x-ray of a fracture

Genetic disorders rarely mimic child abuse

x-rays of fractures

In suspected child abuse cases, pediatric specialists are often called for clinical consultations or subpoenaed to courtrooms to discuss unexplained fractures and hemorrhage. During routine clinical practice, Children’s National Hospital geneticists, child abuse pediatricians and radiologists use a multidisciplinary, stepwise approach that differentiates genetic disorders from cases of suspected child abuse. These teams provide a clear process for when clinical and radiological review suffices versus cases when judicious use of genetic testing and biochemical testing should be considered.

Every year, approximately 675,000 children suffer abuse or neglect, and at least 1,700 die from abuse — one of the leading causes of childhood morbidity and mortality nationwide. When these regional cases reach the courtroom, Children’s National pediatricians often serve as clinician-educators and expert witnesses. According to Children’s National experts, Dr. Hinds and Dr. Shalaby-Rana, clinicians must share the best available medical practices in both the hospital and courtroom. Unfortunately, in some cases around the country, a handful of expert medical witnesses provide unique and unsubstantiated opinions, sometimes claiming the presence of a rare genetic disorder as a cause of fracture or hemorrhage, when this has not been diagnosed by mainstream genetics specialists.

“On the part of expert witnesses, scientifically sound explanations versus unfounded hypotheses can influence outcomes in civil proceedings, which determine a child’s placement and criminal proceedings, which determine judgment on the perpetrators,” said Natasha Shur, M.D., medical geneticist at Children’s National, and Nathaniel Robin, M.D., professor and clinical genetics director at the University of Alabama in an editorial published in Current Opinion in Pediatrics.

Tanya Hinds, M.D., a child abuse pediatrician at Children’s National, works on behalf of children to provide the best and most comprehensive work-up in cases of unexplained fractures or hemorrhage. As a board-certified child abuse pediatrician, she is responsible for implementing the evidence-based practice guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics and other similar societies. Dr. Hinds mentioned that it is possible to use medical history, physical examination and diagnostic testing to differentiate traumatic causes of fractures and subdural hematomas from genetic causes, a belief she states is held by the vast majority of child serving clinicians.

“In cases of suspected child abuse, a multidisciplinary group of clinicians at Children’s National routinely provides comprehensive and top-rate care and consider alternative explanations for fractures,” said Eglal Shalaby-Rana, M.D., a radiologist at Children’s National who has partnered with the hospital’s Child and Adolescent Protection Center team on these challenging cases since 1991. “A multidisciplinary team is crucial to the evaluation and often includes additional specialists such as pediatric radiology, trauma surgery, hematology and in some cases genetics.”

Further, these clinician-educators and researchers at Children’s National call for increased publication and use of consensus guidelines such as the consensus statement on abusive head trauma published in Pediatric Radiology in 2018. “Consensus guidelines synthesize the best available medical evidence and should be the basis for both clinical practice and education offered in the courtroom,” said Drs. Shur, Hinds and Shalaby-Rana.

Distinguishing child abuse from genetic disorders

Drs. Hinds, Shalaby-Rana and Shur have served as expert witnesses and in turn wanted to come together to help develop frameworks that share scientifically sound information with peers who might encounter spurious arguments in courtrooms regarding genetic disorders as an explanation for physical abuse and inflicted fractures. Their 2021 literature review, published in Current Opinion in Pediatrics, addresses some of these issues.

To help distinguish child physical abuse from a genetic disorder, Drs. Shur, Hinds and Shalaby-Rana worked as a multidisciplinary team to highlight best practices in six instances when genetic disorders were raised as explanations for inflicted fractures or hemorrhage, including Elhers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), Menkes Disease and Glutaric Acidemia type I. In some cases, these explanations could be reasonable but should be diagnosed using routine clinical and radiological review, and when indicated, genetic and biochemical testing.

For instance, EDS is a diagnosis that is sometimes erroneously used to explain multiple fractures in cases of suspected physical abuse and can be misused in courtrooms. The most common EDS type is hypermobile EDS, often found in late adolescence or early adulthood. In some cases, babies erroneously receive hypermobility exams, or clinicians perform hypermobility assessments on parents of children with unexplained fractures — neither practice is indicated. Instead, the Children’s National team points out that children should receive a medical evaluation using the standard guidelines set by the American Academic of Pediatrics, American College of Radiology and other professional societies.

Dr. Shur also collaborated with radiologists at Boston Children’s Hospital in a related review published in Pediatric Radiology. There, George et al. addressed the clinical and molecular diagnosis criteria for EDS to help radiologists prevent misdiagnosis and support clinicians when seeing patients with multiple fractures.

“It is disturbing that the unsubstantiated EDS infant bone fragility hypothesis continues to be advanced in civil and criminal child abuse proceedings when fractures are not part of the diagnosis criteria for EDS,” said George et al.

The clinicians noted that the Beighton score, which helps diagnose hypermobile EDS, is not intended for children younger than 8 years old. Additionally, since the score provides insufficient data, other EDS features must be present, such as skin findings and connective tissue abnormalities.

OI, known as ‘‘brittle bone disease,’’ is a group of disorders that rarely present only with unexplained fractures. The researchers emphasize that infants and children with mild OI do not present exclusively with multiple fractures, which are specific to physical abuse such as multiple, bilateral rib fractures and classic metaphyseal lesions. Drs. Shur, Hinds and Shalaby-Rana share that pediatric specialists could overcome the diagnostic challenges between OI and child abuse through the inclusion of a genetic team in some cases, during the medical evaluation while also considering various criteria, such as family history, physical examination and laboratory findings. Molecular testing may be required in some instances, but it cannot substitute traditional clinical and radiology evaluations, according to these clinician-researchers.

Similarly, while Menkes disease can present with intracranial hemorrhage and fractures like child physical abuse, there are other distinguishing characteristics unique to Menkes disease, such as hair and facial dysmorphism. In a third related case-review published in Pediatric Radiology, Shur, Hinds and Shalaby-Rana et al. emphasize that diagnostic difficulties may arises when a multidisciplinary evaluation is omitted. They call upon all clinicians to provide ethical testimony in civil or criminal proceedings and to continue to utilize a multidisciplinary approach during daily clinical practice.

Irresponsible testimony and predatory journals

According to George et al., in collaboration with Dr. Shur, there are flawed publications on EDS associated with infant bone fragility that do not follow the gold standard of the scientific community. They believe this hypothesis must be rejected by experts in the field of pediatric imaging to safeguard the scientific integrity of the discipline. The lack of scientific design, peer review process and transparency causes negative consequences in the courtroom and threatens the proper adjudication of cases of suspected child physical abuse.

“Irresponsible testimony increasingly enters medico-legal proceedings dealing with allegations of child abuse, and so-called expert witnesses regularly cite these deeply flawed publications — in addition to misquoting the medical literature, loosely interpreting medical findings, presenting fictitious findings, and excluding salient and widely accepted facts from consideration,” said George et al.

