Neurology and Neurosurgery

ID-KD vaccine induced T-cell cytotoxicity

Fighting lethal cancer with a one-two punch

The immune system is the ultimate yin and yang, explains Anthony D. Sandler, M.D., senior vice president and surgeon-in-chief of the Joseph E. Robert Jr. Center for Surgical Care at Children’s National in Washington, D.C. With an ineffective immune system, infections such as the flu or diarrheal illness can run unchecked, causing devastating destruction. But on the other hand, excess immune activity leads to autoimmune diseases, such as lupus or multiple sclerosis. Thus, the immune system has “checks and balances” to stay controlled.

Cancer takes advantage of “the checks and balances,” harnessing the natural brakes that the immune system puts in place to avoid overactivity. As the cancer advances, molecular signals from tumor cells themselves turn on these natural checkpoints, allowing cancers to evade immune attack.

Several years ago, a breakthrough in pharmaceutical science led to a new class of drugs called checkpoint inhibitors. These medicines take those proverbial brakes off the immune system, allowing it to vigorously attack malignancies. However, Dr. Sandler says, these drugs have not worked uniformly and in some cancers, they barely work at all against the cancer.

One of these non-responders is high risk neuroblastoma, a common solid tumor found outside the skull in children. About 800 U.S. children are diagnosed with this cancer every year. And kids who have the high-risk form of neuroblastoma have poor prognoses, regardless of which treatments doctors use.

However, new research could lead to promising ways to fight high-risk neuroblastoma by enabling the immune system to recognize these tumors and spark an immune response. Dr. Sandler and colleagues recently reported on these results in the Jan. 29, 2018, PLOS Medicine using an experimental model of the disease.

The researchers created this model by injecting the preclinical models with cancer cells from an experimental version of neuroblastoma. The researchers then waited several days for the tumors to grow. Samples of these tumors showed that they expressed a protein on their cell surfaces known as PD-L1, a protein that is also expressed in many other types of human cancers to evade immune system detection.

To thwart this protective feature, the researchers made a cancer vaccine by removing cells from the experimental model’s tumors and selectively turning off a gene known as Id2. Then, they irradiated them, a treatment that made these cells visible to the immune system but blocked the cells from dividing to avoid new tumors from developing.

They delivered these cells back to the experimental models, along with two different checkpoint inhibitor drugs – antibodies for proteins known as CLTA-4 and PD-L1 – over the course of three treatments, delivered every three days. Although most checkpoint inhibitors are administered over months to years, this treatment was short-term for the experimental models, Dr. Sandler explains. The preclinical models were completely finished with cancer treatment after just three doses.

Over the next few weeks, the researchers witnessed an astounding turnaround: While experimental models that hadn’t received any treatment uniformly died within 20 days, those that received the combined vaccine and checkpoint inhibitors were all cured of their disease. Furthermore, when the researchers challenged these preclinical models with new cancer cells six months later, no new tumors developed. In essence, Dr. Sandler says, the preclinical models had become immune to neuroblastoma.

Further studies on human patient tumors suggest that this could prove to be a promising treatment for children with high-risk neuroblastoma. The patient samples examined show that while tumors with a low risk profile are typically infiltrated with numerous immune cells, tumors that are high-risk are generally barren of immune cells. That means they’re unlikely to respond to checkpoint inhibiting drugs alone, which require a significant immune presence in the tumor microenvironment. However, Dr. Sandler says, activating an immune response with a custom-made vaccine from tumor cells could spur the immune response necessary to make these stubborn cancers respond to checkpoint inhibitors.

Dr. Sandler cautions that the exact vaccine treatment used in the study won’t be feasible for people. The protocol to make the tumor cells immunogenic is cumbersome and may not be applicable to gene targeting in human patients. However, he and his team are currently working on developing more feasible methods for crafting cancer vaccines for kids. They also have discovered a new immune checkpoint molecule that could make this approach even more effective.

“By letting immune cells do all the work we may eventually be able to provide hope for patients where there was little before,” Dr. Sandler says.

In addition to Dr. Sandler, study co-authors include Priya Srinivasan, Xiaofang Wu, Mousumi Basu and Christopher Rossi, all of the Joseph E. Robert Jr. Center for Surgical Care and The Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation (SZI), at Children’s National in Washington, D.C.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the EVAN Foundation, the Catherine Blair foundation, the Michael Sandler Research Fund and SZI.

ID-KD vaccine induced T-cell cytotoxicity

Mechanism of Id2kd Neuro2a vaccination combined with α-CTLA-4 and α-PD-L1 immunotherapy in a neuroblastoma model. During a vaccine priming phase, CTLA-4 blockade enhances activation and proliferation of T-cells that express programmed cell death 1 (PD1) and migrate to the tumor. Programmed cell death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) is up-regulated on the tumor cells, inducing adaptive resistance. Blocking PD-L1 allows for enhanced cytotoxic effector function of the CD8+ tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes. Artist: Olivia Abbate

Dr. Natasha Shur shares “Genetics and Telemedicine: Extending Our Reach” at the Future of Pediatrics CME

Virtual visits: A new house call for rare disease treatment

Dr. Natasha Shur shares “Genetics and Telemedicine: Extending Our Reach” at the Future of Pediatrics CME

Natasha Shur, M.D., an attending clinical geneticist at Children’s National Health System, shares “Genetics and Telemedicine: Extending Our Reach” at the Future of Pediatrics CME symposium in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 20.

“For the first time it wasn’t autism, autism, autism,” says Shannon Chin after learning the reason her newborn daughter, Sariyah, who turns 3 in August, couldn’t feed like normal infants was due to a tiny deletion of chromosome 22. This atypical deletion, a variation of a genetic condition known as 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, left Sariyah unable to suck and obtain nourishment as an infant. She was born premature and relied on assisted feeding tubes, inserted through her nose, to help her grow.

At 22-weeks-old, Sariyah received the diagnosis, which affects 1 in 4,000 children born each year. Sariyah’s genetic test results encouraged Chin to follow up with a nagging question: What if her two sons, Rueben and Caleb, both of whom were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), had something else?

This past year Chin met with Debra Regier, M.D., a medical geneticist at Children’s National Health System, for concerns about Rueben. Dr. Regier recommended a microarray analysis, which confirmed the symptoms Chin recognized in her son. Rueben, 17, has atypical 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. Caleb, 5, took the test and has developmental delay and ASD, which is more likely to occur in children with 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. He tested negative for the same deletion as his siblings. Additional tests are underway.

As Chin juggles complex care for her children, she realizes the partial deletion of chromosome 22 presents differently in every child. Sariyah and Rueben share short stature; they fit into tiny clothes. That’s where the phenotypical clues stop. They don’t have a cleft palate or dysmorphic facial features, distinctive of typical cases of 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. Sariyah has physical symptoms. Her intestines merged together, which gastrointestinal surgery fixed. Rueben experiences behavioral and neurological symptoms, including picky eating, aggression and uncontrolled body movements, which led the Chin family to Dr. Regier. Sariyah, Rueben and Caleb all have neurodevelopmental delays that impact their speech and development.

Coordinating multiple visits with geneticists, specialists, surgeons, genetic counselors and pediatricians, while navigating insurance, is a lot for any parent, but especially for those, like Chin, who have special considerations. Her children are non-verbal, so she pays close attention to their physical cues. Simplifying this process is one reason why Natasha Shur, M.D., a medical geneticist at Children’s National, introduced virtual visits to some of her patients earlier this year. She used telemedicine with Rueben before the pilot program started because he had challenges with in-person visits. She thought: How can we make medical care easier for patients and families?

In January, Dr. Shur launched an informal virtual visits pilot program for 50 to 60 patients, including Sariyah and Caleb, with the support of a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the division of telemedicine at Children’s National and the Rare Disease Institute (RDI), the medical home to thousands of pediatric patients living with rare or genetic conditions. This program lets patients with concern for or already diagnosed genetic conditions in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia, where Dr. Shur is licensed to practice medicine, test out virtual visits. Patients can download the HIPAA-compliant app or click through a secure link on a digital device to connect with Dr. Shur or a pediatric subspecialist.

