Infectious Disease

Vittorio Gallo Alpha Omega Alpha Award

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., inducted into Alpha Omega Alpha

Vittorio Gallo Alpha Omega Alpha Award

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National, was inducted into Alpha Omega Alpha (AΩA), a national medical honor society that since 1902 has recognized excellence, leadership and research in the medical profession.

“I think it’s great to receive this recognition. I was very excited and surprised,” Gallo says of being nominated to join the honor society.

“Traditionally AΩA membership is based on professionalism, academic and clinical excellence, research, and community service – all in the name of ‘being worthy to serve the suffering,’ which is what the Greek letters AΩA stand for,” says Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., Ph.D., an ΑΩΑ member and attending neonatologist at Children’s National who conducts neuroscience research under Gallo’s mentorship. Dr. Kratimenos nominated his mentor for induction.

“Being his mentee, I thought Gallo was an excellent choice for AΩΑ faculty member,” Dr. Kratimenos says. “He is an outstanding scientist, an excellent mentor and his research is focused on improving the quality of life of children with brain injury and developmental disabilities – so he serves the suffering. He also has mentored numerous physicians over the course of his career.”

Gallo’s formal induction occurred in late May 2019, just prior to the medical school graduation at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences (GWSMHS) and was strongly supported by Jeffrey S. Akman, Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean of the university’s medical school.

“I’ve been part of Children’s National and in the medical field for almost 18 years. That’s what I’m passionate about: being able to enhance translational research in a clinical environment,” Gallo says. “In a way, this recognition from the medical field is a perfect match for what I do. As Chief Research Officer at Children’s National, I am charged with continuing to expand our research program in one of the top U.S. children’s hospitals. And, as Associate Dean for Child Health Research at GWSMHS, I enhance research collaboration between the two institutions.”

Gustavo Nino

Gustavo Nino, M.D., honored with national award from American Thoracic Society

Gustavo Nino

Gustavo Nino, M.D., a pulmonologist who directs the Sleep Medicine program at Children’s National, was honored by the American Thoracic Society with The Robert B. Mellins, M.D. Outstanding Achievement Award in recognition of his contributions to pediatric pulmonology and sleep medicine.

“I am humbled and pleased to be recognized with this distinction,” says Dr. Nino. “This national award is particularly special because it honors both academic achievements as well as research that I have published to advance the fields of pediatric pulmonology and sleep medicine.”

After completing a mentored career development award (K Award) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Nino established an independent research program at Children’s National funded by three different NIH R-level grants, an R01 research project grant; an R21 award for new, exploratory research; and an R4 small business/technology transfer award to stimulate research innovation.

The research team Dr. Nino leads has made important contributions to developing novel models to study the molecular mechanisms of airway epithelial immunity in newborns and infants. He also has pioneered the use of computer-based lung imaging tools and physiological biomarkers to predict early-life respiratory disease in newborns and infants.

Dr. Nino has published roughly 60 peer-review manuscripts including in the “Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology,” the “European Respiratory Journal,” and the “American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine,” the three top journals in the field of respiratory medicine. He has been invited to chair sessions about sleep medicine during meetings held by the Pediatric Academic Societies, American College of Chest Physicians and the American Thoracic Society (ATS).

Dr. Nino also has served as NIH scientific grant reviewer of the Lung Cellular and Molecular Immunology Section; The Infectious, Reproductive, Asthma and Pulmonary Conditions Section; and The Impact of Initial Influenza Exposure on Immunity in Infants NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Special Emphasis Panel.

In addition to his research and academic contributions, over the past five years Dr. Nino has led important clinical and educational activities at Children’s National and currently directs the hospital’s Sleep Medicine program, which has grown to become one of the region’s largest programs conducting more than 1,700 sleep studies annually.

He has developed several clinical multidisciplinary programs including a pediatric narcolepsy clinic and the Advanced Sleep Apnea Program in collaboration with the Division of Ear, Nose and Throat at Children’s National. In addition, Dr. Nino started a fellowship program in Pediatric Sleep Medicine accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education in collaboration with The George Washington University and has served as clinical and research mentor of several medical students, pediatric residents and fellows.

Fewer than 60% of young women diagnosed with STIs in emergency departments fill scripts

Fewer than 60% of young women diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the emergency department fill prescriptions for antimicrobial therapy to treat these conditions, according to a research letter published online May 28, 2019, by JAMA Pediatrics.

Adolescents make up nearly half of the people diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, untreated sexually transmitted diseases in women can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection of the reproductive organs that can complicate getting pregnant in the future.

“We were astonished to find that teenagers’ rates of filling STI prescriptions were so low,” says Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE, assistant chief of Children’s Division of Emergency Medicine and Trauma Services and the study’s senior author. “Our findings demonstrate the imperative need to identify innovative methods to improve treatment adherence for this high-risk population.”

The retrospective cohort study, conducted at two emergency departments affiliated with a large, urban, tertiary care children’s hospital, enrolled adolescents aged 13 to 19 who were prescribed antimicrobial treatment from Jan. 1, 2016, to Dec. 31, 2017, after being diagnosed with PID or testing positive for chlamydia.

Of 696 emergency department visits for diagnosed STIs, 208 teenagers received outpatient prescriptions for antimicrobial treatments. Only 54.1% of those prescriptions were filled.

“Teenagers may face a number of hurdles when it comes to STI treatment, including out-of-pocket cost, access to transportation and confidentiality concerns,” Dr. Goyal adds.

Future studies will attempt to identify barriers to filling prescriptions in order to inform development of targeted interventions based in the emergency department that promote adherence to STI treatment.

In addition to Dr. Goyal, study co-authors include Lead Author, Alexandra Lieberman, BA, The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences; and co-authors Gia M. Badolato, MPH, and Jennifer Tran, PA-C, MPH, both of Children’s National.

Alexandra M. Sim

Alexandra M. Sims, M.D., FAAP, counsels grads to know their who, how and why

Alexandra M. Sim

Alexandra M. Sims, M.D., FAAP, general academic pediatrics fellow at Children’s National, tells newly minted George Mason social sciences graduates the concrete and abstract skills they learned during their collegiate experience are exceedingly valuable.

As a 10-year-old growing up in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, lip syncing with friends as they pretended to be Destiny’s Child, Alexandra M. Sims, M.D., FAAP, predicted her future: She would become a doctor.

“Ten is a really funny age,” Dr. Sims told members of the 2019 graduating class from George Mason University College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the school and department from which she received her undergraduate degree in Anthropology. “I was old enough to feel compelled to contribute to the world meaningfully, but too young to know the weight of this undertaking. I was old enough to be intrigued by the science of the human body, but too young to be intimidated by the fact that there were no doctors in my family.”

Dr. Sims’ youngest sister, Bria, was born four weeks premature and died a few weeks after birth. The sting of that tragedy instilled in her a commitment to serve others and informed a lifelong passion to help society’s most marginalized.

Ten years after graduating George Mason herself, she invited this year’s newly minted graduates to distill their college experience into three terms: who, how and why:

  • Who means the family members and mentors who helped them enter college and persevere toward graduation.
  • How is their plan to change the world. The general academics pediatrics fellow at Children’s National asks kids about their unique superpower during visits to the primary care clinic at Children’s Health Center Anacostia. “I get a range of responses, and some of them are quite funny,” she told 800 social sciences graduates gathered for their degree celebration. “Some really surprise me in other ways. ‘I want to be kind.’ ‘I want to help people.’ ‘I want to take care of my parents.’ ”
  • Why is the reason they continue to do what they’re doing. For Dr. Sims, that’s service and mitigating health disparities, a mission that has led her to travel around the globe conducting HIV/AIDS outreach and building coalitions near and far. Her current work is domestic, as she seeks advocates for at-risk communities through health services research.

“So, come back to these when you’re feeling unsure or uneasy: your WHO, your HOW and your WHY. Know that your time here at Mason is time well spent, and that the skills that you’ve gained, both the concrete and the abstract, are exceedingly valuable,” she advised the group.

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

Research and Education Week honors innovative science

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

Billie Lou Short, M.D., received the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Clinical Science.

