Diabetes and Endocrinology

Test tube that says IGF-1 test

PAPPA2: A genetic mystery

Test tube that says IGF-1 test

What would happen if you suddenly stopped growing at age 12 or 13?

Solving genetic growth mysteries and scheduling regular appointments with pediatric endocrinologists is atypical for most parents and pediatricians.

However, for children with growth disorders – a classification that typically describes children below the third or above the 97th percentile of growth charts for their age – receiving a diagnosis is half the battle to reaching average height. Understanding and creating treatment for a growth disorder, which could stem from an underlying medical illness, a genetic mutation or a problem with endocrine function, such as the production or action of growth hormone, is often the next step.

For Andrew Dauber, M.D., MMSc., the chief of endocrinology at Children’s National Health System, a third step is to use these clues to create larger datasets and blueprints to identify risk factors for rare growth disorders. By understanding genetic markers of growth disorders, endocrinologists can identify solutions and create plans for multidisciplinary care to help children reach developmental milestones and receive coordinated care throughout their lifespan.

A case study that Dauber and his research team continue to explore is how to correct for mutations in the PAPPA2 gene, which regulates human growth by releasing a key growth factor called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Dauber and his colleagues recently described a mutation in PAPPA2, observed in two families with multiple children affected with significant short stature. He found that this mutation decreased the bioavailability of IGF-1, stunting the growth and development of the children who carry this mutation.

While the PAPPA2 mutation is rare, endocrinologists, like Dauber, who understand its function and dysregulation can create solutions to support IGF-1 bioavailability, thereby supporting healthy growth and development in children.

Understanding barriers to IGF-1 function can also help researchers gain insight into the relationship between PAPPA2, levels of circulating insulin in the body, which could cause insulin resistance, and other growth hormones. For now, Dauber and his research team are exploring how to use PAPPA2 to increase IGF-1 in circulation among people with height disorders in the hopes of improving their growth.

“The population of children who have PAPPA2 mutations is small and we’re finding out that two children could respond to the same treatment in different ways,” says Dauber. “One medication could work modestly in one child and support short growth spurts, such as growing by 5 or 6 cm a year. It could also create undesirable side effects, such as headaches and migraines in another, and render it ineffective. However, the clues we walk away with enable us to test new solutions, and confirm or dissolve our hunches, about what may be preventing the bioactive release of essential growth hormones.”

To generate controls for healthy patterns of growth and development, Dauber and his research team are analyzing the relationship between PAPPA2, STC2 and IGFBP-3 concentrations among 838 relatively healthy pediatric participants, ages 3-18, with traditional growth patterns.

They are studying PAPPA2, STC2 and intact IGFBP-3 concentrations throughout childhood and the researchers are already surprised to find PAPPA2, a positive modulator of growth and IGF- bioavailability, decreased with age, while STC2, a negative modulator and traditional growth inhibitor, increased with age.

“As pediatric endocrinology researchers and clinicians, we’re looking at the pathology of traditional growth patterns and growth disorders with an open mind,” says Dr. Dauber. “These data sets are invaluable as they confirm or challenge our theories, which enable us to create and test new forms of personalized treatments. We’ll continue to share this knowledge, which informs other researchers and accelerates the field of pediatric endocrinology.”

This research was presented at the annual meeting of the European Society of Pediatric Endocrinology in Athens on Sept. 28, 2018.

Dauber and his research team will present their findings at endocrinology conferences and grand rounds throughout 2018 and 2019.

To view Dr. Dauber’s most recent research and pediatric endocrinology reviews, visit PubMed.

Andrew Dauber

Growth disorder study starts by analyzing DNA

The National Institutes of Health has awarded Andrew Dauber, M.D., MMSc, the chief of endocrinology at Children’s National Health System, a five-year grant that will allow four pediatric health systems to compile and study clinical and genetic markers of severe pediatric growth disorders.

The study will use the electronic health records of large health systems combined with DNA samples from dozens of children, with the goal of enabling endocrinologists to detect children with previously undiagnosed severe genetic growth disorders.

“If you’re a pediatrician treating an 8-year-old patient who has stopped growing, the first thing you’ll want to do is determine the underlying cause, which could be due to many factors including a genetic mutation,” says Dr. Dauber. “There are many reasons why children grow poorly and it is often very difficult to figure out what is causing the problem. However, the various causes may be treated quite differently and may alert us to other medical issues that we need to watch out for. We need to be able to identify clues from the patient’s clinical presentation that may point us to the right diagnosis.”

Dr. Dauber and endocrinology researchers from Children’s National Health System, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Boston Children’s Hospital and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will use electronic health records to identify children who likely have rare genetic growth disorders. They will then use cutting-edge DNA sequencing technologies, whole exome sequences, to identify novel genetic causes of severe growth disorders. Patients with growth hormone resistance, resistance to insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-I) and severe short stature inherited from a single parent will be recruited for the initial phases of the study.

“It’s rare to find patients meeting criteria for each of these subgroups, which is why it’s critical to work collaboratively across institutions,” says Dr. Dauber. “This type of genetic sorting and sharing brings us closer to identifying new markers for severe or treatment-resistant growth disorders, which will help alert pediatricians and parents to potential risks earlier on in a child’s life.”

In addition to assessing genetic markers for short stature, the endocrinologists will conduct pilot studies of targeted interventions, such as IGF-I therapy in patients with mutations in the growth hormone pathway, based on these genetic underpinnings.

“Ideally, by identifying markers of severe growth disorders first, we’ll be able to provide targeted treatments and therapies later on to help patients throughout their lifespan,” adds Dr. Dauber.

Typical treatments for atypical growth patterns include growth hormone or less commonly insulin-like growth factor, or IGF-1, for short stature and hormone-inhibiting treatments for precocious puberty.

The multicenter clinical trial is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), under grant Ro1HD093622, and runs through June 30, 2023.

Marva Moxey-Mims in her office at Children's National.

Making the case for a comprehensive national registry for pediatric CKD

Marva Moxey-Mims in her office at Children's National.

“It’s of utmost importance that we develop more sensitive ways to identify children who are at heightened risk for developing CKD.,” says Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D. “A growing body of evidence suggests that this includes children treated in pediatric intensive care units who sustained acute kidney injury, infants born preterm and low birth weight, and obese children.”

Even though chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a global epidemic that imperils cardiovascular health, impairs quality of life and heightens mortality, very little is known about how CKD uniquely impacts children and how kids may be spared from its more devastating effects.

That makes a study published in the November 2018 issue of the American Journal of Kidney Diseases all the more notable because it represents the largest population-based study of CKD prevalence in a nationally representative cohort of adolescents aged 12 to 18, Sun-Young Ahn, M.D., and Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D., of Children’s National Health System, write in a companion editorial published online Oct. 18, 2018.

In their invited commentary, “Chronic kidney disease in children: the importance of a national epidemiological study,” Drs. Ahn and Moxey-Mims point out that pediatric CKD can contribute to growth failure, developmental and neurocognitive defects and impaired cardiovascular health.

“Children who require renal-replacement therapy suffer mortality rates that are 30 times higher than children who don’t have end-stage renal disease,” adds Dr. Moxey-Mims, chief of the Division of Nephrology at Children’s National. “It’s of utmost importance that we develop more sensitive ways to identify children who are at heightened risk for developing CKD. A growing body of evidence suggests that this includes children treated in pediatric intensive care units who sustained acute kidney injury, infants born preterm and low birth weight, and obese children.”

