Ashley Hill and Joyce Turner

New clues to detect rare pediatric cancers

Ashley Hill and Joyce Turner

Using germline and tumor testing and centralized pathology review, a research team that included D. Ashley Hill, M.D, and Joyce Turner found that Sertoli-Leydig cell tumor and gynandroblastoma are nearly always DICER1-related tumors.

Children’s National Health System researchers played a key role in a new study exploring the clinical and genetic qualities of a group of rare, potentially deadly cancers that affect infants, children and adolescents. The research team’s findings suggest that genetic testing for people at risk may aid in earlier, more accurate diagnoses of these cancers, leading to early-stage treatment that could greatly improve survival.

Ovarian sex cord-stromal tumors (OSCST) include juvenile granulosa cell tumors (JGCT), Sertoli-Leydig cell tumor (SLCT) and gynandroblastoma (GAB). Mutations in the DICER1 gene often have been noted in children with these cancers, as well as in those with a particularly lethal pediatric lung cancer called pleuropulmonary blastoma (PPB). All of these cancers are highly curable if caught early but, at later stages, can be aggressive and often fatal.

Using germline and tumor testing and centralized pathology review, the research team found that SLCT and GAB are nearly always DICER1-related tumors. There also may be a much stronger association between SLCT and DICER1 than was previously appreciated. The new findings have implications for earlier detection and diagnoses of these cancers, as well as for screening other family members. The study was published in the December 2017 edition of Gynecologic Oncology.

“These types of tumors are diverse, relatively rare and understudied,” says D. Ashley Hill, M.D., the study’s senior author and chief of pathology at Children’s National. “Sertoli-Leydig cell tumor, for instance, is a unique genetic and pathologic entity and this rare cancer of the ovaries can be hard to detect. Using the testing process from this study, we now may be able to classify these tumors more accurately.”

The study authors assessed the first 107 individuals enrolled in the International Ovarian and Testicular Stromal Tumor Registry. They obtained medical and family history, and they conducted central pathology review plus DICER1 gene sequencing on blood and tumor tissue. Thirty-six of 37 patients with SLCTs and all four patients with GABs they tested showed DICER1 mutations, and half of those with SLCT had germline or mosaic mutations. The team noted that individuals with predisposing DICER1 mutations had significantly better overall and recurrence-free survival.

Based on their findings, the study authors recommend:

  • Careful and ideally centralized pathologic review for all individuals with OSCST tumors
  • DICER1 testing for all those with SLCT and GAB and
  • Consideration of DICER1 testing for patients with other OSCSTs.

“Genetic testing may be useful for screening and diagnosing entire families if one family member tests positive for a DICER1 mutation, especially to determine if they are at risk for PPB. When we know who is at risk, we can protect all children in a family,” Dr. Hill says. “Ultimately we may be able to cure this deadly lung cancer, PPB, by identifying and performing computed tomography scans on people who are at risk, so we can catch these cancers early.”

Dr. Hill thinks future research may study children whose cancer was not detected early or has become resistant to chemotherapy. They also may explore ways to restore normal controls in cancer cells, so they follow normal paths of development, for the purpose of developing targeted treatments with fewer side effects than current therapies.

In addition to Dr. Hill, other Children’s National study co-authors include Amanda Field, M.P.H., Department of Pathology; Weiying Yu, Ph.D., Department of Pathology; and Joyce Turner, director of the Cancer Genetic Counseling Program in Children’s Rare Disease Institute.

Other members of the study team are experts from the International Ovarian and Testicular Stromal Tumor Registry, Children’s Minnesota, Washington University Medical Center, Carolinas Health Care System, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Harvard Medical School, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Clinic of Pediatrics (Dortmund, Germany), National Cancer Institute and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Research reported in this story was supported by the National Institutes of Health under award number NCI R01CA143167, The Parson’s Foundation, St. Baldrick’s Foundation, Pine Tree Apple Tennis Classic Foundation, Hyundai Hope on Wheels, the Randy Shaver Cancer Research and Community Fund, the German Childhood Cancer Foundation and the Intramural Research Program of the Divisions of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute.

Javad Nazarian

Liquid biopsy spots aggressive brainstem cancer earlier

Javad Nazarian

A Children’s National research team led by Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., tested whether circulating tumor DNA in patients’ blood and cerebrospinal fluid would provide an earlier warning that pediatric brainstem tumors were growing.

A highly aggressive pediatric brain cancer can be spotted earlier and reliably by the genetic fragments it leaves in biofluids, according to a study presented by Children’s National Health System researchers at the Society for Neuro-Oncology (SNO) 2017 Annual Meeting. The findings may open the door to non-surgical biopsies and a new way to tell if these tumors are responding to treatment.

