Neurology & Neurosurgery

Andrea L. Gropman

Andrea L. Gropman, M.D., FAAP, FACMG, FANA, named as the Margaret O’Malley Professor of Genetic Medicine

Andrea L. GropmanChildren’s National Hospital named Andrea L. Gropman, M.D., FAAP, FACMG, FANA, as the Margaret O’Malley Professor of Genetic Medicine at Children’s National Hospital.

Dr. Gropman serves as Chief of the Division of Neurogenetics and Developmental Pediatrics at Children’s National Hospital. She is also a Professor of Pediatrics and Professor of Neurology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

About the award

Dr. Gropman joins a distinguished group of Children’s National physicians and scientists who hold an endowed chair. The Margaret O’Malley Professor of Genetic Medicine is one of 47 endowed chairs at Children’s National.

Professorships support groundbreaking work on behalf of children and their families and foster new discoveries and innovations in pediatric medicine. These appointments carry prestige and honor that reflect the recipient’s achievements and donor’s forethought to advance and sustain knowledge.

Dr. Gropman’s research focuses on neuroimaging, inborn errors of metabolism such as urea cycle disorders and mitochondrial disorders, and neurogenetics. She is the principal investigator of the Urea Cycle Disorders Consortium (UCDC) and the UCDC imaging consortium. She is the deputy clinical director of the Mito EpiGen Program.

Thomas and Mary Alice O’Malley, through their vision and generosity, are ensuring that Dr. Gropman and future holders of this professorship will launch bold, new initiatives to rapidly advance the field of pediatric genetic medicine, elevate our leadership and improve the lifetimes of children with genetic diseases.

About the donors

Tom and Mary Alice O’Malley have partnered with Children’s National to improve the lives of patients with urea cycles disorders for more than two decades. In 2003, their transformational philanthropy helped launch the Urea Cycle Disorders Consortium. This pioneering network grew to include 16-sites worldwide. It garnered 20 years of funding from the NIH’s Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network — the only center to sustain continuous funding over this period. This consortium’s research has yielded multiple effective treatment strategies, including government approval of three lifesaving therapies.

“The O’Malley family’s steadfast generosity helped us grow into the robust community of investigators and families we are today,” says Dr. Gropman. “They transformed care for UCD patients everywhere.”

boy being assessed for concussion

Concussion treatments for children need more priority

boy being assessed for concussion

Concussion treatments for children have continued to evolve but ultimately, need more priority.

The Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT) tools are used worldwide for children, adolescents and adults to assist in the evaluation and management of sport-related concussions (SRC). The SCAT tools have evolved over time based on clinical findings, clinician input, scientific investigations and systematic reviews of the literature, as recently noted in a paper published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine. It is critically important to identify and diagnose a concussion as early as possible and track its recovery with reliable and valid tools across the full age span from young child to adult.

This systematic review occurs only every four years to summarize the current literature on concussions. A team of leading researchers including Gerard Gioia, Ph.D., director of Safe Concussion Outcome, Recovery and Education (SCORE) Program at Children’s National Hospital and co-author of the paper, found that the SCAT measure has been used mostly with adult and adolescent SRCs but not with children ages 5-12 years.

The tools are helpful to diagnose and track recovery in children, adolescents and adults only up to three days post-injury.  Their lack of sensitivity after this time resulted in the recommendation for a new complementary tool, the Sport Concussion Office Assessment Tool (SCOAT), which Dr. Gioia assisted in developing. One of the SCOAT measures – known as SCOAT6 – is the PACE-Self Efficacy Scale, developed by Dr. Gioia, Christopher Vaughan, Psy.D., neuropsychologist, and other colleagues at Children’s National. This measure assesses and tracks the confidence of children and adolescents in managing their recovery, an important component that underlies successful recovery.

We spoke more with Dr. Gioia about the recent advancements in concussion recommendations.

Q: What’s been the hold-up in the field with respect to children and adolescents?

A: A specific hold-up is that the venues where a sport-related concussion can occur do not have the athletic health professionals or researchers available to identify the injuries early or conduct specific research on their manifestations. Pre-adolescent children are typically seen in emergency rooms or their primary care physicians’ offices and are, therefore, not available to be studied and monitored. The venues for older athletes include high schools, colleges and professional sports stadiums with designated athletic health professionals. We need to find better ways to identify pre-adolescent athletes to understand their diagnostic and recovery needs.

Q: Why is it important to update the literature?

A: The periodic work of the Concussion in Sport Group helps to provide an updated understanding of the injury and improve the tools used to diagnose and treat SRC early in the process and to develop the necessary tools beyond this initial period. Its results have made recommendations for improvement given that some measures are not as sensitive to the injury and need to be modified. For example, tools that need further study and revision include the balance exam, word-list learning and memory measures. It calls for improvements in these assessment tools, which will better define and diagnose the injury.

Q: How will this work benefit patients?

A: Improved sensitivity of the acute measure and a new follow-up assessment measure will result in improved treatment recommendations for patients. Recognition of the dearth of data on SRC in children ages 5-12 will hopefully stimulate efforts to generate this research. The team at Children’s National plans to address this need through our research.

Q: What are some of the new updates that excite you about the future of concussion care?

A: Being able to define the current state of the literature and identify the needs, particularly with children, is exciting. It also stimulates our work at Children’s National to continue to improve our understanding and clinical care of children and adolescents with sport-related concussions.

I have been an active member of the Concussion in Sport Group since 2008 as one of the few pediatric concussion specialists involved for this long. We continue to lead in our clinical research that builds better measures and tools to identify, diagnose and treat these injuries in children.

