Mark Batshaw

Gene therapy’s slow rebirth

Mark Batshaw

A speech by outgoing American Pediatric Society President Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., explored the impact of a single clinical trial on the entire field.

Gene therapy – delivering genetic material into patients’ cells as a way to treat or cure their diseases – has immense promise to alleviate or end many lifelong and deadly conditions. This treatment has so much potential that it was a heavy focus of research and research dollars around the world in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, many of these efforts came to a screeching halt in 1999 when a teenaged patient named Jesse Gelsinger died in a gene therapy trial aimed at curing a disease called ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency, a urea cycle disorder. Gelsinger’s death triggered a number of investigations, halted gene therapy trials in the United States, and severely restricted financial support from federal, foundation and industry funders.

The tragedy also spurred Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., one of the clinical trial investigators and newly named Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National Health System, to turn in his resignation. The chief executive at the time declined to accept it, instead naming an outside panel to investigate Dr. Batshaw’s role in a study marred by conflicts of interest, delays in updating patient consent forms, lack of adherence to the study protocol and ineffective team leadership.

As Dr. Batshaw passed the gavel to the next president of the American Pediatric Society during the Pediatric Academic Societies’ annual meeting this spring, he told attendees of his Presidential Address that “not a day goes by that I don’t think of Jesse Gelsinger and his family and hope that the work our team has continued will honor him by eventually achieving success with gene therapy.” In an act of altruism, 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger had joined the trial with the aim of helping other kids suffering from metabolic disorder.

Dr. Batshaw recognizes that his is an unusual choice, speaking about his “greatest professional failure” when predecessors have used their addresses to speak exclusively about scientific accomplishments.

“Because I was a principal, I think telling this story first of all says, hey look, this guy who is president of this organization, who has had a significant career, is willing to talk openly about a failure and how he dealt with it and how the field dealt with that failure,” Dr. Batshaw says. “Secondly, the field of gene therapy right now is starting to explode. It’s telling two different stories in an integrated way: One is of a great personal failure – and failure of an entire field. And the recovery from that, and what the future will be for a technology that holds great promise.”

More than 1,000 gene therapy trials are currently underway, 23 of them at Phase III, the pivotal stage that makes or breaks approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Dr. Batshaw estimates about a dozen of those are likely to demonstrate robust enough results to progress to a formal application for FDA approval. “After a period of virtually no growth in gene therapy trials from 2000 to 2013, there has been a marked upswing in the past two to three years,” he says.

Children’s National is a study site for one of those clinical trials, a Phase I/II adenoassociated virus (AAV)-mediated gene therapy for late-onset ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC) deficiency. Children with urea cycle disorders have enzyme deficiencies that leave them unable to adequately dispose of waste nitrogen. Often as newborns, they develop severely elevated ammonia in their brains leading to encephalopathy, an often fatal condition. The Phase I work will test escalating doses in three patients for safety. The Phase II work will explore whether the gene therapy improves outcomes like lowering ammonia levels and improving patients’ ability to convert ammonia to urea. (A precursor study in an experimental model was among the most impactful research papers published by Children’s National authors in 2016.)

“So, for both our group’s program – and viral-delivered gene therapy in general – there has been a rebirth after the disastrous outcome of the initial adenovirus trial in OTC deficiency,” Dr. Batshaw said in his prepared remarks. “This resurgence has likely been fueled by improved viral vectors, especially AAVs, and an improved economy and industry investment. The future of gene therapy is likely to be enhanced by new genetic therapy platforms including RNA interference as a means of vertically transmitted gene regulation and the CRISPR gene-editing technology. It will also be impacted by the results of the trials that will be completed in the next few years, especially those using AAV vectors in hemophilia A and B, spinal muscular atrophy and leukemia.”

Looking forward 10 years, Dr. Batshaw is hopeful that gene therapy will become part of the therapeutic tools routinely used to help patients who suffer from rare disease and cancer. Making that next leap forward will be powered by innovative research, including work by colleagues at Children’s National. Among the presenters at PAS2017, the world’s largest pediatric research meeting, were more than 100 Children’s presenters, speakers and moderators.

“It makes me very proud that there are so many clinicians who are also scientists who are not satisfied with simply doing things the way they have always been doing it but constantly questioning how can we do things better for our children?” Dr. Batshaw says. “Our whole focus at Children’s National is caring for children, and that means caring for them the very best way possible and not being satisfied with current therapy if it’s not curative.”

fruit fly

Studying fruit flies to better understand human kidneys

fruit fly

In his latest study, Zhe Han and co-authors zeroed in on Rab genes to determine their role in fruit fly renal function.

It’s a given that fruit flies and humans are different. Beyond the obvious are a litany of less-apparent distinctions. For example, fruit flies have hemolymph instead of blood. Arranged around a single cardiac chamber, compared with humans’ four-chamber hearts, are a group of cells called nephrocytes that serve the same function as human kidneys, filtering toxins and waste from hemolymph.

