Enhancing pediatric nephrology clinical trial development

Fewer than 50 percent of pharmaceuticals approved by federal authorities are explicitly approved for use in kids, and even fewer devices are labeled for pediatric use.

When children develop kidney disease, it can play out in dramatically different ways. They can experience relatively mild disorders that respond to existing treatments and only impact their lives for the short term. Children also can develop chronic kidney disease that defies current treatments and can imperil or end their lives.

Fewer than 50 percent of pharmaceuticals approved by federal authorities are explicitly approved for use in kids, and even fewer devices are labeled for pediatric use. Congress has offered incentives to manufacturers who study their treatments in children, but the laws do not require drug makers to demonstrate statistical significance or for the clinical trial to improve or extend children’s lives.

To overcome such daunting obstacles, the American Society of Pediatric Nephrology established a Therapeutics Development Committee to forge more effective public-private partnerships and to outline strategies to design and carry out pediatric nephrology clinical trials more expeditiously and effectively.

“We have seen how other pediatric subspecialties, such as cancer and arthritis, have leveraged similar consortia to address mutual concerns and to facilitate development of new therapeutics specific to those diseases,” says Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D., chief of the Division of Nephrology at Children’s National Health System and a founding committee member. “As a group, we aim to collectively identify and remedy the most pressing needs in pediatric nephrology. As just one example, the committee could help to increase the number of sites that host research studies, could expand the pool of potential study volunteers and could lower the chances of duplicating efforts.”

A paper summarizing their efforts thus far, “Enhancing clinical trial development for pediatric kidney diseases,” written by Dr. Moxey-Mims and 15 co-authors, was published online Aug. 30 by Pediatric Research. The journal’s editors will feature the review article in the “Editor’s Focus” of an upcoming print edition of the publication.

The committee is comprised of academic pediatric nephrologists, patient advocates, private pharmaceutical company representatives and public employees at the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health. But it is likely to grow in size and in stakeholder diversity.

Already, committee members have learned that they achieve better results by working together. Early communication can avoid flaws in designing clinical trials, such as overestimating the volume of clinical samples that can feasibly be collected from a small child, or that could misinterpret the type of data needed to secure federal approval.

While public and private investigators took similar approaches to clinical trial design, academic investigators were more conceptual as they summarized their study design Road Map. Industry representatives, by contrast, included more granular detail about study organization and milestones along the path toward regulatory approval.

According to the study authors, both groups understand the critical role that patients and families can play in early research study design, such as accelerating patient recruitment, bolstering the credibility of research and helping to translate research results into actual clinical practice.

“We are pleased to have created a forum that allows participants to share valuable viewpoints and concerns and to understand how regulations and laws could be changed to facilitate development of effective medicines for children with kidney disease,” says Dr. Moxey-Mims. “We hope the relationships and trust forged through these conversations help to speed the development and approval of the next generation of therapies for pediatric renal disease.”

cancer-patient-Sully-Shields

New approach improves pediatric kidney cancer outcomes

cancer-patient-Sully-Shields

Wilms tumor, also known as nephroblastoma, is the most common pediatric kidney cancer, typically seen in children ages three to four. Compared to patients with unilateral Wilms tumors, children with bilateral Wilms tumors (BWT) have poorer event-free survival (EFS) and are at higher risk for later effects such as renal failure. The treatment of BWT is challenging because it involves surgical removal of the cancer, while preserving as much healthy kidney tissue as possible to avoid the need for an organ transplant.

A new Children’s Oncology Group (COG) study published in the September issue of the Annals of Surgery demonstrated an exciting new approach to treating children diagnosed with BWT that significantly improved EFS and overall survival (OS) rates after four years when compared to historical rates. Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., Vice President of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Health System, was co-senior author of this first-ever, multi-institutional prospective study of children with BWT.