Dr. Shur shares the preliminary findings of a new virtual visits pilot program,

Dr. Shur shares the preliminary findings of a new virtual visits pilot program, which 50-60 local patients have tested in conjunction with in-person visits as a flexible way to manage medical care for genetic conditions.

On June 20, Dr. Shur shared a presentation about the program, “Genetics and Telemedicine: Extending Our Reach,” with pediatricians attending the Children’s National Future of Pediatrics continuing medical education (CME) symposium in Bethesda, Maryland.

Instead of a formal pilot program launch and end date with data, Dr. Shur explains she conducts quality improvement assessments with each patient. She asks what they like about virtual visits. Do they feel comfortable with the software and technology? What types of visits do they prefer to do at home? What works best at the hospital? Do they want to keep using this program?

For Chin and most participants, the answer is yes. These families appreciate saving time, mileage, and being in close access to pediatric subspecialists from the comfort of home.

Parents can conference call from separate locations and share screens with the doctors, which works well if one parent is at work and another is at home – or if they live apart. Children can maintain their normal routine, such as finishing breakfast, homework, playing or staying in bed if they don’t feel well, though it is important to see the child in the virtual visit.

Families can obtain virtual assessments about urgent conditions without taking time off from work or school. Currently, only 10 to 30% of virtual visit patients with concerns about genetic conditions need an in-person, follow-up appointment. Fortunately, many conditions are less urgent than thought at the time of referral.

Dr. Shur and specialists also benefit from observing children in their natural environment.

At the symposium, Dr. Shur translates this into clinical terms: reduced no-show visits, the ability to schedule shorter, more flexible visits, the ability to quickly and accurately diagnose conditions and provide care, and the ability to keep children with compromised immune function out of public areas, including waiting rooms. She discussed building rapport with patients, almost all of whom like these flexible care models.

“The idea is that we’re trying to understand what is best done using virtual technology and what is better for those in-person connections. More detailed physical exams take place in person. There are some cases where eye-to-eye contact and sitting in the exam room together is important,” says Dr. Shur. “Virtual visits should never replace in-person care. It’s just a forward way of thinking about: How do we use our time best?”

Case study 1: Saving families time and miles

Dr. Shur notes that for some patients, distance is a deciding factor for scheduling care. One mother’s five-hour round-trip commute to the children’s hospital, without traffic, is now five minutes. As an air-traffic controller, her schedule changes. She values the flexibility of the new program. To connect with Dr. Shur, she logs into the app on her computer or smart phone. She then brings her 2-year-old son into the video. He has cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome (CFC), a condition that affects 200 to 300 people in the world. As a result of a MAP2K1 gene variant, one of four genes – BRAF, MAP2K1, MAP2K2 and KRAS – associated with CFC, he experiences feeding problems, reflux, constipation and developmental delays.

By scheduling more frequent, but shorter check-ins, Dr. Shur assesses how he responds to treatment and makes recommendations to the mother in real time, such as trying prune juice for digestive health. They talk about rearranging feeding measurements and intervals, including his 2 a.m. dose of a peptide formula, which the mom blends at home to support her son’s growth. This modification equates to more sleep for everyone.

If follow-up tests, such as an X-ray or a blood test are needed, Dr. Shur will coordinate these exams with the family at the hospital or at a nearby medical center. Depending on the condition, Dr. Shur may refer the family to an ophthalmologist, cardiologist, neurologist or learning and development specialist.

As a parent, Dr. Shur appreciates the direct approach virtual visits deliver.

“As a mom, if I’m taking my child to the doctor for two hours, I want to know why I’m there,” Dr. Shur says. “What are all the options? We understand that parents of patients want to make sure their time is well-utilized.”

Case study 2: Observing children at home

Chin, who was also featured in Dr. Shur’s CME presentation, appreciates virtual visits for their convenience and efficiency, but her favorite part about the program is letting doctors observe her children at home.

“Children act differently outside the home,” Chin says.

For example, instead of describing Rueben’s rapid, rhythmic arm movements, Chin showed neurologists at a scheduled virtual home visit. For Marc DiFazio, M.D., a pediatric neurologist, it was evident that Reuben had a movement disorder commonly seen in children with ASD, which is responsive to medication. In five minutes, her son had a diagnosis. The involuntarily movement wasn’t a behavioral issue, as previously thought, but a movement disorder.

“The regular in-person visit has a beautiful role and it’s very important, but virtual visits bring a different focus,” says Dr. Shur. “We get to see what the child’s life is like, what the home setting is like and what their schedule is like. How can we make their day-to-day life easier?”

Phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare condition that prevents the body from breaking down phenylalanine (Phe), an amino acid in protein, is another condition that pairs well with virtual visits. PKU affects 1 in 10,000 to 15,000 newborns in the U.S. People with PKU often require medication, food-based formulas and a protein-restricted diet to help their body process or regulate Phe.

If a patient with PKU connects through a virtual visit, they (or their parents) can open the refrigerator, talk about low-protein foods, discuss potential barriers to following a low-Phe diet, show the team new supplements or over-the-counter medications they are taking, discuss reactions to new therapies and, for adults, discuss an injectable drug recently approved by the FDA that has side effects but may ultimately allow them to follow a regular diet. These observations may not warrant a traditional trip to the doctor but are important for geneticists and patients to discuss. The goal of these visits is to identify and work around potential health barriers, while preventing adverse health outcomes.

To support this model, a 60-minute in-person visit scheduled every six months to a year can be broken into 15-minute video appointments at more frequent intervals. The result, based on the same amount of clinical time, is a targeted and detailed assessment to help the patient adapt to personalized therapies and to a low-Phe meal plan.

During the video call, Dr. Shur and the team may prescribe a different medication, order a diagnostic procedure or schedule a follow-up appointment, if necessary. Depending on the situation, the patient will still likely come in for in-person annual visits.

Program assessment: Evaluating visits for each patient

Despite the popularity of virtual visits, Dr. Shur mentions this program isn’t a good fit for everyone – depending on a patient’s preferences. There are also limitations to consider. If a parent is hesitant to try this platform or if the comprehensive physical examination is the first key step, they should schedule in-person visits. The goal is to give parents who are requesting or curious about virtual visits a chance to use the new platform. Having a secure area, preferably a private space at home, is important. A Wi-Fi connection and a digital device are required, which may create barriers for some patients.

Dr. Shur finds the program can also alleviate hurdles – such as transportation challenges. One patient lives two hours away and couldn’t make it in for routine medical visits due to car problems. Now she video conferences in and makes every appointment. For the first time in her life, she can manage medical care for herself and for her children.

Most insurance companies Dr. Shur works with cover virtual visits. The key is to have the virtual connection, or video, so Dr. Shur can still physically see the patient. Otherwise, the visit doesn’t count. A grant from CareFirst covers the costs of visits for patients who are using Medicaid or who don’t have medical insurance.

Parallel trends are happening across the country and for other conditions. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is reviewing a three-year pilot to expand the use of connected care services, like virtual visits, for low-income Americans living in rural areas. The Rural Health Care Program, funded by the FCC, supports hospitals that implement telehealth programs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a statement in 2015 about telemedicine technologies, noting that if these technologies are applied in a synergistic model under one health care system or are guided by a family doctor, they can transform pediatric health care.

The key is to avoid a fragmented virtual health system.

Overall, the AAP applauds virtual connections that support collaborations among pediatric physicians, subspecialists and surgeons, reduce travel burdens for families, alleviate physician shortages, improve the efficiency of health care and enhance the quality of care and quality of life for children with special health care needs.

Planning for the future

A poster at the Future of Pediatrics conference

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports telemedicine technologies that strengthen connections between pediatric physicians, alleviate physician shortages, reduce travel burdens for families and enhance the quality of care and quality of life for children with special health care needs.

When asked about the future of virtual visits in genetics, Dr. Shur quickly responds. “The feedback has been phenomenal,” she says. “Virtual visits will never replace in-person visits. They will be used in conjunction with in-person visits to maximize care.”

