Nephrology

Kidney transplants at Children's National

Nephrology at Children’s National

Nephrology at Children's National

Children’s National ranked No. 6 overall and No. 1 for newborn care by U.S. News

Children’s National in Washington, D.C., is the nation’s No. 6 children’s hospital and, for the third year in a row, its neonatology program is No.1 among all children’s hospitals providing newborn intensive care, according to the U.S. News Best Children’s Hospitals annual rankings for 2019-20.

This is also the third year in a row that Children’s National has been in the top 10 of these national rankings. It is the ninth straight year it has ranked in all 10 specialty services, with five specialty service areas ranked among the top 10.

“I’m proud that our rankings continue to cement our standing as among the best children’s hospitals in the nation,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., President and CEO for Children’s National. “In addition to these service lines, today’s recognition honors countless specialists and support staff who provide unparalleled, multidisciplinary patient care. Quality care is a function of every team member performing their role well, so I credit every member of the Children’s National team for this continued high performance.”

The annual rankings recognize the nation’s top 50 pediatric facilities based on a scoring system developed by U.S. News. The top 10 scorers are awarded a distinction called the Honor Roll.

“The top 10 pediatric centers on this year’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll deliver outstanding care across a range of specialties and deserve to be nationally recognized,” says Ben Harder, chief of health analysis at U.S. News. “According to our analysis, these Honor Roll hospitals provide state-of-the-art medical expertise to children with rare or complex conditions. Their rankings reflect U.S. News’ assessment of their commitment to providing high-quality, compassionate care to young patients and their families day in and day out.”

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

Below are links to the five specialty services that U.S. News ranked in the top 10 nationally:

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

Vittorio Gallo Alpha Omega Alpha Award

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

Vittorio Gallo Alpha Omega Alpha Award

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaushalendra Amatya

Measuring quality of life after pediatric kidney transplant

Kaushalendra Amatya

“Overall, children who receive kidney transplants had minimal concerns about quality of life after their operation. While it’s comforting that most pediatric patients had no significant problems, the range of quality of life scores indicate that some patients had remarkable difficulties,” says Kaushalendra Amatya, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist in Nephrology and Cardiology at Children’s National and the study’s lead author.

After receiving a kidney transplant, children may experience quality-of-life difficulties that underscore the importance of screening transplant recipients for psychosocial function, according to Children’s research presented May 4, 2019, during the 10th Congress of the International Pediatric Transplant Association.

About 2,000 children and adolescents younger than 18 are on the national waiting list for an organ transplant, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, with most infants and school-aged children waiting for a heart, liver or kidney and most children older than 11 waiting for a kidney or liver. In 2018, 1,895 U.S. children received transplants.

The research team at Children’s National wanted to hear directly from kids about their quality of life after kidney transplant in order to tailor timely interventions to children. Generally, recipients of kidney transplants have reported impaired quality of life compared with healthy peers, with higher mental health difficulties, disrupted sleep patterns and lingering pain.

The Children’s team measured general health-related quality of life using a 23-item PedsQL Generic Core module and measured transplant-related quality of life using the PedsQL- Transplant Module. The forms, which can be used for patients as young as 2, take about five to 10 minutes to complete and were provided to the child, the parent or the primary care giver – as appropriate – during a follow-up visit after the transplant.

Thirty-three patient-parent dyads completed the measures, with an additional 25 reports obtained from either the patient or the parent. The patients’ mean age was 14.2; 41.4% were female.

“Overall, children who receive kidney transplants had minimal concerns about quality of life after their operation. While it’s comforting that most pediatric patients had no significant problems, the range of quality of life scores indicate that some patients had remarkable difficulties,” says Kaushalendra Amatya, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist in Nephrology and Cardiology at Children’s National and the study’s lead author.

When the study team reviewed reports given by parents, they found their descriptions sometimes differed in striking ways from the children’s answers.

“Parents report lower values on emotional functioning, social functioning and total core quality of life, indicating that parents perceive their children as having more difficulties across these specific domains than the patients’ own self reports do,” Amatya adds.

