illustration of the amygdaloid body

Research reveals physiological sex differences in medial amygdala neurons

illustration of the amygdaloid body

The medial amygdala (MeA) is a region of the brain that modulates innate social and non-social behaviors in several mammals, including humans.

The medial amygdala (MeA) is a region of the brain that modulates innate social and non-social behaviors in several mammals, including humans. Notedly sexually dimorphic, MeA neurons exhibit well-documented sex differences in anatomy, morphology and molecular characteristics. Recently, a pioneer study published in eNeuro from the Children’s National Hospital Center for Neuroscience Research has unveiled new information regarding physiological sex differences in MeA neurons, which, until now, has remained a missing piece in understanding how the MeA codes differently in males and females.

Previous research from Children’s National has shown that two subpopulations of MeA inhibitory output neurons descended from Dbx1 and Foxp2 transcription factors display different responses to innate olfactory cues and in a sex-specific manner. The newest study examines whether these transcription factor defined neurons also possess sex-specific biophysical signatures. The scientists posit that understanding how sex and lineage impact upstream differences at the neuronal level can help illuminate how the MeA processes information and codes for sex-specific behavioral differences.

Using whole-cell patch clamp recording and stepwise current injection, the researchers were able to analyze the intrinsic electrophysiological profiles of the two subclasses of MeA neurons in males and females in a pre-clinical model. Data revealed that the spike frequency of Dbx1-lineage and Foxp2-lineage neurons differed by lineage, sex and stimulus strength. Dbx1-lineage neurons in females discharged more spikes than those in males during high-amplitude current injection, while Foxp2-lineage neurons in females discharged more spikes than those in males during low-amplitude current injection. Across lineage, researchers observed that Dbx1-lineage neurons discharged more spikes than Foxp2-lineage neurons in females, but only at the highest amplitude stimulus, while Dbx1-lineage neurons spiked more than Foxp2-lineage neurons in males during low rather than high-amplitude current injection.

Different spiking patterns are generally indicative of different intrinsic cell properties. However, this study found that the intrinsic properties of the cell – such as membrane potential, resistance, and rheobase – were the same at rest across sex and lineage. The only significant difference was found in capacitance, an electrical measurement that roughly corresponds with cell size. Additionally, the study found that spike frequency adaptation correlated with neuronal lineage and sex, with males having a higher adaptation factor than females and Foxp2-lineage neurons displaying a higher adaptation factor than Dbx1-lineage neurons. In tandem, these results indicated that changes in the intrinsic properties were taking place during stimulation.

The researchers then used waveform phase-plots to visualize phases of the different action potentials and contrived an innovative new method of analyzing these quantitatively instead of solely qualitatively. This allowed them to know that broadly, ion channels that work with repolarization are likely different, and prompted them to focus on the family of ion channels that are known to modify the repolarization phase. From 62 candidate ion channels, the researchers chose 10 to investigate. Experiments ultimately revealed that only one ion channel was found to exhibit statistically significant sex differences in the Foxp2 population. This result indicated that molecular expression of these ion channels are likely driving differences in the physiology of the cells which may be the basis of behavioral expression. Future research topics include how and when sex hormones shape MeA neuronal firing properties and how this relates to network function.

“This is a small piece of contribution to the overall understanding of how the brain as a biological machine codes for different outputs,” says first author Heidi Y. Matos, Ph.D.

By showing sex differences in neural function, this research represents progress in understanding the biological underpinnings of a host of developmental disorders, particularly those diagnosed in different proportions between males and females. Autism spectrum disorders, for example, often have symptoms that manifest through social interaction, and understanding these disorders requires a better understanding of normal MeA physiology.

“In order to get to the why, we have to get to the how of that circuit,” says Dr. Matos.

Just as the brain harnesses the collective power of a diverse range of neurons, the Center for Neuroscience harnesses the aggregate talent of a diverse group of neuroscientists to produce innovative work. This study in particular champions diversity in the sciences, with more than half of the authors coming from underrepresented minorities, including Dr. Matos.

“I think this work is a shining example of the tremendous contributions that are made by neuroscientists from all backgrounds,” says principal investigator Joshua G. Corbin, Ph.D.

“Sex Differences in Biophysical Signatures across Molecularly Defined Medial Amygdala Neuronal Subpopulations” was published in eNeuro. Additional authors include David Hernandez-Pineda, Claire M. Charpentier, Allison Rusk and Kevin S. Jones, Ph.D.

Youssef Kousa

Dr. Youssef Kousa awarded Pediatric Epilepsy Research Grant

zika virus

The Child Neurology Foundation has awarded Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., the 2020 Pediatric Epilepsy Research Foundation Shields Research Grant. The funds will support his work on identifying genetic risk factors in congenital Zika syndrome.

The Child Neurology Foundation has awarded Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., physician-scientist within the Division of Neurology at Children’s National Hospital, and founder and director of the Zika Genetics Consortium, the 2020 Pediatric Epilepsy Research Foundation Shields Research Grant. The funds will support his work on identifying genetic risk factors in congenital Zika syndrome.

This prestigious grant provides $100,000 of research funding to help identify treatments and cures for pediatric neurologic diseases. It will allow Dr. Kousa to test the hypothesis that rare genetic variants in individuals contributed to being affected with congenital Zika syndrome and the severity of the phenotype for those who were affected.

“Despite decades of research, identifying those at greatest risk of congenital infection or being severely affected remains an elusive goal,” says Dr. Kousa. “This research is important because identifying genetic risk or protective factors for developmental brain malformations can help teach us how the brain develops.”

Youssef Kousa

In 2015, Dr. Kousa established the Zika Genetic Consortium to investigate whether maternal and fetal genetic factors can modify the risk of brain injury from congenital infections.

Dr. Kousa adds that this work will provide key insights into maternal and fetal genetic factors that can contribute to brain malformations. The hope is that these insights may one day translate into targeted prevention efforts.

“Dr. Kousa’s project is very creative and has a fantastic opportunity to look at factors of Zika on brain development,” says William D. Gaillard, M.D., division chief of both Epilepsy and Neurophysiology, and Neurology at Children’s National. “This is a very competitive award. It’s a tremendous achievement that few accomplish.”

Children’s National is the leading site for this international research study.

In 2015, Dr. Kousa established the Zika Genetic Consortium to investigate whether maternal and fetal genetic factors can modify the risk of brain injury from congenital infections. Dr. Kousa is the principal investigator of the consortium, which includes 19 co-investigators representing 13 different institutions.

The consortium is bringing together cohorts of 12,000 mother-infant participants retrospectively and prospectively. These cohorts come from 15 international health centers in seven countries in collaboration with partners at the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This support gives us the opportunity to test our hypothesis,” says Dr. Kousa. “We also hope what we continue to learn about Zika can play a role in helping us understand other congenital infections and neurodevelopment diseases.”

The science-policy interface

We can do better: Lessons learned on COVID-19 data sharing can inform future outbreak preparedness

Since COVID-19 emerged late last year, there’s been an enormous amount of research produced on this novel coronavirus disease. But the content publicly available for this data and the format in which it’s presented lack consistency across different countries’ national public health institutes, greatly limiting its usefulness, Children’s National Hospital scientists report in a new study. Their findings and suggestions, published online August 19 in Science & Diplomacy, could eventually help countries optimize their COVID-19-related data — and data for future outbreaks of other diseases — to help further new research, clinical decisions and policy-making around the world.