At its early stages, pediatric CKD usually has few symptoms, and clinicians around the world lack validated biomarkers to spot the disease early, before it may become irreversible.

While national mass urine screening programs in Japan, Taiwan and Korea have demonstrated success in early detection of CKD, which enabled successful interventions, such an approach is not cost-effective for the U.S., Drs. Ahn and Moxey-Mims write.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 10 U.S. infants in 2016 was born preterm, prior to 37 weeks gestation. Because of that trend, the commentators advocate for “a concerted national effort” to track preterm and low birth weight newborns. (These infants are presumed to have lower nephron endowment, which increases their risk for developing end-stage kidney disease.)

“We need a comprehensive, national registry just for pediatric CKD, a database that represents the entire U.S. population that we could query to glean new insights about what improves kids’ lifespan and quality of life. With a large database of anonymized pediatric patient records we could, for example, assess the effectiveness of specific therapeutic interventions, such as angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, in improving care and slowing CKD progression in kids,” Dr. Moxey-Mims adds.

Stephen Teach

Stephen J. Teach, M.D., MPH, inaugural holder of new endowed chair

Stephen Teach

Stephen J. Teach, M.D., MPH, has been named the inaugural Wendy Goldberg Professor in Translational Research in Child Health and Community Partnerships. This professorship comes with an endowed chair at Children’s National Health System.

The prestigious honor is given for the duration of Dr. Teach’s (and future chair holders’) employment at Children’s National. The award’s namesake, Wendy Goldberg, and her husband, Fred T. Goldberg Jr., are among the brightest stars in the constellation of Children’s National supporters, says Dr. Teach, Associate Dean for Pediatric Academic Affairs and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

In addition to serving on many Children’s boards, in the mid-2000s the Goldbergs made a $250,000 gift that benefited Improving Pediatric Asthma Care in the District of Columbia (IMPACT DC), Dr. Teach’s award-winning program to improve clinical care, empower patients and families, and conduct new research to improve patients’ outcomes.

“In recognition of the anchor aims of Children’s new strategic plan, the Goldbergs wanted this new gift to focus on the intersection of community health and research,” Dr. Teach says. “Thanks to their generosity, my team will work with community partners to use data to drive improvements in population health.”

With the dedicated funding Dr. Teach was able to hire a new staffer, Caitlin Munoz, to help mine electronic health records to create disease-specific registries that include 15,000 children and adolescents – the lion’s share of kids younger than 17 who live in Washington and have asthma.

“For the first time, we will be able to describe in granular detail the near-universe of local children who have this chronic respiratory disease,” he says. “We will be able to describe many of the most clinically meaningful aspects of nearly every child with asthma who lives in D.C., including mean age, gender, ethnicity and mean number visits to the emergency department.”

Such a richly textured database will help identify children who should be prescribed daily controller medications to help them avoid missing school days due to asthma exacerbations, he says. The next pediatric chronic disease they will track via registry will be pediatric obesity via elevated body mass index.

“That, in and of itself, is insightful data. But the enduring impact of this applied research is it will inform our continuous quality-improvement efforts,” he adds.

By querying the registries the team will be able to tell, for example, how Children’s primary care centers rank comparatively by asking such questions as which percentage of kids with asthma actually take the medicines they had been prescribed the year prior.

“Increasingly, clinical research falls into one of two buckets. You can either do better things: That’s discovering new drugs or processes, like our ongoing clinical trial to desensitize kids to asthma allergens. Or, you can do things better. We often know what to do already. We know that guideline-based asthma care works well. We don’t need to prove that again. We just need to do things better by getting this care to the kids who need it. That’s where this line of research/quality improvement comes in: It’s getting people to do things better.”

boy on a treadmil

Therapeutic targets in African-American youth with type 2 diabetes

boy on a treadmil

Ongoing research is helping to define the broad spectrum and multi-faceted nature of type 2 diabetes in terms of its presentation, its rapidity of progression and its underlying genetic susceptibilities. In a recent study of 8,980 adults published in The Lancet, diabetes was further classified into five clusters, ranging from insulin-deficient, typically referred to as type 1, to groups of patients with primary insulin-resistance, traditionally classified as type 2 diabetes, with the caveat that each cluster had a distinct risk profile for disease progression and risk for diabetes complications.

Moreover, investigators have recently demonstrated, through the Restoring Insulin Secretion (RISE) Consortium, that youth compared to adults with early type 2 diabetes have greater insulin resistance relative to insulin secretion. Understanding variances on the diabetes spectrum, especially as it relates to risk for disease progression in youth, helps researchers develop targeted therapies that may help reduce complications and the burden of this chronic disease.

Ongoing research

Stephanie Chung, M.B.B.S., a pediatric endocrinologist at the National Institutes of Health and an adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s National, is one researcher who hopes to use this knowledge to transform public health outcomes. Dr. Chung is studying how teens and young adults with severe insulin-resistant diabetes (SIRD) respond to new treatment, paired with lifestyle-based interventions.

Here is a Q&A with Dr. Chung about her latest research:

Tell Innovation District readers more about your diabetes research. How has your previous research influenced this study?

My research and publications are focused on understanding how genes, environment and lifestyle factors contribute to the pathology of diabetes, obesity and insulin resistance in populations of African descent and on identifying more effective screening and treatment options.

We know that African-American youth with type 2 diabetes have the highest complication and treatment failure rates among minority youth. However, the reasons underlying this health disparity are still not fully understood. Metformin, the only approved oral diabetes treatment for youth with type 2 diabetes, works less than half of the time in African-American youth. Although new evidence suggests that gut bacteria and genetics may influence the efficacy of metformin, this data is insufficient in African-American youth.

What is your goal with this diabetes clinical study?

The primary objective of this new study, entitled Therapeutic Targets in African-American Youth with Type 2 Diabetes, is to compare the combination of metformin and liraglutide versus metformin alone to reduce excess glucose produced by the liver in African-American youth with type 2 diabetes.

Additional objectives will evaluate the mechanism of action in the liver of these two agents and the influence of genetics and gut bacteria. This project brings together the research expertise of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Human Genome Research Institute and the Children’s National Medical Center.

Do you envision this type of dual therapy, a combination of drugs and lifestyle interventions, will serve as a bridge to optimal insulin function?

While metformin, diet and lifestyle changes remain the mainstay of diabetes treatment, our study will evaluate whether this combination regimen could help to slow the progression of type 2 diabetes in African American youth. Our ultimate goal is the development of new precision medicine treatment options that can address the disparities in outcomes for African-American youth with type 2 diabetes.

What lessons do you see participants learning as they progress through the trial?

Our patients and their families are equal partners in care. Our comprehensive team of doctors, nurses, dietitians and counselors work closely with the patients and their families to help empower them to take charge of managing their diabetes. We teach them skills that include regularly monitoring their blood glucose levels and understanding how their activity and foods affect these levels. They are coached on making healthy food choices and incorporating exercise into their daily lives.

How do you teach children and teens about how their body responds to different foods?

This education starts as soon as participants enter the study. While patients are at the NIH for the inpatient study, we provide them with meals containing different ratios of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and help them to analyze how their blood sugar responds to these levels, both before and after they take the medication. This type of education is important since participants will also have to monitor their blood sugar twice a day at home during the study. Most of the time, we use real-life situations as teaching moments. For example, if a participant had pizza for dinner, we will discuss with them why their blood sugar spiked and suggest alternative food choices. We provide this type of coaching every week. I often joke that after three months they become tired of hearing from us. But one of the strengths of this study is that participants receive personalized feedback that enables them to make healthy food choices for the rest of their life.

