Neonatology

Children’s sponsors medical and health app development workshop

Hackathon Winners

Team 10, also known as “The BabyDaddies,” won the hackathon for their presentation on BabyData: A medical app for neonatal care providers. Team members, from left to right, are Jessica Castillo, Mohammed Abu-Rub, Saud Aljuhani and Jessica Herstek.

The Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National (CTSI-CN) recently sponsored a Medical and Health App Development Workshop in collaboration with The George Washington University (GW). Kevin Cleary, Ph.D., technical director of the Bioengineering Initiative at Children’s National Health System, and Sean Cleary, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate professor in epidemiology and biostatistics at GW, created this event to provide an interactive learning experience for those interested in developing medical and health software applications.

Not your average workshop, attendees had the opportunity to network, gain expert knowledge and participate in a group contest for a chance to win up to $10,000 in funding toward prototype development. To kick off events, attendees heard from presenters on the following topics:

  • Human factors: Shelly Heller, Ph.D., professor of the computer science department at GW
  • User interface prototyping: Tim Wood, Ph.D., assistant professor of the computer science department at GW
  • Regulatory environment: Linda Ricci, associate director for digital health within the Office of Device Evaluation, The Food and Drug Administration

Ahead of the workshop, the Children’s National and GW communities submitted ideas for consideration. Judges selected ten ideas for development at the workshop and organized teams of participants around each idea. Teams were judged on their overall presentation, durability of the application, and potential impact in the medical and health world. After careful deliberation, Team 10, also known as “The BabyDaddies,” won for their presentation on BabyData: A medical app for neonatal care providers. The newborn care mobile application aims to calculate the most commonly used values to promote efficient and evidence-based care for newborns in their first hours, days and weeks of life.

“Although some calculations are simple, a lot of time could be saved when you multiply those calculations by seeing 20 to 40 newborns a day,” says Jessica Herstek, M.D., Children’s National project lead and idea originator. “I wanted to create something easy that could help care providers on a day-to-day basis.”

Dr. Herstek is now working with CTSI-CN to bring the application to life. BabyData will feature calculators for measurements, weight assessments, risk evaluations, gestational and chronological age, nutrition, hydration, Group B Streptococcal prophylaxis and glucose infusion rate, all things currently being assessed manually. Medical providers who care for newborns in inpatient, emergency and outpatient settings will have all the resources they need consolidated into one field-specific calculator application.

test tubes

2016: A banner year for innovation

test tubes

In 2016, clinicians and research scientists working at Children’s National Health System published more than 1,100 articles in high-impact journals about a wide array of topics. A Children’s Research Institute review group selected the top articles for the calendar year considering, among other factors, work published in top-tier journals with impact factors of 9.5 and higher.

“Conducting world-class research and publishing the results in prestigious journals represents the pinnacle of many research scientists’ careers. I am pleased to see Children’s National staff continue this essential tradition,” says Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., Physician-in-Chief and Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National. “While it was difficult for us to winnow the field of worthy contenders to this select group, these papers not only inform the field broadly, they epitomize the multidisciplinary nature of our research,” Dr. Batshaw adds.

The published papers explain research that includes discoveries made at the genetic and cellular levels, clinical insights and a robotic innovation that promises to revolutionize surgery:

  • Outcomes from supervised autonomous procedures are superior to surgery performed by expert surgeons
  • The Zika virus can cause substantial fetal brain abnormalities in utero, without microcephaly or intracranial calcifications
  • Mortality among injured adolescents was lower among patients treated at pediatric trauma centers, compared with adolescents treated at other trauma center types
  • Hydroxycarbamide can substitute for chronic transfusions to maintain transcranial Doppler flow velocities for high-risk children with sickle cell anemia
  • There is convincing evidence of the efficacy of in vivo genome editing in an authentic animal model of a lethal human metabolic disease
  • Sirt1 is an essential regulator of oligodendrocyte progenitor cell proliferation and oligodendrocyte regeneration after neonatal brain injury

Read the complete list.

Dr. Batshaw’s announcement comes on the eve of Research and Education Week 2017 at Children’s National, a weeklong event that begins April 24. This year’s theme, “Collaboration Leads to Innovation,” underscores the cross-cutting nature of Children’s research that aims to transform pediatric care.

vaccination

How to talk with parents who are vaccine hesitant

vaccination

The single most important factor in parents deciding to accept vaccines is one-on-one contact with an informed, caring and concerned pediatrician.

When facing vaccine-hesitant parents, the key for me is to be collaborative and not to dismiss their questions or concerns.  That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics advises pediatricians to talk with parents to determine their individual concerns so we can address them. The decision whether to immunize a child ultimately rests with the parents. It’s understandable for parents to be worried – but it also critical that they get the facts.

The conversation can begin simply.

Here’s what I say to vaccine-hesitant parents: You work hard to protect your child every day. Vaccines are as important as feeding your child healthy foods, using a car seat or seat belt and installing a smoke detector.

Here’s what I ask vaccine-hesitant parents: What information can I provide to help you make an informed decision, or to help you feel comfortable with vaccinating your child?  As with most of what we pediatricians do, my goal is to partner with the parent so that we help their child to attain optimal health as a team.

I am a parent. Although my husband and I did not hesitate in vaccinating our daughter, I understand why parents want to feel comfortable about the choices they make for their children.

I also am a pediatrician. I have seen children die from the flu or develop a life-threatening brain infection from chickenpox.  Thanks to the herd immunity that results from decades of vaccination, many of these diseases are now rare in the United States, but there are still episodic outbreaks throughout the country that remind us why we vaccinate children.

Vaccinating is the norm.  Only about 1 percent of children in the United States receive no vaccinations. Most parents who are hesitant about vaccines are not opposed to immunizing their children; they are unsure or have unanswered questions. Fortunately, most vaccine-hesitant parents are responsive to receiving information about vaccines, consider vaccinating their children and do not oppose all vaccines.

When it comes to vaccine-hesitant parents, one-on-one counseling is effective. The single most important factor in parents deciding to accept vaccines is one-on-one contact with an informed, caring and concerned pediatrician.

About the Author

Lanre Omojokun FalusiLanre Omojokun Falusi, M.D., F.A.A.P.
General pediatrician and Associate Medical Director for Municipal and Regional Affairs at Child Health Advocacy Institute

A sirtuin might help repair a common neonatal brain injury

Sirtuin could repair common neonatal brain injury

A sirtuin might help repair a common neonatal brain injury

A team of researchers  investigated the molecular mechanisms behind oligodendrocyte progenitor cell proliferation in neonatal hypoxia.

