Neurology and Neurosurgery

t-cells

Tailored T-cell therapies neutralize viruses that threaten kids with PID

t-cells

Tailored T-cells specially designed to combat a half dozen viruses are safe and may be effective in preventing and treating multiple viral infections, according to research led by Children’s National Hospital faculty.

Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D., director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National and the study’s senior author, presented the teams’ findings Nov. 8, 2019, during a second-annual symposium jointly held by Children’s National and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Children’s National and NIAID formed a research partnership in 2017 to develop and conduct collaborative clinical research studies focused on young children with allergic, immunologic, infectious and inflammatory diseases. Each year, they co-host a symposium to exchange their latest research findings.

According to the NIH, more than 200 forms of primary immune deficiency diseases impact about 500,000 people in the U.S. These rare, genetic diseases so impair the person’s immune system that they experience repeated and sometimes rare infections that can be life threatening. After a hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, brand new stem cells can rebuild the person’s missing or impaired immune system. However, during the window in which the immune system rebuilds, patients can be vulnerable to a host of viral infections.

Because viral infections can be controlled by T-cells, the body’s infection-fighting white blood cells, the Children’s National first-in-humans Phase 1 dose escalation trial aimed to determine the safety of T-cells with antiviral activity against a half dozen opportunistic viruses: adenovirus, BK virus, cytomegalovirus (CMV), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), Human Herpesvirus 6 and human parainfluenza-3 (HPIV3).

Eight patients received the hexa-valent, virus-specific T-cells after their stem cell transplants:

  • Three patients were treated for active CMV, and the T-cells resolved their viremia.
  • Two patients treated for active BK virus had complete symptom resolution, while one had hemorrhagic cystitis resolved but had fluctuating viral loads in their blood and urine.
  • Of two patients treated prophylactically, one developed EBV viremia that was treated with rituximab.

Two additional patients received the T-cell treatments under expanded access for emergency treatment, one for disseminated adenoviremia and the other for HPIV3 pneumonia. While these critically ill patients had partial clinical improvement, they were being treated with steroids which may have dampened their antiviral responses.

“These preliminary results show that hexaviral-specific, virus-specific T-cells are safe and may be effective in preventing and treating multiple viral infections,” says Michael Keller, M.D., a pediatric immunologist at Children’s National and the lead study author. “Of note, enzyme-linked immune absorbent spot assays showed evidence of antiviral T-cell activity by three months post infusion in three of four patients who could be evaluated and expansion was detectable in two patients.”

In addition to Drs. Bollard and Keller, additional study authors include Katherine Harris M.D.; Patrick J. Hanley Ph.D., assistant research professor in the Center for Cancer and Immunology; Allistair Abraham, M.D., a blood and marrow transplantation specialist; Blachy J. Dávila Saldaña, M.D., Division of Blood and Marrow Transplantation; Nan Zhang Ph.D.; Gelina Sani BS; Haili Lang MS; Richard Childs M.D.; and Richard Jones M.D.

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Children’s National-NIAID 2019 symposium presentations

“Welcome and introduction”
H. Clifford Lane, M.D., director of NIAID’s Division of Clinical Research

“Lessons and benefits from collaboration between the NIH and a free-standing children’s hospital”
Marshall L. Summar, M.D., director, Rare Disease Institute, Children’s National

“The hereditary disorders of PropionylCoA and Cobalamin Metabolism – past, present and future”
Charles P. Venditti, M.D., Ph.D., National Human Genome Research Institute Collaboration

“The road(s) to genetic precision therapeutics in pediatric neuromuscular disease: opportunities and challenges”
Carsten G. Bönnemann, M.D., National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

“Genomic diagnostics in immunologic diseases”
Helen Su, M.D., Ph.D., National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

“Update on outcomes of gene therapy clinical trials for X-SCID and X-CGD and plans for future trials”
Harry Malech, M.D., National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

“Virus-specific T-cell therapies: broadening applicability for PID patients”
Catherine Bollard, M.D., Children’s National 

“Using genetic testing to guide therapeutic decisions in Primary Immune Deficiency Disease”
Vanessa Bundy, M.D., Ph.D., Children’s National 

Panel discussion moderated by Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D.
Drs. Su, Malech, Bollard and Bundy
Morgan Similuk, S.C.M., NIAID
Maren Chamorro, Parent Advocate

“Underlying mechanisms of pediatric food allergy: focus on B cells
Adora Lin, M.D., Ph.D., Children’s National 

“Pediatric Lyme outcomes study – interim update”
Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, Children’s National 

“Molecular drivers and opportunities in neuroimmune conditions of pediatric onset”
Elizabeth Wells, M.D., Children’s National 

 

Newborn baby laying in crib

Can cells collected from bone marrow repair brain damage in babies with CHD?

Newborn baby laying in crib

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.