Can you tell us more about targeted food choices for teens?

A very enlightening procedure that we conduct on all of our study participants is measuring their basal metabolic rate (energy expenditure at rest). We show them how many calories they need to consume each day to maintain their body’s normal functions and compare that number with an estimate of how many calories they usually consume in a day. For many participants this is the first time that they have insight into the reasons for their weight gain.

How does this lab work help with meal planning?

After we create a participant’s metabolic chart we make food plans that support their lifestyle and caloric needs and are realistic to follow. For example, a 2,000 calorie per day diet can be separated into 400 calories for breakfast, 600 calories for lunch, 200 calories for snack and 800 calories for dinner.

How do you envision personalizing the field of diabetes research and treatment?

A precision medicine approach to type 2 diabetes will help us to better explore if and how factors like genes, environment and lifestyle impact insulin and glucose metabolism in populations with significant treatment outcomes disparities. With this approach we hope to uncover novel targeted treatment and prevention strategies that demonstrate more efficacy and cost-efficiency than current treatment approaches for high-risk populations.

Where can people learn more about the trial?

Learn more about the study by watching this informational video. If you’re interested in joining the study, please contact the NIH Office of Clinical Trial Recruitment at 866-999-1116.

Andrew Dauber

Andrew Dauber, M.D., joins Children’s National as Chief of Endocrinology

Andrew Dauber

“Researchers, clinicians and medical trainees are pressed for time,” says Andrew Dauber, M.D. “Merging these three arenas into a joint infrastructure powers institutional collaboration and fuels transformative, cutting-edge care.”

Imagine an endocrinology division staffed with endowed researchers, clinicians and specialists, that serves as an engine of innovation, making it easy for pediatricians to make the right referrals, based on the best research, to endocrinologists who can provide families with cutting-edge care.

Andrew Dauber, M.D., MMSc, the new chief of endocrinology at Children’s National, is turning this dream into a reality. Over the next few years, Dr. Dauber will work with a nationally-ranked endocrinology and diabetes center to build a clinical endocrinology research program, housing specialty clinics for Turner’s syndrome, thyroid care and growth disorders, amongst others.

“Researchers, clinicians and medical trainees are pressed for time,” notes Dr. Dauber. “Merging these three arenas into a joint infrastructure powers institutional collaboration and fuels transformative, cutting-edge care.”

To put his real-life hypothesis of providing an engine for innovation into practice, Dr. Dauber led the interdisciplinary growth center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and organized a Genomics First for Undiagnosed Diseases Program to study genetic clues for undiagnosed diseases. At Boston Children’s Hospital, he was the assistant medical director for the clinical research unit and held academic appointments with Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Dauber finds it’s critically important to merge clinical practice with research and education. He received his medical degree and a Master’s of Medical Sciences in Clinical Investigation from Harvard Medical School. He has published more than 65 studies examining genetic clues to endocrine disorders, with a focus on short stature and growth disorders.

Dr. Dauber conducted the majority of his research – ranging from studying genetic clues for rare growth disorders and causes of precocious puberty to genes that regulate the bioavailability of IGF1, insulin-like growth factor – while counseling patients, advising students and fellows, managing grants, reviewing studies and speaking at international pediatric endocrinology conferences.

He’s harnessing this data by combining genomic insights with electronic health records and patient registries. While some of this information can be used immediately to identify a high-risk patient, other conditions may take years to understand. Dr. Dauber views this as an investment in the future of pediatric endocrinology.

“I’m excited to join Children’s National and to work in Washington, where we can power our city and the nation with premier partnerships and collaboration,” adds Dr. Dauber. “In addition to using genetic clues to investigate growth disorders, we’re just as enthusiastic about investing in and expanding access to youth-focused diabetes education and care.”

The Division of Diabetes and Endocrinology works with the National Institutes of Health, conducts independent research and received support from the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation for its diabetes program, the largest pediatric diabetes program in the region, which provides community education and counsels 1,800 pediatric patients each year.

Nikki Gillum Posnack

Do plastic chemicals contribute to the sudden death of patients on dialysis?

Nikki Gillum Posnack

Nikki Posnack, Ph.D., assistant professor with the Children’s National Heart Institute, continues to explore how repeat chemical exposure from medical devices influences cardiovascular function.

In a review published in HeartRhythmNikki Posnack, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Children’s National Heart Institute, and Larisa Tereshchenko, M.D., Ph.D., FHRS, a researcher with the Knight Cardiovascular Institute at Oregon Health and Science University, establish a strong foundation for a running hypothesis: Replacing BPA- and DEHP- leaching plastics for alternative materials used to create medical devices may help patients on dialysis, and others with impaired immune function, live longer.

While Drs. Tereshchenko and Posnack note clinical studies and randomized controlled trials are needed to test this theory, they gather a compelling argument by examining the impact exposure to chemicals from plastics used in dialysis have on a patient’s short- and long-term health outcomes, including sudden cardiac death (SCD).

“As our society modifies our exposure to plastics to mitigate health risks, we should think about overexposure to plastics in a medical setting,” says Posnack. “The purpose of the review in HeartRhythm is to gather data about the impact chemical compounds, leached from plastic devices, have on cardiovascular outcomes for patients spending prolonged periods of time in the hospital.”

In this review, the authors explore chemical risk exposures in a medical setting, starting with factors that influence sudden cardiac death (SCD) among dialysis patients.

Why study dialysis patients?

SCD in dialysis patients accounts for one-third of deaths in this population. This prompts a need to develop prevention strategies, especially among patients with end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

The highest mortality rate observed among dialysis patients is during the first year of hemodialysis, a dialysis process that requires a machine to take the place of the kidneys and remove waste from the bloodstream and replenish it with minerals, such as potassium, sodium and calcium. During this year, mortality during hemodialysis is observed more frequently during the first three months of treatment, especially among older patients.

Possible reasons for an increased risk of an earlier death include chemical exposure, which is casually associated with altered cardiac function, as well as genetic risks for irregular heart rhythms and heart failure. In the HeartRhythm review, Drs. Tereshchenko and Posnack analyze factors that influence mortality:

Hemodialysis treatment, dialysis, is associated with plastic chemical exposure

Drs. Tereshchenko and Posnack note that dialysis tubing and catheters are commonly manufactured using polyvinyl chloride (PVC) polymers. The phthalate plastics used to soften PVC can easily leech if exposed to lipid-like substances, like blood. Research shows phthalate chemical concentrations increase during a four-hour dialysis.

Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) is a common plastic used to manufacture dialysis tubes, thanks to its structure and economy.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is another common material used in medical device manufacturing. From the membranes of medical tools to resins, or external coatings and adhesives, BPA leaves behind a chemical residue on PVC medical devices.

In reviewing the research, the authors find dialysis patients are often exposed to high levels of DEHP and BPA. The amount of exposure to these chemicals varies in regards to room temperature, time of contact, other circuit coatings and the flow rate of dialysis. A faster flow rate correlates with reductions in chemical leaching and lower mortality rates.

Plastic chemical exposure is casually associated with altered cardiac function

Drs. Tereshchenko and Posnack note a causal relationship already exists between chemicals absorbed from plastics and cardiovascular outcomes.

Dr. Posnack’s previous research found BPA concentrations impaired electrical conduction in neonatal cardiomyocytes – young, developing heart cells – potentially altering the heart’s normal rhythm and function.