People joke that Billie Lou Short, M.D., chief of Children’s Division of Neonatology, invented extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, known as ECMO for short. While Dr. Short did not invent ECMO, under her leadership Children’s National was the first pediatric hospital to use it. And over decades Children’s staff have perfected its use to save the lives of tiny, vulnerable newborns by temporarily taking over for their struggling hearts and lungs. For two consecutive years, Children’s neonatal intensive care unit has been named the nation’s No. 1 for newborns by U.S. News & World Report. “Despite all of these accomplishments, Dr. Short’s best legacy is what she has done as a mentor to countless trainees, nurses and faculty she’s touched during their careers. She touches every type of clinical staff member who has come through our neonatal intensive care unit,” says An Massaro, M.D., director of residency research.

For these achievements, Dr. Short received the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Clinical Science.

Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., has provided new insights into the central role that the placental hormone allopregnanolone plays in orderly fetal brain development, and her research team has created novel experimental models that mimic some of the brain injuries often seen in very preterm babies – an essential step that informs future neuroprotective strategies. Dr. Penn, a clinical neonatologist and developmental neuroscientist, “has been a primary adviser for 40 mentees throughout their careers and embodies Children’s core values of Compassion, Commitment and Connection,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D.

For these achievements, Dr. Penn was selected to receive the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Basic and Translational Science.

The mentorship awards for Drs. Short and Penn were among dozens of honors given in conjunction with “Frontiers in Innovation,” the Ninth Annual Research and Education Week (REW) at Children’s National. In addition to seven keynote lectures, more than 350 posters were submitted from researchers – from high-school students to full-time faculty – about basic and translational science, clinical research, community-based research, education, training and quality improvement; five poster presenters were showcased via Facebook Live events hosted by Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Two faculty members won twice: Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for research about mindfulness-based stress reduction and Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for research related to HIV. So many women at every stage of their research careers took to the stage to accept honors that Naomi L.C. Luban, M.D., Vice Chair of Academic Affairs, quipped that “this day is power to women.”

Here are the 2019 REW award winners:

2019 Elda Y. Arce Teaching Scholars Award
Barbara Jantausch, M.D.
Lowell Frank, M.D.

Suzanne Feetham, Ph.D., FAA, Nursing Research Support Award
Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for “Psychosocial and biological effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in adolescents with CHD/CIEDs: a randomized control trial”
Renee’ Roberts Turner for “Peak and nadir experiences of mid-level nurse leaders”

2019-2020 Global Health Initiative Exploration in Global Health Awards
Nathalie Quion, M.D., for “Latino youth and families need assessment,” conducted in Washington
Sonia Voleti for “Handheld ultrasound machine task shifting,” conducted in Micronesia
Tania Ahluwalia, M.D., for “Simulation curriculum for emergency medicine,” conducted in India
Yvonne Yui for “Designated resuscitation teams in NICUs,” conducted in Ghana
Xiaoyan Song, Ph.D., MBBS, MSc, “Prevention of hospital-onset infections in PICUs,” conducted in China

Ninth Annual Research and Education Week Poster Session Awards

Basic and Translational Science
Faculty:
Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for “Differences in the gut microbiome of HIV-infected versus HIV-exposed, uninfected infants”
Faculty: Hayk Barseghyan, Ph.D., for “Composite de novo Armenian human genome assembly and haplotyping via optical mapping and ultra-long read sequencing”
Staff: Damon K. McCullough, BS, for “Brain slicer: 3D-printed tissue processing tool for pediatric neuroscience research”
Staff: Antonio R. Porras, Ph.D., for “Integrated deep-learning method for genetic syndrome screening using facial photographs”
Post docs/fellows/residents: Lung Lau, M.D., for “A novel, sprayable and bio-absorbable sealant for wound dressings”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Kelsey F. Sugrue, Ph.D., for “HECTD1 is required for growth of the myocardium secondary to placental insufficiency”
Graduate students:
Erin R. Bonner, BA, for “Comprehensive mutation profiling of pediatric diffuse midline gliomas using liquid biopsy”
High school/undergraduate students: Ali Sarhan for “Parental somato-gonadal mosaic genetic variants are a source of recurrent risk for de novo disorders and parental health concerns: a systematic review of the literature and meta-analysis”

Clinical Research
Faculty:
Amy Hont, M.D., for “Ex vivo expanded multi-tumor antigen specific T-cells for the treatment of solid tumors”
Faculty: Lauren McLaughlin, M.D., for “EBV/LMP-specific T-cells maintain remissions of T- and B-cell EBV lymphomas after allogeneic bone marrow transplantation”

Staff: Iman A. Abdikarim, BA, for “Timing of allergenic food introduction among African American and Caucasian children with food allergy in the FORWARD study”
Staff: Gelina M. Sani, BS, for “Quantifying hematopoietic stem cells towards in utero gene therapy for treatment of sickle cell disease in fetal cord blood”
Post docs/fellows/residents: Amy H. Jones, M.D., for “To trach or not trach: exploration of parental conflict, regret and impacts on quality of life in tracheostomy decision-making”
Graduate students: Alyssa Dewyer, BS, for “Telemedicine support of cardiac care in Northern Uganda: leveraging hand-held echocardiography and task-shifting”
Graduate students: Natalie Pudalov, BA, “Cortical thickness asymmetries in MRI-abnormal pediatric epilepsy patients: a potential metric for surgery outcome”
High school/undergraduate students:
Kia Yoshinaga for “Time to rhythm detection during pediatric cardiac arrest in a pediatric emergency department”

Community-Based Research
Faculty:
Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for “Recent trends in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area”
Staff: Gia M. Badolato, MPH, for “STI screening in an urban ED based on chief complaint”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Christina P. Ho, M.D., for “Pediatric urinary tract infection resistance patterns in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area”
Graduate students:
Noushine Sadeghi, BS, “Racial/ethnic disparities in receipt of sexual health services among adolescent females”

Education, Training and Program Development
Faculty:
Cara Lichtenstein, M.D., MPH, for “Using a community bus trip to increase knowledge of health disparities”
Staff:
Iana Y. Clarence, MPH, for “TEACHing residents to address child poverty: an innovative multimodal curriculum”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Johanna Kaufman, M.D., for “Inpatient consultation in pediatrics: a learning tool to improve communication”
High school/undergraduate students:
Brett E. Pearson for “Analysis of unanticipated problems in CNMC human subjects research studies and implications for process improvement”

Quality and Performance Improvement
Faculty:
Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for “Implementing a mindfulness-based stress reduction curriculum in a congenital heart disease program”
Staff:
Caleb Griffith, MPH, for “Assessing the sustainability of point-of-care HIV screening of adolescents in pediatric emergency departments”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Rebecca S. Zee, M.D., Ph.D., for “Implementation of the Accelerated Care of Torsion (ACT) pathway: a quality improvement initiative for testicular torsion”
Graduate students:
Alysia Wiener, BS, for “Latency period in image-guided needle bone biopsy in children: a single center experience”

View images from the REW2019 award ceremony.

Beth Tarini

Getting to know SPR’s future President, Beth Tarini, M.D., MS

Beth Tarini

Quick. Name four pillar pediatric organizations on the vanguard of advancing pediatric research.

Most researchers and clinicians can rattle off the names of the Academic Pediatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Pediatric Society. But that fourth one, the Society for Pediatric Research (SPR), is a little trickier. While many know SPR, a lot of research-clinicians simply do not.

Over the next few years, Beth A. Tarini, M.D., MS, will make it her personal mission to ensure that more pediatric researchers get to know SPR and are so excited about the organization that they become active members. In May 2019 Dr. Tarini becomes Vice President of the society that aims to stitch together an international network of interdisciplinary researchers to improve kids’ health. Four-year SPR leadership terms begin with Vice President before transitioning to President-Elect, President and Past-President, each for one year.

Dr. Tarini says she looks forward to working with other SPR leaders to find ways to build more productive, collaborative professional networks among faculty, especially emerging junior faculty. “Facilitating ways to network for research and professional reasons across pediatric research is vital – albeit easier said than done. I have been told I’m a connector, so I hope to leverage that skill in this new role,” says Dr. Tarini, associate director for Children’s Center for Translational Research.

