Genetics and Rare Diseases

Children’s National leaders join with Governor Martin O'Malley

Facial analysis technology successfully used to identify Noonan syndrome in diverse populations

facial recognition of noonan syndrome

According to an international study led by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), researchers have successfully used facial analysis software, developed by the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National, to identify Noonan syndrome in diverse populations.

Noonan syndrome is relatively common, affecting between 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 2,500 children, however few studies have been conducted in non-Europeans. For this study, the researchers evaluated children (average age of eight) with Noonan syndrome from 20 countries. Using the facial analysis software and clinical criteria, the researchers compared 161 white, African, Asian and Latin American children with Noonan syndrome with 161 people of the same age and gender without the disease. Using the software to analyze facial features, they were able to correctly diagnose patients with the disease from each ethnic group with 94 percent or higher accuracy.

“Our algorithm found widely spaced eyes as a significant facial feature in all ethnic groups and also highlighted facial features that are relevant to diagnosing the syndrome in each group,” said

Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil., developer of the facial analysis technology and an investigator in the study from Children’s National.

Linguraru and his team are working to create a simple tool that will enable doctors in clinics without state-of-the-art genetic facilities to take photos of their patients on a smartphone and receive instant results.

Zhe Han

Research led by Zhe Han featured cover of JASN, leading kidney disease journal

Coenzyme Q10, one of the best-selling nutrient supplements to support heart health also could be beneficial for kidney health, according to research conducted in transgenic fruit flies that was led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., associate professor at Children’s Center for Cancer and Immunology Research.

Nephrocytes, filtration kidney cells in Drosophila, require the Coq2 gene for protein reabsorption, toxin sequestration and critical cell ultrastructure.  Silencing the Coq2 gene results in aberrantly localized nephrocyte slit diaphragms and deformed lacunar channels, Han and co-authors found. Nephrocytes closely resemble the podocytes of the human kidney.

The research team’s paper, published online April 2017, this fall was featured on the cover of Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, the No. 1 kidney disease journal.

“I am honored that the JASN editors chose to feature my lab’s work on the cover of this prestigious journal,” Han says. “This underscores the utility of our gene-replacement approach, which silenced the fly homolog in the tissue of interest – here, the kidney cells – and provided a human gene to supply the silenced function.”

boy sitting in wheelchair

Long-term glucocorticoids help patients with DMD

boy sitting in wheelchair

Glucocorticoids, a class of steroid hormone medications, have definite long-term benefits for patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, including extending muscle strength and function over years and decreasing the risk of death.

There is currently no cure for the devastating, progressive neuromuscular disease known as Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). But clinics that treat patients with this disease have long relied on a class of steroid hormone medications, known as glucocorticoids, to ease its symptoms. Over weeks and months, these drugs help preserve muscle strength and function. Though these short-term benefits have been clear, some physicians have balked at using these medications over the long term – their benefits over years was unknown, making their potential side effects not worth the risk.

Now, a study published online Nov. 22, 2017 in The Lancet suggests that these medicines have definite long-term benefits, including extending muscle strength and function over years and even decreasing the risk of death. These findings support what has become the standard prescribing practice at many clinics and could help sway parents who are on the fence about their children receiving these therapies.

DMD is characterized by loss of muscle function and progressive muscle weakness that begins in the lower limbs and typically affects males due to the location of its causative genetic mutation. Patients with this devastating neuromuscular disease often receive glucocorticoids at some point as the disease progresses. Studies since the late 1980s have confirmed short-term benefits of treating with these drugs, including delaying the loss of muscle strength and function.

However, no prospective study had followed long-term glucocorticoid use in these patients, explains Heather Gordish-Dressman, Ph.D., a statistician at the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National Health System and study senior author. The lack of long-term data led some physicians to delay treatment with these drugs since their use can lead to significant side effects, including weight gain, delayed growth and immunosuppression.

“Everyone had the idea that long-term use could be beneficial, but nobody had really rigorously tested that,” Gordish-Dressman says.

Craig McDonald, M.D., a University of California, Davis, professor and lead author of the study adds: “This long-term, follow-up study provides the most definitive evidence that the benefits of glucocorticoid steroid therapy in DMD extend over the entire lifespan. Most importantly, patients with Duchenne using glucocorticoids experienced an overall reduction in risk of death by more than 50 percent.”

To determine whether the short-term benefits of these drugs extend in the long term, Gordish-Dressman and researchers scattered across the country tapped data from the Cooperative International Neuromuscular Research Group’s Duchenne Natural History Study, the largest study to follow patients with DMD over time. They gathered data for 440 males with DMD aged 2 to 8 years old. About 22 percent had never taken glucocorticoids or had taken these medications for less than one year. The remainder had taken them for at least one year or longer.

By analyzing data for up to 10 years for these patients, the long-term benefits became clear, Gordish-Dressman adds. Glucocorticoid treatment for patients who received it for more than one year delayed loss of mobility milestones that affected the lower limbs by 2.1 to 4.4 years, such as going from supine to standing, climbing four stairs, and walking or running 10 meters, compared with boys who received the medications for less than one year. Long-term glucocorticoid therapy also delayed the loss of mobility milestones in upper limbs, such as hand function, performing a full overhead reach and raising the hands to the mouth.

Long-term use of these drugs also was associated with a decreased risk of death over the length of the study. Furthermore, deflazacort – a glucocorticoid recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration specifically for DMD – delayed loss of the ability to move from supine position to standing, walking and hand-to-mouth function significantly better than prednisone, the most popular glucocorticoid prescribed for DMD in the United States.

Gordish-Dressman says that glucocorticoids are currently a standard part of care for most patients with DMD, with some clinics prescribing these medications as soon as patients are diagnosed. However, because long-term data supporting their use was lacking, some physicians hesitate to prescribe glucocorticoids until the disease had progressed, when patients already had lost significant function.

Future studies will examine which medicines in this class of drugs and which regimens might offer the most benefits as well as how benefits differ with longer-term medication use.

Research reported in this news release was supported by the U.S. Department of Education/NIDRR, H133B031118 and H133B090001; the U.S. Department of Defense, W81XWH-12-1-0417; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under award number R01AR061875; and Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy.

Javad Nazarian

Liquid biopsy spots aggressive brainstem cancer earlier

Javad Nazarian

A Children’s National research team led by Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., tested whether circulating tumor DNA in patients’ blood and cerebrospinal fluid would provide an earlier warning that pediatric brainstem tumors were growing.

A highly aggressive pediatric brain cancer can be spotted earlier and reliably by the genetic fragments it leaves in biofluids, according to a study presented by Children’s National Health System researchers at the Society for Neuro-Oncology (SNO) 2017 Annual Meeting. The findings may open the door to non-surgical biopsies and a new way to tell if these tumors are responding to treatment.