Dr. Regier and Jamie Frasier, M.D., Ph.D., medical geneticists at Children’s National, are also introducing virtual visits to their patients, and many other providers plan to do so as the program expands. In some cases, Sarah Viall, PPCNP, a nurse practitioner and newborn screening specialist, works with Dr. Shur and the geneticists to explain newborn screening results to parents through virtual connections. Parents may find it’s easier to dial in during a lunch break or while they are together at home.

To improve education for patients and families, the education and technology committees at the RDI – led by geneticists and genetic counselors in partnership with the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National – launched a new smartphone app called BearGenes. Families can watch 15 videos about genetics on the pin-protected app or view them online. The interactive guide serves as a gene glossary for terms patients may hear in a clinical setting. Topics range from genetics 101, describing how DNA is encrypted in the body through four letters – A, T, C, and G – to different types of genetic tests, such as whole exome sequencing, to look for differences in the spelling of genes, which the genetic counselors explain are genetic mutations.

“As we unite patients with virtual health platforms and new forms of technology, we want to see what works and what doesn’t. We want their feedback,” Dr. Shur reemphasizes. “Virtual visits are a dynamic process. These visits only work through patient partnership and feedback.”

While Chin navigates atypical 22q11.2 deletion syndrome and ASD, the virtual waiting room, virtual visits platform, ease of access and ability to show doctors her children help.

Sharing screens during the visit enables Chin to examine and have a better understanding of her children’s abdomen and kidney sonograms, cardiology reports and hearing exams. It forces everyone in the visit to focus on one topic or image at a time, strengthening the connection.

Chin still has questions, but she’s getting close to having more answers. She’s eager to see Caleb’s genetic test results and to work with Hillary Porter, M.S., CGC, the family’s genetic counselor, to interpret the data.

Attendees at the Future of Pediatrics conference

Nearly 400 pediatricians attend the Children’s National two-day Future of Pediatrics CME symposium to learn about the future of pediatrics and about new ways to collaborate as a diagnostic and treatment team.

As research about 22q11.2 deletion syndrome advances and delineations among its symptoms become common, geneticists, specialists and pediatricians continue to unify efforts to work as one diagnostic and treatment team. Virtual visits enable faster consultations and can shorten diagnostic odysseys, some of which may take up to five years for children with rare disorders.

“We’re all learning together,” Dr. Shur says about the new pilot program, which applies to genomics at large.

For Chin, by better understanding how a tiny fragment of a missing chromosome may influence her children’s growth and development, she is already making long-term plans and coordinating multidisciplinary medical treatment. She hopes that by sharing her story and knowledge about 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, she can help other parents navigate similar situations. Her biggest advice to parents is to follow through on lingering questions by bringing them up with your medical team.

Chin is optimistic and happy she did. She’s grateful for the virtual visits program, which simplifies complex care for her family. And she’s still waiting, but in two months she hopes to have final answers about her middle child’s DNA, unraveling another medical mystery.

 

Marius George Linguraru

Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil., M.A., M.Sc., awarded Department of Defense grant for Neurofibromatosis application development

Marius George Linguraru

Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil., M.A., M.Sc., is a principal investigator in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National, where he founded and directs the Precision Medical Imaging Laboratory. He’s an expert in quantitative imaging and artificial intelligence.

Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil., M.A., M.Sc., a principal investigator in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National has been awarded a Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP) grant through the Department of Defense. This grant allows Dr. Linguraru to develop a novel quantitative MRI application that can inform treatment decisions by accurately identifying which children with Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) and optic pathway glioma (OPG) are at risk of losing their vision.

This grant is part of the Neurofibromatosis Research Program of the CDMRP, which fills research gaps by funding high impact, high risk and high gain projects. Dr. Linguraru, who directs the Precision Medical Imaging Laboratory in the Sheikh Zayed Institute, is collaborating with the Gilbert Family Neurofibromatosis Institute and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on this project.

An expert in quantitative imaging and artificial intelligence, Dr. Linguraru has published several peer-reviewed studies on NF1 and OPG, a tumor that develops in 20 percent of children with NF1. The OPG tumor can cause irreversible vision loss, leading to permanent disability in about 50 percent of children with the tumor. This project, titled “MRI Volumetrics for Risk Stratification of Vision Loss in Optic Pathway Gliomas Secondary to NF1” will provide doctors certainty when identifying which children with NF1-OPG will lose vision and when the vision loss will occur.

Dr. Linguraru and his team will validate the quantitative MRI application that they’re developing by studying children at 25 NF1 clinics from around the world. Doctors using the application, which will perform comprehensive measurements of the OPG tumor’s volume, shape and texture, will upload their patient’s MRI into Dr. Lingurau’s application. Using recent advances in quantitative image analysis and machine learning, the application will then definitively determine whether the child’s NF1-OPG is going to cause vision loss and therefore requires treatment.

This diagnosis can occur before visual acuity starts to decline, which provides an opportunity for early treatment in children at risk for vision loss. Dr. Linguraru believes that early diagnosis and treatment can help to avoid lifelong visual impairment for these patients while preventing unnecessary MRIs and aggressive chemotherapy in pediatric patients who are not at risk of vision loss.

Occurring in one in 3,000 to 4,000 live births, NF1 is a genetic condition that manifests in early childhood and is characterized by changes in skin coloring and the growth of tumors along nerves in the skin, brain and other parts of the body. It is unknown why the OPG tumor caused by NF1 only results in vision loss for 50 percent of children. Some children will sustain lifelong disability from their vision loss, despite receiving treatment for their tumor, likely because treatment was started late. In other instances, doctors are unknowingly treating NF1-OPGs that would never cause vision loss.

Dr. Linguraru and his team have already proven that their computer-based, quantitative imaging measures are more objective and reliable than the current clinical measures, enabling doctors to make earlier and more accurate diagnoses and develop optimal treatment plans.

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Focusing on the “little brain” to rescue cognition

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Research faculty at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., with colleagues recently published a review article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience that covers the latest research about how abnormal development of the cerebellum leads to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Cerebellum translates as “little brain” in Latin. This piece of anatomy – that appears almost separate from the rest of the brain, tucked under the two cerebral hemispheres – long has been known to play a pivotal role in voluntary motor functions, such as walking or reaching for objects, as well as involuntary ones, such as maintaining posture.

But more recently, says Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the Children’s Research Institute, the research arm of Children’s National  in Washington, D.C., researchers have discovered that the cerebellum is also critically important for a variety of non-motor functions, including cognition and emotion.

Sathyanesan, who studies this brain region in the laboratory of Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National and scientific director of the Children’s Research Institute, recently published a review article with colleagues in Nature Reviews Neuroscience covering the latest research about how altered development of the cerebellum contributes to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

These disorders, he explains, are marked by problems in the nervous system that arise while it’s maturing, leading to effects on emotion, learning ability, self-control, or memory, or any combination of these. They include diagnoses as diverse as intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Down syndrome.

“One reason why the cerebellum might be critically involved in each of these disorders,” Sathyanesan says, “is because its developmental trajectory takes so long.”

Unlike other brain structures, which have relatively short windows of development spanning weeks or months, the principal cells of the cerebellum – known as Purkinje cells – start to differentiate from stem cell precursors at the beginning of the seventh gestational week, with new cells continuing to appear until babies are nearly one year old.  In contrast, cells in the neocortex, a part of the brain involved in higher-order brain functions such as cognition, sensory perception and language is mostly finished forming while fetuses are still gestating in the womb.

This long window for maturation allows the cerebellum to make connections with other regions throughout the brain, such as extensive connections with the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the cerebrum that plays a key role in perception, attention, awareness, thought, memory, language and consciousness. It also allows ample time for things to go wrong.

“Together,” Sathyanesan says, “these two characteristics are at the root of the cerebellum’s involvement in a host of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

For example, the review article notes, researchers have discovered both structural and functional abnormalities in the cerebellums of patients with ASD. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an imaging technique that measures activity in different parts of the brain, suggests that significant differences exist between connectivity between the cerebellum and cortex in people with ASD compared with neurotypical individuals. Differences in cerebellar connectivity are also evident in resting-state functional connectivity MRI, an imaging technique that measures brain activity in subjects when they are not performing a specific task. Some of these differences appear to involve patterns of overconnectivity to different brain regions, explains Sathyanesan; other differences suggest that the cerebellums of patients with ASD don’t have enough connections to other brain regions.