What’s known

Hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen, is a major cause of diffuse white matter injury (DWMI). This condition leads to permanent developmental disabilities in prematurely born infants. The long-term abnormalities of the brain’s white matter that characterize DWMI are caused by the loss of a specific type of cells known as oligodendrocytes, which support nerve cells and produce myelin, a lipid and protein sheath that electrically insulates nerve cells. Oligodendrocytes are produced by a population of immature cells known as oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs). Previous research has shown that hypoxia can trigger OPCs to proliferate and presumably produce new oligodendrocytes. The molecular pathways that hypoxia triggers to make new OPCs remain unclear.

What’s new

A team of researchers led by Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., director of the Center for Neuroscience Research and the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center at Children’s National Health System, investigated the molecular mechanisms behind what prompts OPCs to proliferate in a preclinical model of neonatal hypoxia. The researchers found that a molecule known as Sirt1 acts as a major regulator of OPC proliferation and regeneration. Sirt1 is a sirtuin, a class of molecules that has attracted interest over the past several years for its role in stem cells, aging and inflammation. Hypoxia appears to induce Sirt1 formation. When the researchers prevented brain tissues in petri dishes from making Sirt1 or removed this molecule in preclinical models, these actions prevented OPC proliferation. What’s more, preventing Sirt1 production also inhibited OPCs from making oligodendrocytes. These findings suggest that Sirt1 is essential for replacing oligodendrocytes to repair DWMI after hypoxia. Additionally, finding ways to enhance Sirt1 activity eventually could provide a novel way to help infants recover after hypoxia and prevent DWMI.

Questions for future research

Q: How can Sirt1 activity be enhanced in preclinical models and humans?
Q: Can deficits triggered by diffuse white matter injury be prevented or reversed with Sirt1?
Q: Which other treatments might be useful for diffuse white matter injury?

Source: Sirt1 regulates glial progenitor proliferation and regeneration in white matter after neonatal brain injury.” Jablonska, M., M. Gierdalski, L. Chew, T. Hawley, M. Catron, A. Lichauco, J. Cabrera-Luque, T. Yuen, D. Rowitch and V. Gallo. Published by Nature Communications on Dec. 19, 2016.

Neonatal Baby

Treating the smallest opioid epidemic victims

Neonatal Baby

The Virginia Commissioner of Health recently declared the opioid epidemic a public health crisis. A little-known facet of the ongoing crisis is the effects it can have on babies born to opioid-addicted mothers. In fact, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, substance-exposed babies make up as many as 27 out of every 1,000 deliveries across the country.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) is a condition that affects infants who are born to mothers who are chronic users of some form of opiate during pregnancy. While heroin certainly falls into this category, in recent years the dramatic increase in prescriptions of other opioids as a therapy for chronic pain has led to a correlated increase in the number of infants who withdraw from substances like OxyContin, Percocet, and Morphine.

Infants with NAS can experience tremors, sleep problems, excessive high-pitched crying (often inconsolable), irritability, difficulty feeding and seizures. Unfortunately, these symptoms may present while the infant is in the care of parents who are withdrawing from an opioid addiction themselves, and tragically, cases of non-accidental trauma have been recorded.

In an effort to draw increased attention to this troubling aspect of the ongoing opioid crisis in Virginia and across the country, and with hopes of breaking down barriers to effective treatment for newborns, Children’s National neonatologists and pediatricians are working with lawmakers in Virginia to standardize a streamlined protocol for all newborns born to opioid-addicted mothers in the Commonwealth based on best practices.

In each of the three hospitals in Virginia where Children’s National physicians operate, the established NAS protocol has been implemented to identify at-risk infants, monitor their treatment and attempt to reduce length of stay and rate of readmission. The goals are to standardize the protocol and have it put into practice in all newborn units in Virginia and eventually extend it throughout the region. The protocol includes the following:

  • Universal risk assessment of newborns
  • Appropriate observation period
  • NAS scoring to assess severity of condition
  • Prioritize non-pharmacologic interventions vs. pharmacologic therapy
  • Discharge criteria

Children’s National staff based in Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Va., first brought to light the importance of the issue and pointed out that better coordination and government involvement could work together to significantly improve care for these infants. Since then, leaders from the Division of Neonatology at Children’s National have been working closely with Virginia legislation to develop and pass several bills that as a package help address the issue in the following ways:

  • Adding NAS to the list of diseases which must be reported to the state Department of Health
  • Directing the Department of Health and Human Resources to look at NAS in collaboration with other related stakeholders to study the issue at large and specifically collect pertinent information to help address it
  • Removing language that states for the purposes of defining a substance-affected infant that the substance must be illicit

This protocol and these bills are important steps forward in both providing the effective treatment needed for and the collection of data related to NAS cases, but they are only a first step. Children’s National and state leaders continue to work together to bring Virginia’s hospitals together in an attempt to foster a collaborative approach to addressing NAS. By sharing expertise and techniques, Virginia’s health care providers can ensure that the tiniest victims of the opioid crisis do not go untreated.

Cas9-mediated correction of metabolic liver disease

AAV.CRISPR-SaCas9

In vivo gene correction of the OTC locus in the mouse liver by AAV.CRISPR-SaCas9. Source: Nature Publishing Group copyright 2016.

What’s known

A deficiency of the enzyme ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC) in humans causes life-threatening hyperammonemic crises.  The OTC gene enables the body to make an enzyme that is a critical player in the urea cycle, a process that ensures excess nitrogen is excreted by the kidneys. Left unchecked, accumulating nitrogen becomes a toxic form of ammonia. Infants with OTC deficiency can suffer their first metabolic crisis as newborns. Up to 50 percent die or sustain severe brain injury, and survivors typically need a liver transplant by age 1. Gene therapy could cure OTC deficiency, but currently used viruses, such as adeno-associated virus (AAV), are not optimal in the neonatal setting.

What’s new

A research team led by Children’s National Health System and the University of Pennsylvania reasoned that the newborn liver may be an ideal setting for AAV-mediated gene correction using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing. They intravenously infused two AAVs into two-day-old mice with partial OTC deficiency. One AAV expressed Cas9 and the other expressed a guide RNA and a donor OTC DNA. This resulted in correction of the mutation in 10 percent of liver cells and increased survival in mice challenged with a high-protein diet, which normally exacerbates disease. After consuming a high-protein diet for one week, the treated newborns had a 40 percent reduction in ammonia compared with the untreated group. The correction appears to last long term. The study “provides evidence for efficacy of gene editing in neonatal onset OTC deficiency,” says Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., Physician-In-Chief and Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National, and a study co-author. “This study provides convincing evidence for efficacy of in vivo genome editing in an authentic animal model of a lethal human metabolic disease,” the research team concludes.