Children diagnosed with diffuse midline histone 3 K27M mutant (H3K27M) glioma face a poor prognosis with a median survival time of only nine months after the pediatric brainstem cancer is diagnosed. Right now, clinicians rely on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to gauge how tumors are growing, but MRI can miss very small changes in tumor size. The Children’s research team led by Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., scientific director of Children’s Brain Tumor Institute, tested whether circulating tumor DNA in patients’ blood and cerebrospinal fluid would provide an earlier warning that tumors were growing. Just as a detective looks for fingerprints left at a scene, the new genetic analysis technique can detect telltale signs that tumors leave behind in body fluids.

“We continue to push the envelope to find ways to provide hope for children and families who right now face a very dismal future. By identifying these tumors when they are small and, potentially more responsive to treatment, our ultimate aim is to help children live longer,” says Eshini Panditharatna, B.A., study lead author. “In addition, we are hopeful that the comprehensive panel of tests we are constructing could identify which treatments are most effective in shrinking these deadly tumors.”

The researchers collected biofluid samples from 22 patients with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) who were enrolled in a Phase I, Pacific Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium clinical trial. Upfront and longitudinal plasma samples were collected with each MRI at various stages of disease progression. The team developed a liquid biopsy assay using a sensitive digital droplet polymerase chain reaction system that precisely counts individual DNA molecules.

“We detected H3K27M, a major driver mutation in DIPG, in about 80 percent of cerebrospinal fluid and plasma samples,” Panditharatna says. “Similar to adults with central nervous system (CNS) cancers, cerebrospinal fluid of children diagnosed with CNS cancers has high concentrations of circulating tumor DNA. However, after the children underwent radiotherapy, there was a dramatic decrease in circulating tumor DNA for 12 of the 15 patients (80 percent) whose temporal plasma was analyzed.”

Nazarian, the study senior author adds: “Biofluids, like plasma and cerebrospinal fluid, are suitable media to detect and measure concentrations of circulating tumor DNA for this type of pediatric glioma. Liquid biopsy has the potential to complement tissue biopsies and MRI evaluation to provide earlier clues to how tumors are responding to treatment or recurring.”

Support for this liquid biopsy study was provided by the V Foundation, Goldwin Foundation, Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, Smashing Walnuts Foundation, the Zickler Family Foundation, the Piedmont Community Foundation, the Musella Foundation, the Mathew Larson Foundation and Brain Tumor Foundation for Children.

Karun Sharma

Osteoid osteoma successfully treated with MR-HIFU

Karun Sharma

Doctors from the Sheik Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Health System have completed a clinical trial that demonstrates how osteoid osteoma, a benign but painful bone tumor that commonly occurs in children and young adults, can be safely and successfully treated using an incisionless surgery method called magnetic resonance-guided high-intensity focused ultrasound (MR-HIFU).

Published in The Journal of Pediatrics on Aug. 17, 2017, the study compares nine patients, ages 6 to 16 years old, who were treated for osteoid osteoma using MR-HIFU with a nine-patient historical control group, ages 6 to 10 years old, who were treated at Children’s National using radiofrequency ablation (RFA) surgery, the standard treatment at most U.S. hospitals. The study results show that treatment using MR-HIFU is feasible and safe for patients, eliminating the incisions or exposure to ionizing radiation that is associated with the RFA procedure. Children’s National is the first U.S. children’s hospital to successfully use MR-HIFU to treat osteoid osteoma.

CT-guided RFA, the most commonly used osteoid osteoma treatment, requires drilling through muscle and soft tissue into bone and also exposes the patient and operator to radiation from the imaging necessary to guide the probe that is inserted to heat and destroy tumor tissue.

“Our objective is to provide a noninvasive treatment option for children with osteoid osteoma and we’re very pleased with the results of this clinical trial,” says Karun Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., director of Interventional Radiology at Children’s National and principal investigator for the osteoid osteoma trial. “We have now shown that MR-HIFU can be performed safely with clinical improvement that is comparable to RFA, but without any incisions or ionizing radiation exposure to children.”

High-intensity focused ultrasound therapy uses focused sound wave energy to heat and destroy the targeted tumor under MRI guidance. This precise and controlled method does not require a scalpel or needle, greatly reducing the risk of complications like infections and bone fractures. It is also a faster treatment option, with expected total procedure time of 90 minutes or less. In the U.S., MR-HIFU is used to treat uterine fibroids and painful bone metastases from several types of cancer in adults, but has not previously been used in children.

This breakthrough is the latest from the Image-Guided Non-Invasive Therapeutic Energy (IGNITE) program, a collaboration of the Sheikh Zayed Institute and the departments of RadiologyOncologySurgery, and Anesthesiology at Children’s National. The goal of the IGNITE program is to improve the quality of life and outcomes for pediatric patients through the development and clinical introduction of novel minimally invasive and noninvasive surgery technologies and combination therapy approaches. The team is led by Peter Kim, M.D., Ph.D., vice president of the Sheikh Zayed Institute.