10th Congress of the International Pediatric Transplant Association presentation

  • “An exploration of health-related quality of life in pediatric renal transplant recipients.”

Kaushalendra Amatya, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist and lead author; Christy Petyak, CPNP-PC, nurse practitioner and co-author; and Asha Moudgil, M.D., medical director, transplant and senior author.

3d illustration of a constricted and narrowed artery

dnDSA and African American ethnicity linked with thickening of blood vessels after kidney transplant

3d illustration of a constricted and narrowed artery

Emerging evidence links dnDSA with increased risk of accelerated systemic hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis) and major cardiac events in adult organ transplant recipients. However, this phenomenon has not been studied extensively in children who receive kidney transplants.

Children who developed anti-human leukocyte antibodies against their donor kidney, known as de novo donor-specific antibodies (dnDSA), after kidney transplant were more likely to experience carotid intima-media thickening (CIMT) than those without these antibodies, according to preliminary research presented May 7, 2019, during the 10th Congress of the International Pediatric Transplant Association.

dnDSA play a key role in the survival of a transplanted organ. While human leukocyte antibodies protect the body from infection, dnDSA are a major cause of allograft loss. CIMT measures the thickness of the intima and media layers of the carotid artery and can serve as an early marker of cardiac disease.

Emerging evidence links dnDSA with increased risk of accelerated systemic hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis) and major cardiac events in adult organ transplant recipients. However, this phenomenon has not been studied extensively in children who receive kidney transplants.

To investigate the issue, Children’s researchers enrolled 38 children who had received kidney transplants and matched them by race with 20 healthy children. They measured their CIMT, blood pressure and lipids 18 months and 30 months after their kidney transplants. They monitored dnDSA at 18 months and 30 months after kidney transplant. The transplant recipients’ median age was 11.3 years, 50 percent were African American, and 21% developed dnDSA.

“In this prospective controlled cohort study, we compared outcomes among patients who developed dnDSA with transplant recipients who did not develop dnDSA and with race-matched healthy kids,” says Kristen Sgambat, Ph.D., a pediatric renal dietitian at Children’s National who was the study’s lead author.  “Children with dnDSA after transplant had 5.5% thicker CIMT than those who did not have dnDSA. Being African American was also independently associated with a 9.2% increase in CIMT among transplant recipients.”

Additional studies will need to be conducted in larger numbers of pediatric kidney transplant recipients to verify this preliminary association, Sgambat adds.

10th Congress of the International Pediatric Transplant Association presentation:

  • “Circulating de novo donor-specific antibodies and carotid intima-media thickness in pediatric kidney transplant recipients.”

Kristen Sgambat, Ph.D., pediatric renal dietitian and study lead author; Sarah Clauss, M.D., cardiologist and study co-author; and Asha Moudgil, M.D., Medical Director, Transplant and senior study author, all of Children’s National.

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

Research and Education Week honors innovative science

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the 2019 REW award winners:

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

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

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

Ninth Annual Research and Education Week Poster Session Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

View images from the REW2019 award ceremony.

Beth Tarini

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

Beth Tarini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zhe Han

$2M NIH grant for treating disease linked to APOL1

Zhe Han

Children’s researcher Zhe Han, Ph.D., has received a $2 million award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study new approaches to treat kidney disease linked to inheriting Apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) risk alleles. These risk alleles are particularly common among persons of recent African descent, and African Americans are disproportionately affected by the increased risk in kidney disease associated with these risk alleles.

Han, an associate professor in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research, has established a leading research program that uses the fruit fly Drosophila as a model system to study how genetic mutations lead to disease.

Drosophila is a very basic model, but studies in the fly have led to major breakthroughs in understanding fundamental biological processes that underlie health and disease in humans,” Han says. “Since coming to Children’s National five years ago, I have focused a significant part of my research studying particular fly cells called nephrocytes that carry out many of the important roles of human kidney glomeruli, units within the kidney where blood is cleaned. Working together with clinician colleagues here, we have demonstrated that these Drosophila cells can be used to very efficiently study different types of renal disease caused by genetic mutations.”