In these pieces of literature, our Children’s National multidisciplinary team members reviewed the best available evidence and their collective decades of patient experience to highlight standard processes, which differentiate child physical abuse as a cause of fractures and hemorrhage from rare disorders. Rare does not mean mysterious, and with education and a multidisciplinary approach, every child can receive the best possible medical work-up and care, according to Drs. Shur, Hinds and Shalaby-Rana. They urge all physicians to share only mainstream clinical medicine in the courtroom to help ensure the best possible social outcomes for children and their families.

red flags for irresponsible testimony

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For fifth year in a row, Children’s National Hospital nationally ranked a top 10 children’s hospital

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Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., was ranked in the top 10 nationally in the U.S. News & World Report 2021-22 Best Children’s Hospitals annual rankings. This marks the fifth straight year Children’s National has made the Honor Roll list, which ranks the top 10 children’s hospitals nationwide. In addition, its neonatology program, which provides newborn intensive care, ranked No.1 among all children’s hospitals for the fifth year in a row.

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

“It is always spectacular to be named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals, but this year more than ever,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National. “Every member of our organization helped us achieve this level of excellence, and they did it while sacrificing so much in order to help our country respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“When choosing a hospital for a sick child, many parents want specialized expertise, convenience and caring medical professionals,” said Ben Harder, chief of health analysis and managing editor at U.S. News. “The Best Children’s Hospitals rankings have always highlighted hospitals that excel in specialized care. As the pandemic continues to affect travel, finding high-quality care close to home has never been more important.”

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

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

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

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

Lee Beers

Lee Beers, M.D., F.A.A.P, begins term as AAP president

Lee Beers

“The past year has been a stark reminder about the importance of partnership and working together toward common goals,” says Dr. Beers. “I am humbled and honored to be taking on this role at such a pivotal moment for the future health and safety of not only children, but the community at large.”

Lee Savio Beers, M.D., F.A.A.P., medical director of Community Health and Advocacy at the Child Health Advocacy Institute (CHAI) at Children’s National Hospital, has begun her term as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP is an organization of 67,000 pediatricians committed to the optimal physical, mental and social health and well-being for all children – from infancy to adulthood.

“The past year has been a stark reminder about the importance of partnership and working together toward common goals,” says Dr. Beers. “I am humbled and honored to be taking on this role at such a pivotal moment for the future health and safety of not only children, but the community at large.”

Dr. Beers has pledged to continue AAP’s advocacy and public policy efforts and to further enhance membership diversity and inclusion. Among her signature issues:

  • Partnering with patients, families, communities, mental health providers and pediatricians to co-design systems to bolster children’s resiliency and to alleviate growing pediatric mental health concerns.
  • Continuing to support pediatricians during the COVID-19 pandemic with a focus on education, pediatric practice support, vaccine delivery systems and physician wellness.
  • Implementation of the AAP’s Equity Agenda and Year 1 Equity Workplan.

Dr. Beers is looking forward to continuing her work bringing together the diverse voices of pediatricians, children and families as well as other organizations to support improving the health of all children.

“Dr. Beers has devoted her career to helping children,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and chief executive officer of Children’s National. “She has developed a national advocacy platform for children and will be of tremendous service to children within AAP national leadership.”

Read more about Dr. Beer’s career and appointment as president of the AAP.

Research & Innovation Campus

Boeing gives $5 million to support Research & Innovation Campus

Research & Innovation Campus

Children’s National Hospital announced a $5 million gift from The Boeing Company that will help drive lifesaving pediatric discoveries at the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus.

Children’s National Hospital announced a $5 million gift from The Boeing Company that will help drive lifesaving pediatric discoveries at the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus. The campus, now under construction, is being developed on nearly 12 acres of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Children’s National will name the main auditorium in recognition of Boeing’s generosity.

“We are deeply grateful to Boeing for their support and commitment to improving the health and well-being of children in our community and around the globe,” said Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National “The Boeing Auditorium will help the Children’s National Research & Innovation campus become the destination for discussion about how to best address the next big healthcare challenges facing children and families.”

The one-of-a-kind pediatric hub will bring together public and private partners for unprecedented collaborations. It will accelerate the translation of breakthroughs into new treatments and technologies to benefit kids everywhere.

“Children’s National Hospital’s enduring mission of positively impacting the lives of our youngest community members is especially important today,” said Boeing President and CEO David Calhoun. “We’re honored to join other national and community partners to advance this work through the establishment of their Research & Innovation Campus.”

Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus partners currently include Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS, Virginia Tech, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Food & Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), Cerner, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, National Organization of Rare Diseases (NORD) and local government.

The 3,200 square-foot Boeing Auditorium will be the focal point of the state-of-the-art conference center on campus. Nationally renowned experts will convene with scientists, medical leaders and diplomats from around the world to foster collaborations that spur progress and disseminate findings.

Boeing’s $5 million commitment deepens its longstanding partnership with Children’s National. The company has donated nearly $2 million to support pediatric care and research at Children’s National through Chance for Life and the hospital’s annual Children’s Ball. During the coronavirus pandemic, Boeing fabricated and donated 2,000 face shields to help keep patients and frontline care providers at Children’s National safe.

Karun Sharma

Children’s National designated Center of Excellence by Focused Ultrasound Foundation

Karun Sharma

“This designation provides a high level of recognition and legitimacy to the work our Children’s National team has done with MR-HIFU over many years,” says Karun Sharma, M.D., PhD, director of Interventional Radiology and associate director of clinical translation at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation.

More precise, less invasive and less painful surgery with lower risk of complications and no radiation exposure – these are some of the benefits of treating pediatric tumors with Magnetic Resonance Guided High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (MR-HIFU). And now the Focused Ultrasound Foundation has designated Children’s National Hospital as the first global pediatric Center of Excellence (COE) for using this technology to help patients with specific types of childhood tumors.

“This designation provides a high level of recognition and legitimacy to the work our Children’s National team has done with MR-HIFU over many years,” says Karun Sharma, M.D., PhD, director of Interventional Radiology and associate director of clinical translation at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation (SZI) at Children’s National. “This will allow our focused ultrasound program to expand to other areas of interest and become more cohesive while continuing to uncover additional clinical indications for pediatric patients.”

At Children’s National, radiologists use MR-HIFU to focus an ultrasound beam into lesions, usually tumors of the bone and soft tissues, to heat and destroy the tissue in that region. There are no incisions at all. In 2015, Children’s National doctors became the first in the U.S. to use MR-HIFU to treat pediatric osteoid osteoma, a painful, but benign, bone tumor that commonly occurs in children and young adults. The trial, led by Dr. Sharma, demonstrated early success in establishing the safety and feasibility of noninvasive MR-HIFU in children as an alternative to the current, more invasive approaches to treat these tumors. The team also conducted another clinical trial, led by AeRang Kim, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatric oncologist, to treat relapsed soft tissue tumors such as sarcomas.

Since then, the Children’s National team has built an active clinical trials program and become a leader in translation of focused ultrasound for the treatment of pediatric solid tumors. The center is currently investigating the treatment of malignant solid tumors with focused ultrasound alone and combined with chemotherapy.

