Fetal Medicine

Kinsley and Dr. Timothy Kane

Case study: Diagnosing a choledochal cyst in utero

Kinsley and Dr. Timothy Kane

The Feigel family worked with Timothy Kane, M.D., the division chief of general and thoracic surgery at Children’s National, to ensure an accurate diagnosis, coordinate a corrective procedure and support a strong recovery for Kinsley, who just celebrated a 5-month milestone.

On Sept. 30, 2018, Elizabeth Feigel gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Kinsley Feigel. Thirty-two days later, Elizabeth and her husband, Steven Feigel, delighted in another hospital moment: Kinsley, who developed a choledochal cyst in utero, was recovering from a surgical procedure to remove an abnormal bile duct cyst, which also required the removal of her gallbladder.

While the series of events, interspersed with multiple hospital visits, would likely create uneasiness in new parents, the Feigel family worked with Vahe Badalyan, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Children’s National Health System, and with Timothy Kane, M.D., the division chief of general and thoracic surgery at Children’s National, to ensure an accurate diagnosis, coordinate a corrective procedure and support a strong recovery for Kinsley, who just celebrated a 5-month milestone.

One of the keys to Kinsley’s success was close communication between her parents and providers.

Dr. Badalyan and Dr. Kane listened to Elizabeth and Steven’s concerns, explained complex medical terms in lay language, and provided background about Kinsley’s presenting symptoms, risk factors and procedures. Instead of second-guessing the diagnosis, Elizabeth and Steven put their trust into and remained in contact with the medical team, sharing updates about Kinsley at home. This parent-physician partnership helped ensure an accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment for Kinsley.

Here is her story.

An early diagnosis

During a 12-week prenatal ultrasound, Elizabeth discovered that Kinsley had an intra-abdominal cyst. Before Elizabeth came to Children’s National for an MRI, she met with several fetal medicine specialists and had a variety of tests, including an amniocentesis to rule out chromosomal abnormalities, such as Down syndrome.

The team at Children’s National didn’t want to prematurely confirm Kinsley’s choledochal cyst in utero, but additional ultrasounds and an MRI helped narrow the diagnosis to a few conditions.

After Kinsley was born, and despite looking like a healthy, full-term baby, she was transported to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Children’s National. Dr. Badalyan and Dr. Kane analyzed Kinsley’s postnatal sonogram and found the cyst was bigger than they previously thought. Over a five-day period, the medical team kept Kinsley under their close watch, running additional tests, including an additional sonogram. They then followed up with Kinsley on an outpatient basis to better understand and diagnose her cyst.

Outpatient care

Over the next few weeks, Kinsley, Elizabeth and Steven returned to Children’s National to coordinate multiple exams, ranging from an MRI to a HIDA scan. During this period, Elizabeth and Steven remained in contact with Dr. Badalyan. They heard about Kinsley’s lab results and sent updates about her symptoms, including her stool, which helped the medical team monitor her status.

Meanwhile, Dr. Badalyan and Dr. Kane worked closely with the lab to measure Kinsley’s bilirubin levels. Her presenting symptoms and risk factors, she had jaundice and is a female baby of Asian descent, are associated with both choledochal cysts and biliary atresia.

Over time and with the help of Elizabeth, Steven and the pediatric radiologists, Dr. Badalyan and Dr. Kane confirmed Kinsley had a type 1 choledochal cyst, the most common. Originally, the plan was to operate at three to six months, but Dr. Kane needed to expedite the procedure and operate on Kinsley at one month due to a rise in her bilirubin, a sign of progressive liver disease.

Higher bilirubin levels are common in newborns and remain elevated at about 5 mg/dL after the first few days of birth, but Kinsley’s levels peaked and remained elevated. Instead of her bile flowing into her intestine, her choledochal cyst reduced the flow of bile, which accumulated and started to pour back into her liver. The timing of the surgery was as important as the procedure.

The surgery

On Oct. 31, Halloween, Kinsley had laparoscopic surgery to remove the choledochal cyst. Approximately five to seven patients per year undergo choledochal cyst removal at Children’s National. Smaller infants typically undergo removal of a choledochal cyst using a large incision (or open procedure). Kinsley was the smallest baby at Children’s National to have this type of surgery performed by minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery, which required a few 3-mm incisions – the size of coriander seeds.

Some hospitals use the da Vinci robot, which starts at 8-mm incisions, the size of a small pearl, to conduct this procedure on infants, but this method cannot effectively be done in very small infants. Instead, Dr. Kane prefers to stitch sutures by hand. This technique keeps the incisions small and is technically demanding, but Dr. Kane doesn’t mind (he views this as an advanced technical skill). The goal for this surgery was to cut out the abnormal piece of Kinsley’s common bile duct, comprised of the cyst, remove  this and then sew the bile duct to the small intestine (duodenum), creating a digestive pathway. The new digestive tube allows for bile to flow from her liver through the common hepatic duct, in place of the pathway where the cyst formed, and into her intestine.

Like other surgeries, Dr. Kane needed to adapt the procedure, especially with Kinsley’s size: Taking too much from the bile duct would create a tight space, and could create obstruction, blocking bile, while leaving too much room could create leakage and spilling of the bile, requiring a follow-up surgical procedure within a week or two of the original operation.

Dr. Kane had a few options in mind before he operated. He didn’t know which would be most suitable until the operation, but he remained open and prepared for all three. Adopting this mindset, instead of having one procedure in mind, has helped Dr. Kane with precise and tailored surgeries, which often result in the best procedure and a stronger recovery period for young patients.

After 4.5 hours, the surgery, a two-part procedure – removing the cyst and recreating a functional bile duct – was complete.

Kinsley moved into the recovery unit, where she rested and recovered under close medical supervision for five days. During the first few days, she didn’t have liquids or milk, but she did have two bedside nurses monitoring her status in addition to surgeons making regular rounds. Elizabeth and Steven were relieved: The diagnosis and surgery were over.

Managing risk factors

Before Kinsley left the hospital, Elizabeth and Steven scheduled a follow-up visit to ensure Kinsley was recovering well and avoided risk of infection, such as cholangitis, which can occur suddenly and become chronic.

Following Kinsley’s post-surgical bloodwork in early November, Dr. Badalyan noticed Kinsley’s white blood count was high, signaling infection, and he immediately brought the family back to the hospital. To help her body fight the infection, Kinsley received antibiotics and intravenous fluids. She stayed in the hospital for five days. Fortunately, cholangitis is easy to treat with antibiotics; the key is to detect it early.

Kinsley returned home in time for Thanksgiving. She came back to the hospital for biweekly visits. At this point, she was filling out, reaching a 2-month milestone and nearing a full recovery. She returned for follow-up visits in December and January – and has been healthy ever since. She will continue to make routine visits during her first year to ensure her white blood count remains in a healthy range.

Investing in youth resilience

Dr. Badalyan and Dr. Kane envision a healthy future for Kinsley. They don’t expect she’ll need additional operations. Her parents are also looking on the bright side: Since gallbladders aren’t essential for survival or long-term health outcomes, and since many people can easily live without them, Kinsley may be at an advantage. Elizabeth thinks Kinsley may be more cautious about lifestyle choices to support living without a gallbladder, which also support longevity.

Another perspective noted by Dr. Badalyan and Dr. Kane is Kinsley’s resilience factor. Having the surgery earlier brought unique challenges, but her age makes it easier for Kinsley to bounce back as her body rapidly develops. Her tissues were healthy, compared to adult patients undergoing surgery with chronic liver problems or heart disease, which puts her at an advantage for a faster healing process. Dr. Badalyan also mentions that while it’s good for her Kinsley and her family to continue to monitor risks for infections, she won’t have gallstones.

Elizabeth also started to notice something that Kinsley’s doctors likely wouldn’t pick up on: Her personality seems to be a result of her hospital experience and stay. Kinsley’s an easy baby. She eats well and sleeps well, which Elizabeth credits to being around clinicians and to learning the art of self-soothing, a skill she likely acquired while recovering from surgery.

This month, Kinsley has another adventure. She’ll travel with her parents to visit extended family in Seattle, Napa Valley, Calif. and West Virginia. She has several relatives and family friends, all of whom are looking forward to meeting her.