Hiram receives the first commercial dose of Elevidys

Children’s National gives first commercial dose of new FDA-approved gene therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy

Hiram receives the first commercial dose of Elevidys

On the day before his 6th birthday, Hiram, 5, was the first patient ever with DMD to receive the drug after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its use last month.

Children’s National Hospital is the first pediatric hospital to administer a commercial dose of Elevidys (delandistrogene moxeparvovec-rokl), the first gene therapy for the treatment of pediatric patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).

On the day before his 6th birthday, Hiram, 5, was the first patient ever with DMD to receive the drug after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its use last month.

“The approval of Elevidys opens a new door for young patients with DMD and their families,” says Sarah Wright, D.O., neuromuscular neurologist at Children’s National. “This disease has had limited targeted treatments to date which can help alter the trajectory of disease.”

The background

On June 22, the FDA approved the use of Elevidys for patients 4 through 5 years of age with DMD with a confirmed mutation in the DMD gene who do not have a pre-existing medical reason preventing treatment with this therapy.

DMD is a rare and progressive genetic neuromuscular disease that predominantly affects males. It is caused by genetic changes in the DMD gene that affects the muscles, leading to muscle wasting that gets worse over time. Symptoms include progressive weakness and loss (atrophy) of both skeletal and heart muscle. Muscle weakness is usually noticeable in early childhood when signs like delayed ability to sit, stand or walk, and difficulties learning to speak manifest in a patient.

How it works

Elevidys is a one-time intravenous gene therapy that aims to delay or halt the progression of DMD by delivering a modified, functional version of dystrophin to muscle cells. The dystrophin gene is the largest known human gene.

“Elevidys is a viral vector (the ‘envelope to deliver the gene of interest’) mediated gene therapy that allows for the introduction of a gene that codes for a shortened form of dystrophin protein, or microdystrophin,” Dr. Wright explains. While not a cure for DMD, trials of Elevidys have demonstrated increases in dystrophin expression and improved functional results in young children with the disease.

“We have years of dedicated work on the part of researchers, clinician leaders and advocacy organizations in the field of muscular dystrophy to thank for this ground-breaking moment,” says Dr. Wright. “The approval of Elevidys offers families of patients ages 4-5 with DMD the option to receive this gene therapy that is designed to target the underlying cause of the disease.”

“The time-sensitivity of this medication illustrates the importance of going to a top academic pediatric hospital early on in neurologic care,” adds Elizabeth Wells, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National.

What’s next

The neuromuscular team at Children’s National is looking forward to offering this therapy to young patients with DMD and to the completion of additional trials/results for therapies in the DMD drug development pipeline.

“The research and approval of novel therapies provides more options for our DMD patients and their families, which is a critical step toward improving the lives of patients with DMD,” Dr. Wright says.

photo of muscle collagen

New Becker muscular dystrophy drug on the horizon

photo of muscle collagen

Muscular dystrophies are a collection of genetic disorders that affect boys and cause progressive loss of muscle strength and disability throughout childhood. They impact the protein dystrophin, and other proteins associated with it, which helps strengthen muscles and protect them from injury.

A new corticosteroid – vamorolone – improves symptoms of Becker muscular dystrophy (BMD) with fewer side effects than the off-label treatments currently offered to patients, according to new research from Children’s National Hospital published in iScience.

Currently, there are no drugs approved to treat BMD, an inherited disorder that causes progressive muscle weakness. In preclinical models, daily treatment with vamorolone improved muscle strength and structure with results comparable to prednisolone, which is sometimes prescribed to patients with BMD. Unlike prednisolone, vamorolone is not known to stunt growth, weaken bone and cause negative behaviors.

“Patients with muscular dystrophy can fall anywhere on the spectrum from asymptomatic to facing life-threatening cardiac complications,” said Christopher Heier, Ph.D., principal investigator at the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National. “We are excited to have our eye on a drug that may help manage the disease progression, without all the harmful side effects of the steroids currently being offered.”

The big picture

Muscular dystrophies are a collection of genetic disorders that affect boys and cause progressive loss of muscle strength and disability throughout childhood. They impact the protein dystrophin, and other proteins associated with it, which helps strengthen muscles and protect them from injury.

The FDA has approved four drugs to help mitigate the impact of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), the most severe and most common form of the disease, with dozens more drugs in the research pipeline for that disease subtype. In some cases, these drugs convert DMD into BMD, which is less severe but still greatly affects the quality of life. As a result, the number of patients living with BMD is growing, yet only two drugs are being studied to treat the Becker form of the disease.

Why we’re excited

The Food and Drug Administration is nearing approval for vamorolone to treat DMD. Researchers including Nikki McCormack, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Children’s National, found it has an added characteristic that makes it particularly helpful to BMD. “Excitingly, by reducing inflammatory signaling in the muscle, we find vamorolone can actually help to correct the underlying dystrophin protein deficiency in BMD through a newly discovered RNA-targeting mechanism.”

Investigators at Children’s National have been interested in expanding vamorolone’s possible use to BMD. Their work builds upon research finished late last year, when they created the first preclinical model to study drugs that could treat BMD. The model provides tremendous hope for those suffering from BMD around the world.

“By creating a pre-clinical model to test possible treatments, we are creating hope for boys living with this life-changing disorder,” said Alyson Fiorillo, Ph.D., principal investigator at the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National. “This model, and the drugs it will lead to, will revolutionize how we treat those children living with this disorder.”

Attendees at the inaugural symposium on AI in Pediatric Health and Rare Diseases

AI: The “single greatest tool” for improving access to pediatric healthcare

Attendees at the inaugural symposium on AI in Pediatric Health and Rare Diseases

The daylong event drew experts from the Food and Drug Administration, Pfizer, Oracle Health, NVIDIA, AWS Health and elsewhere to start building a community aimed at using data for the advancement of pediatric medicine.