“I’m delighted that Dr. Tarini was elected to this leadership position, and I am impressed by her vision of improving SPR’s outreach efforts,” says Mark Batshaw, M.D., Executive Vice President, Chief Academic Officer and Physician-in-Chief at Children’s National. “Her goal of engaging potential members in networking through a variety of ways – face-to-face as well as leveraging digital platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn – and her focus on engaging junior faculty will help strengthen SPR membership in the near term and long term.”

Dr. Tarini adds: “Success to me would be leaving after four years with more faculty – especially junior faculty – approaching membership in SPR with the knowledge and enthusiasm that they bring to membership in other pediatric societies.”

SPR requires that its members not simply conduct research, but move the needle in their chosen discipline. In her research, Dr. Tarini has focused on ensuring that population-based newborn screening programs function efficiently and effectively with fewer hiccups at any place along the process.

Thanks to a heel stick to draw blood, an oxygen measurement, and a hearing test, U.S. babies are screened for select inherited health conditions, expediting treatment for infants and reducing the chances they’ll experience long-term health consequences.

“The complexity of this program that is able to test nearly all 4 million babies in the U.S. each year is nothing short of astounding. You have to know the child is born – anywhere in the state – and then between 24 and 48 hours of birth you have to do testing onsite, obtain a specific type of blood sample, send the blood sample to an off-site lab quickly, test the sample, find the child if the test is out of range, get the child evaluated and tested for the condition, then send them for treatment. Given the time pressures as well as the coordination of numerous people and organizations, the fact that this happens routinely is amazing. And like any complex process, there is always room for improvement,” she says.

Dr. Tarini’s research efforts have focused on those process improvements.

As just one example, the Advisory Committee on Heritable Disorders in Newborns and Children, a federal advisory committee on which she serves, was discussing how to eliminate delays in specimen processing to provide speedier results to families. One possible solution floated was to open labs all seven days, rather than just five days a week. Dr. Tarini advocated for partnering with health care engineers who could help model ways to make the specimen transport process more efficient, just like airlines and mail delivery services. A more efficient and effective solution was to match the specimen pick-up and delivery times more closely with the lab’s operational times – which maximizes lab resources and shortens wait times for parents.

Conceptual modeling comes so easily for her that she often leaps out of her seat mid-sentence, underscoring a point by jotting thoughts on a white board, doing it so often that her pens have run dry.

“It’s like a bus schedule: You want to find a bus that not only takes you to your destination but gets you there on time,” she says.

Dr. Tarini’s current observational study looks for opportunities to improve how parents in Minnesota and Iowa are given out-of-range newborn screening test results – especially false positives – and how that experience might shake their confidence in their child’s health as well as heighten their own stress level.

“After a false positive test result, are there parents who walk away from newborn screening with lingering stress about their child’s health? Can we predict who those parents might be and help them?” she asks.

Among the challenges is the newborn screening occurs so quickly after delivery that some emotionally and physically exhausted parents may not remember it was done. Then they get a call from the state with ominous results. Another challenge is standardizing communication approaches across dozens of birthing centers and hospitals.

“We know parents are concerned after receiving a false positive result, and some worry their infant remains vulnerable,” she says. “Can we change how we communicate – not just what we say, but how we say it – to alleviate those concerns?”

DNA strands on teal background

NUP160 genetic mutation linked to steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome

DNA strands on teal background

Mutations in the NUP160 gene, which encodes one protein component of the nuclear pore complex nucleoporin 160 kD, are implicated in steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome, an international team reports March 25, 2019, in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. Mutations in this gene have not been associated with steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome previously.

“Our findings indicate that NUP160 should be included in the gene panel used to diagnose steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome to identify additional patients with homozygous or compound-heterozygous NUP160 mutations,” says Zhe Han, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National and the study’s senior author.

The kidneys filter blood and ferry waste out of the body via urine. Nephrotic syndrome is a kidney disease caused by disruption of the glomerular filtration barrier, permitting a significant amount of protein to leak into the urine. While some types of nephrotic syndrome can be treated with steroids, the form of the disease that is triggered by genetic mutations does not respond to steroids.

The patient covered in the JASN article had experienced persistently high levels of protein in the urine (proteinuria) from the time she was 7. By age 10, she was admitted to a Shanghai hospital and underwent her first renal biopsy, which showed some kidney damage. Three years later, she had a second renal biopsy showing more pronounced kidney disease. Treatment with the steroid prednisone; cyclophosphamide, a chemotherapy drug; and tripterygium wilfordii glycoside, a traditional therapy, all failed. By age 15, the girl’s condition had worsened and she had end stage renal disease, the last of five stages of chronic kidney disease.

An older brother and older sister had steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome as well and both died from end stage kidney disease before reaching 17. When she was 16, the girl was able to receive a kidney transplant that saved her life.

Han learned about the family while presenting research findings in China. An attendee of his session said that he suspected an unknown mutation might be responsible for steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome in this family, and he invited Han to work in collaboration to solve the genetic mystery.

By conducting whole exome sequencing of surviving family members, the research team found that the mother and father each carry one mutated copy of NUP160 and one good copy. Their children inherited one mutated copy from either parent, the variant E803K from the father and the variant R1173X, which causes truncated proteins, from the mother. The woman (now 29) did not have any mutations in genes known to be associated with steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome.

Some 50 different genes that serve vital roles – including encoding components of the slit diaphragm, actin cytoskeleton proteins and nucleoporins, building blocks of the nuclear pore complex – can trigger steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome when mutated.

With dozens of possible suspects, they narrowed the list to six variant genes by analyzing minor allele frequency, mutation type, clinical characteristics and other factors.

The NUP160 gene is highly conserved from flies to humans. To prove that NUP160 was the true culprit, Dr. Han’s group silenced the Nup160 gene in nephrocytes, the filtration kidney cells in flies. Nephrocytes share molecular, cellular, structural and functional similarities with human podocytes. Without Nup160, nephrocytes had reduced nuclear volume, nuclear pore complex components were dispersed and nuclear lamin localization was irregular. Adult flies with silenced Nup160 lacked nephrocytes entirely and lived dramatically shorter lifespans.

Significantly, the dramatic structural and functional defects caused by silencing of fly Nup160 gene in nephrocytes could be completely rescued by expressing the wild-type human NUP160 gene, but not by expressing the human NUP160 gene carrying the E803K or R1173X mutation identified from the girl’s  family.

“This study identified new genetic mutations that could lead to steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome,” Han notes. “In addition, it demonstrates a highly efficient Drosophila-based disease variant functional study system. We call it the ‘Gene Replacement’ system since it replaces a fly gene with a human gene. By comparing the function of the wild-type human gene versus mutant alleles from patients, we could determine exactly how a specific mutation affects the function of a human gene in the context of relevant tissues or cell types. Because of the low cost and high efficiency of the Drosophila system, we can quickly provide much-needed functional data for novel disease-causing genetic variants using this approach.”

In addition to Han, Children’s co-authors include Co-Lead Author Feng Zhao, Co-Lead Author Jun-yi Zhu, Adam Richman, Yulong Fu and Wen Huang, all of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research; Nan Chen and Xiaoxia Pan, Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Medicine; and Cuili Yi, Xiaohua Ding, Si Wang, Ping Wang, Xiaojing Nie, Jun Huang, Yonghui Yang and Zihua Yu, all of Fuzhou Dongfang Hospital.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the Nature Science Foundation of Fujian Province of China, under grant 2015J01407; National Nature Science Foundation of China, under grant 81270766; Key Project of Social Development of Fujian Province of China, under grant 2013Y0072; and the National Institutes of Health, under grants DK098410 and HL134940.

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Kurt Newman, M.D., shares journey as a pediatric surgeon in TEDx Talk

Kurt Newman, M.D., president and chief executive officer of Children’s National, shares his poignant journey as a pediatric surgeon, offering a new perspective for approaching the most chronic and debilitating health conditions. In this independently-organized TEDx event, Dr. Newman also shares his passion for Children’s National and the need to increase pediatric innovations in medicine.