These findings could clarify research from Children’s National and elsewhere that has shown that babies born prematurely often sustain cerebellar injuries due to multiple hits, including a lack of oxygen supplied by infants’ immature lungs, he adds. Besides having a sibling with ASD, premature birth is the most prevalent risk factor for an ASD diagnosis.

The review also notes that researchers have discovered structural changes in the cerebellums of patients with Down syndrome, who tend to have smaller cerebellar volumes than neurotypical individuals. Experimental models of this trisomy recapitulate this difference, along with abnormal connectivity to the cerebral cortex and other brain regions.

Although the cerebellum is a pivotal contributor toward these conditions, Sathyanesan says, learning more about this brain region helps make it an important target for treating these neurodevelopmental disorders. For example, he says, researchers are investigating whether problems with the cerebellum and abnormal connectivity could be lessened through a non-invasive form of brain stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation or an invasive one known as deep brain stimulation. Similarly, a variety of existing pharmaceuticals or new ones in development could modify the cerebellum’s biochemistry and, consequently, its function.

“If we can rescue the cerebellum’s normal activity in these disorders, we may be able to alleviate the problems with cognition that pervade them all,” he says.

In addition to Sathyanesan and Senior Author Gallo, Children’s National study co-authors include Joseph Scafidi, D.O., neonatal neurologist; Joy Zhou and Roy V. Sillitoe, Baylor College of Medicine; and Detlef H. Heck, of University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke under grant numbers 5R01NS099461, R01NS089664, R01NS100874, R01NS105138 and R37NS109478; the Hamill Foundation; the Baylor College of Medicine Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54HD083092; the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) Neuroscience Institute; the UTHSC Cornet Award; the National Institute of Mental Health under grant number R01MH112143; and the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54 HD090257.

baby cardioilogy patient

Researchers receive $2.5M grant to optimize brain development in babies with CHD

baby cardioilogy patient

Children’s National Health System researchers Richard Jonas, M.D., Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D., and Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., have been awarded a $2.5 million, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct a single-center clinical trial at Children’s National. The study will involve collaboration between the Children’s National Heart Institute, the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, the Center for Neuroscience Research and the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation.

The goal of the study will be to optimize brain development in babies with congenital heart disease (CHD) who sometimes demonstrate delay in the development of cognitive and motor skills. This can be a result of multiple factors including altered prenatal oxygen delivery, brain blood flow and genetic factors associated with surgery including exposure to the heart lung machine.

The award will be used to complete three specific aims of a Phase 1 safety study as described in the NIH grant:

  • Aim 1: To determine the safety and feasibility of delivering allogeneic bone marrow derived mesenchymal stromal cell (BM-MSC) during heart surgery in young infants less than 3 months of age using the heart lung machine. The optimal safe dose will be determined.
  • Aim 2: To determine the impact of MSC infusion on brain structure using advanced neuroimaging and neurodevelopmental outcomes.
  • Aim 3: To determine differences in postoperative inflammatory and patho-physiological variables after MSC delivery in the infant with CHD.

“NIH supported studies in our laboratory have shown that MSC therapy may be extremely helpful in improving brain development in animal models after cardiac surgery,” says Dr. Ishibashi. “MSC infusion can help reduce inflammation including prolonged microglia activation that can occur during surgery that involves the heart lung machine.”

In addition the researchers’ studies have demonstrated that cell-based intervention can promote white matter regeneration through progenitor cells, restoring the neurogenic potential of the brain’s own stem cells that are highly important in early brain development.

The Phase 1 clinical trial is being implemented in two stages beginning with planning, regulatory documentation, training and product development. During the execution phase, the trial will focus on patient enrollment. Staff from the Cellular Therapy Laboratory, led by director Patrick Hanley, Ph.D., manufactured the BM-MSC at the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, led by Dr. Bollard. The Advanced Pediatric Brain Imaging Laboratory, led by Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., will perform MR imaging.

The phase 1 safety study will set the stage for a phase 2 effectiveness trial of this highly innovative MSC treatment aimed at reducing brain damage, minimizing neurodevelopmental disabilities and improving the postoperative course in children with CHD. The resulting improvement in developmental outcome and lessened behavioral impairment will be of enormous benefit to individuals with CHD.

INSAR 2019 logo

Autism’s heterogeneity on display at INSAR 2019

INSAR 2019 logo

At the INSAR Annual Meeting, presentations from around the world share a common goal: finding better ways to support and care for people with autism.

There are countless aspects of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to study, as evidenced by the 1,800-plus abstracts accepted at the 2019 International Society for Autism Research’s (INSAR) annual meeting. Presentations from investigators around the world ranged from pre-clinical studies of the genetic and biological underpinnings to community-based studies of diagnosis, assessment and treatment.

Along that broad spectrum of autism research, the work at Children’s National emphasizes better understanding of the clinical implications and community experiences of autism, with a particular focus on:

  • How well diagnostic and assessment tools capture the many differences between subpopulations of children with autism, whether based on sex/gender identity, cultural background or age
  • Understanding what children and adolescents with autism, and their parents, really need to help them thrive, and how to target supports to their unique needs
  • Finding the best ways to deliver vital information to autistic youth and their families in clear and accessible ways.

Researchers from Children’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) presented nearly 20 scientific panels, oral presentations and posters at INSAR highlighting their most recent findings in these areas.

In addition to their own research, the CASD team attended sessions from INSAR’s global community of researchers, clinicians, and others with vested interest in the study of ASD. Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., CASD’s director, shared some of her key takeaways from the meeting with the ASD-focused publication Spectrum.

“At many levels of analyses, we are learning that a diagnostic label may not always be the best construct for identifying, treating or probing the biology underlying a person’s problems,” she said. “The keynote by Jason Lerch, professor at Oxford University, for example, was an elegant synthesis of imaging and genetic findings that made a strong case for the importance of exploring subtypes within autism and across developmental and psychiatric problems.”

“We also received another powerful reminder of our field’s complex heterogeneity,” Dr. Kenworthy noted. “Katherine Gotham, assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, was able to divide groups of autistic individuals in a study according to different criteria than the study’s initial design and effectively erase what appeared to be clear, statistically significant differences between typically developing and autistic participants. Her presentation demonstrated once more the importance of looking deeply at our data from many angles before drawing conclusions based on study outcomes.”

These studies, both at Children’s and elsewhere, all share one common theme: the importance of asking these questions and exploring the answers, with the goal of finding better ways to support and care for the millions of people around the world with autism and their families, no matter what autism looks like for them.

CASD presentations at INSAR 2019

Panel presentation: Clinical Presentation of ASD and Access to Care Among Girls

Allison Ratto, Ph.D., chaired a panel focused on the differences in performance on standard diagnostic tools based on the sex of autistic youth. The panel included presentations such as:

  • Sex Differences in Youth with ASD: Language Phenotype and Relation to Autism Behaviors from the ACE GENDAAR Network, presented by Sara Jane Webb of the University of Washington
  • Social Strengths of Autistic Girls: Sex Differences in Clinician-Rated and Parent-Reported Autistic Traits, presented by Dr. Ratto
  • Gender and Psychiatric Symptoms among Youth with ASD and ADHD, Alyssa Verbalis, Ph.D.
  • Evidence for Undertreatment of ADHD in Girls with ASD in the National Survey of Children’s Health, Kelly Register-Brown, M.D., MSc.

Oral and poster presentations

Oral session: Comparing Online and in-Person Parent Trainings to Support Executive Function and Self-Regulation: Feasibility, Acceptability, and Outcomes, presented by Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D.