Richard Jonas M.D., Children’s National chief of cardiac surgery, to highlight upcoming NIH-funded trial that will use cardiopulmonary bypass to deliver mesenchymal stromal cells for brain growth and regeneration

An upcoming clinical trial at Children’s National Hospital will harness cardiopulmonary bypass as a delivery mechanism for a novel intervention designed to stimulate brain growth and repair in children who undergo cardiac surgery for congenital heart disease (CHD).

The NIH has awarded Children’s National $2.5 million to test the hypothesis that mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs), which have been shown to possess regenerative properties and the ability to modulate immune responses in a variety of diseases, collected from allogeneic bone marrow, may promote regeneration of damaged neuronal and glial cells in the early postnatal brain. If successful, the trial will determine the safety of the proposed treatment in humans and set the stage for a Phase 2 efficacy trial of what could potentially be the first treatment for brain damage in children with congenital heart disease. The study is a single-center collaboration between three Children’s National physician-researchers: Richard Jonas, M.D.Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D. and Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D.

Dr. Jonas, chief of cardiac surgery at Children’s National, will outline the trial and its aims on Monday, November 18, 2019, at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2019. Dr. Jonas was recently recognized by the Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Outcome Collaborative for his lifelong research of how cardiac surgery impacts brain growth and development in children with CHD.

Read more about the study: Researchers receive $2.5M grant to optimize brain development in babies with CHD.

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Regenerative Cell Therapy in Congenital Heart Disease – Protecting the Immature Brain
Presented by Richard Jonas, M.D.
AHA Scientific Sessions
Session CH.CVS.608 Congenital Heart Disease and Pediatric Cardiology Seminar: A Personalized Approach to Heart Disease in Children
9:50 a.m. to 10:05 a.m.
November 18, 2019

pastel colored DNA strands

Germline microsatellite genotypes differentiate children with medulloblastoma

pastel colored DNA strands

A new study suggests that medulloblastoma-specific germline microsatellite variations mark those at-risk for medulloblastoma development.

Brian Rood, M.D., oncologist and medical director at the Brain Tumor Institute, and Harold “Skip” Garner, Ph.D., associate vice provost for research development at Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, published a report in the Society for Neuro-Oncology’s Neuro-Oncology Journal about using a novel approach to identify specific markers in germline (non-tumor) DNA called microsatellites that can differentiate children who have the brain tumor medulloblastoma (MB) from those who don’t.

“Ultimately, the best way to save children from brain tumors and prevent them from bearing long-term side effects from treatment is to prevent those tumors from occurring in the first place,” says Dr. Rood. “New advancements hold the potential to finally realize the dream of cancer prevention, but we must first identify those children at-risk.”

While analyzing germline sequencing data from a training set of 120 MB subjects and 425 controls, the doctors identified 139 individual microsatellites whose genotypes differ significantly between the groups. Using a genetic algorithm, they were able to construct a subset of 43 microsatellites that distinguish MB subjects from controls with a sensitivity and specificity of 92% and 88% respectively.

“We made discoveries in an untapped part of the human genome, enabled by unique bioinformatics data mining approaches combined with clinical insight,” said Dr. Garner. “Our findings establish new genomic directions that can lead to high accuracy diagnostics for predicting susceptibility to medulloblastoma.”

What the doctors discovered and demonstrated in the study was that MB-specific germline microsatellite variations mark those at risk for MB development and suggest that other mechanisms of cancer predisposition beyond heritable mutations exist for MB.

“This work is the first to demonstrate the ability of specific DNA sequences to differentiate children with cancer from their healthy counterparts,” added Dr. Rood.

Contributing Authors to this research study included:  Brian R. Rood, M.D., Harold R. Garner, Ph.D., Samuel Rivero-Hinojosa, Ph.D., and Nicholas Kinney, Ph.D.

mitochondria

Molecular gatekeepers that regulate calcium ions key to muscle function

mitochondria

Controlled entry of calcium ions into the mitochondria, the cell’s energy powerhouses, makes the difference between whether muscles grow strong or easily tire and perish from injury, according to research published in Cell Reports.

Calcium ions are essential to how muscles work effectively, playing a starring role in how and when muscles contract, tap energy stores to keep working and self-repair damage. Not only are calcium ions vital for the repair of injured muscle fibers, their controlled entry into the mitochondria, the cell’s energy powerhouses, spells the difference between whether muscles will be healthy or if they will easily tire and perish following an injury, according to research published Oct. 29, 2019, in Cell Reports.

“Lack of the protein mitochondrial calcium uptake1 (MICU1) lowers the activation threshold for calcium uptake mediated by the mitochondrial calcium uniporter in both, muscle fibers from an experimental model and fibroblast of  a patient lacking MICU1,” says Jyoti K. Jaiswal, MSc, Ph.D., a principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National Hospital and one of the paper’s corresponding authors. “Missing MICU1 also tips the calcium ion balance in the mitochondria when muscles contract or are injured, leading to more pronounced muscle weakness and myofiber death.”