Children diagnosed with diffuse midline histone 3 K27M mutant (H3K27M) glioma face a poor prognosis with a median survival time of only nine months after the pediatric brainstem cancer is diagnosed. Right now, clinicians rely on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to gauge how tumors are growing, but MRI can miss very small changes in tumor size. The Children’s research team led by Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., scientific director of Children’s Brain Tumor Institute, tested whether circulating tumor DNA in patients’ blood and cerebrospinal fluid would provide an earlier warning that tumors were growing. Just as a detective looks for fingerprints left at a scene, the new genetic analysis technique can detect telltale signs that tumors leave behind in body fluids.

“We continue to push the envelope to find ways to provide hope for children and families who right now face a very dismal future. By identifying these tumors when they are small and, potentially more responsive to treatment, our ultimate aim is to help children live longer,” says Eshini Panditharatna, B.A., study lead author. “In addition, we are hopeful that the comprehensive panel of tests we are constructing could identify which treatments are most effective in shrinking these deadly tumors.”

The researchers collected biofluid samples from 22 patients with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) who were enrolled in a Phase I, Pacific Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium clinical trial. Upfront and longitudinal plasma samples were collected with each MRI at various stages of disease progression. The team developed a liquid biopsy assay using a sensitive digital droplet polymerase chain reaction system that precisely counts individual DNA molecules.

“We detected H3K27M, a major driver mutation in DIPG, in about 80 percent of cerebrospinal fluid and plasma samples,” Panditharatna says. “Similar to adults with central nervous system (CNS) cancers, cerebrospinal fluid of children diagnosed with CNS cancers has high concentrations of circulating tumor DNA. However, after the children underwent radiotherapy, there was a dramatic decrease in circulating tumor DNA for 12 of the 15 patients (80 percent) whose temporal plasma was analyzed.”

Nazarian, the study senior author adds: “Biofluids, like plasma and cerebrospinal fluid, are suitable media to detect and measure concentrations of circulating tumor DNA for this type of pediatric glioma. Liquid biopsy has the potential to complement tissue biopsies and MRI evaluation to provide earlier clues to how tumors are responding to treatment or recurring.”

Support for this liquid biopsy study was provided by the V Foundation, Goldwin Foundation, Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, Smashing Walnuts Foundation, the Zickler Family Foundation, the Piedmont Community Foundation, the Musella Foundation, the Mathew Larson Foundation and Brain Tumor Foundation for Children.

Catherine-Bollard-SIOP

Advancing cures for pediatric cancer: Highlights from leading Children’s National experts at SIOP 2017

In mid-October 2017, nearly 2,000 clinicians, scientists, nurses, health care professionals and cancer patients and survivors gathered in Washington, D.C., for SIOP 2017, the Annual Congress of the International Society of Paediatric Oncology. For four days, attendees heard from world-renowned experts while exchanging ideas and information, all in the name of advancing cures for childhood cancer.

Hosted in the hometown of Children’s National Health System and chaired by Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., Vice President of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders and Chief of Oncology at Children’s National Health System, more than 20 doctors and nurses from Children’s National made an impact on participants through a series of widely attended sessions and addresses, including:

  • Symposium lecture on the latest approaches in anti-viral T-cell therapy to improve patient outcomes, given by Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B.
  • Keynote lecture on DICER1 mutations in pediatric cancer, given by Ashley Hill, M.D., whose study of a rare childhood lung cancer and gene mutations set the stage for a better understanding of microRNA processing gene mutations in the development of pediatric cancer.
  • Education session on new therapies for sarcomas, led by AeRang Kim, M.D., Ph.D., and Karun Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., sharing research on new approaches for local control of sarcomas, such as surgery, radiation and other ablative measures.
  • Education session on new therapies for gliomas, led by Roger J. Packer, M.D., with presentations on immunotherapy from Eugene Hwang, M.D., and targeted therapy by Lindsay Kilburn, M.D.
  • Podium paper presentation on a new method to measure cancer treatment toxicities as reported by the child by Pamela Hinds, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, as well as an education session on advanced care planning, led by Hinds with a presentation from Maureen E. Lyon, Ph.D.

“These sessions and lectures provided a glimpse into the groundbreaking work by SIOP attendees from around the world,” says Dr. Dome. “Children’s National is proud to play an active role in the development of life-saving treatments for children with cancer and our clinicians look forward to another year of revolutionary developments.”

For more on this year’s SIOP, see the Children’s National press release.

  • Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., addresses a group of international colleagues at a reception at Children’s National.

    Jeffrey Dome SIOP
  • Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B., addresses a group of international colleagues at a reception at Children’s National.

    Catherine-Bollard-SIOP
  • Lindsay Kilburn, M.D., engages with peers from around the world at a reception at Children’s National.

    Lindsay-Kilburn-SIOP

Roberta DeBiasi and Sarah Mulkey

Children’s National experts contribute to new Zika guidelines

Roberta DeBiasi and Sarah Mulkey

Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M. S., and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., members of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program, were among the experts invited to participate in a forum held in Atlanta at CDC headquarters in late August to formulate new Zika recommendations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Oct. 19, 2017 updated guidelines for evaluation of women, fetuses and infants exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy. Although only women with symptoms will now be routinely tested, asymptomatic and symptomatic infants born to these women will still be tested for the Zika virus using blood and urine tests.

Infants who appear normal, whose mothers either had negative Zika results or who had not undergone testing, will not undergo Zika testing. These infants still will undergo a standard evaluation, including a detailed physical exam, hearing screen and routine developmental assessments. The revised Zika guidance includes input from practitioners on the front lines of the Zika epidemic, including Children’s National Health System clinicians.

“These changes in the recommendations for Zika testing should not be interpreted as Zika infection risks subsiding for pregnant women and their infants in the United States. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the limitations of current testing methods – which must occur within a narrow window after Zika exposure – and the poor predictive value of Zika testing right now,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of Children’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. Dr. DeBiasi and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., members of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program, were among the experts invited to participate in the Zika forum held in Atlanta at CDC headquarters in late August to formulate the recommendations.

While all infants will receive a standard evaluation, expanded evaluations that include an ophthalmologic assessment, more detailed hearing evaluation and ultrasound of the newborn’s head will be reserved for infants born to mothers confirmed to be Zika positive or Zika probable, or for infants born with abnormalities potentially consistent with congenital Zika syndrome, regardless of maternal status.