“Focused ultrasound offers a number of important benefits over traditional therapies, which are especially paramount for the pediatric population,” said Focused Ultrasound Foundation Chairman Neal F. Kassell, M.D. “The team at Children’s National has an exemplary track record in using this technology to pioneer new treatment options for their patients, and we look forward to collaborating and supporting their future research.”

As a designated COE, Children’s National has the necessary infrastructure to support the ongoing use of this technology, especially for carrying out future pediatric clinical trials. This infrastructure includes an ethics committee familiar with focused ultrasound, a robust clinical trials research support team, a data review committee for ongoing safety monitoring and annual safety reviews, and a scientific review committee for protocol evaluation.

The program also features a multidisciplinary team of clinicians and investigators from SZI, radiology, oncology, surgery and orthopedics. With the new designation and continued expansion, we will expand MR-HIFU to other areas such as neuro-oncology, neurosurgery, and urology. Ongoing and future work will investigate a rational combination of MR-HIFU with local tumor drug delivery, immunotherapy and cellular therapy.

“This recognition sets us apart as a premier pediatric institution, and will allow us to pave the way to make pediatric surgery more precise and less invasive,” says Dr. Sharma.

 

$1M grant funds research on quantitative imaging for tumors

“For children who are at risk of losing their vision, this project will bring a window of opportunity for physicians to start treatment earlier and save their vision,” says Marius George Linguraru, DPhil, MA, MSc.

A team from Children’s National Hospital is part of a project receiving a two-year grant of nearly $1,000,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the first pediatric project in the Quantitative Imaging Network (QIN) of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Marius George Linguraru, DPhil, MA, MSc, principal investigator from the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., is one of two principal investigators on the project, which focuses on developing quantitative imaging (QI) tools to improve pediatric tumor measurement, risk predictions and treatment response. Roger Packer, M.D., Senior Vice President of the Center for Neuroscience & Behavioral Health, Director of the Gilbert Neurofibromatosis Institute and Director of the Brain Tumor Institute, is co-investigator.

The project, in collaboration with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Children’s Hospital Colorado, centers on the most common type of brain tumor in children, called a low-grade glioma. This project focuses on a clinically challenging group of children with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), the most common inherited tumor predisposition syndrome. Nearly 20% of children with NF1 will develop a low-grade glioma called optic pathway glioma (OPG). In children with this type of brain tumor, the growth occurs around the optic nerve, chiasm and tracts, also called the optic pathway, which connects the eye to the brain. OPGs can cause vision loss and even blindness. Permanent vision loss usually occurs between one and eight years of age with doctors closely monitoring the tumor with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess the disease progression.

“Our traditional two-dimensional measures of tumor size are not appropriate to assess the changes in these amorphous tumors over time or how the tumor responds to treatment,” says Linguraru. “This means physicians have difficulty determining the size of the tumor as well as when treatment is working. Research such as this can lead to innovative medical technologies that can improve and possibly change the fate of children’s lives.”

Dr. Linguraru is leading the technical trials on this project, which take place in the first two years, or phase one, starting in June 2020. Phase one focuses on improving the often inaccurate human measurements of tumor size by developing QI tools to make precise and automated measures of tumor volume and shape using machine learning. In this phase, the project will use and homogenize MRI data from multiple centers to develop predictive models of the treatment response based on the tumor volume that are agnostic to the differences in imaging protocols. By doing this, it will allow physicians to make more informed decisions about the treatment’s success and whether the child will recover their vision.

When phase one is complete, Linguraru and the project’s other principal investigator Robert A. Avery, DO, MSCE, neuro-ophthalmologist in the Division of Ophthalmology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, will initiate the second phase, which includes validating the QI application on data from the first ever phase III clinical trial comparing two treatments for NF1-OPGs. Phase two is scheduled to start in the Summer 2022 and continue through Summer 2025.

“For children who are at risk of losing their vision, this project will bring a window of opportunity for physicians to start treatment earlier and save their vision,” says Linguraru. “For those children who won’t benefit from chemotherapy because the tumor poses no threat to their sight, this project will save them from having to go through that difficult treatment unnecessarily. It will be life-changing for the children and their families, which is what excites me about this QI application.”

This project is a collaboration between Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., in partnership with Children’s Hospital of Colorado and University of Pennsylvania. Upon project completion, the QI application will provide a precision-medicine approach for NF1-OPGs and improve clinical outcomes for pediatric tumors.

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

US News Badges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vittorio Gallo and Mark Batshaw

Children’s National Research Institute releases annual report

Vittorio Gallo and Marc Batshaw

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

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

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

Highlights from the Children’s National Research Institute annual report

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

Understanding and treating the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

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

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

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

preterm baby

Validating a better way to stratify BPD risk in vulnerable newborns

preterm baby

Factoring in the total number of days that extremely preterm infants require supplemental oxygen and tracking this metric for weeks longer than usual improves clinicians’ ability to predict respiratory outcomes according to bronchopulmonary dysplasia severity.

Factoring in the total number of days that extremely preterm infants require supplemental oxygen and tracking this metric for weeks longer than usual improves clinicians’ ability to predict respiratory outcomes according to bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) severity, a research team led by Children’s National Hospital writes in Scientific Reports. What’s more, the researchers defined a brand-new category (level IV) for newborns who receive supplemental oxygen more than 120 days as a reliable way to predict which infants are at the highest risk of returning to the hospital due to respiratory distress after discharge.

About 1 in 10 U.S. infants is born preterm, before 37 weeks gestation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes extremely preterm infants who weigh about 1 lb. at birth. These very low birthweight newborns have paper thin skin, frail hearts and lungs that are not yet mature enough to deliver oxygen throughout the body as needed. Thanks to advances in neocritical care, an increasing number of them survive prematurity, and many develop BPD, a chronic lung disease characterized by abnormal development of the lungs and pulmonary vasculature.

“About half of the babies born prematurely will come back to the hospital within the first year of life with a respiratory infection. The key is identifying them and, potentially, preventing complications in this high-risk population,” says Gustavo Nino, M.D., a Children’s National pulmonologist and the study’s lead author.

For decades, the most common way to stratify BPD risk in these vulnerable newborns has been to see if they require supplemental oxygen at 36 weeks corrected gestational age.

“The problem with this classification is it doesn’t take into account the very premature babies who are on oxygen for much longer than other babies. So, we asked the question: Can we continue risk stratification beyond 36 weeks in order to identify a subset of babies who are at much higher risk of complications,” Dr. Nino says.

The longitudinal cohort study enrolled 188 infants born extremely preterm who were admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Children’s National and tracked their data for at least 12 months after discharge. The team used a multidimensional approach that tracked duration of supplemental oxygen during the newborns’ NICU stay as well as scoring lung imaging as an independent marker of BPD severity. To validate the findings, these U.S.-born newborns were matched with 130 infants who were born preterm and hospitalized at two NICUs located in Bogotá, Colombia.

“Babies who are born very preterm and require oxygen beyond 120 days should have expanded ventilation of the lungs and cardiovascular pulmonary system before going home,” he notes. “We need to identify these newborns and optimize their management before they are discharged.”