Zhe Han lab 2018

$2 million NIH grant to study nephrotic syndrome

Zhe Han lab 2018

A Children’s researcher has received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study nephrotic syndrome in Drosophila, a basic model system that has revealed groundbreaking insights into human health. The award for Zhe Han, Ph.D., an associate professor in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research, is believed to be the first ever NIH Research Project grant (R01)  to investigate glomerular kidney disease using Drosophila. Nephrotic syndrome is mostly caused by damage of glomeruli, so it is equivalent to glomerular kidney disease.

“Children’s National leads the world in using Drosophila to model human kidney diseases,” Han says.

In order to qualify for the five-year funding renewal, Han’s lab needed to successfully accomplish the aims of its first five years of NIH funding.  During the first phase of funding, Han established that nephrocytes in Drosophila serve the same functions as glomeruli in humans, and his lab created a series of fly models that are relevant for human glomerular disease.

“Some 85 percent of the genes known to be involved in nephrotic syndrome are conserved from the fly to humans. They play similar roles in the nephrocyte as they play in the podocytes in human kidneys,” he adds.

Pediatric nephrotic syndrome is a constellation of symptoms that indicate when children’s kidneys are damaged, especially the glomeruli, units within the kidney that filter blood. Babies as young as 1 year old can suffer proteinuria, which is characterized by too much protein being released from the blood into the urine.

“It’s a serious disease and can be triggered by environmental factors, taking certain prescription medicines or inflammation, among other factors.  Right now, that type of nephrotic syndrome is mainly treated by steroids, and the steroid treatment works in many cases,” he says.

However, steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome occurs primarily due to genetic mutations that affect the kidney’s filtration system: These filters are either broken or the protein reabsorption mechanism is disrupted.

“When genetics is to blame, we cannot turn to steroids. Right now there is no treatment. And many of these children are too young to be considered for a kidney transplant,” he adds. “We have to understand exactly which genetic mutation caused the disease in order to develop a targeted treatment.”

With the new funding, Han will examine a large array of genetic mutations that cause nephrotic syndrome. He’s focusing his efforts on genes involved in the cytoskeleton, a network of filaments and tubules in the cytoplasm of living cells that help them to maintain shape and carry out important functions.

“Right now, we don’t really understand the cytoskeleton of podocytes – highly specialized cells that wrap around the capillaries of the glomerulus – because podocytes are difficult to access. To change a gene requires time and considerable effort in other experimental models. However, changing genes in Drosophila is very easy, quick and inexpensive. We can examine hundreds of genes involving the cytoskeleton and see how changing those genes affect kidney cell function,” he says.

Han’s lab already found that Coenzyme Q10, one of the best-selling nutrient supplements to support heart health also could be beneficial for kidney health. For the cytoskeleton, he has a different targeted medicine in mind to determine whether Rho inhibitors also could be beneficial for kidney health for patients with certain genetic mutations affecting their podocyte cytoskeleton.

“One particular aim of our research is to use the same strategy as we employed for the Coq2 gene to generate a personalized fly model for patients with cytoskeleton gene mutations and test potential target drugs, such as Rho inhibitors.” Han added. “As far as I understand, this is where the future of medicine is headed.”

Zhe Han

$3 million NIH grant to study APOL1 and HIV synergy

Zhe Han

Zhe Han, Ph.D., (pictured) and Patricio E. Ray, M.D., have received a $3 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the mechanisms behind APOL1 and HIV nephropathies in children, using a combination of Drosophila models, cultured human podocytes and a preclinical model.

Two Children’s researchers have received a $3 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the mechanisms of APOL1 and HIV nephropathies in children, using a combination of Drosophila models, cultured human podocytes and a preclinical model.

The APOL1 genetic variants G1 and G2, found almost exclusively in people of African ancestry, lead to a four-fold higher risk of end-stage kidney disease. HIV infection alone also increases the risk of kidney disease but not significantly. However, HIV-positive people who also carry the APOL1 risk alleles G1 or G2 are about 30 times more likely to develop HIV-nephropathy (HIVAN) and chronic kidney disease.

For more than 25 years, Children’s pediatric nephrology program has studied HIV/renal diseases and recently developed Drosophila APOL1-G0 and G1 transgenic lines. That pioneering research suggests that HIV-1 acts as a “second hit,” precipitating HIV-renal disease in children by infecting podocytes through a mechanism that increases expression of the APOL1-RA beyond toxic thresholds.

With this new infusion of NIH funding, labs led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., and Patricio E. Ray, M.D., will determine the phenotype of Drosophila Tg lines that express APOL1-G0/G1/G2 and four HIV genes in nephrocytes to assess how they affect structure and function. The teams also will determine whether APOL1-RA precipitates the death of nephrocytes expressing HIV genes by affecting autophagic flux.

“Our work will close a critical gap in understanding about how HIV-1 interacts with the APOL1 risk variants in renal cells to trigger chronic kidney disease, and we will develop the first APOL1/HIV transgenic fly model to explore these genetic interactions in order to screen new drugs to treat these renal diseases,” says Dr. Ray, a Children’s nephrologist.

While a large number of people from Africa have two copies of APOL1 risk alleles, they do not necessarily develop kidney disease. However, if a patient has two copies of APOL1 risk alleles and is HIV-positive, they almost certainly will develop kidney disease.

Patricio Ray

“Our work will close a critical gap in understanding about how HIV-1 interacts with the APOL1 risk variants in renal cells to trigger chronic kidney disease, and we will develop the first APOL1/HIV transgenic fly model to explore these genetic interactions in order to screen new drugs to treat these renal diseases,” says Dr. Ray, a Children’s nephrologist.

“Many teams want to solve the puzzle of how APOL1 and HIV synergize to cause kidney failure,” says Han, associate professor in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research. “We are in the unique position of combining a powerful new kidney disease model system, Drosophila, with long-standing human podocyte and HIVAN studies.”

The team hypothesizes that even as an active HIV infection is held in check by powerful new medicines, preventing the virus from proliferating or infecting new cells, HIV can act as a Trojan horse by making the human cells it infects express HIV protein.

To investigate this hypothesis, the team will create a series of fly models, each expressing a major HIV protein, and will test the genetic interaction between these HIV genes with APOL1. Similar studies also will be performed using cultured human podocytes. Identified synergy will be studied further using biochemical and transcription profile analyses.

Drosophila is a basic model system, but it has been used to make fundamental discoveries, including genetic control of how the body axes is determined and how the biological clock works – two studies that led to Nobel prizes,” Han adds. “I want to use the fly model to do something close to human disease. That is where my research passion lies.”

Parasite collage

Which micro-organisms lurk within urine?


schistosome blood fluke

Therapy derived from parasitic worms downregulates proinflammatory pathways

schistosome blood fluke

A therapy derived from the eggs of the parasitic Schistosoma helps to protect against one of chemotherapy’s debilitating side effects by significantly downregulating major proinflammatory pathways, reducing inflammation.

A therapy derived from the eggs of parasitic worms helps to protect against one of chemotherapy’s debilitating side effects by significantly downregulating major proinflammatory pathways and reducing inflammation, indicates the first transcriptome-wide profiling of the bladder during ifosfamide-induced hemorrhagic cystitis.

The experimental model study findings were published online Feb. 7, 2019, in Scientific Reports.

With hemorrhagic cystitis, a condition that can be triggered by anti-cancer therapies like the chemotherapy drug ifosfamide and other oxazaphosphorines, the lining of the bladder becomes inflamed and begins to bleed. Existing treatments on the market carry their own side effects, and the leading therapy does not treat established hemorrhagic cystitis.

Around the world, people can become exposed to parasitic Schistosoma eggs through contaminated freshwater. Once inside the body, the parasitic worms mate and produce eggs; these eggs are the trigger for symptoms like inflammation. To keep their human hosts alive, the parasitic worms tamp down excess inflammation by secreting a binding protein with anti-inflammatory properties.

With that biological knowledge in mind, a research team led by Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., tested a single dose of IPSE, an Interleukin-4 inducing, Schistosoma parasite-derived anti-inflammatory molecule and found that it reduced inflammation, bleeding and urothelial sloughing that occurs with ifosfamide-related hemorrhagic cystitis.