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Kurt Newman, M.D., shares journey as a pediatric surgeon in TEDx Talk

Kurt Newman, M.D., president and chief executive officer of Children’s National, shares his poignant journey as a pediatric surgeon, offering a new perspective for approaching the most chronic and debilitating health conditions. In this independently-organized TEDx event, Dr. Newman also shares his passion for Children’s National and the need to increase pediatric innovations in medicine.

toddler nursing

Newborns with suspected food allergies breastfed significantly longer

toddler nursing

Mothers whose newborns had suspected food allergies reported breastfeeding them significantly longer than women whose infants had no adverse reactions after food exposure, according to preliminary research led by Karen A. Robbins, M.D., and presented during the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2019 Annual Meeting.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food allergies affect 4 to 6 percent of U.S. children, making such allergies a growing public health concern. Researchers are attempting to learn more about the interplay between food allergies and what, when and how children eat to inform allergy-prevention efforts. Little is known about the association between perceived food allergies, intolerance or hypersensitivity among babies eating their first bites of solid food and how long they’re breastfed.

Dr. Robbins and colleagues analyzed data gathered through a longitudinal study led by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC from 2005 to 2007. The Infant Feeding Practices Study II tracked diet and feeding practices of about 2,000 women late in their pregnancies and followed their babies’ diets through the first year of life.

Some 2,586 breastfeeding mothers in the study completed surveys when their infants were 4, 9 and 12 months old. The women were asked whether there were problems caused by food, such as an allergic reaction, sensitivity or intolerance. The majority of these infants (84.6 percent) had no suspected allergic reaction to either food they ate on their own or to food they were exposed to via breastmilk. The mothers reported that nearly 11 percent of infants reacted to something they ate; 2.4 percent reacted to food products they were exposed to via breastmilk; and 2.4 percent reacted to both food they consumed directly or were exposed to via breastfeeding. They also found:

  • Infants with suspected food allergies after exposure to food their mothers ate were breastfed a mean of 45.8 weeks.
  • Infants with food intolerance after both exposure to food their mother consumed and food they ate themselves were breastfed a mean of 40.2 weeks.

That contrasts with infants with no concern for food reactions, who were breastfed a mean of 32 weeks.

“Breastfeeding a newborn for the first few months of life helps their developing immune system become more robust, may affect the microbiome, and could influence or prevent development of allergy later in life,” says Dr. Robbins, an allergist at Children’s National Health System and lead author of the research. “However, mothers’ perceptions of their newborns’ adverse reactions to food appears to factor into how long they breastfeed.”

One potential concern is that extended breastfeeding can impact solid food introduction practices.

“Gradually transitioning to solid food gives infants an opportunity to sample an array of foods, nibble by nibble, including food allergens like peanut and eggs. We know from previously published research that introducing high-risk babies to a food allergen like peanuts early in life appropriately primes their immune system and dramatically decreases how often these children actually develop peanut allergies,” Dr. Robbins adds. “The relationship between breastfeeding and allergy development is complex, so understanding mothers’ practices is important. We also do not know how often these early reactions result in true food allergy, compared with transient food intolerance.”

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Perceived food allergy, sensitivity or intolerance and its impact on breastfeeding practices.”

Monday, Feb. 25, 2019, 9:45-10:45 a.m. (PST)

Karen A. Robbins M.D., lead author; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., co-author; Ashley Ramos Ph.D., co-author; Daniel V. DiGiacomo, M.D., co-author; Katherine M. Balas BS, co-author; and Linda Herbert, Ph.D., director of Children’s Division of Allergy and Immunology’s psychosocial clinical program and senior author.

Breastfeeding Mom

Exclusive breastfeeding lowers odds of some schoolchildren having eczema

Breastfeeding Mom

Children exclusively breastfed for the first three months of life had significantly lower odds of having eczema at age 6 compared with peers who were not breastfed or were breastfed for less time, according to preliminary research presented during the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2019 Annual Meeting.

Eczema is a chronic condition characterized by extremely itchy skin that, when scratched, becomes inflamed and covered with blisters that crack easily. While genes and the environment are implicated in this inflammatory disease, many questions remain unanswered, such as how best to prevent it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breastfed infants have reduced risks for developing many chronic conditions, including asthma and obesity.

“The evidence that being exclusively breastfed protects children from developing eczema later in life remains mixed,” says Katherine M. Balas, BS, BA, a clinical research assistant at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “Our research team is trying to help fill that data gap.”

Balas and colleagues tapped data collected in Infant Feeding Practices Study II, a longitudinal study co-led by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2005 to 2007, as well as the agencies’ 2012 follow-up examination of that study cohort. This study first tracked the diets of about 2,000 pregnant women from their third trimester and examined feeding practices through their babies’ first year of life. Their follow-up inquiry looked at the health, development and dietary patterns for 1,520 of these children at 6 years of age.

About 300 of the children had been diagnosed with eczema at some point in their lives, and 58.5 percent of the 6-year-olds had eczema at the time of the CDC/FDA Year Six Follow-Up. Children with higher socioeconomic status or a family history of food allergies had higher odds of being diagnosed with eczema.

“Children who were exclusively breastfed for three months or longer were significantly less likely (adjusted odds ratio: 0.477) to have continued eczema at age 6, compared with peers who were never breastfed or who were breastfed for less than three months,” Balas adds. “While exclusive breastfeeding may not prevent kids from getting eczema, it may protect them from experiencing extended flare-ups.”

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Exclusive breastfeeding in infancy and eczema diagnosis at 6 years of age.”

Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, 9:45 a.m. (PST)

Katherine M. Balas BS, BA, lead author; Karen A. Robbins M.D., co-author; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., co-author; Ashley Ramos Ph.D., co-author; Daniel V. DiGiacomo, M.D., co-author; and Linda Herbert, Ph.D., director of Children’s Division of Allergy and Immunology’s psychosocial clinical program and senior author.

Dr. Anna Penn uses a microscope

New model mimics persistent interneuron loss seen in prematurity

Dr. Anna Penn uses a microscope

Children’s research-clinicians created a novel preclinical model that mimics the persistent interneuron loss seen in preterm human infants, identifying interneuron subtypes that could become future therapeutic targets to prevent or lessen neurodevelopmental risks.

Research-clinicians at Children’s National Health System have created a novel preclinical model that mimics the persistent interneuron loss seen in preterm human infants, identifying interneuron subtypes that could become future therapeutic targets to prevent or lessen neurodevelopmental risks, the team reports Jan. 31, 2019, in eNeuro. The open access journal for Society for Neuroscience recognized the team’s paper as its “featured” article.

In the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of infants born preterm, there are decreased somatostatin and calbindin interneurons seen in upper cortical layers in infants who survived for a few months after preterm birth. This neuronal damage was mimicked in an experimental model of preterm brain injury in the PFC, but only when the newborn experimental models had first experienced a combination of prenatal maternal immune activation and postnatal chronic sublethal hypoxia. Neither neuronal insult on its own produced the pattern of interneuron loss in the upper cortical layers observed in humans, the research team finds.

“These combined insults lead to long-term neurobehavioral deficits that mimic what we see in human infants who are born extremely preterm,” says Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the Division of Neonatology and the Fetal Medicine Institute and a developmental neuroscientist at Children’s National Health System, and senior study author. “Future success in preventing neuronal damage in newborns relies on having accurate experimental models of preterm brain injury and well-defined outcome measures that can be examined in young infants and experimental models of the same developmental stage.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1 in 10 infants is born preterm, before the 37th week of pregnancy. Many of these preterm births result from infection or inflammation in utero. After delivery, many infants experience other health challenges, like respiratory failure. These multi-hits can exacerbate brain damage.

Prematurity is associated with significantly increased risk of neurobehavioral pathologies, including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. In both psychiatric disorders, the prefrontal cortex inhibitory circuit is disrupted due to alterations of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) interneurons in a brain region involved in working memory and social cognition.

Cortical interneurons are created and migrate late in pregnancy and early infancy. That timing leaves them particularly vulnerable to insults, such as preterm birth.

In order to investigate the effects of perinatal insults on GABAergic interneuron development, the Children’s research team, led by Helene Lacaille, Ph.D., in Dr. Penn’s laboratory, subjected the new preterm encephalopathy experimental model to a battery of neurobehavioral tests, including working memory, cognitive flexibility and social cognition.

“This translational study, which examined the prefrontal cortex in age-matched term and preterm babies supports our hypothesis that specific cellular alterations seen in preterm encephalopathy can be linked with a heightened risk of children experiencing neuropsychiatric disorders later in life,” Dr. Penn adds. “Specific interneuron subtypes may provide specific therapeutic targets for medicines that hold the promise of preventing or lessening these neurodevelopmental risks.”