The future of pediatric medicine holds the promise of artificial intelligence (AI) that can help diagnose rare diseases, provide roadmaps for safer surgeries, tap into predictive technologies to guide individual treatment plans and shrink the distance between patients in rural areas and specialty care providers.

These and dozens of other innovations were contemplated as scientists came together at the inaugural symposium on AI in Pediatric Health and Rare Diseases, hosted by Children’s National Hospital and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech. The daylong event drew experts from the Food and Drug Administration, Pfizer, Oracle Health, NVIDIA, AWS Health and elsewhere to start building a community aimed at using data for the advancement of pediatric medicine.

“AI is the single greatest tool for improving equity and access to health care,” said symposium host Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil., M.A., M.Sc., principal investigator at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation. “As a population, kids are vastly underrepresented in scientific research and resulting treatments, but pediatric specialties can use AI to provide medical care to kids more efficiently, more quickly and more effectively.”

What they’re saying

Scientists shared their progress in building digital twins to predict surgical outcomes, enhancing visualization to increase the precision of delicate interventions, establishing data command centers to anticipate risks for fragile patients and more. Over two dozen speakers shared their vision for the future of medicine, augmented by the power of AI:

  • Keynote speaker Subha Madhavan, Ph.D., vice president and head of AI and machine learning at Pfizer, discussed various use cases and the potential to bring drugs to market faster using real-world evidence and AI. She saw promise for pediatrics. “This is probably the most engaging mission: children’s health and rare diseases,” she said. “It’s hard to find another mission that’s as compelling.”
  • Brandon J. Nelson, Ph.D., staff fellow in the Division of Imaging, Diagnostics and Software Reliability at the Food and Drug Administration, shared ways AI will improve diagnostic imaging and reduce radiation exposure to patients, using more advanced image reconstruction and denoising techniques. “That is really our key take-home message,” he said. “We can get what … appear as higher dose images, but with less dose.”
  • Daniel Donoho, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Children’s National, introduced the audience to the potential of “Smart ORs”: operating rooms where systems can ingest surgery video and provide feedback and skill assessments. “We have to transform the art of surgery into a measurable and improvable scientific practice,” he said.
  • Debra Regier, M.D., chief of Genetics and Metabolism at Children’s National, discussed how AI could be used to diagnose and treat rare diseases by conducting deep dives into genetics and studying dysmorphisms in patients’ faces. Already, Children’s National has designed an app – mGene – that measures facial features and provides a risk score to help anyone in general practice determine if a child has a genetic condition. “The untrained eye can stay the untrained eye, and the family can continue to have faith in their provider,” she said.

What’s next

Linguraru and others stressed the need to design AI for kids, rather than borrow it from adults, to ensure medicine meets their unique needs. He noted that scientists will need to solve challenges, such as the lack of data inherent in rare pediatric disorders and the simple fact that children grow. “Children are not mini-adults,” Linguraru said. “There are big changes in a child’s life.”

The landscape will require thoughtfulness. Naren Ramakrishnan, Ph.D., director of the Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence & Analytics at Virginia Tech and symposium co-host, said that scientists are heading into an era with a new incarnation of public-private partnerships, but many questions remain about how data will be shared and organizations will connect. “It is not going to be business as usual, but what is this new business?” he asked.

child in hospital bed

$96 million philanthropic investment will transform rare pediatric brain tumor research and care

child in hospital bedChildren’s National Hospital announced a $96 million investment from an anonymous donor family to transform rare childhood brain tumor research and care. The donation, which strengthens our globally recognized leadership in the field, is one of the largest in the hospital’s history.

Children’s National will harness the investment to recruit more top talent and advance the most promising research. This will produce safer, more effective treatments. It also will elevate standards of care to help children with rare brain tumors thrive for a lifetime.

The big picture

Brain tumors are the most common solid tumors affecting children. They are especially challenging in kids because their brains are still developing. The disease and current treatments can put them at risk for lifelong complications.

The anonymous family’s investment provides new hope for patients who face rare and often challenging brain tumor diagnoses — in the Washington, D.C., community and around the world.

“This incredible partnership will lift up one of the nation’s top pediatric brain tumor programs into the stratosphere,” said Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National. “It will immediately propel our best-in-class research and care, allowing us to bring new therapies to children with brain tumors. This fundamentally changes the healthcare journey and long-term outcomes for children and their families.”

Why it’s important

This transformational investment will have a far-reaching impact on our ability to save and improve the lives of children with brain tumors. Funds will fuel collaborative breakthroughs across a range of scientific and psychosocial approaches.

The partnership will supercharge highly individualized and promising treatments for children with brain tumors. We will radically transform the research landscape with a focus on:

  • Low intensity focused ultrasound (LIFU) – Advancing laboratory research and a clinical program designed to treat childhood brain tumors with LIFU therapy
  • Cellular immunotherapy – Testing new gene-engineered immune cell products and accelerating their integration into standards of care
  • Rare Brain Tumor Program – Propelling new clinical trials through the hospital’s national and global leadership in pediatric brain tumor consortia. Already, Children’s National is leading a new collaborative with hospitals in North America, South America and Europe to better understand and find novel treatments for these rare diseases
  • Neurosurgery innovation – Exploring multiple ways to perform safer, more effective neurosurgery and developing new methods to enhance drug/agent delivery
  • Precision medicine – Recruiting leading scientists to advance biology-informed therapies that can be targeted for children across a spectrum of brain tumors
  • Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility – Expanding our GMP, one of the first standalone facilities at a children’s hospital in the country, to translate new discoveries into clinical trials more rapidly
  • Additional priorities including expansion of clinical research infrastructure and growth of bioinformatics, brain tumor repository and molecular diagnostics initiatives