The majority of U.S. infants who have been exposed to Zika in the womb appeared normal at birth, according to CDC registries. Now, the next wave of these normal-appearing babies will receive standard evaluations when they are born, including a newborn hearing screening. At each well-child visit, these infants will receive:

  • A comprehensive physical examination
  • An age-appropriate vision screening
  • Developmental monitoring and screening using validated tools

“This is a natural evolution in the diagnosis and screening strategy now that the peak of the first wave of Zika transmission appears to be over,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “While we continue to evaluate new possible cases of Zika infection among pregnant women in our practice, a sizable proportion of Children’s cases are Zika-exposed infants whose physical exam and neuroimaging appeared normal at birth. Through ongoing monitoring, we hope to learn more about these children’s long-term neurodevelopment outcomes.”

macrophage

Improving treatment success for Duchenne muscular dystrophy

macrophage

Macrophages, white blood cells involved in inflammation, readily take up a new medicine for Duchenne muscular dystrophy and promote its sustained delivery to regenerating muscle fibers long after the drug has disappeared from circulation.

Chronic inflammation plays a crucial role in the sustained delivery of a new type of muscular dystrophy drug, according to an experimental model study led by Children’s National Health System.

The study, published online Oct. 16, 2017 in Nature Communications, details the cellular mechanisms of morpholino antisense drug delivery to muscles. Macrophages, white blood cells involved in inflammation, readily take up a new medicine for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) and promote its sustained delivery to regenerating muscle fibers long after the drug has disappeared from circulation.

Until recently, the only approved medicines for DMD targeted its symptoms, rather than the root genetic cause. However, in 2016 the Food and Drug Administration approved the first exon-skipping medicine to restore dystrophin protein expression in muscle: Eteplirsen, an antisense phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomer (PMO). The drug had shown promise in preclinical studies but had variable and sporadic results in clinical trials.

The Children’s National study adds to the understanding of how this type of medicine targets muscle tissue and suggests a path to improve treatments for DMD, which is the most common and severe form of muscular dystrophy and currently has no cure, explains study co-leader James S. Novak, Ph.D., a principal investigator in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research.

Because the medication vanishes from the blood circulation within hours after administration, Children’s research efforts have focused on the mechanism of delivery to muscle and on ways to increase its cellular uptake – and, by extension, its effectiveness. However, researchers understand little about how this medication actually gets delivered to muscle fibers or how the disease pathology impacts this process, knowledge that could offer new ways of boosting both its delivery and effectiveness, says Terence Partridge, Ph.D., study co-leader and principal investigator in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research.

To investigate this question, Novak, Partridge and colleagues used an experimental model of DMD that carries a version of the faulty DMD gene that, like its human counterparts, destroys dystrophin expression. To track the route of the PMO into muscle fibers, they labeled it with a fluorescent tag. The medicine traveled to the muscle but only localized to patches of regenerating muscle where it accumulated within the infiltrating macrophages, immune cells involved in the inflammatory response that accompanies this process. While PMO is rapidly cleared from the blood, the medication remained in these immune cells for up to one week and later entered muscle stem cells, allowing direct transport into regenerating muscle fibers. By co-administering the PMO with a traceable DNA nucleotide analog, the research team was able to define the stage during the regeneration process that promotes heightened uptake by muscle stem cells and efficient dystrophin expression in muscle fibers.

“These macrophages appear to extend the period of availability of this medication to the satellite cells and muscle fibers at these sites,” Partridge explains. “Since the macrophages are acting as long-term storage reservoirs for prolonged delivery to muscle fibers, they could possibly represent new therapeutic targets for improving the uptake and delivery of this medicine to muscle.”

Future research for this group will focus on testing whether macrophages might be used as efficient delivery vectors to transport eteplirsen to the muscle, which would avert the rapid clearance currently associated with intravenous delivery.

“Understanding exactly how different classes of exon-skipping drugs are delivered to muscle could open entirely new possibilities for improving future therapeutics and enhancing the clinical benefit for patients,” Novak adds.

What Children’s has learned about congenital Zika infection

Roberta DeBiasi

Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., outlined lessons learned during a pediatric virology workshop at IDWeek2017, one of three such Zika presentations led by Children’s National research-clinicians during this year’s meeting of pediatric infectious disease specialists.

The Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National Health System provides a range of advanced testing and services for exposed and infected fetuses and newborns. Data that the program has gathered in evaluating and managing Zika-affected pregnancies and births may offer instructive insights to other centers developing similar programs.

The program evaluated 36 pregnant women and their fetuses from January 2016 through May 2017. Another 14 women and their infants were referred to the Zika program for postnatal consultations during that time.

“As the days grow shorter and temperatures drop, we continue to receive referrals to our Zika program, and this is a testament to the critical need it fulfills in the greater metropolitan D.C. region,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-leader of the program. “Our multidisciplinary team now has consulted on 90 dyads (mothers and their Zika-affected fetuses/infants). The lessons we learned about when and how these women were infected and how their offspring were affected by Zika may be instructive to institutions considering launching their own programs.”

Dr. DeBiasi outlined lessons learned during a pediatric virology workshop at IDWeek2017, one of three such Zika presentations led by Children’s National research-clinicians during this year’s meeting of pediatric infectious disease specialists.

“The Zika virus continues to circulate in dozens of nations, from Angola to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Clinicians considering a strategic approach to managing pregnancies complicated by Zika may consider enlisting an array of specialists to attend to infants’ complex care needs, including experts in fetal imaging, pediatric infectious disease, physical therapists, audiologists, ophthalmologists and radiologists skilled at reading serial magnetic resonance images as well as ultrasounds,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “At Children’s we have a devoted Zika hotline to triage patient and family concerns. We provide detailed instructions for referring institutions explaining protocols before and after childbirth, and we provide continuing education for health care professionals.”

Of the 36 pregnant women possibly exposed to Zika during pregnancy seen in the program’s first year, 32 lived in the United States and traveled to countries where Zika virus was circulating. Two women had partners who traveled to Zika hot zones. And two moved to the Washington region from places where Zika is endemic. Including the postnatal cases, 89 percent of patients had been bitten by Zika-tainted mosquitoes, while 48 percent of women could have been exposed to Zika via sex with an infected partner.

Twenty percent of the women were exposed before conception; 46 percent were exposed to Zika in the first trimester of pregnancy; 26 percent were exposed in the second trimester; and 8 percent were exposed in the final trimester. In only six of 50 cases (12 percent) did the Zika-infected individual experience symptoms.

Zika infection can be confirmed by detecting viral fragments but only if the test occurs shortly after infection. Twenty-four of the 50 women (nearly 50 percent) arrived for a Zika consultation outside that 12-week testing window. Eleven women (22 percent) had confirmed Zika infection and another 28 percent tested positive for the broader family of flavivirus infections that includes Zika. Another detection method picks up antibodies that the body produces to neutralize Zika virus. For seven women (14 percent), Zika infection was ruled out by either testing method.