Five years ago, patients with a very rare disease linked to mutations in the mitochondrial gene MICU1 were described to suffer from a neuromuscular disease with signs of muscle weakness and damage that could not be fully explained.

To determine what was going awry, the multi-institutional research team used a comprehensive approach that included fibroblasts donated by a patient lacking MICU1 and an experimental model whose MICU1 gene was deleted in the muscles.

Loss of MICU1 in skeletal muscle fibers leads to less contractile force, increased fatigue and diminished capacity to repair damage to their cell membrane, called the sarcolemma. Just like human patients, the experimental model suffers more pronounced muscle weakness, increased numbers of dead myofibers, with greater loss of muscle mass in certain muscles, like the quadriceps and triceps, the research team writes.

“What was happening to the patient’s muscles was a big riddle that our research addressed,” Jaiswal adds. “Lacking this protein is not supposed to make the muscle fiber die, like we see in patients with this rare disease. The missing protein is just supposed to cause atrophy and weakness.”

Patients with this rare disease show early muscle weakness, fluctuating levels of fatigue and lethargy, muscle aches after exercise, and elevated creatine kinase in their bloodstream, an indication of cell damage due to physical stress.

“One by one, we investigated these specific features in experimental models that look normal and have normal body weight, but also show lost muscle mass in the quadriceps and triceps,” explains Adam Horn, Ph.D., the lead researcher in Jaiswal’s lab who conducted this study. “Our experimental model lacking MICU1 only in skeletal muscles responded to muscle deficits so similar to humans that it suggests that some of the symptoms we see in patients can be attributed to MICU1 loss in skeletal muscles.”

Future research will aim to explore the details of how the impact of MICU1 deficit in muscles may be addressed therapeutically and possible implications of lacking MICU1 or its paralog in other organs.

In addition to Jaiswal and Horn, Children’s National Hospital Center for Genetic Medicine Research co-authors include Marshall W. Hogarth and Davi A. Mazala. Additional co-authors include Lead Author Valentina Debattisti, Raghavendra Singh, Erin L. Seifert, Kai Ting Huang, and Senior Author György Hajnóczky, all from Thomas Jefferson University; and Rita Horvath, from Newcastle University.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award numbers R01AR55686, U54HD090257 and RO1 GM102724; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases under award number T32AR056993; and Foundation Leducq.

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

Novel approach to detect fetal growth restriction

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

Morphometric and textural analyses of magnetic resonance imaging can point out subtle architectural deviations associated with fetal growth restriction during the second half of pregnancy, a first-time finding that has the promise to lead to earlier intervention.

Morphometric and textural analyses of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can point out subtle architectural deviations that are associated with fetal growth restriction (FGR) during the second half of pregnancy. The first-time finding hints at the potential to spot otherwise hidden placental woes earlier and intervene in a more timely fashion, a research team led by Children’s National Hospital faculty reports in Pediatric Research.

“We found reduced placental size, as expected, but also determined that the textural metrics are accelerated in FGR when factoring in gestational age, suggesting premature placental aging in FGR,” says Nickie Andescavage, M.D., a neonatologist at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “While morphometric and textural features can discriminate placental differences between FGR cases with and without Doppler abnormalities, the pattern of affected features differs between these sub-groups. Of note, placental insufficiency with abnormal Doppler findings have significant differences in the signal-intensity metrics, perhaps related to differences of water content within the placenta.”

The placenta, an organ shared by the pregnant woman and the developing fetus, delivers oxygen and nutrients to the developing fetus and ferries away waste products. Placental insufficiency is characterized by a placenta that develops poorly or is damaged, impairing blood flow, and can result in still birth or death shortly after birth. Surviving infants may be born preterm or suffer early brain injury; later in life, they may experience cardiovascular, metabolic or neuropsychiatric problems.

Because there are no available tools to help clinicians identify small but critical changes in placental architecture during pregnancy, placental insufficiency often is found after some damage is already done. Typically, it is discovered when FGR is diagnosed, when a fetus weighs less than 9 of 10 fetuses of the same gestational age.

“There is a growing appreciation for the prenatal origin of some neuropsychiatric disorders that manifest years to decades later. Those nine months of gestation very much define the breath of who we later become as adults,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “By identifying better biomarkers of fetal distress at an earlier stage in pregnancy and refining our imaging toolkit to detect them, we set the stage to be able to intervene earlier and improve children’s overall outcomes.”

The research team studied 32 healthy pregnancies and compared them with 34 pregnancies complicated by FGR. These women underwent up to two MRIs between 20 weeks to 40 weeks gestation. They also had abdominal circumference, fetal head circumference and fetal femur length measured as well as fetal weight estimated.