To the best of their knowledge, no clinical research has been conducted on DEHP exposure and SCD. However, proof-of-concept models find in vivo phthalate exposure alters autonomic regulation, which can slow down natural heart-rate rhythm and create a lag in recovery time to stressful stimuli. For humans, this type of stressful stimulation would be equivalent to recovering from a bike ride, car accident, or in this case, ongoing dialysis treatment with impaired immune function.

In other models, BPA exposure has been shown to cause bradycardia, or a delayed heart rate. In excised whole heart models, BPA has also been shown to alter cardiac electrical activity.

Abnormal electrophysiological substrate in end-stage renal disease

Since the heart and kidneys work in tandem to transport blood throughout the body, and manage vital functions, such as our heart rate, blood flow and breathing, the authors cite additional factors that lead to ongoing heart and kidney problems, with a look at end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

General heart-function kidney risks include abnormal electrophysiological (EP) substrate, the underlying electrical activity of the cardiac tissue, and genetic risk factors, including the TBX3 gene, a gene associated with a unique positioning of the heart and SCD.

“We don’t want to cite alarm about having a medical procedure or about relying on external help, such as dialysis, for proper kidney function,” says Posnack. “Especially since dialysis is a life-saving medical intervention for patients with inadequate kidney function.”

Pre-existing abnormal EP substrate interacts with plastic chemical exposure in incident dialysis, which increases risk of SCD in genetically predisposed ESRD patients

To summarize their findings, Drs. Tereshchenko and Posnack list a handful of support areas, starting with observations about reductions in cardiovascular mortality and SCD following kidney transplants. They note hemodialysis catheters are associated with larger DEHP exposure and a higher risk of SCD, compared to arteriovenous fistulas, highways surgically created to connect blood from the artery to the vein.

Drs. Posnack and Tereshchenko also note a correlative observation about higher SCD rates observed six hours after hemodialysis, when peak levels of DEHP and BPA are circulating in the bloodstream.

To compare and control for these factors among dialysis patients, the researchers cite different mortality patterns with hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis. Patients on hemodialysis experience higher mortality during the first year of treatment, compared to peritoneal dialysis, who have higher mortality rates after the second year of treatment. Hemodialysis relies on a machine to take the place of kidney function, while peritoneal dialysis relies on a catheter, a small tube surgically inserted into the stomach.

“Our goal is to build on our previous research findings by analyzing variables that have yet to be studied before, and to update the field of medicine in the process,” says Dr. Posnack. “This includes investigating the cardiovascular risks of using BPA- and DEHP-materials to construct medical devices. Ultimately, we hope to determine whether plastic materials contribute to cardiovascular risks, and investigate whether patients might benefit from the use of alternative materials for medical devices.

Drs. Tereshchenko and Posnack note that despite the associations between chemical exposure from medical devices and increased cardiovascular risks, there are no restrictions in the United States on the use of phthalates and BPA chemicals used to manufacture medical devices.

Their future research will explore how replacing BPA- and DEHP-leaching plastics influence mortality and morbidity rates of ESRD patients on dialysis, as well as other patients exposed to repeat chemical exposure, such as patients having cardiac surgery.

“We want to make sure we identify and then work to minimize any potential risks of plastic exposure in a medical setting,” adds Dr. Posnack. “Our goal is to put the health and safety of patients first.”

Dr. Posnack’s research is funded by two grants (R01HL139472, R00ES023477) from the National Institutes of Health.

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.

IV Bag

New study examines treatment for diabetic ketoacidosis

IV Bag

Brain injuries that happen during episodes of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) – where the body converts fat instead of sugar into energy, and where the pancreas is unable to process insulin, such as in type 1 diabetes – are rare, and happen in less than 1 percent of DKA episodes, but these injuries can carry lasting consequences – including mild to severe neurological damage.

A new 13-center, randomized, controlled trial published on June 13, 2018, in the New England Journal of Medicine finds two variables – the speed of rehydration fluids administered to patients and the sodium concentrations in these intravenous fluids – don’t impact neurological function or brain damage.

“One medical center would never be able to study this independently because of the relatively small volume of children with DKA that present to any one site,” says Kathleen Brown, M.D., a study author, the medical director of the emergency medicine and trauma center at Children’s National Health System and a professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine. “The strength of this research lies in our ability to work with 13 medical centers to study almost 1,400 episodes of children with DKA over five years to see if these variables make a difference. The study design showcases the efficiency of the Pediatric Emergency Center Applied Research Network, or PECARN, a federally-funded initiative that powers collaboration and innovation.”

Researchers have speculated about the techniques of administering intravenous fluids, specifically speed and sodium concentrations, to patients experiencing a DKA episode, with many assuming a faster administration rate of fluids would produce brain swelling. Others argued, from previous data, that these variables may not matter – especially since higher levels of brain damage were noted among children with higher rates of dehydration before they were treated. Some thought DKA created a state of inflammation in the brain, which caused the damage, and that speed and sodium concentration wouldn’t reverse this initial event. The researchers set out to determine the answers to these questions.

The PECARN research team put the data to the test: They created a 2-by-2 factorial design to test the impact of providing 1,255 pediatric patients, ages zero to 18, with higher (.9 percent) and lower (.45 percent) concentrations of sodium chloride at rapid and slow-rate administration speeds during a DKA episode. They administered tests during the first DKA episode and again during a recurrent episode. After analyzing 1,389 episodes, they found that the four different combinations did not have a statistically significant impact on the rate of cognitive decline during the DKA episode or during the 2-month and 6-month recovery periods.

“One of the most important lessons from this study is that diabetic ketoacidosis should be avoided because it can cause harm,” says Dr. Brown. “But the best way to treat diabetic ketoacidosis is to prevent it. Parents can monitor this by checking blood sugar for insulin control and taking their children for treatment as soon as they show signs or symptoms that are concerning.”

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Kidney Disease, symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis include nausea and vomiting, stomach pain, fruity breath odor and rapid breathing. Untreated DKA can lead to coma and death.

An accompanying video and editorial are available online in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the Health Resources and Services Administration. The PECARN DKA FLUID ClinicalTrials.gov number is NCT00629707.

Children’s National Health System’s Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine has been a lead site for the PECARN network since its inception in 2001.

child measuring belly with tape measure

Children’s obesity research team presents compelling new findings

child measuring belly with tape measure

Faculty from Children’s National Health System’s Department of Psychology & Behavioral Health set out to learn if any demographic, psychiatric, or cognitive factors play a role in determining if an adolescent should be eligible for bariatric surgery, and what their weight loss outcomes might be. Presenting at the Society for Pediatric Psychology Annual Conference earlier this month, a group of researchers, fellows and clinicians, including surgeons from Children’s National showcased their findings. One of the posters developed by Meredith Rose, LGSW, ML, who works as an interventionist on a Children’s National clinical research team, received special recognition in the Obesity Special Interest Group category.

One presentation reported on a total of 222 pediatric patients with severe obesity, which is defined as 120 percent of the 95th percentile for Body Mass Index. Mean age of the participants was 16 years of age, 71 percent were female and 80 percent where Hispanic or non-White. As part of their preparation for surgery, all patients were required to complete a pre-bariatric surgery psychological evaluation, including a clinical interview and Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia (KSADS-PL) screening. The studies by the Children’s teams were based on a medical record review of the pre-screening information. Adolescents being evaluated for surgery had high rates of mental health diagnoses, particularly anxiety and depression, but also included Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, eating disorders, and intellectual disability.

