues tested this therapy in 26 patients treated at Children’s National or Baylor College of Medicine. They published these results online on Sept. 27, 2018, in the journal Blood. The study was a Phase I clinical trial, meaning that the therapy was tested primarily for safety, with efficacy as a secondary aim.

Seven patients who received the therapy had active disease that had not responded to conventional therapies. The other 19 were patients deemed to be at high risk for relapse.

Before each patient received their stem cell transplant, their donors gave an additional blood sample to generate the cancer-fighting T cells. Over the next 8 to 10 weeks, the researchers painstakingly manufactured the immune cells known as T-cells that specifically targeted EBV, growing these cells into numbers large enough for clinical use. Then, as early as 30 days after transplant, the researchers infused these T-cells into patients administering at least two doses, spaced two weeks apart.

Over the next several weeks, the researchers at CNMC and Baylor College of Medicine monitored patients with comprehensive exams to see how they fared after these transplants. The results showed that adverse effects from the treatment were exceedingly rare. There were no immediate infusion-related toxicities to the T-cell therapy and only one incident of dose-limiting toxicity.

This therapy may be efficacious, depending on the individual patients’ circumstances, Dr McLaughlin adds. For those in complete remission but at high risk of relapsing, the two-year survival rate was 78%, suggesting that the administration of this novel T-cell therapy may give the immune system a boost to prevent the lymphoma from returning after transplant. For patients with active T-cell lymphomas, two-year survival rates were 60%. However, even these lower rates are better than the historical norm of 30-50%, suggesting that the targeted T-cell therapies could help fight disease in patients with this poor prognosis lymphoma.

Dr. McLaughlin, the study’s lead author and a Lymphoma Research Foundation grantee, notes that researchers have more work to do before this treatment becomes mainstream. For example, this treatment will need to be tested in larger populations of patients with EBV-related lymphoma to determine who would derive the most benefit, the ideal dose and dose timing. It also may be possible to extend targeted T-cell treatments like this to other types of cancers. In the future, Dr. McLaughlin adds, it may be possible to develop T-cells that could be used “off the shelf”—in other words, they wouldn’t need to come from a matched donor and would be ready to use whenever a recipient needs them. Another future goal is using this therapy as one of the first lines of treatment rather than as a last resort.

“Our ultimate goal is to find a way to avoid chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy while still effectively treating a patient’s cancer,” she says. “Can you use the immune system to do that job? We’re working to answer that question.”

In addition to Drs. McLaughlin and Bollard, study co-authors include Rayne Rouce, Stephen Gottschalk, Vicky Torrano, George Carrum, Andrea M. Marcogliese, Bambi Grilley, Adrian P. Gee, Malcolm K. Brenner, Cliona M. Rooney and Helen E. Heslop, all of Baylor College of Medicine; Meng-Fen Wu from the Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center; and Fahmida Hoq and Patrick J. Hanley, Ph.D. from Children’s National in Washington, D.C.

Paradoxical outcomes for Zika-exposed tots

In the midst of an unprecedented Zika crisis in Brazil, there were a few flickers of hope: Some babies appeared to be normal at birth, free of devastating birth defects that affected other Brazilian children exposed to the virus in utero.

In the midst of an unprecedented Zika crisis in Brazil, there were a few flickers of hope: Some babies appeared to be normal at birth, free of devastating birth defects that affected other Brazilian children exposed to the virus in utero. But according to a study published online July 8, 2019, in Nature Medicine and an accompanying commentary co-written by a Children’s National clinician-researcher, the reality for Zika-exposed infants is much more complicated.

Study authors led by Karin Nielsen-Saines at David Geffen UCLA School of Medicine followed 216 infants in Rio de Janeiro who had been exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy, performing neurodevelopmental testing when the babies ranged in age from 7 to 32 months. These infants’ mothers had had Zika-related symptoms themselves, including rash.

Although many children had normal assessments, 29% scored below average in at least one domain of neurological development, including cognitive performance, fine and gross motor skills and expressive language, Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., and a colleague write in a companion commentary published online by Nature Medicine July 29, 2019.

The study authors found progressively higher risks for developmental, hearing and eye abnormality depending on how early the pregnancy was at the time the infants were exposed. Because Zika virus has an affinity for immature neurons, even babies who were not born with microcephaly remained at continued risk for suffering abnormalities.

Of note, 24 of 49 (49%) infants who had abnormalities at birth went on to have normal test results in the second or third year of life. By contrast, 17 of 68 infants (25%) who had normal assessments at birth had below-average developmental testing or had abnormalities in hearing or vision by age 32 months.

“This work follows babies who were born in 2015 and 2016. It’s heartening that some babies born with abnormalities tested in the normal range later in life, though it’s unclear whether any specific interventions help to deliver these positive findings,” says Dr. Mulkey, a fetalneonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National in Washington, D.C. “And it’s quite sobering that babies who appeared normal at birth went on to develop abnormalities due to that early Zika exposure.”

It’s unclear how closely the findings apply to the vast majority of U.S. women whose Zika infections were asymptomatic.