But despite the dissimilarities between these two organisms, fly nephrocytes and human kidney cells are similar enough to allow the fruit fly, a common lab model that shares about 60 percent of its DNA with people, to provide insights on kidney disease in people. In a new study in fruit flies led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., principal investigator and associate professor in the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National Health System, researchers identified several new genes thought to be critical for renal function in humans. The findings could lend insight to the inner workings of this organ down to the molecular level and eventually help further the understanding or treatment of kidney disorders.

Han explains that recent research by his group tied 80 fruit fly genes to renal function. Many of these newly identified genes were Rab GTPases, a family of genes that make proteins whose job is to move substances around in cells through membrane-enclosed pouches called vesicles. For example, Rab proteins might put some substances on the path to destruction by moving them into lysosomes, vesicles with enzymes that break down all kinds of biomolecules. Rab proteins might help other substances be reused by steering them into recycling endosomes, vesicles that shuttle biomolecules that are still useful to where they will be used next.

In their latest study, published online Feb. 8, 2017 in Cell & Tissue Research, Han and co-authors zeroed in on these Rab genes to determine their role in fruit fly renal function. The researchers accomplished this by using genetic alterations to shut down each gene selectively in fruit fly nephrocytes. They then evaluated these transgenic flies on a number of different characteristics, including ability to effectively filter proteins from the blood, whether toxins placed in their food accumulated in their nephrocytes, how they developed and how they survived.

Their findings readily identified five Rab genes that seemed more important for these functions than the others: Rabs 1, 5, 7, 11 and 35, which all have analogous genes in humans.

Peering into the nephrocytes of flies in which these three Rabs had been silenced, the researchers made critical discoveries. Turning off Rab 7 appeared to block the path toward biomolecules in the cell entering lysosomes. Rather than biomolecules being destroyed, they instead were shuttled to the recycling route. Turning off Rab 11 had the reverse effect; recycling endosomes were drastically reduced, while lysosomes dramatically increased. Turning off Rab 5 had the most striking effect: All vesicles going in or out were blocked – like a cellular traffic jam – filling the cell with biomolecules that had no place to go, Han says.

Han, who has long tracked renal-related mutations in humans, says that no patients with kidney disease have turned up so far with Rab mutations. These genes are critical for functions throughout the body, he explains, so any embryos with these mutations are unlikely to survive. However, he adds, a host of other renal-related genes work in parallel or are controlled by different Rabs. So understanding the role of Rabs in renal function provides some insight into how these genes operate as well as what might happen when the function of these genes goes awry.

Han plans to study how Rabs 5, 7 and 11 fit into networks of renal genes as well as the role of the other Rabs that could play novel roles in the nephrocyte cell trafficking.

“These findings in fly Rabs provide the framework to study the major causes of kidney disease in human patients,” he adds.

Zhe Han

Fruit flies can model human genetic kidney disease

Zhe Han

Zhe Han, Ph.D., has found that a majority of human genes known to be associated with nephrotic syndrome play conserved roles in renal function, from fruit flies to humans.

Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly, has played a key role in genetic research for decades. Even though D. melanogaster and humans look vastly different, researchers estimate that about 75 percent of human disease-causing genes have a functional homolog in the fly.

A Children’s National Health System research team reported in a recent issue of Human Molecular Genetics that the majority of genes associated with nephrotic syndrome (NS) in humans also play pivotal roles in Drosophila renal function, a conservation of function across species that validates transgenic flies as ideal pre-clinical models to improve understanding of human disease.

NS is a cluster of symptoms that signal kidney damage, including excess protein in urine, low protein levels in blood, elevated cholesterol and swelling. Research teams have identified mutations in more than 40 genes that cause genetic kidney disease, but knowledge gaps remain in understanding the precise roles that specific genes play in kidney cell biology and renal disease. To address those research gaps, Zhe Han, Ph.D., a principal investigator and associate professor in the Center for Cancer & Immunology Research at Children’s National, and colleagues systematically studied NS-associated genes in the Drosophila model, including seven genes whose renal function had never been analyzed in a pre-clinical model.

“Eighty-five percent of these genes are required for nephrocyte function, suggesting that a majority of human genes known to be associated with NS play conserved roles in renal function from flies to humans,” says Han, the paper’s senior author. “To hone in on functional conservation, we focused on Cindr, the fly’s version of the human NS gene, CD2AP,” Han adds. “Silencing Cindr in nephrocytes led to dramatic impairments in nephrocyte function, shortened their life span, collapsed nephrocyte lacunar channels – the fly’s nutrient circulatory system – and effaced nephrocyte slit diaphragms, which diminished filtration function.”