Another Children’s presentation at the conference looked at weight loss outcomes for adolescents based on IQ and intellectual disability. Overall, neither Full Scale IQ from the Wechsler Abbreviated Intelligence Scale – 2nd edition, nor the presence of an intellectual disability predicted weight loss following surgery.

“The sum of our research found that kids do really well with surgery,” said Eleanor Mackey, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and behavioral health. “Adolescents, regardless of the presence of intellectual disability areas are likely to lose a significant amount of weight following surgery,” added Dr. Mackey.

“This is a particularly important fact to note because many programs and insurers restrict weight loss surgery to ‘perfect’ candidates, while these data points demonstrate that our institution does not offer or deny surgery on the basis of any cognitive characteristics,” says Evan P. Nadler, M.D., associate professor of surgery and pediatrics. “Without giving these kids a chance with surgery, we know they face a lifetime of obesity, as no other intervention has shown to work long-term in this patient population. Our research should empower psychologists and physicians to feel more confident recommending bariatric surgery for children who have exhausted all other weight loss options.”

The research team concluded that examining how individual factors, such as intellectual disability, psychiatric diagnoses, and demographic factors are associated with the surgery process is essential to ensuring adequate and empirically supported guidelines for referral for, and provision of bariatric surgery in adolescents. Next steps by the team will include looking into additional indicators of health improvement, like glucose tolerance, quality of life, or other lab values, to continue evaluating the benefits of surgery for this population.

Janelle Vaughns

Few prescribing options exist for obese kids

Janelle Vaughns

“We are making progress in expanding the number of medicines with pediatric labeling, but we need to do more concerning providing dosing guidelines for children with obesity,” says Janelle D. Vaughns, M.D., director of bariatric anesthesia at Children’s National and the lead study author.

Despite years of study and numerous public health interventions, overweight and obesity continue to grow in the U.S. Currently, more than two-thirds of adults have these issues, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children and adolescents also are being affected at an increasing rate: About one in five is obese. Obesity and overweight have been linked with a bevy of health problems, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and stroke.

Additionally, because obesity increases the percentage of fat tissue in relation to lean tissue and enlarges kidney size, it can affect how readily the body takes up, metabolizes and excretes medicines.

This latter issue can be particularly problematic in children, a population for whom relatively few drug studies exist. Now, a study team that includes Children’s National Health System researchers suggests that, despite the U.S. Congress providing incentives to drug manufacturers to encourage the study of medications in children, few approved drugs include safe dosing information for obese kids.

The study, performed in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, surveyed pediatric medical and clinical pharmacology reviews under the FDA Amendments Act of 2007 and the FDA Safety and Innovation Act of 2012. The researchers used search terms related to weight and size to determine the current incorporation of obesity as a covariate in pediatric drug development.

Of the 89 product labels identified, none provided dosing information related to obesity. The effect of body mass index on drug pharmacokinetics was mentioned in only four labels, according to the study “Obesity and Pediatric Drug Development,” published online Jan. 19, 2018, in The Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

“We are making progress in expanding the number of medicines with pediatric labeling, but we need to do more concerning providing dosing guidelines for children with obesity,” says Janelle D. Vaughns, M.D., director of bariatric anesthesia at Children’s National and the lead study author. “Moving forward, regulators, clinicians and the pharmaceutical industry should consider enrolling more obese patients in pediatric clinical trials to facilitate the safe and effective use of the next generation of medicines by obese children and adolescents.”

Study co-authors include Children’s Gastroenterologist Laurie Conklin, M.D., and Children’s Division Chief of Clinical Pharmacology Johannes N. van den Anker, M.D., Ph.D.; Ying Long, Pharm.D., University of Southern California; Panli Zheng, Pharm.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Fahim Faruque, Pharm.D., University of Maryland; and Dionna Green, M.D., and Gilbert Burckart, Pharm.D., both of the FDA.

Research reported in this news release was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under award number 5T32HD087969.

Maureen Monaghan

Using text messages and telemedicine to improve diabetes self-management

Maureen Monaghan

Maureen Monaghan, Ph.D., C.D.E., clinical psychologist and certified diabetes educator in the Childhood and Adolescent Diabetes Program at Children’s National Health System, awarded nearly $1.6 million grant from American Diabetes Association.

Adolescents and young adults ages 17-22 with Type 1 diabetes are at high risk for negative health outcomes. If fact, some studies show that less than 20 percent of patients in this population meet targets for glycemic control, and visits to the Emergency Department for acute complications like diabetic ketoacidosis peak around the same age.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) awarded Maureen Monaghan, Ph.D., C.D.E., clinical psychologist and certified diabetes educator in the Childhood and Adolescent Diabetes Program at Children’s National Health System, nearly $1.6 million to evaluate an innovative behavioral intervention to improve patient-provider communication, teach and help patients maintain self-care and self-advocacy skills and ultimately prepare young adults for transition into adult diabetes care, limiting the negative adverse outcomes that are commonly seen in adulthood.

Dr. Monaghan is the first psychologist funded through the ADA’s Pathway to Stop Diabetes program, which awards six annual research grants designed to spur breakthroughs in fundamental diabetes science, technology, diabetes care and potential cures. Dr. Monaghan received the Accelerator Award, given to diabetes researchers early in their careers, which will assist her in leading a behavioral science project titled, “Improving Health Communication During the Transition from Pediatric to Adult Diabetes Care.”

“Behavior is such a key component in diabetes care, and it’s wonderful that the American Diabetes Association is invested in promoting healthy behaviors,” says Dr. Monaghan. “I’m excited to address psychosocial complications of diabetes and take a closer look at how supporting positive health behavior during adolescence and young adulthood can lead to a reduction in medical complications down the road.”

During the five year study, Dr. Monaghan will recruit patients ages 17-22 and follow their care at Children’s National through their first visit with an adult endocrinologist. Her team will assess participants’ ability to communicate with providers, including their willingness to disclose diabetes-related concerns, share potentially risky behaviors like drinking alcohol and take proactive steps to monitor and regularly review glucose data.

“The period of transition from pediatric to adult diabetes care represents a particularly risky time. Patients are going through major life changes, such as starting new jobs, attending college, moving out of their parents’ homes and ultimately managing care more independently,” says Dr. Monaghan. “Behavioral intervention can be effective at any age, but we are hopeful that we can substantially help youth during this time of transition when they are losing many of their safety nets.”

Study leaders will help participants download glucose device management tools onto their smartphones and explain how to upload information from patients’ diabetes devices into the system. Participants will then learn how to review the data and quickly spot issues for intervention or follow-up with their health care provider.

Patients also will participate in behavioral telemedicine visits from the convenience of their own homes, and receive text messages giving them reminders about self-care and educational information, such as “Going out with your friends tonight? Make sure you check your glucose level before you drive.”

At the study’s conclusion, Dr. Monaghan anticipates seeing improvements in psychosocial indicators, mood and transition readiness, as well as improved diabetes self-management and engagement in adult medicine.

Veronica-Gomez-Lobo

Multidisciplinary care for children with urogenital differences

Veronica-Gomez-Lobo

Veronica Gomez-Lobo, M.D., brought together a multidisciplinary team to form the Positive Reevaluation of Urogenital Differences (PROUD) Clinic.

