Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Making healthcare innovation for children a priority

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Recently, Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National Hospital, authored an opinion piece for the popular political website, The Hill. In the article, he called upon stakeholders from across the landscape to address the significant innovation gap in children’s healthcare versus adults.

As Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Children’s Hospital Association,  Dr. Newman knows the importance of raising awareness among policy makers at the federal and state level about the healthcare needs of children. Dr. Newman believes that children’s health should be a national priority that is addressed comprehensively. With years of experience as a pediatric surgeon, he is concerned by the major inequities in the advancements of children’s medical devices and technologies versus those for adults. That’s why Children’s National is working to create collaborations, influence policies and facilitate changes that will accelerate the pace of pediatric healthcare innovation for the benefit of children everywhere. One way that the hospital is tackling this challenge is by developing the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, which will be the nation’s first innovation campus focused on pediatric research.

Research & Innovation Campus

Children’s National partners with Virginia Tech

Children’s National Hospital and Virginia Tech create formal partnership that includes the launch of a Virginia Tech biomedical research facility within the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus.

Children’s National Hospital and Virginia Tech recently announced a formal partnership that will include the launch of a 12,000-square-foot Virginia Tech biomedical research facility within the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus. The campus is an expansion of Children’s National that is located on a nearly 12-acre portion of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and is set to open its first phase in December 2020. This new collaboration brings together Virginia Tech, a top tier academic research institution, with Children’s National, a U.S. News and World Report top 10 children’s hospital, on what will be the nation’s first innovation campus focused on pediatric research.

Research & Innovation Campus

“Virginia Tech is an ideal partner to help us deliver on what we promised for the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus – an ecosystem that enables us to accelerate the translation of potential breakthrough discoveries into new treatments and technologies,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO, Children’s National. “Our clinical expertise combined with Virginia Tech’s leadership in engineering and technology, and its growing emphasis on biomedical research, will be a significant advance in developing much needed treatment and cures to save children’s lives.”

Earlier this year, Children’s National announced a collaboration with Johnson & Johnson Innovation LLC to launch JLABS @ Washington, DC at the Research & Innovation Campus. The JLABS @ Washington, DC site will be open to pharmaceutical, medical device, consumer and health technology companies that are aiming to advance the development of new drugs, medical devices, precision diagnostics and health technologies, including applications in pediatrics.

“We are proud to welcome Virginia Tech to our historic Walter Reed campus – a campus that is shaping up to host some of the top minds, talent and innovation incubators in the world,” says Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. “The new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus will exemplify why D.C. is the capital of inclusive innovation – because we are a city committed to building the public and private partnerships necessary to drive discoveries, create jobs, promote economic growth and keep D.C. at the forefront of innovation and change.”

Faculty from the Children’s National Research Institute and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion (VTC) have worked together for more than a decade, already resulting in shared research grants, collaborative publications and shared intellectual property. Together, the two institutions will now expand their collaborations to develop new drugs, medical devices, software applications and other novel treatments for cancer, rare diseases and other disorders.

“Joining with Children’s National in the nation’s capital positions Virginia Tech to improve the health and well-being of infants and children around the world,” says Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, Ph.D. “This partnership resonates with our land-grant mission to solve big problems and create new opportunities in Virginia and D.C. through education, technology and research.”

The partnership with Children’s National adds to Virginia Tech’s growing footprint in the Washington D.C. region, which includes plans for a new graduate campus in Alexandria, Va. with a human-centered approach to technological innovation. Sands said the proximity of the two locations – just across the Potomac – will enable researchers to leverage resources, and will also create opportunities with the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va. and the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Science and Technology campus in Roanoke, Va.

Carilion Clinic and Children’s National have an existing collaboration for provision of certain specialized pediatric clinical services. The more formalized partnership between Virginia Tech and Children’s National will drive the already strong Virginia Tech-Carilion Clinic partnership, particularly for children’s health initiatives and facilitate collaborations between all three institutions in the pediatric research and clinical service domains.

Children’s National and Virginia Tech will engage in joint faculty recruiting, joint intellectual property, joint training of students and fellows, and collaborative research projects and programs according to Michael Friedlander, Ph.D., Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology, and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

“The expansion and formalization of our partnership with Children’s National is extremely timely and vital for pediatric research innovation and for translating these innovations into practice to prevent, treat and ultimately cure nervous system cancer in children,” says Friedlander, who has collaborated with Children’s National leaders and researchers for more than 20 years. “Both Virginia Tech and Children’s National have similar values and cultures with a firm commitment to discovery and innovation in the service of society.”

“Brain and other nervous system cancers are among the most common cancers in children (alongside leukemia),” says Friedlander. “With our strength in neurobiology including adult brain cancer research in both humans and companion animals at Virginia Tech and the strength of Children’s National research in pediatric cancer, developmental neuroscience and intellectual disabilities, this is a perfect match.”

The design of the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus not only makes it conducive for the hospital to strengthen its prestigious partnerships with Virginia Tech and Johnson & Johnson, it also fosters synergies with federal agencies like the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which will collaborate with JLABS @ Washington, DC to establish a specialized innovation zone to develop responses to health security threats. As more partners sign on, this convergence of key public and private institutions will accelerate discoveries and bring them to market faster for the benefit of children and adults.

“The Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus pairs an inspirational mission to find new treatments for childhood illness and disease with the ideal environment for early stage companies. I am confident the campus will be a magnet for big ideas and will be an economic boost for Washington DC and the region,” says Jeff Zients, who was appointed chair of the Children’s National Board of Directors effective October 1, 2019. As a CEO and the former director of President Obama’s National Economic Council, Zients says that “When you bring together business, academia, health care and government in the right setting, you create a hotbed for innovation.”

Ranked 7th in National Institutes of Health research funding among pediatric hospitals, Children’s National continues to foster collaborations as it prepares to open its first 158,000-square-foot phase of its Research & Innovation Campus. These key partnerships will enable the hospital to fulfill its mission of keeping children top of mind for healthcare innovation and research while also contributing to Washington D.C.’s thriving innovation economy.

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

Novel approach to detect fetal growth restriction

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

Morphometric and textural analyses of magnetic resonance imaging can point out subtle architectural deviations associated with fetal growth restriction during the second half of pregnancy, a first-time finding that has the promise to lead to earlier intervention.

Morphometric and textural analyses of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can point out subtle architectural deviations that are associated with fetal growth restriction (FGR) during the second half of pregnancy. The first-time finding hints at the potential to spot otherwise hidden placental woes earlier and intervene in a more timely fashion, a research team led by Children’s National Hospital faculty reports in Pediatric Research.

“We found reduced placental size, as expected, but also determined that the textural metrics are accelerated in FGR when factoring in gestational age, suggesting premature placental aging in FGR,” says Nickie Andescavage, M.D., a neonatologist at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “While morphometric and textural features can discriminate placental differences between FGR cases with and without Doppler abnormalities, the pattern of affected features differs between these sub-groups. Of note, placental insufficiency with abnormal Doppler findings have significant differences in the signal-intensity metrics, perhaps related to differences of water content within the placenta.”

The placenta, an organ shared by the pregnant woman and the developing fetus, delivers oxygen and nutrients to the developing fetus and ferries away waste products. Placental insufficiency is characterized by a placenta that develops poorly or is damaged, impairing blood flow, and can result in still birth or death shortly after birth. Surviving infants may be born preterm or suffer early brain injury; later in life, they may experience cardiovascular, metabolic or neuropsychiatric problems.