The APOL1 risk alleles are genetic variants, termed G1 and G2, found almost exclusively in people of African ancestry and can lead to a four-fold higher risk of end-stage kidney disease, the last of five stages of chronic kidney disease. Exactly how inheriting these risk alleles increases the risk of kidney disease remains an unanswered question and the focus of considerable research activity. Han’s laboratory has developed a Drosophila model of APOL1-linked renal disease by producing the G1 and G2 forms of APOL1 specifically in nephrocytes. This led to defects in fly renal cells that strikingly overlap with disease-associated changes in experimental model and human kidney cells expressing APOL1 risk alleles.

The new NIH award will fund large-scale screening and functional testing to identify new treatment targets and new drugs to treat kidney disease linked to APOL1. Using a genetic screening approach, Han’s lab will identify nephrocyte “modifier” genes that interact with APOL1 proteins and counter the toxic effects of risk-associated G1 and G2 variants.

The team also will identify nephrocyte genes that are turned on or off in the presence of APOL1 risk alleles, and confirm that such “downstream” APOL1-regulated genes are similarly affected in experimental model and human kidney cells. The potential of the newly identified “modifier” and “downstream” genes to serve as targets of novel therapeutic interventions will be experimentally tested in fly nephrocytes in vivo and in cultured mammalian kidney cells.

Finally, the Drosophila model will be used as a drug screening platform for in vivo evaluation of positive “hits” from a cell-based APOL1 drug screening study in order to identify compounds that are most effective with the fewest side effects.

“These types of studies can be most efficiently performed in Drosophila,” Han adds.  “They take advantage of the speed and low cost of the fly model system and the amazing array of well-established, sophisticated genetic tools available for the fly. Using this model to elucidate human disease mechanisms and to identify new effective therapies has truly become my research passion.”

DNA strands on teal background

NUP160 genetic mutation linked to steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome

DNA strands on teal background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nichole Jefferson and Patrick Gee

African American stakeholders help to perfect the APOLLO study

Nichole Jefferson and Patrick Gee

Nichole Jefferson and Patrick O. Gee

African Americans who either donated a kidney, received a kidney donation, are on dialysis awaiting a kidney transplant or have a close relative in one of those categories are helping to perfect a new study that aims to improve outcomes after kidney transplantation.

The study is called APOLLO, short for APOL1 Long-Term Kidney Transplantation Outcomes Network. Soon, the observational study will begin to enroll people who access transplant centers around the nation to genotype deceased and living African American kidney donors and transplant recipients to assess whether they carry a high-risk APOL1 gene variant.

The study’s Community Advisory Council – African American stakeholders who know the ins and outs of kidney donation, transplantation and dialysis because they’ve either given or  received an organ or are awaiting transplant – are opening the eyes of researchers about the unique views of patients and families.

Already, they’ve sensitized researchers that patients may not be at the same academic level as their clinicians, underscoring the importance of informed consent language that is understandable, approachable and respectful so people aren’t overwhelmed. They have encouraged the use of images and color to explain the apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) gene. The APOL1 gene is found almost exclusively in people of recent African descent, however only 13 percent of these people carry the high-risk APOL1 variant that might cause kidney problems.

One issue arose early, during one of the group’s first monthly meetings, as they discussed when to tell patients and living donors about the APOLLO study. Someone suggested the day of the transplant.

“The Community Advisory Council told them that would not be appropriate. These conversations should occur well before the day of the transplant,” recalls Nichole Jefferson.

“The person is all ready to give a kidney. If you’re told the day of transplant ‘we’re going to include you in this study,’ that could possibly stop them from giving the organ,” Jefferson says. “We still remember the Tuskegee experiments. We still remember Henrietta Lacks. That is what we are trying to avoid.”

