Bladder cancer’s unique bacterial “fingerprint”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yuan Zhu

The brain tumor field moves forward with new findings and a research grant

Yuan Zhu

Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., and other experts completed new research findings evaluating the effects of manipulating the growth-promoting signaling pathways in brain tumors associated with adults and children.

This month, experts at Children’s National Health System made great strides in brain tumor research, specifically in gliomas, glioblastomas and medulloblastomas. Led by Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., the scientific director and Gilbert Endowed Professor of the Gilbert Family Neurofibromatosis Institute and Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National, the team completed new research findings evaluating the effects of manipulating the growth-promoting signaling pathways in brain tumors associated with adults and children. Dr. Zhu’s research was recently published in Cell Reports and he was also awarded a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) grant to gain a better understanding of how low-grade gliomas form. Together, this work moves the needle on developing more effective treatments for these debilitating and life-threatening tumors.

The study

In his recently published paper, Dr. Zhu and his colleagues, including Drs. Seckin Akgul and Yinghua Li, studied glioblastomas, the most common brain tumor in adults, and medulloblastomas, the most common brain tumor found in children, in genetically engineered experimental models. Dr. Zhu found that when they removed the p53 gene (the most commonly mutated tumor suppressor gene in human cancers) in the experimental model’s brain, most developed malignant gliomas and glioblastomas, while Sonic Hedgehog (SHH)-subtype (SHH) medulloblastomas were also observed. They further suppressed the Rictor/mTorc2 molecular pathway that is known in the regulation of tumor growth. This action greatly reduced the incidence of malignant gliomas and extended the survival of the models, validating the concept that Rictor/mTorc2 could be a viable drug target for this lethal brain cancer in adults.

The study also found that the same Rictor/mTorc2 molecular pathway serves the opposite function in SHH medulloblastoma formation, acting as a tumor suppressor. Findings suggest that if the same drug treatment is used for treating SHH medulloblastoma in children, it could potentially have an adverse effect and promote growth of the tumors.

Ultimately, the study demonstrates that Rictor/mTORC2 has opposing functions in glioblastomas in adults and SHH medulloblastomas in children. While drug therapies targeting Rictor/mTORC2 may be successful in adults, the findings reveal the risks of treating children with pediatric brain tumors when using the same therapies.

The grant

Continuing the study of brain tumors, Dr. Zhu recently received a $575,000 grant from DoD to research benign gliomas, with the hope of gaining a greater understanding of how the tumors form. Low-grade gliomas, or benign brain tumors, are the most common brain tumors in children. While not lethal like their high-grade counterpart, these tumors can lead to significant neurological defects, permanently impacting a child’s quality of life. Most commonly, the tumor can impair vision, often leading to blindness.

Since the tumors only occur in children under the age of eight, Dr. Zhu believes they are linked to neural stem or progenitor cells that exist in the optic nerve only during development, or when children are under eight-years-old. To test if his hypothesis is correct, Dr. Zhu will develop a preclinical model that mimics human brain tumors to study the development of the optic nerve. If his theory proves correct, Dr. Zhu’s long-term goal is to develop a strategy that prevents the tumor formation from ever occurring, ultimately preventing vision loss in children. The grant begins in July and will run for three years.

 

Brian Rood

Improving the understanding of medulloblastoma

Brian Rood

Brian Rood, M.D., employed quantitative proteomics to tumor samples that led to novel therapeutic targets for Medulloblastoma and other tumors.

In a recently published study, Brian Rood, M.D., a neuro-oncologist at Children’s National Health System, employed quantitative proteomics to tumor samples, a technique that could lead to novel therapeutic targets for medulloblastoma and other tumors in the future.