Because there are no available tools to help clinicians identify small but critical changes in placental architecture during pregnancy, placental insufficiency often is found after some damage is already done. Typically, it is discovered when FGR is diagnosed, when a fetus weighs less than 9 of 10 fetuses of the same gestational age.

“There is a growing appreciation for the prenatal origin of some neuropsychiatric disorders that manifest years to decades later. Those nine months of gestation very much define the breath of who we later become as adults,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “By identifying better biomarkers of fetal distress at an earlier stage in pregnancy and refining our imaging toolkit to detect them, we set the stage to be able to intervene earlier and improve children’s overall outcomes.”

The research team studied 32 healthy pregnancies and compared them with 34 pregnancies complicated by FGR. These women underwent up to two MRIs between 20 weeks to 40 weeks gestation. They also had abdominal circumference, fetal head circumference and fetal femur length measured as well as fetal weight estimated.

In pregnancies complicated by FGR, placentas were smaller, thinner and shorter than uncomplicated pregnancies and had decreased placental volume. Ten of 13 textural and morphometric features that differed between the two groups were associated with absolute birth weight.

“Interestingly, when FGR is diagnosed in the second trimester, placental volume, elongation and thickness are significantly reduced compared with healthy pregnancies, whereas the late-onset of FGR only affects placental volume,” Limperopoulos adds. “We believe with early-onset FGR there is a more significant reduction in the developing placental units that is detected by gross measures of size and shape. By the third trimester, the overall shape of the placenta seems to have been well defined so that primarily volume is affected in late-onset FGR.”

In addition to Dr. Andescavage and Limperopoulos, study co-authors include Sonia Dahdouh, Sayali Yewale, Dorothy Bulas, M.D., chief of the Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, and Biostatistician, Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., MPH, all of Children’s National; Sara Iqbal, of MedStar Washington Hospital Center; and Ahmet Baschat, of Johns Hopkins Center for Fetal Therapy.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award number 1U54HD090257, R01-HL116585, UL1TR000075 and KL2TR000076, and the Clinical-Translational Science Institute-Children’s National.

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.

allopregnanolone molecule

Autism spectrum disorder risk linked to insufficient placental steroid

allopregnanolone molecule

A study led by Children’s National Hospital and presented during Neuroscience 2019 finds that loss of allopregnanolone, a key hormone supplied by the placenta, leads to long-term structural alterations of the cerebellum – a brain region essential for smooth motor coordination, balance and social cognition – and increases the risk of developing autism.

An experimental model study suggests that allopregnanolone, one of many hormones produced by the placenta during pregnancy, is so essential to normal fetal brain development that when provision of that hormone decreases – as occurs with premature birth – offspring are more likely to develop autism-like behaviors, a Children’s National Hospital research team reports at the Neuroscience 2019 annual meeting.

“To our knowledge, no other research team has studied how placental allopregnanolone (ALLO) contributes to brain development and long-term behaviors,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead author. “Our study finds that targeted loss of ALLO in the womb leads to long-term structural alterations of the cerebellum – a brain region that is essential for motor coordination, balance and social cognition ­– and increases the risk of developing autism,” Vacher says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 infants is born preterm, before 37 weeks gestation; and 1 in 59 children has autism spectrum disorder.

In addition to presenting the abstract, on Monday, Oct. 21, Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., the abstract’s senior author, will discuss the research with reporters during a Neuroscience 2019 news conference. This Children’s National abstract is among 14,000 abstracts submitted for the meeting, the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

ALLO production by the placenta rises in the second trimester of pregnancy, and levels of the neurosteroid peak as fetuses approach full term.

To investigate what happens when ALLO supplies are disrupted, a research team led by Children’s National created a novel transgenic preclinical model in which they deleted a gene essential in ALLO synthesis. When production of ALLO in the placentas of these experimental models declines, offspring had permanent neurodevelopmental changes in a sex- and region-specific manner.

“From a structural perspective, the most pronounced cerebellar abnormalities appeared in the cerebellum’s white matter,” Vacher adds. “We found increased thickness of the myelin, a lipid-rich insulating layer that protects nerve fibers. From a behavioral perspective, male offspring whose ALLO supply was abruptly reduced exhibited increased repetitive behavior and sociability deficits – two hallmarks in humans of autism spectrum disorder.”

On a positive note, providing a single ALLO injection during pregnancy was enough to avert both the cerebellar abnormalities and the aberrant social behaviors.

The research team is now launching a new area of research focus they call “neuroplacentology” to better understand the role of placenta function on fetal and newborn brain development.

“Our team’s data provide exciting new evidence that underscores the importance of placental hormones on shaping and programming the developing fetal brain,” Vacher notes.

  • Neuroscience 2019 presentation
    Sunday, Oct. 20, 9:30 a.m. (CDT)
    “Preterm ASD risk linked to cerebellar white matter changes”
    Claire-Marie Vacher, lead author; Sonia Sebaoui, co-author; Helene Lacaille, co-author; Jackie Salzbank, co-author; Jiaqi O’Reilly, co-author; Diana Bakalar, co-author; Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., neonatologist and co-author; and Anna Penn, M.D., clinical neonatologist and developmental neuroscientist and senior author.
Bella when she was sick

Preserving brain function by purposely inducing strokes

Bella when she was sick

Born to young parents, no prenatal testing had suggested any problems with Bella’s brain. But just a few hours after birth, Bella suffered her first seizure – one of many that would follow in the ensuing days. After brain imaging, her doctors in Iowa diagnosed her with hemimegalencephaly.

Strokes are neurologically devastating events, cutting off life-sustaining oxygen to regions of the brain. If these brain tissues are deprived of oxygen long enough, they die, leading to critical loss of function – and sometimes loss of life.

“As physicians, we’re taught to prevent or treat stroke. We’re never taught to inflict it,” says Taeun Chang, M.D., director of the Neonatal Neurology and Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program at Children’s National Hospital.

That’s why a treatment developed at Children’s National for a rare brain condition called hemimegalencephaly is so surprising, Dr. Chang explains. By inflicting controlled, targeted strokes, Children’s National physician-researchers have treated five newborns born with intractable seizures due to hemimegalencephaly before they’re eligible for epilepsy surgery, the standard of care. In the four surviving infants, the procedures drastically reduced or completely relieved the infants of hemimegalencephaly’s characteristic, uncontrollable seizures.

The most recent patient to receive this life-changing procedure is Bella, a 13-month-old from Iowa whose treatment at Children’s National began within her second week of life. Born to young parents, no prenatal testing had suggested any problems with Bella’s brain. But just a few hours after birth, Bella suffered her first seizure – one of many that would follow in the ensuing days. After brain imaging, her doctors in Iowa diagnosed her with hemimegalencephaly.

A congenital condition occurring in just a handful of children born worldwide each year, hemimegalencephaly is marked by one brain hemisphere growing strikingly larger and dysplastic than the other, Dr. Chang explains. This abnormal half of the brain is highly vascularized, rippled with blood vessels needed to support the seizing brain. The most conspicuous symptoms of hemimegalencephaly are the numerous seizures that it causes, sometimes several in the course of an hour, which also may prevent the normal half of the brain from developing and learning.

Prior studies suggest early surgery achieves better developmental outcomes with one study reporting as much as a drop of 10-20 IQ points with every month delay in epilepsy surgery.

The standard treatment for unilateral megalencephaly is a dramatic procedure called a hemispherectomy, in which surgeons remove and disconnect the affected half of the brain, allowing the remaining half to take over its neurological duties. However, Dr. Chang says, implementing this procedure in infants younger than 3 months of age is highly dangerous.  Excessive, potentially fatal blood loss is likely in infants younger than 3 months who have a highly vascularized brain in the setting of an immature coagulation system. That leaves their doctors with no choice but to wait until these infants are at least 3 months old, when they are more likely to survive the surgery.