And, the babies with level IV BPD risk need a different type of evaluation because the complications they experience – including pulmonary hypertension – place them at the highest risk of developing sleep apnea and severe respiratory infection, especially during the first year of life.

“The earlier we identify them, the better their outcome is likely to be,” Dr. Nino says. “We really need to change the risk stratification so we don’t call them all ‘severe’ and treat them the same when there is a subset of newborns who clearly are at a much higher risk for experiencing respiratory complications after hospital discharge.”

In addition to Dr. Nino, Children’s National study co-authors include Awais Mansoor, Ph.D., staff scientist at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation (SZI); Geovanny F. Perez, M.D., pediatric pulmonologist; Maria Arroyo, M.D., pulmonologist; Xilei Xu Chen, M.D., postdoctoral fellow; Jered Weinstock, pediatric pulmonary fellow; Kyle Salka, MS, research technician; Mariam Said, M.D., neonatologist, and Marius George Linguraru, DPhil, MA, MSc, SZI principal investigator and senior author. Additional co-authors include Ranniery Acuña-Cordero, Universidad Militar Nueva Granada, Bogotá, Colombia; and Monica P. Sossa-Briceño and Carlos E. Rodríguez-Martínez, both of Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

Funding for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under award Nos. HL145669, AI130502 and HL141237. In addition, the NIH has awarded Dr. Nino an RO1 grant to continue this research.

electronic cigarette dispenser with different flavors of nicotine

Extreme difficulty breathing and swallowing linked to teen’s vaping?

electronic cigarette dispenser with different flavors of nicotine

After a teen was transferred to Children’s National Hospital suffering from severe difficulty breathing and swallowing, a multidisciplinary team continued the detective work and surmises that vaping was to blame for her unusual symptoms.

A teenage girl with no hint of prior asthma or respiratory illness began to feel hoarseness in her throat and a feeling that she needed to clear her throat frequently. Within a few weeks, her hoarseness and throat-clearing worsened with early morning voice loss and feeling as if food were lodged in her throat. She started having trouble swallowing and began to avoid food all together.

Her pediatrician prescribed loratadine for suspected allergies to no avail. Days later, an urgent care center prescribed a three-day course of prednisone. For a few days, she felt a little better, but went back to feeling like she was breathing “through a straw.” After going to an emergency room with acute respiratory distress and severe difficulty swallowing, staff tried intravenous dexamethasone, ampicillin/sulbactam, and inhaled racemic epinephrine and arranged for transfer.

When she arrived at Children’s National Hospital, a multidisciplinary team continued the detective work with additional testing, imaging and bloodwork.

Examining her throat confirmed moderate swelling and a partially obstructed airway draped with thick chartreuse-colored mucus. The teen had no history of an autoimmune disorder, no international travel and no exposure to animals. She had no fever and had received all her scheduled immunizations.

“With epiglottitis – an inflammation of the flap found at the base of the tongue that prevents food from entering the trachea – our first concern is that an underlying infection is to blame,” says Michael Jason Bozzella, D.O., MS, a third-year infectious diseases fellow and lead author of the case report published Feb. 5, 2020, in Pediatrics. “We tested her specimens in a number of ways for a host of respiratory pathogens, including human rhino/enterovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza, Epstein-Barr virus, Streptococcus and more. All negative. We also looked for more atypical infections with bacteria, like Arcanobacterium, Mycoplasma and Gonorrhea. Those were all negative as well,” Dr. Bozzella adds.

She slowly improved during a seven-day initial hospital stay, though soon returned for another six-day hospital stay after it again became excruciatingly painful for her to swallow.

Every throat culture and biopsy result showed no evidence of fungal, bacterial or viral infection, acid-fast bacilli or other malignancy. But in speaking with doctors, the teen had admitted to using candy-and fruit-flavored e-cigarettes three to five times with her friends over the two months preceding her symptoms. The last time she vaped was two weeks before her unusual symptoms began.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2,668 people in the U.S. have been hospitalized for e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury, as of Jan. 14, 2020. The Children’s National case report’s authors say the increasing use of vaping products by teenagers highlights the potential for unknown health risks to continue to grow.

“This teenager’s use of e-cigarettes is the most plausible reason for this subacute epiglottitis diagnosis, a condition that can become life-threatening,” says Kathleen Ferrer, M.D., a hospitalist at Children’s National and the case report’s senior author. “This unusual case adds to a growing list of toxic effects attributable to vaping. While we normally investigate infectious triggers, like Streptococci, Staphylococci and Haemophilus, we and other health care providers should also consider e-cigarettes as we evaluate oro-respiratory complaints.”

In addition to Drs. Bozzella and Ferrer, Children’s National case report co-authors include Matthew Allen Magyar, M.D., a hospitalist; and Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases.

T2-Weighted Magnetic Resonance (MR) Imaging Brain Segmentation

Maternal mental health alters structure and biochemistry of developing fetal brain

Even when pregnant women have uncomplicated pregnancies and high socioeconomic status, when they experience elevated anxiety, stress or depression these prenatal stressors can alter the structure of the developing fetal brain and disrupt its biochemistry, according to Children’s National Hospital research published online Jan. 29, 2020, in JAMA Network Open.

The Children’s National research findings “have enormous scientific, clinical and public health implications,” Charles A. Nelson III, Ph.D.,  Boston Children’s Hospital, writes in a companion editorial.

“Previously we found that 65% of pregnant women who received a diagnosis of fetal congenital heart disease had elevated levels of stress. It’s concerning but not surprising that pregnant women who wonder if their baby will need open heart surgery would feel stress,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “In this latest study, we ran the same panel of questionnaires and were surprised to find a high proportion of otherwise healthy pregnant women whose unborn babies are doing well also report high levels of stress.”

Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems during pregnancy. To learn more about the implications for the developing fetal brain, the Children’s National research team recruited 119 healthy volunteers with low-risk pregnancies from obstetric clinics in Washington, D.C., from Jan. 1, 2016, to April 17, 2019. The women’s mean age was 34.4 years old. All were high school graduates, 83% were college graduates, and 84% reported professional employment.

T2-Weighted Magnetic Resonance (MR) Imaging Brain Segmentation.

T2-Weighted Magnetic Resonance (MR) Imaging Brain Segmentation. Segmentation results of total brain (orange), cortical gray matter (green), white matter (blue), deep gray matter (brown), brainstem (yellow), cerebellum (light blue), left hippocampus (purple) and right hippocampus (red) on a 3-Dimensional reconstructed T2-weighted MR image of a fetus at 26.4 gestational weeks. The hippocampus plays a central role in memory and behavioral inhibition and contains high concentrations of corticosteroid receptors and, thus, this brain region is sensitive to stress. Credit: JAMA Network Open.

The team performed 193 fetal brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) sessions between 24-40 weeks gestation and measured the volume of the total fetal brain as well as the cortical gray matter, white matter, deep gray matter, cerebellum, brainstem and hippocampus volumes. On the same day as their MRI visit, the pregnant women completed validated questionnaires to measure maternal stress, anxiety and depression, answering questions such as “how do you feel right now,” “how do you generally feel” as well as the degree of stressful feelings they experienced the month prior.