In this follow-up project, experimental models were treated with ifosfamide to learn more about IPSE’s protective powers.

The preclinical models were given either saline or IPSE before the ifosfamide challenge. The bladders of the experimental models treated with ifosfamide had classic symptoms, including marked swelling (edema), dysregulated contraction, bleeding and urothelial sloughing. In contrast, experimental models “pre-treated” with IPSE were shielded from urothelial sloughing and inflammation, the study team found.

Transcriptional profiling of the experimental models’ bladders found the IL-1-B TNFa-IL-6 proinflammatory cascade via NFkB and STAT3 pathways serving as the key driver of inflammation. Pretreatment with IPSE slashed the overexpression of Il-1b, Tnfa and Il6 by 50 percent. IPSE drove significant downregulation of major proinflammatory pathways, including the IL-1-B TNFa-IL-6 pathways, interferon signaling and reduced (but did not eliminate) oxidative stress.

“Taken together, we have identified signatures of acute-phase inflammation and oxidative stress in ifosfamide-injured bladder, which are reversed by pretreatment with IPSE,” says Dr. Hsieh, a urologist at Children’s National Health System and the study’s senior author. “These preliminary findings reveal several pathways that could be therapeutically targeted to prevent ifosfamide-induced hemorrhagic cystitis in humans.”

When certain chemotherapy drugs are metabolized by the body, the toxin acrolein is produced and builds up in urine. 2-mercaptoethane sulfonate Na (MESNA) binds to acrolein to prevent urotoxicity. By contrast, IPSE targets inflammation at the source, reversing inflammatory changes that damage the bladder.

“Our work demonstrates that there may be therapeutic potential for naturally occurring anti-inflammatory molecules, including pathogen-derived factors, as alternative or complementary therapies for ifosfamide-induced hemorrhagic cystitis,” Dr. Hsieh adds.

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, study co-authors include Lead Author Evaristus C. Mbanefo and Rebecca Zee, Children’s National; Loc Le, Nirad Banskota and Kenji Ishida, Biomedical Research Institute; Luke F. Pennington and Theodore S. Jardetzky, Stanford University; Justin I. Odegaard, Guardant Health; Abdulaziz Alouffi, King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology; and Franco H. Falcone, University of Nottingham.

Financial support for the research described in this report was provided by the Margaret A. Stirewalt Endowment, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases under award R01DK113504, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under award R56AI119168 and a Urology Care Foundation Research Scholar Award.

Dr. Michael Hsieh's clay shield

Innovative urologist Michael Hsieh takes unbeaten path

Dr. Michael Hsieh's clay shield

For an elementary school art project, Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., was instructed to fashion a coat of arms out of clay. In addition to panels for truth, justice and Taiwan, in the shield’s M.D. panel, a snake twists around a rod, like the staff for Asclepius, a Greek god associated with healing.

Children’s urologist Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., knew from age 10 that he would become a doctor. Proof is at his parents’ home. For an elementary school art project, students were instructed to fashion a coat of arms out of clay. In addition to panels for truth, justice and Taiwan, in the shield’s M.D. panel, a snake twists around a rod, like the staff for Asclepius, a Greek god associated with healing.

“I liked science. When I can use it to help patients, that is very rewarding,” says Dr. Hsieh, the first doctor in his family.

These days, Dr. Hsieh’s Twitter profile serves as a digital coat of arms, describing him as “tinker, tailor,” #UTI #biologist, epithelial #immunologist, helminthologist and #urologist.

Tinker/tailor is shorthand for the mystery drama, “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” he explains, adding that the “tinker” part also refers “to the fact that I am always questioning things, and science is about experimentation, trying to seek answers to questions.”

While still in medical school during a rotation Dr. Hsieh saw a bladder operation on a young child and thought it was “amazing.” That experience in part inspired Dr. Hsieh to become a urologist and bladder scientist. His training in immunology and study of the bladder naturally led him to study urinary tract infections and parasitic worms that affect the urinary tract. In addition, thanks to R01 funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Hsieh is co-principal investigator with Axel Krieger, University of Maryland, and Jin U. Kang, Johns Hopkins, on a project to develop imaging robots for supervised autonomous surgery on soft tissue.

The $1 million in NIH funding pushes the boundaries on amazing by using multi-spectral imaging technology and improved techniques to reduce surgical complications.

Anastomosis is a technique used by surgeons to join one thing to another, whether it’s a vascular surgeon suturing blood vessels, an orthopedic surgeon joining muscles or a urologist stitching healthy parts of the urinary tract back together. Complications can set in if their stitching is too tight, prompting scar tissue to form, or too loose, letting fluid seep out.

“The human eye can see a narrow spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. These multi-spectral imaging cameras would see across greater set of wavelengths,” he says.

The project has three aims: figuring out the best way to place sutures using multi-spectral imaging, accurately tracking soft tissue as they model suturing and comparing the handicraft of a robot against anastomosis hand-sewn by surgeons.

“I like challenges, and I like new things. I am definitely not interested in doing permutations of other people’s work,” Dr. Hsieh explains. “I would much rather go on a path that hasn’t been tread. It is more difficult in some ways, but on a day-to-day basis, I know I am making a contribution.”

In another innovative research project, Dr. Hsieh leveraged a protein secreted by a parasitic worm, Schistosoma haematobium, that suppresses inflammation in hosts as a new therapeutic approach for chemotherapy-induced hemorrhagic cystitis, a form of inflammation of the bladder.

Watching his first surgery nearly 30 years ago, he had no idea robots might one day vie to take over some part of that complicated procedure, or that parasite proteins could be harnessed as drugs. However, he has a clear idea which innovations could be on the horizon for urology in the next three decades.

“My hope is 30 years from now, we will have a solid UTI vaccine and more non-antibiotic therapies. UTIs are the second-most common bacterial infection in childhood and, in severe cases, can contribute to kidney failure,” he says.

Globally, parasitic worms pose an ongoing challenge, affecting more than 1 billion worldwide – second only to malaria. People persistently infected by schistosome worms fail to reach their growth potential, struggle academically and lack sufficient energy for exercise or work.


“There is a feeling that the infection prevalence might be decreasing globally, but not as quickly as everyone hopes. In 30 years perhaps with more mass drug administration and additional drugs – including a vaccine – we’ll have it close to eliminated globally. It would become more like polio, casting a slim shadow with small pockets of infection here or there, rather than consigning millions to perpetual poverty.”

E coli bacteria

Urinary bacteria in spinal cord injury cases may tip balance toward UTIs

E coli bacteria

Patients with spinal cord injuries nearly universally have bacteria present in their urine regardless of whether they have a urinary tract infection.

The fallout from spinal cord injury doesn’t end with loss of mobility: Patients can have a range of other issues resulting from this complex problem, including loss of bladder control that can lead to urine retention. One of the most serious implications is urinary tract infections (UTIs), the most common cause of repeat hospitalization in people with spinal cord injuries, explains Hans G. Pohl, M.D., associate chief in the division of Urology at Children’s National Health System.

Diagnosing UTIs in people with spinal cord injuries is trickier than in people who are otherwise healthy, Dr. Pohl explains. Patients with spinal cord injuries nearly universally have bacteria present in their urine regardless of whether they have a UTI. It’s unclear whether these bacteria are innocent bystanders or precursors to UTIs in patients who don’t yet show symptoms. And although antibiotics can wipe out this bacterial population, these drugs can have undesirable side effects and frequent use can promote development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Although clinical dogma has long promoted the idea that “healthy” urine is sterile, Dr. Pohl and colleagues have shown that a variety of bacteria live in urine, even in people without symptoms. These microorganisms, like the intestinal microbiome, live in harmony with their hosts and may even help promote health. However, it’s unclear what this urinary microbiome might look like for patients with spinal cord injury before, during and after UTIs.

To start investigating this question, Dr. Pohl and co-authors recently reported a case study they published online Sept. 21, 2018, in Spinal Cord Series and Cases. The case report about a 55-year-old man who had injured the thoracic segment of his spinal cord—about the level of the bottom of his shoulder blades—in a skiing accident when he was 19 was selected as “Editor’s Choice” for the journal’s October 2018 issue.  The patient had a neurogenic bladder, which doesn’t function normally due to impaired communication with the spinal cord. To compensate for this loss of function, this patient needed to have urine removed every four to six hours by catheterization.

