Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Making healthcare innovation for children a priority

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

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

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

Research & Innovation Campus

Children’s National partners with Virginia Tech

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

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

Research & Innovation Campus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nikki Gillum Posnack

Research team develops new and improved method for studying cardiac function

Nikki Gillum Posnack

While researching how plastic affects heart function in sensitive populations, such as children born with congenital heart defects, Children’s National researcher Nikki Posnack, Ph.D., led a team that developed a new and improved, replicable method of performing simultaneous dual optical mapping to examine electrical activity and calcium for the study of cardiac function.

Since arriving at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, researcher Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D., a principal investigator with the institute and assistant professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, has been focused on examining how exposure to plastic affects heart function in sensitive populations, such as children born with congenital heart defects. She performs optical mapping to conduct this research, but the industry standard approaches of either using dual cameras or sequential single cameras were cost prohibitive and technically challenging while also diminishing the quality of the imaging results.

Fast forward to July 2019 when Dr. Posnack and her team published “Plasticizer Interaction With the Heart” in the journal Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology, which used imaging techniques to reveal the impact of plastic chemicals on the electrical activity of the heart. Dr. Posnack’s laboratory has since expanded this technique and revealed a new replicable method of performing simultaneous dual optical mapping to examine electrical activity and calcium handling in the heart.

Sharing a new method for studying cardiac function

This groundbreaking method is itself the focus of a new BMC Biomedical Engineering journal article titled “Lights, camera, path splitter: a new approach for truly simultaneous dual optical mapping of the heart with a single camera.”

The article compares and contrasts the current standard for dual camera simultaneous configurations and single camera sequential configurations to Dr. Posnack’s new single camera simultaneous configuration.

Simultaneous dual mapping systems use two probes and dual dyes – one for electrical voltage and the other for calcium. While dual-dye combinations like Di-4-ANEPPS with Indo-1, Di-2-ANEPEQ and calcium green have been developed to separate fluorescence signals by emission, these dye combinations can have spectral overlap, creating the need for non-ideal emission bandpass to negate spectral overlap and/or the inclusion of a calcium probe with an inferior dissociation constant. Additionally, dual-sensor systems require proper alignment to ensure that fluorescence signals are being analyzed from the same tissue region on each individual detector, which could lead to erroneous results. The dual-camera optical setup is expensive, technically challenging and requires a large physical footprint that is often not feasible for basic science and teaching laboratories conducting critical research.

As an alternative, some researchers use a single camera configuration to sequentially image the voltage and calcium probes using excitation light patterning. This approach also has limitations. These single-sensor designs use dual-dye combinations that require two or more excitation light sources, but share a single emission band. Like the dual camera system, this platform design is also technically challenging since the different excitation light wavelengths require light source triggering, camera synchronization and frame interleaving. Due to timing coordination, decreased frame rates, excitation light ramp up/down times and shutter open/close times, single system setups require shorter exposure times compared to dual sensor setups, diminishing the signal-to-noise quality without offering the same temporal fidelity. There is a cost advantage to the single camera system, however, because the additional camera is often one of the most expensive components.

This new single camera, simultaneous dual optical mapping approach is the first multiparametric mapping system that simultaneously acquires calcium and voltage signals from cardiac preparations, using a commercially available optical path splitter, single camera and single excitation light. Using a large field of view sCMOS sensor that is faster and more sensitive, this configuration separates the two emission bands for voltage and calcium probes and simultaneously directs them to either sides of the single, large camera sensor. This protocol employs a commonly used dual-dye combination (RH237 and Rhod2-AM). In contrast, other protocols may require genetically-encoded indicators or fluorescent probes that are not yet commercially available.

The team validated the utility of the approach by performing high-speed simultaneous dual imaging with sufficient signal-to-noise ratio for calcium and voltage signals and specificity of emission signals with negligible cross-talk. Demonstrating the need for simultaneous electrical and calcium sensors, they found that when ventricular tachycardia is induced, there is spatially discordant calcium alternans present in different regions of the heart even when the electrical alternans remain concordant.

Having eliminated the second camera as well as the need for multiple excitation light sources, light pattering and frame interleaving, this system is more cost effective, simpler, and can be easily setup by various types of researchers, not just those with engineering backgrounds.

With a limited research budget and a background in physiology, Dr. Posnack worked collaboratively with her post-doctoral fellow Rafael Jaimes III, an engineer in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, to develop a cost-effective system that would enable her to truly study the effects of plastics on the heart.

Multidisciplinary approach

“We’re fortunate to have a multidisciplinary team in the Sheikh Zayed Institute so that I could work with an engineer to develop the technology and system we needed to propel our research,” said Dr. Posnack. “There are so many researchers who have the science background, but not necessarily the technical aptitude, and they get stymied in their research, so we’re proud that this paper will help other researchers replicate the system to study cardiac function.”

The research paper was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health as well as support from the Children’s Research Institute, Children’s National Heart Institute and the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation.

The applications for this optical mapping system are significant and Dr. Posnack has been consulted by other research teams looking to implement it in their labs. Additionally, Dr. Posnack has collaborated with several neuroscience teams at Children’s National Hospital, including one that is investigating the effects of hypoxia on brain and heart development, and another that is interested in using image modalities and data processing to analyze calcium as an indicator of neuron firing.

Dr. Posnack continues to use this new dual optical mapping system to further her research as she anticipates the publication of a new article about age-dependent changes in cardiac electrophysiology and calcium handling.

telemedicine

Children’s National partners with Sabará Hospital Infantil to provide pediatric telehealth services in Brazil

telemedicine

Through a new partnership with Sabará Hospital Infantil in São Paulo, Brazil, Children’s National Hospital will provide access to pediatric cardiac intensive care specialists and consultations via telehealth. This is the first international telehealth offering from Children’s National for pediatric cardiac critical care.