“The use of MR-HIFU ablation of osteoid osteoma is a perfect example of our mission in the Sheikh Zayed Institute to make pediatric surgery more precise, less invasive and pain-free,” says Dr. Kim. “Our leading team of experts are also exploring the use of MR-HIFU as a noninvasive technique of ablating growth plates and pediatric solid tumors. We also have another clinical trial open for children and young adults with refractory soft tissue tumors, which is being performed in collaboration with Dr. Bradford Wood’s team at the National Institutes of Health, and if successful, it would be the first in the world.”

In addition to Drs. Sharma and Kim, the Children’s National team for the ablation of osteoid osteoma clinical trial included: AeRang Kim, M.D., Ph.D., pediatric oncologist; Matthew Oetgen, M.D., division chief of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine; Anilawan Smitthimedhin, M.D., radiology research fellow; Pavel Yarmolenko, Ph.D., Haydar Celik, Ph.D., and Avinash Eranki, engineers; and Janish Patel, M.D., and Domiciano Santos, M.D., pediatric anesthesiologists. Ari Partanen, Ph.D., a senior clinical scientist from Philips, was also a member.

Jeffrey Dome

New approach improves pediatric kidney cancer outcomes

Jeffrey Dome

A recent study co-authored by Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., Vice President of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Health System, shows that a new approach to treating children diagnosed with bilateral Wilms tumors (BWT) significantly improved event-free survival (EFS) and overall survival (OS) rates after four years when compared to historical rates.

Wilms tumor, also known as nephroblastoma, is the most common pediatric kidney cancer, typically seen in children ages three to four. Compared to patients with unilateral Wilms tumors, children with bilateral Wilms tumors (BWT) have poorer event-free survival (EFS) and are at higher risk for later effects such as renal failure. The treatment of BWT is challenging because it involves surgical removal of the cancer, while preserving as much healthy kidney tissue as possible to avoid the need for an organ transplant.

A new Children’s Oncology Group (COG) study published in the September issue of the Annals of Surgery demonstrated an exciting new approach to treating children diagnosed with BWT that significantly improved EFS and overall survival (OS) rates after four years when compared to historical rates. Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., Vice President of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Health System, was co-senior author of this first-ever, multi-institutional prospective study of children with BWT.

Historically, patients with BWT have had poor outcomes, especially if they have tumors with unfavorable histology. In this study, Dr. Dome and 18 other clinical researchers followed a new treatment approach consisting of three chemotherapy drugs before surgery rather than the standard two drug regimen, surgical removal of cancerous tissue within 12 weeks of diagnosis, and postoperative chemotherapy that was adjusted based on histology.

The study found that preoperative chemotherapy expedited surgical treatment, with 84 percent of patients having surgery within 12 weeks of diagnosis. The new treatment approach also vastly improved EFS and OS rates for patients participating in the study. The four-year EFS rate was 82.1 percent, compared to 56 percent on the predecessor National Wilms Tumor Study-5 (NWTS-5) study. The four-year OS rate was 94.9 percent, compared to 80.8 percent on NWTS-5.

“I am very encouraged by these results, which I believe will serve as a benchmark for future studies and lead to additional treatment improvements, giving more children the chance to overcome this diagnosis while sparing kidney tissue,” says Dr. Dome.

A total of 189 patients at children’s hospitals, universities and cancer centers in the United States and Canada participated in this study. These patients will continue to be followed for 10 years to track kidney failure rates. This study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health to the Children’s Oncology Group.

Children's National Red Badge Project

The Red Badge Project: expediting ED care

Children's National Red Badge Project

A red badge allows newly diagnosed cancer patients and BMT patients to bypass security and triage so they can receive lifesaving antibiotics within an hour of fighting fever.

Chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant procedures leave cancer patients with compromised immune systems, leading many to develop life-threatening infections or other complications. In particular, neutropenia, or abnormally low levels of white blood cells that are critical to fighting off infections, is prevalent among this population. Fever with neutropenia can be fatal.

As part of the Children’s National Health System commitment to deliver better outcomes and safer care through innovative approaches, the Hematology/Oncology/Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) Family Advisory team developed a protocol to rapidly identify BMT and cancer patients with suspected neutropenia to receive antibiotics within 60 minutes of arriving at the Emergency Department (ED). The Red Badge Project was born with the following goals:

• Decrease the median triage-to-antibiotic time in cancer patients with fever and suspected neutropenia or bone marrow transplant patients to 30 minutes
• Increase the proportion of patients receiving antibiotics within one hour to 90 percent

As part of the protocol, newly diagnosed cancer and bone marrow transplant patients receive a Red Badge and education regarding how to use it. If they run a fever and need medical attention, the patient and family present the Red Badge upon arrival at the ED in order to bypass the welcome desk and ED triage. This action accelerates the process, keeps the child from waiting in an area where there are other sick children and ensures the patient receives lifesaving antibiotics as fast as possible.