Currently, many experts use genomic characterization to understand the genetic makeup of cancer cells, which has deepened the field’s collective knowledge of tumor biology. However, it has remained challenging to infer specific information about how the tumors will respond and consequently develop more effective therapies. Medulloblastoma is the most common pediatric, malignant brain tumor. Through Dr. Rood’s research using proteomic analysis, he was able to identify and measure the protein makeup of medulloblastoma, which led to a potential pathway for clinical intervention to treat this life-threatening cancer. The findings were published online June 7, 2018, in Acta Neuropathologica Communications.

“The goal of this research was to find out how these tumor cells function at the protein level, which may ultimately help the field identify drug therapies to stop them,” says Dr. Rood. “The genes of a cancer cell are like a blueprint for a building, but the blueprints aren’t always followed in a cancer cell: Not every active gene will produce its corresponding protein. Proteins do the work of the cell, and understanding them will provide a better overall understanding of a cancer cell’s biology.”

Dr. Rood compared proteomic and genomic data to confirm that genetics do not accurately predict the quantity of proteins. By directly quantitating the proteins and comparing them between different subgroups of the disease, they were able to identify protein-based pathways driving tumor biology. With this information, Dr. Rood was able to demonstrate that medulloblastoma depends on a crucial pathway, the eukaryotic initiation factor 4F protein synthesis pathway, resulting in the identification of a potential target for new treatments in medulloblastoma.

Ultimately, Dr. Rood found that proteomic analysis complements genomic characterization and the two can be used together to create a more complete understanding of tumor biology. Going forward, he hopes proteomic analysis will become common practice for studying all tumors, allowing tumors to be categorized and grouped together by protein makeup to help the field identify more effective therapies for all tumors.

Making the grade: Children’s National is nation’s Top 5 children’s hospital

Children’s National rose in rankings to become the nation’s Top 5 children’s hospital according to the 2018-19 Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll released June 26, 2018, by U.S. News & World Report. Additionally, for the second straight year, Children’s Neonatology division led by Billie Lou Short, M.D., ranked No. 1 among 50 neonatal intensive care units ranked across the nation.

Children’s National also ranked in the Top 10 in six additional services:

For the eighth year running, Children’s National ranked in all 10 specialty services, which underscores its unwavering commitment to excellence, continuous quality improvement and unmatched pediatric expertise throughout the organization.

“It’s a distinct honor for Children’s physicians, nurses and employees to be recognized as the nation’s Top 5 pediatric hospital. Children’s National provides the nation’s best care for kids and our dedicated physicians, neonatologists, surgeons, neuroscientists and other specialists, nurses and other clinical support teams are the reason why,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., Children’s President and CEO. “All of the Children’s staff is committed to ensuring that our kids and families enjoy the very best health outcomes today and for the rest of their lives.”

The excellence of Children’s care is made possible by our research insights and clinical innovations. In addition to being named to the U.S. News Honor Roll, a distinction awarded to just 10 children’s centers around the nation, Children’s National is a two-time Magnet® designated hospital for excellence in nursing and is a Leapfrog Group Top Hospital. Children’s ranks seventh among pediatric hospitals in funding from the National Institutes of Health, with a combined $40 million in direct and indirect funding, and transfers the latest research insights from the bench to patients’ bedsides.

“The 10 pediatric centers on this year’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll deliver exceptional care across a range of specialties and deserve to be highlighted,” says Ben Harder, chief of health analysis at U.S. News. “Day after day, these hospitals provide state-of-the-art medical expertise to children with complex conditions. Their U.S. News’ rankings reflect their commitment to providing high-quality care.”

The 12th annual rankings recognize the top 50 pediatric facilities across the U.S. in 10 pediatric specialties: cancer, cardiology and heart surgery, diabetes and endocrinology, gastroenterology and gastrointestinal surgery, neonatology, nephrology, neurology and neurosurgery, orthopedics, pulmonology and urology. Hospitals received points for being ranked in a specialty, and higher-ranking hospitals receive more points. The Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll recognizes the 10 hospitals that received the most points overall.