The partnership includes sharing care proposals, second opinion for complex cardiology cases, alignment with international benchmarks, adoption of diagnostic and therapeutic protocols, development of critical mass for continuous process improvement and continued training. Joint multidisciplinary visits will also be carried out to help Sabará validate and improve existing protocols and learn about innovations and service improvement opportunities.

Children’s National will also provide teleconference-based training for Sabará nursing staff and second opinions through medical teleconsultation with specialists in all areas of pediatric cardiology, based on each patient’s individual needs.

“It is an honor to partner with Sabará Hospital lnfantil,” says Ricardo Munoz, M.D., executive director of Telemedicine and chief of Cardiac Critical Care at Children’s National. “We look forward to working together toward our shared goal of providing the best health care possible for the children in Brazil.”

doctor's stethescope coming out of a computer

Virtual cardiology follow-ups may safely save families time, cost

doctor's stethescope coming out of a computer

Virtual cardiology follow-ups via computer or smartphone are a feasible alternative to in-person patient follow-ups for some pediatric cardiac conditions.

A poster presentation at the AHA Scientific Sessions shows successful implementation of virtual care delivered directly to patients and families via technology.

Health provider follow-ups delivered via computer or smartphone is a feasible alternative to in-person patient follow-ups for some pediatric cardiac conditions, according to the findings of a pilot study presented at the AHA Scientific Sessions this week.

“We’ve used telemedicine in pediatric cardiology for physician-to-physician communications for years at Children’s National, thanks to cardiologists like Dr. Craig Sable,” says Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., cardiologist at Children’s National Hospital and senior author of the study. “But this is the first time we’ve really had the appropriate technology to speak directly to patients and their families in their homes instead of requiring an in-person visit.”

“We developed it [telemedicine] into a primary every day component of reading echocardiograms around the region and the globe,” says Craig Sable, M.D., associate chief of cardiology at Children’s National. “Telemedicine has enabled doctors at Children’s National to extend our reach to improve the care of children and avoid unnecessary transport, family travel and lost time from work.”

Participants in the virtual visit pilot study were previously established patients with hyperlipidemia, hypercholesterolemia, syncope, or who needed to discuss cardiac testing results. The retrospective sample included 18 families who met the criteria and were open to the virtual visit/telehealth follow up option between 2016 and 2019. Six months after their virtual visit, none of the participants had presented urgently with a cardiology issue. While many (39%) had additional visits with cardiology scheduled as in person, none of those subsequent in-person visits were a result of a deficiency related to the virtual visit.

“There are many more questions to be answered about how best to appropriately use technology advances that allow us to see and hear our patients without requiring them to travel a great distance,” adds Dr. Harahsheh. “But my team and I were encouraged by the results of our small study, and by the anecdotal positive reviews from families who participated. We’re looking forward to determining how we can successfully and cost-effectively implement these approaches as additional options for our families to get the care they need.”

The project was supported by the Research, Education, Advocacy, and Child Health Care (REACH) program within the Children’s National Hospital Pediatric Residency Program.

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Direct-to-Consumer Cardiology Telemedicine: A Single Large Academic Pediatric Center Experience
Aaron A. Phillips, M.D., Craig A. Sable, M.D., FAAP; Christina Waggaman, M.S.; and Ashraf S. Harahsheh, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.A.P.
Poster Presentation by first author Aaron Phillips, M.D., a third-year resident at Children’s National
CH.APS.12 – Man vs. Machine: Tech in Kids
AHA Scientific Sessions 2019
November 17, 2019
12:30 -1:00 p.m.

BPA analogues may be less likely to disrupt heart rhythm

Some chemical alternatives to plastic bisphenol-a (BPA), which is still commonly used in medical settings such as operating rooms and intensive care units, may be less disruptive to heart electrical function than BPA,

A poster at the AHA Scientific Sessions suggests bisphenol-s (BPS) and bisphenol-f (BPF) may have less impact on heart function than bisphenol-a (BPA).

Some chemical alternatives to plastic bisphenol-a (BPA), which is still commonly used in medical settings such as operating rooms and intensive care units, may be less disruptive to heart electrical function than BPA, according to a pre-clinical study that explored how the structural analogues bisphenol-s (BPS) and bisphenol-f (BPF) interact with the chemical and electrical functions of heart cells.

The findings suggest that in terms of toxicity for heart function, these chemicals that are similar in structure to BPA may actually be safer for medically fragile heart cells, such as those in children with congenital heart disease. Previous research has found a high likelihood that BPA exposure may impact the heart’s electrical conductivity and disrupt heart rhythm, and patients are often exposed to the plastic via clinical equipment found in intensive care and in the operating room.

“There are still many questions that need to be answered about the safety and efficacy of using chemicals that look and act like BPA in medical settings, especially in terms of their potential contribution to endocrine disruption,” says Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D., the poster’s senior author and a principal investigator in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Hospital. “What we can say is that, in this initial pre-clinical investigation, it appears that these structural analogues have less of an impact on the electrical activity within the heart and therefore, may be less likely to contribute to dysrhythmias.”

Future studies will seek to quantify the risk that these alternative chemicals pose in vulnerable populations, including pediatric cardiology and cardiac surgery patients. Since pediatric patients’ hearts are still growing and developing, the interactions may be different than what was seen in this pilot study.

