Genetics and Rare Diseases

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.”

Muscular Dystrophy Association awards grants to two Children’s National scientists

Marshall Hogarth, Ph.D

Marshall Hogarth, Ph.D

James Novak, Ph.D.

James Novak, Ph.D.

Two Children’s National Health System research scientists, Marshall Hogarth, Ph.D. and James Novak, Ph.D., have received Post-Doctoral Development Grants from the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) as part of funding awarded to young, rising researchers who are poised to become independent investigators.

Over the next three years, Hogarth and Novak will be allotted $180,000 each to underwrite their individual research projects.

Hogarth’s research is focused on limb-girdle muscular dystrophy (LGMD), a disease which presents as muscle weakness when patients are in their late teens before rapidly progressing to severe debilitation. The MDA grant will allow Hogarth to continue his research investigating the replacement of muscle with fatty tissue and the role this plays in the late onset and subsequent progression of LGMD in patients.

Novak focuses mainly on researching Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a severely debilitating form of MD, that leads to progressive muscle weakness and respiratory and cardiac failure. Currently, the only Food and  Drug Administration (FDA)  approved treatment for DMD is exon-skipping. The MDA grant will support Novak’s study of the mechanisms that regulate the delivery of exon-skipping drugs in muscle, in order to identify new therapeutic targets and improve drug efficacy for patients with DMD.

While Hogarth and Novak focus on different aspects of neuromuscular disease, both look forward to making significant contributions that lead to overall improvements in the treatment of patients impacted by muscular dystrophy.

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.

Doctor holding preemie's hand

Children’s National creates first-of-its-kind Rare Disease Institute

Children’s National Health System has announced the creation of the Children’s National Rare Disease Institute (CNRDI), a first-of-its-kind clinical research center focused exclusively on the care and treatment of children and adults with rare genetic disorders. Designated by the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) as the first Center of Excellence for Clinical Care for Rare Diseases, the CNRDI will focus on developing care standards for patients, advancing research and developing new therapies to better treat rare diseases. The institute will be led by Marshall Summar, M.D., Chief of Genetics and Metabolism at Children’s National, and will collaborate with the NORD natural history/registry program, which was developed with input from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health to advance monitoring databases for patient outcomes and disease.

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.

Down syndrome indicators in diverse populations

According to a large international study published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, physical features vary in patients with Down syndrome across diverse populations. The study, led by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health, used an objective digital facial analysis technology developed by the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Health System to identify the most relevant facial features characteristic in Down syndrome in diverse populations from 12 countries. This study is the first to compare and contrast Down syndrome across diverse populations. It is the first in a series of studies to be used in the NIH’s Atlas of Human Malformation Syndromes in Diverse Populations, a free resource to help clinicians around the world diagnose birth defects and genetic diseases in people of diverse ancestry, and is the first in a series focused on different genetic syndromes.

Read more here.

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.”

Zhe Han, PhD

Key to genetic influence of APOL1 on chronic kidney disease

Zhe Han

Drosophila melanogaster nephrocytes share structural and functional similarities with human renal cells, making the fruit fly an ideal pre-clinical model for studying how the APOL1 gene contributes to renal disease in humans.

Using the Drosophila melanogaster pre-clinical model, a Children’s National Health System research team identified a key mechanism by which the APOL1 gene contributes to chronic kidney disease in people of African descent. The model exploits the structural and functional similarities between the fruit fly’s nephrocytes and renal cells in humans to give scientists an unprecedented ability to study gene-to-cell interactions, identify other proteins that interact with APOL1 in renal disease, and target novel therapies, according to a paper published November 18 in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

“This is one of the hottest research topics in the kidney field. We are the first group to generate this result in fruit flies,” says Zhe Han, Ph.D., a senior Drosophila specialist and associate professor in the Center for Cancer & Immunology Research at Children’s National. Han, senior author of the paper, presented the study results this month during Kidney Week 2016, the American Society of Nephrology’s annual gathering in Chicago that was expected to draw more than 13,000 kidney professionals from around the world.

The advantages of Drosophila for biomedical research include its rapid generation time and an unparalleled wealth of sophisticated genetic tools to probe deeply into fundamental biological processes underlying human diseases. People of African descent frequently inherit a mutant version of the APOL1 gene that affords protection from African sleeping sickness, but is associated with a 17- to 30-fold greater chance of developing certain types of kidney disease. That risk is even higher for individuals infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Drosophila renal cells, called nephrocytes, accurately mimic pathological features of human kidney cells during APOL1-associated renal disease.