Historically, patients with BWT have had poor outcomes, especially if they have tumors with unfavorable histology. In this study, Dr. Dome and 18 other clinical researchers followed a new treatment approach consisting of three chemotherapy drugs before surgery rather than the standard two drug regimen, surgical removal of cancerous tissue within 12 weeks of diagnosis, and postoperative chemotherapy that was adjusted based on histology.

The study found that preoperative chemotherapy expedited surgical treatment, with 84 percent of patients having surgery within 12 weeks of diagnosis. The new treatment approach also vastly improved EFS and OS rates for patients participating in the study. The four-year EFS rate was 82.1 percent, compared to 56 percent on the predecessor National Wilms Tumor Study-5 (NWTS-5) study. The four-year OS rate was 94.9 percent, compared to 80.8 percent on NWTS-5.

“I am very encouraged by these results, which I believe will serve as a benchmark for future studies and lead to additional treatment improvements, giving more children the chance to overcome this diagnosis while sparing kidney tissue,” says Dr. Dome.

A total of 189 patients at children’s hospitals, universities and cancer centers in the United States and Canada participated in this study. These patients will continue to be followed for 10 years to track kidney failure rates. This study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health to the Children’s Oncology Group.

Patricio Ray

Toward a better definition for AKI in newborns

Patricio Ray

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases convened a meeting of expert neonatologists and pediatric nephrologists, including Dr. Patricio Ray, to review state-of-the-art knowledge about acute kidney injury in neonates and to evaluate the best method to assess these patients’ kidney function.

Each year, thousands of infants in the United States end up in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) with acute kidney injury (AKI), a condition in which the kidneys falter in performing the critical role of filtering waste products and excess fluid from the blood to produce urine. Being able to identify neonates during the early stages of AKI is critical to doctors and clinician-scientists who treat and study this condition, explains Patricio Ray, M.D., a nephrologist at Children’s National Health System.

Without an accurate definition and early identification of newborns with AKI, it is difficult for doctors to limit the use of antibiotics or other medications that can be harmful to the kidneys. Neonates who have AKI should not receive large volumes of fluids, a treatment that can cause severe complications when the kidneys do not properly function.

Until recently, there was no standard definition for AKI, leaving doctors and researchers to develop their own guidelines. Lacking set criteria led to confusion, Dr. Ray says. For example, different studies estimating the percentage of infants in NICUs with AKI ranged from 8 percent to 40 percent, depending on which definition was used. In 2012, a group known as the Kidney Disease Improved Global Outcome (KDIGO) issued practice guidelines for AKI that provide a standard for doctors and researchers to follow. They focus largely on measuring the relative levels of serum creatinine, a protein produced by muscles that is filtered by the kidneys, and the amount of urine output, which typically declines in adults and older children with failing kidneys.

The problem with these guidelines, Dr. Ray explains, is they are not sensitive enough to identify newborns experiencing the early stages of AKI during the first week of life. Newborns can have high serum creatinine levels during the first week of life due to residual levels transferred from mothers through the placenta. Also, because their kidneys are immature, failure often can mean higher – not diminished – urine production.

In 2013, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, convened a meeting of leading neonatologists and pediatric nephrologists – including Dr. Ray – to review state-of-the-art knowledge about AKI in neonates and to evaluate the best manner to assess kidney function in these patients. They published a summary of their discussion online June 12, 2017 in Pediatric Research.

Among other findings, the group concluded that the current definition of AKI lacks the sensitivity needed to identify the early stages of AKI in neonates’ first week of life. They also said that more research was needed to fill this gap.

That’s where Dr. Ray’s current research comes in. Working with fellow Children’s Nephrologist Charu Gupta, M.D., and Children’s Neonatologist An Massaro, M.D., the three clinician-scientists reviewed the medical records of 106 infants born at term with a condition known as hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), in which the brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen. Not only does this often lead to brain injury, but it also greatly increases the risk of AKI.