Learn more the impacts of exposure to plastics such as bisphenol-A and plasticizers such as DEHP and MEHP that are commonly used in medical devices:

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Bisphenol-a Analogues May Be Safer Alternatives For Plastic Medical Products
Rafael Jaimes, Damon McCullough, Luther M Swift, Marissa Reilly, Morgan Burke, Jiansong Sheng, Javier Saiz, Nikki G Posnack
Poster Presentation by senior author Nikki G Posnack
CH.APS.01 – Translational Research in Congenital Heart Disease
AHA Scientific Sessions
November 16, 2019
1:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.

Newborn baby laying in crib

Can cells collected from bone marrow repair brain damage in babies with CHD?

Newborn baby laying in crib

The goal of the study will be to optimize brain development in babies with congenital heart disease (CHD) who sometimes demonstrate delay in the development of cognitive and motor skills.

Richard Jonas M.D., Children’s National chief of cardiac surgery, to highlight upcoming NIH-funded trial that will use cardiopulmonary bypass to deliver mesenchymal stromal cells for brain growth and regeneration

An upcoming clinical trial at Children’s National Hospital will harness cardiopulmonary bypass as a delivery mechanism for a novel intervention designed to stimulate brain growth and repair in children who undergo cardiac surgery for congenital heart disease (CHD).

The NIH has awarded Children’s National $2.5 million to test the hypothesis that mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs), which have been shown to possess regenerative properties and the ability to modulate immune responses in a variety of diseases, collected from allogeneic bone marrow, may promote regeneration of damaged neuronal and glial cells in the early postnatal brain. If successful, the trial will determine the safety of the proposed treatment in humans and set the stage for a Phase 2 efficacy trial of what could potentially be the first treatment for brain damage in children with congenital heart disease. The study is a single-center collaboration between three Children’s National physician-researchers: Richard Jonas, M.D.Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D. and Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D.

Dr. Jonas, chief of cardiac surgery at Children’s National, will outline the trial and its aims on Monday, November 18, 2019, at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2019. Dr. Jonas was recently recognized by the Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Outcome Collaborative for his lifelong research of how cardiac surgery impacts brain growth and development in children with CHD.

Read more about the study: Researchers receive $2.5M grant to optimize brain development in babies with CHD.

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Regenerative Cell Therapy in Congenital Heart Disease – Protecting the Immature Brain
Presented by Richard Jonas, M.D.
AHA Scientific Sessions
Session CH.CVS.608 Congenital Heart Disease and Pediatric Cardiology Seminar: A Personalized Approach to Heart Disease in Children
9:50 a.m. to 10:05 a.m.
November 18, 2019

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

Novel approach to detect fetal growth restriction

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

doctor giving girl checkup

Decision support tool reduces unneeded referrals of low-risk patients with chest pain

doctor giving girl checkup

A simple evidence-based change to standard practice could avert needless referrals of low-risk patients to cardiac specialists, potentially saving nearly $4 million in annual health care spending while also easing worried parents’ minds.

Few events strike more fear in parents than hearing their child’s heart “hurts.”

When primary care pediatricians – who are on the frontline of triaging such distressing doctor visits – access a digital helping hand tucked into the patient’s electronic health record to help them make assessments, they are more likely to refer only the patients whose chest pain is rooted in a cardiac problem to a specialist.

That simple evidence-based change to standard practice could avert needless referrals of low-risk patients to cardiac specialists according to a quality-improvement project presented during the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition. This has the potential to save nearly $4 million in annual health care spending while also easing worried parents’ minds.

“Our decision support tool incorporates the know-how of providers and helps them to accurately capture the type of red flags that point to a cardiac origin for chest pain,” says Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., FACC, FAAP, pediatric and preventive cardiologist and director of Resident Education in Cardiology at Children’s National Hospital. Those red flags include:

  • Abnormal personal medical history
    • Chest pain with exertion
    • Exertional syncope
    • Chest pain that radiates to the back, jaw, left arm or left shoulder
    • Chest pain that increases with supine position
    • Chest pain temporarily associated with a fever (>38.4°C)
  • A worrisome family history, including sudden unexplained death and cardiomyopathy.

“We know that evidence-based tools can be very effective in guiding physician behavior and reducing unnecessary testing and referrals which saves both the health care system in dollars and families in time and anxiety,” Dr. Harahsheh adds.

The abstract builds on a multi-institutional study published in Clinical Pediatrics in 2017 for which Dr. Harahsheh was lead author. More than 620,000 office-based visits (1.3%) to pediatricians in 2012 were for chest pain, he and co-authors wrote at the time. While children often complain of having chest pain, most of the time it is not due to an actual heart problem.

Over recent years, momentum has built for creating an evidence-based approach for determining which children with chest pain to refer to cardiac specialists. In response, the team’s quality-improvement tool, first introduced at two local primary pediatric offices, was expanded to the entire Children’s Pediatricians & Associates network of providers who offer pediatric primary care in Washington, D.C., and Maryland.

One daunting challenge: How to ensure that busy clinicians actually use the tool. To improve adoption, the project team embedded the decision support tool within the patient’s electronic medical record.  Now, they seek to make sure the tool gets used by more pediatricians around the country.

“If the chest pain decision support tool/medical red-flags criteria were adopted nationwide, we expect to save a minimum of $3.8 million in health care charges each year,” Dr. Harahsheh says. “That figure is very likely an underestimate of the true potential savings, because we did not calculate the value of lost productivity and other direct costs to families who shuttle from one appointment to the next.”

To ensure the changes stick, the team plans to train fledgling physicians poised to embrace the quality-improvement approach as they first launch their careers, and also look for evangelists within outpatient cardiology and pediatric clinics who can catalyze change.