“Nephrocytes share striking structural and functional similarities with mammalian podocytes and renal proximal tubule cells, and therefore provide us a simple model system for kidney diseases,” says Han, who has studied the fruit fly for 20 years and established the fly nephrocyte as a glomerular kidney disease model in 2013 with two research papers in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

In this most recent study, Han’s team cloned a mutated APOL1 gene from podocyte cells cultured from a patient with HIV-associated nephropathy. They created transgenic flies making human APOL1 in nephrocytes and observed that initially the transgene caused increased cellular functional activity. As flies aged, however, APOL1 led to reduced cellular function, increased cell size, abnormal vesicle acidification, and accelerated cell death.

“The main functions of nephrocytes are to filter proteins and remove toxins from the fly’s blood, to reabsorb protein components, and to sequester harmful toxins. It was surprising to see that these cells first became more active and temporarily functioned at higher levels,” says Han. “The cells got bigger and stronger but, ultimately, could not sustain that enhancement. After swelling to almost twice their normal size, the cells died. Hypertrophy is the way that the human heart responds to stress overload. We think kidney cells may use the same coping mechanism.”

The Children’s research team is a multidisciplinary group with members from the Center for Cancer & Immunology Research, the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, and the Division of Nephrology. The team also characterized fly phenotypes associated with APOL1 expression that will facilitate the design and execution of powerful Drosophila genetic screening approaches to identify proteins that interact with APOL1 and contribute to disease mechanisms. Such proteins represent potential therapeutic targets. Currently, transplantation is the only option for patients with kidney disease linked to APOL1.

“This is only the beginning,” Han says. “Now, we have an ideal pre-clinical model. We plan to start testing off-the-shelf therapeutic compounds, for example different kinase inhibitors, to determine whether they block any of the steps leading to renal cell disease.”

‘Trojan horse’ macrophage TNF-alpha opens door for HIV-1 to enter kidney epithelial cells, causing nephropathy

macrophage

Like a Trojan horse, the macrophage sits atop the epithelial cell with HIV hidden inside, opening a doorway into the kidney cell for high levels of HIV-1 to enter.

When nephrologist Patricio Ray, M.D., began investigating human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as a renal fellow, children infected with the virus had a life expectancy of no more than seven years, and kids of African descent curiously were developing a type of HIV-related kidney disease.

HIV-associated nephropathy (HIVAN) is a progressive kidney disease seen in people who are both HIV-positive and of African ancestry. Kids who carry a modified protein that protects them against sleeping sickness are 80 times more likely to develop this type of kidney disease. Due to the kidney damage, they can have abnormal amounts of protein in their urine, focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, and microcystic tubular dilation, which can lead to enlarged kidneys and chronic kidney failure.

“No one understood how HIV could affect kidney cells that lack the receptors expressed in T cells and white cells,” recalls Dr. Ray, Robert Parrott Professor of Pediatrics at Children’s National Health System. Virologists said kidney epithelial cells that lacked CD4, a major receptor where HIV attaches, could not be infected with the virus. Nephrologists, meanwhile, were seeing that HIV infection was damaging these cells.

It’s taken two decades to unravel the medical mystery, aided by urine samples he coaxed kids to donate by offering them the latest music from New Kids on the Block in exchange for each urine bottle. Many of the kids died years ago, but their immortalized cells were essential in determining, through a process of elimination, which renal cell types were capable of being infected by HIV-1.

The paper represents the capstone of Dr. Ray’s career.

“This is how difficult it is to get an important contribution in science,” he says. “It’s 20 years of work involving the excellent contributions of many people, but that’s why research is called research. In the end, it’s all a learning process. But, it’s amazing how the puzzle pieces begin to fit. When the puzzle fits, it’s good.”

Dr. Ray, in collaboration with lead author Jinliang Li, Ph.D., and four additional Children’s National co-authors, published a paper November 3 in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology that establishes a new role for transmembrane TNF-alpha, that of a facilitator that makes it easier for the HIV virus to enter certain cell types and replicate there.  Like a Trojan horse, the macrophage sits atop the epithelial cell with HIV hidden inside, opening a doorway into the kidney cell for high levels of HIV-1 to enter.