Over eight months Dr. Pohl, the study’s senior author, and colleagues collected 12 urine samples from this patient:

  • One was collected at a time the patient didn’t show any symptoms of a UTI
  • Nine were collected when the patient had UTI symptoms, such as bladder spasticity
  • Two samples were collected when the patient had finished antibiotic treatment for the UTI.

The researchers split each sample in half. One part was put through a standard urinalysis and culture, much like what patients with a suspected UTI would receive at the doctor’s office. The other part was analyzed using a technique that searched for genetic material to identify bacteria that might be present and to estimate their abundance.

The researchers found a variety of different bacteria present in these urine samples. Regardless of the patient’s health status and symptoms, the majority of these bacterial species are known to be pathogenic or potentially pathogenic. By contrast, this patient’s urine microbiome appeared to largely lack bacterial species known to be either neutral or with potentially probiotic properties, such as Lactobacillus.

All of the bacteria that grew in culture also were identified by their genetic material in the samples. However, genetic sequencing also identified a possible novel uropathogenic species called Burkholderia fungorum that didn’t grow in the lab in five of the samples. This bacterium is ubiquitous in the environment and has been identified in soil- and plant-based samples. It also has been discovered in the respiratory secretions of patients with cystic fibrosis, in patients with a heart condition called infectious endocarditis, in the vaginal microbiota of patients with bacterial vaginosis, and in the gut of patients with HIV who have low T-cell counts. Dr. Pohl says it’s unclear whether this species played an infectious role in this patient’s UTI or whether it’s just part of his normal urine flora.

“Consistent with our previous work, this case report demonstrates that rather than healthy urine being sterile, there is a diverse urine bacterial ecosystem during various states of health and disease,” Dr. Pohl says. “Rather than UTIs resulting from the growth or overgrowth of a single organism, it’s more likely that a change in the healthy balance of the urine ecosystem might cause these infections.”

By monitoring the relative abundance of different bacteria types present in the urine of patients with spinal cord injury and combining this information with a patient’s symptoms, Dr. Pohl says doctors may be able to make more accurate UTI diagnoses in this unique population.

In addition to Dr. Pohl, study co-authors include Marcos Pérez-Losada, Ljubica Caldovic, Ph.D., Bruce Sprague and Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Children’s National; Emma Nally, Suzanne L. Groah and Inger Ljungberg, MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital; and Neel J. Chandel, Montefiore Medical Center.

AlgometRX

Breakthrough device objectively measures pain type, intensity and drug effects

AlgometRX

Clinical Research Assistant Kevin Jackson uses AlgometRx Platform Technology on Sarah Taylor’s eyes to measure her degree of pain. Children’s National Medical Center is testing an experimental device that aims to measure pain according to how pupils react to certain stimuli. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Pediatric anesthesiologist Julia C. Finkel, M.D., of Children’s National Health System, gazed into the eyes of a newborn patient determined to find a better way to measure the effectiveness of pain treatment on one so tiny and unable to verbalize. Then she realized the answer was staring back at her.

Armed with the knowledge that pain and analgesic drugs produce an involuntary response from the pupil, Dr. Finkel developed AlgometRx, a first-of-its-kind handheld device that measures a patient’s pupillary response and, using proprietary algorithms, provides a diagnostic measurement of pain intensity, pain type and, after treatment is administered, monitors efficacy. Her initial goal was to improve the care of premature infants. She now has a device that can be used with children of any age and adults.

“Pain is very complex and it is currently the only vital sign that is not objectively measured,” says Dr. Finkel, who has more than 25 years of experience as a pain specialist. “The systematic problem we are facing today is that healthcare providers prescribe pain medicine based on subjective self-reporting, which can often be inaccurate, rather than based on an objective measure of pain type and intensity.” To illustrate her point, Dr. Finkel continues, “A clinician would never prescribe blood pressure medicine without first taking a patient’s blood pressure.”

The current standard of care for measuring pain is the 0-to-10 pain scale, which is based on subjective, observational and self-reporting techniques. Patients indicate their level of pain, with zero being no pain and ten being highest or most severe pain. This subjective system increases the likelihood of inaccuracy, with the problem being most acute with pediatric and non-verbal patients. Moreover, Dr. Finkel points out that subjective pain scores cannot be standardized, heightening the potential for misdiagnosis, over-treatment or under-treatment.

Dr. Finkel, who serves as director of Research and Development for Pain Medicine at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National, says that a key step in addressing the opioid crisis is providing physicians with objective, real-time data on a patient’s pain level and type, to safely prescribe the right drug and dosage or an alternate treatment.,

She notes that opioids are prescribed for patients who report high pain scores and are sometimes prescribed in cases where they are not appropriate. Dr. Finkel points to the example of sciatica, a neuropathic pain sensation felt in the lower back, legs and buttocks. Sciatica pain is carried by touch fibers that do not have opioid receptors, which makes opioids an inappropriate choice for treating that type of pain.

A pain biomarker could rapidly advance both clinical practice and pain research, Dr. Finkel adds. For clinicians, the power to identify the type and magnitude of a patient’s nociception (detection of pain stimuli) would provide a much-needed scientific foundation for approaching pain treatment. Nociception could be monitored through the course of treatment so that dosing is targeted and personalized to ensure patients receive adequate pain relief while reducing side effects.

“A validated measure to show whether or not an opioid is indicated for a given patient could ease the health care system’s transition from overreliance on opioids to a more comprehensive and less harmful approach to pain management,” says Dr. Finkel.

She also notes that objective pain measurement can provide much needed help in validating complementary approaches to pain management, such as acupuncture, physical therapy, virtual reality and other non-pharmacological interventions.

Dr. Finkel’s technology, called AlgometRx, has been selected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to participate in its “Innovation Challenge: Devices to Prevent and Treat Opioid Use Disorder.” She is also the recipient of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Sarah Mulkey

MRI and ultrasound imaging detect the spectrum of Zika’s impact

Sarah Mulkey

“A combination of prenatal MRI and US was able to detect Zika-related brain abnormalities during pregnancy, giving families timely information to prepare for the potential complex care needs of these infants,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

Worldwide, thousands of babies have been born to mothers who were infected during pregnancy with Zika, a virus associated with neurological deficits, impaired vision and neurodevelopmental disabilities, among other birth defects. These birth defects are sometimes severe, causing lifelong disability. But they’re also relatively rare compared with the overall rates of infection.

Predicting how many Zika-exposed babies would experience neurological birth defects has been challenging.

However, an international study led by Children’s faculty suggests that ultrasound (US) imaging performed during pregnancy and after childbirth revealed most Zika-related brain abnormalities experienced by infants exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy, according to a prospective cohort study published online Nov. 26, 2018, in JAMA Pediatrics. Some Zika-exposed infants whose imaging had been normal during pregnancy had mild brain abnormalities detected by US and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) after they were born.

“A combination of prenatal MRI and US was able to detect Zika-related brain abnormalities during pregnancy, giving families timely information to prepare for the potential complex care needs of these infants,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Health System and the study’s lead author. “In our study, we detected mild brain abnormalities on postnatal neuroimaging for babies whose imaging was normal during pregnancy. Therefore, it is important for clinicians to continue to monitor brain development for Zika-exposed infants after birth.”

As of Nov. 20 2018, nearly 2,500 pregnant women in the U.S. had laboratory confirmed Zika infection, and about 2,400 of them had given birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While more than 100 U.S. infants were born with Zika-associated birth defects, the vast majority of Zika-exposed U.S. infants were apparently normal at birth. The sequential neuroimaging study Dr. Mulkey leads seeks to determine the spectrum of brain findings in infants exposed to Zika in the womb using both US and MRI before and after birth.

The international research team enrolled 82 women in the study from June 15, 2016, through June 27, 2017. All of the women had been exposed to Zika during pregnancy; all but one experienced clinical symptoms by a mean gestational age of 8.2 weeks. Eighty of those women lived in or near Barranquilla, Colombia, and were exposed to Zika there. Two U.S. study participants were exposed to the primarily mosquito-borne illness during travel to Zika hot zones.