Because these babies had been followed closely in the NICU to assess the possibility of AKI, their serum creatinine had been checked frequently. The researchers found that about 69 percent of the infants with HIE followed at Children’s National never developed signs of kidney failure during their first week of life. These babies’ serum creatinine concentrations dropped by 50 percent or more by the time they were 1 week old, about the same as reported previously in healthy neonates. Another 12 percent of the infants with HIE developed AKI according to the definition established by the KDIGO group in 2012. These infants:

  • Required more days of mechanical ventilation and medications to increase their blood pressure
  • Had higher levels of antibiotics in their bloodstreams
  • Retained more fluid
  • Had lower urinary levels of a molecule that their kidneys should have been cleared and
  • Had to stay in the hospital longer

A third group of the infants with HIE, about 19 percent, did not meet the standard criteria for AKI. However, these babies had a rate of decline of serum creatinine that was significantly slower than the normal newborns and the infants with HIE who had excellent outcomes. Rather, their outcomes matched those of infants with established AKI.

Dr. Ray notes that by following the rate of serum creatinine decline during the first week of life physicians could identify neonates with impaired kidney function. This approach provides a more sensitive method to identify the early stages of AKI in neonates. “By looking at how fast babies were clearing their serum creatinine compared with the day they were born, we could predict how well their kidneys were working,” he says. Dr. Ray and colleagues published these findings July 2016 in Pediatric Nephrology.

He adds that further studies will be necessary to confirm the utility of this new approach to assess the renal function of term newborns with other diseases and preterm neonates. Eventually, he hopes this new approach will become uniform clinical practice.

Zhe Han, PhD

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

Zhe Han, PhD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fruit fly

Studying fruit flies to better understand human kidneys

fruit fly

In his latest study, Zhe Han and co-authors zeroed in on Rab genes to determine their role in fruit fly renal function.

It’s a given that fruit flies and humans are different. Beyond the obvious are a litany of less-apparent distinctions. For example, fruit flies have hemolymph instead of blood. Arranged around a single cardiac chamber, compared with humans’ four-chamber hearts, are a group of cells called nephrocytes that serve the same function as human kidneys, filtering toxins and waste from hemolymph.

But despite the dissimilarities between these two organisms, fly nephrocytes and human kidney cells are similar enough to allow the fruit fly, a common lab model that shares about 60 percent of its DNA with people, to provide insights on kidney disease in people. In a new study in fruit flies led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., principal investigator and associate professor in the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National Health System, researchers identified several new genes thought to be critical for renal function in humans. The findings could lend insight to the inner workings of this organ down to the molecular level and eventually help further the understanding or treatment of kidney disorders.

Han explains that recent research by his group tied 80 fruit fly genes to renal function. Many of these newly identified genes were Rab GTPases, a family of genes that make proteins whose job is to move substances around in cells through membrane-enclosed pouches called vesicles. For example, Rab proteins might put some substances on the path to destruction by moving them into lysosomes, vesicles with enzymes that break down all kinds of biomolecules. Rab proteins might help other substances be reused by steering them into recycling endosomes, vesicles that shuttle biomolecules that are still useful to where they will be used next.

In their latest study, published online Feb. 8, 2017 in Cell & Tissue Research, Han and co-authors zeroed in on these Rab genes to determine their role in fruit fly renal function. The researchers accomplished this by using genetic alterations to shut down each gene selectively in fruit fly nephrocytes. They then evaluated these transgenic flies on a number of different characteristics, including ability to effectively filter proteins from the blood, whether toxins placed in their food accumulated in their nephrocytes, how they developed and how they survived.

Their findings readily identified five Rab genes that seemed more important for these functions than the others: Rabs 1, 5, 7, 11 and 35, which all have analogous genes in humans.

Peering into the nephrocytes of flies in which these three Rabs had been silenced, the researchers made critical discoveries. Turning off Rab 7 appeared to block the path toward biomolecules in the cell entering lysosomes. Rather than biomolecules being destroyed, they instead were shuttled to the recycling route. Turning off Rab 11 had the reverse effect; recycling endosomes were drastically reduced, while lysosomes dramatically increased. Turning off Rab 5 had the most striking effect: All vesicles going in or out were blocked – like a cellular traffic jam – filling the cell with biomolecules that had no place to go, Han says.