In addition to Dr. Penn and Lead Author Lacaille, Children’s co-authors include Claire-Marie Vacher; Dana Bakalar, Jiaqi J. O’Reilly and Jacquelyn Salzbank, all of Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award R01HD092593, District of Columbia Intellectual Developmental Disabilities Research Center under award U54HD090257, Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Foundation, Children’s National Board of Visitors, Children’s Research Institute and Fetal Medicine Institute.

Vittorio Gallo

Neurodevelopmental disorders: Developing medical treatments

Vittorio Gallo

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer, participates in the world’s largest general scientific gathering, leading panelists in a timely conversation about progress made so far with neurodevelopmental disorders and challenges that lie ahead.

The human brain is the body’s operating system. Imagine if rogue code worked its way into its hardware and software, delaying some processes, disrupting others, wreaking general havoc.

Neurodevelopmental disorders are like that errant code. They can occur early in life and impact brain development for the rest of the person’s life. Not only can fundamental brain development go awry, processes that refine the brain also can become abnormal, creating a double neural hit.  Adding to those complications, children with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Fragile X syndrome often contend with multiple, overlapping cognitive impairments and learning disabilities.

The multiple layers of complexities for these disorders can make developing effective medical treatments particularly challenging, says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National Health System and recipient of a coveted Senator Jacob Javits Award in the Neurosciences.

During the Feb. 16, 2019, “Neurodevelopmental Disorders: Developing Medical Treatments” symposium, Gallo will guide esteemed panelists in a timely conversation about progress made so far and challenges that lie ahead during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, the world’s largest general scientific gathering.

“This is a very important symposium; we’re going to put all of the open questions on the table,” says Gallo. “We’re going to present a snapshot of where the field is right now: We’ve made incredible advances in developmental neuroscience, neonatology, neurology, diagnostic imaging and other related fields. The essential building blocks are in place. Where are we now in developing therapeutics for these complex disorders?”

For select disorders, many genes have been identified, and each new gene has the potential to become a target for improved therapies. However, for other neurodevelopmental disorders, like ASD, an array of new genes continue to be discovered, leaving an unfinished picture of which genetic networks are of most importance.

Gallo says the assembled experts also plan to explore major research questions that remain unanswered as well as how to learn from past experiences to make future studies more powerful and insightful.

“One topic up for discussion will be new preclinical models that have the potential to help in identifying specific mechanisms that cause these disorders. A combination of genetic, biological, psychosocial and environmental risk factors are being combined in these preclinical models,” Gallo says.

“Our studies of the future need to move beyond describing and observing in order to transform into studies that establish causality between the aberrant developmental processes and these constellations of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

little girl with spina bifida

Oral clefts may stem from a shared genetic cause as neural tube defects

little girl with spina bifida

Research by an international team that includes Children’s National faculty, published online Jan. 25, 2019 in Human Molecular Genetics, suggests that genetic mutations that cause cleft lip and palate also may contribute to neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.

Oral clefts are some of the most common birth defects worldwide, affecting about one in every 700 births. In the U.S., more than 4,000 babies are born each year with cleft lip, with or without cleft palate.

This defect isn’t simply a cosmetic manner: Oral clefts can severely affect feeding, speech and hearing, and they cause about 3,300 deaths annually worldwide.

To better understand these conditions, researchers have isolated a number of genetic mutations that appear to play contributing roles. These include those in a gene known as Interferon Regulatory Factor 6. New research by an international team that includes Children’s National faculty, published online Jan. 25, 2019 in Human Molecular Genetics, suggests that these mutations also may contribute to neural tube defects such as spina bifida.

In the first weeks of fetal development, the neural plate curves, creating a neural tube that, once fused shut, becomes the fetal brain and fetal spinal cord. Neural tube defects, which can range from mild to severe, are characterized by incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord or meninges. These defects can potentially result in paralysis or even fetal or neonatal demise. According to the National Institutes of Health, spina bifida, which affects the spinal cord, is the most common neural tube defect in the U.S., affecting up to 2,000 infants each year.

“Despite its high frequency, spina bifida remains among the least understood structural birth defects,” says Brian C. Schutte, an associate professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Pediatrics and Human Development at Michigan State University and the study’s senior author. “There is strong evidence that genetic factors are a leading cause of such structural birth defects, but in most cases, the cause is unknown. Our team’s study is the first published research to demonstrate that DNA variants in the gene IRF6 can cause spina bifida,” Schutte says.

What’s more, the research team identified a mechanism to explain how altering IRF6 leads to neural tube defects. This mechanism links IRF6 function to two other genes – known as transcription Factor AP2A (TFAP2A) and Grainyhead Like 3 (GRHL3) – that are also known to be required for the development of the neural tube, lip and palate.

“We’re all on the hunt for the reasons when, how and why birth defects happen,” adds Youssef A. Kousa, MS, D.O., Ph.D., a clinical fellow in the Division of Child Neurology at Children’s National Health System and the study’s lead author. “Our main goal is prevention. This paper is a significant development because our team has identified a group of genes that can potentially contribute to very common types of birth defects: craniofacial as well as neural tube defects.”

The scientific odyssey is a wonderful example of serendipity. Kousa, then working in Schutte’s lab, was studying the effects of a new mutant experimental model strain on development of the palate. But one day, he walked into Schutte’s office holding a deformed preclinical embryo and said: “Brian, look at this!”

“Weird things happen in biology,” Schutte replied and counseled him to return if it happened again. Less than two weeks later, Kousa was back with several more of the deformed preclinical embryos, saying: “OK, Brian. It happened again.”

Within hours Kousa had unearthed recently published research that included an image of a similarly affected preclinical embryo. The pair then sketched out possible intersecting genetic pathways, as they brainstormed the myriad ways to end up with that specific phenotype. Initially, they tested their hypotheses in experimental models and eventually corroborated findings through human genetic studies.

The human studies could only be performed by collaborations. Schutte shared their initial observations with human genetics researchers scattered across the country. Those labs then generously agreed to test whether DNA variants in IRF6 were associated with neural tube defects in samples from patients that they had collected over decades of research.

The team found that Tfap2aIrf6 and Grhl3 are components of a gene regulatory network required for neurulation, a folding process that results in the neural tube bending and then fusing to become the basis of the embryo’s nervous system, from brain to spinal cord.

“Since this network is also required for formation of the lip, palate, limbs and epidermis, which develop at different times and places during embryogenesis, we suggest that the Tfap2aIrf6Grhl3 network is a fundamental pathway for multiple morphogenetic processes,” the researchers write.

Interferon Regulatory Factor 6 functions best when there is neither too much expression nor too little. Overexpression of Irf6 suppresses Transcription Factor Activation Protein 2A and Grainyhead Like 3, causing exencephaly, a neural tube defect characterized by the brain being located outside of the skull. Counterintuitively, experimental models that had too little Irf6 also ended up with reduced levels of Tfap2a and Grhl3 that led to a structural birth defect, but at the opposite end of the neural tube.

To test whether the experimental model findings held true in humans, they sequenced samples from people who had spina bifida and anencephaly – the rare birth defect that Kousa spotted in the experimental models – and found IRF6 function was conserved in people. Because of the genetic complexity of these birth defects, and the challenges inherent in collecting samples from cases of severe birth defects, many research teams were invited to participate in the study.

As testament to their collegiality, researchers from Stanford University, University of Texas at Austin, University of Iowa, University of Texas at Houston and Duke University agreed to share precious samples from the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program, from the Hereditary Basis of Neural Tube Defects study and from their own institutional sample collections.

“As we get better at personalized medicine, we could use this information to one day help to counsel families about their own risk and protective factors,” Kousa adds. “If we can identify the genetic pathway, we might also be able to modify it to prevent a birth defect. For example, prenatal supplementation with folic acid has led to a decrease in babies born with neural tube defects, but not all neural tube defects are sensitive to folic acid. This knowledge will help us develop individual-based interventions.”

Financial support for the research covered in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under grants DE13513, F31DE022696, DE025060, P01HD067244 and GM072859; startup funding from Michigan State University and the UT-Health School of Dentistry in Houston; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under award number 5U01DD001033.

In addition to Kousa and Schutte, study co-authors include Huiping Zhu, Yunping Lei and Richard H. Finnell, University of Texas at Austin; Walid D. Fakhouri, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; Akira Kinoshita, Nagasaki University; Raeuf R. Roushangar, Nicole K. Patel, Tamer Mansour, Arianna L. Smith, and Dhruv B. Sharma, Michigan State University; A.J. Agopian and Laura E. Mitchell, University of Texas School of Public Health; Wei Yang and Gary M. Shaw, Stanford University School of Medicine; Elizabeth J. Leslie, Emory University; Xiao Li, Tamara D. Busch, Alexander G. Bassuk and Brad A. Amendt, University of Iowa; Edward B. Li and Eric C. Liao, Massachusetts General Hospital; Trevor J. Williams, University of Colorado Denver at Anschutz Medical Campus; Yang Chai, University of Southern California; and Simon Gregory and Allison Ashley-Koch, Duke University Medical Center.