The partnership also transforms how we approach care. It will power our pursuit of psychosocial, behavioral health and neuroscientific initiatives to help kids live well and cope with the unique circumstances of their diagnosis. We will focus on:

  • Lifetime health and wellness – Building a world-class research and clinical care program to shape a new paradigm for supporting a child’s physical and emotional health during and long after cancer treatment
  • Child Mental Health & Behavioral Brain Tumor Lab – Establishing a robust neuro-oncology mental health program that delivers timely interventions and specialized psychiatric care for patient well-being
  • Additional priorities including a new Neuroscience Nursing Excellence Program and growth of psychosocial support activities that bring comfort and encouragement to children during their treatment journey

Children’s National is proud to lead the way to a better future for pediatric rare brain tumor patients and expand our internationally recognized capabilities for neuro-oncology care.

U.S. News Badges

Children’s National Hospital ranked #5 in the nation on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll

U.S. News BadgesChildren’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., was ranked #5 in the nation on the U.S. News & World Report 2023-24 Best Children’s Hospitals annual rankings. This marks the seventh straight year Children’s National has made the Honor Roll list. The Honor Roll is a distinction awarded to only 10 children’s hospitals nationwide.

For the thirteenth straight year, Children’s National also ranked in all 10 specialty services, with eight specialties ranked in the top 10 nationally. In addition, the hospital was ranked best in the Mid-Atlantic for neonatology, cancer, neurology and neurosurgery.

“Even from a team that is now a fixture on the list of the very best children’s hospitals in the nation, these results are phenomenal,” said Kurt Newman, M.D., president and chief executive officer of Children’s National. “It takes a ton of dedication and sacrifice to provide the best care anywhere and I could not be prouder of the team. Their commitment to excellence is in their DNA and will continue long after I retire as CEO later this month.”

“Congratulations to the entire Children’s National team on these truly incredible results. They leave me further humbled by the opportunity to lead this exceptional organization and contribute to its continued success,” said Michelle Riley-Brown, MHA, FACHE, who becomes the new president and CEO of Children’s National on July 1. “I am deeply committed to fostering a culture of collaboration, empowering our talented teams and charting a bold path forward to provide best in class pediatric care. Our focus will always remain on the kids.”

“I am incredibly proud of Kurt and the entire team. These rankings help families know that when they come to Children’s National, they’re receiving the best care available in the country,” said Horacio Rozanski, chair of the board of directors of Children’s National. “I’m confident that the organization’s next leader, Michelle Riley-Brown, will continue to ensure Children’s National is always a destination for excellent care.”

The annual rankings are the most comprehensive source of quality-related information on U.S. pediatric hospitals and recognizes the nation’s top 50 pediatric hospitals based on a scoring system developed by U.S. News.

“For 17 years, U.S. News has provided information to help parents of sick children and their doctors find the best children’s hospital to treat their illness or condition,” said Ben Harder, chief of health analysis and managing editor at U.S. News. “Children’s hospitals that are on the Honor Roll transcend in providing exceptional specialized care.”

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

The eight Children’s National specialty services that U.S. News ranked in the top 10 nationally are:

The other two specialties ranked among the top 50 were cardiology and heart surgery, and urology.

sick boy with malaria

New guidance to optimize blood sugar monitoring in cerebral malaria

A Children’s National Hospital research team based in Malawi pinpointed the optimal duration and frequency for monitoring the blood glucose in children with cerebral malaria, providing a roadmap to improve the treatment and outcomes for young patients diagnosed with the life-threatening disease.

Published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, the findings analyzed data from 1,674 pediatric cases to recommend the best schedule for periodic bedside point-of-care laboratory testing in children with cerebral malaria (CM). Currently, World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines state that blood glucose should be monitored in all forms of severe malaria, but they do not include advice on the timing or duration of the measurements.

Children’s National neurologist Douglas Postels, M.D., M.S., led a team of trainees from Howard University, The George Washington University, the University of Washington and Children’s National to collect and analyze patient data that led to the creation of evidence-based recommendations for glucose monitoring.

“If blood glucose in children with severe malaria is too low, the child is at high risk of death,” Dr. Postels said. “What we found in this research study is both interesting and important, and we hope our study results will help the WHO in creating evidence-based guidelines for blood glucose monitoring in children with cerebral malaria.”

The big picture

In 2021, 247 million people contracted malaria worldwide, killing some 619,000 primarily in Africa. Almost 80% were children under 5 years old, making it one of the most virulent pediatric diseases in the world. Many who survive experience significant neurologic, cognitive and behavioral morbidities.

Dr. Postels works at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, caring for patients on the Pediatric Research Ward and conducting research aimed at improving outcomes. The clinical team works without access to many medical tools that are considered standard throughout more advanced economies. Yet this team has one of the lowest mortality rates for cerebral malaria across Africa, thanks to their ongoing research to better understand the pathophysiology of malaria and improve its treatment.

The challenges are immense: During COVID-19, they battled supply chain issues that frustrated repairs on an aging MRI scanner. After the second tropical cyclone struck in the last two years, Blantyre was left without power for a week and without water for a month.

“You can imagine trying to run a hospital with no water,” Dr. Postels said. “During Cyclone Freddy, it was raining like crazy, and people were collecting water in bins—anything they could collect it in — to use for handwashing, as well as trying to clean instruments and supplies.”

What they’re saying

Using evidence-based guidelines to optimize care becomes important in sub-Saharan Africa, where resources are scarce. Running laboratory-based blood studies frequently is an inefficient use of supplies and laboratory reagents. Results of point-of-care testing are also available more rapidly and at less cost than studies performed in hospital labs.