All women received fetal MRIs and US during the second and/or third trimester of pregnancy. After their infants were born, the children received brain MRI and cranial US. Blood samples from both mothers and babies were tested for Zika using polymerase chain reaction and serology.

Fetal MRI was able to discern Zika-related brain damage as early as 18 weeks gestation and picked up significant fetal brain abnormalities not fully appreciated in US imaging. In one case, the US remained normal while fetal MRI alone detected brain abnormalities. Three fetuses (4 percent) had severe fetal brain abnormalities consistent with Zika infection, including:

Seventy-five infants were born at term. One pregnancy was terminated at 23 weeks gestation due to the gravity of the fetal brain abnormalities. One fetus with normal imaging died during pregnancy. One newborn who was born with significant fetal brain abnormalities died at age 3 days.

Cranial US and brain MRI was performed on the majority of infants whose prenatal imaging had been normal.  Seven of 53 (13 percent) Zika-exposed infants had mild brain abnormalities detected by MRI after birth. In contrast, postnatal cranial US was better at detecting changes of lenticulostriate vasculopathy, cysts within the brain’s choroid plexus (cells that produce cerebrospinal fluid), germinolytic/subependymal cysts and/or calcifications, which were seen in 21 of 57 (37 percent) infants.

“Sequential neuroimaging revealed that the majority of Zika-exposed fetuses had normal brain development. Tragically, in a small number of pregnancies, Zika-related brain abnormalities were quite severe,” Dr. Mulkey adds. “Our data support the CDC’s recommendation that cranial US be performed after Zika-exposed babies are born. In addition, there is clearly a need to follow these babies over time to gauge whether the brain anomalies we see in imaging affects language, motor and social skills.”

Companion editorial: Revealing the effects of Zika

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D.Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Margarita Arroyave-Wessel, MPH,  Stephanie Russo, B.S, Youssef A. Kousa, D.O, Ph.D.Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, Senior Author Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, all of Children’s National; Christopher Swisher, BS, Georgetown University and Caitlin Cristante, BS, Loyola University, both of  whose contributions included research performed at Children’s National; Yamil Fourzali, M.D., Armando Morales, M.D., both of Sabbag Radiologos; Liliana Encinales, M.D., Allied Research Society; Nelly Pacheco, Bacteriologa, Bio-Nep; Robert S. Lanciotti, Ph.D., Arbovirus Diseases Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Carlos Cure, M.D., BIOMELAB.

Research reported in this news release was supported by the IKARIA fund.

Deer tick

Lyme disease: When will pediatric symptoms resolve?

Deer tick

Over a 13-year period that began in 2004, cases of illness transmitted by ticks, mosquitoes and fleas have more than tripled, the CDC found.

The summer of 2018 was a bad summer for Lyme disease, the tick-borne disease that was first documented in the 1970s in the town of Lyme, Connecticut. While about 30,000 cases of this disease had been reported annually in recent years, studies suggest that the actual number of infections is around 10 times greater.

And according to a study published May 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those case numbers may increase over time. Over a 13-year period that began in 2004, cases of illness transmitted by ticks, mosquitoes and fleas have more than tripled, the CDC found.

Lyme disease causes a host of uncomfortable symptoms, ranging from headache and neurological problems, heart problems and eye inflammation in earlier stages, and progressing to joint pain and arthritis in later stages. While it can be treated successfully with appropriate antibiotics, the timeframe for kids’ symptom resolution has been unclear.

A new study by researchers at Children’s National Health System shows that symptoms improve just days or weeks after starting antibiotic therapy for the vast majority of patients, with people whose symptoms had been present a briefer time improving the fastest.

“These findings offer a reassuring timeline for doctors, patients and their families about when patients with Lyme disease can expect to feel better,” says study Senior Author Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, Children’s National’s chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-director of the Congenital Zika Virus Program. Dr. DeBiasi was recently appointed to serve on a 52-member Tick-Borne Disease Working Group established in 2018 by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. DeBiasi and colleagues collected data retrospectively from the medical records of 78 patients who had been hospitalized at Children’s National for Lyme disease from 2008 to 2015. Each child, who was younger than 18 years old, had documented symptoms and lab tests conclusive for this disease.

Just under one-half had symptoms consistent with early-stage disease, such as:

  • A severe headache
  • Meningitis (inflammation of the membranes covering the brain)
  • Cranial nerve palsy (a nerve dysfunction that affects eye movement and can cause double vision)
  • Multiple erythema migrans rashes (the bulls-eye-shaped rash that’s a hallmark of Lyme disease) and
  • Pseudotumor cerebri (increased pressure inside the skull).

Just over one-half had symptoms consistent with late-stage disease, which mostly consisted of arthritis affecting the knees, along with the hips and elbows in some cases.

In the hospital, each patient was started on an antibiotic that can effectively treat Lyme, including doxycycline, cefotaxime or ceftriaxone, which they continued at home for the prescribed length of the course. The researchers then tracked how quickly the patients’ symptoms resolved.

They report online July 30, 2018, in the Journal of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, that the time to symptom resolution for early stages of disease did not depend on the duration of symptoms prior to starting antibiotics. However, for later stages of disease, patients with longer duration of symptoms prior to starting treatment took longer for their symptoms to resolve.

For patients with early-stage disease, the most common symptom was headache; the median time to symptom resolution was just three days, no matter how long the headache had persisted before treatment started. However, for patients with late-stage Lyme disease, the median time to resolution was 18 days. However, the time depended largely on how long symptoms had persisted before patients began taking antibiotics. For example, patients who had experienced arthritis for less than one week had a shorter time to resolution than those who had arthritis for more than two weeks.

This finding is important, Dr. DeBiasi says, because it suggests that diagnosing Lyme disease earlier – and prescribing the appropriate therapy as soon as possible – can hasten recovery. The vast majority of patients in the study, she adds, eventually experienced full resolution of their symptoms, which should be comforting to families worried about whether their child will ever feel well again.

“We all want what patients and their families want: to feel better as quickly as possible,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “This study gives us valuable information about how soon that will happen given the duration of pediatric patients’ symptoms.”

Dr. DeBiasi and Children’s Psychologist Maureen Monaghan, Ph.D., are leading another Lyme study in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to evaluate symptom resolution, quality of life and neurocognitive outcomes in a larger group of pediatric patients with Lyme disease.

In addition to Dr. DeBiasi and Monaghan, Children’s co-authors include Lead Author Mattia E. Chason; Biostatistician Jichuan Wang, Ph.D.; and Yao Cheng.

Maureen E Lyon

Maureen E. Lyon, Ph.D., ABPP, lauded for outstanding excellence in patient-centered advance care planning

Maureen E Lyon

Maureen E. Lyon, Ph.D., a principal investigator at Children’s Center for Translational Science, will be honored with a “Recognition Award for Excellence and Innovation in Research” by Respecting Choices for outstanding excellence in patient-centered advance care planning and shared decision-making.

Respecting Choices will present the award on Oct. 26, 2018, during its “National Share the Experience Conference” in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Lyon’s expertise is in advance care planning and shared decision-making for children and adolescents with life-threatening illnesses and their families, a field that has transformed in recent decades in order to pave better paths forward for difficult but necessary conversations.

“It came from my clinical experience,” Lyon says. “In the early days of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic in the U.S., everything, absolutely everything, was done to keep the kids alive in the hopes that some new drug would come around the corner, and we could bring them back from the brink. I remember one of the young boys saying to his case manager that he didn’t want all of these interventions. But he hadn’t told his family.”

That young man’s eye-opening comments – and learning that Children’s National Health System had a policy that teenagers were to be included in conversations about their own advance care planning – inspired Lyon to conduct a series of surveys involving adolescents, families and clinicians.

“I remember sitting down with friends and saying ‘There must be a better way to do this. Everyone is afraid to broach the subject,’ ” Lyon recalls. So, she conducted surveys of all healthy kids coming through Children’s adolescent clinic and kids diagnosed with HIV, cancer and sickle cell disease.

“It turned out the kids did want to talk about it. That was the first thing. Families told us they wanted help breaking the ice. Physicians felt it wasn’t their role – many doctors felt their role was to save people – or, they didn’t have the training,” she says.