Patrick O. Gee, Ph.D., JLC, another Community Advisory Council member, adds that it’s important to consider “the mental state of the patient and the donor. As a patient, you know you are able to endure a five- to eight-hour surgery. The donor is the recipient’s hero. As the donor, you want to do what is right. But if you get this information; it’s going to cause doubt.”

Gee received his kidney transplant on April 21, 2017, and spent 33 days in the hospital undergoing four surgeries. His new kidney took 47 days to wake up, which he describes as a “very interesting journey.” Jefferson received her first transplant on June 12, 2008. Because that kidney is in failure, she is on the wait list for a new kidney.

“All I’ve ever known before APOLLO was diabetes and cardiovascular issues. Nobody had ever talked about genetics,” Gee adds. “When I tell people, I tread very light. I try to stay in my lane and not to come off as a researcher or a scientist. I just find out information and just share it with them.”

As he spoke during a church function, people began to search for information on their smart phones. He jotted down questions “above his pay grade” to refer to the study’s principal investigator. “When you start talking about genetics and a mutated gene, people really want to find out. That was probably one of the best things I liked about this committee: It allows you to learn, so you can pass it on.”

Jefferson’s encounters are more unstructured, informing people who she meets about her situation and kidney disease. When she traveled from her Des Moines, Iowa, home to Nebraska for a transplant evaluation, the nephrologist there was not aware of the APOL1 gene.

And during a meeting at the Mayo Clinic with a possible living donor, she asked if they would test for the APOL1 gene. “They stopped, looked at me and asked: ‘How do you know about that gene?’ Well, I’m a black woman with kidney failure.”

Patrick O. Gee received his kidney transplant on April 21, 2017, and spent 33 days in the hospital undergoing four surgeries. His new kidney took 47 days to wake up, which he describes as a “very interesting journey.”

About 100,000 U.S. children and adults await a kidney transplant. APOLLO study researchers believe that clarifying the role that the APOL1 gene plays in kidney-transplant failure could lead to fewer discarded kidneys, which could boost the number of available kidneys for patients awaiting transplant.

Gee advocates for other patients and families to volunteer to join the APOLLO Community Advisory Council. He’s still impressed that during the very first in-person gathering, all researchers were asked to leave the table. Only patients and families remained.

“They wanted to hear our voices. You rarely find that level of patient engagement. Normally, you sit there and listen to conversations that are over your head. They have definitely kept us engaged,” he says. “We have spoken the truth, and Dr. Kimmel is forever saying ‘who would want to listen to me about a genotype that doesn’t affect me? We want to hear your voice.’ ”

(Paul L. Kimmel, M.D., MACP, a program director at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, is one of the people overseeing the APOLLO study.)

Jefferson encourages other people personally impacted by kidney disease to participate in the APOLLO study.

“Something Dr. Kimmel always says is ‘You’re in the room.’ We’re in the room while it’s happening. It’s a line from Hamilton. That’s a good feeling,” she says. “I knew right off, these are not necessarily improvements I will see in my lifetime. I am OK with that. With kidney disease, we have not had advances in a long time. As long as my descendants don’t have to go through the same things I have gone through, I figure I have done my part. I have done my job.”

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

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

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

Zhe Han lab 2018

$2 million NIH grant to study nephrotic syndrome

Zhe Han lab 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DNA Molecule

Test your knowledge of APOL1’s role in kidney health

Zhe Han

$3 million NIH grant to study APOL1 and HIV synergy

Zhe Han

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patricio Ray

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

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

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

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

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

NephCure Kidney International logo

Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D., named NephCure Kidney International scientific adviser

NephCure Kidney International logo

Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D., chief of the Division of Nephrology at Children’s National Health System, has been named to the Scientific Advisory Board for NephCure Kidney International, a non-profit that aims to accelerate research for rare forms of nephrotic syndrome.

Dr. Moxey-Mims and two additional scientific advisers were selected for their commitment to improving care for patients with glomerular disease, diseases that impair kidney function by attacking blood cleaning units within the kidney.