Recently, explains study senior author Emmanuèle Délot, Ph.D., research faculty at Children’s National Research Institute, she and her colleagues sought data on sex differences between COVID-19 patients around the world for a new study. However, she says, when they checked the information available about different countries, they found a startling lack of consistency, not only for sex-disaggregated data, but also for any type of clinical or demographic information.

“The prospects of finding the same types of formats that would allow us to aggregate information, or even the same types of information across different sites, was pretty dismal,” says Dr. Délot.

To determine how deep this problem ran, she and colleagues at Children’s National, including Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., the James A. Clark Distinguished Professor of Molecular Genetics and the director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National, and Jonathan LoTempio, a doctoral candidate in a joint program with Children’s National and George Washington University, surveyed and analyzed the data on COVID-19.

The research spanned data reported by public health agencies from highly COVID-19 burdened countries, viral genome sequence data sharing efforts, and data presented in publications and preprints.

PubMed entries with coronavirus

Publications with the term “coronavirus” archived in PubMed over time.

At the time of study, the 15 countries with the highest COVID-19 burden at the time included the US, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Iran, China, Russia, Brazil, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Together, these countries represented more than 75% of the reported global cases. The research team combed through COVID-19 data presented on each country’s public health institute website, looking first at the dashboards many provided for a quick glimpse into key data, then did a deeper dive into other data on this disease presented in other ways.

The data content they found, says LoTempio, was extremely heterogenous. For example, while most countries kept running totals on confirmed cases and deaths, the availability of other types of data — such as the number of tests run, clinical aspects of the disease such as comorbidities, symptoms, or admission to intensive care, or demographic information on patients, such as age or sex — differed widely among countries.

Similarly, the format in which data was presented lacked any consistency among these institutes. Among the 15 countries, data was presented in plain text, HTML or PDF. Eleven offered an interactive web-based data dashboard, and seven had comma-separated data available for download. These formats aren’t compatible with each other, LoTempio explains, and there was little to no documentation about where the data that supplies some formats — such as continually updated web-based dashboards — was archived.

The science-policy interface

Graphic representation of the science-policy interface.

Dr. Vilain says that a robust system is already in place to allow uniform sharing of data on flu genomes — the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) — which has been readily adapted for the virus that causes COVID-19 and has already helped advance some types of research. However, he says, countries need to work together to develop a similar system for harmonized sharing other types of data for COVID-19. The study authors recommend that COVID-19 data should be shared among countries using a standardized format and standardized content, informed by the success of GISAID and under the backing of the WHO.

In addition, the authors say, the explosion of research on COVID-19 should be curated by experts who can wade through the thousands of papers published on this disease since the pandemic began to identify research of merit and help merge clinical and basic science.

“Identifying the most useful science and sharing it in a way that’s usable to most researchers, clinicians and policymakers, will not only help us emerge from COVID-19 but could help us prepare for the next pandemic,” Dr. Vilain says.

Other researchers who contributed to this study include D’Andre Spencer, MPH, Rebecca Yarvitz, BA, and Arthur Delot-Vilain.

mother measuring sick child's temperature

Connections between Kawasaki disease and MIS-C

mother measuring sick child's temperature

A new review article enumerates some key similarities and differences between MIS-C and Kawasaki disease.

Since May 2020, there has been some attention in the general public and the news media to a specific constellation of symptoms seen in children with COVID-19 or who have been exposed to COVID-19. For a time, headlines even called it a “Kawasaki-like” disease. At first glance, both the symptoms and the effective treatments are remarkably similar. However, a new review published in Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine finds that under closer scrutiny, the two conditions have some interesting differences as well.

“At the beginning of this journey, we thought we might be missing actual cases of Kawasaki disease because we identified a few patients who presented late and developed coronary artery abnormalities,” says Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., senior author of the review article, “Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children: Is there a linkage to Kawasaki disease?” and a cardiologist at Children’s National Hospital. “But as time passed, children exposed to COVID-19 started to present with a particular constellation of symptoms that actually had some important similarities and distinctions from Kawasaki.”

Similarities between Kawasaki disease and MIS-C

Both disease patterns seem to have a common trigger that provokes the inflammatory cascade reaction in genetically susceptible children, the authors write. However, there is also early evidence that children with each disease have different genetic markers, meaning different populations are genetically susceptible to each disease.

Additionally, the authors found that the massive activation of pro-inflammatory cytokines seen in MIS-C, also known as a “cytokine storm,” overlaps with a similar occurrence seen in Kawasaki disease, adult COVID-19 patients, toxic shock syndrome and some other viral infections.

Primary differences between Kawasaki disease and MIS-C

Overall, when compared to Kawasaki disease, children with MIS-C tend to:

  • Present at an older age
  • Have a more profound form of inflammation
  • Have more gastrointestinal manifestation
  • Show different laboratory findings
  • Have greater risk of left ventricle dysfunction and shock

Further study of both Kawasaki and MIS-C needed

Despite noted differences, the authors are also careful to credit the documented similarities between Kawasaki disease and MIS-C as a key to the quick identification of the new syndrome in children. The study of Kawasaki disease also gave clinicians a valid basis to begin developing diagnostic recommendations and treatment protocols.

The review’s first author Yue-Hin Loke, M.D., who is also a cardiologist at Children’s National, says, “The quick recognition of MIS-C is only possible because of meticulous research conducted by Dr. Tomisaku Kawasaki, who recently passed away on June 5th, 2020. Even though some aspects of both are still shrouded in mystery, the previous research and clinical advancements made in Kawasaki disease set the stage for our immediate response to MIS-C.”

“Previous research provided key information for cardiologists facing this new syndrome, including the necessity of routine echocardiograms to watch for coronary artery abnormalities (CAAs) and for use of  intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) to mitigate  the development of CAAs,” says Charles Berul, M.D., chief of Cardiology at Children’s National and a co-author. “Both of these factors have played a key role in reducing the mortality of MIS-C to almost zero.”

The authors note that more research is needed to understand both Kawasaki disease and the specifics of MIS-C, but that what is learned about the mechanisms of one can and should inform study and treatment of the other. And in the meantime, caution and continued surveillance of these patients, especially with respect to coronary artery and myocardial function, will continue to improve the long-term outcomes for both syndromes.

US News Badges

Children’s National ranked a top 10 children’s hospital and No. 1 in newborn care nationally by U.S. News

US News Badges

Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., was ranked No. 7 nationally in the U.S. News & World Report 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals annual rankings. This marks the fourth straight year Children’s National has made the list, which ranks the top 10 children’s hospitals nationwide.

In addition, its neonatology program, which provides newborn intensive care, ranked No.1 among all children’s hospitals for the fourth year in a row.

For the tenth straight year, Children’s National also ranked in all 10 specialty services, with seven specialties ranked in the top 10.

“Our number one goal is to provide the best care possible to children. Being recognized by U.S. News as one of the best hospitals reflects the strength that comes from putting children and their families first, and we are truly honored,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National Hospital.