Of the pregnant women in the study:

  • 27% tested positive for stress
  • 26% tested positive for anxiety
  • 11% tested positive for depression
  • Maternal anxiety and stress were associated with increased fetal cortical gyrification
  • Elevated maternal depression was associated with decreased creatine and choline levels in the fetal brain
  • Maternal stress scores decreased with increasing gestational age, while anxiety and depression did not

“We report for the first time that maternal psychological distress may be associated with increased fetal local gyrification index in the frontal and temporal lobes,” says Yao Wu, Ph.D., a research associate working with Limperopoulos at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “We also found an association with left fetal hippocampal volume, with maternal psychological distress selectively stunting the left hippocampal volumetric growth more than the right. And elevated maternal depression was associated with decreased creatine and choline levels in the fetal brain,” Wu adds.

Late in pregnancy – at the time these women were recruited into the cohort study – the fetal brain grows exponentially and key metabolite levels also rise. Creatine facilitates recycling of adenosine triphosphate, the cell’s energy currency. Typically, levels of this metabolite rise, denoting rapid changes and higher cellular maturation; creatine also is known to support cognitive function. Choline levels also typically rise, marking cell membrane turnover as new cells are generated and support memory, mental focus and concentration.

“These women were healthy, and of high socioeconomic status and educational level, leading us to conclude that the prevalence of prenatal maternal psychological distress may be underestimated,” Limperopoulos adds. “While stress is an everyday reality for most of us, this is different because elevated stress during pregnancy can alter fetal brain programming. Our findings underscore the critical need to universally screen all pregnant women for prenatal psychological distress, even young mothers whose pregnancies wouldn’t otherwise raise red flags.”

In addition to Limperopoulos and Wu, Children’s National study co-authors include Yuan-Chiao Lu, Ph.D., research associate; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., biostatistician; Subechhya Pradhan, Ph.D., research faculty; Kushal Kapse, MS, staff engineer; Li Zhao, Ph.D., research faculty; Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Gilbert Vezina, M.D., director of the neuroradiology program; and Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., director, Fetal Medicine Institute. Research coordinators Catherine Lopez, MS, Kathryn Lee Bannantine, BSN, and Jessica Lynn Quistorff, MPH, assisted with subject recruitment.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under grant No. RO1 HL116585-01 and the Thrasher Research Fund under Early Career award No. 14764.

Journal Reference:
Yao Wu, Yuan-Chiao Lu, Marni Jacobs, Subechhya Pradhan, Kushal Kapse, Li Zhao, Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, Gilbert Vezina, Adré J. du Plessis, Catherine Limperopoulos. “Association of prenatal maternal psychological distress with fetal brain growth, metabolism and cortical maturation,” JAMA Network Open, 3(1): e1919940, 2020

Catherine Limperopoulos

Stressful pregnancies can leave fingerprint on fetal brain

Catherine Limperopoulos

“We were alarmed by the high percentage of pregnant women with a diagnosis of a major fetal heart problem who tested positive for stress, anxiety and depression,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s corresponding author.

When a diagnosis of fetal congenital heart disease causes pregnant moms to test positive for stress, anxiety and depression, powerful imaging can detect impaired development in key fetal brain regions, according to Children’s National Hospital research published online Jan. 13, 2020, in JAMA Pediatrics.

While additional research is needed, the Children’s National study authors say their unprecedented findings underscore the need for universal screening for psychological distress as a routine part of prenatal care and taking other steps to support stressed-out pregnant women and safeguard their newborns’ developing brains.

“We were alarmed by the high percentage of pregnant women with a diagnosis of a major fetal heart problem who tested positive for stress, anxiety and depression,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s corresponding author. “Equally concerning is how prevalent psychological distress is among pregnant women generally. We report for the first time that this challenging prenatal environment impairs regions of the fetal brain that play a major role in learning, memory, coordination, and social and behavioral development, making it all the more important for us to identify these women early during pregnancy to intervene,” Limperopoulos adds.

Congenital heart disease (CHD), structural problems with the heart, is the most common birth defect. Still, it remains unclear how exposure to maternal stress impacts brain development in fetuses with CHD.

The multidisciplinary study team enrolled 48 women whose unborn fetuses had been diagnosed with CHD and 92 healthy women with uncomplicated pregnancies. Using validated screening tools, they found:

  • 65% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for stress
  • 27% of women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for stress
  • 44% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for anxiety
  • 26% of women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for anxiety
  • 29% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for depression and
  • 9% women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for depression

All told, they performed 223 fetal magnetic resonance imaging sessions for these 140 fetuses between 21 and 40 weeks of gestation. They measured brain volume in cubic centimeters for the total brain as well as volumetric measurements for key regions such as the cerebrum, cerebellum, brainstem, and left and right hippocampus.

Maternal stress and anxiety in the second trimester were associated with smaller left hippocampi and smaller cerebellums only in pregnancies affected by fetal CHD. What’s more, specific regions — the hippocampus head and body and the left cerebellar lobe – were more susceptible to stunted growth. The hippocampus is key to memory and learning, while the cerebellum controls motor coordination and plays a role in social and behavioral development.

The hippocampus is a brain structure that is known to be very sensitive to stress. The timing of the CHD diagnosis may have occurred at a particularly vulnerable time for the developing fetal cerebellum, which grows faster than any other brain structure in the second half of gestation, particularly in the third trimester.

“None of these women had been screened for prenatal depression or anxiety. None of them were taking medications. And none of them had received mental health interventions. In the group of women contending with fetal CHD, 81% had attended college and 75% had professional educations, so this does not appear to be an issue of insufficient resources,” Limperopoulos adds. “It’s critical that we routinely to do these screenings and provide pregnant women with access to interventions to lower their stress levels. Working with our community partners, Children’s National is doing just that to help reduce toxic prenatal stress for both the health of the mother and for the future newborns. We hope this becomes standard practice elsewhere.”

Adds Yao Wu, Ph.D., a research associate working with Limperopoulos at Children’s National and the study’s lead author: “Our next goal is exploring effective prenatal cognitive behavioral interventions to reduce psychological distress felt by pregnant women and improve neurodevelopment in babies with CHD.”

In addition to Limperopoulos and Wu , Children’s National study co-authors include Kushal Kapse, MS, staff engineer; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., biostatistician; Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Mary T. Donofrio, M.D., director, Fetal Heart Program; Anita Krishnan, M.D., associate director, echocardiography; Gilbert Vezina, M.D., director, Neuroradiology Program; David Wessel, M.D., Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer; and Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., director, Fetal Medicine Institute. Jessica Lynn Quistorff, MPH, Catherine Lopez, MS, and Kathryn Lee Bannantine, BSN, assisted with subject recruitment and study coordination.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under grant No. R01 HL116585-01 and the Thrasher Research Fund under Early Career award No. 14764.

sleeping baby

False negatives: Delayed Zika effects in babies who appeared normal at birth

sleeping baby

Colombian infants exposed to Zika virus in the womb showed neurodevelopmental delays as toddlers, despite having “normal” brain imaging and head circumference at birth, a finding that underscores the importance of long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up for Zika-exposed infants.