When a child is born with urogenital differences, the chromosomes, internal organs or external genitalia are considered to be atypical. While these differences were once thought to be rare, they are more common than people realize, with about 1 in 100 newborns affected.

The complexities of caring for children with urogenital differences, also known as differences of sex development (DSD), were not fully understood for many years. In the past, if a child was born with DSD, the family would see an endocrinologist for hormone therapy and a urologist for surgical options. Counseling was not part of the standard of care, so there was little support available to help families understand the tremendous psychosocial impacts of DSD.

In the last decade, fundamental changes have occurred in the way physicians care for children affected by DSD, with psychosocial health becoming a prominent focus. Veronica Gomez-Lobo, M.D., a Children’s National pediatric and adolescent gynecologist, was one of the physicians who embraced this focus and sought out a new care paradigm for her patients.

Creating the PROUD Clinic

Dr. Gomez-Lobo brought together a multidisciplinary team – including medical geneticist Eyby Leon Janampa, M.D., geneticist Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., urologist Daniel Casella, M.D., endocrinologist Kim Shimy, M.D., psychiatrist David Call, M.D., and psychologist Elaine Goldberg, Ph.D. – to form the Positive Reevaluation of Urogenital Differences (PROUD) Clinic. It can be very challenging to bring together diverse specialists in a complex area like DSD, but her team possesses a similar philosophy – to care for the whole family by managing both the psychosocial and medical aspects of care in one location.

The team meets before each clinic to discuss the patients they will see that day. Patients vary significantly by the type of DSD and also by age – some patients are still in utero, while others may be newborns, children, adolescents or even occasionally adults.

Families see the entire team during their appointment, which can often last two to three hours to ensure that families receive the full support resources offered by the team.

“Even in difficult cases without a clear answer, we present the facts we know to the families, discussing all possibilities about psychosocial issues, gender identity, sexuality, function and fertility,” says Dr. Gomez-Lobo.

Long after the initial appointment, the PROUD Clinic continues to work closely with families and individual providers, following up as needed for medical diagnosis and care and providing continued psychosocial support with the entire team. Due to the efforts of the PROUD Clinic, patients and their families are now receiving compassionate care that looks at all facets of DSD, from childhood through adulthood.

Increasing DSD knowledge in the medical community

In order to give her patients the most thorough understanding of DSD and to expand the medical community’s knowledge, Dr. Gomez-Lobo’s program also participates in the Disorders of Sex Development Translational Research Network (DSD-TRN), which is led by Dr. Vilain. Supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the DSD-TRN provides physicians across the country with the ability to perform research to advance knowledge regarding these conditions, as well as learn how to improve the care of these individuals and families. The DSD-TRN also provides a forum to seek advice about complex cases and to communicate how to transition patients from pediatric to adult medicine.

The relationship with the DSD-TRN helps the PROUD Clinic team further their goal of creating care for their patients that is current, individualized and compassionate.

 

Eric Vilain

Exploring differences of sex development

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D.

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., analyzes the genetic mechanisms of sex development to give families more answers that will help them make better treatment (or non treatment) decisions for a child diagnosed with DSD.

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., is well versed in the “world of uncertainty” that surrounds differences of sex development. Since joining Children’s National as the director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research in 2017, he’s shared with our research and clinical faculty and staff his expertise about the ways that genetic analysis might help address some of the complex social, cultural and medical implications of these differences.

Over the summer, he gave a keynote address entitled “Disorders/Differences of Sex Development: A World of Uncertainty” during Children’s National’s Research and Education Week, an annual celebration of research, education, innovation and scholarship at Children’s National and around the world. In January 2018, he shared a more clinically oriented version of the talk at a special Children’s National Grand Rounds session.

The educational objective of these talks is to inform researchers and providers about the mechanisms of differences of sex development (DSD), which are defined as congenital conditions in which the development of chromosomal, gonadal or anatomical sex is atypical.

The primary goal, though, is to really shine light on the complexity of this hot topic, and share how powerful genetic tools can be used to provide vital, concrete information for care providers, patients and families to assist with difficult treatment (and non-treatment) decisions.

“A minority of DSD cases are able to receive a genetic diagnosis today,” he points out. “But geneticists know how important it is to come to a diagnosis and so we seek to increase the number of patients who receive a concrete genetic diagnosis. It impacts genetic counseling and reproductive options, and provides a better ability to predict long term outcomes.”

“These differences impact physiology and medicine. We want to better understand the biology of reproduction, with an emphasis on finding ways to preserve fertility at all costs, and how these variations may lead to additional complications, including cancer risk.”

At conception, he explains, both XX and XY embryos have bipotential gonads capable of differentiating into a testis or an ovary, though embryos are virtually indistinguishable from a gender perspective up until six weeks in utero.

Whether or not a bipotential gonad forms is largely left up to the genetic makeup of the individual. For example, a gene in the Y chromosome (SRY) triggers a cascade of genes that lead to testis development. If there is no Y chromosome, it triggers a series of pro-female genes that lead to ovarian development.

Dr. Vilain notes that a variation of enzymes or transcription factors can occur at any single step of sex development and alter all the subsequent steps. Depending on the genotype, an individual may experience normal gonadal development, but abnormal development of the genitalia, for example.

He also noted that these genes are critical to determining the differences between men and women in non-gonadal tissues, including differences in gene expression within the brain. One study in the lab of investigator Matt Bramble, Ph.D., investigates if gonadal hormones impact sex differences in the brain by modifying the genome.

This work is a prime example of research informing the care provided to patients and families. Dr. Vilain is also a member of the multidisciplinary clinical team of the PROUD Clinic at Children’s National, a program completely devoted to caring for patients with a wide array of genetic and endocrine issues, including urogenital disorders and variations of sex development.

Electronic medical record on tablet

Children’s National submissions make hackathon finals

Electronic medical record on tablet

This April, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National (CTSI-CN) and The George Washington University (GW) will hold their 2nd Annual Medical and Health App Development Workshop. Of the 10 application (app) ideas selected for further development at the hackathon workshop, five were submitted by clinicians and researchers from Children’s National.

The purpose of the half-day hackathon is to develop the requirements and prototype user interface for 10 medical software applications that were selected from ideas submitted late in 2017. While idea submissions were not restricted, the sponsors suggested that they lead to useful medical software applications.

The following five app ideas from Children’s National were selected for the workshop:

  • A patient/parent decision tool that could use a series of questions to determine if the patient should go to the Emergency Department or to their primary care provider; submitted by Sephora Morrison, M.D., and Ankoor Shah, M.D.
  • The Online Treatment Recovery Assistance for Concussion in Kids (OnTRACK) smartphone application could guide children/adolescents and their families in the treatment of their concussion in concert with their health care provider; submitted by Gerard Gioia, Ph.D.
  • A genetic counseling app that would provide a reputable, easily accessible bank of counseling videos for a variety of topics, from genetic testing to rare disorders; submitted by Debra Regier, M.D.
  • An app that would allow the Children’s National Childhood and Adolescent Diabetes Program team to communicate securely and efficiently with diabetes patients; submitted by Cynthia Medford, R.N., and Kannan Kasturi, M.D.
  • An app that would provide specific evidence-based guidance for medical providers considering PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) for HIV prevention; submitted by Kyzwana Caves, M.D.

Kevin Cleary, Ph.D., technical director of the Bioengineering Initiative at Children’s National Health System, and Sean Cleary, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate professor in epidemiology and biostatistics at GW, created the hackathon to provide an interactive learning experience for people interested in developing medical and health software applications.