“This year, the news is especially meaningful, because our teams — like those at hospitals across the country — faced enormous challenges and worked heroically through a global pandemic to deliver excellent care.”

“Even in the midst of a pandemic, children have healthcare needs ranging from routine vaccinations to life-saving surgery and chemotherapy,” said Ben Harder, managing editor and chief of Health Analysis at U.S. News. “The Best Children’s Hospitals rankings are designed to help parents find quality medical care for a sick child and inform families’ conversations with pediatricians.”

The annual rankings are the most comprehensive source of quality-related information on U.S. pediatric hospitals. The rankings recognize the nation’s top 50 pediatric hospitals based on a scoring system developed by U.S. News. The top 10 scorers are awarded a distinction called the Honor Roll.

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

Below are links to the seven Children’s National specialty services that U.S. News ranked in the top 10 nationally:

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

child using inhaler

The search for new Cystic Fibrosis clinical biomarkers

child using inhaler

Physician-scientists from Children’s National Hospital are unlocking new insights into Cystic Fibrosis by studying the type and number of bacteria in the lungs.

Cystic Fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disorder that chiefly affects the lungs and results in the production of abnormally dehydrated, viscous mucus. The inability to adequately clear this mucus leads to bacterial retention and both intermittent and chronic lung infections which require antibiotic therapy to treat. Researchers have used 16S rDNA amplicon sequencing for years in the attempts to characterize the airway microbiomes of CF patients, and more recently have used shotgun whole genome sequencing (WGS) techniques to obtain further details regarding bacterial species and strains. Previous studies on the airway microbiomes of CF patients have revealed that inter-person variability is high and can sometimes exceed intra-person variability. This can preclude generalizations regarding the CF population as a whole, which includes more than 30,000 Americans.

A recently published case study examined a young child with advanced and severely aggressive CF over a 12-month period, during which five pulmonary exacerbations occurred. A total of 14 sputum samples were collected across three clinical periods- baseline, exacerbation, and treatment. Samples were subsequently genetically sequenced (via 16s rDNA sequencing and, in three instances, WGS) and volatile metabolites were analyzed. The researchers hypothesized that if signature microbiome and metabolome characteristics correlated with one other and could be identified for each disease state, this data could serve as conglomerate biomarkers for the continuum of CF clinical states within an individual. In turn, this could inform future study design in a larger cohort.

Across all sputum samples, 109 individual operational taxonomic units (OTUs) and 466 distinct volatile metabolites were identified. 16s rDNA sequencing and WGS revealed that Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus were the predominant bacteria during most baseline and exacerbation samples, despite some significant fluctuations in relative abundances. After the patient’s fifth antibacterial course, however, Achromobacter xylosoxidans became the new dominant bacterium.

Analysis revealed that the phylum Bacteroidetes and the genus Stenotrophomonas were significantly more abundant in treatment periods compared to baseline and exacerbation periods. WGS revealed the presence of bacteriophages as well as antibiotic resistance genes (mostly due to multi-drug resistance mechanisms), which can have important clinical ramifications and adds some dimensionality to the genetic analysis.

Volatile metabolite analysis found that observable fluctuations in metabolome composition coincided with fluctuations in the sputum microbiome. In this case, the microbiome and volatile metabolites produced by these bacteria provided an accurate assessment of the child’s clinical state. More specifically, the authors saw a distinct shift in both the microbiome and volatile metabolites with antibiotic treatment across the five independent pulmonary exacerbations. These additional assessments of the bacteria within the CF airway could provide an additional technique beyond standard bacterial cultures to better understand how the patient is responding to antibiotic treatment. Future studies in a larger group of children with CF may provide further insights into bacteria and volatile metabolite combinations that predict pulmonary exacerbation.

The article, “Longitudinal Associations of the Cystic Fibrosis Airway Microbiome and Volatile Metabolites: A Case Study,” was published in Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology. The lead author is Andrea Hahn, M.D., M.S., an investigator at the Children’s National Research Institute. Notable authors include Iman Sami, M.D., pulmonologist at Children’s National; Anastassios C. Koumbourlis, M.D., M.P.H, director of the Cystic Fibrosis Center; and Robert J. Freishtat, M.D., M.P.H, senior investigator at the Center for Genetic Medicine Research.

Vittorio Gallo and Mark Batshaw

Children’s National Research Institute releases annual report

Vittorio Gallo and Marc Batshaw

Children’s National Research Institute directors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., and Mark Batshaw, M.D.

The Children’s National Research Institute recently released its 2019-2020 academic annual report, titled 150 Years Stronger Through Discovery and Care to mark the hospital’s 150th birthday. Not only does the annual report give an overview of the institute’s research and education efforts, but it also gives a peek in to how the institute has mobilized to address the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our inaugural research program in 1947 began with a budget of less than $10,000 for the study of polio — a pressing health problem for Washington’s children at the time and a pandemic that many of us remember from our own childhoods,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., chief research officer at Children’s National Hospital and scientific director at Children’s National Research Institute. “Today, our research portfolio has grown to more than $75 million, and our 314 research faculty and their staff are dedicated to finding answers to many of the health challenges in childhood.”

Highlights from the Children’s National Research Institute annual report

  • In 2018, Children’s National began construction of its new Research & Innovation Campus (CNRIC) on 12 acres of land transferred by the U.S. Army as part of the decommissioning of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus. In 2020, construction on the CNRIC will be complete, and in 2012, the Children’s National Research Institute will begin to transition to the campus.
  • In late 2019, a team of scientists led by Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to collect samples from 60 individuals that will form the basis of a new reference genome data set. The researchers hope their project will generate better reference genome data for diverse populations, starting with those of Central African descent.
  • A gift of $5.7 million received by the Center for Translational Research’s director, Lisa Guay-Woodford, M.D., will reinforce close collaboration between research and clinical care to improve the care and treatment of children with polycystic kidney disease and other inherited renal disorders.
  • The Center for Neuroscience Research’s integration into the infrastructure of Children’s National Hospital has created a unique set of opportunities for scientists and clinicians to work together on pressing problems in children’s health.
  • Children’s National and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are tackling pediatric research across three main areas of mutual interest: primary immune deficiencies, food allergies and post-Lyme disease syndrome. Their shared goal is to conduct clinical and translational research that improves what we know about those conditions and how we care for children who have them.
  • An immunotherapy trial has allowed a little boy to be a kid again. In the two years since he received cellular immunotherapy, Matthew has shown no signs of a returning tumor — the longest span of time he’s been tumor-free since age 3.
  • In the past 6 years, the 104 device projects that came through the National Capital Consortium for Pediatric Device Innovation accelerator program raised $148,680,256 in follow-on funding.
  • Even though he’s watched more than 500 aspiring physicians pass through the Children’s National pediatric residency program, program director Dewesh Agrawal, M.D., still gets teary at every graduation.

Understanding and treating the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

In a short period of time, Children’s National Research Institute has mobilized its scientists to address COVID-19, focusing on understanding the virus and advancing solutions to ameliorate the impact today and for future generations. Children’s National Research Institute Director Mark Batshaw, M.D., highlighted some of these efforts in the annual report:

  • Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, is looking at whether or not the microbiome of bacteria in the human nasal tract acts as a defensive shield against COVID-19.
  • Catherine Bollard, M.D., MBChB, director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, and her team are seeing if they can “train” T cells to attack the invading coronavirus.
  • Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., an investigator in the Center for Neuroscience Research and the Fetal Medicine Institute, is studying the effects of, and possible interventions for, coronavirus on the developing brain.