However, five years ago, Dr. Chang and her colleagues came up with a different idea when a newborn continued to have several seizures per hour despite multiple IV seizure medications: Because strokes cause irreversible tissue death, it might be possible to effectively incapacitate the enlarged hemisphere from within by inflicting a stroke on purpose. At the very least, this “functional embolization” might buy time for a traditional hemispherectomy, and slow or halt ongoing brain damage until the infants are able to withstand surgery. Ideally, this procedure may be all some children need, knocking out the offending hemisphere completely so they’d never need a hemispherectomy, which has late complications, such as hydrocephalus.

A pediatrician friend of Bella’s paternal grandparents read a story on Children’s National website about Darcy, another baby who’d received functional embolization a year earlier and was doing well. She contacted Dr. Chang to see if the procedure would be appropriate for Bella.

Within days, Bella and her family headed to Washington, D.C., to prepare for functional embolization herself. Within the first weeks of life, Bella underwent three separate procedures, each three to four hours long. Under real-time fluoroscopic and angiographic guidance, interventional neuroradiologist Monica Pearl, M.D., threaded a micro-catheter up from the baby’s femoral artery through the complex network of blood vessels all the way to her brain. There, in targeted branches of her cerebral arteries, Dr. Pearl strategically placed liquid embolic agent to obstruct blood flow to the abnormal half of Bella’s brain.

Immediately after the first procedure, the team had to contend with the same consequences that come after any stroke: brain swelling that can cause bleeding and herniation, complicated further by the already enlarged hemisphere of Bella’s brain. Using neuroprotective strategies learned from treating hundreds of brain-injured newborns, the neonatal neurocritical care team and the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) minimized the brain swelling and protected the normal half of the brain by tightly controlling the brain temperature, her sugar and electrolyte levels, her blood pressure and coagulation system.

As the brain tissue in the oversized hemisphere died, so did the seizures that had plagued Bella since birth. She has not had a seizure since she left Children’s National more than one year ago. Her adoptive parents report that Bella is hitting many of the typical developmental milestones for her age: She’s getting ready to walk, blowing kisses and saying a few words. Physical, speech and occupational therapy will keep her moving in the right direction, Dr. Chang says.

“We believe that Children’s National is the only place in the world that’s treating newborns in this way to preserve their futures,” Dr. Chang says. “We’re privileged to be able to care for Bella and other kids with this rare condition.”

Bella’s transfer and successful procedures required the support and collective efforts of many within the hospital organization including William D. Gaillard, M.D., and his surgical epilepsy team; interventional neuroradiology with Dr. Monica Pearl; Neurosurgery; Neonatology and the NICU; social work; and even approval from Robin Steinhorn, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Hospital-Based Specialties, and David Wessel, M.D., executive vice president and Chief Medical Officer.

“While obvious credit goes to the medical team who saved Bella’s future and the neonatal intensive care nurses who provided exceptional, intensive, one-on-one care, Bella’s team of supporters extend to all levels within our hospital,” Dr. Chang adds.

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Bella's brain scan

Born with hemimegalencephaly, Bella now has a bright future

bella's brain scans

Bella was born with a rare condition (hemimegalencephaly) in which one half of the brain developed abnormally, causing seizures. The textbook approach is to let babies grow big enough for a dramatic surgery. But Bella’s left hemisphere was triggering so many seizures each hour that waiting would mean her life would be defined by severe disability. Children’s National Hospital is believed to be the only center in the world that calms these seizures through controlled strokes.

Procedure one occurred five days after Bella came to Children’s National Hospital from Iowa, when she was 13 days old. The team first optimized control of her seizures and obtained special magnetic resonance images to plan their approach. They glued up the branches of the left posterior cerebral artery and branches of the left middle cerebral artery. Bella had a tiny bleed that was controlled immediately in the angio suite and afterwards in the Children’s National neonatal intensive care unit.

Procedure two occurred 10 days later when Bella was 23 days old. The team waited until brain swelling had subsided and brain tissue loss had occurred from the first procedure. This time, they glued up the remaining branches of the left posterior cerebral artery and some branches of the left anterior cerebral artery.

The third and final procedure was done nine days later when Bella was 29 days old.  This time the team glued and coiled, placing little wire coils where it was unsafe to use glue, getting at the remaining small and numerous branches that remained of the left anterior cerebral artery.

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Mihailo Kaplarevic

Extracting actionable research data faster, with fewer hassles

Mihailo Kaplarevic

Mihailo Kaplarevic, Ph.D., the newly minted Chief Research Information Officer at Children’s National Hospital and Bioinformatics Division Chief at Children’s National Research Institute, will provide computational support, advice, informational guidance, expertise in big data and data analyses for researchers and clinicians.

Kaplarevic’s new job is much like the role he played most recently at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), assembling a team of researchers and scientists skilled in computing and statistical analyses to assist as in-house experts for other researchers and scientists.

NHLBI was the first institute within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) family to set up a scientific information office. During his tenure, a half-dozen other NIH institutions followed, setting up the same entity to help bridge the enormous gap between basic and clinical science and everything related to IT.

“There is a difference compared with traditional IT support at Children’s National – which will remain in place and still do the same sort of things they have been doing so far,” he says of The Bear Institute for Health Innovation. “The difference is this office has experience in research because every single one of us was a researcher at a certain point in our career: We are published. We applied for grants. We lived the life of a typical scientist. On top of that, we’re coming from the computational world. That helps us bridge the gaps between research and clinical worlds and IT.”

Ultimately, he aims to foster groundbreaking science by recognizing the potential to enhance research projects by bringing expertise acquired over his career and powerful computing tools to help teams achieve their goals in a less expensive and more efficient way.

“I have lived the life of a typical scientist. I know exactly how painful and frustrating it can be to want to do something quickly and efficiently but be slowed by technological barriers,” he adds.

As just one example, his office will design the high-performance computing cluster for the hospital to help teams extract more useful clinical and research data with fewer headaches.

Right now, the hospital has three independent clinical systems storing patient data; all serve a different purpose. (And there are also a couple of research information systems, also used for different purposes.) Since databases are his expertise, he will be involved in consolidating data resources, finding the best way to infuse the project with the bigger-picture mission – especially for translational science – and creating meaningful, actionable reports.

“It’s not only about running fewer queries,” he explains. “One needs to know how to design the right question. One needs to know how to design that question in a way that the systems could understand. And, once you get the data back, it’s a big set of things that you need to further filter and carefully shape. Only then will you get the essence that has clinical or scientific value. It’s a long process.”

As he was introduced during a Children’s National Research Institute faculty meeting in late-September 2019, Kaplarevic joked that his move away from pure computer science into a health care and clinical research domain was triggered by his parents: “When my mom would introduce me, she would say ‘My son is a doctor, but not the kind of doctor who helps other people.’ ”

Some of that know-how will play out by applying tools and methodology to analyze big data to pluck out the wheat (useful data) from the chaff in an efficient and useful way. On projects that involve leveraging cloud computing for storing massive amounts of data, it could entail analyzing the data wisely to reduce its size when it comes back from the cloud – when the real storage costs come in. “You can save a lot of money by being smart about how you analyze data,” he says.

While he expects his first few months will be spent getting the lay of the land, understanding research project portfolios, key principal investigators and the pediatric hospital’s biggest users in the computational domain, he has ambitious longer-term goals.