This year’s rankings will be published in the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Hospitals 2019” guidebook, available for purchase in late September.

Jeffrey Dome

New treatment approach shows promise for patients with stage IV Wilms tumor

Jeffrey Dome

“These findings will change clinical practice and improve survival for patients with Wilms tumor whose cancer has spread to the lungs,” says Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D.

Wilms tumor, which first develops in the kidneys, is the fifth most common cancer in children under 15 years old. While overall outcomes for patients with Wilms tumor are excellent, patients with metastatic disease, with the lung as the most common site of spread, fare worse than patients with localized disease. That’s why a new study showing significantly improved survival rates for patients with stage IV Wilms tumors with lung metastases is making waves in the pediatric oncology community.

The study, “Treatment of Stage IV Favorable Histology Wilms Tumor With Lung Metastases: A Report From the Children’s Oncology Group AREN0533 Study” – recently published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology with Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., vice president for the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Health System, as the senior author – assessed whether lung radiation therapy, part of the standard treatment in combination with chemotherapy drugs, can be avoided for patients with complete lung nodule response after six weeks of chemotherapy. Conversely, the study assessed the benefit of adding two additional chemotherapy agents, cyclophosphamide and etoposide, to the treatment regimen for patients with incomplete lung nodule response or tumor loss of heterozygosity (LOH) at chromosomes 1p and 16q, both associated with interior outcomes in previous studies. The results show that:

  • The new approach to therapy resulted in a 4-year overall survival rate of 96 percent, compared to 84 percent on the predecessor study.
  • About 40 percent of patients with Wilms tumor and lung metastases can be spared initial upfront lung radiation and still have outstanding survival. This will decrease the long-term risk of heart toxicity and breast cancer.
  • Patients with incomplete lung nodule response after six weeks of therapy with cyclophosphamide and etoposide had significantly better 4-year event-free survival: 89 percent compared with 75 percent that was expected based on historical data.
  • Intensification of therapy for patients with LOH at 1p and 16q was highly effective: 4-year event-free survival rate improved from 66 percent on the previous study to 100 percent.

“These findings will change clinical practice and improve survival for patients with Wilms tumor whose cancer has spread to the lungs” said Dr. Dome. “The risk-adapted approach to treatment based on tumor biology and tumor response provides a framework for future studies as we come one step closer to achieving 100 percent survival without treatment-associated side effects.”

Research and Education Week awardees embody the diverse power of innovation

cnmc-research-education-week

“Diversity powers innovation” was brought to life at Children’s National April 16 to 20, 2018, during the eighth annual Research and Education Week. Children’s faculty were honored as President’s Award winners and for exhibiting outstanding mentorship, while more than 360 scientific poster presentations were displayed throughout the Main Atrium.

Two clinical researchers received Mentorship Awards for excellence in fostering the development of junior faculty. Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D received the award for Translational Science and Murray M. Pollack, M.D., M.B.A., was recognized in the Clinical Science category as part of Children’s National Health System’s Research and Education Week 2018.

Dr. Kenworthy has devoted her career to improving the lives of people on the autism spectrum and was cited by former mentees as an inspirational and tireless counselor. Her mentorship led to promising new lines of research investigating methods for engaging culturally diverse families in autism studies, as well as the impact of dual language exposure on cognition in autism.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pollack was honored for his enduring focus on motivating early-career professionals to investigate outcomes in pediatric critical care, emergency medicine and neonatology. Dr. Pollack is one of the founders of the Collaborative Pediatric Critical Care Research Network. He developed PRISM 1 and 2, which has revolutionized pediatric intensive care by providing a methodology to predict mortality and outcome using standardly collected clinical data. Mentees credit Dr. Pollack with helping them develop critical thinking skills and encouraging them to address creativity and focus in their research agenda.

In addition to the Mentorship and President’s Awards, 34 other Children’s National faculty, residents, interns and research staff were among the winners of Poster Presentation awards. The event is a celebration of the commitment to improving pediatric health in the form of education, research, scholarship and innovation that occurs every day at Children’s National.