Questions for future research

Q: More than 400 mutations can cause OTC deficiency, and each would require a separate gene-editing approach. Is it possible instead to insert the OTC genome using CRISPR-Cas9 to correct the disorder irrespective of the mutation?
Q: Will such gene editing also work in adult animal models of the OTC disorder?
Q: Do these encouraging results in animals translate to efficacy in infants?

Source: Yang, Y., L. Wang, P. Bell, D. McMenamin, Z. He, J. White, H. Yu, C. Xu, H. Morizono, K. Musunuru, M.L. Batshaw and J.M. Wilson. “A dual AAV system enables the Cas9-mediated correction of a metabolic liver disease in newborn mice.” Published Feb. 1, 2016 by Nature Biotechnology.

Sarah B. Mulkey

Researchers tackle Zika’s unanswered questions

Youssef A. Kousa

Youssef A. Kousa, D.O., Ph.D., M.S., is examining whether interplays between certain genes make some women more vulnerable to symptomatic Zika infections.

A Maryland woman traveled to the Dominican Republic early in her pregnancy, spending three weeks with family. She felt dizzy and tired and, at first, attributed the lethargy to jet lag. Then, she experienced a rash that lasted about four days. She never saw a bite or slapped a mosquito while in the Dominican Republic but, having heard about the Zika virus, asked to be tested.

Her blood tested positive for Zika.

Why was this pregnant woman infected by Zika while others who live year-round in Zika hot zones remain free of the infectious disease? And why was she among the slim minority of Zika-positive people to show symptoms?

Youssef A. Kousa, D.O., Ph.D., M.S., a pediatric resident in the child neurology track at Children’s National Health System, is working on a research study that will examine whether interplays between certain genes make some women more vulnerable to symptomatic Zika infections during pregnancy, leaving  some fetuses at higher risk of developing microcephaly.

Dr. Kousa will present preliminary findings during Research and Education Week 2017 at Children’s National.

At sites in Puerto Rico, Colombia and Washington D.C., Dr. Kousa and his research collaborators are actively recruiting study participants and drawing blood from women whose Zika infections were confirmed in the first or second trimester of pregnancy. The blood is stored in test tubes with purple caps, a visual cue that the tube contains an additive that binds DNA, preventing it from being cut up. Additional research sites are currently being developed.

When the blood arrives at Children’s National, Dr. Kousa will use a centrifuge located in a sample preparation room to spin the samples at high speed for 11 minutes. The sample emerges from the centrifuge in three discrete layers, separated by weight. The rose-colored section that rises to the top is plasma. Plasma contains tell-tale signs of the immune system’s past battles with viruses and will be analyzed by Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National, and Dr. Kousa’s mentor.

A slender line at the middle indicates white blood cells. The dark red layer is heavier red blood cells that sink to the bottom. This bottom half of the test tube, where the DNA resides, is where Dr. Kousa will perform his genetic research.

For years, Dr. Kousa has worked to identify genetic risk factors that influence which fetuses develop cleft lip and palate. In addition to genetic variances that drive disease, he looks at environmental overlays that can trigger genes to respond in ways that cause pediatric disease. When Zika infections raced across the globe, he says it was important to apply the same genetic analyses to the emerging disease. Genes make proteins that carry out instructions, but viral infection disrupts how genes interact, he says. Cells die. Other cells do not fully mature.

While certain poverty-stricken regions of Brazil have recorded the highest spikes in rates of microcephaly, more is at play than socioeconomics, he says. “It didn’t feel like all of the answers lie in the neighborhood. One woman with a Zika-affected child can live just down the street from a child who is more or less severely affected by Zika.”

As a father, Dr. Kousa is particularly concerned about how Zika stunts growth of the fetal brain at a time when it should expand exponentially. “I have three kids. You see them as they achieve milestones over time. It makes you happy and proud as a parent,” he says.

Sarah B. Mulkey

Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., is studying whether infants exposed to Zika in utero achieve the same developmental milestones as uninfected infants.

While Dr. Kousa concentrates on Zika’s most devastating side effects, his colleague Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., is exploring more subtle damage Zika can cause to fetuses exposed in utero. In the cohort of Colombian patients that Dr. Mulkey is researching, just 8 percent had abnormal fetal brain magnetic resonance images (MRIs). At first glance, the uncomplicated MRIs appear to be reassuring news for the vast majority of pregnant women.

Dr. Mulkey also will present preliminary findings during Research and Education Week 2017 at Children’s National.

In the fetus, the Zika virus makes a beeline to the developing brain where it replicates with ease and can linger after birth. “We need to be cautious about saying the fetal MRI is ‘normal’ and the infant is going to be ‘normal,’ ” Dr. Mulkey says. “We know with congenital cytomegalovirus that infected infants may not show symptoms at birth yet suffer long-term consequences, such as hearing deficits and vision loss.”

Among Zika-affected pregnancies in Colombia in which late-gestational age fetal MRIs were normal, Dr. Mulkey will use two different evaluation tools at 6 months and 1 year of age to gauge whether the babies accomplish the same milestones as peers. One evaluation tool is a questionnaire that has been validated in Spanish.

At 6 months and 1 year of age, the infants’ motor skills will be assessed, such as their ability to roll over in both directions, sit up, draw their feet toward their waist, stand, take steps independently and purposefully move their hands. Videotapes of the infants performing the motor skills will be scored by Dr. Mulkey and her mentor, Adre du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., Chief of the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National. The Thrasher Research Fund is funding the project, “Neurologic outcomes of apparently normal newborns from Zika virus-positive pregnancies,” as part of its Early Career Award Program.

Both research projects are extensions of a larger multinational study co-led by Drs. du Plessis and DeBiasi that explores the impact of prolonged Zika viremia in pregnant women, fetuses and infants; the feasibility of using fetal MRI to describe the continuum of neurological impacts in Zika-affected pregnancies; and long-term developmental issues experienced by Zika-affected infants.

Chinwe Unegbu

PDE-5 inhibitors for pediatric hypertension

Chinwe Unegbu

A study led by Chinwe Unegbu, M.D., indicates the benefits of PDE-5 inhibitors to treat pediatric pulmonary hypertension far outweigh potential harmful side effects.