And, to confirm that the phenotypes they were studying truly caused human disease, they reversed the damage by expressing a wild-type human CD2AP gene. A mutant allele derived from a patient with CD2AP-associated NS did not rescue the phenotypes.

Thus, the Drosophila nephrocyte can be used to explain the clinically relevant molecular mechanisms underlying the pathogenesis of most monogenic forms of NS, the research team concludes. “This is a landmark paper for using the fly to study genetic kidney diseases,” Han adds. “For the first time, we realized that the functions of essential kidney genes could be so similar from the flies to humans.”

A logical next step will be to generate personalized in vivo models of genetic renal diseases bearing patient-specific mutations, Han says. These in vivo models can be used for drug screens to identify treatments for kidney diseases that currently lack therapeutic options, such as most of the 40 genes studies in this paper as well as the APOL1 gene that is associated with the higher risk of kidney diseases among millions of African Americans.

Teen Girl drawing a heart on an iPad

Illuminating cardiometabolic risk in Down syndrome

Teen Girl drawing a heart on an iPad

A leading researcher at Children’s National says researchers should look closely at the increased risks of obesity and thyroid disease common in patients with Down Syndrome, and determine how these long term comorbidities relate to cardiovascular and metabolic (cardiometabolic) risk, body image, and quality of life.

Over the last several decades, physicians’ improved ability to treat the common comorbidities of Down syndrome, such as congenital heart disease, has dramatically prolonged survival. Today, more than 400,000 people across the country are living with Down syndrome, and life expectancy has increased to 60 years.

New strategies to manage care for patients with Down syndrome must include preventive, evidence-based approaches to address the unique needs of these patients, according to Sheela N. Magge, M.D., M.S.C.E., Director of Research in the Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes at Children’s. She says that these efforts should include looking more closely at the increased risks of obesity and thyroid disease common in this population, and determining how these long term comorbidities relate to cardiovascular and metabolic (cardiometabolic) risk, body image, and quality of life.

An NIH-funded study from Children’s National and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), led by Dr. Magge and her colleague from CHOP, Dr. Andrea Kelly, seeks to better understand how the body composition of patients with Down syndrome impacts their likelihood for developing diabetes and obesity-related cardiovascular risks long term.

“We know that individuals with Down syndrome are at increased risk for obesity, but what hasn’t been clear is whether or not they also have the same cardiometabolic risk associated with obesity that we know holds true for other populations,” says Dr. Magge. “In this previously under-studied population, the common assumption based on very limited studies from the 1970’s was that individuals with Down syndrome were protected from the diabetes and cardiovascular risks that can develop in other overweight people. However, more recent epidemiologic studies contradict those early findings.”

The study has enrolled 150 Down syndrome patients and almost 100 controls to date, and the team is currently beginning to analyze the data. Dr. Magge believes that the findings from this study will help to provide new, research-driven evidence to inform the long term clinical management of obesity and cardiometabolic risk in adolescents with Down syndrome.

She concludes, “The goal is for our research to provide the foundation that will advance prevention and treatment strategies for this understudied group, so that individuals with Down syndrome not only have a longer life expectancy, but also a healthier and better quality of life.”

Sarah B. Mulkey

Puzzling symptoms lead to collaboration

Sarah B. Mulkey, explaining the research

Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., is lead author of a study that describes a brand-new syndrome that stems from mutations to KCNQ2, a genetic discovery that began with one patient’s unusual symptoms.

Unraveling one of the greatest mysteries of Sarah B. Mulkey’s research career started with a single child.

At the time, Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal-neonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National Health System, was working at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Rounding one morning at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), she met a new patient: A newborn girl with an unusual set of symptoms. The baby was difficult to wake and rarely opened her eyes. Results from her electroencephalogram (EEG), a test of brain waves, showed a pattern typical of a severe brain disorder. She had an extreme startle response, jumping and twitching any time she was disturbed or touched, that was not related to seizures. She also had trouble breathing and required respiratory support.

Dr. Mulkey did not know what to make of her new patient: She was unlike any baby she had ever cared for before. “She didn’t fit anything I knew,” Dr. Mulkey remembers, “so I had to get to the bottom of what made this one child so different.”

Suspecting that her young patient’s symptoms stemmed from a genetic abnormality, Dr. Mulkey ran a targeted gene panel, a blood test that looks for known genetic mutations that might cause seizures or abnormal movements. The test had a hit: One of the baby’s genes, called KCNQ2, had a glitch. But the finding deepened the mystery even further. Other babies with a mutation in this specific gene have a distinctly different set of symptoms, including characteristic seizures that many patients eventually outgrow.