An accompanying editorial in the journal said the new research on glucose monitoring in cerebral malaria “provides valuable data that could help clinicians in resource-limited settings improve CM management with more efficient use of available resources.” The work is increasing calls for further study and updates to international guidelines.

The bottom line

According to the team’s analysis, blood glucose should be measured in children with CM on admission and every six hours for the first 24 hours. If all results in the first 24 hours are normal, clinicians can stop testing.  If any blood sugar levels in the first 24 hours are low, the patient’s blood glucose should be checked for another 24 hours.

“This testing strategy captures 100% of the children who have a glucose level of 2.2 mmol/L or less, the definition of hypoglycemia in severe malaria,” Dr. Postels said.  “We want to do enough, but not too much.”

The overarching goal for Dr. Postels and the trainees who join him in Blantyre is improving care.  “If we can help clinicians better care for children with cerebral malaria, then hopefully we can make a small contribution to decreasing the death rate and improve neurologic outcomes of the children who survive,” he said. “That’s my hope.”

Eugene Hwang

Eugene Hwang, M.D., named as William Seamus Hughes Professor of Neuro-oncology and Immunology

Eugene HwangChildren’s National Hospital named Eugene Hwang, M.D., the inaugural William Seamus Hughes Professor of Neuro-oncology and Immunology. This professorship is the first at Children’s National to focus exclusively on these two pediatric specialties.

Dr. Hwang serves as associate chief of oncology, director of the Clinical Neuro-oncology Immunotherapeutics Program and director of the Neuro-oncology Fellowship Program. He is an associate professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

About the award

Dr. Hwang joins a distinguished group of 42 Children’s National physicians and scientists who hold an endowed chair. Professorships at Children’s National support groundbreaking work on behalf of children and their families and foster new discoveries and innovations in pediatric medicine. These appointments carry prestige and honor that reflect the recipient’s achievements and donor’s forethought to advance and sustain knowledge.

Dr. Hwang has dedicated much of his career to the pursuit of new therapies that improve outcomes for children with brain cancer. He has led many early phase clinical trials on immunotherapeutics, gene therapy and new targeted agents. He participates in international studies focused on reducing harmful side effects of standard treatments. He serves as the principal investigator for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium and co-chairs their Immunotherapy Working Group. Dr. Hwang also lends his time to grant review committees and the scientific advisory boards of several large foundations.

Claire and Kevin Hughes, through their vision and generosity, are ensuring that Dr. Hwang and future holders of this professorship will launch new initiatives to rapidly advance the fields of pediatric neuro-oncology and immunotherapy, elevate our leadership and improve outcomes for children diagnosed with brain cancer.

About the donors

Claire and Kevin Hughes established this professorship with support from community partners in loving memory of their son William Seamus Hughes (Willie). Their dedication to giving all children a chance for life has helped launch groundbreaking trials and research at Children’s National, including one of the first trials in the U.S. to use cell therapy to treat brain tumors.

“Working with Willie meant working with a young man who embodied a resilient, cheerful spirit that was truly remarkable,” said Dr. Hwang. “It meant fighting side-by-side with a walking inspiration, who I continue to remember and who continues to drive the mission of curing childhood brain cancer. I’m deeply honored to ensure that Willie’s spirit and bravery lives on in the promise to other families that face a devastating brain tumor diagnosis.”

mother and baby doing a telehealth call

Using telehealth to study babies born to mothers infected with SARS-CoV-2

mother and baby doing a telehealth call

Continued advancements in telehealth methods to follow child neurodevelopment will help ensure robust child follow-up and inclusion of diverse cohorts.

Multiple studies have shown that SARS-CoV-2 infection can impact pregnant mothers and their fetuses but more research is needed to understand the long-term impact on the neurodevelopment of these children as they get older. Child neurodevelopmental evaluations are typically performed in-person. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the transition to telehealth methods was needed.

Continued advancements in telehealth methods to follow child neurodevelopment will help ensure robust child follow-up and inclusion of diverse cohorts, says a commentary in JAMA Network Open.

Why it matters

Commentary author Sarah Mulkey, M.D., prenatal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Hospital, highlights a new study that used a novel telehealth method to look for neurodevelopmental differences in infants ages 6-12 months born to mothers with SARS-CoV-2 infection compared to nonexposed infants of the same age and found no differences in neurodevelopment among the two cohorts. The study adapted a standardized assessment to a telehealth method.

“The results of this study provide needed reassurance to the many mothers who have experienced SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy,” says Dr. Mulkey.

What’s been the hold up in the field?

“Developmental assessments that rely on observation of infants’ developmental skills can naturally make the transition to a telehealth platform,” says Sarah Mulkey, M.D., prenatal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Hospital and commentary author. “General movement assessment is an observation-based assessment of infants that can be captured by a parent or caregiver on video, and it has been used in neurodevelopmental outcomes studies of children after antenatal SARS-CoV-2 exposure.”

Moving the field forward

Child outcomes research can have improved enrollment and continuity of participant follow-up due to the availability of remote assessments. Neurodevelopmental tools are being developed that can be used on a telehealth platform or by parent recorded videos.

Researchers from the Children’s National Congenital Zika Virus Program have also developed telehealth-based methods for child outcome research that has been utilized in international Zika outcome studies funded by the Thrasher Research Fund and the NIH.

Read the full commentary, Use of Telehealth Methods to Track Infant Neurodevelopment After In Utero SARS-CoV-2 Exposure, in JAMA Network Open.

illustration of a brain's neural activity

Debuting sonodynamic therapy with ALA to treat rare brain tumors

illustration of a brain's neural activity

Preclinical studies show that guided focused ultrasound and ALA can slow growth of gliomas and extend survival.