You can view the entire Children’s National Research Institute academic annual report online.

Newborn baby laying in crib

How a baby with classic galactosemia was nearly missed: When the test succeeds but system fails

Newborn baby laying in crib

Run at the state-level, mandatory newborn screening (NBS) programs detect a host of hereditary disorders so that infants can be treated before further damage, or even death, occurs.

Newborn screening (NBS) programs are critical to public health. Run at the state-level, mandatory NBS programs detect a host of hereditary disorders so that infants can be treated before further damage, or even death, occurs.

While much attention is paid to testing technology, programs must still meet basic minimum requirements to reliably identify and treat all affected individuals including minimum reporting requirements, case surveillance and a dedicated short-term follow-up program. In newborn screening, success is systematic.

A new report “How a baby with classic galactosemia was nearly missed: When the test succeeds but system fails,” published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, takes a look at an individual case that almost slipped through the cracks of a local NBS program.

One disorder detected by NBS is classic galactosemia (CG), which arises from a deficiency in the galactose-1-phosphate uridyltransferase (GALT) enzyme, leaving infants unable to metabolize galactose-1-phosophate, a monosaccharide abundantly present in milk. CG can result in fatal liver failure, sepsis and coagulopathy if the affected infant is not switched to soy-based formula within the first week of life.

CG can be detected through a combination of enzyme assay, DNA analysis and galactose quantification. However, NBS programs differ in testing protocols for CG by state, and not all NBS programs conduct all of these tests. This is of particular relevance to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, a regional nexus where crossing state and district lines for medical care is common.

The report describes how a D.C.-born infant was screened for CG through all three tests. While his galactose levels were normal, his GALT was low and DNA testing revealed homozygosity for a CG mutation known as K285N. In tandem, the latter two indicators constitute a true positive result for CG, and necessitate the proper issuance of referrals, precautions and follow-up, which failed to occur in this case.

The infant breastfed and displayed notable lethargy, and parents were directed to a local emergency department in a neighboring state which does not screen for CG with DNA testing.

The providers there were unfamiliar with the DNA results, and after new labs came back normal, the NBS results were deemed as “likely falsely positive” for CG. Fortunately, a provider at the community hospital forwarded the NBS results to the Children’s National Rare Disease Institute (CNRDI). Upon review, CNRDI metabolic specialists immediately sought to rectify the situation by reaching out to the family with proper instructions and arranging a clinical evaluation, which occurred 10 days after birth.

While this case had a fortunate ending, the report highlights the potential deficiencies in NBS programs, which have historically been among America’s most successful public health initiatives. The proper and timely functioning of NBS systems is contingent upon the functioning of its constituent parts, including testing, diagnosis, follow-up, management and stakeholder education.

While test results were accurate in this case, systemic shortcomings left a patient in danger. As the authors state, “Programs must keep in mind that the true success of newborn screening extends beyond just the test itself…to improve safety and care outcomes we must focus on the system.”

A clinical report by a team of authors, mainly comprised of Children’s National clinicians, was published earlier this month in the American Journal of Medical Genetics. Authors include Sarah Viall, PPCNP, MSN, a pediatric nurse practitioner in the Rare Disease Institute; Nicholas Ah Mew, M.D., director of the Inherited Metabolic Disorders Program; and Beth A. Tarini, M.D., M.S., associate director of the Center for Translational Research.

Vittorio Gallo

Special issue of “Neurochemical Research” honors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Vittorio Gallo

Investigators from around the world penned manuscripts that were assembled in a special issue of “Neurochemical Research” that honors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., for his leadership in the field of neural development and regeneration.

At a pivotal moment early in his career, Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., was accepted to work with Professor Giulio Levi at the Institute for Cell Biology in Rome, a position that leveraged courses Gallo had taken in neurobiology and neurochemistry, and allowed him to work in the top research institute in Italy directed by the Nobel laureate, Professor Rita Levi-Montalcini.

For four years as a student and later as Levi’s collaborator, Gallo focused on amino acid neurotransmitters in the brain and mechanisms of glutamate and GABA release from nerve terminals. Those early years cemented a research focus on glutamate neurotransmission that would lead to a number of pivotal publications and research collaborations that have spanned decades.

Now, investigators from around the world who have worked most closely with Gallo penned tributes in the form of manuscripts that were assembled in a special issue of “Neurochemical Research” that honors Gallo “for his contributions to our understanding of glutamatergic and GABAergic transmission during brain development and to his leadership in the field of neural development and regeneration,” writes guest editor Arne Schousboe, of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Dr. Gallo as a grad student

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D. as a 21-year-old mustachioed graduate student.

“In spite of news headlines about competition in research and many of the negative things we hear about the research world, this shows that research is also able to create a community around us,” says Gallo, chief research officer at Children’s National Hospital and scientific director for the Children’s National Research Institute.

As just one example, he first met Schousboe 44 years ago when Gallo was a 21-year-old mustachioed graduate student.

“Research can really create a sense of community that we carry on from the time we are in training, nurture as we meet our colleagues at periodic conferences, and continue up to the present. Creating community is bi-directional: influencing people and being influenced by people. People were willing to contribute these 17 articles because they value me,” Gallo says. “This is a lot of work for the editor and the people who prepared papers for this special issue.”

In addition to Gallo publishing more than 140 peer-reviewed papers, 30 review articles and book chapters, Schousboe notes a number of Gallo’s accomplishments, including:

  • He helped to develop the cerebellar granule cell cultures as a model system to study how electrical activity and voltage-dependent calcium channels modulate granule neuron development and glutamate release.
  • He developed a biochemical/neuropharmacological assay to monitor the effects of GABA receptor modulators on the activity of GABA chloride channels in living neurons.
  • He and Maria Usowicz used patch-clamp recording and single channel analysis to demonstrate for the first time that astrocytes express glutamate-activated channels that display functional properties similar to neuronal counterparts.
  • He characterized one of the spliced isoforms of the AMPA receptor subunit gene Gria4 and demonstrated that this isoform was highly expressed in the cerebellum.
  • He and his Children’s National colleagues demonstrated that glutamate and GABA regulate oligodendrocyte progenitor cell proliferation and differentiation.
Purkinje cells

Purkinje cells are large neurons located in the cerebellum that are elaborately branched like interlocking tree limbs and represent the only source of output for the entire cerebellar cortex.

Even the image selected to grace the special issue’s cover continues the theme of continuity and leaving behind a legacy. That image of Purkinje cells was created by a young scientist who works in Gallo’s lab, Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D. Gallo began his career working on the cerebellum – a region of the brain important for motor control – and now studies with a team of scientists and clinician-scientists Purkinje cells’ role in locomotor adaptive behavior and how that is disrupted after neonatal brain injury.