Dr. Mulkey knew that she needed to dig deeper, but she also knew that she could not do it alone. So, she reached out first to Boston Children’s Hospital Neurologist Philip Pearl, M.D., an expert on rare neurometabolic diseases, who in turn put her in touch with Maria Roberto Cilio, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco and Edward Cooper, M.D., Ph.D., of Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Cilio, Cooper and Pearl study KCNQ2 gene variants, which are responsible for causing seizures in newborns.

Typically, mutations in this gene cause a “loss of function,” causing the potassium channel to remain too closed to do its essential job properly. But the exact mutation that affected KCNQ2 in Dr. Mulkey’s patient was distinct from others reported in the literature. It must be doing something different, the doctors reasoned.

Indeed, a research colleague of Drs. Cooper, Cilio and Pearl in Italy — Maurizio Taglialatela, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Naples Federico II and the University of Molise — had recently discovered in cell-based work that this particular mutation appeared to cause a “gain of function,” leaving the potassium channel in the brain too open.

Wondering whether other patients with this same type of mutation had the same unusual constellation of symptoms as hers, Dr. Mulkey and colleagues took advantage of a database that Dr. Cooper had started years earlier in which doctors who cared for patients with KCNQ2 mutations could record information about symptoms, lab tests and other clinical findings. They selected only those patients with the rare genetic mutation shared by her patient and a second rare KCNQ2 mutation also found to cause gain of function — a total of 10 patients out of the hundreds entered into the database. The researchers began contacting the doctors who had cared for these patients and, in some cases, the patients’ parents. They were scattered across the world, including Europe, Australia and the Middle East.

Dr. Mulkey and colleagues sent the doctors and families surveys, asking whether these patients had similar symptoms to her patient when they were newborns: What were their EEG results? How was their respiratory function? Did they have the same unusual startle response?

She is lead author of the study, published online Jan. 31, 2017 in Epilepsia, that revealed a brand-new syndrome that stems from specific mutations to KCNQ2. Unlike the vast majority of others with mutations in this gene, Dr. Mulkey and her international collaborators say, these gain-of-function mutations cause a distinctly different set of problems for patients.

Dr. Mulkey notes that with a growing focus on precision medicine, scientists and doctors are becoming increasingly aware that knowing about the specific mutation matters as much as identifying the defective gene. With the ability to test for more and more mutations, she says, researchers likely will discover more cases like this one: Symptoms that differ from those that usually strike when a gene is mutated because the particular mutation differs from the norm.

Such cases offer important opportunities for researchers to come together to share their collective expertise, she adds. “With such a rare diagnosis,” Dr. Mulkey says, “it’s important for physicians to reach out to others with knowledge in these areas around the world. We can learn much more collectively than by ourselves.”

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D

Lisa Guay-Woodford: minimizing kidney disease effects

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D., is internationally recognized for her examination of the mechanisms that make certain inherited renal disorders particularly lethal, a research focus inspired by her patients.

The artist chose tempera paint for her oeuvre. The flower’s petals are the color of Snow White’s buddy, the Bluebird of Happiness. Each petal is accentuated in stop light red, and the blossom’s leaves stretch up toward the sun. With its bold strokes and exuberant colors, the painting exudes life itself.

It’s the first thing Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D., sees when she enters her office. It’s the last thing she sees as she leaves.

Dr. Guay-Woodford, a pediatric nephrologist, is internationally recognized for her research into the mechanisms that make certain inherited renal disorders, such as autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD), particularly lethal. She also studies disparate health disorders that have a common link: Disruption to the cilia, slim hair-like structures that protrude from almost every cell in the human body and that play pivotal roles in human genetic disease.

Sarah, the artist who painted the bright blue flower more than 20 years ago when she was 8, was one of Dr. Guay-Woodford’s patients. And she’s part of the reason why Dr. Guay-Woodford has spent much of her career focused on the broader domain of disorders tied to just a single defective gene, such as ARPKD.

“It dates back to when I was a house officer and took care of kids with this disorder,” Dr. Guay-Woodford says. “Maybe 30 percent die in the newborn period. Others survive, but they have a whole range of complications.”

Two of her favorite patients died from ARPKD-related reasons in the same year. One died from uncontrolled high blood pressure. The other, Sarah, died from complications from a combined kidney and liver transplant.

“The picture she drew hangs in my office,” she says. “She was a wonderful kid who was really full of life, and what she chose really mirrored who she was as a person. We put up lots of those sorts of those things in my office. It’s a daily reminder of why we do the things we do and the end goal.”

ARPKD is characterized by the growth of cysts in the liver, the kidney – which can lead to kidney failure – and complications within other structures, such as blood vessels in the heart and brain, according to the National Institutes of Health. About 1 in 20,000 live births is complicated by the genetic disorder. The age at which symptoms arise varies.

“Given the way it plays out, starting in utero, this is not a disease we are likely to cure,” she says. “But there are children who have very minimal complications. The near-term goal is to use targeted therapies to convert the children destined to have a more severe disease course to one that is less complicated so that no child suffers the full effects of the disease.”