Poster sessions:

  • Executive Function and School-Based Interventions
    • Self-Report and Parent-Report Reveal Similar Patterns of Executive Function Problems in Autistic Adolescents, presented by Rachael Clinton and Charlotte Jeppsen
    • What Services Are Families of Children with Executive Function Challenges Getting? What Do Parents Say They Want?
    • A Mixed Methods Approach to Evaluation of Student Acceptability of the School-Based Interventions Unstuck and on Target and Parents and Teachers Supporting Students
    • A New Way to Help Parents? Exploring the Impact of School-Based Interventions on Parenting Outcomes
    • Executive Function and Academic Achievement in Autism Spectrum Disorder
    • Development of an Interactive, E-Learning Tool to Support Parent Implementation of an Executive Function Intervention
    • The Moderating Effects of Implementation Factors on Improvement in Classroom Behaviors in Unstuck and on Target and Contingency Behavior Management
  • Youth with ASD making the transition to adulthood
    • Preliminary Outcomes of a New Executive Function Treatment for Transition-Age Youth with ASD, presented by Cara Pugliese, Ph.D.
    • Self-determination in transition-aged individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
  • ASD population subgroups, including gender and ethnically diverse:
    • Parent-Teacher Discrepancy in Ratings of Executive Functioning in Black and White Children with ASD, presented by Serene Habayeb
    • Capturing the Autistic Experience: Self-Advocates Develop Self-Assessment Tools to Inform Autism Diagnosis and Validate Neuroimaging Findings across the Gender Spectrum
    • Comparing Parent-Report of Non-Intellectually Disabled Asian-American Youth with ASD and ADHD to Their White Peers
    • Autistic Traits in Transgender Youth: Dysphoria, Stigma, and Barriers to Care
    • Higher Rates of Gender Diversity in Children with ASD Based on Self-Report, Not Parent Report
Children's National employs 45 pediatric neurologists and 6 pediatric neurosurgeons.

Neuroscience at Children’s National

The Children’s National Division of Neurology and Neurosurgery is consistently recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top neurology programs in the nation.
Antonio R. Porras

Antonio R. Porras, Ph.D., awarded prestigious NIH grant for craniosynostosis modeling, career advancement

Antonio R. Porras

Antonio R. Porras, Ph.D., is a staff scientist in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Health System.

Antonio R. Porras, Ph.D., a staff scientist in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Health System, has received the prestigious Pathway to Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This award funds Dr. Porras’ research for the next five years, enabling him to develop two bone growth models that will better inform clinicians treating patients with craniosynostosis and help to optimize outcomes. Also referred to as the K99/R00 grant, this NIH award is for researchers who are either in the postdoctoral/residency period or who are early career investigators. It is designed to transition them from mentored positions to independent, tenure-track or equivalent faculty positions so that they can launch competitive research careers.

Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil., M.A., M.Sc., a principal investigator in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, is Dr. Porras’ primary mentor on this research project along with co-mentors Robert Keating, M.D., division chief of neurosurgery at Children’s National, and Maximilian Muenke, M.D., chief in the Medical Genetics Branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Dr. Porras has taken a research interest in craniosynostosis, the early fusion of one or more cranial sutures that may lead to craniofacial malformations and brain growth constraints during childhood. With this NIH K99/R00 award, Dr. Porras will employ his expertise in computer science, biomedical engineering, quantitative imaging and statistical modeling to create a personalized computational predictive model of cranial bone growth for subjects without cranial pathology and for patients with craniosynostosis. Dr. Porras will also quantify the coupled growth patterns of the cranial bones and the brain using an existing brain growth model.

Affecting one in 2,100 to 2,500 live births, craniosynostosis complications can result in elevated intra-cranial pressure and subsequent impaired brain growth. While treatable, optimal outcomes are stymied by subjectivity in the evaluation of cranial malformations and prediction of cranial bone development. There are currently no personalized clinical tools available to predict healthy or pathological cranial growth and no objective techniques to optimize the long-term outcome of treatment for patients with craniosynostosis.

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.”

T cell

Clinical Trial Spotlight: Is more really better? Dose escalation of multi-antigen targeted T cells to illicit a more robust response

T cell

As the promise of immunotherapy in treating patients with cancer becomes more evident, physician researchers at Children’s National are pushing the needle further along. Holly Meany, M.D., is leading a Phase 1 dose-escalation trial to determine the safety and efficacy of administering rapidly generated tumor multi-antigen associated specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (TAA CTL) to patients who have undergone allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) or traditional therapy for a high-risk solid tumor due to the presence of refractory, relapsed and/or residual detectable disease.

“In the escalation portion of our trial, we found that the highest dose evaluated did not have unfavorable toxicity in these patients and is our recommended dose,” Dr. Meany said. “Our next step is an expansion of the trial in five distinct disease categories – Wilms tumor, neuroblastoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, adenocarcinoma and esophageal carcinoma – to examine efficacy on a broader level at the recommended dose.”

Dr. Meany and fellow research clinicians at Children’s National will evaluate not only what happens to the patients when given the additional dosage, but also what happens to the cells – How long will they last? Will they remain targeted against the same antigens or will they shift to target other proteins?

This novel trial is currently enrolling patients at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.

  • PI: Holly Meany, M.D.
  • Title: Research Study Utilizing Expanded Multi-antigen Specific Lymphocytes for the Treatment of Solid Tumors (REST)
  • Status: Currently enrolling

For more information about this trial, contact:

Holly Meany, M.D.
202-476-5697
hmeany@childrensnational.org 

Click here to view Open Phase 1 and 2 Cancer Clinical Trials at Children’s National.

The Children’s National Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders is committed to providing the best care for pediatric patients. Our experts play an active role in innovative clinical trials to advance pediatric cancer care. We offer access to novel trials and therapies, some of which are only available here at Children’s National. With research interests covering nearly aspect of pediatric cancer care, our work is making great advancements in childhood cancer.

Pediatric Neurology Update Attendees

Pediatric neurologists get a primer on the state of ASD research and care

Pediatric Neurology Update Attendees

Neurologists who attended the 2019 Pediatric Neurology Update received a broad look at autism spectrum disorders, ranging from biology to clinical care and advocacy.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) took center stage for the afternoon sessions of the annual Pediatric Neurology Update in April. The meeting, hosted by the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Health System, brings together 150-plus pediatric neurologists each year to discuss critical research and clinical care of pediatric neurological conditions.

Led by the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders Director Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., the afternoon’s slate of presentations sought to give broad perspective of the current state of ASD research and treatment best practices.

“We know that the brain is different in autism, but many times we continue to define autism by behavioral traits,” Dr. Kenworthy told the crowd in her introduction. “Sitting between the brain and behavior often is cognition – how do you understand your world and interpret it?”

The afternoon’s presentations were organized to provide the audience with a clear picture of many facets of ASD research and treatment. Highlights included:

  • Joshua Corbin, Ph.D., director of the Center for Neuroscience Research, offered “New Insights into the Neurobiologic Underpinnings of Autism,” which mapped out some of the biological mechanisms of autism.
  • Adelaide Robb, M.D., and Dr. Kenworthy presented current clinical care outlines, with Dr. Robb focusing on pharmacological therapies and Dr. Kenworthy sharing successful strategies to improve executive functioning and day to day task management for school-aged children.

Attendees also received a taste of two current “hot topics” in autism research and care:

  • Kevin Pelphrey, Ph.D., presented recent findings on “Gender Differences in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Girls with Autism” calling attention to the fact that the current diagnostic standards may not capture some female-associated phenotypes of ASD.
  • Julia Bascom of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network brought the autistic person’s point of view to the table via her presentation: “Autism: Society and Government Challenges and Solutions,” which focused on her organization’s efforts to improve inclusivity in advocacy and research, which she sums up as, “Nothing about us without us.”

The session concluded with a real-world focused “Autism-Friendly Hospital Roundtable,” of six panelists from the clinical, advocacy, community and technology fields, who are all involved in hands-on practices to improve medical experiences for autistic children and adults.