Nobuyuki Ishibashi

Cortical dysmaturation in congenital heart disease

Nobuyuki Ishibashi

On Jan. 4, 2019, Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., the director of the Cardiac Surgery Research Laboratory and an investigator with the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System, published a review in Trends in Neurosciences about the mechanisms of cortical dysmaturation, or disturbances in cortical development, that can occur in children born with congenital heart disease (CHD). By understanding the early-life impact and relationship between cardiac abnormalities and cortical neuronal development, Dr. Ishibashi and the study authors hope to influence strategies for neonatal neuroprotection, mitigating the risk for developmental delays among CHD patients.

Dr. Ishibashi answers questions about this review and CHD-neurodevelopmental research:

  1. Tell us more about your research. Why did you choose to study these interactions in this patient population?

My research focuses on studying how CHD and neonatal cardiac surgery affect the rapidly-developing brain. Many children with CHD, particularly the most complex anomalies, suffer from important behavioral anomalies and neurodevelopmental delays after cardiac surgery. As a surgeon scientist, I want to optimize treatment strategy and develop a new standard of care that will reduce neurodevelopmental impairment in our patients.

  1. How does this study fit into your larger body of work? What are a few take-home messages from this paper?

Our team and other laboratories have recently identified a persistent perinatal neurogenesis that targets the frontal cortex – the brain area responsible for higher-order cognitive functions. The main message from this article is that further understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying cortical development and dysmaturation will likely help to identify novel strategies to treat and improve outcomes in our patients suffering from intellectual and behavioral disabilities.

  1. What do you want pediatricians and researchers to know about this study? Why is it important right now?

Although the hospital mortality risk is greatly reduced, children with complex CHD frequently display subsequent neurological disabilities affecting intellectual function, memory, executive function, speech and language, gross and fine motor skills and visuospatial functions. In addition to the impact of the neurological morbidity on the patients themselves, the toll on families and society is immense. Therefore it is crucial to determine the causes of altered brain maturation in CHD.

  1. How do you envision this research influencing future studies and pediatric health outcomes? As a researcher, how will you proceed?

In this article we placed special emphasis on the need for well-designed preclinical studies to define disturbances in cortical neurogenesis due to perinatal brain injury. I believe that further study of the impact of hypoxemia on brain development is of broad relevance — not just for children with congenital heart disease, but for other populations where intellectual and behavioral dysfunctions are a source of chronic morbidity, such as survivors of premature birth.

  1. What discoveries do you envision being at the forefront of this field?

One of the important questions is: During which developmental period, prenatal or postnatal, is the brain most sensitive to developmental and behavioral disabilities associated with hypoxemia? Future experimental models will help us study key effects of congenital cortical development anomalies on brain development in children with CHD.

  1. What impact could this research make? What’s the most striking finding and how do you think it will influence the field?

Although cortical neurogenesis at fetal and adult stages has been widely studied, the development of the human frontal cortex during the perinatal period has only recently received greater attention as a result of new identification of ongoing postnatal neurogenesis in the region responsible for important intellectual and behavioral functions. Children’s National is very excited with the discoveries because it has opened new opportunities that may lead to regeneration and repair of the dysmature cortex. If researchers identify ways to restore endogenous neurogenic abilities after birth, the risk of neurodevelopment disabilities and limitations could be greatly reduced.

  1. Is there anything else you would like to add that we didn’t ask you about? What excites you about this research?

In this article we highlight an urgent need to create a truly translational area of research in CHD-induced brain injury through further exploration and integration of preclinical models. I’m very excited about the highly productive partnerships we developed within the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National, led by an internationally-renowned developmental neuroscientist, Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., who is a co-senior author of this article. Because of our collaboration, my team has successfully utilized sophisticated and cutting-edge neuroscience techniques to study brain development in children born with CHD. To determine the causes of altered brain maturation in congenital heart disease and ultimately improve neurological function, we believe that a strong unity between cardiovascular and neuroscience research must be established.

Additional study authors include Camille Leonetti, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow with the Center for Neuroscience Research and Children’s National Heart Institute, and Stephen Back, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health and Science University.

The research was supported by multiple grants and awards from the National Institutes of Health, inclusive of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (RO1HL139712), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (1RO1NS054044, R37NS045737, R37NS109478), the National Institute on Aging (1RO1AG031892-01) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U54HD090257).

Additional support for this review was awarded by the American Heart Association (17GRNT33370058) and the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, which is supported through the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development program grant 1U54HD090257.

AlgometRX

Breakthrough device objectively measures pain type, intensity and drug effects

AlgometRX

Clinical Research Assistant Kevin Jackson uses AlgometRx Platform Technology on Sarah Taylor’s eyes to measure her degree of pain. Children’s National Medical Center is testing an experimental device that aims to measure pain according to how pupils react to certain stimuli. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Pediatric anesthesiologist Julia C. Finkel, M.D., of Children’s National Health System, gazed into the eyes of a newborn patient determined to find a better way to measure the effectiveness of pain treatment on one so tiny and unable to verbalize. Then she realized the answer was staring back at her.

Armed with the knowledge that pain and analgesic drugs produce an involuntary response from the pupil, Dr. Finkel developed AlgometRx, a first-of-its-kind handheld device that measures a patient’s pupillary response and, using proprietary algorithms, provides a diagnostic measurement of pain intensity, pain type and, after treatment is administered, monitors efficacy. Her initial goal was to improve the care of premature infants. She now has a device that can be used with children of any age and adults.

“Pain is very complex and it is currently the only vital sign that is not objectively measured,” says Dr. Finkel, who has more than 25 years of experience as a pain specialist. “The systematic problem we are facing today is that healthcare providers prescribe pain medicine based on subjective self-reporting, which can often be inaccurate, rather than based on an objective measure of pain type and intensity.” To illustrate her point, Dr. Finkel continues, “A clinician would never prescribe blood pressure medicine without first taking a patient’s blood pressure.”

The current standard of care for measuring pain is the 0-to-10 pain scale, which is based on subjective, observational and self-reporting techniques. Patients indicate their level of pain, with zero being no pain and ten being highest or most severe pain. This subjective system increases the likelihood of inaccuracy, with the problem being most acute with pediatric and non-verbal patients. Moreover, Dr. Finkel points out that subjective pain scores cannot be standardized, heightening the potential for misdiagnosis, over-treatment or under-treatment.

Dr. Finkel, who serves as director of Research and Development for Pain Medicine at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National, says that a key step in addressing the opioid crisis is providing physicians with objective, real-time data on a patient’s pain level and type, to safely prescribe the right drug and dosage or an alternate treatment.,

She notes that opioids are prescribed for patients who report high pain scores and are sometimes prescribed in cases where they are not appropriate. Dr. Finkel points to the example of sciatica, a neuropathic pain sensation felt in the lower back, legs and buttocks. Sciatica pain is carried by touch fibers that do not have opioid receptors, which makes opioids an inappropriate choice for treating that type of pain.

A pain biomarker could rapidly advance both clinical practice and pain research, Dr. Finkel adds. For clinicians, the power to identify the type and magnitude of a patient’s nociception (detection of pain stimuli) would provide a much-needed scientific foundation for approaching pain treatment. Nociception could be monitored through the course of treatment so that dosing is targeted and personalized to ensure patients receive adequate pain relief while reducing side effects.

“A validated measure to show whether or not an opioid is indicated for a given patient could ease the health care system’s transition from overreliance on opioids to a more comprehensive and less harmful approach to pain management,” says Dr. Finkel.

She also notes that objective pain measurement can provide much needed help in validating complementary approaches to pain management, such as acupuncture, physical therapy, virtual reality and other non-pharmacological interventions.

Dr. Finkel’s technology, called AlgometRx, has been selected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to participate in its “Innovation Challenge: Devices to Prevent and Treat Opioid Use Disorder.” She is also the recipient of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

DNA moleucle

PAC1R mutation may be linked to severity of social deficits in autism

DNA moleucle

A mutation of the gene PAC1R may be linked to the severity of social deficits experienced by kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), finds a study from a multi-institutional research team led by Children’s National faculty. If the pilot findings are corroborated in larger, multi-center studies, the research published online Dec. 17, 2018, in Autism Research represents the first step toward identifying a potential novel biomarker to guide interventions and better predict outcomes for children with autism.