“Tragically, four fetuses had severe Zika-related birth defects,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “Due to the gravity of those abnormalities, two pregnancies were not carried to term. The third pregnancy was carried to term, but the infant died immediately after birth. The fourth pregnancy was carried to term, but that infant survived less than one year.”

Jyoti Jaiswal and Adam Horn

Antioxidants could thwart muscle repair

Science Signaling cover image 05Sept17

Science Signaling features a Research Article that describes the pathway by which mitochondria transduce the increase in cytosolic Ca2+ caused by plasma membrane injury into a ROS-dependent repair response. The image shows ROS production and actin polymerization as detected by fluorescent reporters near a plasma membrane injury site in a skeletal myofiber in an intact bicep of an experimental model. Credit: Adam Horn and Jyoti Jaiswal, M.S.C., Ph.D. Children’s National Health System and The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are a biological double-edged sword. These atoms, molecules or molecular fragments containing oxygen that is poised for chemical reactions, are a key part of the immune response, used by immune cells to kill potentially dangerous invaders such as bacteria. However, too much ROS – which also are produced as a normal part of cellular metabolism – can cause extreme damage to normal, healthy cells.

Because oxidative damage has been linked with cancer, many people make a concerted effort to consume antioxidants in food and as concentrated supplements. These compounds can neutralize ROS, stemming cellular damage. Taking antioxidants also has been thought to stem the muscle soreness from exercise since ROS are produced in excess during hard physical activity.

However, a new study led by researchers from Children’s National Health System finds that taking antioxidants could thwart the processes that repair muscle fibers. According to the study published Sept. 5, 2017 in Science Signaling and featured on the journal’s cover, oxidative species are crucial signals that start the process of repairing muscle fibers.

Cellular powerhouses known as mitochondria help injured muscle cells (myofibers) repair by soaking up calcium that enters from the site of injury and using it to trigger increased production of reactive oxygen species. Loading up mitochondria with excess antioxidants inhibits this signaling process, blocking muscle repair, exacerbating myofiber damage and diminishing muscle strength.

“Our results suggest a physiological role for mitochondria in plasma membrane repair in injured muscle cells, a role that highlights a beneficial effect of reactive oxygen species,” says Jyoti K. Jaiswal, M.S.C., Ph.D., principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National Health System, associate professor of genomics and precision medicine at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and senior study author. “Our work highlights the need to take a nuanced view of the role of reactive oxygen species, as they are necessary when they are present at the right place and right time. Indiscriminate use of antioxidants actually could harm an adult with healthy muscles as well as a child with diseased muscle.”

Antioxidants are widely used by Baby Boomers with muscles that ache from a grueling workout or newborns diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Jaiswal and Children’s National colleagues understand that their results buck conventional wisdom that antioxidants generally benefit muscle recovery.

“It is still a common belief within the fitness community that taking antioxidant supplements after a workout will help your muscles recover better. That’s what people think; that’s what I thought,” says Adam Horn, lead study author, a graduate student at The George Washington University who works with Jaiswal at Children’s National. “What we’ve done is figure out that mitochondria need to produce a very specific oxidative signal in response to muscle damage in order to help injured muscles repair.”Jyoti Jaiswal and Adam Horn

The oxidative signals produced by mitochondria are delicately balanced by the antioxidant defenses in healthy cells. This balance can be disrupted in diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which is caused by the lack of a muscle-specific protein, dystrophin. Lack of dystrophin makes the muscle cell plasma membrane more vulnerable to injury. In an experimental model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the muscles at birth are seemingly normal but, within weeks, show obvious muscle damage and progressive weakness.

“What changes? One of the things that changes in the third and fourth week of life of this experimental model is mitochondrial functionality,” Jaiswal adds. “They end up with many dysfunctional mitochondria, which compromise repair of injured myofibers. This permits chronic and excessive oxidation of the myofibers and disruption of the proper oxidant-antioxidant balance.”

In this case, a dose of antioxidants may restore that proper balance and help to reverse muscle damage and progressive weakness.

As a next step, the research team is examining oxidation in healthy and diseased muscle to understand how the oxidant-antioxidant balance is disrupted and how it could be restored efficiently by using existing supplements. In one such study funded by the National Institutes of Health, the team is looking at the potential benefit of vitamin E supplements for patients with muscular dystrophy.

“Antioxidant supplements are made from extracts of bark, sap, chocolate and other compounds so they’re all different,” Jaiswal says. “Knowing which ones can restore balance under a specific circumstance has the potential to help the body maintain proper cellular signaling ability, which will keep muscles healthy and working properly.”


The response of actin protein following injury to a pair of muscle fibers in an intact biceps muscle.

Javad Nazarian

Advancing pediatric cancer research by easing access to data

Javad Nazarian

“This is a tremendous opportunity for children and families whose lives have been forever altered by pediatric cancers,” says Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research and scientific director of the Brain Tumor Institute at Children’s National.

Speeding research into pediatric cancers and other diseases relies not only on collecting good data, but making them accessible to research teams around the world to analyze and build on. Both efforts take time, hard work and a significant amount of financial resources – the latter which can often be difficult to attain.

In a move that could considerably advance the field of pediatric cancer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a body that funds biomedical research in the United States, recently awarded a public-private research collective that includes Children’s National Health System up to $14.8 million to launch a data resource center for cancer researchers around the world in order to accelerate the discovery of novel treatments for childhood tumors. Contingent on available funds, five years of funding will be provided by the NIH Common Fund Gabriella Miller Kids First Pediatric Research Program, named after Gabriella Miller, a 10-year-old child treated at Children’s National.

As principal investigators, researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will lead the joint effort to build out the “Kids First” Data Resource Center. Children’s National in Washington, D.C., will spearhead specific projects, including the Open DIPG project, and as project ambassador will cultivate additional partnerships with public and private foundations and related research consortia to expand a growing trove of data about pediatric cancers and birth defects.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for children and families whose lives have been forever altered by pediatric cancers,” says Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research and scientific director of the Brain Tumor Institute at Children’s National. “From just a dozen samples seven years ago, Children’s National has amassed one of the nation’s largest tumor biorepositories funded, in large part, by small foundations. Meanwhile, research teams have been sequencing data from samples here and around the world. With this infusion of federal funding, we are poised to turn these data into insights and to translate those research findings into effective treatments.”

Today’s NIH grant builds on previous funding that Congress provided to the NIH Common Fund to underwrite research into structural birth defects and pediatric cancers. In the first phase, so-called X01 grantees—including Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., newly named director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National—received funding to sequence genetic data from thousands of patients and families affected by childhood cancer and structural birth defects.