Pulmonary hypertension (PH), when pressure in the blood vessels leading from the heart to the lungs is too high, is primarily a disease of adults: Patient registries suggest that the mean age of diagnosis is around age 50. However, more and more children are developing this condition, says Chinwe Unegbu, M.D., an assistant professor in the Division of Anesthesiology, Pain and Perioperative Medicine at Children’s National Health System.

Although adults with PH have several different effective treatments, Dr. Unegbu adds, children have few options. One of these is a class of medications known as phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE-5) inhibitors, which act on molecular pathways that can open up constricted blood vessels. However, some studies have raised questions about the safety of this class of medications, particularly with long-term use of high dosages.

In a new study, Dr. Unegbu and colleagues performed a systematic review of available literature on this class of drugs evaluating their effectiveness and safety for pediatric patients. The review showed that like all medications, PDE-5 inhibitors have some risks. However, Dr. Unegbu says, the review showed that their benefits, including improved echocardiography measurements, cardiac catheterization parameters and oxygenation, far outweigh potential harmful side effects.

“Pediatricians across the nation view the rise in pediatric PH cases with growing concern because the disease can worsen, leading to right ventricular failure and death,” says Dr. Unegbu, lead author of the study. “PH can occur in newborns, infants and children who have a number of health conditions, including congenital heart disease, the most common birth defect among newborns. There are few available treatments for the growing population of children affected by this condition, so it is heartening that the evidence supports PDE-5 inhibitors for patients with PH.”

Patients with PH experience increased pressure in the pulmonary arteries, which carry blood from the heart to the lungs where it picks up oxygen that is ferried throughout the body. According to the National Institutes of Health, this leads patients to suffer from shortness of breath while doing routine tasks, chest pain and a racing heartbeat. Changes to the arteries make it progressively harder for the heart to pump blood to the lungs, which forces the heart to work even harder. Despite the heart muscle compensating by growing larger, less blood ultimately flows from the right to the left side of the heart which can compromise the kidney, liver and other organs, Dr. Unegbu says.

The study team included four researchers from Johns Hopkins University: Corina Noje, M.D., John D. Coulson, M.D., Jodi B. Segal, M.D., M.P.H., and study senior author Lewis Romer, M.D. The researchers scoured Medline, Embase, SCOPUS and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, looking for studies that examined PDE-5 inhibitor use by pediatric patients with primary and secondary PH. Their goals included describing the nature and scale of the pediatric PH, assessing available pharmacologic therapies and conducting the systematic review of clinical studies of PDE-5 inhibitors, a mainstay of PH therapy.

They identified 1,270 studies. Twenty-one met the criteria to be included in the comprehensive review, including eight randomized controlled trials – the gold standard. The remaining 13 were  observational studies in children ranging in age from extremely preterm to adolescence.

“Although there is some risk associated with PDE-5 inhibitor use by pediatric patients with PH, overwhelmingly the data indicate the benefits of using this class of drugs far outweigh the risks. When we looked at specific clinical outcomes, we see definite improvement in a number of measures including oxygenation, hemodynamics and better clinical outcomes: The patients are doing better, feeling better and their exercise capacity rises,” Dr. Unegbu says.

Because of lingering concerns about increased mortality, they also looked at toxicity data associated with this class of drugs. “With the exception of a single trial, the remaining trials included in our review did not demonstrate increased mortality in patients placed on this class of medicines, which was reassuring to us,” she says. Side effects ranged from mild to moderate, such as flushing and headaches. “We can say with a good degree of confidence that providers should feel fairly comfortable prescribing PDE-5 inhibitors.”

Ideally, researchers would like to have access to patient-specific measures that are a good fit for neonates and infants. Unlike adults, infants’ exercise capacity cannot be measured by their ability to climb stairs or use a treadmill. Another limitation, the study authors note, is the dearth of adequately powered clinical trials conducted in kids.

“Most of the studies have been conducted in adults. However, this disease unfolds in a much different fashion in children compared with adults,” Dr. Unegbu says. “We are desperately in need of high-quality studies in the form of randomized controlled trials in pediatric patients and studies that examine the full range of formulations of this class of drugs.”

Sarah B. Mulkey

Puzzling symptoms lead to collaboration

Sarah B. Mulkey, explaining the research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Keating and Abigail

Multidisciplinary approach to hydrocephalus care

Reflective of the myriad symptoms and complications that can accompany hydrocephalus, a multidisciplinary team at Children’s National works with patients and families for much of childhood.

The Doppler image on the oversized computer screen shows the path taken by blood as it flows through the newborn’s brain, with bright blue distinguishing blood moving through the middle cerebral artery toward the frontal lobe and bright red depicting blood coursing away. Pitch black zones indicate ventricles, cavities through which cerebrospinal fluid usually flows and where hydrocephalus can get its start.

The buildup of excess cerebrospinal fluid in the brain can begin in the womb and can be detected by fetal magnetic resonance imaging. Hydrocephalus also can crop up after birth due to trauma to the head, an infection, a brain tumor or bleeding in the brain, according to the National Institutes of Health. An estimated 1 to 2 per 1,000 newborns have hydrocephalus at birth.

When parents learn of the hydrocephalus diagnosis, their first question tends to be “Is my child going to be OK?” says Suresh Magge, M.D., a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s National Health System.

“We have a number of ways to treat hydrocephalus. It is one of the most common conditions that pediatric neurosurgeons treat,” Dr. Magge adds.

Unlike fluid build-up elsewhere in the body where there are escape routes, with hydrocephalus spinal fluid becomes trapped in the brain. To remove it, surgeons typically implant a flexible tube called a shunt that drains excess fluid into the abdomen, an interim stop before it is flushed away. Another surgical technique, called an endoscopic third ventriculostomy has the ability to drain excess fluid without inserting a shunt, but it only works for select types of hydrocephalus, Dr. Magge adds.

For the third year, Dr. Magge is helping to organize the Hydrocephalus Education Day on Feb. 25, a free event that offers parents an opportunity to learn more about the condition.

Reflective of the myriad symptoms and complications that can accompany hydrocephalus, such as epilepsy, cerebral palsy, cortical vision impairment and global delays, a multidisciplinary team at Children’s National works with patients and families for much of childhood.

