Gastroenterology and GI Surgery

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Cardiovascular and GI symptom relief

Photo of patient walking through the hallways

By adding antroduodenal manometry to the cardiovascular tilt table test, doctors in the GI Motility Program are able to collaborate with cardiologists to treat both cardiovascular and gastroenterological symptoms in children with complex orthostatic intolerance.

Physicians treating pediatric patients with complex orthostatic intolerance issues often face a double whammy – the children exhibit symptoms of their cardiovascular condition, but secondary issues relating to gastrointestinal functions are also common. That’s why cardiologists and gastroenterologists at Children’s National Health System have collaborated in recent years to diagnose and find comprehensive treatment solutions for patients with conditions such as neurally mediated hypotension (NMH) and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).

Their innovative team approach was highlighted in a study of their first 35 patients from age 10-23, published in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition last fall – patients who experienced relief for multiple symptoms thanks to treatment at Children’s National.

The collaboration is possible because of the advancements in gastroenterological diagnostics here – specifically related to the comprehensive GI Motility testing. While patients with POTS can exhibit an abnormal heart rate, low blood pressure, headaches, fatigue or weight loss, their gastroenterological symptoms like nausea and constipation are often under recognized, says Children’s Director of the Comprehensive GI Motility Program Anil Darbari, M.D., MBA, who co-authored the study with a team including Jeffrey Moak, M.D., Director of the Electrophysiology Program at Children’s.

Through antroduodenal manometry of the stomach and upper small intestine, in combination with the cardiovascular tilt table test, the team has been able to more accurately diagnose and treat these patients.

“We have the ability to do them together, thereby making the connection between these two conditions and providing a path for management or treatment,” Dr. Darbari said.

Typically, by the time he sees these patients, those with complex medical issues have often seen several other gastroenterologists at multiple centers, and have been through a lot. The study found that overall, antroduodenal manometry was abnormal in 26 of 35 (74%) patients either at baseline or during tilt table testing in subjects with orthostatic intolerance. Darbari and his colleagues concluded that upper GI motility studies should always be part of the comprehensive evaluation for this population of patients, because treating the autonomic condition improved their gastroenterological symptoms as well.

What does the future look like for this double-whammy approach?

“We have a cohort of over 100 patients with these issues who have been evaluated using this combined diagnostic approach,” Dr. Darbari said. “This gives the team the knowledge and opportunity to help even more kids, which is very rewarding.”

In addition to comprehensive assessment and medical approaches, Children’s National is home to leaders in minimally invasive laparoscopic and endoscopic diagnostic and corrective procedures that have enabled Children’s GI motility specialists and the teams they collaborate with to offer the next level of comprehensive pediatric medical care.

Drug dosing guidelines poor fit for obese patients

Children’s National researchers are among the top teams examining how obesity alters pharmacokinetics and the effect of body mass index on drug dosing and treatment outcomes specifically for pediatric and adolescent patients.

Obesity affects about 12.7 million U.S. children and adolescents – or about 1 in 6 kids across the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite this, there is a significant dearth of dosing guidelines for practitioners, for example pediatric anesthesiologists, to follow when administering potent anesthetics to pediatric patients who are obese.

Janelle D. Vaughns, M.D., director of bariatric anesthesia within the Division of Anesthesiology, Pain and Perioperative Medicine, says Children’s National Health System sees pediatric and adolescent patients of extreme weight (as much as 450 pounds) presenting for weight-loss surgery. In order to ensure that patients remain anesthetized during their surgical procedures, anesthesiologists use various classes of drugs, including hypnotics, muscle relaxants and pain medications. Dr. Vaughns says providers across the nation face similar challenges when determining accurate and precise dosing of drugs for obese pediatric patients.

“Medical guidelines calibrated for a 13-year-old of typical weight cannot be applied to a 13-year-old who weighs 400 pounds. Because morbid obesity in kids is a relatively new phenomenon in our country and globally, there are no formal guidelines to aid with dosing. In this scenario, most doctors extrapolate from guidelines written for lean patients. Because anesthetic drugs are so strong, it is essential to use the correct dose in all patients,” she says.

A recent brief report that Dr. Vaughns co-authored examines this issue. Researchers at Children’s National and the Washington Hospital Center conducted a retrospective review for 440 adult patients who received rapid sequence endotracheal intubation (RSI) in an urban, tertiary care academic Emergency Department. The patients received succinylcholine (a muscle relaxant) and etomidate (a short-acting anesthetic), whose doses are ideally calculated in milligrams per kilogram of total body weight.