This new phase of funding is aimed at opening access to those genetic sequences to a broader group of investigators around the globe by making hard-to-access data easily available on the cloud. The first project funded will be Open DIPG, run by Nazarian, a single disease prototype demonstrating how the new data resource center would work for multiple ailments.

DIPG stands for diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, aggressive pediatric brain tumors that defy treatment and are almost always fatal. Just as crowd sourcing can unleash the collective brainpower of a large group to untangle a problem swiftly, open data sharing could accomplish the same for childhood cancers, including DIPG. In addition to teasing out molecular alterations responsible for making such cancers particularly lethal, pooling data that now sits in silos could help to identify beneficial mutations that allow some children to survive months or years longer than others.

“It’s a question of numbers,” Dr. Vilain says. “The bottom line is that making sense of the genomic information is significantly increased by working through large consortia because they provide access to many more patients with the disease. What is complicated about genetics is we all have genetic variations. The challenge we face is teasing apart regular genetic variations from those genetic variations that actually cause childhood cancers, including DIPG.”

Nazarian predicts some of the early steps for the research consortium will be deciding nuts-and-bolts questions faced by such a start-up venture, such as the best methods to provide data access, corralling the resources needed to store massive amounts of data, and providing data access and cross correlation.

“One of the major challenges that the data resource center will face is to rapidly establish physical data storage space to store all of the data,” Nazarian says. “We’re talking about several petabytes—1,000 terabytes— of data. The second challenge to address will be data dissemination and, specifically, correlation of data across platforms representing different molecular profiles (genome versus proteome, for example). This is just the beginning, and it is fantastic to see a combination of public and private resources in answering these challenges.”

mitochondria

Mitochondria key for repairing cell damage in DMD

mitochondria

A research team led by Jyoti K. Jaiswal, M.S.C., Ph.D., found that dysfunctional mitochondria prevent repair of muscle cells in Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

What’s known

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), one of the most severe forms of muscular dystrophy, is caused by a defect in the dystrophin gene. The protein that this gene encodes is responsible for anchoring muscle cells’ inner frameworks, or cytoskeletons, to proteins and other molecules outside these cells, the extracellular matrix. Without functional dystrophin protein, the cell membranes of muscle cells become damaged, and the cells eventually die. This cell death leads to the progressive muscle loss that characterizes this disease. Why these cells are unable to repair this progressive damage has been unknown.

What’s new

A research team led by Jyoti K. Jaiswal, M.S.C., Ph.D., a principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National Health System, investigated this question in two experimental models of DMD that carry different mutations of the dystrophin gene. The researchers monitored the effects of the lack of functional dystrophin protein in these preclinical models on the level and function of muscle cell. They found that mitochondria – organelles that act as powerhouses to supply the chemical energy to drive cellular activities – are among the first to be affected. They found that the decline in mitochondrial level and activity over time in these experimental models preceded the onset of symptoms. The research team also looked at the ability of the experimental models’ muscle cells to repair damage. As the muscle cell mitochondria lost function, the cells’ ability to repair damage also declined. Efforts to increase mitochondrial activity after these organelles became dysfunctional did not improve muscle repair. This suggests that poor muscle repair may not be caused by a deficit in energy production by mitochondria.

Questions for future research

Q: Does similar mitochondrial dysfunction occur in human patients with DMD?
Q: How can the mitochondrial dysfunction be prevented?
Q: Is there a way to reverse mitochondrial dysfunction to better preserve the ability of muscle cells to repair from DMD-related damage?

Source: “Mitochondria mediate cell membrane repair and contribute to Duchenne muscular dystrophy.” Vila, M.C., S. Rayavarapu, M.W. Hogarth, J.H. Van der Meulen, A. Horn, A. Defour, S. Takeda, K.J. Brown, Y. Hathout, K. Nagaraju and J.K. Jaiswal. Published by Cell Death and Differentiation February 2017.

Zhe Han, PhD

Lab led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., receives $1.75 million from NIH

Zhe Han, PhD

A new four-year NIH grant will enable Zhe Han, Ph.D., to carry out the latest stage in the detective work to determine how histone-modifying genes regulate heart development and the molecular mechanisms of congenital heart disease caused by these genetic mutations.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $1.75 million to a research lab led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., principal investigator and associate professor in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, in order to build models of congenital heart disease (CHD) that are tailored to the unique genetic sequences of individual patients.

Han was the first researcher to create a Drosophila melanogaster model to efficiently study genes involved in CHD, the No.1 birth defect experienced by newborns, based on sequencing data from patients with the heart condition. While surgery can fix more than 90 percent of such heart defects, an ongoing challenge is how to contend with the remaining cases since mutations of a vast array of genes could trigger any individual CHD case.

In a landmark paper published in 2013 in the journal Nature, five different institutions sequenced the genomes of more than 300 patients with CHD and their families, identifying 200 mutated genes of interest.

“Even though mutations of these genes were identified from patients with CHD, these genes cannot be called ‘CHD genes’ since we had no in vivo evidence to demonstrate these genes are involved in heart development,” Han says. “A key question to be answered: How do we efficiently test a large number of candidate disease genes in an experimental model system?”

In early 2017, Han published a paper in Elife providing the answer to that lingering question. By silencing genes in a fly model of human CHD, the research team confirmed which genes play important roles in development. The largest group of genes that were validated in Han’s study were histone-modifying genes. (DNA winds around the histone protein, like thread wrapped around a spool, to become packed into a higher-level structure.)

The new four-year NIH grant will enable Han to carry out the next stage of the detective work to determine precisely how histone-modifying genes regulate heart development. In order to do so, his group will silence the function of histone-modifying genes one by one, to study their function in the fly heart development and to identify the key histone-modifying genes for heart development. And because patients with CHD can have more than one mutated gene, he will silence multiple genes simultaneously to determine how those genes work in partnership to cause heart development to go awry.

By the end of the four-year research project, Han hopes to be able to identify all of the histone-modified genes that play pivotal roles in development of the heart in order to use those genes to tailor make personalized fly models corresponding to individual patient’s genetic makeup.

Parents with mutations linked to CHD are likely to pass heart disease risk to the next generation. One day, those parents could have an opportunity to sequence their genes to learn the degree of CHD risk their offspring face.

“Funding this type of basic research enables us to understand which genes are important for heart development and how. With this knowledge, in the near future we could predict the chances of a baby being born with CHD, and cure it by using gene-editing approaches to prevent passing disease to the next generation,” Han says.

Baby with Cleft Palate

Understanding genetic synergy in cleft palate

Baby with Cleft Palate

Like mechanics fixing a faulty engine, Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., says researchers will not be able to remedy problems related to IRF6, a gene implicated in cleft palate, until they better understand how the gene works.