As a starting point, the research team cultured podocytes from the urine of kids with HIVAN. Through a number of steps, they isolated the unique contributions of the HIV envelope, heparan sulfate proteoglycans as attachment receptors – the glue that binds HIV to podocytes – and the essential role played by TNF-a, a 212-amino acid long type 2 transmembrane protein, in regulating at least two processes, including viral entry and fusion. They used a fluorescent marker to tag HIV-1 viruses, so it lit up bright green. Thus primed with transmembrane TNF-a, the podocytes were susceptible to HIV-1 infection when exposed to high viral loads.

Additional research is needed, such as in vitro work to help understand how HIV traffics within the cell, Dr. Ray says. Those insights could winnow the list of existing therapies that could block key steps, such as attachment to the viral envelope, which could help all people of African descent carrying the genetic mutation, including underserved kids in sub-Saharan Africa.

Another open research question is that certain cells located in the placenta and cervix express TNF-a, and may be more likely to be infected by HIV. Blocking that process could help prevent pregnant HIV-positive mothers from transmitting illness to their offspring.

Minimally invasive surgery brings lasting relief to pediatric achalasia patients

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

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

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

A look at the two surgical options

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

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

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

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

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

hands on simulation training at AAP

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

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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

Biomarkers sensitive to daily corticosteroid use

Using a mass spectrometer, Yetrib Hathout, Ph.D., is able to quantify 3,000 to 4,000 proteins from a tissue sample to identify proteins associated with cancer.

Using a Somascan proteomics assay – which simultaneously analyzes 1,129 proteins in a small volume of serum – a team led by Children’s National Health System researchers identified 21 biomarkers that respond to corticosteroids taken daily by children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) and inflammatory bowel disease.

Corticosteroids are commonly prescribed to treat inflammatory conditions. High daily doses of corticosteroids are considered the standard of care for DMD, a type of muscular dystrophy characterized by worsening muscle weakness that affects 1 in 3,600 male infants. However, depending on the age of the child and drug dosage, chronic use is associated with such side effects as changes in bone remodeling that can lead to stunted growth, weight gain, facial puffiness caused by fat buildup, mood changes, sleep disturbances, and immune suppression. The research team sought to identify blood biomarkers that could be leveraged to create a fast, reliable way to gauge the safety and efficacy of corticosteroid use by children. The biomarkers also could guide development of a replacement therapy with fewer side effects.

“Ten pro-inflammatory proteins were elevated in untreated patients and suppressed by corticosteroids (MMP12, IL22RA2, CCL22, IGFBP2, FCER2, LY9, ITGa1/b1, LTa1/b2, ANGPT2 and FGG),” Yetrib Hathout, Ph.D., Proteomic Core Director at Children’s National, and colleagues write in the journal Scientific Reports. “These are candidate biomarkers for anti-inflammatory efficacy of corticosteroids.”

The blood biomarkers sensitive to corticosteroids fit into three broad groups, according to the authors. The children taking corticosteroids were matched with children of the same age who had never taken the medicine. Five biomarkers significantly increased in this corticosteroid-naïve group and decreased in kids prescribed corticosteroids. The biomarkers generally were inflammatory proteins and included chemokine, insulin-like growth factor binding protein 2, and integrin alpha-I/beta-1 complex.

The second group of biomarkers included nine proteins associated with macrophage and T-lymphocytes that were significantly reduced in concentration in kids taking corticosteroids. According to the study, this finding hints at corticosteroids blunting the ability of the immune system’s most able fighters to respond to infection.

In the third group were five proteins that were significantly increased by corticosteroid treatment in DMD and included matrix metalloproteinase 3, carnosine dipeptidase 1, angiotensinogen, growth hormone binding protein, insulin, and leptin, a hormone linked to appetite.

What researchers learned with this study will help them more accurately design the next phase of the work, Hathout says.

“We are the first team to report a number of novel discoveries, including that growth hormone binding protein (GHBP) levels increase with corticosteroid use. This represents a candidate biomarker for stunted growth. In order to use that new information effectively in drug development, the next studies must corroborate the role of serum GHBP levels as predictors of diminished stature,” he adds. “The study finding that four adrenal steroid hormones are depressed in kids taking corticosteroids raises additional questions about the broader impact of adrenal insufficiency, including its role in the delay of the onset of puberty.”