That’s why it is essential to attain detailed knowledge about the defective gene responsible for ARPKD. To that end, Dr. Guay-Woodford participated in an international collaboration – one of three separate groups that 14 years ago identified PKHD1 as the defective gene that underlies ARPKD.

“The progress has been slow, partly because the gene and its protein products are very complex,” she says. “The good news is the gene has been identified. The daunting news is the identification did not leap us forward. It is just sort of an important step in what is going to be a fits-and-starts kind of journey.”

The field is trying to emulate the clinical successes that have occurred for patients with cystic fibrosis, which now can be treated by a drug that targets the defective gene, attacking disease at a fundamental level. Patient outcomes also have improved due to codifying care.

When she was a resident in the 1980s, children with cystic fibrosis died in their teens. “Now, they’re living well into their 40s because of careful efforts by really astute clinicians to deliver a standardized approach to care, an approach now enhanced by a terrific new drug. We measure quality care in terms of patient outcomes. That has allowed us to really understand how to effectively use antibiotics, physical therapy and how to think about nutrition – which makes a hugely important contribution that previously had been underappreciated.”

Standardizing clinical approaches dramatically improved and extended patients’ lives. “For renal cystic disease, we are beginning to do that better and better,” she adds.

There’s no targeted medicine yet for ARPKD. But thanks to an international conference that Dr. Guay-Woodford convened in Washington in 2013, such consensus expert recommendations have been published to guide diagnosis, surveillance and management of pediatric patients with ARPKD.

“There is an awful lot we can do in the way we systematically look at the clinical disease in these patients and improve our management. And, if you can overlay on top of that specific insights about why one person goes one way in disease progression versus another way, I think we can boost the baseline by developing good standards of care,” she says.

“Science does march on. There are a number of related research studies that are expanding our understanding of ARPKD. Within the next decade, we probably will be able to capitalize on not just the work in ARPKD but work in related diseases to learn the entry points for targeting therapies. That way, we can build a portfolio of markers of disease progression and test how effective these potential therapies are in slowing the course of the disease.”

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

Eric Vilain to lead genetic medicine research

Eric Vilain

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., emphasizes the idea of health and disease as a compound process that will transform children’s health and impact a patient throughout life.

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally renowned geneticist well known for groundbreaking studies of gender based biology, will soon lead the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National Health System.

Dr. Vilain joins Children’s National from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where he serves as Professor of Human Genetics, Pediatrics and Urology, Chief of Medical Genetics, and attending physician in the Department of Pediatrics.

As the Director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, Dr. Vilain will emphasize the idea of health and disease as a compound process, which he believes “can transform children’s health and help the treatment and prevention of illness, not only in childhood, but throughout a patient’s life.”

The Center for Genetic Medicine Research currently houses a highly interdisciplinary faculty of over 50 scientists and physician investigators and brings together a variety of clinical and scientific disciplines to coordinate scientific and clinical investigations simultaneously from multiple angles. The Center also provides access to the leading edge innovative technologies in genomics, microscopy, proteomics, bioinformatics, pre-clinical drug trials, and multi-site clinical trial networks for faculty within the Children’s Research Institute, the academic arm of Children’s National.

Dr. Vilain’s current laboratory focuses on the genetics of sexual development and sex differences – specifically the molecular mechanisms of gonad development and the genetic variants of brain sexual differentiation. His research also explores the biological bases of sex variations in predisposition to disease. His work crosses several disciplines (genetics, neuroscience, psychology) leading to findings with major societal implications. In addition to scientific investigation, Dr. Vilain created a clinic devoted to caring for patients with a wide array of genetic and endocrine issues, particularly those with variations of sexual development.

He brings nearly 30 years of expertise with him to Children’s National. He has authored seminal articles regarding the field of sexual development, and his research program has continuously been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Vilain is a Fellow of the American College of Medical Genetics and a member of numerous professional committees. The recipient of numerous awards, he has been recognized by organizations ranging from the NIH to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, March of Dimes, and the Society for Pediatric Research. He has served as an advisor to the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission since 2011 and has been a member of the Board of Scientific Counselors of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development since 2015.

Mark Batshaw, M.D., Executive Vice President, Physician-in-Chief, and Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National says, “Dr. Vilain’s vision and expertise in the study and use of precision medicine approaches, and the development of novel treatments for diseases of childhood, will lead to drastically different and improved outcomes for some of the most devastating diseases, such as cancer.”

“I am honored to join the world-renowned team at Children’s National, and look forward to continuing to find new, innovative ways to research, diagnose and treat rare and common disorders,” Dr. Vilain adds.

Vittorio Gallo

Vittorio Gallo named Chief Research Officer

Vittorio Gallo

As chief research officer, Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., will be instrumental in developing and realizing Children’s Research Institute’s long-term strategic vision.