As many as 1 in 40 children are affected by ASD. Symptoms of the disorder – such as not making eye contact, not responding to one’s name when called, an inability to follow a conversation of more than one speaker or incessantly repeating certain words or phrases – usually crop up by the time a child turns 3.

The developmental disorder is believed to be linked, in part, to disrupted circuitry within the amygdala, a brain structure integral for processing social-emotional information. This study reveals that PAC1R is expressed during key periods of brain development when the amygdala – an almond-shaped cluster of neurons – develops and matures. A properly functioning amygdala, along with brain structures like the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, are crucial to neurotypical social-emotional processing.

“Our study suggests that an individual with autism who is carrying a mutation in PAC1R may have a greater chance of more severe social problems and disrupted functional brain connectivity with the amygdala,” says Joshua G. Corbin, Ph.D., interim director of the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System and the study’s co-senior author. “Our study is one important step along the pathway to developing new biomarkers for autism spectrum disorder and, hopefully, predicting patients’ outcomes.”

The research team’s insights came through investigating multiple lines of evidence:

  • They looked at gene expression in the brains of an experimental model at days 13.5 and 18.5 of fetal development and day 7 of life, dates that correspond with early, mid and late amygdala development. They confirmed that Pac1r is expressed in the experimental model at a critical time frame for brain development that coincides with the timing for altered brain trajectories with ASD.
  • They looked at gene expression in the human brain by mining publicly available genome-wide transcriptome data, plotting median PAC1R expression values for key brain regions. They found high levels of PAC1R expression at multiple ages with higher PAC1R expression in male brains during the fetal period and higher PAC1R expression in female brains during childhood and early adulthood.
  • One hundred twenty-nine patients with ASD aged 6 to 14 were recruited for behavioral assessment. Of the 48 patients who also participated in neuroimaging, 20 were able to stay awake for five minutes without too much movement as the resting state functional magnetic resonance images were captured. Children who were carriers of the high-risk genotype had higher resting-state connectivity between the amygdala and right posterior temporal gyrus. Connectivity alterations in a region of the brain involved in processing visual motion may influence how kids with ASD perceive socially meaningful information, the authors write.
  • Each child also submitted a saliva sample for DNA genotyping. Previously published research finds that a G to C single nucleotide polymorphism, a single swap in the nucleotides that make up DNA, in PAC1R is associated with higher risk for post traumatic stress disorder in girls. In this behavioral assessment, the research team found children with autism who carried the homozygous CC genotype had higher scores as measured through a validated tool, meaning they had greater social deficits than kids with the heterozygous genotype.

All told, the project is the fruit of six years of painstaking research and data collection, say the researchers. That includes banking patients’ saliva samples collected during clinical visits for future retrospective analyses to determine which genetic mutations were correlated with behavioral and functional brain deficits, Corbin adds.

Lauren Kenworthy, who directs our Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, and I have been talking over the years about how we could bring our programs together. We homed in on this project to look at about a dozen genes to assess correlations and brought in experts from genetics and genomics at Children’s National to sequence genes of interest,” he adds. “Linking the bench to bedside is especially difficult in neuroscience. It takes a huge amount of effort and dozens of discussions, and it’s very rare. It’s an exemplar of what we strive for.”

In addition to Corbin, study co-authors include Lead Author Meredith Goodrich and Maria Jesus Herrero, post-doctoral fellow, Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research; Anna Chelsea Armour and co-Senior Author Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., Children’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders; Karuna Panchapakesan, Joseph Devaney and Susan Knoblach, Ph.D., Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research; Xiaozhen You and Chandan J. Vaidya, Georgetown University; and Catherine A.W. Sullivan and Abha R. Gupta, Yale School of Medicine.

Financial support for the research described in this report was provided by DC-IDDRC under awards HD040677-07 and 1U54HD090257, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National, The Isidore and Bertha Gudelsky Family Foundation and the National Institutes of Health under awards MH083053-01A2 and MH084961.

pregnant woman holding eggs

How does diet during pregnancy impact allergies in offspring?

pregnant woman holding eggs

A small percentage of women said they consumed fewer allergens during pregnancy to stave off food allergies in their newborns, according to preliminary research Karen Robbins, M.D., presented during the American College of Asthma Allergy and Immunology 2018 Annual Scientific Meeting.

Pregnant women routinely swear off alcohol and tobacco to boost their chances of having a healthy baby. What about common food allergens like nuts and milk?

There are scant data that describe how often pregnant women deliberately stop eating a specific food item in order to prevent future food allergies in their newborns. As a first step toward addressing this data gap, a research team led by Karen Robbins, M.D., an allergist at Children’s National Health System, pored through a longitudinal study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 4,900 pregnant women completed the Infant Feeding Practices Study II prenatal questionnaire from May 2005 to June 2007. The study tracked 2,000 pregnant women from the third trimester of pregnancy and their infants through the first year of life. A small percentage of women said they had consumed fewer allergens during pregnancy to stave off food allergies in their newborns, according to a poster Dr. Robbins presented during the American College of Asthma Allergy and Immunology 2018 Annual Scientific Meeting. While their numbers were small, most of these women reported giving up major allergens like nuts, milk or eggs during pregnancy, including:

  • 144 (2.9 percent) reported restricting their diet in some way to prevent future food allergies in their offspring
  • 84 women (1.7 percent) ate fewer nuts
  • 15 women (.3 percent) ate fewer eggs and
  • 2 women (.04 percent) ate/drank consumed less dairy/milk.

“At the time the survey was conducted, few pregnant women in this large data set said they gave up certain foods with the express aim of avoiding a food allergy in their babies,” Dr. Robbins says. “However, mothers who had an older child with a food allergy or who had food allergies themselves had significantly higher odds of trying this food avoidance strategy.”

Despite the diet changes, infants born to these expectant mothers were twice as likely to experience problems with food at age 4 months – though not at age 9 months or 12 months. And these infants were no more likely to be diagnosed with a food allergy.

According to the FDA, millions of Americans suffer a food allergy each year. Reactions can range from mild to life-threatening and can begin soon after eating a problematic food item or an ingredient from that food. Among the most common allergenic foods are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

“We really need to know more about how often targeted food avoidance occurs among U.S. pregnant women who have a family history of food allergies,” Dr. Robbins adds. “We hope to learn what factors into these women’s decision-making as well as why many of them settled on food avoidance as a potential strategy to try to prevent food allergy in their infants.”

American College of Asthma Allergy and Immunology 2018 Annual Scientific Meeting presentation

  • “Prenatal food allergen avoidance practices for food allergy prevention.”

Karen Robbins M.D., lead author; Ashley Ramos Ph.D., co-author; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., co-author; Kate Balas BS, co-author; and Linda Herbert, Ph.D., director of Children’s Division of Allergy and Immunology’s psychosocial clinical program, and senior author.

Sarah Mulkey

MRI and ultrasound imaging detect the spectrum of Zika’s impact

Sarah Mulkey

“A combination of prenatal MRI and US was able to detect Zika-related brain abnormalities during pregnancy, giving families timely information to prepare for the potential complex care needs of these infants,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

Worldwide, thousands of babies have been born to mothers who were infected during pregnancy with Zika, a virus associated with neurological deficits, impaired vision and neurodevelopmental disabilities, among other birth defects. These birth defects are sometimes severe, causing lifelong disability. But they’re also relatively rare compared with the overall rates of infection.

Predicting how many Zika-exposed babies would experience neurological birth defects has been challenging.

However, an international study led by Children’s faculty suggests that ultrasound (US) imaging performed during pregnancy and after childbirth revealed most Zika-related brain abnormalities experienced by infants exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy, according to a prospective cohort study published online Nov. 26, 2018, in JAMA Pediatrics. Some Zika-exposed infants whose imaging had been normal during pregnancy had mild brain abnormalities detected by US and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) after they were born.

“A combination of prenatal MRI and US was able to detect Zika-related brain abnormalities during pregnancy, giving families timely information to prepare for the potential complex care needs of these infants,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Health System and the study’s lead author. “In our study, we detected mild brain abnormalities on postnatal neuroimaging for babies whose imaging was normal during pregnancy. Therefore, it is important for clinicians to continue to monitor brain development for Zika-exposed infants after birth.”