Colombian infants exposed to Zika virus in the womb showed neurodevelopmental delays as toddlers, despite having “normal” brain imaging and head circumference at birth, a finding that underscores the importance of long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up for Zika-exposed infants, according to a cohort study published online Jan. 6, 2020, in JAMA Pediatrics.

“These infants had no evidence of Zika deficits or microcephaly at birth. Neurodevelopmental deficits, including declines in mobility and social cognition, emerged in their first year of life even as their head circumference remained normal,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D. Ph.D., a fetal/neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Hospital and the study’s first author. “About one-third of these newborns who underwent postnatal head ultrasound had nonspecific imaging results, which we believe are the first published results finding a link between subtle brain injuries and impaired neuromotor development in Zika-exposed children.”

The multi-institutional research group led by Children’s National enrolled pregnant women in Atlántico Department, which hugs the Caribbean coast of Colombia, who had been exposed to Zika, and performed a series of fetal magnetic resonance images (MRI) and ultrasounds as their pregnancies progressed.

Even though their mothers had laboratory-confirmed Zika infections, 77 out of 82 of their offspring were born with no sign of congenital Zika syndrome, a constellation of birth defects that includes severe brain abnormalities, eye problems and congenital contractures, and 70 underwent additional testing of neurodevelopment during infancy. These apparently normal newborns were born between Aug. 1, 2016, and Nov. 30, 2017, at the height of the Zika epidemic, and had normal head circumference.

When they were 4 to 8 months or 9 to 18 months of age, the infants’ neurodevelopment was evaluated using two validated tools, the Warner Initial Developmental Evaluation of Adaptive and Functional Skills (a 50-item test of such skills as self-care, mobility, communication and social cognition) and the Alberta Infant Motor Scale (a motor examination of infants in prone, supine, sitting and standing positions). Some infants were assessed during each time point.

Women participating in the study were highly motivated, with 91% following up with appointments, even if it meant traveling hours by bus. In addition to Children’s National faculty traveling to Colombia to train staff how to administer the screening instruments, videotaped assessments, MRIs and ultrasounds were read, analyzed and scored at Children’s National. According to the study team, the U.S. scoring of Alberta Infant Motor Scale tests administered in Colombia is also unprecedented for a research study and offers the potential of remote scoring of infants’ motor skill maturity in regions of the world where pediatric specialists, like child neurologists, are lacking.

“Normally, neurodevelopment in infants and toddlers continues for years, building a sturdy neural network that they later use to carry out complex neurologic and cognitive functions as children enter school,” Dr. Mulkey adds. “Our findings underscore the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that all infants exposed to Zika in the womb undergo long-term follow-up, providing an opportunity to intervene earlier.”

An accompanying editorial by CDC staffers concurs, saying the study reported “intriguing data” that add “to the growing evidence of the need for long-term follow-up for all children with Zika virus exposure in utero to ensure they receive the recommended clinical evaluations even when no structural defects are identified at birth.”

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Margarita Arroyave-Wessel, MPH, Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D., chief of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, JiJi Jiang, MS, Stephanie Russo, BS, Robert McCarter, ScD, research section head, design and biostatistics,  Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, chief of the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine, and co-Senior Author, Roberta L. DeBiasi, MD, MS, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, all of Children’s National; Colleen Peyton, PT, DPT, of Northwestern University; Yamil Fourzali, M.D., of Sabbag Radiologos, Barranquilla, Colombia; Michael E. Msall, M.D., of University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital; and co-Senior Author, Carlos Cure, M.D., BIOMELab, Barranquilla, Colombia.

Funding for the research described in this post was provided by the Thrasher Research Fund, the National Institutes of Health under award Nos. UL1TR001876 and KL2TR001877, and the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disorders Training Program under grant HRSA/MCHB T73 MC11047.

brain network illustration

$2.5M to protect the brain from metabolic insult

brain network illustration

The brain comprises only 2% of the body’s volume, but it uses more than 20% of its energy, which makes this organ particularly vulnerable to changes in metabolism.

More than 30 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority having Type 2 disease. Characterized by insulin resistance and persistently high blood sugar levels, poorly controlled Type 2 diabetes has a host of well-recognized complications: compared with the general population, a greatly increased risk of kidney disease, vision loss, heart attacks and strokes and lower limb amputations.

But more recently, says Nathan A. Smith, MS, Ph.D., a principal investigator in Children’s National Research Institute’s Center for Neuroscience Research, another consequence has become increasingly apparent. With increasing insulin resistance comes cognitive damage, a factor that contributes significantly to dementia diagnoses as patients age.

The brain comprises only 2% of the body’s volume, but it uses more than 20% of its energy, Smith explains – which makes this organ particularly vulnerable to changes in metabolism. Type 2 diabetes and even prediabetic changes in glucose metabolism inflict damage upon this organ in mechanisms with dangerous synergy, he adds. Insulin resistance itself stresses brain cells, slowly depriving them of fuel. As blood sugar rises, it also increases inflammation and blocks nitric oxide, which together narrow the brain’s blood vessels while also increasing blood viscosity.

When the brain’s neurons slowly starve, they become increasingly inefficient at doing their job, eventually succumbing to this deprivation. These hits don’t just affect individual cells, Smith adds. They also affect connectivity that spans across the brain, neural networks that are a major focus of his research.

While it’s well established that Type 2 diabetes significantly boosts the risk of cognitive decline, Smith says, it’s been unclear whether this process might be halted or even reversed. It’s this question that forms the basis of a collaborative Frontiers grant, $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation split between his laboratory; the lead institution, Stony Brook University; and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

Smith and colleagues at the three institutions are testing whether changing the brain’s fuel source from glucose to ketones – byproducts from fat metabolism – could potentially save neurons and neural networks over time. Ketones already have shown promise for decades in treating some types of epilepsy, a disease that sometimes stems from an imbalance in neuronal excitation and inhibition. When some patients start on a ketogenic diet – an extreme version of a popular fat-based diet – many can significantly decrease or even stop their seizures, bringing their misfiring brain cells back to health.

Principal Investigator Smith and his laboratory at the Children’s National Research Institute are using experimental models to test whether ketones could protect the brain against the ravages of insulin resistance. They’re looking specifically at interneurons, the inhibitory cells of the brain and the most energy demanding. The team is using a technique known as patch clamping to determine how either insulin resistance or insulin resistance in the presence of ketones affect these cells’ ability to fire.

They’re also looking at how calcium ions migrate in and out of the cells’ membranes, a necessary prerequisite for neurons’ electrical activity. Finally, they’re evaluating whether these potential changes to the cells’ electrophysiological properties in turn change how different parts of the brain communicate with each other, potentially restructuring the networks that are vital to every action this organ performs.

Colleagues at Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, led by Principal Investigator Eva-Maria Ratai, Ph.D.,  will perform parallel work in human subjects. They will use imaging to determine how these two fuel types, glucose or ketones, affect how the brain uses energy and produces the communication molecules known as neurotransmitters. They’re also investigating how these factors might affect the stability of neural networks using techniques that investigate the performance of these networks both while study subjects are at rest and performing a task.