Children’s National Health System has appointed the longtime director of its Center for Neuroscience Research, Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., as Chief Research Officer. Gallo’s appointment comes at a pivotal time for the institution’s research strategic plan, as significant growth and expansion will occur in the next few years. Gallo is a neuroscientist who studies white matter disorders, with particular focus on white matter growth and repair. He is also the Wolf-Pack Chair in Neuroscience at Children’s Research Institute, the academic arm of Children’s National.

As Chief Research Officer, Gallo will be instrumental in developing and realizing Children’s Research Institute’s long-term strategic vision, which includes building out the nearly 12-acre property once occupied by Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to serve as a regional innovation hub and to support Children’s scientists conducting world-class pediatric research in neuroscience, genetics, clinical and translational science, cancer and immunology. He succeeds Mendel Tuchman, M.D., who has had a long and distinguished career as Children’s Chief Research Officer for the past 12 years and who will remain for one year in an emeritus role, continuing federally funded research projects and mentoring junior researchers.

“I am tremendously pleased that Vittorio has agreed to become Chief Research Officer as of July 1, 2017, at such a pivotal time in Children’s history,” says Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., Physician-in-Chief and Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National. “Since Mendel announced plans to retire last summer, I spent a great deal of time talking to Children’s Research Institute investigators and leaders and also asking colleagues around the nation about the type of person and unique skill sets needed to serve as Mendel’s successor. With each conversation, it became increasingly clear that the most outstanding candidate for the Chief Research Officer position already works within Children’s walls,” Dr. Batshaw adds.

“I am deeply honored by being selected as Children’s next Chief Research Officer and am excited about being able to play a leadership role in defining the major areas of research that will be based at the Walter Reed space. The project represents an incredible opportunity to maintain the core nucleus of our research strengths – genetics, immunology, neurodevelopmental disorders and disabilities – and to expand into new, exciting areas of research. What’s more, we have an unprecedented opportunity to form new partnerships with peers in academia and private industry, and forge new community partnerships,” Gallo says. “I am already referring to this as Walter Reed ‘Now,’ so that we are not waiting for construction to begin to establish these important partnerships.”

Gallo’s research focus has been on white matter development and injury, myelin and glial cells – which are involved in the brain’s response to injury. His past and current focus is also on neural stem cells. His work in developmental neuroscience has been seminal in deepening understanding of cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. He came to Children’s National from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) intramural program. His intimate knowledge of the workings of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has helped him to establish meaningful collaborations between both institutions. During his tenure, he has transformed the Center for Neuroscience Research into one of the nation’s premier programs. The Center is home to the prestigious NIH/NICHD-funded District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, which Gallo directs.

Children’s research scientists working under the auspices of Children’s Research Institute conduct and promote highly collaborative and multidisciplinary research within the hospital that aims to better understand, treat and, ultimately, prevent pediatric disease. As Chief Research Officer, Gallo will continue to establish and enhance collaborations between research and clinical programs. Such cross-cutting projects will be essential in defining new mechanisms that underlie pediatric disease. “We know, for instance, that various mechanisms contribute to many genetic and neurological pediatric diseases, and that co-morbidities add another layer of complexity. Tapping expertise across disciplines has the potential to unravel current mysteries, as well as to better characterize unknown and rare diseases,” he says.

“Children’s National is among the nation’s top seven pediatric hospitals in NIH research funding, and the extraordinary innovations that have been produced by our clinicians and scientists have been put into practice here and in hospitals around the world,” Dr. Batshaw adds. “Children’s leadership aspires to nudge the organization higher, to rank among the nation’s top five pediatric hospitals in NIH research funding.”

Gallo says the opportunity for Children’s research to expand beyond the existing buildings and the concurrent expansion into new areas of research will trigger more hiring. “We plan to grow our research enterprise through strategic hires and by attracting even more visiting investigators from around the world. By expanding our community of investigators, we aim to strengthen our status as one of the nation’s leading pediatric hospitals,” he says.

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.

Harnessing progenitor cells in neonatal white matter repair

The sirtuin protein Sirt1 plays a crucial role in the proliferation and regeneration of glial cells from an existing pool of progenitor cells — a process that rebuilds vital white matter following neonatal hypoxic brain injury. Although scientists do not fully understand Sirt1’s role in controlling cellular proliferation, this pre-clinical model of neonatal brain injury outlines for the first time how Sirt1 contributes to development of additional progenitor cells and maturation of fully functional oligodendrocytes.

The findings, published December 19 in Nature Communications, suggest that modulation of this protein could enhance progenitor cell regeneration, spurring additional white matter growth and repair following neonatal brain injury.