Through a series of focus groups with youths living with HIV, families and community members, Lyon adapted the adult-centric Respecting Choices model to create a three-session intervention to better meet the advance care planning needs of youths and adolescents living with HIV.

Lyon’s recent work includes a single-blinded, randomized study published Oct. 19, 2018, in Pediatrics that finds the more families understand the end-of-life treatment preferences expressed by adolescents living with HIV, the less likely these youth are to suffer HIV-related symptoms, compared with youths whose families do not understand their end-of-life care goals.

She also has adapted the Respecting Choices intervention to facilitate its use with children diagnosed with cancer. More recently, she has adapted the model for use by parents of children with rare diseases who cannot communicate on their own.

“For the other life-threatening health conditions, we worked to support adolescents in expressing their advance care planning choices in their own voices. With rare diseases, we’re shifting gears,” she adds.

Published research indicates a sizable proportion of pediatric patients who die in hospitals now have confirmed or suspected rare diseases, she says. During a pilot involving seven families, many parents multitasked during the conversations, taking pauses to attend to various alarms as they sounded, to complete regular feedings and to contend with their child’s petit mal seizures.

“The level of burden of taking care of these children with terminal illnesses was pretty overwhelming,” she says. “Still, families were not too burdened to participate in advance care planning, but first wanted to identify their priority palliative care needs and to develop a support plan to meet those needs. We also had more fathers involved.”

bacteriophage

Phage therapy draws renewed interest to combat drug-resistant microbes

bacteriophage

In the face of growing antibiotic resistance and few antibiotics in the development pipeline, phages are drawing renewed research interest as a potential silver bullet.

The married professors were spending their Thanksgiving holiday in Egypt when the husband, Thomas L. Patterson, Ph.D., got very sick very quickly, experiencing fever, nausea and a racing heartbeat. By the time Patterson was accurately diagnosed with a highly multi-drug resistant bacterial infection, he was near death. His wife, Steffanie Strathdee, Ph.D., promised to “leave no stone unturned.’”

What happened next is the ultimate infectious disease feel good story: Strathdee, part of an All-Star team of infectious disease experts and epidemiologists, concocted a cocktail of viruses that killed the superbug and saved Patterson’s life.

“He was going to die,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National Health System. “Because of her epidemiology background – and because she loves him – Patterson became the first patient successfully treated with bacteriophages.”

Dr. DeBiasi explains that all viruses take over cells and use their machinery for their own purposes. In order to escape, viruses blow up the cell. Bacteriophages are viruses that target bacteria, taking over their machinery and ultimately killing the bacterial host.

“Infection is a race between the body’s immune response and the bacteria replicating themselves,” she adds. “Bacteria have to continually replicate. If you knock out 90 percent of them with phage therapy, that gives the immune system a fighting chance to win the race.”

She was so inspired by the team’s ingenuity that DeBiasi, program vice-chair, invited them to recount the story during IDWeek2018, held Oct. 3 to Oct. 7, 2018, in San Francisco. During the closing plenary, Patterson, a professor of psychiatry, and Strathdee, associate dean of Global Health Sciences, will be joined by Robert T. “Chip” Schooley, M.D., (all of University of California, San Diego), to discuss the clinical aspects and efficacy of phage therapy.

About 50 years ago, the U.S. military had investigated leveraging phages but ultimately placed that research portfolio on the back burner. Now, in the face of growing antibiotic resistance and few experimental antibiotics in the development pipeline, phages are drawing renewed research interest as a potential silver bullet.

“The technology has been around for 50 years. We’re going back to old things because we’re so desperate,” Dr. DeBiasi adds.

The tricky thing with phages is that each bacterium needs its own tailored phage therapy.

Children’s National is working with Adaptive Phage Therapeutics, a company based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, that developed the phage used to save Patterson, in order to help build out that library of phages, each ready to be directed to do battle against a specific pathogen.

“We have been consultants to them to think about what would be a good clinical trial, particularly in a pediatric population,” Dr. DeBiasi says.

Children’s National has been collecting and sending isolates from patients with neurogenic bladder who experience urinary tract infections to shore up the phage library in anticipation of a clinical trial. The work builds on Children’s experience as the first center to use phage therapy in a pediatric patient, a 2-year-old who had multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection complicated by bacteremia/sepsis.

Staphylococcus aureus

Understanding antibiotic resistance in patients with cystic fibrosis

Staphylococcus aureus

Patients with cystic fibrosis who carried antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus, in their lungs had significantly lower microbial diversity and more aggressive disease, according to a small study published in Heliyon.

A defective gene causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs of patients with cystic fibrosis (CF). There, it traps bacteria, causing patients to develop frequent lung infections that progressively damage these vital organs and impair patients’ ability to breathe.

Most patients with this progressive genetic disorder die by the fourth decade of life. A key to helping patients live even that long – a vast improvement from an average lifespan of 10 years  just decades ago – is judicious use of antibiotics, explains Andrea Hahn, M.D., a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Children’s National Health System.

But antibiotics are a double-edged sword, Dr. Hahn adds: Although they’re necessary to eradicate lung infections, repeated use of these drugs can lead to antibiotic resistance, making it tougher to treat future infections. Also, antibiotic use can kill the nonpathogenic bacteria living in the lungs as well. That decreases the diversity of the microbial community that resides in the lungs, a factor associated with disease progression. But how antibiotic resistance impacts the relationship between lung bacterial diversity and CF patients’ pulmonary function has been unknown.

Dr. Hahn and colleagues investigated this question in a small study that was published online Sept. 17, 2018, in Heliyon. Their findings suggest that the presence of multidrug resistant bacteria in the airways of patients with CF is associated with decreased microbial diversity and decreased pulmonary function.

In the study, the researchers recruited six patients with CF from Children’s National during well-child visits. During those appointments, the research team collected respiratory secretions from these volunteers. They collected more samples at subsequent visits, including:

  • When patients were admitted to the hospital for pulmonary exacerbations (periods when infections inflamed their airways, making it difficult to breathe);
  • Just after intravenous antibiotic courses to treat these infections; and
  • Thirty days after patients completed antibiotic therapy, when their lungs’ bacterial flora had some time to bounce back.

Over the 18-month study period, these patients made multiple visits for exacerbations and antibiotic treatments, leading to samples from 19 patient encounters overall.

The scientists then analyzed each sample in two different ways. They used some to grow cultures in petri dishes, the classic method that labs use to figure out which bacterial species are present and to determine which antibiotics are effective in tamping them down. They used another part of the sample to run genetic analyses that searched for antibiotic resistance genes. Both methods were necessary to gather a complete inventory of which antibiotic-resistant bacteria were present, Dr. Hahn explains.

“Laboratory cultures are designed to grow certain types of bacteria that we know are problematic, but they don’t show everything,” she says. “By genetically sequencing these samples, we can see everything that’s there.”

Their results revealed a host of bacterial species present in these patients’ airways, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a notoriously hard-to-treat microbe. Patients who carried this or other antibiotic-resistant bacteria had significantly lower microbial diversity in their samples and more aggressive disease. Their samples also were more likely to contain bacteria of the genus Alcaligenes, whose role in CF is not yet known.

Although heavy antibiotic use probably contributed to both the antibiotic resistance and lowered microbial diversity, Dr. Hahn says, the answer isn’t to reduce use of these drugs: They’re necessary to help patients with CF recover after each bout with pulmonary exacerbations. Rather, she says, using methods beyond a simple lab culture can help doctors target infectious bacteria more selectively, perhaps avoiding collateral damage.

“We can’t stop using antibiotics,” she says, “but we can learn to use them better.”

In addition to Dr. Hahn, Children’s co-authors include Aszia Burrell; Hani Fanous; Hollis Chaney, M.D.; Iman Sami Zakhari, M.D.; Geovanny F. Perez, M.D.; Anastassios C. Koumbourlis, M.D., MPH; and Robert J. Freishtat, M.D., MPH; and Senior Author, Keith A. Crandall, of The George Washington University.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences under award number UL1TR000075 and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute under award number K12HL119994.