Work done before the patient walks through the ED doors contributes to the success of this program. When a patient runs a fever, the family is instructed to call the Hematology Oncology Fellow on-call. If it is determined that the patient needs to come to the ED, the Fellow then: 1) receives the patient’s estimated arrival time so that staff can clean and prep a room 2) reminds them to apply their topical analgesia to numb the port site where the antibiotic will be administered 3) reminds them to bring their Red Badge.

From there, swift action is taken. By the time the patient arrives, he or she has already been registered and the appropriate medications have been ordered. The patient bypasses security and triage using their Red Badge as a visual cue and is then directed to a prepped room complete with medications ready for administration.

To date, the median time from triage to administration of antibiotics has decreased nearly 50 percent while the proportion of patients who received antibiotics within 60 minutes of triage improved to 90 percent.

Leveraging that success, the next step is to develop education for non-English speaking families in order to extend the reach of this lifesaving practice.

Javad Nazarian

Advancing pediatric cancer research by easing access to data

Javad Nazarian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIOP-Kim, Bollard, and Hill

17 Children’s doctors featured at SIOP

SIOP-Kim, Bollard, and Hill

AeRang Kim, M.D., Ph.D., Catherine Bollard, M.D., MBChB, and D. Ashley Hill, M.D. are among the Children’s National experts who will be speaking at the 49th Congress of the International Society of Pediatric Oncology.

This October, thousands of pediatric oncologists, researchers, nurses, allied health professionals, patients and survivors will gather in Washington, D.C., for the 49th Congress of the International Society of Pediatric Oncology (SIOP). Chaired by Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., Vice President of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders and Chief of Oncology at Children’s National Health System, and Stephen P. Hunger, M.D., of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the meeting will feature talks by renowned experts in pediatric oncology, including 17 doctors from Children’s National.

Among these expert speakers are AeRang Kim, M.D., Ph.D., pediatric oncologist and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences, who will present her latest research on new approaches to local control of sarcomas as part of the SIOP Education Day. Dr. Kim focuses on the development of novel agents and devices for pediatric cancer including pre-clinical testing of novel agents, pharmacokinetic analysis, developing innovative methods for toxicity monitoring and clinical trial design.

Also speaking is Catherine Bollard, M.D., MBChB, Chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Children’s National, Professor of Pediatrics and of Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences and Director of the Program for Cell Enhancement and Technologies for Immunotherapy (CETI). Dr. Bollard will present a talk as part of the SIOP-St. Baldrick’s Symposium on Cell Therapy for Viral Infections.  Her translational research focuses on developing and applying novel cell therapies to improve outcomes for patients with viral infections, cancer and immunologic disorders.

And, D. Ashley Hill, M.D., Chief of the Division of Anatomic Pathology and Professor of Pathology and Pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences, will be giving a keynote address on DICER1 mutations in pediatric cancer. Dr. Hill first reported the connection between pleuropulmonary blastoma, a rare childhood lung tumor, and mutations in DICER1, setting the stage for our understanding of microRNA processing gene mutations in the development of pediatric cancer.

Other speakers, session chairs and abstract presenters from Children’s National include:

Pamela Hinds

Giving children a voice in clinical trials

Pamela Hinds

“When experimental cancer drugs are studied, researchers collect details about how these promising therapies affect children’s organs, but rarely do they ask the children themselves about symptoms they feel or the side effects they experience,” says Pamela S. Hinds, Ph.D., R.N.

Children as young as 8 years old with incurable cancer can reliably characterize the impact an experimental therapy has on their symptoms and quality of life – even at the earliest stages of drug development – making self-reported patient outcomes a potential new clinical trial endpoint, according to a longitudinal validity study led by Children’s National Health System researchers.

Cancer is the No. 1 disease-related cause of death in U.S. children aged 1 to 19, and roughly 25 percent of the 12,400 children newly diagnosed with cancer will die of their disease, the study authors write.

“When experimental cancer drugs are studied, researchers collect details about how these promising therapies affect children’s organs, but rarely do they ask the children themselves about symptoms they feel or the side effects they experience,” says Pamela S. Hinds, Ph.D., R.N., director of Nursing Research and Quality Outcomes at Children’s National and lead author of study published June 5, 2017 in the journal Cancer. “Without this crucial information, the full impact of the experimental treatment on the pediatric patient is likely underreported and clinicians are hobbled in their ability to effectively manage side effects.”

To demonstrate the feasibility of children self-reporting outcomes, Hinds and colleagues recruited children and adolescents aged 8 to 18 with incurable or refractory cancers who were enrolled in Phase 1 safety trials or Phase 2 efficacy trials at four cancer settings: Children’s National, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Boston Children’s Hospital. Using a validated instrument to measure symptoms, function and other aspects of quality of life reported by patients, as well as four open-ended interview questions, researchers were able to better understand what aspects of symptoms and quality of life were most important to patients at this point in their lives and cancer treatment.