Children’s Research Institute (CRI) served as host for the week’s events to showcase the breadth of research and education programs occurring within the entire health system, along with the rich demographic and cultural origins of the teams that make up Children’s National. The lineup of events included scientific poster presentations, as well as a full slate of guest lectures, educational workshops and panel discussions.

“It’s critical that we provide pathways for young people of all backgrounds to pursue careers in science and medicine,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Children’s chief research officer and CRI’s scientific director. “In an accelerated global research and health care environment, internationalization of innovation requires an understanding of cultural diversity and inclusion of different mindsets and broader spectrums of perspectives and expertise from a wide range of networks,” Gallo adds.

“Here at Children’s National we want our current and future clinician-researchers to reflect the patients we serve, which is why our emphasis this year was on harnessing diversity and inclusion as tools to power innovation,” says Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., physician-in-chief and chief academic officer of Children’s National.

“Research and Education Week 2018 presented a perfect opportunity to celebrate the work of our diverse research, education and care teams, who have come together to find innovative solutions by working with local, national and international partners. This event highlights the ingenuity and inspiration that our researchers contribute to our mission of healing children,” Dr. Batshaw concludes.

Awards for the best posters were distributed according to the following categories:

  • Basic and translational science
  • Quality and performance improvement
  • Clinical research
  • Community-based research and
  • Education, training and program development.

Each winner illustrated promising advances in the development of new therapies, diagnostics and medical devices.

Diversity powers innovation: Denice Cora-Bramble, M.D., MBA
Diversity powers innovation: Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.
Diversity powers innovation: Mark L. Batshaw, M.D.

Javad Nazarian

Private foundation and researchers partner to cure childhood cancers

Javad Nazarian

Researchers nationally and internally stand the best chance of fulfilling Gabriella Miller’s dream of curing childhood cancers by effectively working together, says Javad Nazarian, Ph.D.

“Thank you for helping me reach my goal.” The handwritten note was penned by Gabriella Miller, a patient treated at Children’s National Health System who ultimately succumbed to an aggressive form of pediatric brain cancer.

Gabriella, then 9 years old, dreamed of curing childhood cancer, including diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), the aggressive pediatric brain tumor that took her life.

Attendees will gather April 14, 2018, for an annual gala held by the Smashing Walnuts Foundation – a group Gabriella started – to celebrate their progress on achieving her goal and to chart future strategic approaches.

“While this foundation was the brainchild of a single person, researchers nationally and internally stand the best chance of fulfilling her dream by working together more effectively,” says Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., the gala’s main speaker. Nazarian is scientific director of Children’s Brain Tumor Institute and is scientific co-chair of the Children’s Brain Tumor Tissue Consortium.

To that end, Children’s National was named a member of a public-private research collective awarded up to $14.8 million by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to launch a data resource center that cancer sleuths around the world can tap into to accelerate discovery of novel treatments for childhood tumors.

This April, the NIH announced that researchers it funded had completed PanCancer Atlas, a detailed genomic analysis on a data set of molecular and clinical information from more than 10,000 tumors representing 33 types of cancer, including DIPG.

And this January, the NIH announced that it would accept applications from researchers performing whole-genome sequencing studies at one of its Gabriella Miller Kids First research program sequencing facilities. The centers will produce genome, exome and transcriptome sequencing.

Expanding access to these growing troves of data requires a close eye on nuts-and-bolts issues, such as securing sufficient physical data storage space to house the data, Nazarian adds. It’s essential for research teams around the world to have streamlined access to data sets they can analyze as well as contribute to.

“In addition to facilitating researchers’ access to this compiled data, we want to ensure that patients and families feel they are partners in this enterprise by also offering opportunities for them to share meaningful clinical data,” Nazarian says.