“These cells are the main players in cerebellar circuitry,” Gallo says. “It’s a meaningful image because goes back to my roots as a graduate student and is also an image that someone produced in my lab early in his career. It’s very meaningful to me that Aaron agreed to provide this image for the cover of the special issue.”

bacterial extracellular vesicle

Once overlooked cellular messengers could combat antibiotic resistance

bacterial extracellular vesicle

Children’s National Hospital researchers for the first time have isolated bacterial extracellular vesicles from the blood of healthy donors. The team theorizes that the solar eclipse lookalikes contain important signaling proteins and chromatin, DNA from the human host.

Children’s National Hospital researchers for the first time have isolated bacterial extracellular vesicles from the blood of healthy donors, a critical step to better understanding the way gut bacteria communicate with the rest of the body via the bloodstream.

For decades, researchers considered circulating bacterial extracellular vesicles as bothersome flotsam to be jettisoned as they sought to tease out how bacteria that reside in the gut whisper messages to the brain.

There is a growing appreciation that extracellular vesicles – particles that cells naturally release – actually facilitate intracellular communication.

“In the past, we thought they were garbage or noise,” says Robert J. Freishtat, M.D., MPH, associate director, Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National Research Institute. “It turns out what we throw away is not trash.”

Kylie Krohmaly, a graduate student in Dr. Freishtat’s laboratory, has isolated from blood, extracellular vesicles from Escherichia coli and Haemophilus influenzae, common bacteria that colonize the gut, and validated the results via electron microscopy.

“The images are interesting because they look like they have a bit of a halo around them or penumbra,” Krohmaly says.

The team theorizes that the solar eclipse lookalikes contain important signaling proteins and chromatin, DNA from the human host.

“It’s the first time anyone has pulled them out of blood. Detecting them is one thing. Pulling them out is a critical step to understanding the language the microbiome uses as it speaks with its human host,” Dr. Freishtat adds.

Krohmaly’s technique is so promising that the Children’s National team filed a provisional patent.

The Children’s research team has devised a way to gum up the cellular works so that bacteria no longer become antibiotic resistant. Targeted bacteria retain the ability to make antibiotic-resistance RNA, but like a relay runner dropping rather than passing a baton, the bacteria are thwarted from advancing beyond that step. And, because that gene is turned off, the bacteria are newly sensitive to antibiotics – instead of resistant bacteria multiplying like clockwork these bacteria get killed.

“Our plan is to hijack this process in order to turn off antibiotic-resistance genes in bacteria,” Dr. Freishtat says. “Ultimately, if a child who has an ear infection can no longer take amoxicillin, the antibiotic would be given in tandem with the bacteria-derived booster to turn off bacteria’s ability to become antibiotic resistant. This one-two punch could become a novel way of addressing the antibiotic resistance process.”

ISEV2020 Annual Meeting presentation
(Timing may be subject to change due to COVID-19 safety precautions)
Oral with poster session 3: Neurological & ID
Saturday May 23, 2020, 5 p.m. to 5:05 p.m. (ET)
“Detection of bacterial extracellular vesicles in blood from healthy volunteers”
Kylie Krohmaly, lead author; Claire Hoptay, co-author; Andrea Hahn, M.D., MS, infectious disease specialist and co-author; Robert J. Freishtat, M.D., MPH, associate director, Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National Research Institute and senior author.

Dr. Lauri Tosi examines a patient

Building patient-centered outcomes research in osteogenesis imperfecta

Dr. Lauri Tosi examines a patient

Children’s orthpaedic surgeon Laura Tosi, M.D., is the co-lead on a program to improve patient-centered outcomes research and education in osteogenesis imperfecta that recently received a Eugene Washington Engagement Award of $250,000 from the Patient-Centered Outcomes and Research Institute (PCORI).

Children’s orthpaedic surgeon Laura Tosi, M.D., is the co-lead on a program to improve patient-centered outcomes research and education in osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) that recently received a Eugene Washington Engagement Award of $250,000 from the Patient-Centered Outcomes and Research Institute (PCORI). Dr. Tosi serves as project co-lead alongside colleagues Tracy Hart, project lead, from the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation (OIF) and Bryce Reeve, Ph.D., co-project lead, director of the Center for Health Measurement at Duke University.

The project, which will be housed at the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation, will run for two years and seeks to:

  • Create a community of stakeholders (patients/caregivers/clinicians/researchers) who are trained or training in patient-centered outcomes research, with specific attention to priority topics identified by the OI community.
  • Expand communications and education strategies related to patient-centered outcomes research to enhance the care of the OI community.
  • Establish and extend the capacity among patients, caregivers, clinicians and researchers in OI to participate in both patient-centered outcomes research and comparative effectiveness activities.
  • Develop an OI-specific toolkit focused on disseminating evidence-based clinical care recommendations to stakeholders and care providers, based on sustainable input from the OI community.
  • Extended the reach of these activities to support other rate bone disease communities.

Osteogenesis imperfecta is a group of genetic disorders causing connective tissue dysfunction and bone fragility. It is the most common of nearly 450 rare skeletal disorders and affects an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 people in the U.S. Collecting the patient’s perspective about natural history, clinical best practices, quality of life and research priorities is challenging because, like so many rare diseases, the affected population is relatively small and  geographically dispersed.

“We hope this project will give us the ability to develop a set of best practices for care and research based on research that incorporates the patient’s point-of-view,” says Dr. Tosi. “I’m excited to work with this team and begin to change how we think about and care for OI patients and their families.”

Andrew Dauber

Andrew Dauber, M.D., MMSc, caps off research success with award and reception

Andrew Dauber

Unfortunately, we’ve been notified that the ENDO2020 conference has been canceled due to concerns of COVID-19. Because of this, we will not be hosting our reception in honor of Andrew Duaber, M.D., on Sunday, March 29.

We hope to see you at a future Endocrinology or Pediatric Endocrinology event.

Children’s National Hospital is incredibly proud of the work Dr. Dauber has done in the endocinology community.

Andrew Dauber, M.D., MMSc, division chief of Endocrinology at Children’s National Hospital, will be awarded the 2020 Richard E. Weitzman Outstanding Early Career Investigator Award at ENDO 2020. The prestigious award will be presented at the annual meeting of the Endocrine Society in recognition of Dauber’s work in understanding the regulation of growth and puberty, and applying innovative genetic technologies to studying pediatric endocrinology. Dauber credits many collaborators throughout the world, as well as the team at Children’s National for the award.

With a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dauber and colleagues from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Boston Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are using electronic health records to identify children who likely have rare genetic growth disorders. Using cutting-edge DNA sequencing technologies, including whole exome sequencing, the researchers are aiming to identify novel genetic causes of severe growth disorders. The first paper describing genetic findings in patients with high IGF-1 levels was published in Hormone Research in Paediatrics in December 2019.

Dauber and researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center are exploring how to treat patients with mutations in the PAPPA2 gene. In 2016, the group described the first patients with mutations in this gene who had decreased the bioavailability of IGF-1, stunting their growth and development. In their current phase of research, findings are emphasizing the importance of this gene in regulating IGF-1 bioavailability throughout childhood. The ultimate aim is to create therapies to increase IGF-1 bioavailability, thereby supporting healthy growth and development in children. Their first study to track PAPPA2 and intact IBGBP-3 concentrations throughout childhood was published in the European Journal of Endocrinology in January 2020.