Of the 20 study participants, most were male (60 percent), adolescents (65 percent) and white (70 percent). Thirteen (65 percent) had solid tumors. Patients could describe “a good day” as having fewer side effects from the experimental therapy and fewer interruptions to their lives. “Bad days” were marked by interruptions to their usual activities and missing out on spending time with family and friends due to being at the hospital. A few study participants suggested that researchers add questions related to being away from home, family and friends and the ripple effect of treatment on other family members.

“Only by measuring and understanding self-reported symptoms and function in children and adolescents with incurable cancer can we adequately address threats to their quality of life and improve symptom control and supportive care,” Hinds and co-authors conclude. “By giving children a voice in the process, clinicians will be able to better anticipate and manage symptoms and thereby improve life for patients and their families.”

EKG monitor

Protecting the hearts of pediatric cancer patients

EKG monitor

Children’s National has developed a cardio-oncology program to closely follow the heart health of oncology patients to detect and stop progression of heart disease.

The five-year survival rate for pediatric cancers has climbed to nearly 82 percent, but the damaging, long-term side effects of rigorous treatment are prevalent. Cardiac toxicity, specifically the association of several cancer therapy agents with the development of left ventricular dysfunction, cardiomyopathy, dysrhythmia, valve disease and hypertension, is an issue of growing concern. Cardiac complications are the third leading cause of death for childhood cancer survivors, only after cancer recurrence and secondary malignancy. Cardiac mortality is 10-fold higher among this population as compared with age-matched control subjects.

The American Heart Association released a statement in 2013 pointing to the need for closer monitoring of cardiac affects from cancer treatments. Craig Sable, M.D., Associate Division Chief of Cardiology at Children’s National, co-authored the statement titled “Long-term Cardiovascular Toxicity in Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults Who Receive Cancer Therapy: Pathophysiology, Course, Monitoring, Management, Prevention, and Research Directions.” The statement concluded that it is crucial to develop an optimal monitoring regimen for this specific subgroup of patients, affirming:  “As clinicians continue to learn about the cardiovascular effects of cancer treatment, the importance of primary prevention becomes abundantly clear. The objective of effective monitoring is to identify signs of cardiac disease early enough to potentially prevent, reverse, or slow the deterioration of the structure and function of the heart. We must tailor therapies to decrease the risk of cardiotoxicity while balancing the beneficial effects of the cancer therapy.”

The American College of Cardiology also launched a Cardio-Oncology section dedicated to the subspecialty and noting the need for increased and closer cardiac monitoring for cancer patients. Cardiologists and oncologists at Children’s National came together to address this issue by formalizing a multidisciplinary path of care for patients with malignancies as they enter the care system.

Multidisciplinary care from point of diagnosis

Niti Dham

“It is tremendously important that we care for the whole child, including each individual health anomaly. Working closely with the oncology team, we try to balance how we treat their cancer at the same time as managing their heart disease,” says Niti Dham, M.D.

In response to the outstanding need for cardiac observation and follow-up care for cancer patients, Children’s National developed a Cardio-Oncology Program in 2011 to closely follow the heart health of oncology patients to detect and stop progression of heart disease. Led by Niti Dham, M.D., the cardio-oncology program within the Division of Cardiology includes the Cardiology Oncology Blood (COB) Clinic, a special clinic dedicated to pediatric cancer patients. The clinic assesses cancer patients, including bone marrow transplant (BMT) patients, who have been exposed to certain medications or radiation that have shown potential long-term, negative cardiac outcomes.  Patients are monitored for any early signs of cardiac changes in hopes to halt or even reverse the disease.

When a child is diagnosed with cancer that requires certain chemotherapies and radiation for treatment, Children’s National oncologists coordinate with Dr. Dham and her team for a cardiac evaluation prior to beginning treatment. Appropriate cardiac screening tests are administered based on the planned cancer treatment regimen. Cardiac health is evaluated regularly throughout the treatment course as well as after completion to continue monitoring for early signs of changes.

“The frequent, close monitoring allows Children’s experts to notice even the slightest differences in the heart, with a goal of preventing progression of cardiac disease,” says Dr. Dham.

The cardiology team works closely with the oncology team through the whole process, alerting them immediately of any changes noted. Together, the subspecialists develop a plan that is safe for each individual patient.

The program also sees patients that have pre-existing cardiac conditions prior to cancer treatments.

“It is tremendously important that we care for the whole child, including each individual health anomaly. Working closely with the oncology team, we try to balance how we treat their cancer at the same time as managing their heart disease,” says Dr. Dham.

A vaccine approach to tumor cure

Anthony Sandler

Anthony Sandler, M.D, is trying to understand how cancer cells can change their behavior and activate the immune system – enlisting the patients’ own defenses to fight the tumor.

Building on their groundbreaking research that found a method to cure neuroblastoma tumors in mice, researchers at Children’s National have been working in recent months on a personalized tumor-specific vaccine approach for neuroblastoma and other solid tumors.