This work was supported by National Institutes of Health grants (R01AR062380, R01AR061875, P50AR060836, U54HD071601, K99HL130035, and R44NS095423) and Department of Defense CDMRP program grant W81XWH-15-1-0265. Additional support was provided by AFM-Telethon (18259) and the Muscular Dystrophy Association USA (MDA353094).

What rare diseases teach us about common ones

Think of the urea cycle as a river. A normal river flows to where it empties, similar to the process the body uses to rid itself of harmful ammonia via the urea cycle.

Think of the urea cycle as a river. A normal river flows to where it empties, similar to the process the body uses to rid itself of harmful ammonia via the urea cycle.

I recently presented at Spotlight Health 2016, the health-focused portion of the Aspen Ideas Festival, about how studying and treating rare diseases can inform innovative treatment approaches for more common medical conditions. Our Division of Genetics and Metabolism sees more than 8,000 patients a year with rare conditions, such as urea cycle disorders and Down syndrome. Through decades of analyzing these diseases and treating children who have them, we have developed therapies that apply not only for the small numbers of patients who have rare diseases but also for more common conditions caused by environmental factors leading to a similar physical response.

For instance, we’ve demonstrated that the stress of cardiopulmonary bypass during surgery to correct congenital heart disease creates conditions similar to a critical blockage in the urea cycle, specifically the biochemical creation of citrulline, a key biochemical.

When that cycle is unable to flow, or continuing the river analogy, becomes dammed up due to a genetic defect, as in urea cycle disorders, or an environmental factor, such as the extreme stress of cardiopulmonary bypass, the body is unable to make enough citrulline which is critical for maintaining normal blood pressure. We’ve shown that replacing that citrulline can correct a lot of these problems whether caused by rare genetics or the cardiac OR.

Applying rare disease treatment approaches to more common diseases is not limited to urea cycle disorders. Work by my colleague Carlos Ferreira, MD, demonstrates how a rare genetic calcifying arterial disease (generalized arterial calcification in infancy, GACI) causes the same calcium buildup and blockages as chronic kidney disease. Dr. Ferreira hypothesizes that life-saving drugs developed for use in GACI could help patients with long-term kidney disease by averting organ damage and eventual failure caused by the buildup of calcium crystals.

The more we learn about these rare diseases, the more we come to appreciate the tremendous implications our findings have for patients with the rare disorders and potentially hundreds of thousands of others.

About the Author

Marshall Summar, MD
Research interests: The interactions between common genetic variations and the environment.

How a rare disease treatment could impact millions

Post-mortem image shows significant narrowing of the artery in an infant with GACI due to buildup of calcium crystals between the vessel wall’s inner and middle layers. Inset: Normal non-calcified artery. Patients with GACI lack the protein ENPP1, which is responsible for creating pyrophosphate. Pyrophosphate plays a critical role in preventing calcium crystallization and accumulation.

Post-mortem image shows significant narrowing of the artery in an infant with GACI due to buildup of calcium crystals between the vessel wall’s inner and middle layers. Inset: Normal non-calcified artery. Patients with GACI lack the protein ENPP1, which is responsible for creating pyrophosphate. Pyrophosphate plays a critical role in preventing calcium crystallization and accumulation.

One of the first patients I ever saw with generalized arterial calcification of infancy (GACI) was actually the third child with this condition born to the same parents. GACI is a rare genetic disease, occurring in 1 of 200,000 live births. Unfortunately, as is common in GACI, two of the family’s children previously succumbed to the disorder within the first 6 weeks of life.

GACI causes calcium to build up in the arteries, causing critical blockages that reduce blood flow to organs leading to diminished function, including stroke, heart attack, and death.

Etidronate, a pyrophosphate analog developed to treat osteoporosis, has shown limited success at replacing the pyrophosphate for patients with GACI. However, more than 55 percent of children with GACI still die before their first birthday.

We need more effective solutions. Several treatment options are in development, including the administration of ENPP1 bound to an antibody, which has shown to provide a marked survival improvement in a mouse model of the disease.

These new solutions could translate to more effective treatment of GACI but also other conditions causing calcification in the arteries, particularly the calcium buildup associated with long-term kidney disease. A treatment that potentially reduces morbidity for the estimated 20 million plus Americans with chronic kidney disease would have tremendous health and economic benefits.

Developing more targeted therapies for GACI could allow this to be the outcome for many more patients, both children with GACI and potentially also patients affected by chronic kidney disease.