In pregnancies complicated by FGR, placentas were smaller, thinner and shorter than uncomplicated pregnancies and had decreased placental volume. Ten of 13 textural and morphometric features that differed between the two groups were associated with absolute birth weight.

“Interestingly, when FGR is diagnosed in the second trimester, placental volume, elongation and thickness are significantly reduced compared with healthy pregnancies, whereas the late-onset of FGR only affects placental volume,” Limperopoulos adds. “We believe with early-onset FGR there is a more significant reduction in the developing placental units that is detected by gross measures of size and shape. By the third trimester, the overall shape of the placenta seems to have been well defined so that primarily volume is affected in late-onset FGR.”

In addition to Dr. Andescavage and Limperopoulos, study co-authors include Sonia Dahdouh, Sayali Yewale, Dorothy Bulas, M.D., chief of the Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, and Biostatistician, Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., MPH, all of Children’s National; Sara Iqbal, of MedStar Washington Hospital Center; and Ahmet Baschat, of Johns Hopkins Center for Fetal Therapy.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award number 1U54HD090257, R01-HL116585, UL1TR000075 and KL2TR000076, and the Clinical-Translational Science Institute-Children’s National.

little girl reaching for gun

Empowering pediatricians to reduce preventable firearm injuries and deaths

little girl reaching for gun

Lenore Jarvis, M.D., MEd, FAAP, will participate in a symposium of surgeons, neurosurgeons and emergency medicine doctors during the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition – the first time these groups have come together to help reduce the number of kids hurt or killed by firearms.

Lenore Jarvis, M.D., MEd, FAAP, remembers feeling fatigue and frustration when, despite her team’s herculean efforts, a 5-year-old died from accidental gunshot wounds. The preschooler had been feeling playful: He surprised a family member who mistook him for an intruder and fired, fatally wounding the child.

As an Emergency Medicine and Trauma Services specialist at Children’s National Hospital, Dr. Jarvis has cared for kids with a range of firearm-related injuries from accidental shootings, intentional acts of violence or suicide attempts. Even when children survive such traumatic injuries, their lives are indelibly altered.

“We’re trained to save lives, but we also want to prevent childhood injuries, if possible. As I considered this young child’s life ending so prematurely and so tragically, I thought I should do more. I could do more,” recalls Dr. Jarvis, the division’s director of advocacy and health policy.

To that end, in addition to advocacy at the regional and national level, on Oct. 26, 2019, Dr. Jarvis will participate in a four-hour symposium of surgeons, neurosurgeons and emergency medicine doctors during the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition – the first time these groups have come together to explore ways they can help to reduce the number of kids hurt or killed by firearms.

Dr. Jarvis will set the stage for the day’s collective call to action when she counsels pediatricians about how they can advocate within the clinic by simple actions such as:

  • Asking families if there are firearms in the home
  • Making time for such conversations during routine care, including well-child visits
  • Paying special attention to warning signs of suicide and depression
  • Having frank conversations with parents about curious toddlers

“The safest home is a home without a firearm. If that’s not possible, the firearm should be stored in a locked cabinet with the ammunition stored separately,” she says. “Toddlers are especially curious and they actively explore their environment. An unsecured firearm can be a tragic accident waiting to happen with curious young children in the home. And if teenagers happen upon the weapon, it could be used in a homicide or suicide.”

In addition to empowering clinicians to have these conversations routinely, symposium speakers will emphasize empowering parents to ask other families: “Is there an unlocked gun in your house?”

“It’s no different than a parent of a child with a life-threatening sensitivity to peanuts asking if there are peanuts in any home that child may visit,” she adds. “As one of the leading causes of death among children and youth, unsecured firearms are even more dangerous than peanuts. And families should feel comfortable making informed decisions about whether their children will be safe as they play and socialize with friends.”

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AAP National Conference and Exhibition presentation
Saturday, Oct. 26, 2:15 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. (ET)
“AAP NCE Section on Emergency Medicine/Section on Surgery/Section on Neurosurgery gun advocacy joint program”

Andrea Gropman

$5M in federal funding to help patients with urea cycle disorders

Andrea Gropman

Andrea L. Gropman, M.D.: We have collected many years of longitudinal clinical data, but with this new funding now we can answer questions about these diseases that are meaningful on a day-to-day basis for patients with urea cycle disorders.

An international research consortium co-led by Andrea L. Gropman, M.D., at Children’s National Hospital has received $5 million in federal funding as part of an overall effort to better understand rare diseases and accelerate potential treatments to patients.

Urea cycle disorder, one such rare disease, is a hiccup in a series of biochemical reactions that transform nitrogen into a non-toxic compound, urea. The six enzymes and two carrier/transport molecules that accomplish this essential task reside primarily in the liver and, to a lesser degree, in other organs.

The majority of patients have the recessive form of the disorder, meaning it has skipped a generation. These kids inherit one copy of an abnormal gene from each parent, while the parents themselves were not affected, says Dr. Gropman, chief of the Division of Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics and Neurogenetics at Children’s National. Another more common version of the disease is carried on the X chromosome and affects boys more seriously that girls, given that boys have only one X chromosome.