As of Nov. 20 2018, nearly 2,500 pregnant women in the U.S. had laboratory confirmed Zika infection, and about 2,400 of them had given birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While more than 100 U.S. infants were born with Zika-associated birth defects, the vast majority of Zika-exposed U.S. infants were apparently normal at birth. The sequential neuroimaging study Dr. Mulkey leads seeks to determine the spectrum of brain findings in infants exposed to Zika in the womb using both US and MRI before and after birth.

The international research team enrolled 82 women in the study from June 15, 2016, through June 27, 2017. All of the women had been exposed to Zika during pregnancy; all but one experienced clinical symptoms by a mean gestational age of 8.2 weeks. Eighty of those women lived in or near Barranquilla, Colombia, and were exposed to Zika there. Two U.S. study participants were exposed to the primarily mosquito-borne illness during travel to Zika hot zones.

All women received fetal MRIs and US during the second and/or third trimester of pregnancy. After their infants were born, the children received brain MRI and cranial US. Blood samples from both mothers and babies were tested for Zika using polymerase chain reaction and serology.

Fetal MRI was able to discern Zika-related brain damage as early as 18 weeks gestation and picked up significant fetal brain abnormalities not fully appreciated in US imaging. In one case, the US remained normal while fetal MRI alone detected brain abnormalities. Three fetuses (4 percent) had severe fetal brain abnormalities consistent with Zika infection, including:

Seventy-five infants were born at term. One pregnancy was terminated at 23 weeks gestation due to the gravity of the fetal brain abnormalities. One fetus with normal imaging died during pregnancy. One newborn who was born with significant fetal brain abnormalities died at age 3 days.

Cranial US and brain MRI was performed on the majority of infants whose prenatal imaging had been normal.  Seven of 53 (13 percent) Zika-exposed infants had mild brain abnormalities detected by MRI after birth. In contrast, postnatal cranial US was better at detecting changes of lenticulostriate vasculopathy, cysts within the brain’s choroid plexus (cells that produce cerebrospinal fluid), germinolytic/subependymal cysts and/or calcifications, which were seen in 21 of 57 (37 percent) infants.

“Sequential neuroimaging revealed that the majority of Zika-exposed fetuses had normal brain development. Tragically, in a small number of pregnancies, Zika-related brain abnormalities were quite severe,” Dr. Mulkey adds. “Our data support the CDC’s recommendation that cranial US be performed after Zika-exposed babies are born. In addition, there is clearly a need to follow these babies over time to gauge whether the brain anomalies we see in imaging affects language, motor and social skills.”

Companion editorial: Revealing the effects of Zika

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D.Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Margarita Arroyave-Wessel, MPH,  Stephanie Russo, B.S, Youssef A. Kousa, D.O, Ph.D.Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, Senior Author Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, all of Children’s National; Christopher Swisher, BS, Georgetown University and Caitlin Cristante, BS, Loyola University, both of  whose contributions included research performed at Children’s National; Yamil Fourzali, M.D., Armando Morales, M.D., both of Sabbag Radiologos; Liliana Encinales, M.D., Allied Research Society; Nelly Pacheco, Bacteriologa, Bio-Nep; Robert S. Lanciotti, Ph.D., Arbovirus Diseases Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Carlos Cure, M.D., BIOMELAB.

Research reported in this news release was supported by the IKARIA fund.

Natella Rakhamania

Natella Yurievna Rakhmanina named to regional HIV planning commission

Natella Rakhamania

Natella Yurievna Rakhmanina, M.D., Ph.D., FAAP, AAHIVS, director of Ryan White HIV Services at Children’s National Health System, was appointed a commissioner to the Washington, D.C., Regional Planning Commission on Health and HIV.

Dr. Rakhmanina will be among the District of Columbia board and commission appointees honored during a swearing-in ceremony on Sept. 17, 2018, at the Walter Washington Convention Center.

Looking back over the last decade, she says the District has made impressive progress in lowering the prevalence rate of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which in 2002 had 1,686 per 100,000 District residents diagnosed with AIDS.

“It was really high. I was stunned coming to clinic and seeing a large number of kids and adolescents in care and many suffering significant complications, as our treatment options were limited at the time,” she says.

Since that time, DC Health has made “incredible investments” and adopted innovative approaches, such as name-based reporting of HIV and a Red Carpet program, to ensure newly diagnosed people are quickly linked with care. As a proud partner of DC Health’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration, Children’s National launched a campaign in 2009 to universally test adolescents for HIV in two pediatric emergency departments (ED), she says.

“All teenagers aged 13 and older who arrive for any medical diagnosis are offered an oral HIV test. Children’s National ED-based HIV screening program alone has tested 30,000 children at both of our emergency departments,” she says. “We’re still not at our goal. However, the prevalence of HIV had dropped to 1.9 percent in the latest department of health analysis. We are doing better. We have much fewer people dying from AIDS. We are diagnosing earlier.”

What’s more, trends in mother-to-child transmission, a major route of transmission for pediatric HIV, also have improved in D.C.

“In 2006, our maternal HIV transmission rates were among the highest in the nation. But, in 2013, 2014 and 2015 there were zero cases. We have seen some setbacks recently, however.  In 2016, there were three perinatally acquired cases and four in 2017, but these cases came out of the larger Metropolitan D.C. area,” she explains. “Every perinatally transmitted case for us is a red star. We work very closely with the regional departments of health. We really want to get back to zero cases of maternal transmission in the region.”

The regional planning commission meets several times per year to decide how to distribute federal funding in Washington and the Metropolitan D.C. area to support HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care.

“My voice on the council is to make sure I speak up for services for mothers, children and adolescents,” Dr. Rakhmanina says. “The biggest challenge of HIV care remains treating children. There’s a good selection of medicines for adults, but not all are suited for kids. Young children in particular can’t be given one pill once a day. Really young children can’t swallow a pill. Using a liquid formulation, which kids prefer, may mean opening three different bottles twice daily and swallowing a liquid that often doesn’t taste good.”

Adolescents diagnosed with HIV also find medication adherence challenging, she says.

“At that age, they face a lot of challenges to self-acceptance and disease management, in part, because it’s not a physical disability. A young person with HIV may not feel anything,” she says. “They struggle with staying on daily medications. Many of them tell us they don’t want to think about HIV and face stigma.”

Another ongoing challenge is ensuring moms living with HIV remain on medicines after they’ve given birth.

“They’re tremendously committed to continuing treatment while pregnant: Treatment means their babies are born free of HIV,” she says. “That is a great success. Once the baby is born, many times the women bring their babies to be tested, but the woman’s own health becomes less of a priority. We see a drop in adherence once they have the baby.”

By serving on the commission, Dr. Rakhmanina aims to push to extend Children’s commitment to excellence beyond its walls.

Pregnant-Mom

Safeguarding fetal brain health in pregnancies complicated by CHD

Pregnant-Mom

During the last few weeks of pregnancy, certain regions of the fetal brain experience exponential growth but also are more vulnerable to injury during that high-growth period.

Yao Wu, Ph.D., a research postdoctoral fellow in the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System, has received a Thrasher Research Fund early career award to expand knowledge about regions of the fetal brain that are vulnerable to injury from congenital heart disease (CHD) during pregnancy.

CHD, the most common birth defect, can have lasting effects, including overall health issues; difficulty achieving milestones such as crawling, walking or running; and missed days at daycare or school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Brain injury is a major complication for infants born with CHD. Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of Children’s brain imaging lab, was the first to provide in vivo evidence that fetal brain growth and metabolism in the third trimester of pregnancy is impaired within the womb.

“It remains unclear which specific regions of the fetal brain are more vulnerable to these insults in utero,” Limperopoulos says. “We first need to identify early brain abnormalities attributed to CHD and understand their impact on infants’ later behavioral and cognitive development in order to better counsel parents and effectively intervene during the prenatal period to safeguard brain health.”

During the last few weeks of pregnancy, certain regions of the fetal brain experience exponential growth but also are more vulnerable to injury during that high-growth period. The grant, $26,749 over two years, will underwrite “Brain Development in Fetuses With Congenital Heart Disease,” research that enables Wu to utilize quantitative, non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare fetal brain development in pregnancies complicated by CHD with brain development in healthy fetuses of the same gestational age.Wu will leverage quantitative, in vivo 3-D volumetric MRI to compare overall fetal and neonatal brain growth as well as growth in key regions including cortical grey matter, white matter, deep grey matter, lateral ventricles, external cerebrospinal fluid, cerebellum, brain stem, amygdala and the hippocampus.