Finally, colleagues at the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology at Stony Brook University, led by Principal Investigator Lilianne R. Mujica-Parodi, Ph.D., will use results generated at the other two institutions to construct computational models that can accurately predict how the brain will behave under metabolic stress: how it copes when deprived of fuel and whether it might be able to retain healthy function when its cells receive ketones instead of glucose.

Collectively, Smith says, these results could help retain brain function even under glucose restraints. (For this, the research team owes a special thanks to Mujica-Parodi, who assembled the group to answer this important question, thus underscoring the importance of team science, he adds.)

“By supplying an alternate fuel source, we may eventually be able to preserve the brain even in the face of insulin resistance,” Smith says.

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Making healthcare innovation for children a priority

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

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

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

Research & Innovation Campus

Children’s National welcomes Virginia Tech to its new campus

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

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

Research & Innovation Campus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kidneys with cysts on them

$6M gift powers new PKD clinical and research activities

kidneys with cysts on them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novel approach to detect fetal growth restriction

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

Morphometric and textural analyses of magnetic resonance imaging can point out subtle architectural deviations associated with fetal growth restriction during the second half of pregnancy, a first-time finding that has the promise to lead to earlier intervention.

Morphometric and textural analyses of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can point out subtle architectural deviations that are associated with fetal growth restriction (FGR) during the second half of pregnancy. The first-time finding hints at the potential to spot otherwise hidden placental woes earlier and intervene in a more timely fashion, a research team led by Children’s National Hospital faculty reports in Pediatric Research.

“We found reduced placental size, as expected, but also determined that the textural metrics are accelerated in FGR when factoring in gestational age, suggesting premature placental aging in FGR,” says Nickie Andescavage, M.D., a neonatologist at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “While morphometric and textural features can discriminate placental differences between FGR cases with and without Doppler abnormalities, the pattern of affected features differs between these sub-groups. Of note, placental insufficiency with abnormal Doppler findings have significant differences in the signal-intensity metrics, perhaps related to differences of water content within the placenta.”

The placenta, an organ shared by the pregnant woman and the developing fetus, delivers oxygen and nutrients to the developing fetus and ferries away waste products. Placental insufficiency is characterized by a placenta that develops poorly or is damaged, impairing blood flow, and can result in still birth or death shortly after birth. Surviving infants may be born preterm or suffer early brain injury; later in life, they may experience cardiovascular, metabolic or neuropsychiatric problems.

Because there are no available tools to help clinicians identify small but critical changes in placental architecture during pregnancy, placental insufficiency often is found after some damage is already done. Typically, it is discovered when FGR is diagnosed, when a fetus weighs less than 9 of 10 fetuses of the same gestational age.

“There is a growing appreciation for the prenatal origin of some neuropsychiatric disorders that manifest years to decades later. Those nine months of gestation very much define the breath of who we later become as adults,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “By identifying better biomarkers of fetal distress at an earlier stage in pregnancy and refining our imaging toolkit to detect them, we set the stage to be able to intervene earlier and improve children’s overall outcomes.”

The research team studied 32 healthy pregnancies and compared them with 34 pregnancies complicated by FGR. These women underwent up to two MRIs between 20 weeks to 40 weeks gestation. They also had abdominal circumference, fetal head circumference and fetal femur length measured as well as fetal weight estimated.

In pregnancies complicated by FGR, placentas were smaller, thinner and shorter than uncomplicated pregnancies and had decreased placental volume. Ten of 13 textural and morphometric features that differed between the two groups were associated with absolute birth weight.

“Interestingly, when FGR is diagnosed in the second trimester, placental volume, elongation and thickness are significantly reduced compared with healthy pregnancies, whereas the late-onset of FGR only affects placental volume,” Limperopoulos adds. “We believe with early-onset FGR there is a more significant reduction in the developing placental units that is detected by gross measures of size and shape. By the third trimester, the overall shape of the placenta seems to have been well defined so that primarily volume is affected in late-onset FGR.”

In addition to Dr. Andescavage and Limperopoulos, study co-authors include Sonia Dahdouh, Sayali Yewale, Dorothy Bulas, M.D., chief of the Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, and Biostatistician, Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., MPH, all of Children’s National; Sara Iqbal, of MedStar Washington Hospital Center; and Ahmet Baschat, of Johns Hopkins Center for Fetal Therapy.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award number 1U54HD090257, R01-HL116585, UL1TR000075 and KL2TR000076, and the Clinical-Translational Science Institute-Children’s National.

doctor giving girl checkup

Decision support tool reduces unneeded referrals of low-risk patients with chest pain

doctor giving girl checkup

A simple evidence-based change to standard practice could avert needless referrals of low-risk patients to cardiac specialists, potentially saving nearly $4 million in annual health care spending while also easing worried parents’ minds.

Few events strike more fear in parents than hearing their child’s heart “hurts.”

When primary care pediatricians – who are on the frontline of triaging such distressing doctor visits – access a digital helping hand tucked into the patient’s electronic health record to help them make assessments, they are more likely to refer only the patients whose chest pain is rooted in a cardiac problem to a specialist.

That simple evidence-based change to standard practice could avert needless referrals of low-risk patients to cardiac specialists according to a quality-improvement project presented during the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition. This has the potential to save nearly $4 million in annual health care spending while also easing worried parents’ minds.

“Our decision support tool incorporates the know-how of providers and helps them to accurately capture the type of red flags that point to a cardiac origin for chest pain,” says Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., FACC, FAAP, pediatric and preventive cardiologist and director of Resident Education in Cardiology at Children’s National Hospital. Those red flags include:

  • Abnormal personal medical history
    • Chest pain with exertion
    • Exertional syncope
    • Chest pain that radiates to the back, jaw, left arm or left shoulder
    • Chest pain that increases with supine position
    • Chest pain temporarily associated with a fever (>38.4°C)
  • A worrisome family history, including sudden unexplained death and cardiomyopathy.

“We know that evidence-based tools can be very effective in guiding physician behavior and reducing unnecessary testing and referrals which saves both the health care system in dollars and families in time and anxiety,” Dr. Harahsheh adds.

The abstract builds on a multi-institutional study published in Clinical Pediatrics in 2017 for which Dr. Harahsheh was lead author. More than 620,000 office-based visits (1.3%) to pediatricians in 2012 were for chest pain, he and co-authors wrote at the time. While children often complain of having chest pain, most of the time it is not due to an actual heart problem.

Over recent years, momentum has built for creating an evidence-based approach for determining which children with chest pain to refer to cardiac specialists. In response, the team’s quality-improvement tool, first introduced at two local primary pediatric offices, was expanded to the entire Children’s Pediatricians & Associates network of providers who offer pediatric primary care in Washington, D.C., and Maryland.

One daunting challenge: How to ensure that busy clinicians actually use the tool. To improve adoption, the project team embedded the decision support tool within the patient’s electronic medical record.  Now, they seek to make sure the tool gets used by more pediatricians around the country.