“It is not a cure. But, in order to regenerate the white matter that is lost or damaged, the first steps are to identify endogenous cells capable of regenerating lost cells and then to expand their pool. The glial progenitor cells represent 4 to 5 percent of total brain cells,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National, and senior author of the study. “It’s a sizable pool, considering that the brain is made up of billions of cells. The advantage is that these progenitor cells are already there, with no requirement to slip them through the blood-brain barrier. Eventually they will differentiate into oligodendrocyte cells in white matter, mature glia, and that’s exactly what we want them to do.”

The study team identified Sirt1 as a novel, major regulator of basal oligodendrocyte progenitor cell (OPC) proliferation and regeneration in response to hypoxia in neonatal white matter, Gallo and co-authors write. “We demonstrate that Sirt1 deacetylates and activates Cdk2, a kinase which controls OPC expansion. We also elucidate the mechanism by which Sirt1 targets other individual members of the Cdk2 signaling pathway, by regulating their deacetylation, complex formation and E2F1 release, molecular events which drive Cdk2-mediated OPC proliferation,” says Li-Jin Chew, Ph.D., research associate professor at Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research and a study co-author.

Hypoxia-induced brain injury in neonates initiates spontaneous amplification of progenitor cells but also causes a deficiency of mature oligodendrocytes. Inhibiting Sirt1 expression in vitro and in vivo showed that loss of its deacetylase activity prevents OPC proliferation in hypoxia while promoting oligodendrocyte maturation – which underscores the importance of Sirt1 activity in maintaining the delicate balance between these two processes.

The tantalizing findings – the result of four years of research work in mouse models of neonatal hypoxia – hint at the prospect of lessening the severity of developmental delays experienced by the majority of preemies, Gallo adds. About 1 in 10 infants born in the United States are delivered preterm, prior to the 37th gestational week of pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Brain injury associated with preterm birth – including white matter injury – can have long-term cognitive and behavioral consequences, with more than 50 percent of infants who survive prematurity needing special education, behavioral intervention and pharmacological treatment, Gallo says.

Time is of the essence, since Sirt1 plays a beneficial role at a certain place (white matter) and at a specific time (while the immature brain continues to develop). “We see maximal Sirt1 expression and activity within the first week after neonatal brain injury. There is a very narrow window in which to harness the stimulus that amplifies the progenitor cell population and target this particular molecule for repair,” he says.

Sirt1, a nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide-dependent class III histone deacetylase, is known to be involved in normal cell development, aging, inflammatory responses, energy metabolism and calorie restriction, the study team reports. Its activity can be modulated by sirtinol, an off-the-shelf drug that inhibits sirtuin proteins. The finding points to the potential for therapeutic interventions for diffuse white matter injury in neonates.

Next, the research team aims to study these processes in a large animal model whose brains are structurally, anatomically and metabolically similar to the human brain.

“Ideally, we want to be able to promote the timely regeneration of cells that are lost by designing strategies for interventions that synchronize these cellular events to a common and successful end,” Gallo says.

Cleft lip and palate: caught in the web of genetic interactions

Children’s National research scientists are working to unravel the complicated web of genetic interactions that lead children to develop cleft lip and palate.

On June 26, 2000, scientists around the world hailed the first draft of the human genetic code as a scientific milestone that eventually would revolutionize the practice of medicine. By knowing the approximately 20,000 protein-coding genes for humans, many speculated that researchers and doctors eventually might elucidate the unique factors that influence thousands of diseases—and, someday, make it easier to find custom ways to treat these conditions.

“It is humbling for me and awe inspiring to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God,” said Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., who directed the international effort to sequence the human genome and who now directs the National Institutes of Health.

Nearly two decades later, actually using this wealth of information has proven exceedingly more complicated than many envisioned. While some genetic diseases like Huntington’s disease or sickle cell anemia follow a simple pattern in which variations in a single gene lead to deleterious effects, the vast majority of other genetic health problems result from the interaction of multiple genes, from a handful to hundreds.

One condition that has proven especially tricky to understand on the genetic level is cleft lip and palate (CLP), says Youssef A. Kousa, D.O., Ph.D., a pediatric neurology resident at Children’s National Health System who has made human development a central focus of his research program. CLP, which affects about 1 in 1,000 babies born worldwide, can be devastating, Kousa explains. At some point between 6 and 12 weeks gestation, the palate and lip fail to close in some fetuses. Those children are born with a fissure that can significantly impair eating and speaking and that can complicate social interactions.

While researchers have linked some genes to CLP, Kousa says it has become increasingly clear that these genes do not exert their influence in isolation. In a review paper published recently in Developmental Dynamics, he and Brian C. Schutte, Ph.D., of Michigan State University, detail the story of three of those genes. The trio plays a role in CLP but also is implicated in another devastating congenital problem, neural tube defects.