The possibility that such a vaccine could non-invasively cure one of the most common childhood cancers is part of Children’s innovative efforts to address some of the most critical medical research challenges facing the field. Anthony Sandler, M.D., Senior Vice President, the Joseph E. Robert, Jr. Center for Surgical Care, and the Diane and Norman Bernstein Professor in Pediatric Surgery, is leading the research that followed an initial publication in PLOS ONE. Sandler’s team seeks to understand how cancer cells can change their behavior and activate the immune system – enlisting the patients’ own defenses to fight the tumor.

Their research is particularly significant because neuroblastoma, most commonly centered in the adrenal glands, is the third most common tumor in childhood, and the most common cancer in babies younger than one year old. It accounts for six percent of all childhood cancers in the United States, with about 700 children younger than 15 diagnosed each year.

“Historically, tumor vaccines held much promise, but demonstrated little clinical success,” Dr. Sandler and his team wrote in their study. “Thus, the task of establishing an effective anti-tumor response in neuroblastoma has been daunting.” However, with this most recent study finding, Dr. Sandler says this failed promise is changing.

The study revealed that “knockdown’” of a DNA-protein inhibitor, known as ID-2, in aggressive high-risk solid tumors resulted in activation of T-cells, which are white blood cells that have figured significantly in immunity research. Gene knockdown refers to a technique in which the expression of one or more of a cell’s genes is reduced.

The research also focused on using “checkpoint blockade,” a therapy in clinical use that allows for expansion of the immune response against tumors. “The combination of selective gene knock-down in tumor cells and checkpoint blockade produced a novel, potent T-cell triggered tumor vaccine strategy,” Dr. Sandler says.

As Children’s researchers examined the impact of the knockdown of ID-2 protein on a tumor, they implanted N2a, a fast growing mouse neuroblastoma cell line, in the mice. Unexpectedly, Sandler said, “Most of the mice rejected the tumor cells and subsequently were protected against further tumor challenges.”

The researchers also noted that a “massive influx” of T-cells infiltrated the shrinking tumor, indicating that T-cells are necessary for antitumor immunity in this vaccination protocol.

The ultimate goal for Sandler’s team is to work toward potential clinical trials to make further progress in neuroblastoma research, with immunotherapy playing a key role.

Dr. Sandler is the Principal Investigator of the Immunology initiative of the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, and has worked in immunology research related to childhood cancers for more than 20 years.

Vittorio Gallo

Vittorio Gallo named Chief Research Officer

Vittorio Gallo

As chief research officer, Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., will be instrumental in developing and realizing Children’s Research Institute’s long-term strategic vision.

Children’s National Health System has appointed the longtime director of its Center for Neuroscience Research, Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., as Chief Research Officer. Gallo’s appointment comes at a pivotal time for the institution’s research strategic plan, as significant growth and expansion will occur in the next few years. Gallo is a neuroscientist who studies white matter disorders, with particular focus on white matter growth and repair. He is also the Wolf-Pack Chair in Neuroscience at Children’s Research Institute, the academic arm of Children’s National.

As Chief Research Officer, Gallo will be instrumental in developing and realizing Children’s Research Institute’s long-term strategic vision, which includes building out the nearly 12-acre property once occupied by Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to serve as a regional innovation hub and to support Children’s scientists conducting world-class pediatric research in neuroscience, genetics, clinical and translational science, cancer and immunology. He succeeds Mendel Tuchman, M.D., who has had a long and distinguished career as Children’s Chief Research Officer for the past 12 years and who will remain for one year in an emeritus role, continuing federally funded research projects and mentoring junior researchers.

“I am tremendously pleased that Vittorio has agreed to become Chief Research Officer as of July 1, 2017, at such a pivotal time in Children’s history,” says Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., Physician-in-Chief and Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National. “Since Mendel announced plans to retire last summer, I spent a great deal of time talking to Children’s Research Institute investigators and leaders and also asking colleagues around the nation about the type of person and unique skill sets needed to serve as Mendel’s successor. With each conversation, it became increasingly clear that the most outstanding candidate for the Chief Research Officer position already works within Children’s walls,” Dr. Batshaw adds.

“I am deeply honored by being selected as Children’s next Chief Research Officer and am excited about being able to play a leadership role in defining the major areas of research that will be based at the Walter Reed space. The project represents an incredible opportunity to maintain the core nucleus of our research strengths – genetics, immunology, neurodevelopmental disorders and disabilities – and to expand into new, exciting areas of research. What’s more, we have an unprecedented opportunity to form new partnerships with peers in academia and private industry, and forge new community partnerships,” Gallo says. “I am already referring to this as Walter Reed ‘Now,’ so that we are not waiting for construction to begin to establish these important partnerships.”