  • CASD’s Yetta Myrick talked about her work to engage families of autistic children in discussions of research and clinical care programs, including the start of CASD’s first-ever Stakeholder Advisory Board.
  • Julia Bascom talked about some of the less-often discussed challenges for many autistic people who seek medical services.
  • Kathleen Atmore, Psy.D., and Eileen Walters, MSN, RN, CPN, provided an overview of Beyond the Spectrum, the clinical service at Children’s National that coaches providers and families in techniques to reduce the stress of routine medical visits for patients with autism and other developmental disabilities.
  • Amy Kratchman, director of the LEND Family Collaboration at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, talked about some of the autism-friendly strategies underway at her institution.
  • Michael O’Neil, JD, MBA, founder and CEO of the GetWell Network, Inc., previewed how GetWell and Children’s National are partnering on a new tool that harnesses app technology to bring better information to autistic children and their families after a new autism diagnosis.
  • Vijay Ravindran, CEO and co-founder at Floreo, demonstrated how it might be possible to reduce stress and create a calm peaceful autism-friendly environment even in the busiest of waiting rooms, by allowing the patient to escape via virtual reality.

The roundtable showcased how Children’s National and other health care institutions are using evidence-based strategies to improve medical care experiences for autistic people and their families. Ideally any provider, including pediatric neurologists, who cares for people from the autism community, can incorporate any or all of these strategies as a way to meet the unique needs of this patient population.

The content was so timely and relevant to the audience that many attendees stayed past the official end of the meeting to continue discussing best practices with the panelists and each other.

John Schreiber

New study to raise profile of SCN8A-related disorders

John Schreiber

“The Cute Syndrome Foundation reached out because children with this disorder are dying. They were hoping to find a way to make more people, especially medical professionals, aware of this disorder and treatment recommendations,” said John Schreiber, M.D.

Children’s National Health System is proud to share that they have launched into a 6-month pilot research program to evaluate and improve education and access to care for SCN8A-related epilepsy. Due to advances in genetic testing, more patients with SCN8A mutations and other rare genetic epilepsies are being discovered all the time.

The research for the pilot program is being led by John Schreiber, M.D., assistant professor of neurology and pediatrics and director of the epilepsy genetics program at Children National. Dr. Schreiber will help to develop a more focused effort to provide families and clinicians with the Clinician Information and Reference Guide that was created by The Cute Syndrome Foundation. The goal of the information is to provide families and clinicians with a guide to remove barriers to access expert care.

“The Cute Syndrome Foundation reached out because children with this disorder are dying. They were hoping to find a way to make more people, especially medical professionals, aware of this disorder and treatment recommendations,” said Dr. Schreiber. “We’re at a critical point of collecting information as patients from around the world are looking at Children’s National as a leader to combat this type of disorder.”

As the first study of its kind in a rare genetic epilepsy, the pilot will provide the opportunity for future interventions that will help elevate the profile of SCN8A-related disorders, improve overall patient outcomes and facilitate collaborative partnerships that focus on research and on supporting positive outcomes for patients.

To help uncover barriers to accessing expert advice, the SCN8A survey was given out to over 200 health care professionals at Children’s National 2019 Pediatric Neurology Update meeting. Specifically, the study will help doctors at Children’s National increase provider knowledge of SN8A-related disorders, improve utilization of appropriate anti-seizure therapies and may ultimately end up reducing mortality.

Children’s National received a gift of $15,397 to establish the SCN8A Education and Research Fund, which will support research within the Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program to evaluate access to and increase awareness of SCN8A epileptic encephalopathy and treatment recommendation from experts in the field. The funds will be used for personnel, technology and material costs associated with the research.

preterm brain scans

Early lipids in micropreemies’ diets can boost brain growth

preterm brain scans

Segmentation of a preterm brain T2-weighted MRI image at 30 gestational weeks [green=cortical grey matter; blue=white matter; grey=deep grey matter; cyan=lateral ventricle; purple=cerebellum; orange=brainstem; red=hippocampus; yellow=cerebrospinal fluid].

Dietary lipids, already an important source of energy for tiny preemies, also provide a much-needed brain boost by significantly increasing global brain volume as well as increasing volume in regions involved in motor activities and memory, according to research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

“Compared with macronutrients like carbohydrates and proteins, lipid intake during the first month of life is associated with increased overall and regional brain volume for micro-preemies,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National and senior author. “Using non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging, we see increased volume in the cerebellum by 2 weeks of age. And at four weeks of life, lipids increase total brain volume and boost regional brain volume in the cerebellum, amygdala-hippocampus and brainstem.”

The cerebellum is involved in virtually all physical movement and enables coordination and balance. The amygdala processes and stores short-term memories. The hippocampus manages emotion and mood. And the brainstem acts like a router, passing messages from the brain to the rest of the body, as well as enabling essential functions like breathing, a steady heart rate and swallowing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 U.S. babies is born preterm, or before 37 weeks gestation. Regions of the brain that play vital roles in complex cognitive and motor activities experience exponential growth late in pregnancy, making the developing brains of preterm infants particularly vulnerable to injury and impaired growth.

Children’s research faculty examined the impact of lipid intake in the first month of life on brain volumes for very low birth weight infants, who weighed 1,500 grams or less at birth. These micro-preemies are especially vulnerable to growth failure and neurocognitive impairment after birth.

The team enrolled 68 micro-preemies who were 32 weeks gestational age and younger when they were admitted to Children’s neonatal intensive care unit during their first week of life. They measured cumulative macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and calories – consumed by these newborns at 2 and 4 weeks of life. Over years, Limperopoulos’ lab has amassed a large database of babies who were born full-term; this data provides unprecedented insights into normal brain development and will help to advance understanding of brain development in high-risk preterm infants.

“Even after controlling for average weight gain and other health conditions, lipid intake was positively associated with cerebellar and brainstem volumes in very low birthweight preterm infants,” adds Katherine M. Ottolini, the study’s lead author.

According to Limperopoulos, Children’s future research will examine the optimal timing and volume of lipids to boost neurodevelopment for micro-preemies.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Early lipid intake improves brain growth in premature infants.”
    • Saturday, April 27, 2019, 1:15-2:30 p.m. (EST)

Katherine M. Ottolini, lead author; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Attending, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine and co-author; Kushal Kapse, research and development staff engineer and co-author; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain and senior author, all of Children’s National.

newborn in incubator

In HIE lower heart rate variability signals stressed newborns

newborn in incubator

In newborns with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), lower heart rate variability correlates with autonomic manifestations of stress shortly after birth, underscoring the value of this biomarker, according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Tethered to an array of machines that keep their bodies nourished, warm and alive, newborns with health issues can’t speak. But Children’s research teams are tapping into what the machinery itself says, looking for insights into which vulnerable infants are most in need of earlier intervention.

Heart rate variability – or the variation between heartbeats – is a sign of health. Our autonomic nervous system constantly sends signals to adjust our heart rate under normal conditions. We can measure heart rate variability non-invasively, providing a way to detect potential problems with the autonomic nervous system as a sensitive marker of health in critically ill newborns,” says An N. Massaro, M.D., co-Director of Research for the Division of Neonatology at Children’s National, and the study’s senior author. “We’re looking for validated markers of brain injury in babies with HIE, and our study helps to support heart rate variability as one such valuable physiological biomarker.”

In most newborns, the autonomic nervous system reliably and automatically receives information about the body and the outside world and, in response, controls essential functions like blood pressure, body temperature, how quickly the baby breathes and how rapidly the newborn’s heart beats. The sympathetic part stimulates body processes, while the parasympathetic part inhibits body processes. When the nervous system’s internal auto-pilot falters, babies can suffer.

The Children’s team enrolled infants with HIE in the prospective, observational study. (HIE is brain damage that occurs with full-term babies who experience insufficient blood and oxygen flow to the brain around the time they are born.) Fifteen percent had severe encephalopathy. Mean age of babies in the observational study was 38.9 weeks gestation. Their median Apgar score at five minutes was 3; the 0-9 Apgar range indicates how ready newborns are for the rigors of life outside the womb.

The team analyzed heart rate variability metrics for three time periods:

  • The first 24 to 27 hours of life
  • The first three hours after babies undergoing therapeutic cooling were rewarmed and
  • The first three hours after babies’ body temperature had returned to normal.