Han, who has long tracked renal-related mutations in humans, says that no patients with kidney disease have turned up so far with Rab mutations. These genes are critical for functions throughout the body, he explains, so any embryos with these mutations are unlikely to survive. However, he adds, a host of other renal-related genes work in parallel or are controlled by different Rabs. So understanding the role of Rabs in renal function provides some insight into how these genes operate as well as what might happen when the function of these genes goes awry.

Han plans to study how Rabs 5, 7 and 11 fit into networks of renal genes as well as the role of the other Rabs that could play novel roles in the nephrocyte cell trafficking.

“These findings in fly Rabs provide the framework to study the major causes of kidney disease in human patients,” he adds.

Zhe Han

Fruit flies can model human genetic kidney disease

Zhe Han

Zhe Han, Ph.D., has found that a majority of human genes known to be associated with nephrotic syndrome play conserved roles in renal function, from fruit flies to humans.

Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly, has played a key role in genetic research for decades. Even though D. melanogaster and humans look vastly different, researchers estimate that about 75 percent of human disease-causing genes have a functional homolog in the fly.

A Children’s National Health System research team reported in a recent issue of Human Molecular Genetics that the majority of genes associated with nephrotic syndrome (NS) in humans also play pivotal roles in Drosophila renal function, a conservation of function across species that validates transgenic flies as ideal pre-clinical models to improve understanding of human disease.

NS is a cluster of symptoms that signal kidney damage, including excess protein in urine, low protein levels in blood, elevated cholesterol and swelling. Research teams have identified mutations in more than 40 genes that cause genetic kidney disease, but knowledge gaps remain in understanding the precise roles that specific genes play in kidney cell biology and renal disease. To address those research gaps, Zhe Han, Ph.D., a principal investigator and associate professor in the Center for Cancer & Immunology Research at Children’s National, and colleagues systematically studied NS-associated genes in the Drosophila model, including seven genes whose renal function had never been analyzed in a pre-clinical model.

“Eighty-five percent of these genes are required for nephrocyte function, suggesting that a majority of human genes known to be associated with NS play conserved roles in renal function from flies to humans,” says Han, the paper’s senior author. “To hone in on functional conservation, we focused on Cindr, the fly’s version of the human NS gene, CD2AP,” Han adds. “Silencing Cindr in nephrocytes led to dramatic impairments in nephrocyte function, shortened their life span, collapsed nephrocyte lacunar channels – the fly’s nutrient circulatory system – and effaced nephrocyte slit diaphragms, which diminished filtration function.”

And, to confirm that the phenotypes they were studying truly caused human disease, they reversed the damage by expressing a wild-type human CD2AP gene. A mutant allele derived from a patient with CD2AP-associated NS did not rescue the phenotypes.

Thus, the Drosophila nephrocyte can be used to explain the clinically relevant molecular mechanisms underlying the pathogenesis of most monogenic forms of NS, the research team concludes. “This is a landmark paper for using the fly to study genetic kidney diseases,” Han adds. “For the first time, we realized that the functions of essential kidney genes could be so similar from the flies to humans.”

A logical next step will be to generate personalized in vivo models of genetic renal diseases bearing patient-specific mutations, Han says. These in vivo models can be used for drug screens to identify treatments for kidney diseases that currently lack therapeutic options, such as most of the 40 genes studies in this paper as well as the APOL1 gene that is associated with the higher risk of kidney diseases among millions of African Americans.

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D

Lisa Guay-Woodford: minimizing kidney disease effects

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D., is internationally recognized for her examination of the mechanisms that make certain inherited renal disorders particularly lethal, a research focus inspired by her patients.

The artist chose tempera paint for her oeuvre. The flower’s petals are the color of Snow White’s buddy, the Bluebird of Happiness. Each petal is accentuated in stop light red, and the blossom’s leaves stretch up toward the sun. With its bold strokes and exuberant colors, the painting exudes life itself.