Neuropsychologist Yael Granader, Ph.D., works with children ages 4 and older who have a variety of developmental and medical conditions. Granader is most likely to see children and adolescents with hydrocephalus once they become medically stable in order to assist in devising a plan for school support services and therapeutic interventions. Her assessments can last an entire day as she administers a variety of tasks that evaluate how the child thinks and learns, such as discerning patterns, assembling puzzles, defining words, and listening to and remembering information.

Neuropsychologists work with schools in order to help create the most successful academic environment for the child. For example, some children may struggle to visually track across a page accurately while reading; providing a bookmark to follow beneath the line is a helpful and simple accommodation to put in place. Support for physical limitations also are discussed with schools in order to incorporate adaptive physical education or to allow use of an elevator in school.

“Every child affected by hydrocephalus is so different. Every parent should know that their child can learn,” Granader says. “We’re going to find the best, most supportive environment for them. We are with them on their journey and, every few years, things will change. We want to be there to help with emerging concerns.”

Another team member, Justin Burton, M.D., a pediatric rehabilitation specialist, says rehabilitation medicine’s “piece of the puzzle is doing whatever I can to help the kids function better.” That means dressing, going to the bathroom, eating and walking independently. With babies who have stiff, tight muscles, that can mean helping them through stretches, braces and medicine management to move muscles smoothly in just the way their growing bodies want. Personalized care plans for toddlers can include maintaining a regular sleep-wake cycle, increasing attention span and strengthening such developmental skills as walking, running and climbing stairs. For kids 5 and older, the focus shifts more to academic readiness, since those youths’ “full-time job” is to become great students, Dr. Burton says.

The area of the hospital where children work on rehabilitation is an explosion of color and sounds, including oversized balance balls of varying dimensions in bright primary colors, portable basketball hoops with flexible rims at multiple heights, a set of foam stairs, parallel bars, a climbing device that looks like the entry to playground monkey bars and a chatterbox toy that lets a patient know when she has opened and closed the toy’s doors correctly.

“We end up taking care of these kids for years and years,” he adds. “I always love seeing the kids get back to walking and talking and getting back to school. If we can get them back out in the world and they’re doing things just like every other kid, that’s success.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Magge says research continues to expand the range of interventions and to improve outcomes for patients with hydrocephalus, including:

  • Fluid dynamics of cerebrospinal fluid
  • Optimal ways to drain excess fluid
  • Improving understanding of why shunts block
  • Definitively characterizing post-hemorrhagic ventricular dilation.

Unlike spina bifida, which sometimes can be corrected in utero at some health institutions, hydrocephalus cannot be corrected in the womb. “While we have come a long way in treating hydrocephalus, there is still a lot of work to be done. We continue to learn more about hydrocephalus with the aim of continually improving treatments,” Dr. Magge says.

During a recent office visit, 5-year-old Abagail’s head circumference had measured ¼ centimeter of growth, an encouraging trend, Robert Keating, M.D., Children’s Chief of Neurosurgery, tells the girl’s mother, Melissa J. Kopolow McCall. According to Kopolow McCall, who co-chairs the Hydrocephalus Association DC Community Network, it is “hugely” important that Children’s National infuses its clinical care with the latest research insights. “I have to have hope that she is not going to be facing a lifetime of brain surgery, and the research is what gives me the hope.”

Congenital heart disease and cortical growth

The cover of  Science Translational Medicine features a new study of the cellular-level changes in the brain induced by congenital heart disease. Reprinted with permission from AAAS. Not for download

Disruptions in cerebral oxygen supply caused by congenital heart disease have significant impact on cortical growth, according to a research led by Children’s National Health System. The findings of the research team, which include co-authors from the National Institutes of Health, Boston Children’s Hospital and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, appear on the cover of Science Translational Medicine. The subventricular zone (SVZ) in normal newborns’ brains is home to the largest stockpile of neural stem/progenitor cells, with newly generated neurons migrating from this zone to specific regions of the frontal cortex and differentiating into interneurons. When newborns experience disruptions in cerebral oxygen supply due to congenital heart disease, essential cellular processes go awry and this contributes to reduced cortical growth.

The preliminary findings point to the importance of restoring these cells’ neurogenic potential, possibly through therapeutics, to lessen children’s long-­term neurological deficits.

“We know that congenital heart disease (CHD) reduces cerebral oxygen at a time when the developing fetal brain most needs oxygen. Now, we are beginning to understand the mechanisms of CHD-­induced brain injuries at a cellular level, and we have identified a robust supply of cells that have the ability to travel directly to the site of injury and potentially provide help by replacing lost or damaged neurons,” says Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., Director of the Cardiac Surgery Research Laboratory at Children’s National, and co­-senior study author.

The third trimester of pregnancy is a time of dramatic growth for the fetal brain, which expands in volume and develops complex structures and network connections that growing children rely on throughout adulthood. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, congenital heart defects are the most common major birth defect, affecting 8 in 1,000 newborns. Infants born with CHD can experience myriad neurological deficits, including behavioral, cognitive, social, motor and attention disorders, the research team adds.

Cardiologists have tapped non­invasive imaging to monitor fetal hearts during gestation in high-­risk pregnancies and can then perform corrective surgery in the first weeks of life to fix damaged hearts. Long­ term neurological deficits due to immature cortical development also have emerged as major challenges in pregnancies complicated by CHD.

“I think this is an enormously important paper for surgeons and for children and families who are affected by CHD. Surgeons have been worried for years that the things we do during corrective heart surgery have the potential to affect the development of the brain. And we’ve learned to improve how we do heart surgery so that the procedure causes minimal damage to the brain. But we still see some kids who have behavioral problems and learning delays,” says Richard A. Jonas, M.D., Chief of the Division of Cardiac Surgery at Children’s National, and co-­senior study author. “We’re beginning to understand that there are things about CHD that affect the development of the brain before a baby is even born. What this paper shows is that the low oxygen level that sometimes results from a congenital heart problem might contribute to that and can slow down the growth of the brain. The good news is that it should be possible to reverse that problem using the cells that continue to develop in the neonate’s brain after birth.”

Among preclinical models, the spatiotemporal progression of brain growth in this particular model most closely parallels that of humans. Likewise, the SVZ cytoarchitecture of the neonatal preclinical model exposed to hypoxia mimics that of humans in utero and shortly after birth. The research team leveraged CellTracker Green to follow the path traveled by SVZ­ derived cells and to illuminate their fate, with postnatal SVZ supplying the developing cortex with newly generated neurons. SVZ­ derived cells were primarily neuroblasts. Superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles supplied answers about long­ term SVZ migration, with SVZ ­derived cells making their way to the prefrontal cortex and the somatosensory cortex of the brain.