Regardless of the type of urea cycle disorder, when the urea cycle breaks down, nitrogen converts into toxic ammonia that builds up in the body (hyperammonemia), particularly in the brain. As a result, the person may feel lethargic; if the ammonia in the bloodstream reaches the brain in high concentrations, the person can experience seizures, behavior changes and lapse into a coma.

Improvements in clinical care and the advent of effective medicines have transformed this once deadly disease into a more manageable chronic ailment.

“It’s gratifying that patients diagnosed with urea cycle disorder now are surviving, growing up, becoming young adults and starting families themselves. Twenty to 30 years ago, this never would have seemed conceivable,” Dr. Gropman says. “We have collected many years of longitudinal clinical data, but with this new funding now we can answer questions about these diseases that are meaningful on a day-to-day basis for patients with urea cycle disorders.”

In early October 2019, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded the Urea Cycle Disorders Consortium for which Dr. Gropman is co-principal investigator a five-year grant. This is the fourth time that the international Consortium of physicians, scientists, neuropsychologists, nurses, genetic counselors and researchers has received NIH funding to study this group of conditions.

Dr. Gropman says the current urea cycle research program builds on a sturdy foundation built by previous principal investigators Mendel Tuchman, M.D., and Mark Batshaw, M.D., also funded by the NIH. While previous rounds of NIH funding powered research about patients’ long-term survival prospects and cognitive dysfunction, this next phase of research will explore patients’ long-term health.

Among the topics they will study:

Long-term organ damage. Magnetic resonance elastrography (MRE) is a state-of-the-art imaging technique that combines the sharp images from MRI with a visual map that shows body tissue stiffness. The research team will use MRE to look for early changes in the liver – before patients show any symptoms – that could be associated with long-term health impacts. Their aim is spot the earliest signs of potential liver dysfunction in order to intervene before the patient develops liver fibrosis.

Academic achievement. The research team will examine gaps in academic achievement for patients who appear to be underperforming to determine what is triggering the discrepancy between their potential and actual scholastics. If they uncover issues such as learning difficulties or mental health concerns like anxiety, there are opportunities to intervene to boost academic achievement.

“And if we find many of the patients meet the criteria for depression or anxiety disorders, there are potential opportunities to intervene.  It’s tricky: We need to balance their existing medications with any new ones to ensure that we don’t increase their hyperammonemia risk,” Dr. Gropman explains.

Neurologic complications. The researchers will tap continuous, bedside electroencephalogram, which measures the brain’s electrical activity, to detect silent seizures and otherwise undetectable changes in the brain in an effort to stave off epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes seizures.

“This is really the first time we will examine babies’ brains,” she adds. “Our previous imaging studies looked at kids and adults who were 6 years and older. Now, we’re lowering that age range down to infants. By tracking such images over time, the field has described the trajectory of what normal brain development should look like. We can use that as a background and comparison point.”

In the future, newborns may be screened for urea cycle disorder shortly after birth. Because it is not possible to diagnose it in the womb in cases where there is no family history, the team aims to better counsel families contemplating pregnancy about their possible risks.

Research described in this post was underwritten by the NIH through its Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network.

allopregnanolone molecule

Autism spectrum disorder risk linked to insufficient placental steroid

allopregnanolone molecule

A study led by Children’s National Hospital and presented during Neuroscience 2019 finds that loss of allopregnanolone, a key hormone supplied by the placenta, leads to long-term structural alterations of the cerebellum – a brain region essential for smooth motor coordination, balance and social cognition – and increases the risk of developing autism.

An experimental model study suggests that allopregnanolone, one of many hormones produced by the placenta during pregnancy, is so essential to normal fetal brain development that when provision of that hormone decreases – as occurs with premature birth – offspring are more likely to develop autism-like behaviors, a Children’s National Hospital research team reports at the Neuroscience 2019 annual meeting.

“To our knowledge, no other research team has studied how placental allopregnanolone (ALLO) contributes to brain development and long-term behaviors,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead author. “Our study finds that targeted loss of ALLO in the womb leads to long-term structural alterations of the cerebellum – a brain region that is essential for motor coordination, balance and social cognition ­– and increases the risk of developing autism,” Vacher says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 infants is born preterm, before 37 weeks gestation; and 1 in 59 children has autism spectrum disorder.

In addition to presenting the abstract, on Monday, Oct. 21, Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., the abstract’s senior author, will discuss the research with reporters during a Neuroscience 2019 news conference. This Children’s National abstract is among 14,000 abstracts submitted for the meeting, the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

ALLO production by the placenta rises in the second trimester of pregnancy, and levels of the neurosteroid peak as fetuses approach full term.