“These types of quality-improvement projects require a change to the status quo. In order to be successful, we need members of the care team – including frontline clinicians and nurse practitioners – to champion change at the clinic level. With their help, we can continue to refine this tool and move toward nationwide implementation,” he explains.

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AAP National Conference and Exhibition presentation
Saturday, Oct. 26, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. (ET)
H2086 Council on Quality Improvement and Patient Safety Program

Saturday, Oct. 26, noon to 1 p.m. (ET)
Poster viewing
“Reducing low-probability cardiology referrals for chest pain from primary care: a quality improvement initiative”
Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., FACC, FAAP; Ellen Hamburger, M.D.; Lexi Crawford, M.D.; Christina Driskill, MPH, RN, CPN; Anusha Rao, MHSA; Deena Berkowitz, M.D., MPH

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Additional AAP 2019 activities featuring cardiology faculty at Children’s National Hospital include:

    • Rohan Kumthekar, M.D., recipient of the “Trainee Pediatric Cardiology Research Award” sponsored by the Children’s Heart Foundation
    • “Motion-corrected cardiac MRI limits anesthesia exposure and healthcare costs in children,” Adam B. Christopher, M.D.; Rachel Quinn, M.D.; Sara Zoulfagharian; Andrew Matisoff, M.D.; Russell Cross, M.D.; Adrienne Campbell-Washburn, Ph.D.; Laura Olivieri, M.D.
    • “Prevalence of abnormal echocardiograms in healthy, asymptomatic adolescents with Down syndrome,” Sarah B. Clauss, M.D.; Samuel S. Gidding M.D.; Claire I. Cochrane, BA; Rachel Walega, MS; Babette S. Zemel, Ph.D.; Mary E. Pipan, M.D.; Sheela N. Magge, M.D., MSCE;  Andrea Kelly, M.D., MSCE; Meryl S. Cohen, M.D.
    • “American College of Cardiology body mass index measurement and counseling quality improvement initiative,” Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., FACC, FAAP; Arash Sabati, M.D., FACC; Jeffrey Anderson, M.D.; Clara Fitzgerald; Kathy Jenkins, M.D., MPH; Carolyn M. Wilhelm, M.D., MS, FACC, FAAP; Roy Jedeikin, M.D. FACC, MBA; Devyani Chowdhury, M.D.
Dr. Jonas and research collaborator Nobuyuki Ishibashi in the laboratory.

Cardiac surgery chief recognized for studies of surgery’s impacts on neurodevelopment

Dr. Jonas and research collaborator Nobuyuki Ishibashi in the laboratory.

Dr. Jonas and research collaborator Nobuyuki Ishibashi in the laboratory.

Richard Jonas, M.D., is this year’s recipient of the Newburger-Bellinger Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Award in recognition of his lifelong research into understanding the impact of cardiac surgery on the growth and development of the brain. The award was established in 2013 by the Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Outcome Collaborative (CNOC) to honor Jane Newburger and David Bellinger, pioneers in research designed to understand and improve neurodevelopmental outcomes for children with heart disease.

At Children’s National, Dr. Jonas’ laboratory studies of neuroprotection have been conducted in conjunction with Dr. Vittorio Gallo, director of neuroscience research at Children’s National, and Dr. Nobuyuki Ishibashi, director of the cardiac surgery research laboratory. Their NIH-supported studies have investigated the impact of congenital heart disease and cardiopulmonary bypass on the development of the brain, with particular focus on impacts to white matter, in people with congenital heart disease.

Dr. Jonas’s focus on neurodevelopment after cardiac surgery has spanned his entire career in medicine, starting with early studies in the Harvard psychology department where he developed models of ischemic brain injury. He subsequently undertook a series of highly productive pre-clinical cardiopulmonary bypass studies at the National Magnet Laboratory at MIT. These studies suggested that some of the bypass techniques used at the time were suboptimal. The findings helped spur a series of retrospective clinical studies and subsequently several prospective randomized clinical trials at Boston Children’s Hospital examining the neurodevelopmental consequences of various bypass techniques. These studies were conducted by Dr. Jonas and others, in collaboration with Dr. Jane Newburger and Dr. David Bellinger, for whom this award is named.

Dr. Jonas has been the chief of cardiac surgery and co-director of the Children’s National Heart Institute since 2004. He previously spent 20 years on staff at Children’s Hospital Boston including 10 years as department chief and as the William E. Ladd Chair of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

As the recipient of the 2019 award, Dr. Jonas will deliver a keynote address at the 8th Annual Scientific Sessions of the Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Outcome Collaborative in Toronto, Ontario, October 11-13, 2019.

Mihailo Kaplarevic

Extracting actionable research data faster, with fewer hassles

Mihailo Kaplarevic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Beers

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

Lee Beers

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

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

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

That sense of excitement ripples through Children’s National.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cholesterol plaque in artery

Looking for atherosclerosis’ root cause

Cholesterol plaque in artery

A multi-institutional team led by research faculty at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., finds that extracellular vesicles derived from kids’ fat can play a pivotal role in ratcheting up risk for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease well before any worrisome symptoms become visible.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in five U.S. kids aged 6 to 19 is obese, boosting their risk for a variety of other health problems now and later in life.

One of these is atherosclerosis, a term that translates literally as hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis causes blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood throughout the body to become inflamed. White blood cells called macrophages settle in the vessel wall, which becomes overloaded with cholesterol. A plaque forms that restricts blood flow. But it remains a mystery how fat cells residing in one place in the body can trigger mayhem in cells and tissues located far away.