Dauber is particularly interested in studying children with dominantly inherited forms of short stature. Along with collaborators in Cincinnati, he currently has an ongoing treatment trial using growth hormone in patients with Aggrecan gene mutations.  Dauber hopes to announce soon a new clinical trial for children with all forms of dominantly inherited short stature.

Study upon study has shown us that there are many factors that affect an individual’s height and growth. As these studies and the conversation around how to identify and address genomic anomalies become more prevalent, the team at Children’s National is increasingly interested in engaging with other centers around the country. In the coming months, the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus will open on the grounds of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which will serve as a one-of-a-kind pediatric research and innovation hub. A critical component to this campus is the co-location of Children’s National research with key partners and incubator space.

Nadia Merchant

Working to improve the management of endocrine related conditions

Nadia Merchant

This past fall, Nadia Merchant, M.D., joined Children’s National Hospital as an endocrinologist in the Endocrinology and Diabetes Department. Dr. Merchant received her undergraduate and medical education at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. She completed her pediatric residency at Wright State Boonshoft School of Medicine. She then completed her genetics residency and pediatric endocrine fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Merchant was born with acromesomelic dysplasia, a rare genetic disorder, but that hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her medical career. While at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Merchant was very active in quality improvement projects, research and organizations that raise awareness of endocrine related conditions. For several years, she was a moderator at Baylor College of Medicine for “From Stress to Strength,” at a course for parents of children with genetic disorders and autism. Dr. Merchant also served as an endocrine fellow representative on the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Endocrinology (SOEn) for the last two years and also served on the committee for a Bone and Mineral special interest group within the Pediatric Endocrine Society (PES). During medical school, she worked with Positive Exposure, an organization that uses visual arts to celebrate human diversity for individuals living with genetic, physical, behavioral and intellectual differences.

During the 2019 Endocrine Society Annual Meeting, Dr. Merchant won the Presidential Poster Award for her poster presentation: Assessing Metacarpal Cortical Thickness as a Tool to Evaluate Bone Density Compared to DXA in Osteogenesis Imperfecta a research project assessing whether hand film is an additional tool to detect low bone mineral density in children.

Dr. Nadia Merchant is currently one of the endocrinologists in the multidisciplinary bone health clinic at Children’s National, a clinic dedicated to addressing and improving bone health in children. Dr. Merchant also manages endocrine manifestations in children with rare genetic disorders.

The Endocrinology department at Children’s National is ranked among the best in the nation by “U.S. News & World Report”.

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Making healthcare innovation for children a priority

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

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

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

Research & Innovation Campus

Children’s National welcomes Virginia Tech to its new campus

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

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

Research & Innovation Campus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t-cells

Tailored T-cell therapies neutralize viruses that threaten kids with PID

t-cells

Tailored T-cells specially designed to combat a half dozen viruses are safe and may be effective in preventing and treating multiple viral infections, according to research led by Children’s National Hospital faculty.

Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D., director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National and the study’s senior author, presented the teams’ findings Nov. 8, 2019, during a second-annual symposium jointly held by Children’s National and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Children’s National and NIAID formed a research partnership in 2017 to develop and conduct collaborative clinical research studies focused on young children with allergic, immunologic, infectious and inflammatory diseases. Each year, they co-host a symposium to exchange their latest research findings.

According to the NIH, more than 200 forms of primary immune deficiency diseases impact about 500,000 people in the U.S. These rare, genetic diseases so impair the person’s immune system that they experience repeated and sometimes rare infections that can be life threatening. After a hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, brand new stem cells can rebuild the person’s missing or impaired immune system. However, during the window in which the immune system rebuilds, patients can be vulnerable to a host of viral infections.

Because viral infections can be controlled by T-cells, the body’s infection-fighting white blood cells, the Children’s National first-in-humans Phase 1 dose escalation trial aimed to determine the safety of T-cells with antiviral activity against a half dozen opportunistic viruses: adenovirus, BK virus, cytomegalovirus (CMV), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), Human Herpesvirus 6 and human parainfluenza-3 (HPIV3).

Eight patients received the hexa-valent, virus-specific T-cells after their stem cell transplants:

  • Three patients were treated for active CMV, and the T-cells resolved their viremia.
  • Two patients treated for active BK virus had complete symptom resolution, while one had hemorrhagic cystitis resolved but had fluctuating viral loads in their blood and urine.
  • Of two patients treated prophylactically, one developed EBV viremia that was treated with rituximab.

Two additional patients received the T-cell treatments under expanded access for emergency treatment, one for disseminated adenoviremia and the other for HPIV3 pneumonia. While these critically ill patients had partial clinical improvement, they were being treated with steroids which may have dampened their antiviral responses.

“These preliminary results show that hexaviral-specific, virus-specific T-cells are safe and may be effective in preventing and treating multiple viral infections,” says Michael Keller, M.D., a pediatric immunologist at Children’s National and the lead study author. “Of note, enzyme-linked immune absorbent spot assays showed evidence of antiviral T-cell activity by three months post infusion in three of four patients who could be evaluated and expansion was detectable in two patients.”

In addition to Drs. Bollard and Keller, additional study authors include Katherine Harris M.D.; Patrick J. Hanley Ph.D., assistant research professor in the Center for Cancer and Immunology; Allistair Abraham, M.D., a blood and marrow transplantation specialist; Blachy J. Dávila Saldaña, M.D., Division of Blood and Marrow Transplantation; Nan Zhang Ph.D.; Gelina Sani BS; Haili Lang MS; Richard Childs M.D.; and Richard Jones M.D.

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Children’s National-NIAID 2019 symposium presentations

“Welcome and introduction”
H. Clifford Lane, M.D., director of NIAID’s Division of Clinical Research

“Lessons and benefits from collaboration between the NIH and a free-standing children’s hospital”
Marshall L. Summar, M.D., director, Rare Disease Institute, Children’s National

“The hereditary disorders of PropionylCoA and Cobalamin Metabolism – past, present and future”
Charles P. Venditti, M.D., Ph.D., National Human Genome Research Institute Collaboration

“The road(s) to genetic precision therapeutics in pediatric neuromuscular disease: opportunities and challenges”
Carsten G. Bönnemann, M.D., National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

“Genomic diagnostics in immunologic diseases”
Helen Su, M.D., Ph.D., National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

“Update on outcomes of gene therapy clinical trials for X-SCID and X-CGD and plans for future trials”
Harry Malech, M.D., National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

“Virus-specific T-cell therapies: broadening applicability for PID patients”
Catherine Bollard, M.D., Children’s National 

“Using genetic testing to guide therapeutic decisions in Primary Immune Deficiency Disease”
Vanessa Bundy, M.D., Ph.D., Children’s National 

Panel discussion moderated by Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D.
Drs. Su, Malech, Bollard and Bundy
Morgan Similuk, S.C.M., NIAID
Maren Chamorro, Parent Advocate

“Underlying mechanisms of pediatric food allergy: focus on B cells
Adora Lin, M.D., Ph.D., Children’s National 

“Pediatric Lyme outcomes study – interim update”
Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, Children’s National 

“Molecular drivers and opportunities in neuroimmune conditions of pediatric onset”
Elizabeth Wells, M.D., Children’s National 

###

Also read: Johan’s story
View: Safeguarding Johan’s future

kidneys with cysts on them

$6M gift powers new PKD clinical and research activities

kidneys with cysts on them

PKD is a genetic disorder characterized by clusters of fluid-filled sacs (cysts) multiplying and interfering with the kidneys’ ability to filter waste from the blood.

When Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D., McGehee Joyce Professor of Pediatrics at Children’s National Hospital, considers a brand-new gift, she likens it to 6 million gallons of “rocket fuel” that will power new research to better understand polycystic kidney disease.

Dr. Guay-Woodford received a $5.7 million dollar gift to support PKD clinical and research activities. PKD is a genetic disorder characterized by clusters of fluid-filled sacs (cysts) multiplying and interfering with the kidneys’ ability to filter waste from the blood. The kidneys’ smooth surface transforms to a bumpy texture as the essential organs grow oversized and riddled with cysts.

The extraordinary generosity got its start in an ordinary clinical visit.

Dr. Guay-Woodford saw a young patient in her clinic at Children’s National a few times in 2015. The child’s diagnosis sparked a voyage of discovery for the patient’s extended family and, ultimately, they attended a presentation she gave during a regional meeting about PKD. That led to a telephone conversation and in-person meeting as they invited her to describe “the white space” between what was being done at the time to better understand PKD and what could be done.

“It’s the power of the art and science of medicine. They come to see people like me because of the science. If we can convey to patients and families that who they are and their unique concerns are really important to researchers, that becomes a powerful connection,” she says. “The art plus the science equals hope. That is what these families are looking for: We give people the latest insights about their disease because information is power.”

The infusion of new funding will strengthen the global initiative’s four pillars:

  • Coordinated care for children and families impacted by renal cystic disease. The Inherited and Polycystic Kidney Disease (IPKD) program, launched September 2019, includes a cadre of experts working together as a team in the medical home so that “in a single, one-stop visit, Children’s National can address the myriad concerns they have,” she explains. A multi-disciplinary team that includes nephrologists, hepatologists and endocrinology experts meets weekly to ensure the Center of Excellence provides the highest-caliber patient care. The team includes genetic counselors to empower families with knowledge about genetic risks and testing opportunities. A nurse helps families navigate the maze of who to call about which issue. Psychologists help to ease anxiety. “There is stress. There is fear. There is pain that can be associated with this set of diseases. The good news is we can control their medical issues. The bad news is some children have difficulty coping. Our psychologists help children cope so they can be a child and do the normal things that children do,” she says.
  • Strengthening global databases to capture PKD variations. The team will expand its outreach to other centers located around the world – including Australia, Europe, India and Latin America – caring for patients with both the recessive and dominant forms of polycystic kidney disease, to better understand the variety of ways the disease can manifest in children. We really don’t know a lot about kids with the dominant form of the disease. How hard should we push to control their blood pressure, knowing that could ease symptoms? What are the ramifications of experiencing acute pain compared with chronic pain? How much do these pain flareups interfere with daily life and a child’s sense of self,” she asks. Capturing the nuances of the worldwide experience offers the power of harnessing even more data. And ensuring that teams collect data in a consistent way means each group would have the potential to extract the most useful information from database queries.
  • Filling a ‘desperate need’ for biomarkers. Developing clinical trials for new therapies requires having biomarkers that indicate the disease course. Such biomarkers have been instrumental in personalizing care for patients with other chronic conditions. “We are in desperate need for such biomarkers, and this new funding will underwrite pilot studies to identify and validate these disease markers. The first bite at the apple will leverage our imaging data to identify promising biomarkers,” she says.
  • Genetic mechanisms that trigger kidney disease. About 500,000 people in the U.S. have PKD. In many cases, children inherit a genetic mutation but, often, their genetic mutation develops spontaneously. Dr. Guay-Woodford’s research about the mechanisms that make certain inherited renal disorders lethal, such as autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease, is recognized around the world. The fourth pillar of the new project provides funding to continue her lab’s research efforts to improve the mechanistic understanding of what triggers PKD.
mitochondria

Molecular gatekeepers that regulate calcium ions key to muscle function

mitochondria

Controlled entry of calcium ions into the mitochondria, the cell’s energy powerhouses, makes the difference between whether muscles grow strong or easily tire and perish from injury, according to research published in Cell Reports.

Calcium ions are essential to how muscles work effectively, playing a starring role in how and when muscles contract, tap energy stores to keep working and self-repair damage. Not only are calcium ions vital for the repair of injured muscle fibers, their controlled entry into the mitochondria, the cell’s energy powerhouses, spells the difference between whether muscles will be healthy or if they will easily tire and perish following an injury, according to research published Oct. 29, 2019, in Cell Reports.

“Lack of the protein mitochondrial calcium uptake1 (MICU1) lowers the activation threshold for calcium uptake mediated by the mitochondrial calcium uniporter in both, muscle fibers from an experimental model and fibroblast of  a patient lacking MICU1,” says Jyoti K. Jaiswal, MSc, Ph.D., a principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National Hospital and one of the paper’s corresponding authors. “Missing MICU1 also tips the calcium ion balance in the mitochondria when muscles contract or are injured, leading to more pronounced muscle weakness and myofiber death.”

Five years ago, patients with a very rare disease linked to mutations in the mitochondrial gene MICU1 were described to suffer from a neuromuscular disease with signs of muscle weakness and damage that could not be fully explained.

To determine what was going awry, the multi-institutional research team used a comprehensive approach that included fibroblasts donated by a patient lacking MICU1 and an experimental model whose MICU1 gene was deleted in the muscles.

Loss of MICU1 in skeletal muscle fibers leads to less contractile force, increased fatigue and diminished capacity to repair damage to their cell membrane, called the sarcolemma. Just like human patients, the experimental model suffers more pronounced muscle weakness, increased numbers of dead myofibers, with greater loss of muscle mass in certain muscles, like the quadriceps and triceps, the research team writes.

“What was happening to the patient’s muscles was a big riddle that our research addressed,” Jaiswal adds. “Lacking this protein is not supposed to make the muscle fiber die, like we see in patients with this rare disease. The missing protein is just supposed to cause atrophy and weakness.”

Patients with this rare disease show early muscle weakness, fluctuating levels of fatigue and lethargy, muscle aches after exercise, and elevated creatine kinase in their bloodstream, an indication of cell damage due to physical stress.

“One by one, we investigated these specific features in experimental models that look normal and have normal body weight, but also show lost muscle mass in the quadriceps and triceps,” explains Adam Horn, Ph.D., the lead researcher in Jaiswal’s lab who conducted this study. “Our experimental model lacking MICU1 only in skeletal muscles responded to muscle deficits so similar to humans that it suggests that some of the symptoms we see in patients can be attributed to MICU1 loss in skeletal muscles.”

Future research will aim to explore the details of how the impact of MICU1 deficit in muscles may be addressed therapeutically and possible implications of lacking MICU1 or its paralog in other organs.

In addition to Jaiswal and Horn, Children’s National Hospital Center for Genetic Medicine Research co-authors include Marshall W. Hogarth and Davi A. Mazala. Additional co-authors include Lead Author Valentina Debattisti, Raghavendra Singh, Erin L. Seifert, Kai Ting Huang, and Senior Author György Hajnóczky, all from Thomas Jefferson University; and Rita Horvath, from Newcastle University.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award numbers R01AR55686, U54HD090257 and RO1 GM102724; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases under award number T32AR056993; and Foundation Leducq.