The workshop, which will be held on April 13, 2018, will start with short talks from experts on human factors engineering and the regulatory environment for medical and health apps. Attendees will then divide into small groups to brainstorm requirements and user interfaces for the 10 app ideas. After each group presents their concepts to all the participants, the judges will pick the winning app/group. The idea originator will receive up to $10,000 of voucher funding for their prototype development.

iLet-Bionic-Pancreas

Children’s National to test bionic pancreas

iLet-Bionic-Pancreas

The iLet bionic pancreas helps patients manage their diabetes by both monitoring blood glucose levels and administering insulin and glucagon.

Children’s National Health System has been selected to participate in a multi-center clinical trial to test the efficacy of the iLet bionic pancreas — a device that automatically regulates blood sugar levels in patients with Type 1 diabetes.

Patients generally manage diabetes by constantly monitoring their blood sugar levels and administering insulin when necessary. Unfortunately, too much insulin can cause hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, which can result in hypoglycemic seizures, coma or rarely, death. Thus, it is extremely important for people with diabetes to regulate their insulin dosages and maintain their blood sugar levels within a range decided by the family and diabetes team.

“The burden of caring for diabetes on a daily basis is grueling,” says Seema Meighan, FNP, a nurse practitioner involved in the upcoming clinical trial. “It is by far one of the most challenging chronic diseases to manage, and requires vigilant participation 100 percent of the time to stay well controlled.”

The iLet bionic pancreas helps patients manage their diabetes by both monitoring blood glucose levels and administering insulin and glucagon — a pancreatic hormone that raises blood sugar levels.

“In a traditional infusion pump, patients only have access to insulin to control glucose levels,” explains Meighan. “This can become problematic when it comes to hypoglycemia. The hope with a bi-hormonal system is that glucagon can be delivered during times that the glucose is low in order to stabilize levels without user interaction.”

Developed at Boston University by Edward Damiano, Ph.D., and Firas El-Khatib, Ph.D., the iLet is a hand-held device about the size of an iPhone but twice as thick, and can easily fit into a pocket. The unit consists of a dual chamber infusion pump that can be configured to deliver only insulin, only glucagon or both hormones. The device uses a wireless glucose sensor on the patient’s body to test blood sugar levels every five minutes. It then determines which hormone is needed and administers it via catheters connected to the patient.

In short-term studies, the iLet was able to maintain blood glucose levels close to normal in both adults and children in carefully controlled environments.

In 2016, the Children’s National Health System Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes, led by diabetologist Fran Cogen, M.D., C.D.E., was one of several pediatric sites that were selected to participate in pivotal clinical trials to further test the efficacy of the bionic pancreas. Later this year, the team at Children’s National will begin enrolling five to 10 children to test iLet devices that only deliver insulin. Once these initial studies are completed, the team will perform an additional trial to test iLet devices configured to deliver both insulin and glucagon.

“This trial is important as it represents the first dual chamber pump to manage glucose levels,” says Meighan. “It could potentially change the way we treat diabetes entirely. It represents a hope to our patients and families that one day this disease will have far less of a daily burden than it currently does.”

Adolescent brain scan from obesity study

Imaging captures obesity’s impact on the adolescent brain

Adolescent brain scan from obesity study

For the first time, a team of researchers led by Chandan Vaidya, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University, has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to capture the brain function of a small population of adolescents with obesity, both before and after bariatric surgery.

Obesity affects the whole body, from more obvious physical impacts on bones and joints to more subtle, internal impacts on organs like the brain.

For the first time, a team of researchers has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to capture the brain function of a small population of adolescents with obesity, both before and after bariatric surgery. The goal is to better understand the neural changes that occur when an adolescent is obese, and determine the effectiveness of interventions, such as vertical sleeve gastrectomy, at improving brain function as weight is lost.

The study, published as the November Editors’ Choice in the journal Obesity, found that executive and reward-related brain functions of study participants with obesity improved following the surgical procedure and initial weight loss.

How bariatric surgery changes the teenage brain from Research Square on Vimeo.

“We’ve known for some time that severe obesity has negative consequences on some neurocognitive function areas for adults,” says Chandan Vaidya, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University and a senior author of the study. “But for the first time, we’ve captured fMRI evidence in young patients, and also shown that surgical intervention and the resulting weight loss can reverse some of those deficits.”

“For me, this early evidence makes a strong case that when kids are struggling with severe obesity, we need to consider surgical intervention as an option sooner in the process,” notes Evan Nadler, M.D., director of the Bariatric Surgery Program at Children’s National Health System, who also contributed to the study. “The question that remains is whether the neurocognitive function improves more if surgery, and thus weight loss, happens earlier – and is there a time factor that should help us determine when to perform a procedure that will maximize improvements?”

The preliminary study included 36 participants and was conducted using patients recruited from the Children’s National Bariatric Surgery program, one of the first children’s hospitals to achieve national accreditation by the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Accreditation and Quality Improvement Program.

“We asked these questions because we know that in the kids we see, their behavioral, brain, and physical health are all very closely related to one another and have an impact on each other,” adds Eleanor Mackey, Ph.D., study senior author and co-principal investigator on the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases grant that funded the project. “We expected that as physical health improves, we might see corresponding improvements in brain and behavior such as cognitive and school performance.”

The study also pointed out some technical and practical challenges to studying this particular young population. Anyone with a BMI greater than 50 was not able to fit within the MR bore used in the study, preventing fMRI participation by those patients.

“In addition to future studies with a larger sample size, we’d like to see if there are neuroimaging markers of plasticity differences in a population with BMI greater than 50,” says Dr. Vaidya. “Does the severity of the obesity change how quickly the brain can adapt following surgery and weight loss?”

The abstract was selected by the journal’s editors as one that provides insights into preventing and treating obesity. It was featured at the Obesity Journal Symposium during Obesity Week 2017 in Washington, D.C., as part of the Obesity Week recognition, and a digital video abstract was also released about the findings.

child measuring belly with tape measure

Defining cardiovascular disease and diabetes risks in kids

child measuring belly with tape measure

In the Clinical Report, a study team describes the current state of play and offers evidence-based recommendations to guide clinicians on how to approach metabolic syndrome in children and adolescents.

For more than a decade and a half, researchers and clinicians have used the term “metabolic syndrome” (MetS) to describe a set of symptoms that can raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. Although this constellation of factors has proven to be a good predictor of cardiometabolic risk in adults, it has not been as useful for children. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now recommends that pediatricians instead focus on clusters of cardiometabolic risk factors that are associated with obesity, a condition that currently affects one in six U.S. children and adolescents.

In a new collaborative report, a study team from Children’s National Health System’s Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes, Harvard Medical School and Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center describes the current state of play and offers evidence-based recommendations to guide clinicians on how to approach MetS in children and adolescents.

Adults with MetS have at least three of the following five individual risk factors:

  • High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
  • Increased waist circumference (central adiposity)
  • Elevated triglycerides
  • Decreased high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C), so-called “good” cholesterol and
  • Elevated blood pressure (hypertension).

This toxic combination ups adults’ odds of developing diabetes or heart disease. The process is set in motion by insulin resistance. Think Mousetrap, with each new development facilitating the next worrisome step. As fat expands, the cells become enlarged and become more resistant to insulin – a hormone that normally helps cells absorb glucose, an energy source. However, insulin retains the ability to stimulate fatty acids, which promotes even more fat cell expansion. Ectopic fat ends up stored in unexpected places, such as the liver. To top it off, the increased fat deposits end up causing increased inflammation in the system.