Like all of the individual elements of fetal development, palate growth is a marvel of nature. In part of this process, ledges of tissue on the sides of the face grow downwards on each side of the tongue, then upward, fusing at the midline at the top of the mouth. The vast majority of the time, this process goes correctly. However, some part of it goes awry for the 2,650 babies born in the United States each year with cleft palates and the thousands more born worldwide with the defect.

For nearly two decades, researchers have known that a gene known as IRF6 is involved in palate formation. Studies have shown that this gene contributes about 12 percent to 18 percent of the risk of cleft palate, more than any other gene identified thus far. IRF6 is active in epithelial tissues – those that line cavities and surfaces throughout the body – including the periderm, a tissue that lines the mouth cavity and plays an important role during development.

According to Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., a child neurology fellow at Children’s National Health System, the periderm acts like a nonstick layer, preventing the tongue or other structures from adhering to the growing palate and preventing it from sealing at the midline. While researchers have long suspected that IRF6 plays a strong role in promoting this nonstick quality, exactly how it exerts its influence has not been clear.

“Gaining a better understanding of this gene might help us to eventually address deficits or perturbations in the system that creates the palate,” Dr. Kousa says. “Like a mechanic fixing a faulty engine, we will not be able to remedy problems related to this gene until we know how the gene works.”

Youssef Kousa

“Gaining a better understanding of this gene might help us to eventually address deficits or perturbations in the system that creates the palate,” Dr. Kousa says. “Like a mechanic fixing a faulty engine, we will not be able to remedy problems related to this gene until we know how the gene works.”

In a study published July 19, 2017 by the Journal of Dental Research, Dr. Kousa and colleagues seek to decipher one piece of this puzzle by investigating how this key gene might interact with others that are active during fetal development. The researchers were particularly interested in genes that work together in a cascade of activity known as the tyrosine kinase receptor signaling pathway.

Because this pathway includes a large group of genes, Dr. Kousa and colleagues reasoned that they could answer whether IRF6 interacts with this pathway by looking at whether the gene interacts with the last member of the cascade, a gene called SPRY4. To do this, the researchers worked with experimental models that had mutations in IRF6, SPRY4 or both. If these two genes interact, the scientists hypothesized, carrying mutations in both genes at the same time should result in a dramatically different outcome compared with animals that carried mutations in just one gene.

Using selective breeding techniques, the researchers created animals that had mutations in either of these genes or in both. Their results suggest that IRF6 and SPRY4 indeed do interact: Significantly more of the oral surface was adhered to the tongue during fetal development in experimental models that had mutations in both genes compared with those that had just one single gene mutated. Examining the gene activity in the periderm cells of these affected animals, the researchers found that doubly mutated experimental models also had decreased activity in a third gene known as GRHL3, which also has been linked with cleft lip and palate.

Dr. Kousa says the research team plans to continue exploring this interaction to better understand the flow of events that lead from perturbations in these genes to formation of cleft palate. Some of the questions they would like to answer include exactly which gene or genes in the tyrosine kinase receptor signaling pathway specifically interact with IRF6 – since SPRY4 represents just the end of that pathway, others genes earlier in the pathway are probably the real culprits responsible for driving problems in palate formation. They also will need to verify if these interactions take place in humans in the same way they occur in preclinical models.

Eventually, Dr. Kousa adds, the findings could aid in personalized prenatal counseling, diagnosis and screening related to cleft palate, as well as preventing this condition during pregnancy. Someday, doctors might be able to advise couples who carry mutations in these genes about whether they are more likely to have a baby with a cleft palate or determine which select group of pregnancies need closer monitoring. Additionally, because research suggests that GRHL3 might interact with nutrients, including inositol, it might be possible to prevent some cases of cleft palate by taking additional supplements during pregnancy.

“The more we know about how these genes behave,” Dr. Kousa says, “the more we can potentially avoid fetal palate development going down the wrong path.”

Eric Vilain explores “Disorders/differences of sex development: A world of uncertainty”

Eric Vilain

In his keynote address at Children’s National’s Research and Education Week, Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., explored the genetics of sex development and sex differences.

After announcing he would be joining Children’s National as the new director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research late last year, internationally-renowned geneticist Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., gave a keynote address entitled “Disorders/Differences of Sex Development: A World of Uncertainty” during Children’s National’s Research and Education Week.

Dr. Vilain explored the genetics of sex development and sex differences – specifically differences of sex development (DSD), congenital conditions in which the development of chromosomal, gonadal or anatomical sex is atypical.

“The first step in sex development is looking at genetic sex and how it results in gonadal sex,” Dr. Vilain said. “From a scientific perspective, we are trying to take a step back and assess how cells become more typically male or female.”

He explained that, at conception, the fundamental difference between male and female embryos exists in the sex chromosome complement. Both XX and XY embryos have bipotential gonads capable of differentiating into a testis or an ovary, though embryos are virtually indistinguishable from a gender perspective up until six weeks in utero.

Eric Vilain - sex differences

According to Dr. Vilain, the fundamental difference between male and female embryos exists in the sex chromosome complement, though embryos are virtually indistinguishable until six weeks in utero.

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

However, genetic mutations can alter the subsequent steps of sex differentiation. Dr. Vilain explained that, depending on the genotype, an individual may experience normal gonadal development, but abnormal development of the genitalia.

He also noted that these genes are critical to determining the differences between men and women in non-gonadal tissues as well.

In addition to exploring the genetics of sex development and sex differences, Dr. Vilain’s research explores the biological bases of sex variations in predisposition to disease. His clinic at Children’s National is completely devoted to caring for patients with a wide array of genetic and endocrine issues, particularly cases dealing with variations of sex development.

For seven years, Children’s National’s Research and Education Week has celebrated the excellence in research, education, innovation and scholarship at Children’s National and around the world. This year, the annual event focused how “Collaboration Leads to Innovation” and celebrated the development of ideas that aim to transform pediatric care.

Irf6

IRF6 gene plays roles in tissue development beyond epithelium

Irf6

Kousa, Y. A., Moussa, D. and Schutte, B. C. (2017), IRF6 expression in basal epithelium partially rescues Irf6 knockout mice. Developmental Dynamics, 2017. © 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

What’s known

IRF6 is a gene that plays a key role in the development of epithelium, the tissue that lines the cavities and surfaces of blood vessels and organs throughout the body. Mutations in this gene are known to contribute to human diseases, including van der Woude syndrome and popliteal pterygium syndrome, both of which are characterized by cleft lip and palate, skin abnormalities and limb defects. Experimental models that are genetically modified to lack this gene typically have systemic defects so severe that they die at birth. However, it’s been unclear whether these defects are all due to problems with the epithelium and their related consequences, or if IRF6 also plays a role in other tissues during fetal development.