Bella when she was sick

Preserving brain function by purposely inducing strokes

Bella when she was sick

Born to young parents, no prenatal testing had suggested any problems with Bella’s brain. But just a few hours after birth, Bella suffered her first seizure – one of many that would follow in the ensuing days. After brain imaging, her doctors in Iowa diagnosed her with hemimegalencephaly.

Strokes are neurologically devastating events, cutting off life-sustaining oxygen to regions of the brain. If these brain tissues are deprived of oxygen long enough, they die, leading to critical loss of function – and sometimes loss of life.

“As physicians, we’re taught to prevent or treat stroke. We’re never taught to inflict it,” says Taeun Chang, M.D., director of the Neonatal Neurology and Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program at Children’s National Hospital.

That’s why a treatment developed at Children’s National for a rare brain condition called hemimegalencephaly is so surprising, Dr. Chang explains. By inflicting controlled, targeted strokes, Children’s National physician-researchers have treated five newborns born with intractable seizures due to hemimegalencephaly before they’re eligible for epilepsy surgery, the standard of care. In the four surviving infants, the procedures drastically reduced or completely relieved the infants of hemimegalencephaly’s characteristic, uncontrollable seizures.

The most recent patient to receive this life-changing procedure is Bella, a 13-month-old from Iowa whose treatment at Children’s National began within her second week of life. Born to young parents, no prenatal testing had suggested any problems with Bella’s brain. But just a few hours after birth, Bella suffered her first seizure – one of many that would follow in the ensuing days. After brain imaging, her doctors in Iowa diagnosed her with hemimegalencephaly.

A congenital condition occurring in just a handful of children born worldwide each year, hemimegalencephaly is marked by one brain hemisphere growing strikingly larger and dysplastic than the other, Dr. Chang explains. This abnormal half of the brain is highly vascularized, rippled with blood vessels needed to support the seizing brain. The most conspicuous symptoms of hemimegalencephaly are the numerous seizures that it causes, sometimes several in the course of an hour, which also may prevent the normal half of the brain from developing and learning.

Prior studies suggest early surgery achieves better developmental outcomes with one study reporting as much as a drop of 10-20 IQ points with every month delay in epilepsy surgery.

The standard treatment for unilateral megalencephaly is a dramatic procedure called a hemispherectomy, in which surgeons remove and disconnect the affected half of the brain, allowing the remaining half to take over its neurological duties. However, Dr. Chang says, implementing this procedure in infants younger than 3 months of age is highly dangerous.  Excessive, potentially fatal blood loss is likely in infants younger than 3 months who have a highly vascularized brain in the setting of an immature coagulation system. That leaves their doctors with no choice but to wait until these infants are at least 3 months old, when they are more likely to survive the surgery.

However, five years ago, Dr. Chang and her colleagues came up with a different idea when a newborn continued to have several seizures per hour despite multiple IV seizure medications: Because strokes cause irreversible tissue death, it might be possible to effectively incapacitate the enlarged hemisphere from within by inflicting a stroke on purpose. At the very least, this “functional embolization” might buy time for a traditional hemispherectomy, and slow or halt ongoing brain damage until the infants are able to withstand surgery. Ideally, this procedure may be all some children need, knocking out the offending hemisphere completely so they’d never need a hemispherectomy, which has late complications, such as hydrocephalus.

A pediatrician friend of Bella’s paternal grandparents read a story on Children’s National website about Darcy, another baby who’d received functional embolization a year earlier and was doing well. She contacted Dr. Chang to see if the procedure would be appropriate for Bella.

Within days, Bella and her family headed to Washington, D.C., to prepare for functional embolization herself. Within the first weeks of life, Bella underwent three separate procedures, each three to four hours long. Under real-time fluoroscopic and angiographic guidance, interventional neuroradiologist Monica Pearl, M.D., threaded a micro-catheter up from the baby’s femoral artery through the complex network of blood vessels all the way to her brain. There, in targeted branches of her cerebral arteries, Dr. Pearl strategically placed liquid embolic agent to obstruct blood flow to the abnormal half of Bella’s brain.

Immediately after the first procedure, the team had to contend with the same consequences that come after any stroke: brain swelling that can cause bleeding and herniation, complicated further by the already enlarged hemisphere of Bella’s brain. Using neuroprotective strategies learned from treating hundreds of brain-injured newborns, the neonatal neurocritical care team and the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) minimized the brain swelling and protected the normal half of the brain by tightly controlling the brain temperature, her sugar and electrolyte levels, her blood pressure and coagulation system.

As the brain tissue in the oversized hemisphere died, so did the seizures that had plagued Bella since birth. She has not had a seizure since she left Children’s National more than one year ago. Her adoptive parents report that Bella is hitting many of the typical developmental milestones for her age: She’s getting ready to walk, blowing kisses and saying a few words. Physical, speech and occupational therapy will keep her moving in the right direction, Dr. Chang says.

“We believe that Children’s National is the only place in the world that’s treating newborns in this way to preserve their futures,” Dr. Chang says. “We’re privileged to be able to care for Bella and other kids with this rare condition.”

Bella’s transfer and successful procedures required the support and collective efforts of many within the hospital organization including William D. Gaillard, M.D., and his surgical epilepsy team; interventional neuroradiology with Dr. Monica Pearl; Neurosurgery; Neonatology and the NICU; social work; and even approval from Robin Steinhorn, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Hospital-Based Specialties, and David Wessel, M.D., executive vice president and Chief Medical Officer.

“While obvious credit goes to the medical team who saved Bella’s future and the neonatal intensive care nurses who provided exceptional, intensive, one-on-one care, Bella’s team of supporters extend to all levels within our hospital,” Dr. Chang adds.

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Bella's brain scan

Born with hemimegalencephaly, Bella now has a bright future

bella's brain scans

Bella was born with a rare condition (hemimegalencephaly) in which one half of the brain developed abnormally, causing seizures. The textbook approach is to let babies grow big enough for a dramatic surgery. But Bella’s left hemisphere was triggering so many seizures each hour that waiting would mean her life would be defined by severe disability. Children’s National Hospital is believed to be the only center in the world that calms these seizures through controlled strokes.

Procedure one occurred five days after Bella came to Children’s National Hospital from Iowa, when she was 13 days old. The team first optimized control of her seizures and obtained special magnetic resonance images to plan their approach. They glued up the branches of the left posterior cerebral artery and branches of the left middle cerebral artery. Bella had a tiny bleed that was controlled immediately in the angio suite and afterwards in the Children’s National neonatal intensive care unit.

Procedure two occurred 10 days later when Bella was 23 days old. The team waited until brain swelling had subsided and brain tissue loss had occurred from the first procedure. This time, they glued up the remaining branches of the left posterior cerebral artery and some branches of the left anterior cerebral artery.

The third and final procedure was done nine days later when Bella was 29 days old.  This time the team glued and coiled, placing little wire coils where it was unsafe to use glue, getting at the remaining small and numerous branches that remained of the left anterior cerebral artery.

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