“Three years from now, I would like this institution to say that the researchers are feeling confident that their research is not affected by limitations related to computer science in general. I would like this place to become a very attractive environment for up-and-coming researchers as well as for established researchers because we are offering cutting-edge technological efficiencies; we are following the trends; we are a secure place; and we foster science in the best possible way by making computational services accessible, affordable and reliable.”

Lee Beers

Getting to know Lee Beers, M.D., FAAP, future president-elect of AAP

Lee Beers

Lee Savio Beers, M.D., FAAP, Medical Director of Community Health and Advocacy at the Child Health Advocacy Institute (CHAI) at Children’s National Hospital carved out a Monday morning in late-September 2019, as she knew the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) would announce the results of its presidential election, first by telephone call, then by an email to all of its members.  Her husband blocked off the morning as well to wait with her for the results.  She soon got the call that she was elected by her peers to become AAP president-elect, beginning Jan. 1, 2020. Dr. Beers will then serve as AAP president in 2021 for a one-year term.

That day swept by in a rush, and then the next day she was back in clinic, caring for her patients, some of them teenagers whom she had taken care of since birth. Seeing children and families she had known for such a long time, some of whom had complex medical needs, was a perfect reminder of what originally motivated Dr. Beers to be considered as a candidate in the election.

“When we all work together – with our colleagues, other professionals, communities and families – we can make a real difference in the lives of children.  So many people have reached out to share their congratulations, and offer their support or help. There is a real sense of collaboration and commitment to child health,” Dr. Beers says.

That sense of excitement ripples through Children’s National.

“Dr. Beers has devoted her career to helping children. She has developed a national advocacy platform for children. I can think of no better selection for the president-elect role of the AAP. She will be of tremendous service to children within AAP national leadership,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., Children’s National Hospital President and CEO.

AAP comprises 67​,000 pediatricians, and its mission is to promote and safeguard the health and well-being of all children – from infancy to adulthood.

The daughter of a nuclear engineer and a schoolteacher, Dr. Beers knew by age 5 that she would become a doctor. Trained as a chemist, she entered the Emory University School of Medicine after graduation. After completing residency at the Naval Medical Center, she became the only pediatrician assigned to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station.

That assignment to Cuba, occurring so early in her career, turned out to be a defining moment that shapes how she partners with families and other members of the team to provide comprehensive care.

“I was a brand-new physician, straight out of residency, and was the only pediatrician there so I was responsible for the health of all of the kids on the base. I didn’t know it would be this way at the time, but it was formative. It taught me to take a comprehensive public health approach to taking care of kids and their families,” she recalls.

On the isolated base, where she also ran the immunization clinic and the nursery, she quickly learned she had to judiciously use resources and work together as a team.

“It meant that I had to learn how to lead a multi-disciplinary team and think about how our health care systems support or get in the way of good care,” she says.

One common thread that unites her past and present is helping families build resiliency to shrug off adversity and stress.

“The base was a difficult and isolated place for some families and individuals, so I thought a lot about how to support them. One way is finding strong relationships where you are, which was important for patients and families miles away from their support systems. Another way is to find things you could do that were meaningful to you.”

Cuba sits where the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico meet. Dr. Beers learned how to scuba dive there – something she never would have done otherwise – finding it restful and restorative to appreciate the underwater beauty.

“I do think these lessons about resilience are universal. There are actually a lot of similarities between the families I take care of now, many of whom are in socioeconomically vulnerable situations, and military families when you think about the level of stress they are exposed to,” she adds.

Back stateside in 2001, Dr. Beers worked as a staff pediatrician at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. In 2003, Dr. Beers joined Children’s National Hospital as a general pediatrician in the Goldberg Center for Community Pediatric Health. Currently, she oversees the DC Collaborative for Mental Health in Pediatric Primary Care, a public-private coalition that elevates the standards of mental health care for all children, and is Co-Director of the Early Childhood Innovation Network. She received the Academic Pediatric Association’s 2019 Public Policy and Advocacy Award.

As a candidate, Dr. Beers pledged to continue AAP’s advocacy and public policy efforts and to further enhance membership diversity and inclusion. Among her signature issues:

  • Partnering with patients, families, communities, mental health providers and pediatricians to co-design systems to bolster children’s resiliency and to alleviate growing pediatric mental health concerns
  • Tackling physician burnout by supporting pediatricians through office-based education and systems reforms
  • Expanding community-based prevention and treatment

“I am humbled and honored to have the support of my peers in taking on this newest leadership role,” says Dr. Beers. “AAP has been a part of my life since I first became a pediatrician, and my many leadership roles in the DC chapter and national AAP have given me a glimpse of the collective good that pediatricians can accomplish by working together toward common strategic goals.”

AAP isn’t just an integral part of her life, it’s where she met her future husband, Nathaniel Beers, M.D., MPA, FAAP, President of The HSC Health Care System. The couple’s children regularly attended AAP meetings with them when they were young.

Just take a glimpse at Lee Beers’ Twitter news feed. There’s a steady stream of images of her jogging before AAP meetings to amazing sunrises, jogging after AAP meetings to stellar sunsets and always, always, images of the entire family, once collectively costumed as The Incredibles.

“I really do believe that we have to set an example: If we are talking about supporting children and families in our work, we have to set that example in our own lives. That looks different for everyone, but as pediatricians and health professionals, we can model prioritizing our families while still being committed to our work,” she explains.

“Being together in the midst of the craziness is just part of what we do as a family. We travel a lot, and our kids have gone with us to AAP meetings since they were infants. My husband even brought our infant son to a meeting at the mayor’s office when he was on paternity leave. Recognizing that not everyone is in a position to be able to do things like that, it’s important for us to do it – to continue to change the conversation and make it normal to have your family to be part of your whole life, not have a separate work life and a separate family life.”

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.

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Focusing on the “little brain” to rescue cognition

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Research faculty at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., with colleagues recently published a review article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience that covers the latest research about how abnormal development of the cerebellum leads to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Cerebellum translates as “little brain” in Latin. This piece of anatomy – that appears almost separate from the rest of the brain, tucked under the two cerebral hemispheres – long has been known to play a pivotal role in voluntary motor functions, such as walking or reaching for objects, as well as involuntary ones, such as maintaining posture.

But more recently, says Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the Children’s Research Institute, the research arm of Children’s National  in Washington, D.C., researchers have discovered that the cerebellum is also critically important for a variety of non-motor functions, including cognition and emotion.

Sathyanesan, who studies this brain region in the laboratory of Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National and scientific director of the Children’s Research Institute, recently published a review article with colleagues in Nature Reviews Neuroscience covering the latest research about how altered development of the cerebellum contributes to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

These disorders, he explains, are marked by problems in the nervous system that arise while it’s maturing, leading to effects on emotion, learning ability, self-control, or memory, or any combination of these. They include diagnoses as diverse as intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Down syndrome.

“One reason why the cerebellum might be critically involved in each of these disorders,” Sathyanesan says, “is because its developmental trajectory takes so long.”

Unlike other brain structures, which have relatively short windows of development spanning weeks or months, the principal cells of the cerebellum – known as Purkinje cells – start to differentiate from stem cell precursors at the beginning of the seventh gestational week, with new cells continuing to appear until babies are nearly one year old.  In contrast, cells in the neocortex, a part of the brain involved in higher-order brain functions such as cognition, sensory perception and language is mostly finished forming while fetuses are still gestating in the womb.

This long window for maturation allows the cerebellum to make connections with other regions throughout the brain, such as extensive connections with the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the cerebrum that plays a key role in perception, attention, awareness, thought, memory, language and consciousness. It also allows ample time for things to go wrong.