Nazarian has been instrumental in expanding the comprehensive biorepository at Children’s National, growing it from just a dozen samples six years ago to thousands of specimens donated by patients with all types of pediatric brain tumors, including DIPG.

“We are so grateful to our patients and families. They share our passion for finding cures and validating innovative treatments for pediatric cancers that defy current treatment. They provide funding through their foundations. Families touched by tragedy offer samples to help the next family avoid reliving their experience,” Nazarian says. “It is in their names – and in Gabriella’s name – that we continue to push ourselves to ‘crack the cure’ for childhood brain cancer.”

Joseph Scafidi

Developing brains are impacted, but can recover, from molecularly targeted cancer drugs

Joseph Scafidi

“The plasticity of the developing brain does make it susceptible to treatments that alter its pathways,” says Joseph Scafidi, D. O., M.S. “Thankfully, that same plasticity means we have an opportunity to mitigate the damage from necessary and lifesaving treatments by providing the right support after the treatment is over.”

One of the latest developments in oncology treatments is the advancement of molecularly targeted therapeutic agents. These drugs can be used to specifically target and impact the signaling pathways that encourage tumor growth, and are also becoming a common go to for ophthalmologists to treat retinopathy of prematurity in neonates.

But in the developing brain of a child or adolescent, these pathways are also crucial to the growth and development of the brain and central nervous system.

“These drugs have been tested in vitro, or in tumor cells, or even in adult studies for efficacy, but there was no data on what happens when these pathways are inhibited during periods when their activation is also playing a key role in the development of cognitive and behavioral skills, as is the case in a growing child,” says Joseph Scafidi, D. O., M.S., a neuroscientist and pediatric neurologist who specializes in neonatology at Children’s National Health System.

As it turns out, when the drugs successfully inhibit tumor growth by suppressing receptors, they can also significantly impact the function of immature brains, specifically changing cognitive and behavioral functions that are associated with white matter and hippocampal development.

The results appeared in Cancer Research, and are the first to demonstrate the vulnerability of the developing brain when this class of drugs is administered. The pre-clinical study looked at the unique impacts of drugs including gefitinib (Iressa), sunitib malate (Sutent) and rapamycin (Sirolimus) that target specific pathways responsible for the rapid growth and development that occurs throughout childhood.

The agents alter signaling pathways in the developing brain, including decreasing the number of oligodendrocytes, which alters white matter growth. Additionally, the agents also impact the function of specific cells within the hippocampus related to learning and memory. When younger preclinical subjects were treated, impacts of exposure were more significant. Tests on the youngest pre-clinical subjects showed significantly diminished capacity to complete cognitive and behavioral tasks and somewhat older, e.g. adolescent, subjects showed somewhat fewer deficits. Adult subjects saw little or no deficit.

“The impacts on cognitive and behavioral function for the developing brain, though significant, are still less detrimental than the widespread impacts of chemotherapy on that young brain,” Dr. Scafidi notes. “Pediatric oncologists, neuro-oncologists and ophthalmologists should be aware of the potential impacts of using these molecularly targeted drugs in children, but should still consider them as a treatment option when necessary.”

The effects are reversible

Researchers also found measurable improvements in these impaired cognitive and behavioral functions when rehabilitation strategies such as environmental stimulation, cognitive therapy and physical activity were applied after drug exposure.

“The plasticity of the developing brain does make it susceptible to treatments that alter its pathways,” says Dr. Scafidi. “Thankfully, that same plasticity means we have an opportunity to mitigate the damage from necessary and lifesaving treatments by providing the right support after the treatment is over.”

Many major pediatric oncology centers, including the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National, already incorporate rehabilitation strategies such as cognitive therapy and increased physical activity to help pediatric patients return to normal life following treatment. The results from this study suggest that these activities after treatment for pediatric brain tumors may play a vital role in improving recovery of brain cognitive and behavioral function in the pediatric population.