The work, published in the December 2016 issue of American Journal of Emergency Medicine, reinforced the importance of data-driven guidelines for all patients. The research team found that the 129 obese patients included in the study were more likely to receive too little of the studied drugs while the 311 non-obese patients studied were more likely to receive too much medicine.

“Our single-center study demonstrates that obesity is a significant risk factor for underdosing RSI medications, whereas non-obesity is a risk factor for overdosing of these medications,” the research team concludes. This study also was reviewed and featured by the New England Journal of Medicine “Journal Watch” in October 2016.

Broadly, the issue of dosing potent medicines for pediatric obese patients is a national public health concern, Dr. Vaughns says. Research teams across the nation have made a concerted effort to publish papers on topics such as how obesity alters pharmacokinetics – how the body takes up, distributes and disposes of powerful medicines – and the deleterious effect of unhealthy body mass index on treatment outcomes for children with diseases such as acute myeloid leukemia.

Dr. Vaughns is among the clinician researchers working with the Pediatric Trials Network (PTN), sponsored by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, to fill this research gap. Working as a team, she, Evan Nadler, M.D., a bariatric surgeon, and Johannes N. van den Anker, M.D., Ph.D., division chief of Clinical Pharmacology, enroll pediatric patients in ongoing trials with a special focus on surgical patients who are obese.

The network is currently conducting pediatric studies at a number of locations, including Children’s National, leveraging blood samples and other specimens drawn during regular care to better understand how medicines routinely used in pediatric patients actually work in kids and to determine appropriate dosing.

Ultimately, the information PTN researchers discover from their multi-year studies will help the Food and Drug Administration update medicine labels to reflect safer, more accurate and more effective dosing for all pediatric patients.

Children’s National gastroenterologist honored with Excellence of Healthcare Award

Benny Kerzner, M.D., gastroenterologist and creator of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at Children’s National Health System, received the Excellence of Healthcare award from the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America (CFFA) – Greater Washington, D.C. and Virginia Chapters during the organization’s Evening of Hope Gala on November 17, 2016. The award is presented to a medical professional who has positively impacted patient lives and furthered the mission of the CCFA to cure Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis and to improve the quality of life of children and adults affected by these diseases. Learn more here.

Minimally invasive surgery brings lasting relief to pediatric achalasia patients

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Achalasia affects only a small number of people around the world, estimated at 1.6 per 100,000, and children make up fewer than 5 percent of that total. In most cases, the causes are unknown, but it is attributed to a combination of heredity and autoimmune or nerve cell disorders. For adults, treatment might include oral medication to prevent narrowing, balloon dilation, or botulinum toxin injections to relax the muscle at the end of the esophagus. For a growing child, who faces not just months but a lifetime of injections and potential repeat procedures, these methods aren’t viable. Instead, surgical correction is the standard of care. In the past 10 years, the surgical option evolved from a traditional open procedure with weeks of recovery and pain to less-invasive approaches.

“The total number of children with achalasia is small,” says Timothy D. Kane, M.D., Division Chief of General and Thoracic Surgery at Children’s National Health System. “But Children’s National treats more of these cases than most other children’s hospitals around the world, and that gives us the ability to look at a larger population and see what works.”

Dr. Kane is senior author of a study recently published in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery that analyzed the outcomes from nearly a decade’s worth of these cases to gauge the effectiveness of two different minimally invasive surgical approaches for children with achalasia.

A look at the two surgical options

The most common surgical intervention is laparoscopic Heller myotomy, performed through small incisions in the belly. Additionally, Dr. Kane and the Children’s surgical team are one of only two teams in the country who perform a different procedure called peroral endoscopic myotomy (POEM) on children. The POEM procedure is completed entirely through the mouth using an endoscope, with no additional incision needed. The procedure is commonly used for adult achalasia cases, but is not widely available for children elsewhere as it requires specialized training and practice to perform.

“Heller myotomy works very well for most kids — that’s why it’s the standard of care,” Dr. Kane says. “Our study found that patients who underwent the POEM procedure experienced the same successful outcomes as Heller patients, and we already knew from adult data that POEM patients reported less pain following surgery — a win-win for children.”

The retrospective study included all children who had undergone surgical treatment for achalasia at Children’s from 2006 to 2015. Since achalasia cases are few and far between, with most children’s hospitals seeing maybe one to five cases over 10 years, collecting reliable data on outcomes is challenging. This study provides a large enough sample to allow doctors to use the findings as a guide to find the interventions that are the best fit for each patient.