“Together,” Sathyanesan says, “these two characteristics are at the root of the cerebellum’s involvement in a host of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

For example, the review article notes, researchers have discovered both structural and functional abnormalities in the cerebellums of patients with ASD. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an imaging technique that measures activity in different parts of the brain, suggests that significant differences exist between connectivity between the cerebellum and cortex in people with ASD compared with neurotypical individuals. Differences in cerebellar connectivity are also evident in resting-state functional connectivity MRI, an imaging technique that measures brain activity in subjects when they are not performing a specific task. Some of these differences appear to involve patterns of overconnectivity to different brain regions, explains Sathyanesan; other differences suggest that the cerebellums of patients with ASD don’t have enough connections to other brain regions.

These findings could clarify research from Children’s National and elsewhere that has shown that babies born prematurely often sustain cerebellar injuries due to multiple hits, including a lack of oxygen supplied by infants’ immature lungs, he adds. Besides having a sibling with ASD, premature birth is the most prevalent risk factor for an ASD diagnosis.

The review also notes that researchers have discovered structural changes in the cerebellums of patients with Down syndrome, who tend to have smaller cerebellar volumes than neurotypical individuals. Experimental models of this trisomy recapitulate this difference, along with abnormal connectivity to the cerebral cortex and other brain regions.

Although the cerebellum is a pivotal contributor toward these conditions, Sathyanesan says, learning more about this brain region helps make it an important target for treating these neurodevelopmental disorders. For example, he says, researchers are investigating whether problems with the cerebellum and abnormal connectivity could be lessened through a non-invasive form of brain stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation or an invasive one known as deep brain stimulation. Similarly, a variety of existing pharmaceuticals or new ones in development could modify the cerebellum’s biochemistry and, consequently, its function.

“If we can rescue the cerebellum’s normal activity in these disorders, we may be able to alleviate the problems with cognition that pervade them all,” he says.

In addition to Sathyanesan and Senior Author Gallo, Children’s National study co-authors include Joseph Scafidi, D.O., neonatal neurologist; Joy Zhou and Roy V. Sillitoe, Baylor College of Medicine; and Detlef H. Heck, of University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke under grant numbers 5R01NS099461, R01NS089664, R01NS100874, R01NS105138 and R37NS109478; the Hamill Foundation; the Baylor College of Medicine Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54HD083092; the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) Neuroscience Institute; the UTHSC Cornet Award; the National Institute of Mental Health under grant number R01MH112143; and the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54 HD090257.

INSAR 2019 logo

Autism’s heterogeneity on display at INSAR 2019

INSAR 2019 logo

At the INSAR Annual Meeting, presentations from around the world share a common goal: finding better ways to support and care for people with autism.

There are countless aspects of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to study, as evidenced by the 1,800-plus abstracts accepted at the 2019 International Society for Autism Research’s (INSAR) annual meeting. Presentations from investigators around the world ranged from pre-clinical studies of the genetic and biological underpinnings to community-based studies of diagnosis, assessment and treatment.

Along that broad spectrum of autism research, the work at Children’s National emphasizes better understanding of the clinical implications and community experiences of autism, with a particular focus on:

  • How well diagnostic and assessment tools capture the many differences between subpopulations of children with autism, whether based on sex/gender identity, cultural background or age
  • Understanding what children and adolescents with autism, and their parents, really need to help them thrive, and how to target supports to their unique needs
  • Finding the best ways to deliver vital information to autistic youth and their families in clear and accessible ways.

Researchers from Children’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) presented nearly 20 scientific panels, oral presentations and posters at INSAR highlighting their most recent findings in these areas.

In addition to their own research, the CASD team attended sessions from INSAR’s global community of researchers, clinicians, and others with vested interest in the study of ASD. Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., CASD’s director, shared some of her key takeaways from the meeting with the ASD-focused publication Spectrum.

“At many levels of analyses, we are learning that a diagnostic label may not always be the best construct for identifying, treating or probing the biology underlying a person’s problems,” she said. “The keynote by Jason Lerch, professor at Oxford University, for example, was an elegant synthesis of imaging and genetic findings that made a strong case for the importance of exploring subtypes within autism and across developmental and psychiatric problems.”

“We also received another powerful reminder of our field’s complex heterogeneity,” Dr. Kenworthy noted. “Katherine Gotham, assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, was able to divide groups of autistic individuals in a study according to different criteria than the study’s initial design and effectively erase what appeared to be clear, statistically significant differences between typically developing and autistic participants. Her presentation demonstrated once more the importance of looking deeply at our data from many angles before drawing conclusions based on study outcomes.”

These studies, both at Children’s and elsewhere, all share one common theme: the importance of asking these questions and exploring the answers, with the goal of finding better ways to support and care for the millions of people around the world with autism and their families, no matter what autism looks like for them.

CASD presentations at INSAR 2019

Panel presentation: Clinical Presentation of ASD and Access to Care Among Girls

Allison Ratto, Ph.D., chaired a panel focused on the differences in performance on standard diagnostic tools based on the sex of autistic youth. The panel included presentations such as:

  • Sex Differences in Youth with ASD: Language Phenotype and Relation to Autism Behaviors from the ACE GENDAAR Network, presented by Sara Jane Webb of the University of Washington
  • Social Strengths of Autistic Girls: Sex Differences in Clinician-Rated and Parent-Reported Autistic Traits, presented by Dr. Ratto
  • Gender and Psychiatric Symptoms among Youth with ASD and ADHD, Alyssa Verbalis, Ph.D.
  • Evidence for Undertreatment of ADHD in Girls with ASD in the National Survey of Children’s Health, Kelly Register-Brown, M.D., MSc.

Oral and poster presentations

Oral session: Comparing Online and in-Person Parent Trainings to Support Executive Function and Self-Regulation: Feasibility, Acceptability, and Outcomes, presented by Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D.

Poster sessions:

  • Executive Function and School-Based Interventions
    • Self-Report and Parent-Report Reveal Similar Patterns of Executive Function Problems in Autistic Adolescents, presented by Rachael Clinton and Charlotte Jeppsen
    • What Services Are Families of Children with Executive Function Challenges Getting? What Do Parents Say They Want?
    • A Mixed Methods Approach to Evaluation of Student Acceptability of the School-Based Interventions Unstuck and on Target and Parents and Teachers Supporting Students
    • A New Way to Help Parents? Exploring the Impact of School-Based Interventions on Parenting Outcomes
    • Executive Function and Academic Achievement in Autism Spectrum Disorder
    • Development of an Interactive, E-Learning Tool to Support Parent Implementation of an Executive Function Intervention
    • The Moderating Effects of Implementation Factors on Improvement in Classroom Behaviors in Unstuck and on Target and Contingency Behavior Management
  • Youth with ASD making the transition to adulthood
    • Preliminary Outcomes of a New Executive Function Treatment for Transition-Age Youth with ASD, presented by Cara Pugliese, Ph.D.
    • Self-determination in transition-aged individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
  • ASD population subgroups, including gender and ethnically diverse:
    • Parent-Teacher Discrepancy in Ratings of Executive Functioning in Black and White Children with ASD, presented by Serene Habayeb
    • Capturing the Autistic Experience: Self-Advocates Develop Self-Assessment Tools to Inform Autism Diagnosis and Validate Neuroimaging Findings across the Gender Spectrum
    • Comparing Parent-Report of Non-Intellectually Disabled Asian-American Youth with ASD and ADHD to Their White Peers
    • Autistic Traits in Transgender Youth: Dysphoria, Stigma, and Barriers to Care
    • Higher Rates of Gender Diversity in Children with ASD Based on Self-Report, Not Parent Report

Children’s National ranked No. 6 overall and No. 1 for newborn care by U.S. News

Children’s National in Washington, D.C., is the nation’s No. 6 children’s hospital and, for the third year in a row, its neonatology program is No.1 among all children’s hospitals providing newborn intensive care, according to the U.S. News Best Children’s Hospitals annual rankings for 2019-20.