This research was funded by grants to Dr. Scafidi from the National Brain Tumor Society, Childhood Brain Tumor Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Kirsten-M.-Williams

Helpful, hopeful news for bone marrow transplant patients

Kirsten-M.-Williams

Research published online Dec. 13, 2017, by The Lancet Haematology and co-led by Kirsten M. Williams, M.D., suggests that a new imaging agent can safely show engraftment as early as days after transplant – giving a helpful and hopeful preview to patients and their doctors.

Leukemia can be a terrifying diagnosis for the more than 60,000 U.S. patients who are told they have this blood cancer every year. But the treatment for this disease can be just as frightening. For patients with certain forms of leukemia, the only chance they have for a cure is to receive a massive dose of radiation and chemotherapy that kills their hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), the cells responsible for making new blood, and then receive new HSCs from a healthy donor.

While patients are waiting for these new cells to go to the bone marrow factory and begin churning out new blood cells, patients are left without an immune system. Devoid of working HSCs for two to four weeks – or longer, if a first transplant doesn’t take – patients are vulnerable to infections that can be just as deadly as their original cancer diagnosis.

As they wait in the protected confines of a hospital, patients who undergo HSC transplants receive blood tests every day to gauge successful engraftment, searching for the presence of immune cells called neutrophils, explains Kirsten M. Williams, M.D., blood and bone marrow transplant specialist at Children’s National Health System.

“As you head into week three post-transplant and a patient’s cell counts remain at zero, everyone starts to get nervous,” Dr. Williams says. The longer a patient goes without an immune system, the higher the chance that they’ll develop a life-threatening infection. Until recently, Dr. Williams says, there has been no way beyond those daily blood tests to assess whether the newly infused cells have survived and started to grow early healthy cells in the bone marrow, a process called engraftment.

A new study could change that paradigm. Research published online Dec. 13, 2017, by The Lancet Haematology and co-led by Dr. Williams suggests that a new imaging agent can safely show engraftment as early as days after transplant – giving a helpful and hopeful preview to patients and their doctors.

The study evaluated an investigational imaging test called 18F-fluorothymidine (18F-FLT). It’s a radio-labeled analogue of thymidine, a natural component of DNA. Studies have shown that this compound is incorporated into just three white blood cell types, including HSCs. Because it’s radioactive, it can be seen on various types of common clinical imaging exams, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and computed tomography (CT) scans. Thus, after infusion, the newly infused developing immune system and marrow is readily visible.

To see whether this compound can readily and safely visualize transplanted HSCs, Dr. Williams and colleagues tested it on 23 patients with various forms of high-risk leukemia.

After these patients received total-body irradiation to destroy their own HSCs, they received donor HSCs from relatives or strangers. One day before they were infused with these donor cells, and then at five or nine days, 28 days, and one year after transplantation, the patients underwent imaging with the novel PET/and CT scan imaging platform.

Each of these patients had successful engraftment, reflected in blood tests two to four weeks after their HSC transplants. However, the results of the imaging exams revealed a far more complicated and robust story.

With 18F-FLT clearly visible in the scans, the researchers saw that the cells took a complex journey as they engrafted. First, they migrated to the patients’ livers and spleens. Next, they went to the thoracic spine, the axial spine, the sternum, and the arms and legs. By one year, most of the new HSCs were concentrated in the bones that make up the trunk of the body, including the hip, where most biopsies to assess marrow function take place.

Interestingly, notes Dr. Williams, this pathway is the same one that HSCs take in the fetus when they first form. Although experimental model research had previously suggested that transplanted HSCs travel the same route, little was known about whether HSCs in human patients followed suit.

The study also demonstrated that the radiation in 18F-FLT did not adversely affect engraftment. Additionally, images could identify success of their engraftments potentially weeks faster than they would have through traditional blood tests – a definite advantage to this technique.

“Through the images we took, these patients could see the new cells growing in their bodies,” Dr. Williams says. “They loved that.”