“Now we’re very comfortable presenting families with two really good options and letting them choose the one that works best for them,” he concludes.

Imagine the feeling of food stuck in your throat. For children with esophageal achalasia, that feeling is a constant truth: The muscles in the esophagus fail to function properly and the lower valve, or sphincter, of the esophagus controlling the flow of food into the stomach doesn’t relax enough to allow in food — causing a backup, heartburn, chest pain, and many other painful symptoms. For children, surgery is the best hope for permanent relief.

Unbelievable survivability rates for short bowel patients

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When other doctors ask Clarivet Torres, M.D., how she is getting the best survivability rates for patients with Short Bowel Syndrome (SBS), she says her success is because of teamwork.

The Intestinal Rehabilitation Program (IRP) at Children’s National, started in 2007 when Dr. Torres joined the health system and became the program’s director, has shown 98 percent survivability for patients with SBS over a period of nine years. That’s compared with a recent study from the Pediatric Intestinal failure consortium (Predictors of Enteral Autonomy in Children’s with Intestinal Failure: a Multicenter Cohort Study), which showed that 43 percent of the patients died or underwent transplantation over a median follow-up of 33.5 months.

Intestinal failure often prevents these patients from digesting enough nutrients and fluids to maintain proper growth, and they often require parenteral nutrition (PN). Dr. Torres’ team has helped to wean 91.3 percent of patients from PN, compared with the above study, which showed that enteral autonomy was achieved in 43 percent.

Based on the outcomes for the first 120 children with SBS treated in Children’s National’s IRP from 2007 to 2016, Dr. Torres says that with meticulous and aggressive medical/surgical management, even patients with advanced liver disease can show improvement in liver functions and nutritional parameters with the ability to discontinue parenteral nutrition and avoid the need for transplantation.

“These are very, very good results for any program and ours has been growing substantially in the last 10 years,” Dr. Torres says. “We are like a family, we are very good at teaching so everyone knows how to care for these patients.”

Cross-departmental collaboration

Her main focus as director has been spreading the word about SBS across the departments. For example, the ER knows to start IV fluids on these patients right away or to keep watch for sepsis symptoms. From nurses, pediatric residents, and surgeons to radiologists and the ER, Dr. Torres has encouraged the sharing of knowledge and teaching how to respond to SBS patients.

Dr. Torres also attributes the success of the Children’s National’s program to having a multidisciplinary intestinal rehabilitation team who are trained to follow up with these highly complex patients with SBS.  “In general, these patients have a very high morbidity-mortality rate, and it’s important to be close to follow up.”

Members of  the IRP includes, a dedicated surgeon, Anthony Sandler, M.D., and four supporting GI doctors (Parvathi Mohan, M.D., Vahe Badalyan, M.D., Sona Sehgal, M.D., and Muhammad Khan, M.D.).

Other important members are one physician assistant, two nurse practitioners, two coordinators, one dietitian, one social worker, one case manager, and devoted nurses who work in the specialized Intestinal Rehabilitation Unit.

Having a dedicated director and surgeon also is a new perspective. Focusing on this group of patients allows Drs. Torres and Sandler to become experts in the medical and surgical management of the patients with short bowel and intestinal failure.

A closer look inside the program

The goal of the IRP is to optimize bowel function through the use of multiple therapies and to eventually wean patients with intestinal failure from parenteral nutrition. The medical treatment focuses on comprehensive dietary management with very precise control of metabolic balance and prompt and effective treatment of complications.

Pro-adaptive surgery, such as stoma closure, ostomy in continuity, stricturoplasty, enteroplasty, and autologous gut reconstruction, with the longitudinal intestinal lengthening and tailoring (LILT) and serial transverse enteroplasty (STEP) procedures, may produce dramatic clinical improvement in patients with SBS.

The use of specialized enteral feeding programs by the experience medical team helps to maintain nutrition and hydration, which are important factors in long-term survival. Other important components of the program are ongoing parent education and support, and promoting an optimal quality of life. Intestinal transplantation with MedStar Georgetown University Hospital is an option for patients who fail treatment.

“The Intestinal Rehabilitation at Children’s National provides children with intestinal failure the chance to receive comprehensive medical and surgical care, giving them the chance for improved long-term survival, including weaning from parenteral nutrition and avoidance of the need for transplantation and long-term immunosuppression,” Dr. Torres says.