To investigate what happens when ALLO supplies are disrupted, a research team led by Children’s National created a novel transgenic preclinical model in which they deleted a gene essential in ALLO synthesis. When production of ALLO in the placentas of these experimental models declines, offspring had permanent neurodevelopmental changes in a sex- and region-specific manner.

“From a structural perspective, the most pronounced cerebellar abnormalities appeared in the cerebellum’s white matter,” Vacher adds. “We found increased thickness of the myelin, a lipid-rich insulating layer that protects nerve fibers. From a behavioral perspective, male offspring whose ALLO supply was abruptly reduced exhibited increased repetitive behavior and sociability deficits – two hallmarks in humans of autism spectrum disorder.”

On a positive note, providing a single ALLO injection during pregnancy was enough to avert both the cerebellar abnormalities and the aberrant social behaviors.

The research team is now launching a new area of research focus they call “neuroplacentology” to better understand the role of placenta function on fetal and newborn brain development.

“Our team’s data provide exciting new evidence that underscores the importance of placental hormones on shaping and programming the developing fetal brain,” Vacher notes.

  • Neuroscience 2019 presentation
    Sunday, Oct. 20, 9:30 a.m. (CDT)
    “Preterm ASD risk linked to cerebellar white matter changes”
    Claire-Marie Vacher, lead author; Sonia Sebaoui, co-author; Helene Lacaille, co-author; Jackie Salzbank, co-author; Jiaqi O’Reilly, co-author; Diana Bakalar, co-author; Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., neonatologist and co-author; and Anna Penn, M.D., clinical neonatologist and developmental neuroscientist and senior author.
Bella when she was sick

Preserving brain function by purposely inducing strokes

Bella when she was sick

Born to young parents, no prenatal testing had suggested any problems with Bella’s brain. But just a few hours after birth, Bella suffered her first seizure – one of many that would follow in the ensuing days. After brain imaging, her doctors in Iowa diagnosed her with hemimegalencephaly.

Strokes are neurologically devastating events, cutting off life-sustaining oxygen to regions of the brain. If these brain tissues are deprived of oxygen long enough, they die, leading to critical loss of function – and sometimes loss of life.

“As physicians, we’re taught to prevent or treat stroke. We’re never taught to inflict it,” says Taeun Chang, M.D., director of the Neonatal Neurology and Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program at Children’s National Hospital.

That’s why a treatment developed at Children’s National for a rare brain condition called hemimegalencephaly is so surprising, Dr. Chang explains. By inflicting controlled, targeted strokes, Children’s National physician-researchers have treated five newborns born with intractable seizures due to hemimegalencephaly before they’re eligible for epilepsy surgery, the standard of care. In the four surviving infants, the procedures drastically reduced or completely relieved the infants of hemimegalencephaly’s characteristic, uncontrollable seizures.

The most recent patient to receive this life-changing procedure is Bella, a 13-month-old from Iowa whose treatment at Children’s National began within her second week of life. Born to young parents, no prenatal testing had suggested any problems with Bella’s brain. But just a few hours after birth, Bella suffered her first seizure – one of many that would follow in the ensuing days. After brain imaging, her doctors in Iowa diagnosed her with hemimegalencephaly.

A congenital condition occurring in just a handful of children born worldwide each year, hemimegalencephaly is marked by one brain hemisphere growing strikingly larger and dysplastic than the other, Dr. Chang explains. This abnormal half of the brain is highly vascularized, rippled with blood vessels needed to support the seizing brain. The most conspicuous symptoms of hemimegalencephaly are the numerous seizures that it causes, sometimes several in the course of an hour, which also may prevent the normal half of the brain from developing and learning.

Prior studies suggest early surgery achieves better developmental outcomes with one study reporting as much as a drop of 10-20 IQ points with every month delay in epilepsy surgery.

The standard treatment for unilateral megalencephaly is a dramatic procedure called a hemispherectomy, in which surgeons remove and disconnect the affected half of the brain, allowing the remaining half to take over its neurological duties. However, Dr. Chang says, implementing this procedure in infants younger than 3 months of age is highly dangerous.  Excessive, potentially fatal blood loss is likely in infants younger than 3 months who have a highly vascularized brain in the setting of an immature coagulation system. That leaves their doctors with no choice but to wait until these infants are at least 3 months old, when they are more likely to survive the surgery.

However, five years ago, Dr. Chang and her colleagues came up with a different idea when a newborn continued to have several seizures per hour despite multiple IV seizure medications: Because strokes cause irreversible tissue death, it might be possible to effectively incapacitate the enlarged hemisphere from within by inflicting a stroke on purpose. At the very least, this “functional embolization” might buy time for a traditional hemispherectomy, and slow or halt ongoing brain damage until the infants are able to withstand surgery. Ideally, this procedure may be all some children need, knocking out the offending hemisphere completely so they’d never need a hemispherectomy, which has late complications, such as hydrocephalus.