About the Author

Carlos Ferreira LopezCarlos Ferreira Lopez, M.D.
Geneticist Specialist

Personalized sequencing tailors genetic tests for each patient

Changes or errors in an individual’s DNA are often at the root of many disorders. Personalized Sequencing is a fast, cost-effective way to look at a region of the genome without repeat tests and blood draws.

Changes or errors in an individual’s DNA are often at the root of many disorders. Personalized Sequencing is a fast, cost-effective way to look at a region of the genome without repeat tests and blood draws.

Until recently, doctors and patients had two choices for ordering genetic sequencing panels to identify underlying causes of disease—Individual Gene Testing (single genes and gene panels) or Whole Exome Sequencing.

Individual gene testing is the standard testing modality. Physicians identify a single gene to analyze for change or mutation. If results are negative, they order another individual test, requiring a repeat visit and another blood draw. The process is repeated again and again based on likely candidate genes for a specific disease or symptom. If a physician is very lucky, it takes only a few rounds of tests to find the culprit. More likely, however, the number of individual tests grows large, taking months of patients’ time and increasing healthcare costs significantly. By contrast, Whole Exome Sequencing includes sequencing and analyses of 25,000 genes. It is more expensive when compared with individual gene testing and takes three to six months to complete. When complete, the results often can be more than the doctor and patient bargained for: Potentially revealing a genetic problem that is unrelated to the patient’s current symptoms. A 3-year-old with seizures also may come up positive for BRCA1, the breast cancer gene. Knowing that doesn’t help understand what causes the seizures or how to best treat them. In this model, you receive everything you could ever want. Because there is so much information, however, the results are difficult to interpret or to inform treatment decisions.

We’ve come up with a different way: Personalized Sequencing Panels, a precision medicine initiative at Children’s National Health System. We offer physicians a menu of genetic regions from which to choose when they order a sequencing analysis. While a medical exome is still sequenced, we only analyze a subset of genes that the physician and geneticist think are the most likely targets, which reduces the cost and time for analysis compared to Whole Exome Sequencing. Targeting regions in this approach shortens our turnaround time for results to two or three weeks. If the first identified region shows nothing, we can return to data we’ve already collected for a second look.

We’ve been using the model for 18 months and have tested more than 1,000 patients this way. Eighty percent of physicians prefer to “create their own test” using our menu of options. Rather than bringing a one-size-fits-all test to the patient, we bring the patient their very own personalized test.

About the Author

Sean Hofherr
Laboratory Medicine Specialist

Analysis of a progressive diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma: a case report

rg_histological-dipg-image

What’s Known
Despite multiple clinical trials testing an assortment of new treatments, the survival rate for diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) remains abysmal, with most children succumbing to the pediatric brainstem tumor within 12 months of diagnosis. Focal radiation therapy, the primary treatment approach, has not improved overall survival. While the majority of DIPG tumors grow within the brainstem, metastases can occur elsewhere in the brain. Due to recent availability of tissue, new data are emerging about the biologic behavior of tumors, details that could be instrumental in constructing optimal treatment strategies.

What’s New
An otherwise healthy 9-year-old girl developed weakness in the left side of her face; magnetic resonance imagining revealed T2/FLAIR hyperintensity centered within and expanding the pons. Despite various treatments, her pontine lesion increased in size and new metastases were noted. The team led by Children’s National Health System researchers is the first to report comprehensive phenotypic analyses comparing multiple sites in primary and distant tumors. All tumor sites displayed positive staining for the H3K27M mutation, a mutation described in more than two-thirds of DIPGs that may portend a worse overall survival. Persistence of mutational status across multiple metastatic sites is particularly important since the effectiveness of some therapeutic approaches relies on this occurring. mRNA analyses, by contrast, identified a small number of genes in the primary tumor that differed from one metastatic tumor. This divergence implies that a single biopsy analysis for mRNA expression has the potential to be misleading.

Questions for Future Research
Q: Because a small cohort of genes in the girl’s primary tumor were different from genes in portions of the metastatic tumor, would genomic and proteomic analyses provide additional details about this genetic evolution?
Q: How do site-specific differences in mRNA expression affect decisions about which therapies to provide and in which order?

Source: Histological and Molecular Analysis of a Progressive Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma and Synchronous Metastatic Lesions: A Case Report.” J. Nazarian, G.E. Mason, C.Y. Ho, E. Panditharatna, M. Kambhampati, L.G. Vezina, R.J. Packer, and E.I. Hwang. Published by Oncotarget on June 14, 2016.