Small, lipid-lined sacs called extracellular vesicles (EVs), released by cells into the bloodstream, are likely troublemakers since they enable intercellular communication. Now, a multi-institutional team led by research faculty at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., finds that EVs derived from kids’ fat can play a pivotal role in ratcheting up risk for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease well before any worrisome symptoms become visible. What’s more, the team showed that EVs found in the body’s fat stores can disrupt disposal of cholesterol in a variety of kids, from lean to obese, the team reports online July 22, 2019, in the Journal of Translational Medicine.

“We found that seven specific small sequences of RNA (microRNA) carried within the extracellular vesicles from human fat tissue impaired the ability of white blood cells called macrophages to eliminate cholesterol,” says Robert J. Freishtat, M.D., MPH, senior scientist at the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “Fat isn’t just tissue. It can be thought of as a metabolic organ capable of communicating with types of cells that predispose someone to develop atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death around the world.”

Research scientists and clinicians from Children’s National, the George Washington University, NYU Winthrop Hospital and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute collaborated to examine the relationship between the content of EVs and their effect on macrophage behavior. Their collaborative effort builds on previous research that found microRNA derived from fat cells becomes pathologically altered by obesity, a phenomenon reversed by weight-loss surgery.

Because heart disease can have its roots in adolescence, they enrolled 93 kids aged 12 to 19 with a range of body mass indices (BMIs), including the “lean” group, 15 youth whose BMI was lower than 22 and the “obese” group, 78 youths whose BMI was in the 99th percentile for their age. Their median age was 17. Seventy-one were young women. They collected visceral adipose tissue during abdominal surgeries and visited each other’s respective labs to perform the experiments.

“We were surprised to find that EVs could hobble the macrophage cholesterol outflow system in adolescents of any weight,” says Matthew D. Barberio, Ph.D., the study’s lead author, a former Children’s National scientist who now is an assistant professor at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “It’s still an open question whether young people who are healthy can tolerate obesity—or whether there are specific differences in fat tissue composition that up kids’ risk for heart disease.”

The team plans to build on the current findings to safeguard kids and adults against future cardiovascular risk.

“This study was a huge multi-disciplinary undertaking,” adds Allison B. Reiss, M.D., of NYU Winthrop Hospital and the study’s corresponding author. “Ultimately, we hope to learn which properties belonging to adipose tissue EVs make them friendly or unfriendly to the heart, and we hope that gaining that knowledge will help us decrease morbidity and mortality from heart disease across the lifespan.”

In addition to Dr. Freishtat, additional study co-authors include Samuel B. Epstein, Madeleine Goldberg, Sarah C. Ferrante, and Evan P. Nadler, M.D., director of the Bariatric Surgery Program, all of Children’s National’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research; Lead Author, Matthew D. Barberio, of Millken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University; Lora J. Kasselman, Heather A. Renna, Joshua DeLeon, Iryna Voloshyna, Ashley Barlev, Michael Salama and Allison B. Reiss, all of NYU Winthrop Hospital; and Martin P. Playford and Nehal Mehta, of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences under award number UL1TR000075, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute under award number Z1AHL-06193-4, the American Heart Association under award number 17POST33670787, the Clark Charitable Foundation, the Elizabeth Daniel Research Fund, and Robert Buescher.

Autonomic nervous system appears to function well regardless of mode of childbirth

Late in pregnancy, the human body carefully prepares fetuses for the rigors of life outside the protection of the womb. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, ramp up and spike during labor. Catecholamines, another stress hormone, also rise at birth, helping to kick start the necessary functions that the baby will need to regulate breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure and energy metabolism levels at delivery. Oxytocin surges, promoting contractions for the mother during labor and stimulating milk production after the infant is born.

These processes also can play a role in preparing the fetal brain during the transition to life outside the womb by readying the autonomic nervous system and adapting its cerebral connections. The autonomic nervous system acts like the body’s autopilot, taking in information it needs to ensure that internal organs run steadily without willful action, such as ensuring the heart beats and eyelids blink at steady intervals. Its yin, the sympathetic division, stimulates body processes while its yang, the parasympathetic division, inhibits them.

Infants born preterm have reduced autonomic function compared with their full-term peers and also face possible serious neurodevelopmental impairment later in life. But is there a difference in autonomic nervous system function for full-term babies after undergoing labor compared with infants delivered via cesarean section (C-section)?

A team from the Children’s National Inova Collaborative Research Program (CNICA) – a research collaboration between Children’s National in Washington, D.C., and Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Virginia – set out to answer that question in a paper published online July 30, 2019, in Scientific Reports.

They enrolled newborns who had experienced normal, full-term pregnancies and recorded their brain function and heart performance when they were about 2 days old. Infants whose conditions were fragile enough to require observation in the neonatal intensive care unit were excluded from the study. Of 167 infants recruited for the prospective cohort study, 118 newborns had sufficiently robust data to include them in the research.  Of these newborns:

  • 62 (52.5%) were born by vaginal delivery
  • 22 (18.6%) started out with vaginal delivery but ultimately switched to C-section based on failure to progress, failed labor induction or fetal intolerance to labor
  • And 34 (28.8%) were born by elective C-section.

The CNICA research team swaddled infants for comfort and slipped electrode nets over their tiny heads to simultaneously measure heart rate variability and electrocortical function through non-invasive techniques. The team hypothesized that infants who had been exposed to labor would have enhanced autonomic tone and higher cortical electroencephalogram (EEG) power than babies born via C-section.

“In a low-risk group of babies born full-term, the autonomic nervous system and cortical systems appear to function well regardless of whether infants were exposed to labor prior to birth,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetalneonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National and the study’s lead author.