A pediatrician friend of Bella’s paternal grandparents read a story on Children’s National website about Darcy, another baby who’d received functional embolization a year earlier and was doing well. She contacted Dr. Chang to see if the procedure would be appropriate for Bella.

Within days, Bella and her family headed to Washington, D.C., to prepare for functional embolization herself. Within the first weeks of life, Bella underwent three separate procedures, each three to four hours long. Under real-time fluoroscopic and angiographic guidance, interventional neuroradiologist Monica Pearl, M.D., threaded a micro-catheter up from the baby’s femoral artery through the complex network of blood vessels all the way to her brain. There, in targeted branches of her cerebral arteries, Dr. Pearl strategically placed liquid embolic agent to obstruct blood flow to the abnormal half of Bella’s brain.

Immediately after the first procedure, the team had to contend with the same consequences that come after any stroke: brain swelling that can cause bleeding and herniation, complicated further by the already enlarged hemisphere of Bella’s brain. Using neuroprotective strategies learned from treating hundreds of brain-injured newborns, the neonatal neurocritical care team and the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) minimized the brain swelling and protected the normal half of the brain by tightly controlling the brain temperature, her sugar and electrolyte levels, her blood pressure and coagulation system.

As the brain tissue in the oversized hemisphere died, so did the seizures that had plagued Bella since birth. She has not had a seizure since she left Children’s National more than one year ago. Her adoptive parents report that Bella is hitting many of the typical developmental milestones for her age: She’s getting ready to walk, blowing kisses and saying a few words. Physical, speech and occupational therapy will keep her moving in the right direction, Dr. Chang says.

“We believe that Children’s National is the only place in the world that’s treating newborns in this way to preserve their futures,” Dr. Chang says. “We’re privileged to be able to care for Bella and other kids with this rare condition.”

Bella’s transfer and successful procedures required the support and collective efforts of many within the hospital organization including William D. Gaillard, M.D., and his surgical epilepsy team; interventional neuroradiology with Dr. Monica Pearl; Neurosurgery; Neonatology and the NICU; social work; and even approval from Robin Steinhorn, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Hospital-Based Specialties, and David Wessel, M.D., executive vice president and Chief Medical Officer.

“While obvious credit goes to the medical team who saved Bella’s future and the neonatal intensive care nurses who provided exceptional, intensive, one-on-one care, Bella’s team of supporters extend to all levels within our hospital,” Dr. Chang adds.

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Bella's brain scan

Born with hemimegalencephaly, Bella now has a bright future

bella's brain scans

Bella was born with a rare condition (hemimegalencephaly) in which one half of the brain developed abnormally, causing seizures. The textbook approach is to let babies grow big enough for a dramatic surgery. But Bella’s left hemisphere was triggering so many seizures each hour that waiting would mean her life would be defined by severe disability. Children’s National Hospital is believed to be the only center in the world that calms these seizures through controlled strokes.

Procedure one occurred five days after Bella came to Children’s National Hospital from Iowa, when she was 13 days old. The team first optimized control of her seizures and obtained special magnetic resonance images to plan their approach. They glued up the branches of the left posterior cerebral artery and branches of the left middle cerebral artery. Bella had a tiny bleed that was controlled immediately in the angio suite and afterwards in the Children’s National neonatal intensive care unit.

Procedure two occurred 10 days later when Bella was 23 days old. The team waited until brain swelling had subsided and brain tissue loss had occurred from the first procedure. This time, they glued up the remaining branches of the left posterior cerebral artery and some branches of the left anterior cerebral artery.

The third and final procedure was done nine days later when Bella was 29 days old.  This time the team glued and coiled, placing little wire coils where it was unsafe to use glue, getting at the remaining small and numerous branches that remained of the left anterior cerebral artery.

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Dr. Jonas and research collaborator Nobuyuki Ishibashi in the laboratory.

Cardiac surgery chief recognized for studies of surgery’s impacts on neurodevelopment

Dr. Jonas and research collaborator Nobuyuki Ishibashi in the laboratory.

Dr. Jonas and research collaborator Nobuyuki Ishibashi in the laboratory.

Richard Jonas, M.D., is this year’s recipient of the Newburger-Bellinger Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Award in recognition of his lifelong research into understanding the impact of cardiac surgery on the growth and development of the brain. The award was established in 2013 by the Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Outcome Collaborative (CNOC) to honor Jane Newburger and David Bellinger, pioneers in research designed to understand and improve neurodevelopmental outcomes for children with heart disease.

At Children’s National, Dr. Jonas’ laboratory studies of neuroprotection have been conducted in conjunction with Dr. Vittorio Gallo, director of neuroscience research at Children’s National, and Dr. Nobuyuki Ishibashi, director of the cardiac surgery research laboratory. Their NIH-supported studies have investigated the impact of congenital heart disease and cardiopulmonary bypass on the development of the brain, with particular focus on impacts to white matter, in people with congenital heart disease.