Why subtle cellular changes can result in dramatically different genetic disorders

cellular_changes

What’s Known
One single gene, lamin A/C, is to blame for a multitude of genetic disorders, such as premature aging and problems with nerves, the heart, and muscles. Uncertainties linger in the scientific and medical community about why subtle changes of this gene cause such dramatically different disorders, such as Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy, a condition that can lead to progressive muscle weakness in childhood and heart problems by adulthood.

What’s New
The nuclear envelope is where attached regions are pulled from genetic circulation never to be used again. The process of attachment signals which parts of the genome the cell no longer considers useful. Discarding superfluous DNA keeps the cell focused on what matters more: Its future role. Proper cell differentiation hinges on “the coordinated execution of three key cellular programs,” the study authors write. Pluriopotency programs, which give primitive cells the remarkable ability to generate any cell type in the body, are inactivated. Exit from the cell cycle occurs, and cells stop dividing. Myogenesis is induced, ushering in formation of muscle tissue. Mutations in lamin A/C can disrupt this careful choreography with the cumulative effect of slowing exit from cell cycle, slowing exit from pluripotency programs, and poorly coordinating induction of terminal differentiation programs.

Questions for Future Research
Q: What are the regions of human genome that become attached to the nuclear envelope during the development of tissues other than muscle (such as fat, nerve, and heart)?
Q: Can medicines that influence epigenetic pathways help to reverse the inappropriate DNA-lamin associations in Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy?
Q: Can the new knowledge of DNA-lamin associations during muscle cell differentiation help to inform stem cell therapies?

Source:Laminopathies Disrupt Epigenomic Developmental Programs and Cell Fate.” J. Perovanovic, S. Dell’Orso, V.F. Gnochi, J. K. Jaiswal, V. Sartorelli, C. Vigouroux, K. Mamchaoui, V. Mouly, G. Bonne, and E. P. Hoffman. Science Translational Medicine. April 20, 2016.

researcher using ice bucket in lab

Spatial and temporal homogeneity of driver mutations in diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma

What’s Known
Needle biopsies help to guide diagnosis and targeted therapies for diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas (DIPGs), which make up 10 percent to 15 percent of all pediatric brain tumors but carry a median survival of 9 to 12 months. This dismal survival rate compares with a 70 percent chance of children surviving other central nervous system tumors five years post diagnosis. In DIPG, tumors appear in the pons, an area of the brain that houses cranial nerve nuclei. Surgical options are limited. Spatial and temporal tumor heterogeneity is a major obstacle to accurate diagnosis and successful targeted therapy.

What’s New
The team sought to better define DIPG heterogeneity. They analyzed 134 specimens from nine patients and found that H3K27M mutations were ubiquitous in all 41 samples with oncogenic content, and always were associated with at least one partner driver mutation: TP53, PPM1D, ACVR1 or PIK3R1. These H3K27M mutations are the initial oncogenic event in DIPG, writes the research team led by Children’s National Health System. “Driver” mutations, such as H3K27M, are essential to begin and sustain tumor formation. This main driver partnership is maintained throughout the course of the disease, in all cells across the tumor, and as tumors spread throughout the brain. Because homogeneity for main driver mutations persists for the duration of illness, efforts to cure DIPG should be directed at the oncohistone partnership, the authors write. Based on early tumor spread, efforts to cure DIPG should aim for early systemic tumor control, rather focused exclusively on the pons.

Questions for Future Research
Q: If a larger sample size were analyzed, what would it reveal about the true heterogeneity/homogeneity status of DIPGs?
Q: “Accessory” driver mutations are not absolutely essential but do help to further promote and accelerate tumor growth. What is their precise role?

Source: Spatial and Temporal Homogeneity of Driver Mutations in Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma.” H. Nikbakht, E. Panditharatna, L.G. Mikael, R. Li, T. Gayden, M. Osmond, C.Y. Ho, M. Kambhampati, E.I. Hwang, D. Faury, A. Siu, S. Papillon-Cavanagh, D. Bechet, K.L. Ligon, B. Ellezam, W.J. Ingram, C. Stinson, A.S. Moore, K.E. Warren, J. Karamchandani, R.J. Packer, N. Jabado, J. Majewski, and J. Nazarian. Published by Nature Communications on April 6, 2016.