Besides providing an early heads up about engraftment status, she adds, this technique also could help patients avoid painful bone marrow biopsies to make sure donor cells have taken residence in the bones or at the very least help target those biopsies. It also could be helpful for taking stock of HSCs in other conditions, such as aplastic anemia, in which the body’s own HSCs fade away. And importantly, if the new healthy cells don’t grow, this test could signal this failure to doctors, enabling rapid mobilization of new cells to avert life-threatening infections and help us save lives after transplants at high risk of graft failure.

“What happens with HSCs always has been a mystery,” Dr. Williams says. “Now we can start to open that black box.”

Dr. Williams’ co-authors include co-lead author Jennifer Holter-Chakrabarty, M.D., Quyen Duong, M.S., Sara K. Vesely, Ph.D., Chuong T. Nguyen, Ph.D., Joseph P. Havlicek, Ph.D., George Selby, M.D., Shibo Li, M.D., and Teresa Scordino, M.D., University of Oklahoma; Liza Lindenberg, M.D., Karen Kurdziel, M.D., Frank I. Lin, M.D., Daniele N. Avila, N.P., Christopher G. Kanakry, M.D., Stephen Adler, Ph.D., Peter Choyke, M.D., and senior author Ronald E. Gress, M.D., National Cancer Institute; Juan Gea-Banacloche, M.D., Mayo Clinic Arizona; and Catherine “Cath” M. Bollard, M.D., MB.Ch.B., Children’s National.

Research reported in this story was supported by the National Institutes of Health, Ben’s Run/Ben’s Gift, Albert and Elizabeth Tucker Foundation, Mex Frates Leukemia Fund, Jones Family fund and Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research.

Love is in the air and, for parasites, inside our bodies

Michael H. Hsieh

As featured in a PBS video, schistosome worms form lifelong bonds and females produce thousands of eggs daily only when they live inside human hosts, says Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

“Love is in the air, the sea, the earth and all over and inside our bodies,” the PBS Valentine’s Day-themed video begins. As the public television station notes, what humans consider romance can look vastly different for creatures big and small, including serenading mice, spiders who wrap their gifts in silk and necking giraffes.

The “spooning” parasites segment of the video is where viewers see research conducted by Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Clinic for Adolescent and Adult PedIatric OnseT UroLogy at Children’s National Health System, and video filmed in his lab.

Schistosomiasis, a chronic infection with schistosome worms, is a distinctly one-sided love affair. As shown in Dr. Hsieh’s video clips, the male worm is shorter and fatter and equipped with a groove, a love canal where the longer, thinner female lodges, enabling the pair to mate for decades. This lifelong bond and the thousands of eggs it produces daily can only occur when the worms are inside the human host, Dr. Hsieh says.

While the video stresses Valentine’s Day romance, there are few rosy outcomes for humans who are the subject of the schistosome worms’ attention.

“Heavily and chronically infected individuals can have lots of problems,” Dr. Hsieh says. “This is a stunting and wasting health condition that prevents people from reaching their growth potential, impairs their academic performance and leaves them sapped of the energy needed to exercise or work. It truly perpetuates a cycle of poverty, particularly for affected children.”

Even the potential bright spot in this sobering story, the ability of the body’s immune system to fend off the parasitic worms, is only partly good news.

Schistosome worms have co-evolved with their human hosts, learning to take advantage of human vulnerabilities. Take the immune system. If it kicks too far into overdrive in trying to wall off the eggs from the rest of the body, it can interfere with organ function and trigger liver failure, kidney failure and early onset of bladder cancer, he says.

However, Dr. Hsieh and other schistosomiasis researchers are working on ways to positively harness the human immune response to schistosome worms, including developing diagnostics, drugs and vaccines. He says he and his colleagues would “love” to eliminate schistosomiasis as a global scourge.

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 a professor in the Division of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine 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.