It’s the first thing Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D., sees when she enters her office. It’s the last thing she sees as she leaves.

Dr. Guay-Woodford, a pediatric nephrologist, is internationally recognized for her research into the mechanisms that make certain inherited renal disorders, such as autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD), particularly lethal. She also studies disparate health disorders that have a common link: Disruption to the cilia, slim hair-like structures that protrude from almost every cell in the human body and that play pivotal roles in human genetic disease.

Sarah, the artist who painted the bright blue flower more than 20 years ago when she was 8, was one of Dr. Guay-Woodford’s patients. And she’s part of the reason why Dr. Guay-Woodford has spent much of her career focused on the broader domain of disorders tied to just a single defective gene, such as ARPKD.

“It dates back to when I was a house officer and took care of kids with this disorder,” Dr. Guay-Woodford says. “Maybe 30 percent die in the newborn period. Others survive, but they have a whole range of complications.”

Two of her favorite patients died from ARPKD-related reasons in the same year. One died from uncontrolled high blood pressure. The other, Sarah, died from complications from a combined kidney and liver transplant.

“The picture she drew hangs in my office,” she says. “She was a wonderful kid who was really full of life, and what she chose really mirrored who she was as a person. We put up lots of those sorts of those things in my office. It’s a daily reminder of why we do the things we do and the end goal.”

ARPKD is characterized by the growth of cysts in the liver, the kidney – which can lead to kidney failure – and complications within other structures, such as blood vessels in the heart and brain, according to the National Institutes of Health. About 1 in 20,000 live births is complicated by the genetic disorder. The age at which symptoms arise varies.

“Given the way it plays out, starting in utero, this is not a disease we are likely to cure,” she says. “But there are children who have very minimal complications. The near-term goal is to use targeted therapies to convert the children destined to have a more severe disease course to one that is less complicated so that no child suffers the full effects of the disease.”

That’s why it is essential to attain detailed knowledge about the defective gene responsible for ARPKD. To that end, Dr. Guay-Woodford participated in an international collaboration – one of three separate groups that 14 years ago identified PKHD1 as the defective gene that underlies ARPKD.

“The progress has been slow, partly because the gene and its protein products are very complex,” she says. “The good news is the gene has been identified. The daunting news is the identification did not leap us forward. It is just sort of an important step in what is going to be a fits-and-starts kind of journey.”

The field is trying to emulate the clinical successes that have occurred for patients with cystic fibrosis, which now can be treated by a drug that targets the defective gene, attacking disease at a fundamental level. Patient outcomes also have improved due to codifying care.

When she was a resident in the 1980s, children with cystic fibrosis died in their teens. “Now, they’re living well into their 40s because of careful efforts by really astute clinicians to deliver a standardized approach to care, an approach now enhanced by a terrific new drug. We measure quality care in terms of patient outcomes. That has allowed us to really understand how to effectively use antibiotics, physical therapy and how to think about nutrition – which makes a hugely important contribution that previously had been underappreciated.”

Standardizing clinical approaches dramatically improved and extended patients’ lives. “For renal cystic disease, we are beginning to do that better and better,” she adds.

There’s no targeted medicine yet for ARPKD. But thanks to an international conference that Dr. Guay-Woodford convened in Washington in 2013, such consensus expert recommendations have been published to guide diagnosis, surveillance and management of pediatric patients with ARPKD.

“There is an awful lot we can do in the way we systematically look at the clinical disease in these patients and improve our management. And, if you can overlay on top of that specific insights about why one person goes one way in disease progression versus another way, I think we can boost the baseline by developing good standards of care,” she says.

“Science does march on. There are a number of related research studies that are expanding our understanding of ARPKD. Within the next decade, we probably will be able to capitalize on not just the work in ARPKD but work in related diseases to learn the entry points for targeting therapies. That way, we can build a portfolio of markers of disease progression and test how effective these potential therapies are in slowing the course of the disease.”