However, infants born by C-section following a period of labor had significantly increased accelerations in their heart rates. And the infants born by C-section during labor had significantly lower relative gamma frequency EEG at 25.2 hours old compared with the other two groups studied.

“Together these findings point to a possible increased stress response and arousal difference in infants who started with vaginal delivery and finished delivery with C-section,” Dr. Mulkey says. “There is so little published research about the neurologic impacts of the mode of delivery, so our work helps to provide a normal reference point for future studies looking at high-risk infants, including babies born preterm.”

Because the research team saw little differences in autonomic tone or other EEG frequencies when the infants were 1 day old, future research will explore these measures at different points in the newborns’ early life as well as the role of the sleep-wake cycle on heart rate variability.

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Srinivas Kota, Ph.D., Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., Tareq Al-Shargabi, MSc, Christopher B. Swisher, BS, Laura Hitchings, BScM, Stephanie Russo, BS, Nicole Herrera, MPH, Robert McCarter, ScD, and Senior Author Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, all of Children’s National; and Augustine Eze Jr., MS, G. Larry Maxwell, M.D., and Robin Baker, M.D., all of Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences under award numbers UL1TR001876 and KL2TR001877.

Plastic leaching illustration

Plasticizer interaction with the heart

Calling an ambulance during an emergency, emailing a journal article before a 5 p.m. deadline and maintaining conditions during the fifth week of a 6-week lab study, without altering the light or temperature, requires electricity and translates into time, money and lives saved. During critical moments, we appreciate the tiny particles and ions in electric currents that power our phones, computers or laboratory equipment. We seldom think about the speed of these connections or potential disruptors when conditions are stable. The same applies to the electric currents, or electrophysiology, of our heart.

Arrhythmias affect millions of Americans but can be controlled with routine screenings and preventive care. In an intensive care setting, helping a patient maintain a steady heart rate, especially if they are at risk for cardiac complications, may support a faster recovery, shorter hospital stay, reduced health care costs and improved health outcomes, such as avoiding complications from heart failure or stroke.

A preclinical study, entitled “Plasticizer Interaction With the Heart,” appears in the July issue of Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology and examines the role plastic exposure, akin to exposure in a medical setting, has on heart rhythm disruptions and arrhythmias.

changes in heart rhythm due to plastics

New preclinical research finds acute exposure to MEHP, a common plasticizer used in medical equipment, increases risk for alternans and arrhythmias, disruptions in heart rhythm. The images above show changes in heart rhythm, measured by slowed epicardial conduction velocity, enhanced action potential prolongation and impaired sinus node activity.

The research team, led by researchers at Children’s National Health System, discovered increased risks for irregular heart rhythms after exposing intact, in vitro heart models to 30 minutes of mono-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (MEHP), a metabolite from Di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP). DEHP is a chemical commonly used to make plastics pliable in FDA-approved medical devices. This phthalate accounts for 40% of the weight of blood storage bags and up to 80% of the weight of tubes used in an intensive care setting, such as for assisted feeding or breathing, and for catheters used in diagnostics or to conduct minimally invasive cardiac procedures.

The team chose to study the heart’s reaction to 60 µM of MEHP, a level comparable to stored blood levels of MEHP observed in pediatric patients and in neonatal exchange transfusion procedures. They found 30-minute exposure to MEHP slowed atrioventricular conduction and increased the atrioventricular node effective refractory period. MEHP prolonged action potential duration time, enhanced action potential triangulation, increased the ventricular effective refractory period and slowed epicardial conduction velocity, which may be due to the inhibition of Nav 1.5, or sodium current.

“We chose to study the impact of MEHP exposure on cardiac electrophysiology at concentrations that are observed in an intensive care setting, since plastic medical products are known to leach these chemicals into a patient’s bloodstream,” says Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D., a principal investigator with the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “In critical conditions, a patient may have a blood transfusion, require extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, undergo cardiopulmonary bypass or require dialysis or intravenous fluid administration. All of these scenarios can lead to plastic chemical exposure. Our research team wants to investigate how these plastic chemicals can impact cardiac health.”

In this review, Dr. Posnack’s team mentions one reason for the observed changes in the preclinical heart models may be due to the structure of phthalates, which resemble hormones and can interfere with a variety of biological processes. Due to their low molecular weight, these chemicals can interact directly with ion channels, nuclear receptors and other cellular targets.

Existing epidemiological research shows associations between exposure to phthalates and adverse health outcomes, including metabolic disturbances, reproductive disorders, inflammatory conditions, neurological disorders and cardiovascular disease. This is the first study to examine the link between cardiac electrophysiology in intact hearts and exposure to MEHP, comparable to levels observed in an ICU.

Dr. Posnack’s team previously found DEHP reduced cellular electrical coupling in cardiomyocyte cell models, which slowed conduction velocity and produced an arrhythmogenic phenotype. A microarray analysis found heart cells treated with DEHP led to mRNA changes in genes responsible for contracting and calcium handling. Another preclinical study showed DEHP altered nervous system regulation of the cardiovascular system. Future studies to expand on this research may include the use of larger preclinical models or human assessments. For the latter, stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes can be used to compare the safety profile of plastic chemicals with potential alternatives.

An accompanying editorial, entitled “Shocking Aspects of Nonconductive Plastics,” authored by cardiology researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, puts this novel research into perspective. Like Dr. Posnack, the team notes that while the clinical impact plasticizers have on heart health still needs to be determined, the work contributes to compelling data among multiple researchers and shows DEHP and MEHP are not inert substances.