Gallo’s research focus has been on white matter development and injury, myelin and glial cells – which are involved in the brain’s response to injury. His past and current focus is also on neural stem cells. His work in developmental neuroscience has been seminal in deepening understanding of cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. He came to Children’s National from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) intramural program. His intimate knowledge of the workings of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has helped him to establish meaningful collaborations between both institutions. During his tenure, he has transformed the Center for Neuroscience Research into one of the nation’s premier programs. The Center is home to the prestigious NIH/NICHD-funded District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, which Gallo directs.

Children’s research scientists working under the auspices of Children’s Research Institute conduct and promote highly collaborative and multidisciplinary research within the hospital that aims to better understand, treat and, ultimately, prevent pediatric disease. As Chief Research Officer, Gallo will continue to establish and enhance collaborations between research and clinical programs. Such cross-cutting projects will be essential in defining new mechanisms that underlie pediatric disease. “We know, for instance, that various mechanisms contribute to many genetic and neurological pediatric diseases, and that co-morbidities add another layer of complexity. Tapping expertise across disciplines has the potential to unravel current mysteries, as well as to better characterize unknown and rare diseases,” he says.

“Children’s National is among the nation’s top seven pediatric hospitals in NIH research funding, and the extraordinary innovations that have been produced by our clinicians and scientists have been put into practice here and in hospitals around the world,” Dr. Batshaw adds. “Children’s leadership aspires to nudge the organization higher, to rank among the nation’s top five pediatric hospitals in NIH research funding.”

Gallo says the opportunity for Children’s research to expand beyond the existing buildings and the concurrent expansion into new areas of research will trigger more hiring. “We plan to grow our research enterprise through strategic hires and by attracting even more visiting investigators from around the world. By expanding our community of investigators, we aim to strengthen our status as one of the nation’s leading pediatric hospitals,” he says.

Study to evaluate heat-activated chemotherapy drug

Children’s National Health System and Celsion Corp., a leading oncology drug-development company, will be the first to launch a clinical study in the U.S. that evaluates the use of ThermoDox®, a heat-activated chemotherapy drug, in combination with noninvasive magnetic resonance-guided high-intensity focused ultrasound (MR-HIFU) to treat refractory or relapsed solid tumors in children and young adults.

The investigator-sponsored Phase I study, which is partially funded by an NIH R01 grant, will determine a safe and tolerable dose of ThermoDox, a lyso-thermosensitive liposomal doxorubicin (LTLD), which can be administered in combination with MR-HIFU. Under the guidance of an MRI, the high-intensity focused ultrasound directs soundwave energy to heat the tumor and the area around the tumor. When heated, the liposome rapidly changes structure and releases doxorubicin directly into and around the targeted tumor.

“There is currently no known cure for many patients with refractory recurring solid tumors, despite the use of intensive therapy, so we need to identify new, smarter therapies that can improve outcomes,” said AeRang Kim, M.D., Ph.D., oncologist and member of the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National, who is also principal investigator for the study. “Recent advances in the use of noninvasive MR-HIFU coupled with novel therapies, such as LTLD, may provide us with a mechanism to noninvasively administer high concentrations of the drug directly to the site where it is most needed and avoid toxicity to other areas of the body.”

A First to Treat Childhood Cancer

This is the first time LTLD is being combined with MR-HIFU and the first time it is being evaluated in children.

“Celsion’s experience in combining ThermoDox with HIFU, a noninvasive next generation heating technology, supports this very important research in childhood cancers. From a safe dose, ThermoDox’s proven ability to deliver high concentrations of an effective chemotherapy directly to a heated tumor makes it an ideal candidate for a trial involving children and young adults,” said Michael H. Tardugno, Celsion’s chairman, president and CEO. “This study will further elucidate ThermoDox’s potential in combination with ultrasound-induced hyperthermia, and highlight potential applications of ThermoDox in combination with a broad range of heating technologies that could address an even larger population of patients.”

A Multidisciplinary Approach

The study targeting the treatment of childhood sarcomas will be carried out as a multidisciplinary collaboration between Children’s National, Celsion, and Dr. Bradford Wood’s team at the National Institutes of Health.

This is the latest study from the Image-Guided Non-Invasive Therapeutic Energy (IGNITE) program, a collaboration of the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National and the pediatric health system’s Divisions of Radiology, Oncology, Surgery, and Anesthesiology. The goal of the IGNITE program is to improve the quality of life and outcomes for pediatric patients through the development and clinical introduction of novel minimally invasive and noninvasive surgery technologies and combination therapy approaches. In 2015, doctors from Children’s National were the first in the U.S. to treat osteoid osteoma, a benign and painful bone tumor, using MR-HIFU.

ThermoDox is currently in late-stage clinical trials in primary liver cancer and recurrent chest wall breast cancer. It is positioned for use with multiple heating technologies, and has the potential for applications in the treatment of other forms of cancer including metastatic liver and nonmuscle invading bladder cancers.