One of these genes is IRF6, which scientists tagged as the gene responsible for inherited forms of CLP called van der Woude syndrome and popliteal pterygium syndrome more than a decade ago. In the interim, research has shown IRF6 also appears to be important in orofacial clefting that occurs independently of these syndromes. Estimates suggest that mutations in IRF6 increase the risk for CLP by 12 percent to 18 percent.

That means at least 80 percent of the risk for clefting is caused by different genes. Kousa and Schutte write that one of these is GRHL3, which also can cause van der Woude syndrome if it is mutated. GRHL3 is regulated by IRF6, Kousa explains. So, if IRF6 does not work properly, neither does GRHL3.

But what regulates IRF6? Upstream of this important gene is another called TFAP2A. The healthy operation of TFAP2A is key for IRF6 and orofacial clefting. Complicating the scenario further, several studies also have shown that TFAP2A is essential for normal development of the palate and neural tube, the embryo’s precursor to the central nervous system that eventually develops into the brain and spinal cord.

To shed light on the interplay of the full array of genes involved CLP, Kousa and colleagues recently published a paper in Birth Defects Research in which they use computer programs to analyze datasets on all genes identified thus far that are involved in orofacial and neural tube development and which molecules these genes produce and target. Their analyses showed that many of these genes are linked in associated pathways that influence vast realms of development, risk of cancer and folate metabolism. (Women who take folic acid supplements before getting pregnant and during pregnancy can reduce birth defect risks.)

By better understanding how these genes are connected into networks, Kousa says, researchers may be able to reduce the risk of both CLP and neural tube defects with a single intervention. However, like the study of genetic diseases itself, finding the right intervention might not be so simple. A drug or supplement that can alleviate one condition might exacerbate others, based on the complicated web of genetic interactions, he says.

“That’s why work from our lab and others is so important,” Kousa says. “It adds layers and layers of knowledge that, eventually, we’ll be able to put together to help prevent these devastating problems.”

Minimally invasive surgery brings lasting relief to pediatric achalasia patients

tkane_atmospheric_2015

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.

hands on simulation training at AAP

At AAP: hands-on simulation training with life-saving technology

aap_nshah_techdependentinfants_atmospheric

Recent medical breakthroughs have enabled very premature infants and children with rare genetic and neurological diseases to survive what had once been considered to be fatal conditions. This has resulted in a growing number of children with medically complex conditions whose very survival depends on ongoing use of technology to help their brains function, their lungs take in oxygen, and their bodies remain nourished.

“Many pediatricians care for technology-dependent children with special health needs,” says Neha Shah, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Hospitalist Medicine at Children’s National Health System. “These kids have unique risks – some of which may be associated with that life-saving device malfunctioning.” Because there is no standard residency training for these devices, many clinicians may feel ill-equipped to address their patients’ device-related issues. To bridge that training gap, Dr. Shah and co-presenters, Priti Bhansali, M.D., M.Ed., and Anjna Melwani, M.D., will lead hands-on simulation training during the American Academy of Pediatrics 2016 National Conference.

“Inevitably, these things happen at 3 in the morning,” Dr. Shah adds. “Individual clinicians’ skill level and comfort with the devices varies. We should all have the same core competency.”

How the training works

During the simulation, the audience is given a specific case. They have eight minutes to troubleshoot and resolve the issue, using mannequins specially fitted with devices, such as trach tubes and feeding tubes, in need of urgent attention. Depending on their actions, the mannequin may decompensate with worsened breathing and racing heartbeats. The high-stakes, hands-on demo is followed by a 12-minute debrief, a safe environment to review lessons learned. Once they complete one simulation, attendees move to the next in the series of four real-life scenarios.

“We’ve done this a few times and my heart rate still goes up,” Dr. Shah admits. After giving similar training sessions at other academic meetings, participants said that having a chance to touch and feel the devices and become familiar with them in a calm environment is a benefit.

Dr. Shah came up with the concept for the hands-on training by speaking with a small group of peers, asking about how comfortable they felt managing kids with medical complex cases. The vast majority favored additional education about common devices, such as gastronomy tubes, tracheostomy tubes, and ventriculoperitoneal shunts.  In addition to the in-person training, the team has created a web-based curriculum discussing dysautonomia, spasticity, gastroesophageal reflux disease, enteric feeding tubes, venous thromboembolism, and palliative care, which they described in an article published in the Fall 2015 edition of the Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions.

“Most times, clinicians know what they need to do and the steps they need to follow. They just haven’t done it themselves,” Dr. Bhansali adds. “The simulation forces people to put their hands on these devices and use them.”

AAP 2016 presentations:
Saturday, October 22, 2016

  • W1059- “Emergencies in the Technology-Dependent Child: What Every Pediatrician Should Know” 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. (SOLD OUT)
  • W1131-  “Emergencies in the Technology-Dependent Child: What Every Pediatrician Should Know” (Encore) 2 p.m. to 3:30PM