What’s new

A research team led by Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., a pediatric resident in the child neurology track at Children’s National Health System, investigated where IRF6’s activity is important by partially “rescuing” experimental models altered to lack this gene – or selectively restoring its activity – in just the epithelium. When the resulting animals were born, they survived for hours, unlike animals that lack IRF6 completely. However, the partially rescued experimental models had physical characteristics that were intermediate between animals that were not genetically modified and those that totally lacked IRF6. These partially rescued animals still had cleft palates, skin abnormalities and limb defects, but these defects were not as severe as the modified animals that weren’t rescued at all. The findings suggest that IRF6 plays a role in development of tissue types beyond epithelium. Gaining a better understanding of how mutations in this gene exert their effects on this array of tissues eventually may help researchers develop ways to prevent related disorders or to treat them early in development.

Questions for future research

Q: What function is IRF6 playing in tissues beyond epithelium?
Q: Which defects lead to premature death in experimental models whose IRF6 function is restored in the epithelium?
Q: Is there a way to prevent defects caused by IRF6 mutations without the need to restore IRF6 function directly?

Source:IRF6 expression in basal epithelium partially rescues Irf6 knockout mice.” Kousa, Y.A., D. Moussa and B.C. Schutte. Published online by Developmental Dynamics June 23, 2017.
Youssef A. Kousa

Generating a conditional allele of Irf6

Youssef A. Kousa

A research team that includes Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., has created a novel tool to delete Interferon regulatory factor 6, which regulates how epidermal cells differentiate, multiply and migrate.

A research team has created a novel tool to delete Interferon regulatory factor 6 (Irf6), which regulates how epidermal cells differentiate, multiply and migrate.

Mutations of this critical transcription factor are implicated in two orofacial clefting disorders. As with other transcription factors, the IRF6 protein binds to specific regions of DNA and plays a role in that specific gene’s activity. With van der Woude syndrome, a rare disease that occurs in 1 in 35,000 individuals, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says mutations to the IRF6 gene inhibit production of the IRF6 protein. That protein shortfall lies at the heart of incomplete development and stalled maturation of tissues in the skull and face. For popliteal pterygium syndrome, IRF6 mutations can trigger facial abnormalities, webbed skin, and fused fingers and toes.

According to the NIH, the IRF6 protein is active in embryonic skin cells that later become tissue in the head, face and tongue. The study authors write that DNA variation in the IRF6 gene (which issues the marching orders to make the IRF6 protein) significantly heightens risk for developing non-syndromic cleft lip and palate, one of the most common congenital defects.

Studying the function of this critical gene in preclinical models has been hobbled by the fact that experimental models created without the Irf6 allele are born with severe skin, limb and craniofacial defects and die shortly after birth.

To overcome this hurdle, the research team did a bit of creative genetic shuffling to make a conditional allele of Irf6 to test in specific tissues at specific times as the experimental animals matured.

“The experimental models with the Irf6 conditional allele were viable after birth and, in fact, showed no developmental or reproductive defects when compared with their litter mates – which provides a reassurance that this specific change does not appear to affect overall normal gene function,” says Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., a pediatric resident in the child neurology track at Children’s National Health System and co-lead author of the technology report published online May 8, 2017 in Genesis.

To drill down into how the conditional allele affected the experimental models, the research team bred them with other animals specially designed to illuminate the function of the conditional allele. Some genotypes were lost, as was expected. Litters that were hypothesized to experience certain rates of severe limb, skin and craniofacial abnormalities did so. Immunostaining revealed IRF6 expression throughout the spinous layer and basal ­­­– or deepest ­­­– layer of the epidermis, but such expression was lacking in wildtype and knockout embryos.

In a different group of experimental models, the researchers added the deleter strain Ella-Cre. Nineteen resulting embryos were positive for the conditional allele but showed no evidence of recombination. Eight normal embryos showed incomplete recombination.  Nine embryos showed complete recombination in tail tissue. Just one embryo phenocopied the wild type embryos.

“Our research team successfully created the conditional allele for IRF6, which will open the door to future studies of gene function in neonatal experimental models,” Dr. Kousa and colleagues conclude. “Even though the allele is capable of recombination, we saw that efficacy varied and is linked to specific cell types. One possible explanation is variation in chromatin structure at the IRF6 locus.”

Future research will explore the utility of other Cre-drivers, such as Gdf9-Cre or CAG-Cre, to provide additional clarity about the functionality of the newly derived conditional alleles.

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.”

Facial analysis technology helps diagnose rare genetic disease

Facial Analysis Technology

A new study uses facial analysis technology developed at Children’s National to diagnose 22q1.2 deletion syndrome, also known as DiGeorge syndrome.

According to a new study led by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), facial analysis technology can assist clinicians in making accurate diagnosis of 22q1.2 deletion syndrome, also known as DiGeorge syndrome. Using objective facial analysis software, developed by researchers from the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National, the study compared the most relevant facial features characteristic of DiGeorge syndrome in diverse populations. Based on a selection of 126 individual facial features, the researchers were able to correctly diagnose patients with the disease from different ethnic groups with 96.6 percent or higher accuracy.

“The results of the study demonstrated that the identification of rare diseases benefits from adapting to ethnic and geographic populations,” said Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil., developer of the facial analysis technology and an investigator in the study from Children’s National.

Linguraru and his team are also working on a simple tool that will enable doctors in clinics without state-of-the-art genetic facilities to take photos of their patients on a smartphone and receive instant results.

Coenzyme Q10

Supplement might help kidney disease

Coenzyme Q10

A research team was able to “rescue” phenotypes caused by silencing the fly CoQ2 gene by providing nephrocytes with a normal human CoQ2 gene, as well as by providing flies with Q10, a popular supplement.

A new study led by Children’s National research scientists shows that coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), a popular over-the-counter supplement sold for pennies a dose, could alleviate genetic problems that affect kidney function. The work, done in genetically modified fruit flies — a common model for human genetic diseases since people and fruit flies share a majority of genes — could give hope to human patients with problems in the same genetic pathway.

The new study, published April 20 by Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, focuses on genes the fly uses to create CoQ10.

“Transgenic Drosophila that carry mutations in this critical pathway are a clinically relevant model to shed light on the genetic mutations that underlie severe kidney disease in humans, and they could be instrumental for testing novel therapies for rare diseases, such as focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), that currently lack treatment options,” says Zhe Han, Ph.D., principal investigator and associate professor in the Center for Cancer & Immunology Research at Children’s National and senior study author.