“Toxic plasticizers in children’s toys and baby products hit public headlines 20 years ago, but exposure to these compounds is up to 25x higher in patients undergoing complex medical procedures,” write the University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers. “We readily (and unknowingly) administer these compounds, and at times in high quantity, to some of our most vulnerable patients. This work highlights the need for further investigation into short and long-term plasticizer exposure on cardiac electrophysiology.”

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released a public health statement about DEHP in 2002, noting more research in humans is needed to issue formal warnings against this phthalate.

ATSDR states there is no conclusive evidence about the adverse health effects of children exposed to DEHP in a medical setting, such as procedures that require the use of flexible tubing to administer intravenous fluids or medication. However, the CDC statement includes limits of DEHP exposure, based on preclinical models, used to guide upper DEHP limits in consumer products, including food packaging, drinking water, and air quality in the workplace.

“It’s important to note that this was a preliminary study performed on an ex vivo model that is largely resilient to arrhythmias”, says Rafael Jaimes III, Ph.D., the first author of the study and a senior scientist at Children’s National. “Due to the nature of the design, it was somewhat alarming that we found such significant effects. I predict that electrophysiological disturbances will be more pronounced in models that more closely resemble humans. These types of models should absolutely be studied.”

“And, importantly, our results may incentivize the development and use of new products that are manufactured without phthalates,” Dr. Posnack adds.

These questions are powering Dr. Posnack and her team through a decade-long, multi-institution research investigation to understand how plastic chemicals and medical device biomaterials can impact cardiac health.

Additional study authors for this paper include Damon McCullough, B.S., Bryan Siegel, M.D., Luther Swift, Ph.D., Daniel McInerney, B.S., and James Hiebert, B.S., with the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation and Children’s National Heart Institute, part of Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.; Erick A. Perez-Alday, Ph.D., and Larisa G Tereshchenko, M.D., Ph.D., with the Knight Cardiovascular Institute at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore.; Javier Saiz, Ph.D., and Beatriz Trenor, Ph.D., with Ci2B-Universitat Politecnica de Valencia in Spain and Jiansong Sheng, Ph.D., from CiPA Lab, LLC, in Rockville, Md.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R00ES023477 and R01HL139472), Children’s Research Institute and Children’s National Heart Institute. NVIDIA corporation provided graphics processing, with partial support by the Direccion General de Politica Cientifica de la Generalitat Valenciana (PROMETEU2016/088).

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Focusing on the “little brain” to rescue cognition

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spectrometer output

Understanding low cardiac output after surgery

spectrometer output

Rafael Jaimes, Ph.D., created an algorithm that is being tested in a pre-clinical model to characterize the light absorbance spectrum from different heart regions using a spectrometer.

After intense cardiac surgery, sometimes a patient’s heart is unable to effectively deliver oxygenated blood and nutrients throughout the recovering body. Known as inadequate or low cardiac output, the condition occurs in about a quarter of patients following surgery with cardiopulmonary bypass, including young children who require complex procedures to correct congenital heart defects at Children’s National Health System.

Researchers at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation are exploring several facets of this challenge, with the goal of better understanding post-operative recovery trajectories in pediatric patients. Rafael Jaimes, Ph.D., a staff scientist at the institute, leads this work to identify when and how low cardiac output occurs, pinpoint the physical hallmarks of this condition and use that information to prevent long term damage and complications after surgery, including cardiac arrest.

“More research needs to be done to understand the cause of this overarching and multi-faceted syndrome,” says Dr. Jaimes. “I’m interested in understanding how metabolic insufficiency contributes to this condition, and also exploring how we can use current imaging and diagnostic tools to measure, track and treat the insufficiencies that contribute to low cardiac output.”

Tracking inadequate oxygen and nutrient delivery to the parts of the heart that have been repaired is one avenue under exploration. Currently, a cardiac-specific real-time device to measure the oxygen state of the heart, while a patient is in post-operative critical care, is under development.

The heart’s complexity has made using current oxygen measurement devices, such as spectrometers, very difficult. To date no tool exists that effectively screens out artifacts and noise to allow clear visualization. However, during his post-doctoral work, Dr. Jaimes has created a new algorithm that may be the first of its kind to accomplish this feat.

This work on low cardiac output recently received a Congenital Heart Defect Research Award, which is a collaborative program of the Children’s Heart Foundation and the American Heart Association that supports innovative research, seeking to understand and treat congenital heart defects.

A new research study will build on his previous studies by using the algorithm to characterize the absorbance spectrum from different heart regions in a pre-clinical model. The data collected will serve as the baseline for development of a prototype spectrometer software, capable of tracking changes in heart oxygenation before, during and after surgery.

The end goal is to more effectively identify when parts of the heart are deprived of oxygen and nutrients and prevent resulting impacts on cardiac metabolism and output. Doing so will decrease short term mortality and morbidity and may also improve circulation systemically, potentially reducing long term health impacts of reduced oxygenation, such as neurodevelopmental disorders.

baby cardioilogy patient

Researchers receive $2.5M grant to optimize brain development in babies with CHD

baby cardioilogy patient

Children’s National Health System researchers Richard Jonas, M.D., Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D., and Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., have been awarded a $2.5 million, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct a single-center clinical trial at Children’s National. The study will involve collaboration between the Children’s National Heart Institute, the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, the Center for Neuroscience Research and the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation.

The goal of the study will be to optimize brain development in babies with congenital heart disease (CHD) who sometimes demonstrate delay in the development of cognitive and motor skills. This can be a result of multiple factors including altered prenatal oxygen delivery, brain blood flow and genetic factors associated with surgery including exposure to the heart lung machine.