“We demonstrated that in the postnatal period, newly generated neurons migrate from the SVZ to specific cortices, with the majority migrating to the prefrontal cortex,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National, and co­-senior study author. “Of note, we revealed that the anterior SVZ is a critical source of newborn neurons destined to populate the upper layers of the cortex. We challenged this process through chronic hypoxia exposure, which severely impaired neurogenesis within the SVZ, depleting this critical source of interneurons.”

In the preclinical model of hypoxia as well as in humans, brains were smaller, weighed significantly less and had a significant reduction in cortical gray matter volume. In the prefrontal cortex, there was a significant reduction in white matter neuroblasts. Taken as a whole, according to the study authors, the findings suggest that impaired neurogenesis within the SVZ represents a cellular mechanism underlying hypoxia ­induced, region ­specific reduction in immature neurons in the cortex. The prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that enables such functions as judgment, decision­ making and problem solving, is most impacted. Impairments in higher ­order cognitive functions involving the prefrontal cortex are common in patients with CHD.

This is the consequential malfunction of the brain during congenital heart defects.

Congenital heart disease and white matter injury

This is the consequential malfunction of the brain during congenital heart defects.

Although recent advances have greatly improved the survival of children with congenital heart disease, up to 55 percent will be left with injury to their brain’s white matter – an area that is critical for aiding connection and communication between various regions in the brain.

What’s known

Eight of every 1,000 children born each year have congenital heart disease (CHD). Although recent advances have greatly improved the survival of these children, up to 55 percent will be left with injury to their brain’s white matter – an area that is critical for aiding connection and communication between various regions in the brain. The resulting spectrum of neurological deficits can have significant costs for the individual, their family and society. Although studies have demonstrated that white matter injuries due to CHD have many contributing factors, including abnormal blood flow to the fetal brain, many questions remain about the mechanisms that cause these injuries and the best interventions.

What’s new

A Children’s National Health System research team combed existing literature, reviewing studies from Children’s as well as other research groups, to develop an article detailing the current state of knowledge on CHD and white matter injury. The scientists write that advances in neuroimaging – including magnetic resonance imaging, magnetic resonance spectroscopy, Doppler ultrasound and diffusion tensor imaging – have provided a wealth of knowledge about brain development in patients who have CHD. Unfortunately, these techniques alone are unable to provide pivotal insights into how CHD affects cells and molecules in the brain. However, by integrating animal models with findings in human subjects and in postmortem human tissue, the scientists believe that it will be possible to find novel therapeutic targets and new standards of care to prevent developmental delay associated with cardiac abnormalities.

For example, using a porcine model, the Children’s team was able to define a strategy for white matter protection in congenital heart surgery through cellular and developmental analysis of different white matter regions. Another study from Children’s combined rodent hypoxia with a brain slice model to replicate the unique brain conditions in neonates with severe and complex congenital heart disease. This innovative animal model provided novel insights into the possible additive effect of preoperative hypoxia on brain insults due to cardiopulmonary bypass and deep hypothermic circulatory arrest.

The Children’s research team also recently published an additional review article describing the key windows of development during which the immature brain is most vulnerable to CHD-related injury.

Questions for future research

Q: Can we create an animal model that recapitulates the morphogenic and developmental aspects of CHD without directly affecting other organs or developmental processes?
Q: What are the prenatal and neonatal cellular responses to CHD in the developing brain?
Q: What are the molecular mechanisms underlying white matter immaturity and vulnerability to CHD, and how can we intervene?
Q: How can we accurately assess the dynamic neurological outcomes of CHD and/or corrective surgery in animal models?
Q: Prenatal or postnatal insults to the developing brain: which is most devastating in regards to developmental and behavioral disabilities?
Q: How can we best extrapolate from, and integrate, neuroimaging findings/correlations in human patients with cellular/molecular approaches in animal models?

Source: Reprinted from Trends in Neurosciences, Vol. 38/Ed. 6, Paul D. Morton, Nobuyuki Ishibashi, Richard A. Jonas and Vittorio Gallo, “Congenital cardiac anomalies and white matter injury,” pp. 353-363, Copyright 2015, with permission from Elsevier.

Neonatal baby

Thrasher to fund Children’s project

Neonatal baby

The Thrasher Research Fund will fund a Children’s National Health System project, “Defining a new parameter for post-hemorrhagic ventricular dilation in premature infants,” as part of its Early Career Award Program, an initiative designed to support the successful training and mentoring of the next generation of pediatric researchers.

The proposal was submitted by Rawad Obeid, M.D., a neonatal neurology clinical research fellow at Children’s National who will serve as the project’s principal investigator. The competition for one-year Thrasher Research Fund awards is highly competitive with just two dozen granted across the nation. Research clinicians at Children’s National received two awards this funding cycle, with another awarded to support a neurologic outcomes study about Zika-affected pregnancies led by Fetal-Neonatal Neurologist Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

“Preterm infants born earlier than the 29th gestational week are at high risk for developing cerebral palsy and other brain injuries,” Dr. Obeid says. “Infants with intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH) followed by hydrocephalus (post-hemorrhagic hydrocephalus) face the highest risks of such brain injuries.”

Dr. Obeid hypothesizes that measuring distinct frontal and temporal horn ratio trajectories in extremely premature infants with and without IVH will help to definitively characterize post-hemorrhagic ventricular dilation (PHVD). Right now, experts disagree about the degree of PHVD that should trigger treatment to avoid life-long impairment.

He will be mentored by Anna A. Penn, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Translational Research for Hospital-Based Services & Board of Visitors Cerebral Palsy Prevention Program; Taeun Chang, M.D., Director of the Neonatal Neurology Program within the Division of Neurophysiology, Epilepsy & Critical Care; and Dorothy Bulas, M.D., F.A.C.R., F.A.I.U.M., F.S.R.U., Vice Chief of Academic Affairs.

In the award nomination letter, Dr. Penn noted that in “clinical settings and in the laboratory, I have supervised many trainees, but a trainee like Dr. Obeid is rare. He has pursued his research interests with great commitment. Before coming to Children’s National, he already had multiple job offers, but chose further training to enhance his research skills. While I have worked with many accomplished students, residents and fellows, Dr. Obeid stands out not only for his strong clinical skills, but also for his eagerness to learn and his dedication to both his patients and his research.”