The research is an offshoot of a prospective study funded by the National Institutes of Health that uses advanced imaging techniques to record brain growth in 50 fetuses in pregnancies complicated by CHD who need open heart surgery and 50 healthy fetuses. MRI studies are conducted during the second trimester (24 to 28 weeks gestational age), third trimester (33 to 37 weeks gestational age) and shortly after birth but before surgery. In addition, fetal and neonatal MRI measurements will be correlated with validated scales that measure infants’ and toddlers’ overall development, behavior and social/emotional maturity.

“I am humbled to be selected for this prestigious award,” Wu says. “The findings from our ongoing work could be instrumental in identifying strategies for clinicians and care teams managing high-risk pregnancies to optimize fetal brain development and infants’ overall quality of life.”

Dr.-Jonas.-WSPCHS

Snapshot: The Sixth Scientific Meeting of the World Society for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Surgery

Dr.-Jonas.-WSPCHS

Dr. Richard Jonas shows surgical advancements using 3D heart models, which participants could bring back to their host institutions.

On July 22, 2018, more than 700 cardiac specialists met in Orlando, Fla. for the Sixth Scientific Meeting of the World Society for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Surgery (WSPCHS 2018).

The five-day conference hosted a mix of specialists, ranging from cardiothoracic surgeons, cardiologists and cardiac intensivists, to anesthesiologists, physician assistants and nurse practitioners, representing 49 countries and six continents.

To advance the vision of WSPCHS – that every child born with a congenital heart defect should have access to appropriate medical and surgical care – the conference was divided into eight tracks: cardiac surgery, cardiology, anesthesia, critical care, nursing, perfusion, administration and training.

Richard Jonas, M.D., outgoing president of WSPCHS and the division chief of cardiac surgery at Children’s National Health System, provided the outgoing presidential address, delivered the keynote lecture on Transposition of the Great Arteries (TGA) and guided a surgical skills lab with printed 3-D heart models.

Other speakers from Children’s National include:

  • Gil Wernovsky, M.D., a cardiac critical care specialist, presented on the complex physiology of TGA, as well as long-term consequences in survivors of neonatal heart surgery, including TGA and single ventricle.
  • Mary Donofrio, M.D., a cardiologist and director of the Fetal Heart Program, presented “Prenatal Diagnosis: Improving Accuracy and Planning Delivery for babies with TGA,” “Systemic Venous Abnormalities in the Fetus,” “Intervention for Fetal Lesions Causing High Output Heart Failure” and “Fetal Cardiac Care – Can We Improve Outcomes by Altering the Natural History of Disease?”
  • Gerard Martin, M.D., a cardiologist and medical director of global services, presented “Is the Arterial Switch as Good as We Thought It Would Be?” and “Impact, MAPIT, NCPQIC – How and Why We Should All Embrace Quality Metrics.”
  • Pranava Sinha, M.D., a cardiac surgeon, presented the abstract “Cryopreserved Valved Femoral Vein Homografts for Right Ventricular Outflow Tract Reconstruction in Infants.”

Participants left with knowledge about how to diagnose and treat complex congenital heart disease, and an understanding of the long-term consequences of surgical management into adulthood. In addition, they received training regarding standardized practice models, new strategies in telemedicine and collaborative, multi-institutional research.

“It was an amazing experience for me to bring my expertise to a conference which historically concentrated on surgical and interventional care and long-term follow-up,” says Dr. Donofrio. “The collaboration between the fetal and postnatal care teams including surgeons, interventionalists and intensive care doctors enables new strategies to be developed to care for babies with CHD before birth. Our hope is that by intervening when possible in utero and by planning for specialized care in the delivery room, we can improve outcomes for our most complex patients”.

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Florida Board of Nursing, American Academy of Nurse Practitioners National Certification Program, American Nurses Credentialing Center and the American Board of Cardiovascular Perfusion provided continuing medical credits for eligible providers.

“I was so proud to be a member of the Children’s National team at this international conference,” notes Dr. Wernovsky. “We had to the opportunity to share our experience in fetal cardiology, outpatient cardiology, cardiac critical care, cardiac nursing and cardiac surgery with a worldwide audience, including surgical trainees, senior cardiovascular surgeons and the rest of the team members necessary to optimally care for babies and children with complex CHD. In addition, members of the nursing staff shared their research about advancements in the field. It was quite a success – both for our team and for all of the participants.”

Graph showing magnesium reduces arrhythmia risk

Magnesium helps prevent postsurgical arrhythmias in pediatric patients

Graph showing magnesium reduces arrhythmia risk

Magnesium (Mg) helps reduce arrhythmias, irregular heart rhythms, in adults. It also helps alleviate the symptoms of postoperative atrial fibrillation, or AFib, which can lead to blood clots, stroke and heart failure. Can it help prevent postsurgical arrhythmias in pediatric patients with congenital heart disease?

New research from Children’s National Health System finds a 25- or 50-mg dose of Mg used during congenital heart surgery (CHS) helps prevent arrhythmias, especially junctional ectopic tachycardia (JET) and atrial tachycardia (AT), common arrhythmias following CHS, according to a study published in the August 2018 edition of The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers separated 1,871 CHS patients from Children’s National into three groups: a control group of 750 patients who had surgery without Mg, a group of 338 patients receiving a 25-mg /kg dose of Mg during surgery and a group of 783 patients receiving a 50-mg/kg dose of Mg during surgery. The data looked at CHS cases over eight years, from 2005 to 2013, to determine if Mg administration during surgery alleviates postoperative arrhythmias and if the amount, measured by a 25- or 50-mg/kg dose, makes a difference.

“This study, the first conducted in pediatric patients, finds administering magnesium during congenital heart surgery reduces the likelihood of postsurgical arrhythmias,” says Charles Berul, M.D., a study author and the chief of cardiology at Children’s National. “We don’t detect a dose-dependent relationship, which means a small or larger amount of magnesium is equally effective at preventing arrhythmias following surgery.”

The researchers found that up to one-third of CHS patients experience postoperative arrhythmias, with JET and AT accounting for more than two-thirds of arrhythmias following CHS. They note that despite the administration of Mg during surgery, there continues to be a high incidence of postoperative arrhythmias – affecting 18 percent or about one in five CHS patients.

“We hope this study guides future research to see if adding new or additional agents to magnesium eliminates, or further reduces, postoperative arrhythmias,” notes Dr. Berul. “For now, we’re happy to find an algorithm to put into practice and to share with other medical centers, as a way to help pediatric patients recover from congenital heart surgery—stronger, faster and with a reduced risk of complications.”

The researchers note that postoperative arrhythmias impact the recovery period of CHS, increase the duration of intubation and CICU stay and prolong hospital stay.

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.

An-Massaro

Keeping an eye on autonomic function for infants with HIE

An-Massaro

“By including heart rate variability measurements and other markers of autonomic function in our current predictive armamentarium,” says An Massaro, M.D., “we may be able to offer new hope for infants with HIE.”

In about two to three in every 1,000 full-term births, babies develop a neurological condition called hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) when their brains receive insufficient oxygen. HIE can be a devastating condition, leading to severe developmental or cognitive delays or motor impairments that become more evident as the child grows older. Despite improvements in care – including therapeutic hypothermia, a whole-body cooling method administered shortly after birth that can slow brain damage – about half of children with this condition die from neurological complications by age 2.

Finding ways to identify children with the most severe HIE could help researchers focus their efforts and provide even more intense neuroprotective care, explains An Massaro, M.D., a neonatologist at Children’s National Health System. But thus far, it’s been unclear which symptoms reflect the extent of HIE-induced brain damage.

That’s why Dr. Massaro and colleagues embarked on a study published in the May 2018 issue of Journal of Pediatrics. The team sought to determine whether dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – the auto-pilot part of the nervous system responsible for unconscious bodily functions, such as breathing and digestion – reflected in routine care events can be used as a marker for brain injury severity.

The researchers collected data from 25 infants who were treated for HIE with therapeutic hypothermia at Children’s National. Thanks to multi-modal monitoring, these babies’ medical records hold a treasure trove of information, explains Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., a staff scientist in Children’s Advanced Physiological Signals Processing Lab.

In addition to including continuous heart rate tracings and blood pressure readings that are standard for many infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), they also recorded cerebral near infrared spectroscopy, a monitor that measures brain tissue oxygen levels. The investigators performed detailed analyses to evaluate how these monitor readings change in response to a variety of routine care events, such as diaper changes, heel sticks, endotracheal tube manipulations and pupil examinations.

The researchers stratified these infants based on how dysfunctional their ANS behaved by using heart rate variability as a marker: The fewer natural fluctuations in heart rate, the more damaged their ANS was thought to be. And they also used non-invasive brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine brain damage. They then compared this information with the babies’ physiological responses during each care event.