During her tenure at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Moxey-Mims launched the Chronic Kidney Disease in Children Cohort Study, a prospective study to investigate chronic kidney disease risk factors and outcomes, and helped launch the Cure Glomerulonephropathy Network, a multi-site study with the overarching aim to advance the diagnosis and care of patients with four different glomerular diseases.

“I am truly honored to join this distinguished group of scientific advisers and look forward to leveraging our combined strengths and research knowledge in order to deliver cures for kidney diseases faster,” says Dr. Moxey-Mims.

Nephrology Infographic

Facts about Children’s National Kidney Transplant Program

The Children’s National Kidney Transplantation Program is the only one of its kind in the Washington, D.C., area focused on the needs of children and teens with kidney disease. With expert, multi-disciplinary approach to care, and larger transplant volumes, Children’s National can accept more at-risk transplants resulting in shorter wait times and maintaining excellent outcomes for our patients.
mitochondria

Treating nephrotic-range proteinuria with tacrolimus in MTP

mitochondria

Mitochondria are the cell’s powerplants and inside them the MTP enzymatic complex catalyzes three steps in beta-oxidation of long-chain fatty acids.

In one family, genetic lightning struck twice. Two sisters were diagnosed with mitochondrial trifunctional protein (MTP) deficiency. This is a rare condition that stops the body from converting fats to energy, which can lead to lactic acidosis, recurrent breakdown of muscle tissue and release into the bloodstream (rhabdomyolysis), enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy) and liver failure.

Mitochondria are the cell’s powerplants and inside them the MTP enzymatic complex catalyzes three steps in beta-oxidation of long-chain fatty acids. MTP deficiency is so rare that fewer than 100 cases have been reported in the literature says Hostensia Beng, M.D., who presented an MTP case study during the American Society of Nephrology’s Kidney Week.

The 7-month-old girl with known MTP deficiency arrived at Children’s National lethargic with poor appetite. Her laboratory results showed a low corrected serum calcium level, elevated CK level and protein in the urine (proteinuria) at a nephrotic range. The infant was treated for primary hypoparathyroidism and rhabdomyolysis.

Even though the rhabdomyolysis got better, the excess protein in the girl’s urine remained at worrisome levels. A renal biopsy showed minimal change disease and foot process fusion. And electron microscopy revealed shrunken, dense mitochondria in visceral epithelial cells and endothelium.

“We gave her tacrolimus, a calcineurin inhibitor that we are well familiar with because we use it after transplants to ensure patient’s bodies don’t reject the donated organ. By eight months after treatment, the girl’s urine protein-to-creatinine (uPCR) ratio was back to normal. At 35 months, that key uPCR measure rose again when tacrolimus was discontinued. When treatment began again, uPCR was restored to normal levels one month later,” Dr. Beng says.

The girl’s older sister also shares the heterozygous deletion in the HADHB gene, which provides instructions for making MTP. That missing section of the genetic how-to guide was predicted to cause truncation and loss of long-chain-3-hydroxyacl CoA dehydrogenase function leading to MTP deficiency.

The older sister was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome and having scar tissue in the kidney’s filtering unit (focal segmental glomerulosclerosis) when she was 18 months old. By contrast, she developed renal failure and progressed to end stage renal disease at 20 months of age.

“Renal involvement has been reported in only one patient with MTP deficiency to date, the older sister of our patient,” Dr. Beng adds.

Podocytes are specialized cells in the kidneys that provide a barrier, preventing plasma proteins from leaking into the urine. Podocytes, however, need energy to function and are rich in mitochondria.

“The proteinuria in these two sisters may be related to their mitochondrial dysfunction. Calcineurin inhibitors like tacrolimus have been reported to reduce proteinuria by stabilizing the podocyte actin cytoskeleton. Tacrolimus was an effective treatment for our patient, who has maintained normal renal function, unlike her sister,” Dr. Beng says.