 

pregnancy

New Children’s National and Inova collaboration

pregnancy

A new research collaboration will streamline completion of retrospective and prospective research studies, shedding light on myriad conditions that complicate pregnancies.

A new three-year, multi-million dollar research and education collaboration in maternal, fetal and neonatal medicine aims to improve the health of pregnant women and their children. The partnership between Children’s National Health System and Inova will yield a major, nationally competitive research and academic program in these areas that will leverage the strengths of both health care facilities and enhance the quality of care available for these vulnerable populations.

The collaboration will streamline completion of retrospective and prospective research studies, shedding light on a number of conditions that complicate pregnancies. It is one of several alliances between the two institutions aimed at improving the health and well-being of children in Northern Virginia and throughout the region.

“The Washington/Northern Virginia region has long had the capability to support a major, nationally competitive research and academic program in maternal and fetal medicine,” says Adre du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., Director of the Fetal Medicine Institute at Children’s National and a co-Principal Investigator for this partnership. “The Children’s National/Inova maternal-fetal-neonatal research education program will fill this critical void.

“This new partnership will help to establish a closer joint education program between the two centers, working with the OB/Gyn residents at Inova and ensuring their involvement in Children’s National educational programs and weekly fetal case review meetings,” Dr. du Plessis adds.

Larry Maxwell, M.D., Chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus and a co-Principal Investigator for the collaboration, further emphasizes that “Inova’s experience in caring for women and children — combined with genomics- and proteomics-based research — will synergize with Children National’s leadership in neonatal pediatrics, placental biology and fetal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to create an unprecedented research consortium. This will set the stage for developing clinically actionable interventions for mothers and babies in metropolitan District of Columbia.”

Children’s National, ranked No. 3 nationally in neonatology, has expertise in pediatric neurology, fetal and neonatal neurology, fetal and pediatric cardiology, infectious diseases, genetics, neurodevelopment and dozens of additional pediatric medical subspecialties. Its clinicians are national leaders in next-generation imaging techniques, such as MRI. Eighteen specialties and 50 consultants evaluate more than 700 cases per year through its Fetal Medicine Institute. In mid-2016, Children’s National created a Congenital Zika Virus Program to serve as a dedicated resource for referring clinicians and pregnant women. The hospital performs deliveries in very high-risk, complex situations, but does not offer a routine labor and delivery program.

Inova Fairfax Medical Campus is home to both Inova Women’s Hospital and Inova Children’s Hospital. Inova Women’s Hospital is the region’s most comprehensive and highest-volume women’s hospital — delivering more than 10,000 babies in 2016. Inova Children’s Hospital serves as Northern Virginia’s children’s hospital —providing expert care in pediatric and fetal cardiology, cardiac surgery, genetics, complex general surgery, neurology, neurosurgery and other medical and surgical specialties. Its 108-bed Level IV neonatal intensive care unit is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the nation. Inova’s Translational Medicine Institute includes a genomics lab, as well as a research Institute focused on studies designed to build genetic models that help answer questions about individual disease. Each of these specialties is integrated into the Inova Fetal Care Center — which serves as a connection point between Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospitals. The Inova Fetal Care Center provides complex care coordination for women expecting infants with congenital anomalies or with other fetal concerns. Because Inova Women’s Hospital and Inova Children’s Hospital are co-located, women are able to deliver their babies in the same building where their children will receive care.

The research collaboration will support research assistants; tissue technicians; a placental biologist; as well as support for biomedical engineering, fetal-neonatal imaging, telemedicine, regulatory affairs and database management. The joint research projects that will take place under its auspices include:

  • Fetal growth restriction (FGR), which occurs when the failing placenta cannot support the developing fetus adequately. FGR is a major cause of stillbirth and death, and newborns who survive face numerous risks for multiple types of ailments throughout their lives. A planned study will use quantitative MRI to identify signs of abnormal brain development in pregnancies complicated by FGR.
  • Placental abnormalities, including placenta accreta. A planned study will combine quantitative MRI studies on the placenta during the third trimester and other points in time with formal histopathology to identify MRI signals of placenta health and disease.
  • Microcephaly, a condition that is characterized by babies having a much smaller head size than expected due to such factors as interrupted brain development or brain damage during pregnancy. While the global Zika virus epidemic has heightened awareness of severe microcephaly cases, dozens of pregnancies in the region in recent years have been complicated by the birth defect for reasons other than Zika infection. A planned study will examine the interplay between MRI within the womb and head circumference and weight at birth to examine whether brain volume at birth correlates with the baby’s developmental outcomes.
Vittorio Gallo

Vittorio Gallo named Chief Research Officer

Vittorio Gallo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harnessing progenitor cells in neonatal white matter repair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altered blood flow may contribute to preemie brain injuries

A Children’s National research team for the first time mapped abnormalities in blood flow that may contribute to brain injury suffered by preterm infants.

Advanced noninvasive imaging permitted Children’s National Health System researchers to measure the lasting impact of abnormalities in blood flow on the immature brains of premature babies. Blood flow to the brain, or perfusion, has been studied previously to understand its role in other health conditions, but this is the first time a research team has mapped how these changes may contribute to brain injury suffered by babies born before 32 weeks’ gestation.

Preterm birth is a major risk factor for brain injury. The prospective study examined infants weighing less than 1,500 grams who were born prior to 32 gestational weeks.

Of 78 infants studied, 47 had structural brain injuries categorized as either mild or moderate to severe, and 31 had no brain injury. While global cerebral blood flow decreased with advancing postnatal age, the blood flow decreased more significantly among preterm infants with brain injury, says Eman S. Mahdi, M.D., M.B.Ch.B. Dr. Mahdi is a pediatric radiology fellow at Children’s National and lead author of the abstract.

“In addition to differences in global brain blood flow, we saw a marked decrease in regional blood flow to the thalamus and the pons, regions known to be metabolically active during this time,” Dr. Mahdi says. The thalamus helps to process information from the senses and relays it elsewhere within the brain. Located at the base of the brain, the pons is part of the central nervous system and also is a critical relay of information between the cerebrum and cerebellum. “These regional variations in blood flow reflect vulnerability of the cerebral-cerebellar circuitry,” she adds.

The Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) recognized Dr. Mahdi with its Trainee Research Prize. She presented the work, “Cerebral Perfusion Is Perturbed by Preterm Birth and Brain Injury,” during the RSNA Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting, held from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2.