Their findings show that infants with impaired ANS, based on depressed heart rate variability before the care event, had significantly different responses to these care events compared with babies with intact ANS.

  • For stimulating interventions, such as diaper changes and heel sticks, both heart rate and blood pressure increased in babies with intact ANS but decreased in babies with impaired ones.
  • Shining a light in their pupils led to an expected decreased heart rate with stable blood pressure in ANS-intact infants, but in ANS-impaired infants, there was no responsive change in heart rate and, additionally, a decrease in blood pressure was observed.
  • Responses were similar between the two groups during breathing tube manipulations, except for a slight increase in heart rate a few minutes later in the ANS-impaired group.

These results, Govindan explains, suggest that a real-time, continuous way to assess ANS function may offer insights into the expected physiological response for a given infant during routine NICU care.

“This is exactly the type of additional information that intensivists need to pinpoint infants who may benefit from additional neuroprotective support,” he says. “Right now, it is standard practice to monitor brain activity continuously using electroencephalogram and to check the status of the brain using MRI to assess the response to therapeutic cooling. Neither of these assessments can be readily used by neonatologists at the bedside in real-time to make clinical decisions.”

Assessing ANS function in real-time can help guide neuroprotective care in high-risk newborns by providing insight into the evolving nature of brain damage in these infants, Dr. Massaro adds.

Beyond simply serving as a biomarker into brain injury, poor ANS function also could contribute to the development of secondary injury in newborns with HIE by stymieing the normal changes in heart rate and blood pressure that help oxygenate and heal injured brains. The researchers found that the cumulative duration of autonomic impairment was significantly correlated with the severity of brain injury visible by MRI in this group of infants.

“By including heart rate variability measurements and other markers of autonomic function in our current predictive armamentarium,” says Dr. Massaro, “we may be able to offer new hope for infants with HIE.”

In addition to Dr. Massaro, the Senior Author, study co-authors include Lead Author, Heather Campbell, M.D.; Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., Children’s Advanced Physiological Signals Processing Lab; Srinivas Kota, Ph.D.; Tareq Al-Shargabi, M.S.; Marina Metzler, B.S.; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Children’s neonatalogist; Taeun Chang, M.D., Children’s neonatal and fetal neurologist; L. Gilbert Vezina, M.D., attending in Children’s Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology; and Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., chief of Children’s Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine.

This research was supported by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National under awards UL1TR000075 and 1KL2RR031987-01 and the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Consortium within the National Institutes of Health under award P30HD040677.

Laura Sanapo

Children’s fetal medicine fellow named ‘Outstanding graduate student’

Laura Sanapo

Laura Sanapo, M.D., M.S.H.S., told the graduating class that two guiding themes defined her experience as a GW student: diversity and momentum.

Laura Sanapo, M.D., M.S.H.S., a fetal medicine fellow at Children’s Fetal Medicine Institute, was named “Outstanding graduate student” at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences (GWSMHS) and was among two student speakers to address fellow graduates during the ceremony held May 19, 2018.

Dr. Sanapo was selected from a competitive field of top-tier graduate students from an array of academic programs, says Samar A. Nasser, Ph.D., M.P.H., PA-C, director of Clinical and Translational Research and Clinical Health Sciences at GWSMHS, who nominated her for the award. “She is one of the brightest students I have encountered. Because of her exceptional background, I recruited Dr. Sanapo to become an adjunct professor in our Clinical and Translational Research program and I look forward to co-teaching a course with her this fall.”

“I am extremely humbled and honored by this recognition for my ongoing research,” Dr. Sanapo says. “It is a privilege to join the GW faculty and contribute to the growth of an outstanding academic team and diverse group of students. I feel energized by such a collegial and dynamic environment.”

She told the graduating class that two guiding themes defined her experience as a GW student: diversity and momentum. Diversity, she told the group “means the spark that generates new ideas and growth” and momentum is the feeling of being “propelled forward by being part of a university that feels like a lively workshop of ideas.”

Prior to joining Children’s National Health System in 2014, Dr. Sanapo served with distinction at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Thomas Jefferson University School of Medicine, conducting original research and frequently publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

Under the mentorship of Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., chief of Children’s Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine, Dr. Sanapo investigated the role of advanced ultrasound techniques in assessing fetal vasoreactivity in pregnancies complicated by such conditions as intrauterine growth restriction, Dr. Nasser wrote in the nomination letter. In that study, the research team is trying to better understand how a healthy fetus controls blood flow throughout the body, including to the lungs and brain.

In addition to evaluating and counseling in high-risk pregnancies complicated by complex fetal malformations, Dr. Sanapo performed research and clinical ultrasounds daily. What’s more, Dr. Sanapo often scheduled appointments after-hours for patients unable to complete ultrasounds during normal business hours and was an integral part of the team that counseled women through difficult pregnancies.

“‘These women are especially vulnerable and they deserve 100 percent of my time, knowledge, energy and empathy,’  ” Dr. Nasser recalls Dr. Sanapo explaining. “Laura often goes above and beyond her responsibilities as a fellow to assist these women in need.”

Dr. du Plessis notes that Dr. Sanapo has been a valued clinical leader at Children’s Fetal Medicine Institute, shepherding a multidisciplinary team that includes genetic counselors, specialists in maternal-fetal medicine, radiologists, pediatric neurologists and nurses.

“When Children’s National and Inova announced a three-year, $2.8 million research and education collaboration in maternal, fetal and neonatal medicine last January, Laura’s contributions were pivotal in ensuring the research collaboration’s early success,” Dr. du Plessis adds.

Anna Penn

Protecting the fetal brain from harm

Anna Penn

Ongoing placental dysfunction and allopregnanolone loss, not the increase that was expected due to stress, may alter cortical development in complicated pregnancies and put babies at risk, says Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D.

Researchers long have known that allopregnanolone (ALLO), a derivative of the hormone progesterone, is produced in adults’ brains during times of acute stress and modulates how easily the brain’s neurons fire. ALLO also is produced in the placenta during fetal development, one of more than 200 different hormones that each uniquely contribute to fostering a smooth pregnancy and maintaining a fetus’ overall health. Although ALLO is thought to protect the developing brain in pregnancies complicated by conditions that might harm it, such as high blood pressure, how its levels evolve during pregnancy and in newborns shortly after birth has remained unknown.

Now, a new study presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) 2018 annual meeting suggests that the placenta ramps up ALLO production over the second trimester, peaking just as fetuses approach full term.

To investigate this phenomenon, Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist/neuroscientist at Children’s National Health System, and colleagues created a designer experimental model to study how premature loss of ALLO alters orderly brain development. Knowing more about the interplay between ALLO and normal development of the cortex, the outer layer of the cerebrum, is a first step that could lead to strategies to rescue this vital brain region.

“The cortex is basically the brain’s command-and-control center for higher functions. In our experimental model, it develops from the middle of gestation through to the end of gestation. If ALLO levels are disrupted just as these cells are being born, neurons migrating to the cortex are altered and the developing neural network is compromised,” says Dr. Penn, senior author of the research presented at PAS 2018. “We’re concerned this same phenomenon occurs in human infants whose preterm birth disrupts their supply of this essential hormone.”

To better understand the human placental hormone pattern, the research team analyzed cord blood or serum samples collected within the first 36 hours of life for 61 preterm newborns born between 24 to 36 gestational weeks. They compared those preemie samples with samples drawn from 61 newborns carried to term who were matched by race, gender, size for gestational age, delivery method and maternal demographics.

They used liquid-chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry, a technique that can precisely analyze trace levels of compounds, to compare levels of 27 different steroids, including ALLO and its precursors as well as better-known adrenal gland hormones, such as cortisol and 17-Hydroxyprogesterone.

“Pregnancies complicated by hypertension tended to correlate with lower ALLO levels, though this finding did not reach statistical significance. This suggests that ongoing placental dysfunction and ALLO loss, not the increase that we expected to be caused by stress, may alter cortical development in these pregnancies and put babies at risk,” Dr. Penn adds. “In addition, having the largest neonatal sample set to date in which multiple steroid hormones have been measured can provide insight into the shifting hormone patterns that occur around 36 weeks gestation, just prior to term. Hopefully, restoring the normal hormonal milieu for preemies or other at-risk newborns will improve neurological outcomes in the future.”

In addition to Dr. Penn, study co-authors include Caitlin Drumm, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital; Sameer Desale, MedStar Health Research Institute; and Kathi Huddleston, Benjamin Solomon and John Niederhuber, Inova Translational Medicine Institute.