Nephrotic syndrome (NS) is a cluster of symptoms that signal kidney damage, including excess protein in the urine, low protein levels in blood, swelling and elevated cholesterol. The version of NS that is resistant to steroids is a major cause of end stage renal disease. Of the more than 40 genes that cause genetic kidney disease, the research team concentrated on mutations in genes involved in the biosynthesis of CoQ10, an important antioxidant that protects the cell against damage from reactive oxygen.

Drosophila pericardial nephrocytes perform renal cell functions including filtering of hemolymph (the fly’s version of blood), recycling of low molecular weight proteins and sequestration of filtered toxins. Nephrocytes closely resemble, in structure and function, the podocytes of the human kidney.  The research team tailor-made a Drosophila model to perform the first systematic in vivo study to assess the roles of CoQ10 pathway genes in renal cell health and kidney function.

One by one, they silenced the function of all CoQ genes in nephrocytes. If any individual gene’s function was silenced, fruit flies died prematurely. But silencing three specific genes in the pathway associated with NS in humans – Coq2, Coq6 and Coq8 – resulted in abnormal localization of slit diaphragm structures, the most important of the kidney’s three filtration layers; collapse of membrane channel networks surrounding the cell; and increased numbers of abnormal mitochondria with deformed inner membrane structure.

The flies also experienced a nearly three-fold increase in levels of reactive oxygen, which the study authors say is a sufficient degree of oxidative stress to cause cellular injury and to impair function – especially to the mitochondrial inner membrane. Cells rely on properly functioning mitochondria, the cell’s powerhouse, to convert energy from food into a useful form. Impaired mitochondrial structure is linked to pathogenic kidney disease.

The research team was able to “rescue” phenotypes caused by silencing the fly CoQ2 gene by providing nephrocytes with a normal human CoQ2 gene, as well as by providing flies with Q10, a readily available dietary supplement. Conversely, a mutant human CoQ2 gene from an patient with FSGS failed to rescue, providing evidence in support of that particular CoQ2 gene mutation causing the FSGS. The finding also indicated that the patient could benefit from Q10 supplementation.

“This represents a benchmark for precision medicine,” Han adds. “Our gene-replacement approach silenced the fly homolog in the tissue of interest – here, the kidney cells – and provided a human gene to supply the silenced function. When we use a human gene carrying a mutation from a patient for this assay, we can discover precisely how a specific mutation – in many cases only a single amino acid change – might lead to severe disease. We can then use this personalized fly model, carrying a patient-derived mutation, to perform drug testing and screening to find and test potential treatments. This is how I envision using the fruit fly to facilitate precision medicine.”

Related resources:
News release: Drosophila effectively models human genes responsible for genetic kidney diseases
Video: Using the Drosophila model to learn more about disease in humans

Drs. DeBiasi and du Plessis

Zika virus, one year later

Drs. DeBiasi and du Plessis

A multidisciplinary team at Children’s National has consulted on 66 Zika-affected pregnancies and births since May 2016.

The first pregnant patient with worries about a possible Zika virus infection arrived at the Children’s National Health System Fetal Medicine Institute on Jan. 26, 2016, shortly after returning from international travel.

Sixteen months ago, the world was just beginning to learn how devastating the mosquito-borne illness could be to fetuses developing in utero. As the epidemic spread, a growing number of sun-splashed regions that harbor mosquitoes that efficiently spread the virus experienced a ballooning number of Zika-affected pregnancies and began to record sobering birth defects.

The Washington, D.C. patient’s concerns were well-founded. Exposure to Zika virus early in her pregnancy led to significant fetal brain abnormalities, and Zika virus lingered in the woman’s bloodstream months after the initial exposure — longer than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) then thought was possible.

The research paper describing the woman’s lengthy Zika infection, published by The New England Journal of Medicine, was selected as one of the most impactful research papers written by Children’s National authors in 2016.

In the intervening months, a multidisciplinary team at Children National has consulted on 66 pregnancies and infants with confirmed or suspected Zika exposure. Thirty-five of the Zika-related evaluations were prenatal, and 31 postnatal evaluations assessed the impact of in utero Zika exposure after the babies were born.

The continuum of Zika-related injuries includes tragedies, such as a 28-year-old pregnant woman who was referred to Children’s National after imaging hinted at microcephaly. Follow-up with sharper magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) identified severe diffuse thinning of the cerebral cortical mantle, evidence of parenchymal cysts in the white matter and multiple contractures of upper and lower extremities with muscular atrophy.

According to a registry of Zika-affected pregnancies maintained by the CDC, one in 10 pregnancies across the United States with laboratory-confirmed Zika virus infection has resulted in birth defects in the fetus or infant.

“More surprising than that percentage is the fact that just 25 percent of infants underwent neuroimaging after birth – despite the CDC’s recommendation that all Zika-exposed infants undergo postnatal imaging,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-director of the Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National. “Clinicians should follow the CDC’s guidance to the letter, asking women about possible exposure to Zika and providing multidisciplinary care to babies after birth. Imaging is an essential tool to accurately monitor the growing baby’s brain development.”

Adré du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., director of the Fetal Medicine Institute and Congenital Zika Virus Program co-leader, explains the challenges: ”When it comes to understanding the long-term consequences for fetuses exposed to the Zika virus, we are still on the steepest part of the learning curve. Identifying those children at risk for adverse outcomes will require a sustained and concerted multidisciplinary effort from conception well beyond childhood.”

In addition to counseling families in the greater Washington, D.C. region, the Children’s research team is collaborating with international colleagues to conduct a clinical trial that has been recruiting Zika-infected women and their babies in Colombia. Pediatric Resident Youssef A. Kousa, D.O., Ph.D., M.S., and Neurologist Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., will present preliminary findings during Research and Education Week 2017.

In Colombia as well as the District of Columbia, a growing challenge continues to be assessing Zika’s more subtle effects on pregnancies, developing fetuses and infants, says Radiologist Dorothy Bulas, M.D., another member of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program.

The most severe cases from Brazil were characterized by interrupted fetal brain development, smaller-than-normal infant head circumference, brain calcifications, enlarged ventricles, seizures and limbs folded at odd angles. In the United States and many other Zika-affected regions, Zika-affected cases with such severe birth defects are outnumbered by infants who were exposed to Zika in utero but have imaging that appears normal.

In a darkened room, Dr. Bulas pores over magnified images of the brains of Zika-infected babies, looking for subtle differences in structure that may portend future problems.

“There are some questions we have answered in the past year, but a number of questions remain unanswered,” Dr. Bulas says. “For neonates, that whole area needs assessment. As the fetal brain is developing, the Zika virus seems to affect the progenitor cells. They’re getting hit quite early on. While we may not detect brain damage during the prenatal period, it may appear in postnatal images. And mild side effects that may not be as obvious early on still have the potential to be devastating.”