The findings point to the need for additional research to explore how cerebral blood flow trends evolve as preemies grow older and whether abnormal blood flow is linked to differences in health outcomes. In addition, the technique used by the research team, arterial spin labeling perfusion imaging – a type of magnetic resonance imaging – represents a useful and non-invasive technology for identifying early cerebral perfusion abnormalities in preterm infants, says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and abstract senior author.

Thrasher Research Fund supports Zika virus neurologic outcomes study

The Thrasher Research Fund will fund a Children’s National project, “Neurologic Outcomes of Apparently Normal Newborns From Zika Virus-Positive Pregnancies,” as part of its Early Career Award Program, an initiative designed to support the successful training and mentoring of the next generation of pediatric researchers.

The project was submitted by Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal-neonatal neurologist who is a member of the Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National. During the award period, Dr. Mulkey will be mentored by Adre du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., director of the Fetal Medicine Institute, and Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. Drs. du Plessis and DeBiasi co-direct the multidisciplinary Zika program, one of the nation’s first.

In the award letter, the fund mentioned Children’s institutional support for Dr. Mulkey, as demonstrated by the mentors’ letter of support, as “an important consideration throughout the funding process.”

Doctors working together to find treatments for autoimmune encephalitis

Children’s and Regeneron partner in exome sequencing study

Children’s National, in partnership with the Regeneron Genetics Center (RGC, a subsidiary of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc.), has announced the launch of a major three-year research study that will examine the links between undiagnosed disease and an individual’s genetic profile.

The program, directed by Children’s National Geneticist Carlos Ferreira Lopez, M.D., and coordinated by Genetic Counselor Lindsay Kehoe, hopes to include as many as 3,000 patients in its initial year and even greater numbers in the following two years.

During the course of the study, RGC will conduct whole exome sequencing (WES) to examine the entire protein-coding DNA in a patient’s genome. Children’s National geneticists will analyze and screen for certain findings that are known to be potentially causative or diagnostic of disease. Children’s National scientists and providers will confirm preliminary research findings in a lab certified for Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA), per federal standards for clinical testing, and refer any confirmatory CLIA-certified cases to appropriate clinicians at Children’s National for further care.

According to Marshall Summar, M.D., Chief of Genetics and Metabolism at Children’s National, the WES study could finally provide patients and their families with the medical answers they have been looking for, allowing for treatment appropriate to their specific genetic condition.

Because pediatric diseases can often elude diagnosis, they can pose a number of detrimental effects to patients and their families, including treatment delays, multiple time- and cost-intensive tests, and stress from lingering uncertainty regarding the illness. With this genomic data, Regeneron will be able to utilize findings to continue its efforts to improve drug development.

Since its inception in 2014, the RGC has strategically partnered with leading medical institutions to utilize human genetics data to speed the development and discovery of new and improved therapies for patients in need.

Premature birth may alter critical cerebellar development linked to learning and language

 Diffusion tensor imaging teases out subtle injury to cerebral and cerebellar white matter that is not evident with conventional MRI, allowing researchers to quantify brain tissue microstructure and classify white matter integrity.

Diffusion tensor imaging teases out subtle injury to cerebral and cerebellar white matter that is not evident with conventional MRI, allowing researchers to quantify brain tissue microstructure and classify white matter integrity.

Premature birth can interrupt a key period of brain development that occurs in the third trimester, which has the potential to impact a child’s long-term learning, language, and social skills. A recent case-control study published in The Journal of Pediatrics applied diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging (DTI) to zoom in on the microstructures comprising the critical cerebellar neural networks related to learning and language, and found significant differences between preterm and full-term newborns.

“The third trimester, during which many premature births occur, is typically when the developing cerebellum undergoes its most dramatic period of growth. Normally, the cerebellar white matter tracts that connect to the deep nuclei are rich in pathways where nerve fibers cross. Those connections permit information to flow from one part of the brain to another. It is possible that premature birth leads to aberrant development of these critical neural networks,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System and senior study author.

One in 10 American babies is born prematurely. The brain injury that infants born prematurely experience is associated with a range of neurodevelopmental disabilities, including some whose influence isn’t apparent until years later, when the children begin school. Nearly half of extremely preterm infants go on to experience long-term learning, social, and behavioral impairments.

While conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect many brain abnormalities in newborns, a newer technique called DTI can tease out even subtle injury to cerebral and cerebellar white matter that is not evident with conventional MRI. White matter contains axons, which are nerve fibers that transmit messages. With DTI, researchers can quantify brain tissue microstructure and describe the integrity of white matter.

The research team compared imaging from 73 premature infants born before 32 weeks gestation who weighed less than 1,500 grams with 73 healthy newborns born to mothers who delivered at full term after 37 weeks. After the newborns had been fed, swaddled, and fitted with double ear protection, the imaging was performed as they slept. Nurses monitored their heart rates and oxygen saturation. Their brain abnormalities were scored as normal, mild, moderate, or severe.

All of the full-term newborns had normal brain MRIs as did 44 (60.3 percent) of the preemies.

The preemies had significantly higher fractional anisotropy in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that processes incoming information from elsewhere in the brain, permitting coordinated movement as well as modulating learning, language, and social skills. Alterations in cerebellar microarchitecture was associated with markers for illness severe enough to require surgery – such as correcting abnormal blood flow caused by the failure of the ductus arteriosus to close after birth and to remedy a bowel disease known as necrotizing enterocolitis. The risk factors also are associated with compromised cardiorespiratory function and low Apgar score at five minutes, Limperopoulos and co-authors write. The Apgar score is a quick way to gauge, one minute after birth, how well the newborn withstood the rigors of childbirth. It is repeated at five minutes to describe how the newborn is faring outside of the womb.

“In previous studies, we and others have associated cerebellar structural injury in preterm infants with long-term motor, cognitive, and socio-affective impairments. This is one of the first studies to provide a detailed report about these unexpected alterations in cerebellar microstructural organization,” she adds. “We postulate that the combination of premature birth and early exposure of the immature developing cerebellum to the extrauterine environment results in disturbed micro-organization.”

Additional research is warranted in larger groups of patients as well as long-term follow up of this cohort of newborns to determine whether this microstructural disorganization predicts long-term social, behavioral, and learning impairments.

“A large number of these prematurely born newborns had MRI readings in the normal range. Yet, we know that these children are uniquely at risk for developing neurodevelopmental disabilities later in life. With additional study, we hope to identify interventions that could lower those risks,” Limperopoulos says.

Related resources: The Journal of Pediatrics editorial