This is also the third year in a row that Children’s National has been in the top 10 of these national rankings. It is the ninth straight year it has ranked in all 10 specialty services, with five specialty service areas ranked among the top 10.

“I’m proud that our rankings continue to cement our standing as among the best children’s hospitals in the nation,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., President and CEO for Children’s National. “In addition to these service lines, today’s recognition honors countless specialists and support staff who provide unparalleled, multidisciplinary patient care. Quality care is a function of every team member performing their role well, so I credit every member of the Children’s National team for this continued high performance.”

The annual rankings recognize the nation’s top 50 pediatric facilities based on a scoring system developed by U.S. News. The top 10 scorers are awarded a distinction called the Honor Roll.

“The top 10 pediatric centers on this year’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll deliver outstanding care across a range of specialties and deserve to be nationally recognized,” says Ben Harder, chief of health analysis at U.S. News. “According to our analysis, these Honor Roll hospitals provide state-of-the-art medical expertise to children with rare or complex conditions. Their rankings reflect U.S. News’ assessment of their commitment to providing high-quality, compassionate care to young patients and their families day in and day out.”

The bulk of the score for each specialty is based on quality and outcomes data. The process also includes a survey of relevant specialists across the country, who are asked to list hospitals they believe provide the best care for patients with challenging conditions.

Below are links to the five specialty services that U.S. News ranked in the top 10 nationally:

The other five specialties ranked among the top 50 were cardiology and heart surgery, diabetes and endocrinology, gastroenterology and gastro-intestinal surgery, orthopedics, and urology.

nurse checking boy's blood sugar levels

Improving glycemic control in diabetic children

nurse checking boy's blood sugar levels

A 10-week pilot study at Children’s National Health System integrated weekly caregiver coaching, personalized glucose monitoring and incentives into standard treatment for 25 pediatric patients with type 1 diabetes, lowering A1c by .5%

The life of a type 1 diabetes patient – taking daily insulin shots or wearing an insulin pump, monitoring blood sugar, prioritizing healthful food choices and fitting in daily exercise – can be challenging at age 5 or 15, especially as holidays, field trips and sleepovers can disrupt diabetes care routines, creating challenges with compliance. This is why endocrinologists from Children’s National Health System experimented with using health coaches over a 10-week period to help families navigate care for children with type 1 diabetes.

By assembling a team of diabetes educators, dietitians, social workers, psychologists and health care providers, Fran Cogen, M.D., C.D.E., director of diabetes care at Children’s National, helped pediatric patients with type 1 diabetes manage their glycemic status, or blood-sugar control.

On Saturday, June 8, 2019, Dr. Cogen will share results of the pilot program as poster 1260-P, entitled “A Clinical Care Improvement Pilot Program: Individualized Health Coaching and Use of Incentives for Youth with Type 1 Diabetes and their Caregivers,” at the American Diabetes Association’s 79th Scientific Sessions, which takes place June 7-11 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Dr. Cogen’s study was offered at no cost to caregivers of 179 patients at Children’s National seeking treatment for type 1 diabetes. The pilot program included two components: 1) Weekly phone calls or emails from a health coach to a caregiver with personalized insulin adjustments, based on patient blood sugars submitted through continuous glucose monitoring apps; and 2) Incentives for patients to participate in the program and reach health targets.

Twenty-five participants, ages 4-18, with a mean age of 11.6 and A1c ranges between 8.6 – 10% joined the study. The average A1c was 9.4% at the beginning of the program and dropped by an average of .5% at the end of the trial. Twenty of the 25 participants, 80%, improved A1c levels by .5%. Seventeen participants, 68%, improved A1c levels by more than .5%, while seven participants, 28%, improved A1c levels by more than 1%.

“Chronic disease is like a marathon,” says Dr. Cogen. “You need to have constant reinforcement and coaching to get people to do their best. Sometimes what drives people is to have people on the other end say, ‘Keep it up, you’re doing a good job, keep sending us information so that we can make changes to improve your child’s blood sugar management,’ which gives these new apps and continuous glucose monitoring devices a human touch.”

Instead of waiting three months between appointments to talk about ways a family can make changes to support a child’s insulin control and function, caregivers received feedback from coaches each week. Health coaches benefitted, too: They reported feeling greater empathy for patients, while becoming more engaged in personalizing care plans.

Families who participated received a gift card to a local grocery store, supporting a child’s dietary goals. Children who participated were also entered into an iPad raffle. Improvements in A1c levels generated extra raffle tickets per child, which motivated participants, especially teens.

“These incentives are helpful in order to get kids engaged in their health and in an immediate way,” says Dr. Cogen. “Teenagers aren’t always interested in long-term health outcomes, but they are interested in what’s happening right now. Fluctuating blood sugars can cause depression and problems with learning, while increasing risk for future complications, including eye problems, kidney problems and circulation problems. As health care providers, we know the choices children make today can influence their future health outcomes, which is why we designed this study.”

Moving forward, Dr. Cogen and the endocrinologists at Children’s National would like to study the impact of using this model over several months, especially for high-risk patients, while  asynchronously targeting information to drive behavior change – accommodating the needs of families, while delivering dose-specific recommendations from health care providers.

Dr. Cogen adds, “We’re moving away from office-centric research models and creating interventions where they matter: at home and with families in real time.”

Read more about the study at Healio.com and dLife.

Additional study authors, all of whom work within the division of diabetes and endocrinology at Children’s National, include Lauren Clary, Ph.D., Sue-Ann Airborne, C.D.E., Andrew Dauber, M.D., Meredith Dillon, R.D., L.D.N., C.D.E., Beakel Eshete, B.S.N., R.N., C.D.E., Shaina Hatchell, B.S.N., R.N., Shari Jones, R.N., C.D.E., and Priya Vaidyanathan, M.D.

child measuring his stomach

Cognitive function does not predict weight-loss outcome for adolescents

child measuring his stomach

Though young people with intellectual disabilities or cognitive impairment have greater rates of obesity and other comorbidities that impact their health and well-being, primary care providers are often reluctant to discuss or refer these patients for weight-loss surgery due to concerns about their ability to assent to both the surgery and the ongoing diet and lifestyle changes after surgery.

However, a study in Pediatrics authored by psychologists at Children’s National Health System finds that these young people, including those with Down syndrome, have similar weight-loss trajectories to those with typical cognitive function after bariatric surgery. The study is the first to look at post-surgical outcomes for this subgroup of adolescent bariatric surgery patients.

“It’s challenging to ensure that an adolescent who is cognitively impaired understands what it means to undergo a surgical procedure like bariatric surgery, but we do find ways to ensure assent whenever possible, and make sure the patient also has a guardian capable of consent,” says Sarah Hornack, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children’s National and the study’s first author. “A very important determinant of post-surgical success for any young candidate, however, is a support structure to help them with weight-loss surgery requirements. Often, we see that adolescents with lower cognitive function already have a well-established support system in place to assist them with other care needs, that can easily adapt to providing structure and follow through after weight-loss surgery, too.”