American Society of Nephrology’s Kidney Week presentation

  • “Treatment of nephrotic-range proteinuria with tacrolimus in mitochondrial trifunctional protein deficiency

Hostensia Beng, M.D., lead author; Asha Moudgil, M.D., medical director, transplant, and co-author; Sun-Young Ahn, M.D., MS, medical director, nephrology inpatient services, and senior author, all of Children’s National Health System.

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D

Serving patients with polycystic kidney disease

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.

When Children’s National pediatric nephrologist Lisa Guay-Woodford, M.D., was an intern at Boston Children’s Hospital, a baby with autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD) was admitted to one of the hospital’s neonatal intensive care units (NICU). This disease, which causes cysts to form in the kidney and liver, kills about one-fifth of babies within the newborn period due to related problems that affect lung development.

But this baby seemed like a survivor, Dr. Guay-Woodford remembers. The child passed the newborn period and graduated from the NICU, although she went home with severe blood pressure issues. Along with a team of colleagues, Dr. Guay-Woodford helped to manage this patient’s care, juggling normal infant concerns with her ARPKD.

As far as Dr. Guay-Woodford knew at the time, this baby was beating the odds against her, growing and thriving. But one day near the end of her internship period, Dr. Guay-Woodford was called to the emergency department. Her patient was in a hypertensive crisis that ultimately killed her.

“It was absolutely devastating to all of us. This was supposed to be a good news kind of story, that she survived the newborn period and had gone home and was growing and developing,” Dr. Guay-Woodford says. “I realized then that a big part of the tragedy of this disease is how little we knew about it.”

Dr. Guay-Woodford vowed to change that. Since then, she’s devoted her career to studying ARPKD and other inherited kidney diseases.

After finishing her residency and fellowship in Boston, Dr. Guay-Woodford was recruited to the University of Alabama, where she began caring for a cadre of 40 patients with inherited renal disorders. Fueled by the research questions that arose while working with these patients, she and her colleagues searched for PKD-related genes in the cpk mouse model, an animal that mimics many of the features of human ARPKD.

Dr. Guay-Woodford and her team cloned several of the key genes that caused recessive PKD in this mouse and other mouse models and eventually went on to identify the first major genetic modifier of PKD in these animals – a gene that wasn’t directly responsible for the disease but could sway its course. In time, her collaborative group became one of two that co-indentified the major gene responsible for human ARPKD. In 2005, Dr. Guay-Woodford led a team of investigators at the University of Alabama-Birmingham to establish one of just four PKD translational core centers funded by a National Institutes of Health P30 grant.

After moving to Children’s National in 2012, Dr. Guay-Woodford still co-directs this PKD translational core center while also caring for patients at her inherited renal disorders clinic. She and her colleagues here and beyond continue to work with mouse models of this disease, trying to ferret out the vast network of genes that interact in ARPKD and their specific roles.

“You can use a variety of strategies to compare these patients’ gene portfolios with those of healthy patients and pick out the disease genes. But at the end of the day, to me, that’s just the opening chapter,” she says. “To really make a story, you’ve got to understand what is it that gene does, what protein it makes, and how that protein works together with others involved in this disease.”

She and her team also are currently working with a pharmaceutical company to develop the first clinical trial to test a treatment for ARPKD. This effort has relied heavily on a clinical database that Dr. Guay-Woodford and colleagues worldwide maintain to track patients with this and related conditions. Through the extensive collection of clinical information in this database – including a variety of data on patients’ gestation and birth, growth, and kidney structure and function – the team has identified a core cohort of patients whose disease is rapidly progressing, a characteristic that makes them prime candidates to test this potential new treatment.

“Everything I do in the clinic informs the work I do in the lab, and everything I do in the lab is to help the patients I see in the clinic. It’s this constant dance back and forth between our human patients and animal models,” she says. “One day, this dance will help lessen the burden of this disease for these kids and their families.”

AlgometRX

Breakthrough device objectively measures pain type, intensity and drug effects

AlgometRX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asha Moudgil examines a young patient

Preventing cardiovascular disease after pediatric kidney transplant

Asha Moudgil examines a young patient

Pediatric nephrologist Asha Moudgil, M.D. examines a kidney transplant patient.