At least five health entities, including the World Health Organization, introduced clinical criteria to define MetS among adults, the study authors write. Although more than 40 varying definitions have been used for kids, there is no clear consensus whether to use a MetS definition for children at all, especially as adolescents mature into adulthood. Depending on the study, at least 50 percent of kids no longer meet the diagnostic criteria weeks or years after diagnosis.

“Given the absence of a consensus on the definition of MetS, the unstable nature of MetS and the lack of clarity about the predictive value of MetS for future health in pediatric populations, pediatricians are rightly confused about MetS,” the study authors write.

As a first step to lowering their patients’ cardiometabolic risks, pediatricians should prevent and treat obesity among children and adolescents, the study authors write. Each year, clinicians should perform annual obesity screening using body mass index (BMI) as a measure, and also should screen children once a year for elevated blood pressure. Nonfasting non-HDL-C or fasting lipid screening should be done for children aged 9 to 11 to identify kids whose cholesterol levels are out of line. The team also recommends screening for abnormal glucose tolerance and Type 2 diabetes in youth with BMI greater than or equal to the 85th percentile, 10 years or older (or pubertal), with two additional risk factors, such as family history, high-risk race/ethnicity, hypertension or a mother with gestational diabetes.

Pediatricians do not need to use cut points based on MetS definitions since, for many risk factors, the growing child’s risk lies along a continuum.

Treatments can include lifestyle modifications – such as adopting a negative energy balance diet, drinking water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages, participating in a moderate- to high-intensity weight-loss program, increasing physical activity and behavioral counseling.

“Identifying children with multiple cardiometabolic risk factors will enable pediatricians to target the most intensive interventions to patients who have the greatest need for risk reduction and who have the greatest potential to experience benefits from such personalized medicine,” the study authors conclude.

Children’s National Diabetes Program Honored at SAMHSA’s National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day

Maureen Monaghan and Fran Cogen at SAMHSA

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) spotlighted the Children’s National diabetes program as an exemplar of integrated care for children and adolescents. Maureen Monaghan, Ph.D., CDE, (left) and Fran Cogen, M.D., CDE, interim co-chief of the Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes and director of the Childhood and Adolescent Diabetes Program, were in attendance.

On May 4, Maureen Monaghan, Ph.D., CDE, clinical and pediatric psychologist and certified diabetes educator in the Childhood and Adolescent Diabetes Program at Children’s National, participated in a panel emphasizing the importance of integrating physical and mental health in the care of young patients as part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. SAMHSA also spotlighted the Children’s National diabetes program as an exemplar of integrated care for children and adolescents.

“Many of our families start out knowing nothing about the disease, and they now have a child whose care requires day-to-day management for the rest of their lives,” says Dr. Monaghan. “It’s not a disease you ever get a break from – which can take both a physical and emotional toll on children and their families.”

Maureen Monaghan at SAMHSA National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day

Dr. Monaghan participated in a panel emphasizing the importance of integrating physical and mental health in the care of young patients with diabetes.

To combat this issue and reduce barriers and stigma related to seeking mental health care, the program brings a dedicated, multidisciplinary care team together in one convenient location.

From the initial diagnosis, patients have access to care from a comprehensive team, including six physicians, three nurse practitioners, eight nurse educators, three psychologists, a physical therapist, dietitian and social worker. Each expert counsels the patient and the family, helping them navigate all aspects of living with the disease – from overcoming stress and anxiety to offering healthy meal-planning guides and exercise routines.

“We aren’t just concerned about how they are doing medically or what emotions they are experiencing,” says Dr. Monaghan. “Instead, our team’s integration allows us to focus on the whole child and his or her total quality of life, which is so important for patients and families with chronic disease.”

To learn more, watch this short video, featuring employees and patients of the Children’s National Childhood and Adolescent Diabetes Program, which was presented during the events surrounding the SAMHSA National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.

Fat Cells

Cellular signals may increase atherosclerosis risk

Fat Cells

Fat cells from obese patients have the ability to send signals that can accelerate biological processes leading to atherosclerosis.

Obesity has been linked to a variety of adverse health conditions, including Type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart attack and stroke – conditions that may begin as early as childhood in patients whose obesity also begins early. While this much is known, it has been unclear how extra fat mass might lead to these chronic health conditions.

New research from Children’s National Health System scientists might help answer this question. In findings presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, the research team shows that exosomes – nanosized chemical messages that cells send to each other to regulate protein production – isolated from very obese teenage patients behave very differently from those derived from lean patients and could be key players in heightening the risk of developing atherosclerosis. This hardening of the arteries can, in turn, increase the risk of heart disease and stroke in adulthood.

A research team led by Robert J. Freishtat, M.D., M.P.H., chief of emergency medicine at Children’s National, is exploring possible links between extra belly fat and obesity-related diseases, such as atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque in arteries that can harden and restrict blood flow. More precise knowledge of the mechanisms by which obesity ratchets up heart risks holds the promise of helping the next generation of kids avoid experiencing chronic disease.

The working theory is that exosomes derived from belly fat from obese patients have the distinct ability to accelerate biological processes leading to atherosclerosis.

The research team isolated exosomes from five obese teenagers and compared them to five sex-matched lean adolescents. It turns out that exosomes derived from fat pick up their marching orders from microRNA content likely to target cholesterol efflux genes, which help reduce cholesterol buildup in cells.

The research team looked at differences in cholesterol efflux gene expression in THP-1 macrophages. Uptake of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, “bad” cholesterol, was 92 percent higher than in those exposed to exosomes from obese patients compared with their lean counterparts. Exposure to obese exosomes also reduced cholesterol efflux.

“Atherogenic properties of fat-cell derived exosomes from obese patients differ markedly from the non-atherogenic profile of exosomes from lean patients. It is especially concerning that we see biological clues of heightened risk in teenagers, and the finding underscores how the seeds for atherosclerosis can be planted very early in life,” Dr. Freishtat says.

The presentation is the latest finding from a research team that, over years of work, is unraveling the mechanisms of cellular signaling by fat cells.  By closely examining very obese children – who have the most severe cardiometabolic disease – the team identified strong molecular signals of disease risk that they can search for in leaner patients who may be at risk for disease years from now.

“We know that morbidly obese patients have cardiovascular issues,” explains Dr. Freishtat. “An unanswered question is for patients with no clinical symptoms who are a little overweight. Can we look at them and say whether they are at risk for developing atherosclerosis, insulin resistance or Type 2 diabetes five or 10 years down the line? That’s the whole rationale for doing this work.”

The critical issue is what exosomes are up to. Dr. Freishtat says in lean people, they’re active and are very important in maintaining stable metabolism and homeostatic processes.

“When a person becomes obese, however, exosomes evolve,” he says. “They no longer support insulin signaling, which is helpful, and drive processes in the reverse direction, repressing insulin signaling – which can be harmful,” he adds.

Ultimately, the research team aims to revolutionize how chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes are diagnosed. For far too long, clinicians have relied on symptoms like high glucose levels and excess urination to diagnose diabetes.

“By the time you have symptoms, it’s too late,” says Dr. Freishtat. “In many cases, damage has been done by relentless exposure to high sugar levels. The biological processes that underlie the Type 2 diabetes process began five, 10, 15 years earlier. If we can detect it earlier, before symptoms arise, intervention is going to have a more significant impact on improving and extending patients’ lives.”