The study reviewed outcomes for 63 adolescents ranging in age from 13 to 24 years old with an average body mass index of 51.2, all of whom were part of the bariatric surgery program at Children’s National Health System. The participants were diagnosed with cognitive impairment or intellectual disability via standardized cognitive assessments as part of a preoperative psychological evaluation or through a previous diagnosis. This study adds to the body of research that is helping to create standard criteria for bariatric surgery in adolescents and teenagers.

Children’s National is one of only a few children’s hospitals with accreditation from the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Accreditation and Quality Improvement Program of the American College of Surgeons and the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery to offer bariatric surgery for adolescents with severe obesity. The extraordinary diversity of the patient population in Washington, D.C., including high rates of young people with obesity, allows the team to collect more comprehensive information about successful interventions across subgroups, including cognitive impairment or developmental disabilities, than nearly every other center in the United States.

“We’re happy to contribute evidence that can help families and care providers make informed health decisions for young people with intellectual disabilities or cognitive impairments. So many families are hoping to make sure that their children, despite disabilities, can be as healthy as possible in the long term,” says Eleanor Mackey, Ph.D., who is also a clinical psychologist at Children’s National and served as the study’s senior author. “Though the sample size is small, it does give credence to the idea that for many adolescents and teenagers, weight loss surgery may be a really viable option regardless of pre-existing conditions such as intellectual ability or cognitive function.”

Kaushalendra Amatya

Measuring quality of life after pediatric kidney transplant

Kaushalendra Amatya

“Overall, children who receive kidney transplants had minimal concerns about quality of life after their operation. While it’s comforting that most pediatric patients had no significant problems, the range of quality of life scores indicate that some patients had remarkable difficulties,” says Kaushalendra Amatya, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist in Nephrology and Cardiology at Children’s National and the study’s lead author.

After receiving a kidney transplant, children may experience quality-of-life difficulties that underscore the importance of screening transplant recipients for psychosocial function, according to Children’s research presented May 4, 2019, during the 10th Congress of the International Pediatric Transplant Association.

About 2,000 children and adolescents younger than 18 are on the national waiting list for an organ transplant, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, with most infants and school-aged children waiting for a heart, liver or kidney and most children older than 11 waiting for a kidney or liver. In 2018, 1,895 U.S. children received transplants.

The research team at Children’s National wanted to hear directly from kids about their quality of life after kidney transplant in order to tailor timely interventions to children. Generally, recipients of kidney transplants have reported impaired quality of life compared with healthy peers, with higher mental health difficulties, disrupted sleep patterns and lingering pain.

The Children’s team measured general health-related quality of life using a 23-item PedsQL Generic Core module and measured transplant-related quality of life using the PedsQL- Transplant Module. The forms, which can be used for patients as young as 2, take about five to 10 minutes to complete and were provided to the child, the parent or the primary care giver – as appropriate – during a follow-up visit after the transplant.

Thirty-three patient-parent dyads completed the measures, with an additional 25 reports obtained from either the patient or the parent. The patients’ mean age was 14.2; 41.4% were female.

“Overall, children who receive kidney transplants had minimal concerns about quality of life after their operation. While it’s comforting that most pediatric patients had no significant problems, the range of quality of life scores indicate that some patients had remarkable difficulties,” says Kaushalendra Amatya, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist in Nephrology and Cardiology at Children’s National and the study’s lead author.

When the study team reviewed reports given by parents, they found their descriptions sometimes differed in striking ways from the children’s answers.

“Parents report lower values on emotional functioning, social functioning and total core quality of life, indicating that parents perceive their children as having more difficulties across these specific domains than the patients’ own self reports do,” Amatya adds.

10th Congress of the International Pediatric Transplant Association presentation

  • “An exploration of health-related quality of life in pediatric renal transplant recipients.”

Kaushalendra Amatya, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist and lead author; Christy Petyak, CPNP-PC, nurse practitioner and co-author; and Asha Moudgil, M.D., medical director, transplant and senior author.

preterm brain scans

Early lipids in micropreemies’ diets can boost brain growth

preterm brain scans

Segmentation of a preterm brain T2-weighted MRI image at 30 gestational weeks [green=cortical grey matter; blue=white matter; grey=deep grey matter; cyan=lateral ventricle; purple=cerebellum; orange=brainstem; red=hippocampus; yellow=cerebrospinal fluid].

Dietary lipids, already an important source of energy for tiny preemies, also provide a much-needed brain boost by significantly increasing global brain volume as well as increasing volume in regions involved in motor activities and memory, according to research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

“Compared with macronutrients like carbohydrates and proteins, lipid intake during the first month of life is associated with increased overall and regional brain volume for micro-preemies,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National and senior author. “Using non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging, we see increased volume in the cerebellum by 2 weeks of age. And at four weeks of life, lipids increase total brain volume and boost regional brain volume in the cerebellum, amygdala-hippocampus and brainstem.”

The cerebellum is involved in virtually all physical movement and enables coordination and balance. The amygdala processes and stores short-term memories. The hippocampus manages emotion and mood. And the brainstem acts like a router, passing messages from the brain to the rest of the body, as well as enabling essential functions like breathing, a steady heart rate and swallowing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 U.S. babies is born preterm, or before 37 weeks gestation. Regions of the brain that play vital roles in complex cognitive and motor activities experience exponential growth late in pregnancy, making the developing brains of preterm infants particularly vulnerable to injury and impaired growth.

Children’s research faculty examined the impact of lipid intake in the first month of life on brain volumes for very low birth weight infants, who weighed 1,500 grams or less at birth. These micro-preemies are especially vulnerable to growth failure and neurocognitive impairment after birth.

The team enrolled 68 micro-preemies who were 32 weeks gestational age and younger when they were admitted to Children’s neonatal intensive care unit during their first week of life. They measured cumulative macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and calories – consumed by these newborns at 2 and 4 weeks of life. Over years, Limperopoulos’ lab has amassed a large database of babies who were born full-term; this data provides unprecedented insights into normal brain development and will help to advance understanding of brain development in high-risk preterm infants.

“Even after controlling for average weight gain and other health conditions, lipid intake was positively associated with cerebellar and brainstem volumes in very low birthweight preterm infants,” adds Katherine M. Ottolini, the study’s lead author.

According to Limperopoulos, Children’s future research will examine the optimal timing and volume of lipids to boost neurodevelopment for micro-preemies.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Early lipid intake improves brain growth in premature infants.”
    • Saturday, April 27, 2019, 1:15-2:30 p.m. (EST)

Katherine M. Ottolini, lead author; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Attending, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine and co-author; Kushal Kapse, research and development staff engineer and co-author; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain and senior author, all of Children’s National.

newborn in incubator

In HIE lower heart rate variability signals stressed newborns

newborn in incubator

In newborns with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), lower heart rate variability correlates with autonomic manifestations of stress shortly after birth, underscoring the value of this biomarker, according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Tethered to an array of machines that keep their bodies nourished, warm and alive, newborns with health issues can’t speak. But Children’s research teams are tapping into what the machinery itself says, looking for insights into which vulnerable infants are most in need of earlier intervention.

Heart rate variability – or the variation between heartbeats – is a sign of health. Our autonomic nervous system constantly sends signals to adjust our heart rate under normal conditions. We can measure heart rate variability non-invasively, providing a way to detect potential problems with the autonomic nervous system as a sensitive marker of health in critically ill newborns,” says An N. Massaro, M.D., co-Director of Research for the Division of Neonatology at Children’s National, and the study’s senior author. “We’re looking for validated markers of brain injury in babies with HIE, and our study helps to support heart rate variability as one such valuable physiological biomarker.”