Children’s National Hospital is conducting a first-in-human study of aminolevulinic acid (ALA) sonodynamic therapy (SDT) for diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG).

Preclinical studies led by experts at Children’s National have shown that SDT through MR guided focused ultrasound (MRgFUS) to activate protoporphyrin IX (PpIX), an ALA, can slow growth of gliomas and extend survival in animal models.

In a recently published technical communication in the Journal of Neuro-Oncology, the authors briefly detail the rationale and mechanism behind the use of SDT using ALA for DIPG, review criteria for patient inclusion, and describe the first patient selected for this clinical trial.

“Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) is a devastating pediatric brain tumor that occurs in children between 2 and 9 years of age,” writes Hasan Syed, M.D., co-director of the Focused Ultrasound Program at Children’s National and lead author of the findings. “Despite standard therapy, prognosis remains poor with an average survival of 9–12 months after diagnosis.”

Future procedures will involve ascending drug and low-intensity focused ultrasound (LIFU) energy dose combinations with evaluations of pharmacokinetics and radiographic evidence of tumor physiological changes.

Screen grab of Dr. Terry Dean and Dr. Vittorio Gallo webinar

In the News: Regenerative brain cells and the circadian clock

Screen grab of Dr. Terry Dean and Dr. Vittorio Gallo webinar

“I am a pediatric intensivist, and I am very interested in some of the pathologies and conditions that I come across in the ICU. We hatched this question that revolved around the idea: what can we do for TBI (traumatic brain injury) patients to enhance their cellular regeneration? …  We looked at NG2-glia in particular, otherwise known as oligodendrocyte precursor cells. They are about 2-8% of the brain…. Do these cells respond to sleep and circadian rhythm? Is it a factor? Does it help? Does it hurt?”

Find out more about what Terry Dean, M.D., Ph.D., says he has learned about these and other questions through his recent research with interim Chief Academic Officer Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D. They join the Society for Neuroscience in a webinar on the circadian rhythms of these important brain cells and how their regeneration may be used someday to promote healing after brain injuries.

coronavirus and DNA

Will SARS-CoV-2 during pregnancy impact child’s neurodevelopment?

coronavirus and DNA

Sarah Mulkey, M.D., prenatal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National, will lead the neurodevelopmental evaluations of the infants born to mothers with SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy to understand any long-term neurological effects in offspring.

Scientists led by the Lieber Institute for Brain Development are studying how a mother’s SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy affects the biology of the placenta and the corresponding trajectory of the child’s brain development, including the risk for neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism. The work is made possible by a $3 million, five-year grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The project stems from a collaboration between the Lieber Institute for Brain Development on the Johns Hopkins medical campus in Baltimore, Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., and the Women’s Health Integrated Research Center at Inova Health System in Virginia.

The big picture

The group aims for a clearer picture of how a mother’s SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy affects neurodevelopment in utero, the effects of which may manifest early in a child’s life. The researchers hope to understand how the infection interacts with other factors relevant to brain development, including genomic risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, maternal stress and social determinants of health.

The team will study whether the relationship between maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection and offspring brain development is mediated by changes in the biology of the placenta and the activation of the mother’s immune system. They will also gauge any differences in the effects of SARS-CoV-2 between female and male children and in the offspring of vaccinated and unvaccinated mothers.

Why it matters

Preliminary data show that pregnant people with symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections are more likely to have a preterm delivery, abnormalities in the placenta and prenatal and perinatal complications such as preeclampsia and fetal growth restriction. All these complications have been found to increase a child’s risk of neurodevelopmental disorders later in life.

What we hope to discover

Sarah Mulkey, M.D., prenatal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National, will lead the neurodevelopmental evaluations of the infants born to mothers with SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy to understand any long-term neurological effects in offspring. The researchers will evaluate the children’s neurodevelopment at both 24 and 36 months of age. This work builds upon Dr. Mulkey’s longitudinal neurodevelopmental evaluations in children exposed to Zika virus in utero.

“What we’ve learned is that even when babies don’t have Zika-virus-related birth defects, we still find differences in early child development compared to children who weren’t exposed to Zika virus,” said Dr. Mulkey. “With SARS-CoV-2, there is still so much we don’t know. But by better understanding the long-term impact of COVID exposure during pregnancy, we can ultimately find ways to prevent adverse outcomes.”

Drs. Wells and Kenworthy

Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine announces new leaders

Drs. Wells and Kenworthy

Elizabeth M. Wells, M.D., M. H. S., was named Senior Vice President of the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine, and Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., was named division chief of Neuropsychology.

The Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Hospital recently announced the appointment of two new leaders. Elizabeth M. Wells, M.D., M. H. S., was named Senior Vice President of the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine, and Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., was named division chief of Neuropsychology.

Dr. Wells obtained her undergraduate degree in psychology and biology at Harvard University and her medical degree at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. She was an Intramural Research Training Award fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health and holds a master’s in Health Science from the NIH/Duke Clinical Research Training Program. She completed pediatrics and neurology training at Children’s National and joined the faculty in the Brain Tumor Institute in 2011.

Dr. Wells has led the Children’s National Inpatient Neurology program and developed the hospital’s multidisciplinary Neuro-immunology program into a destination program for unsolved neuroinflammatory diseases. She serves on numerous national and international associations and working groups and is a member of the scientific selection committee for the Child Neurology Society.

Dr. Wells has served in leadership roles for the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National and the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center. She is principal investigator for a 10-year translational research study within the Children’s National partnership with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and was the Children’s National Hospital Medical Staff President from 2020-2022.