“If the chest pain decision support tool/medical red-flags criteria were adopted nationwide, we expect to save a minimum of $3.8 million in health care charges each year,” Dr. Harahsheh says. “That figure is very likely an underestimate of the true potential savings, because we did not calculate the value of lost productivity and other direct costs to families who shuttle from one appointment to the next.”

To ensure the changes stick, the team plans to train fledgling physicians poised to embrace the quality-improvement approach as they first launch their careers, and also look for evangelists within outpatient cardiology and pediatric clinics who can catalyze change.

“These types of quality-improvement projects require a change to the status quo. In order to be successful, we need members of the care team – including frontline clinicians and nurse practitioners – to champion change at the clinic level. With their help, we can continue to refine this tool and move toward nationwide implementation,” he explains.

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AAP National Conference and Exhibition presentation
Saturday, Oct. 26, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. (ET)
H2086 Council on Quality Improvement and Patient Safety Program

Saturday, Oct. 26, noon to 1 p.m. (ET)
Poster viewing
“Reducing low-probability cardiology referrals for chest pain from primary care: a quality improvement initiative”
Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., FACC, FAAP; Ellen Hamburger, M.D.; Lexi Crawford, M.D.; Christina Driskill, MPH, RN, CPN; Anusha Rao, MHSA; Deena Berkowitz, M.D., MPH

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Additional AAP 2019 activities featuring cardiology faculty at Children’s National Hospital include:

    • Rohan Kumthekar, M.D., recipient of the “Trainee Pediatric Cardiology Research Award” sponsored by the Children’s Heart Foundation
    • “Motion-corrected cardiac MRI limits anesthesia exposure and healthcare costs in children,” Adam B. Christopher, M.D.; Rachel Quinn, M.D.; Sara Zoulfagharian; Andrew Matisoff, M.D.; Russell Cross, M.D.; Adrienne Campbell-Washburn, Ph.D.; Laura Olivieri, M.D.
    • “Prevalence of abnormal echocardiograms in healthy, asymptomatic adolescents with Down syndrome,” Sarah B. Clauss, M.D.; Samuel S. Gidding M.D.; Claire I. Cochrane, BA; Rachel Walega, MS; Babette S. Zemel, Ph.D.; Mary E. Pipan, M.D.; Sheela N. Magge, M.D., MSCE;  Andrea Kelly, M.D., MSCE; Meryl S. Cohen, M.D.
    • “American College of Cardiology body mass index measurement and counseling quality improvement initiative,” Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., FACC, FAAP; Arash Sabati, M.D., FACC; Jeffrey Anderson, M.D.; Clara Fitzgerald; Kathy Jenkins, M.D., MPH; Carolyn M. Wilhelm, M.D., MS, FACC, FAAP; Roy Jedeikin, M.D. FACC, MBA; Devyani Chowdhury, M.D.
Andrea Gropman

$5M in federal funding to help patients with urea cycle disorders

Andrea Gropman

Andrea L. Gropman, M.D.: We have collected many years of longitudinal clinical data, but with this new funding now we can answer questions about these diseases that are meaningful on a day-to-day basis for patients with urea cycle disorders.

An international research consortium co-led by Andrea L. Gropman, M.D., at Children’s National Hospital has received $5 million in federal funding as part of an overall effort to better understand rare diseases and accelerate potential treatments to patients.

Urea cycle disorder, one such rare disease, is a hiccup in a series of biochemical reactions that transform nitrogen into a non-toxic compound, urea. The six enzymes and two carrier/transport molecules that accomplish this essential task reside primarily in the liver and, to a lesser degree, in other organs.

The majority of patients have the recessive form of the disorder, meaning it has skipped a generation. These kids inherit one copy of an abnormal gene from each parent, while the parents themselves were not affected, says Dr. Gropman, chief of the Division of Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics and Neurogenetics at Children’s National. Another more common version of the disease is carried on the X chromosome and affects boys more seriously that girls, given that boys have only one X chromosome.

Regardless of the type of urea cycle disorder, when the urea cycle breaks down, nitrogen converts into toxic ammonia that builds up in the body (hyperammonemia), particularly in the brain. As a result, the person may feel lethargic; if the ammonia in the bloodstream reaches the brain in high concentrations, the person can experience seizures, behavior changes and lapse into a coma.

Improvements in clinical care and the advent of effective medicines have transformed this once deadly disease into a more manageable chronic ailment.

“It’s gratifying that patients diagnosed with urea cycle disorder now are surviving, growing up, becoming young adults and starting families themselves. Twenty to 30 years ago, this never would have seemed conceivable,” Dr. Gropman says. “We have collected many years of longitudinal clinical data, but with this new funding now we can answer questions about these diseases that are meaningful on a day-to-day basis for patients with urea cycle disorders.”

In early October 2019, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded the Urea Cycle Disorders Consortium for which Dr. Gropman is co-principal investigator a five-year grant. This is the fourth time that the international Consortium of physicians, scientists, neuropsychologists, nurses, genetic counselors and researchers has received NIH funding to study this group of conditions.

Dr. Gropman says the current urea cycle research program builds on a sturdy foundation built by previous principal investigators Mendel Tuchman, M.D., and Mark Batshaw, M.D., also funded by the NIH. While previous rounds of NIH funding powered research about patients’ long-term survival prospects and cognitive dysfunction, this next phase of research will explore patients’ long-term health.

Among the topics they will study:

Long-term organ damage. Magnetic resonance elastrography (MRE) is a state-of-the-art imaging technique that combines the sharp images from MRI with a visual map that shows body tissue stiffness. The research team will use MRE to look for early changes in the liver – before patients show any symptoms – that could be associated with long-term health impacts. Their aim is spot the earliest signs of potential liver dysfunction in order to intervene before the patient develops liver fibrosis.

Academic achievement. The research team will examine gaps in academic achievement for patients who appear to be underperforming to determine what is triggering the discrepancy between their potential and actual scholastics. If they uncover issues such as learning difficulties or mental health concerns like anxiety, there are opportunities to intervene to boost academic achievement.

“And if we find many of the patients meet the criteria for depression or anxiety disorders, there are potential opportunities to intervene.  It’s tricky: We need to balance their existing medications with any new ones to ensure that we don’t increase their hyperammonemia risk,” Dr. Gropman explains.

Neurologic complications. The researchers will tap continuous, bedside electroencephalogram, which measures the brain’s electrical activity, to detect silent seizures and otherwise undetectable changes in the brain in an effort to stave off epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes seizures.

“This is really the first time we will examine babies’ brains,” she adds. “Our previous imaging studies looked at kids and adults who were 6 years and older. Now, we’re lowering that age range down to infants. By tracking such images over time, the field has described the trajectory of what normal brain development should look like. We can use that as a background and comparison point.”

In the future, newborns may be screened for urea cycle disorder shortly after birth. Because it is not possible to diagnose it in the womb in cases where there is no family history, the team aims to better counsel families contemplating pregnancy about their possible risks.

Research described in this post was underwritten by the NIH through its Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network.