As obesity has continued to rise among children in the U.S., so has a condition called metabolic syndrome – a constellation of factors, including high abdominal fat, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, high triglycerides and low amounts of high-density lipoprotein (“good” cholesterol), that increase future risk of cardiovascular disease.

Although metabolic syndrome is dangerous in otherwise healthy children, it’s particularly so for those who’ve received kidney transplants due to chronic kidney disease, says pediatric nephrologist Asha Moudgil, M.D., medical director of transplant at Children’s National Health System. Dr. Moudgil and Children’s National co-authors, Registered Dietitian Kristen Sgambat, Ph.D., RD, and Cardiologist Sarah Clauss, M.D., published a literature review in the February 2018 Clinical Kidney Journal outlining recent research about the cardiovascular effects of metabolic syndrome after kidney transplantation.

“Simply having this transplant multiplies the risk of cardiovascular disease in this vulnerable population,” Dr. Moudgil says. “Combined with lifestyle factors that are driving up metabolic syndrome in general, it’s a ‘one-two punch’ for these patients.”

Dr. Moudgil explains that chronic kidney disease itself leads to poor growth, resulting in shorter stature that’s a risk factor for developing increased waist-to-height ratio upon becoming overweight. When children with this condition undergo long-awaited transplants, it reverses some factors that were suppressing appetite and keeping weight in check: The chronically high levels of urea in their blood decrease after transplant, improving their appetites; and there’s no need to maintain the restrictive diets they had been required to follow for kidney health prior to transplant.

The pharmaceutical regimen that patients follow post-transplant often includes steroids that independently contribute to weight gain and insulin resistance. Combined with the typical American high-fat, high-sugar, and high-sodium diet and low levels of physical activity, the majority of patients with chronic kidney disease gain significant weight after they receive transplants. The prevalence of obesity doubles the first year after transplantation, from about 15 percent to 30 percent, not only driving up cardiovascular disease risk but endangering the longevity of their transplant.

At the same time, says Sgambat, risk factors before and after transplantation drive up prevalence of other parts of metabolic syndrome. These include hypertension, which affects the majority of patients with chronic kidney disease before transplant and typically worsens due to sodium and water retention from immunosuppressive drugs. Dyslipidemia, or abnormal lipid concentrations in the blood, is also common among pediatric kidney transplant patients. One study included in the review showed that 71 percent of patients had high triglycerides three months post-transplant.

Ethnicity also can drive up risk for metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. For example, the literature review says, individuals of African descent have a higher risk of these two conditions potentially due to genetic factors, such as high risk apolipoprotein L1 gene variants.

Together, these factors spur production of inflammatory molecules that trigger the development of early cardiovascular disease. Many kidney transplant recipients die from cardiovascular complications in early adulthood, Sgambat says, driving the need for early detection.

To that end, Dr. Moudgil says pediatric patients don’t typically show overt abnormalities in standard measures of cardiac functioning, such as echocardiography. As an alternative, she and colleagues cover three tools in the literature review that could offer advanced insight into whether patients have initial signs of cardiovascular disease. One of these is carotid intima-media thickness, a measure of the thickness of the carotid artery that can be obtained noninvasively by ultrasound. Another is myocardial strain imaging by speckle tracking echocardiography, a global measure of how the heart changes shape while beating. Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a relatively new technique, is already showing promise in detecting signs of early cardiovascular dysfunction.

A far simpler way to gauge cardiovascular risk, Sgambat adds, is calculating patients’ waist-to-height ratio. This measure doesn’t require sophisticated tools and can be tracked in any clinic over time, alerting patients to health-altering changes before it’s too late.

“It’s even more important to treat cardiovascular risk factors aggressively in this population,” Sgambat says. “Getting a concrete measure that something is trending in the wrong direction may motivate patients to change their diet or lifestyle in ways that a simple recommendation may not.”