They correlated the relationship between heart rate variability for 68 infants during at least one of these time periods with the stress z-score from the NICU Network Neurobehavioral Scale. The scale is a standardized assessment of newborn’s neurobehavioral integrity. The stress summary score indicates a newborn’s overall stress response, and six test items specifically relate to autonomic function.

“Alpha exponent and root mean square in short timescales, root mean square in long timescales, as well as low and high frequency powers positively correlated with stress scores and, even after adjusting for covariates, remained independently associated at 24 hours,” says Allie Townsend, the study’s lead author.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Heart rate variability (HRV) measures of autonomic nervous system (ANS) function relates to neonatal neurobehavioral manifestations of stress in newborn with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).”
    • Monday, April 29, 2019, 5:45 p.m. (EST)

Allie Townsend, lead author; Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., staff scientist, Advanced Physiological Signals Processing Lab and co-author; Penny Glass, Ph.D., director, Child Development Program and co-author; Judy Brown, co-author; Tareq Al-Shargabi, M.S., co-author; Taeun Chang, M.D., director, Neonatal Neurology and Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program and co-author; Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, chief of the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine and co-author; An N. Massaro, M.D., co-Director of Research for the Division of Neonatology and senior author, all of Children’s National.

Claire Marie Vacher

Placental function linked to brain injuries associated with autism

Claire Marie Vacher

“We saw long-term cerebellar white matter alterations in male experimental models, and behavioral testing revealed social impairments and increased repetitive behaviors, two hallmark features of ASD,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead study author.

Allopregnanolone (ALLO), a hormone made by the placenta late in pregnancy, is such a potent neurosteroid that disrupting its steady supply to the developing fetus can leave it vulnerable to brain injuries associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

In order to more effectively treat vulnerable babies, the Children’s research team first had to tease out what goes wrong in the careful choreography that is pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 babies is born preterm, before 37 weeks of gestation. Premature birth is a major risk factor for ASD.

The placenta is an essential and understudied organ that is shared by the developing fetus and the pregnant mother, delivering oxygen, glucose and nutrients and ferrying out waste products. The placenta also delivers ALLO, a progesterone derivative, needed to ready the developing fetal brain for life outside the womb.

ALLO ramps up late in gestation. When babies are born prematurely, their supply of ALLO stops abruptly. That occurs at the same time the cerebellum – a brain region essential for motor coordination, posture, balance and social cognition– typically undergoes a dramatic growth spurt.

“Our experimental model demonstrates that losing placental ALLO alters cerebellar development, including white matter development,” says Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the divisions of Neonatology and Fetal Medicine, and a developmental neuroscientist at Children’s National. “Cerebellar white matter development occurs primarily after babies are born, so connecting a change in placental function during pregnancy with lingering impacts on later brain development is a particularly striking result.”

The research team created a novel experimental model in which the gene encoding the enzyme responsible for producing ALLO is deleted in the placenta. They compared these preclinical models with a control group and performed whole brain imaging and RNAseq gene expression analyses for both groups.

“We saw long-term cerebellar white matter alterations in male experimental models, and behavioral testing revealed social impairments and increased repetitive behaviors, two hallmark features of ASD,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead study author. “These male-specific outcomes parallel the increased risk of brain injury and ASD we see in human babies born prematurely.”

ALLO binds to specific GABA receptors, which control most inhibitory signaling in the nervous system.

“Our findings provide a new way to frame poor placental function: Subtle but significant changes in utero may set in motion neurodevelopmental disorders that children experience later in life,” adds Dr. Penn, the study’s senior author. “Future directions for our research could include identifying new targets in the placenta or brain that could be amenable to hormone supplementation, opening the potential for earlier treatment for high-risk fetuses.”

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Placental allopregnanolone loss alters postnatal cerebellar development and function.”
    • Sunday, April 28, 2019, 5:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. (EST)

Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead author; Jackie Salzbank, co-author; Helene Lacaille, co-author; Dana Bakalar, co-author; Jiaqi O’Reilly, co-author; and Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the divisions of Neonatology and Fetal Medicine, developmental neuroscientist and senior study author.

Katie Donnelly

Firearm injuries disproportionately affect African American kids in DC Wards 7 and 8

Katie Donnelly

“Because the majority of patients in our analyses were injured through accidental shootings, this particular risk factor can help to inform policy makers about possible interventions to prevent future firearm injury, disability and death,” says Katie Donnelly, M.D.

Firearm injuries disproportionately impact African American young men living in Washington’s Wards 7 and 8 compared with other city wards, with nearly one-quarter of injuries suffered in the injured child’s home or at a friend’s home, according to a hot spot analysis presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

“We analyzed the addresses where youths were injured by firearms over a nearly 12-year period and found that about 60 percent of these shootings occurred in Ward 7 or Ward 8, lower socioeconomic neighborhoods when compared with Washington’s six other Wards,” says Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE, assistant chief of Children’s Division of Emergency Medicine and Trauma Services and the study’s senior author. “This granular detail will help to target resources and interventions to more effectively reduce firearm-related injury and death.”

In the retrospective, cross-sectional study, the Children’s research team looked at all children aged 18 and younger who were treated at Children’s National for firearm-related injuries from Jan. 1, 2006, to May 31, 2017. During that time, 122 children injured by firearms in Washington were treated at Children’s National, the only Level 1 pediatric trauma center in the nation’s Capitol:

  • Nearly 64 percent of these firearm-related injuries were accidental
  • The patients’ mean age was 12.9 years old
  • More than 94 percent of patients were African American and
  • Nearly 74 percent were male.

Of all injuries suffered by children, injuries due to firearms carry the highest mortality rates, the study authors write. About 3 percent of patients in Children’s study died from their firearm-related injuries. Among surviving youth:

  • Patients had a mean Injury Severity Score of 5.8. (The score for a “major trauma” is greater than 15.)
  • 54 percent required hospitalization, with a mean hospitalization of three days
  • Nearly 28 percent required surgery, with 14.8 percent transferred directly from the emergency department to the operating room and
  • Nearly 16 percent were admitted to the intensive care unit.

“Regrettably, firearm injuries remain a major public health hazard for our nation’s children and young adults,” adds Katie Donnelly, M.D., emergency medicine specialist and the study’s lead author. “Because the majority of patients in our analyses were injured through accidental shootings, this particular risk factor can help to inform policy makers about possible interventions to prevent future firearm injury, disability and death.”

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting poster presentatio

  • “Pediatric firearm-related injuries and outcomes in the District of Columbia.”
    • Monday, April 29, 2019, 5:45 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. (EST)

Katie Donnelly, M.D., emergency medicine specialist and lead author; Shilpa J. Patel, M.D., MPH, emergency medicine specialist and co-author; Gia M. Badolato, co-author; James Jackson, co-author; and Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE, assistant chief of Children’s Division of Emergency Medicine and Trauma Services and senior author.

Other Children’s research related to firearms presented during PAS 2019 includes:

April 27, 8 a.m.: “Protect kids, not guns: What pediatric providers can do to improve firearm safety.” Gabriella Azzarone, Asad Bandealy, M.D.; Priti Bhansali, M.D.; Eric Fleegler; Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE;  Alex Hogan; Sabah Iqbal; Kavita Parikh, M.D.; Shilpa J. Patel, M.D., MPH; Noe Romo; and Alyssa Silver.

April 29, 5:45 p.m.: “Emergency department visits for pediatric firearm-related injury: By intent of injury.” Shilpa J. Patel, M.D., MPH; Gia M. Badolato; Kavita Parikh, M.D.; Sabah Iqbal; and Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE.

April 29, 5:45 p.m.: “Assessing the intentionality of pediatric firearm injuries using ICD codes.” Katie Donnelly, M.D.; Gia M. Badolato; James Chamberlain, M.D.; and Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE.

April 30, 9:45 a.m.: “Defining a research agenda for the field of pediatric firearm injury prevention.” Libby Alpern; Patrick Carter; Rebecca Cunningham, Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE; Fred Rivara; and Eric Sigel.

Catherine Limperopoulos

Breastfeeding boosts metabolites important for brain growth

Catherine Limperopoulos

“Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites that may play a critical role for growth and explain what makes breastfeeding beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.