In most newborns, the autonomic nervous system reliably and automatically receives information about the body and the outside world and, in response, controls essential functions like blood pressure, body temperature, how quickly the baby breathes and how rapidly the newborn’s heart beats. The sympathetic part stimulates body processes, while the parasympathetic part inhibits body processes. When the nervous system’s internal auto-pilot falters, babies can suffer.

The Children’s team enrolled infants with HIE in the prospective, observational study. (HIE is brain damage that occurs with full-term babies who experience insufficient blood and oxygen flow to the brain around the time they are born.) Fifteen percent had severe encephalopathy. Mean age of babies in the observational study was 38.9 weeks gestation. Their median Apgar score at five minutes was 3; the 0-9 Apgar range indicates how ready newborns are for the rigors of life outside the womb.

The team analyzed heart rate variability metrics for three time periods:

  • The first 24 to 27 hours of life
  • The first three hours after babies undergoing therapeutic cooling were rewarmed and
  • The first three hours after babies’ body temperature had returned to normal.

They correlated the relationship between heart rate variability for 68 infants during at least one of these time periods with the stress z-score from the NICU Network Neurobehavioral Scale. The scale is a standardized assessment of newborn’s neurobehavioral integrity. The stress summary score indicates a newborn’s overall stress response, and six test items specifically relate to autonomic function.

“Alpha exponent and root mean square in short timescales, root mean square in long timescales, as well as low and high frequency powers positively correlated with stress scores and, even after adjusting for covariates, remained independently associated at 24 hours,” says Allie Townsend, the study’s lead author.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Heart rate variability (HRV) measures of autonomic nervous system (ANS) function relates to neonatal neurobehavioral manifestations of stress in newborn with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).”
    • Monday, April 29, 2019, 5:45 p.m. (EST)

Allie Townsend, lead author; Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., staff scientist, Advanced Physiological Signals Processing Lab and co-author; Penny Glass, Ph.D., director, Child Development Program and co-author; Judy Brown, co-author; Tareq Al-Shargabi, M.S., co-author; Taeun Chang, M.D., director, Neonatal Neurology and Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program and co-author; Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, chief of the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine and co-author; An N. Massaro, M.D., co-Director of Research for the Division of Neonatology and senior author, all of Children’s National.

Claire Marie Vacher

Placental function linked to brain injuries associated with autism

Claire Marie Vacher

“We saw long-term cerebellar white matter alterations in male experimental models, and behavioral testing revealed social impairments and increased repetitive behaviors, two hallmark features of ASD,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead study author.

Allopregnanolone (ALLO), a hormone made by the placenta late in pregnancy, is such a potent neurosteroid that disrupting its steady supply to the developing fetus can leave it vulnerable to brain injuries associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

In order to more effectively treat vulnerable babies, the Children’s research team first had to tease out what goes wrong in the careful choreography that is pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 babies is born preterm, before 37 weeks of gestation. Premature birth is a major risk factor for ASD.

The placenta is an essential and understudied organ that is shared by the developing fetus and the pregnant mother, delivering oxygen, glucose and nutrients and ferrying out waste products. The placenta also delivers ALLO, a progesterone derivative, needed to ready the developing fetal brain for life outside the womb.

ALLO ramps up late in gestation. When babies are born prematurely, their supply of ALLO stops abruptly. That occurs at the same time the cerebellum – a brain region essential for motor coordination, posture, balance and social cognition– typically undergoes a dramatic growth spurt.

“Our experimental model demonstrates that losing placental ALLO alters cerebellar development, including white matter development,” says Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the divisions of Neonatology and Fetal Medicine, and a developmental neuroscientist at Children’s National. “Cerebellar white matter development occurs primarily after babies are born, so connecting a change in placental function during pregnancy with lingering impacts on later brain development is a particularly striking result.”

The research team created a novel experimental model in which the gene encoding the enzyme responsible for producing ALLO is deleted in the placenta. They compared these preclinical models with a control group and performed whole brain imaging and RNAseq gene expression analyses for both groups.

“We saw long-term cerebellar white matter alterations in male experimental models, and behavioral testing revealed social impairments and increased repetitive behaviors, two hallmark features of ASD,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead study author. “These male-specific outcomes parallel the increased risk of brain injury and ASD we see in human babies born prematurely.”

ALLO binds to specific GABA receptors, which control most inhibitory signaling in the nervous system.

“Our findings provide a new way to frame poor placental function: Subtle but significant changes in utero may set in motion neurodevelopmental disorders that children experience later in life,” adds Dr. Penn, the study’s senior author. “Future directions for our research could include identifying new targets in the placenta or brain that could be amenable to hormone supplementation, opening the potential for earlier treatment for high-risk fetuses.”

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Placental allopregnanolone loss alters postnatal cerebellar development and function.”
    • Sunday, April 28, 2019, 5:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. (EST)

Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead author; Jackie Salzbank, co-author; Helene Lacaille, co-author; Dana Bakalar, co-author; Jiaqi O’Reilly, co-author; and Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the divisions of Neonatology and Fetal Medicine, developmental neuroscientist and senior study author.

Catherine Limperopoulos

Breastfeeding boosts metabolites important for brain growth

Catherine Limperopoulos

“Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites that may play a critical role for growth and explain what makes breastfeeding beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.

Micro-preemies who primarily consume breast milk have significantly higher levels of metabolites important for brain growth and development, according to sophisticated imaging conducted by an interdisciplinary research team at Children’s National.

“Our previous research established that vulnerable preterm infants who are fed breast milk early in life have improved brain growth and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It was unclear what makes breastfeeding so beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National. “Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites essential for growth and answer that lingering question.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 U.S. infants is born preterm. The Children’s research team presented their findings during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

The research-clinicians enrolled babies who were very low birthweight (less than 1,500 grams) and 32 weeks gestational age or younger at birth when they were admitted to Children’s neonatal intensive care unit in the first week of life. The team gathered data from the right frontal white matter and the cerebellum – a brain region that enables people to maintain balance and proper muscle coordination and that supports high-order cognitive functions.

Each chemical has its own a unique spectral fingerprint. The team generated light signatures for key metabolites and calculated the quantity of each metabolite. Of note:

  • Cerebral white matter spectra showed significantly greater levels of inositol (a molecule similar to glucose) for babies fed breast milk, compared with babies fed formula.
  • Cerebellar spectra had significantly greater creatine levels for breastfed babies compared with infants fed formula.
  • And the percentage of days infants were fed breast milk was associated with significantly greater levels of both creatine and choline, a water soluble nutrient.

“Key metabolite levels ramp up during the times babies’ brains experience exponential growth,” says Katherine M. Ottolini, the study’s lead author. “Creatine facilitates recycling of ATP, the cell’s energy currency. Seeing greater quantities of this metabolite denotes more rapid changes and higher cellular maturation. Choline is a marker of cell membrane turnover; when new cells are generated, we see choline levels rise.”

Already, Children’s National leverages an array of imaging options that describe normal brain growth, which makes it easier to spot when fetal or neonatal brain development goes awry, enabling earlier intervention and more effective treatment. “Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy may serve as an important additional tool to advance our understanding of how breastfeeding boosts neurodevelopment for preterm infants,” Limperopoulos adds.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Improved cerebral and cerebellar metabolism in breast milk-fed VLBW infants.”
    • Monday, April 29, 2019, 3:30–3:45 p.m. (EST)

Katherine M. Ottolini, lead author; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Attending, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine and co-author; Kushal Kapse, research and development staff engineer and co-author; Sudeepta Basu, M.D., neonatologist and co-author; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain and senior author, all of Children’s National.