Dr. Kenworthy received a B.A. from Yale University and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She completed her internship and residency training in clinical psychology/pediatric neuropsychology at Harvard Medical School, Children’s Hospital Boston, Johns Hopkins Medical School and Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital. She has been on the faculty at Children’s National and GW since 1995. She is a national leader in autism research, as well as a distinguished author and speaker.

illustration of how LIFU works

Understanding the use of focused ultrasound in pediatrics

The fundamental principle of focused ultrasound (FUS) is almost analogous to using a magnifying glass to focus beams of sunlight on a single point. Experts at Children’s National Hospital are using FUS as an acoustic lens that uses multiple intersecting beams and targets — specifically deep within the brain — to treat brain tumors in pediatric patients.

Hasan Syed, M.D., co-director of the Focused Ultrasound Program at Children’s National, explains how two FUS methods are currently being used in two different trials — sonodynamic therapy and blood-brain barrier disruption — for the first time in pediatrics.

What is focused ultrasound?

FUS has diverse biological effects that can be categorized as thermal or mechanical: high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) and low-intensity focused ultrasound (LIFU).

The treatments: 5-ALA with sonodynamic therapy and microbubbles for blood-brain barrier disruption

The difference between 5-aminolevulinic acid (5-ALA) medication and microbubbles has to do with the mechanism of treatment.

Dr. Syed explains that 5-ALA is activated by the focused ultrasound. Once activated, the goal is that the drug leads to tumor cell death.

Microbubbles, however, are used specifically to open the blood-brain barrier with focused ultrasound. When that happens, medications — or in our case the chemotherapy agents we’re using in our clinical trial — will hopefully have a better effect on treating the patient and taking care of the tumor.

Children’s National has now treated a series of patients with sonodynamic therapy — or LIFU and 5-ALA. There haven’t been any adverse events — the first time in the world that something like this has happened.

“I think it’s very exciting, and it brings us hope for new treatment options,” Dr. Syed said. Children’s National continues to recruit patients for this trial.

Dr. Donofrio performs an ultrasound

Tracking neurodevelopmental outcomes for kids with congenital heart disease

Extensive research has shown that children with congenital heart disease (CHD) who are born blue or who need cardiac surgery in their first year of life are at risk for developmental challenges and/or learning difficulties.

Mary Donofrio, M.D., co-director of the Cardiac Neurodevelopment Outcome (CANDO) program at Children’s National Hospital, says that we started the program — the only one of its kind in the Washington, D.C. region — to identify and manage delays in development and difficulties with learning, no matter when they arise.

“We start paying attention even before birth and then continue to evaluate neurodevelopment at key stages in a kid’s life to assure the best outcome. Our goal is for every kid born with CHD to be able to achieve their full potential, be active, make friends and succeed in school. Most important, we want each of our patients to grow up to be a happy and successful adult,” says Dr. Donofrio.

Learn more about CANDO at Children’s National Hospital and our role in developing best practices for neurodevelopmental and psychosocial services as part of the international multi-specialty Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Outcome Collaborative.

RNA molecule

New deep learning system helps scientists edit RNA

RNA molecule

The Children’s National team built DeepCas13 on a newer and less studied CRISPR platform, called CRISPR-Cas13d, which instead focuses on RNA.

Children’s National Hospital scientists have created a revolutionary machine-learning system that predicts the effects of changing ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules using a gene-editing tool built on CRISPR technology.

Called DeepCas13, the system is among the world’s first deep-learning frameworks to recognize the challenges of editing RNA – and then applying data science and machine learning to solve the intricate problems that stem from modifying biological code. Details of the DeepCas13 system were published recently in Nature Communications.

Born from an international collaboration, DeepCas13 could provide the backbone for treatments for diseases based on errors in RNA, including debilitating neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s disease and muscular dystrophy.

“I am an optimistic person, so I expect to have treatments within five to 10 years,” said Wei Li, Ph.D., principal investigator at the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National. “Of course, there are going to be lots of obstacles. If we have a very good system, like DeepCas13, with very good performance that can generate treatments, the next problem is how we deliver the system to the right tissue in the patients.”

The big picture

Most research in this space has focused on a version of CRISPR – or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats – that edits DNA, called CRISPR-Cas9. The Children’s National team built DeepCas13 on a newer and less studied CRISPR platform, called CRISPR-Cas13d, which instead focuses on RNA. In doing so, researchers are opening the door to treating a host of disorders of RNA, given its biological role in coding, decoding, regulating and supporting gene expression.

DeepCas13 combines hundreds of thousands of data points with considerable computing power to help scientists target errant pieces of RNA, while minimizing any off-target changes that could damage the health of cells.

“We only want to target the RNA molecule that is causing diseases, and we don’t want the system to edit normal RNA,” said Xiaolong Cheng, Ph.D., a member of the Li lab and the first author of the study. “With DeepCas13, we can design highly efficient, and highly specific, rules.”

What’s ahead

The FDA has approved one method for delivering RNA treatments to cells, using a virus known as AAV or adeno-associated virus. So far, the gene therapy method has had limited applications. But Li and other researchers see the potential for life-changing treatments in the coming years, built on DeepCas13 and other advances.

The system was developed with partners from around the world, including the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Northeastern University in Shenyang, China. It is open source and available for free to researchers looking for targets to treat RNA-related diseases.

Li says this international partnership is leading the way: “We tested our DeepCas13 model over other methods, and we confirmed that our method has the highest prediction accuracy.”