The award will be used to complete three specific aims of a Phase 1 safety study as described in the NIH grant:

  • Aim 1: To determine the safety and feasibility of delivering allogeneic bone marrow derived mesenchymal stromal cell (BM-MSC) during heart surgery in young infants less than 3 months of age using the heart lung machine. The optimal safe dose will be determined.
  • Aim 2: To determine the impact of MSC infusion on brain structure using advanced neuroimaging and neurodevelopmental outcomes.
  • Aim 3: To determine differences in postoperative inflammatory and patho-physiological variables after MSC delivery in the infant with CHD.

“NIH supported studies in our laboratory have shown that MSC therapy may be extremely helpful in improving brain development in animal models after cardiac surgery,” says Dr. Ishibashi. “MSC infusion can help reduce inflammation including prolonged microglia activation that can occur during surgery that involves the heart lung machine.”

In addition the researchers’ studies have demonstrated that cell-based intervention can promote white matter regeneration through progenitor cells, restoring the neurogenic potential of the brain’s own stem cells that are highly important in early brain development.

The Phase 1 clinical trial is being implemented in two stages beginning with planning, regulatory documentation, training and product development. During the execution phase, the trial will focus on patient enrollment. Staff from the Cellular Therapy Laboratory, led by director Patrick Hanley, Ph.D., manufactured the BM-MSC at the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, led by Dr. Bollard. The Advanced Pediatric Brain Imaging Laboratory, led by Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., will perform MR imaging.

The phase 1 safety study will set the stage for a phase 2 effectiveness trial of this highly innovative MSC treatment aimed at reducing brain damage, minimizing neurodevelopmental disabilities and improving the postoperative course in children with CHD. The resulting improvement in developmental outcome and lessened behavioral impairment will be of enormous benefit to individuals with CHD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Anitha John, third from right, director of the Washington Adult Congenital Heart Program, hosts the eighth-annual “Adult Congenital Heart Disease in the 21st Century” conference

CME spotlight: Treating adult congenital heart disease

Dr. Anitha John, third from right, director of the Washington Adult Congenital Heart Program, hosts the eighth-annual “Adult Congenital Heart Disease in the 21st Century” conference

Dr. Anitha John, third from right, director of the Washington Adult Congenital Heart Program, hosts the eighth-annual “Adult Congenital Heart Disease in the 21st Century” conference, which takes place Oct. 4-5, 2019.

A two-day continuing medical education (CME) conference for physicians and clinicians treating patients with adult congenital heart disease (ACHD) takes place Oct. 4-5, 2019, at the Bethesda Marriott in Bethesda, Maryland.

The eighth-annual conference, “Adult Congenital Heart Disease in the 21st Century,” hosted by Children’s National Health System and MedStar Washington Hospital Center provides a comprehensive review of the evaluation, diagnosis and management of ACHD, including guidelines to help ACHD patients manage a healthy pregnancy and clinical guidance about the progression of congenital heart disease (CHD) treatment from adolescence through adulthood.

Two tracks accommodate these themes, with the first focusing on a multidisciplinary approach clinicians can use to help ACHD patients assess risks for pregnancy complications, while planning and managing a healthy pregnancy, with input from cardiologists, anesthesiologists and maternal fetal medicine specialists. The second focuses on cardiac defects, starting with anatomical cardiac lessons with 3D heart models, then moves to imaging review, examining echocardiograms and MRI’s, and ends with clinical management review.

“This conference brings the best science and the most innovative approaches to treatment with questions doctors receive in the exam room,” says Anitha John, M.D., Ph.D., the conference organizer and director of the Washington Adult Congenital Heart program at Children’s National. “We’re inviting patients to join the afternoon of the second day of the CME conference again this year to support shared knowledge of these concepts, which supports lifelong treatment and education.”

Dr. John planned this year’s conference with the November 6 ACHD board exams in mind, integrating topics that will appear on the third ACHD certification exam issued by the American Board of Internal Medicine.

At this year’s CME conference, more than a dozen faculty members, including several physicians and nurses from Children’s National, will guide lectures to help attendees meet 13 objectives, from understanding the prevalence of congenital heart disease and its complications to learning about when surgical interventions and referrals to specialists are necessary.

Attendees will review new and innovative PAH therapies, mechanical support therapies, catheter-based interventional procedures and appraise the use of pacemaker and defibrillator therapy among adults with CHD.

Patients and families attending the patient sessions, held from 12:30 to 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, October 5, have a chance to participate in three sessions that support the medical and social needs of ACHD patients. Topics range from workshops that address the neurodevelopment and psychosocial factors of living with a congenital heart defect to sessions that focus on reproductive options for patients and personalized lifestyle recommendations, including fitness and exercise guidelines.

“To support cardiovascular health throughout the lifespan, it helps to educate patients about their heart’s structure and unique needs,” notes Dr. John. “We want to spark a dialogue now and have future conversations with patients, especially while they are young.”

The American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines updated ACHD treatment recommendations in August 2018, the first time in 10 years, and many of these guidelines manifest as panel discussions and interactive lectures presented at the 2019 Adult Congenital Heart Disease in the 21st Century conference.

Attendees can receive up to 12.5 credits from the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education, the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education, the American Nurses Credentialing Center and the American Academy of PAs.

Those interested in starting their own ACHD program can attend an evening symposium, entitled “ACHD Program Building 101,” hosted by representatives from the Mid-Atlantic ACHD Regional Group. Topics in the six-session panel range from managing ACHD patients in a pediatric hospital setting to the role of clinical nurse coordinators in ACHD care.

To learn more about or to register for the conference, visit CE.MedStarHealth.org/ACHD. You can also listen to an interview with Dr. Anitha John about the upcoming Adult Congenital Heart Disease (ACHD) conference.