Micro-preemies who primarily consume breast milk have significantly higher levels of metabolites important for brain growth and development, according to sophisticated imaging conducted by an interdisciplinary research team at Children’s National.

“Our previous research established that vulnerable preterm infants who are fed breast milk early in life have improved brain growth and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It was unclear what makes breastfeeding so beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National. “Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites essential for growth and answer that lingering question.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 U.S. infants is born preterm. The Children’s research team presented their findings during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

The research-clinicians enrolled babies who were very low birthweight (less than 1,500 grams) and 32 weeks gestational age or younger at birth when they were admitted to Children’s neonatal intensive care unit in the first week of life. The team gathered data from the right frontal white matter and the cerebellum – a brain region that enables people to maintain balance and proper muscle coordination and that supports high-order cognitive functions.

Each chemical has its own a unique spectral fingerprint. The team generated light signatures for key metabolites and calculated the quantity of each metabolite. Of note:

  • Cerebral white matter spectra showed significantly greater levels of inositol (a molecule similar to glucose) for babies fed breast milk, compared with babies fed formula.
  • Cerebellar spectra had significantly greater creatine levels for breastfed babies compared with infants fed formula.
  • And the percentage of days infants were fed breast milk was associated with significantly greater levels of both creatine and choline, a water soluble nutrient.

“Key metabolite levels ramp up during the times babies’ brains experience exponential growth,” says Katherine M. Ottolini, the study’s lead author. “Creatine facilitates recycling of ATP, the cell’s energy currency. Seeing greater quantities of this metabolite denotes more rapid changes and higher cellular maturation. Choline is a marker of cell membrane turnover; when new cells are generated, we see choline levels rise.”

Already, Children’s National leverages an array of imaging options that describe normal brain growth, which makes it easier to spot when fetal or neonatal brain development goes awry, enabling earlier intervention and more effective treatment. “Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy may serve as an important additional tool to advance our understanding of how breastfeeding boosts neurodevelopment for preterm infants,” Limperopoulos adds.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Improved cerebral and cerebellar metabolism in breast milk-fed VLBW infants.”
    • Monday, April 29, 2019, 3:30–3:45 p.m. (EST)

Katherine M. Ottolini, lead author; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Attending, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine and co-author; Kushal Kapse, research and development staff engineer and co-author; Sudeepta Basu, M.D., neonatologist and co-author; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain and senior author, all of Children’s National.

An-Massaro

Looking for ‘help’ signals in the blood of newborns with HIE

An Massaro

“This data support our hypothesis that a panel of biomarkers – not a one-time test for a single biomarker – is needed to adequately determine the risk and timing of brain injury for babies with HIE,” says An N. Massaro, M.D.

Measuring a number of biomarkers over time that are produced as the body responds to inflammation and injury may help to pinpoint newborns who are more vulnerable to suffering lasting brain injury due to disrupted oxygen delivery and blood flow, according to research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) happens when blood and oxygen flow are disrupted around the time of birth and is a serious birth complication for full-term infants. To lessen the chance of these newborns suffering permanent brain injury, affected infants undergo therapeutic cooling, which temporarily lowers their body temperatures.

“Several candidate blood biomarkers have been investigated in HIE but we still don’t have one in clinical use.  We need to understand how these markers change over time before we can use them to direct care in patients,” says An N. Massaro, M.D., co-director of the Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “The newborns’ bodies sent out different ‘help’ signals that we detected in their bloodstream, and the markers had strikingly different time courses. A panel of plasma biomarkers has the potential to help us identify infants most in need of additional interventions, and to help us understand the most optimal timing for those interventions.”

Past research has keyed in on inflammatory cytokines and Tau protein as potential biomarkers of brain injury for infants with HIE who are undergoing therapeutic cooling. The research team led by Children’s faculty wanted to gauge which time periods to measure such biomarkers circulating in newborns’ bloodstreams. They enrolled 85 infants with moderate or severe HIE and tapped unused blood specimens that had been collected as cooling began, as well as 12, 24, 72 and 96 hours later. The infants’ mean gestational age was 38.7 weeks, their mean birth weight was about 7 pounds (3.2 kilograms), and 19% had severe brain disease (encephalopathy).

Cytokines – chemicals like Interleukin (IL) 6, 8 and 10 that regulate how the body responds to infection, inflammation and trauma – peaked in the first 24 hours of cooling for most of the newborns. However, the highest measure of Tau protein for the majority of newborns was during or after the baby’s temperature was restored to normal.

“After adjusting for clinical severity of encephalopathy and five-minute Apgar scores, IL-6, IL-8 and IL-10 predicted adverse outcomes, like severe brain injury or death, as therapeutic hypothermia began. By contrast, Tau protein measurements predicted adverse outcomes during and after the infants were rewarmed,” Dr. Massaro says.

IL-6 and IL-8 proteins are pro-inflammatory cytokines while IL-10 is considered anti-inflammatory.  These chemicals are released as a part of the immune response to brain injury. Tau proteins are abundant in nerve cells and stabilize microtubules.

“This data support our hypothesis that a panel of biomarkers – not a one-time test for a single biomarker – is needed to adequately determine the risk and timing of brain injury for babies with HIE,” she adds.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Serial plasma biomarkers of brain injury in infants with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) treated with therapeutic hypothermia (TH).”
    • Saturday, April 27, 2019, 6 p.m. (EST)

Meaghan McGowan, lead author; Alexandra C. O’Kane, co-author; Gilbert Vezina, M.D.,  director, Neuroradiology Program and co-author; Tae Chang, M.D., director, Neonatal Neurology Program and co-author; and An N. Massaro, M.D., co-director of the Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program and senior author; all of Children’s National; and co-author Allen Everett, of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Ololade Okito

Parents of older, healthier newborns with less social support less resilient

Ololade Okito

“We know that having a child hospitalized in the NICU can be a high-stress time for families,” says Ololade Okito, M.D., lead author of the cross-sectional study. “The good news is that as parental resiliency scores rise, we see a correlation with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Parents of older, healthier newborns who had less social support were less resilient during their child’s hospitalization in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), a finding that correlates with more symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Resiliency is the natural born, yet adaptable ability of people to bounce back in the face of significant adversity. Published research indicates that higher resilience is associated with reduced psychological distress, but the phenomenon had not been studied extensively in parents of children hospitalized in a NICU.

“We know that having a child hospitalized in the NICU can be a high-stress time for families,” says Ololade Okito, M.D., lead author of the cross-sectional study. “The good news is that as parental resiliency scores rise, we see a correlation with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Parents who feel they have good family support also have higher resilience scores.”

The project is an offshoot of a larger study examining the impact of peer mentoring by other NICU parents who have experienced the same emotional rollercoaster ride as their tiny infants sometimes thrived and other times struggled.

The research team enrolled 35 parents whose newborns were 34 weeks gestation and younger and administered a battery of validated surveys, including:

Forty percent of these parents had high resilience scores; parents whose infants were a mean of 27.3 gestational weeks and who had more severe health challenges reported higher resilience. Another 40% of these parents had elevated depressive symptoms, while 31% screened positive for anxiety. Parental distress impairs the quality of parent-child interactions and long-term child development, the research team writes.

“Higher NICU-related stress correlates with greater symptoms of depression and anxiety in parents,” says Lamia Soghier, M.D., MEd, medical director of Children’s neonatal intensive care unit and the study’s senior author. “Specifically targeting interventions to these parents may help to improve their resilience, decrease the stress of parenting a child in the NICU and give these kids a healthier start to life.”

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Parental resilience and psychological distress in the neonatal intensive care unit (PARENT) study”
    • Tuesday, April 30, 2019, 7:30 a.m. (EST)

Ololade Okito, M.D., lead author; Yvonne Yui, M.D., co-author; Nicole Herrera, MPH, co-author; Randi Streisand, Ph.D., chief, Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health, and co-author; Carrie Tully, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-author; Karen Fratantoni, M.D., MPH, medical director, Complex Care Program, and co-author; and Lamia Soghier, M.D., MEd, medical unit director, neonatal intensive care unit, and senior author; all of Children’s National.