“This study adds to the growing body of research that argues in favor of ongoing follow-up for Zika-exposed children, even if their neurologic exams were reassuring at birth,” Dr. Mulkey adds. “As Zika-exposed children approach school age, it’s critical to better characterize the potential implications for the education system and public health.”

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, the perspective’s senior author, William J. Muller, Northwestern University, was the commentary’s lead author.

Sarah Mulkey

MRI and ultrasound imaging detect the spectrum of Zika’s impact

Sarah Mulkey

“A combination of prenatal MRI and US was able to detect Zika-related brain abnormalities during pregnancy, giving families timely information to prepare for the potential complex care needs of these infants,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

Worldwide, thousands of babies have been born to mothers who were infected during pregnancy with Zika, a virus associated with neurological deficits, impaired vision and neurodevelopmental disabilities, among other birth defects. These birth defects are sometimes severe, causing lifelong disability. But they’re also relatively rare compared with the overall rates of infection.

Predicting how many Zika-exposed babies would experience neurological birth defects has been challenging.

However, an international study led by Children’s faculty suggests that ultrasound (US) imaging performed during pregnancy and after childbirth revealed most Zika-related brain abnormalities experienced by infants exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy, according to a prospective cohort study published online Nov. 26, 2018, in JAMA Pediatrics. Some Zika-exposed infants whose imaging had been normal during pregnancy had mild brain abnormalities detected by US and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) after they were born.

“A combination of prenatal MRI and US was able to detect Zika-related brain abnormalities during pregnancy, giving families timely information to prepare for the potential complex care needs of these infants,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Health System and the study’s lead author. “In our study, we detected mild brain abnormalities on postnatal neuroimaging for babies whose imaging was normal during pregnancy. Therefore, it is important for clinicians to continue to monitor brain development for Zika-exposed infants after birth.”

As of Nov. 20 2018, nearly 2,500 pregnant women in the U.S. had laboratory confirmed Zika infection, and about 2,400 of them had given birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While more than 100 U.S. infants were born with Zika-associated birth defects, the vast majority of Zika-exposed U.S. infants were apparently normal at birth. The sequential neuroimaging study Dr. Mulkey leads seeks to determine the spectrum of brain findings in infants exposed to Zika in the womb using both US and MRI before and after birth.

The international research team enrolled 82 women in the study from June 15, 2016, through June 27, 2017. All of the women had been exposed to Zika during pregnancy; all but one experienced clinical symptoms by a mean gestational age of 8.2 weeks. Eighty of those women lived in or near Barranquilla, Colombia, and were exposed to Zika there. Two U.S. study participants were exposed to the primarily mosquito-borne illness during travel to Zika hot zones.

All women received fetal MRIs and US during the second and/or third trimester of pregnancy. After their infants were born, the children received brain MRI and cranial US. Blood samples from both mothers and babies were tested for Zika using polymerase chain reaction and serology.

Fetal MRI was able to discern Zika-related brain damage as early as 18 weeks gestation and picked up significant fetal brain abnormalities not fully appreciated in US imaging. In one case, the US remained normal while fetal MRI alone detected brain abnormalities. Three fetuses (4 percent) had severe fetal brain abnormalities consistent with Zika infection, including:

Seventy-five infants were born at term. One pregnancy was terminated at 23 weeks gestation due to the gravity of the fetal brain abnormalities. One fetus with normal imaging died during pregnancy. One newborn who was born with significant fetal brain abnormalities died at age 3 days.

Cranial US and brain MRI was performed on the majority of infants whose prenatal imaging had been normal.  Seven of 53 (13 percent) Zika-exposed infants had mild brain abnormalities detected by MRI after birth. In contrast, postnatal cranial US was better at detecting changes of lenticulostriate vasculopathy, cysts within the brain’s choroid plexus (cells that produce cerebrospinal fluid), germinolytic/subependymal cysts and/or calcifications, which were seen in 21 of 57 (37 percent) infants.

“Sequential neuroimaging revealed that the majority of Zika-exposed fetuses had normal brain development. Tragically, in a small number of pregnancies, Zika-related brain abnormalities were quite severe,” Dr. Mulkey adds. “Our data support the CDC’s recommendation that cranial US be performed after Zika-exposed babies are born. In addition, there is clearly a need to follow these babies over time to gauge whether the brain anomalies we see in imaging affects language, motor and social skills.”

Companion editorial: Revealing the effects of Zika

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D.Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Margarita Arroyave-Wessel, MPH,  Stephanie Russo, B.S, Youssef A. Kousa, D.O, Ph.D.Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, Senior Author Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, all of Children’s National; Christopher Swisher, BS, Georgetown University and Caitlin Cristante, BS, Loyola University, both of  whose contributions included research performed at Children’s National; Yamil Fourzali, M.D., Armando Morales, M.D., both of Sabbag Radiologos; Liliana Encinales, M.D., Allied Research Society; Nelly Pacheco, Bacteriologa, Bio-Nep; Robert S. Lanciotti, Ph.D., Arbovirus Diseases Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Carlos Cure, M.D., BIOMELAB.

Research reported in this news release was supported by the IKARIA fund.