DeepCas13 was funded by grants from NIH and the Children’s National Research Institute.

newborn in incubator

Neuroprotective effect of Src kinase in neonates affected by HIE

newborn in incubator

Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) is a major cause of neonatal morbidity and mortality worldwide.

In a systematic review published by Frontiers in Neuroscience, and co-authored by Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., neonatologist at Children’s National Hospital, Ioannis Koutroulis, M.D., pediatric emergency medicine physician at Children’s National and Javid Ghaemmaghami, M.S., researcher with the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National, it was concluded that Src kinase is an effective neuroprotective target in the setting of acute hypoxic injury.

The paper reviews hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), a major cause of neonatal morbidity and mortality worldwide (one in four perinatal deaths is attributed to hypoxic-ischemic). While therapeutic hypothermia has improved neurodevelopmental outcomes for some survivors of HIE, this treatment is only available to a subset of affected neonates. Src kinase, an enzyme central to the apoptotic cascade, is a potential pharmacologic target to preserve typical brain development after HIE. This paper, a product of collaboration for a Master’s Thesis with the Aristotle University School of Medicine, Thessaloniki, Greece, where Dr. Kratimenos holds the appointment of Visiting  Professor,  presents evidence of the neuroprotective effects of targeting Src kinase in preclinical models of HIE.

The systematic review shows that while heterogeneity and risk for bias were limiting factors, the overall results indicate that Src-i neuroprotective properties could be a promising therapeutic strategy for neonates after hypoxic events.

Read more about the full review.

glial cells

Future TBI treatments may hinge on understanding a new cell type

glial cells

Only recently have investigators begun to understand how a cell type – the NG2-glia – may respond to injuries, offering clues into the brain’s healing and regeneration.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) afflicts 69 million people, including 630,000 children, worldwide each year. Yet only recently have investigators begun to understand how a cell type – the NG2-glia – may respond to injuries, offering clues into the brain’s healing and regeneration.

In a new paper published in GLIA, investigators from Children’s National Hospital reviewed 25 years of neuroscience research to lay out what’s known about the molecular response of these NG2-glia cells after TBI. Researchers said they see “a seductive possibility” that tapping into the regenerative potential of NG2-glia cells after neurotrauma could lead to therapies in the future. The impact could be profound, given that TBI is the leading cause of death among all people ages 1-44 and the global cost of this ‘silent epidemic’ is estimated to top $102 billion annually.

What they’re saying

“Our review lays out what’s known about these fascinating cells,” said Terry Dean, M.D., Ph.D., critical care specialist at Children’s National and investigator at the Center for Neuroscience Research (CNR). “NG2-glia are found throughout the brain, and we know that these cells undergo several dynamic changes in the hours, days and weeks after TBI. They are unique, and we want to understand their molecular characteristics to eventually enhance patients’ cellular recovery after TBI.”

Although only encompassing 4% to 8% of brain cells, these NG2-glia cells make up the largest population of regenerative cells in the adult central nervous system. In their article, Dean and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Children’s National Research Institute interim director, lay out a number of unique features of these cells:

  • They proliferate, or multiply, and can form different cell types, especially after brain injuries.
  • They are structurally dynamic and can move and migrate throughout the cortex, including toward injury sites.
  • They appear to play a role in cell-to-cell signaling, which may prove vital after injuries.

The big picture

“As we study the brain after injuries, we hope our work will reveal the role these NG2-glia cells play in recovery, driving us to possible therapies,” Gallo said. “We believe the big answers will come through understanding the brain on a molecular level. This type of deep investigation is the foundation of our bench-to-bedside approach and positions researchers like Dr. Dean to find answers for our patients.”

Moving the field forward

Researchers have only begun to unlock how NG2-glia respond to injury, making this a fruitful area for research. Gallo, Dean and others at CNR hope to build on their knowledge about what happens to the brain immediately after an injury to learn more about what happens months after a debilitating impact. They are also considering new types of research models to expand their knowledge about cellular destruction, immune interaction and blood vessel compromise after different types of brain injuries.

“We look forward to the day when we have a truly targeted therapy for TBI patients,” Dean said. “Imagine the relief this could provide patients suffering from the persistent physical, cognitive and psychological disabilities that often accompany these brain injuries.”

illustration of a brain

Inducing strokes in newborns to treat hemimegalencephaly

“The number one thing people are perplexed by is how well these babies recover and how they can only live with half a brain,” said Tayyba Anwar, M.D., neonatal neurologist and co-director of the Hemimegalencephaly Program at Children’s National Hospital. “People think if a child has half a brain that’s damaged or dysplastic, how are they functioning? But babies are so resilient. It still amazes me.”

The big picture

Children’s National experts have pioneered a novel approach of inducing strokes to stop seizures and improve neurodevelopmental outcomes in newborns under three months old with hemimegalencephaly (HME).

The procedure, called an endovascular embolic hemispherectomy, can be safely used to provide definitive treatment of HME-related epilepsy in neonates and young infants, according to a study in the Journal of NeuroInterventional Surgery.

Prior to this approach, the standard treatment was an anatomic hemispherectomy — surgical removal of the affected half of the brain. But infants had to be at least three months old to undergo such a complex surgery. Delaying surgery meant the persistent seizures compromised the development of the healthy half of the brain.

What they’re saying

In this video, Dr. Anwar and Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., Ph.D., neonatologist and co-director of Research in Neonatology at Children’s National, discuss the critically important neonatal care provided to babies who undergo endovascular embolic hemispherectomy and how protocols have evolved with each case to make this less invasive approach a feasible early alternative to surgical hemispherectomy.

Drs. Anwar and Kratimenos are part of the multidisciplinary team of neonatal neurologists, neurointerventional radiologistsneonatologists and neurosurgeons performing endovascular hemispherectomies.