Pediatric research consortia unveil CAVATICA data platform

Javad Nazarian, PhD, MSC, joined peers from prestigious children’s hospitals from around the world.

Dr. Nazarian’s lab at Children’s is part of the CBTTC, which has helped in launching CAVATICA. Pictured (from left to right): Dr. Nazarian, Sabine Mueller, M.D., Ph.D. (PNOC Trial Director), Rishi Lulla, M.D. (CBTTC Executive Director), Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., (NIH Director), and Adam Resnick, PHD (CBTTC Scientific Director).

Earlier this week, The White House released the Cancer Moonshot report, which calls upon the public and private sectors to transform cancer research and care. Children’s National’s Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C.,  joined peers from prestigious children’s hospitals from around the world at the news conference. Dr. Nazarian is a key player in the initiative, as his lab is part of the Children’s Brain Tumor Tissue Consortium (CBTTC) and is answering the call to action. The CBTTC and the Pacific Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium, in partnership with Seven Bridges, announced the launch of CAVATICA, a data analysis platform that will help researchers to collaboratively access and share data about pediatric cancers, congenital disorders and rare diseases such as epilepsy and autism. More data will be connected than ever before—CAVATICA will interoperate with the Genomic Data Commons and other NIH data repositories. “It’s an exciting time for research,” says Dr. Nazarian.

New research shows success training t-cells to recognize and fight life-threatening viruses

Children's is the only U.S. pediatric hospital that manufactures specialized T-cells from native cord blood

Patients with leukemia, lymphoma, other cancers, and genetic disorders who receive stem cell or cord blood transplants face the post-transplant risk of developing a life-threatening infection with adenovirus, cytomegalovirus (CMV), or Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).

The study reports the results of a head-to-head comparison of two powerful immunotherapeutic strategies to thwart such viral infections. Both therapeutic approaches leverage the power of multivirus-specific, donor-derived T-cells (mCTL), which are highly skilled at recognizing foreign invaders and, in the case of the peripheral blood cells, have long memories of past battles.

The award-winning paper, “Multivirus-Specific T Cells From Both Cord Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant Donors” was presented during the International Society for Cellular Therapy (ISCT) 2016 Annual Meeting, held from May 25 through May 28, in Singapore. The abstract’s lead author, Patrick J. Hanley, PhD, Laboratory Facility Director of Children’s Cellular Therapy and Stem Cell Processing facility, was recognized by ISCT with a Young Investigator award during the meeting.

Nine research scientists and clinicians affiliated with Children’s National Health System are co-authors of a paper, including Michael D. Keller, MD, the lead clinical investigator of the peripheral blood T-cell study, and Catherine M. Bollard, MBChB, MD, the study’s sponsor and Director of Children’s National Program for Cell Enhancement and Technologies for Immunotherapy.

After certain treatments, some cancer patients’ bodies are stripped of their natural ability to fight infection. The stem cell or the cord blood transplant restores the body’s ability to produce a full complement of blood cells, including infection-fighting white blood cells. As a further boost to these patients, the T-cells are trained to spot and neutralize all three potentially lethal viruses (CMV, EBV, and adenovirus) simultaneously. The personalized cell therapy can be accomplished in a single infusion and administered in the outpatient setting.

In the phase I perspective study, the personalized T-cells were grown from peripheral blood (PB) of adult donors who were seropositive for CMV, a relative of the virus that causes chickenpox, and were also coaxed to grow from naïve cord blood (CB). These naïve cells need additional training since they have never been to battle.

Since the mid-1990s, PB has been shown to be effective for such use. Hanley says that fewer than one dozen facilities in the United States perform PB antiviral T-cell infusions. Of that selective group, Children’s National is the only U.S. location that also grows the specialized T-cells from naïve CB, a procedure that takes a bit longer to accomplish but can help patients whose blood type is in short supply.

Thirteen patients were infused with PB mCTL, and 12 patients were infused with the T-cells derived from cord blood. Patients received their transfusions from 35 to 384 days after their stem cell or cord blood transplant. Within four weeks, the research team saw up to a 160-fold increase in virus-specific T-cells, a development that coincided with patients’ response to therapy. “The overall … response rate in both groups was 81 percent,” writes Hanley and colleagues.

Eight patients had a complete response. Five had a partial response. Nine remain free of infection/reactivation. What’s more, the patients’ restored immunity was durable with at least one patient remaining free of infection two years after treatment – without the need for pharmaceuticals administered in a hospital setting, which exacts a higher overall cost to the healthcare system.

“This study demonstrates that mCTL derived from the PB of seropositive donors, as well as the CB of virus naïve donors, expand in vivo and are active against multiple viruses. Furthermore, by restoring immunity to multiple viruses simultaneously, the need for continued prophylaxis with pharmacotherapy is eliminated, thus, improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of protecting SCT and CBT recipients from these potentially lethal viruses,” Hanley and co-authors conclude.

Related Resources: Research at a Glance