Dr. Jonas’s focus on neurodevelopment after cardiac surgery has spanned his entire career in medicine, starting with early studies in the Harvard psychology department where he developed models of ischemic brain injury. He subsequently undertook a series of highly productive pre-clinical cardiopulmonary bypass studies at the National Magnet Laboratory at MIT. These studies suggested that some of the bypass techniques used at the time were suboptimal. The findings helped spur a series of retrospective clinical studies and subsequently several prospective randomized clinical trials at Boston Children’s Hospital examining the neurodevelopmental consequences of various bypass techniques. These studies were conducted by Dr. Jonas and others, in collaboration with Dr. Jane Newburger and Dr. David Bellinger, for whom this award is named.

Dr. Jonas has been the chief of cardiac surgery and co-director of the Children’s National Heart Institute since 2004. He previously spent 20 years on staff at Children’s Hospital Boston including 10 years as department chief and as the William E. Ladd Chair of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

As the recipient of the 2019 award, Dr. Jonas will deliver a keynote address at the 8th Annual Scientific Sessions of the Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Outcome Collaborative in Toronto, Ontario, October 11-13, 2019.

Mihailo Kaplarevic

Extracting actionable research data faster, with fewer hassles

Mihailo Kaplarevic

Mihailo Kaplarevic, Ph.D., the newly minted Chief Research Information Officer at Children’s National Hospital and Bioinformatics Division Chief at Children’s National Research Institute, will provide computational support, advice, informational guidance, expertise in big data and data analyses for researchers and clinicians.

Kaplarevic’s new job is much like the role he played most recently at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), assembling a team of researchers and scientists skilled in computing and statistical analyses to assist as in-house experts for other researchers and scientists.

NHLBI was the first institute within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) family to set up a scientific information office. During his tenure, a half-dozen other NIH institutions followed, setting up the same entity to help bridge the enormous gap between basic and clinical science and everything related to IT.

“There is a difference compared with traditional IT support at Children’s National – which will remain in place and still do the same sort of things they have been doing so far,” he says of The Bear Institute for Health Innovation. “The difference is this office has experience in research because every single one of us was a researcher at a certain point in our career: We are published. We applied for grants. We lived the life of a typical scientist. On top of that, we’re coming from the computational world. That helps us bridge the gaps between research and clinical worlds and IT.”

Ultimately, he aims to foster groundbreaking science by recognizing the potential to enhance research projects by bringing expertise acquired over his career and powerful computing tools to help teams achieve their goals in a less expensive and more efficient way.

“I have lived the life of a typical scientist. I know exactly how painful and frustrating it can be to want to do something quickly and efficiently but be slowed by technological barriers,” he adds.

As just one example, his office will design the high-performance computing cluster for the hospital to help teams extract more useful clinical and research data with fewer headaches.

Right now, the hospital has three independent clinical systems storing patient data; all serve a different purpose. (And there are also a couple of research information systems, also used for different purposes.) Since databases are his expertise, he will be involved in consolidating data resources, finding the best way to infuse the project with the bigger-picture mission – especially for translational science – and creating meaningful, actionable reports.

“It’s not only about running fewer queries,” he explains. “One needs to know how to design the right question. One needs to know how to design that question in a way that the systems could understand. And, once you get the data back, it’s a big set of things that you need to further filter and carefully shape. Only then will you get the essence that has clinical or scientific value. It’s a long process.”

As he was introduced during a Children’s National Research Institute faculty meeting in late-September 2019, Kaplarevic joked that his move away from pure computer science into a health care and clinical research domain was triggered by his parents: “When my mom would introduce me, she would say ‘My son is a doctor, but not the kind of doctor who helps other people.’ ”

Some of that know-how will play out by applying tools and methodology to analyze big data to pluck out the wheat (useful data) from the chaff in an efficient and useful way. On projects that involve leveraging cloud computing for storing massive amounts of data, it could entail analyzing the data wisely to reduce its size when it comes back from the cloud – when the real storage costs come in. “You can save a lot of money by being smart about how you analyze data,” he says.

While he expects his first few months will be spent getting the lay of the land, understanding research project portfolios, key principal investigators and the pediatric hospital’s biggest users in the computational domain, he has ambitious longer-term goals.

“Three years from now, I would like this institution to say that the researchers are feeling confident that their research is not affected by limitations related to computer science in general. I would like this place to become a very attractive environment for up-and-coming researchers as well as for established researchers because we are offering cutting-edge technological efficiencies; we are following the trends; we are a secure place; and we foster science in the best possible way by making computational services accessible, affordable and reliable.”

Lee Beers

Getting to know Lee Beers, M.D., FAAP, future president-elect of AAP

Lee Beers

Lee Savio Beers, M.D., FAAP, Medical Director of Community Health and Advocacy at the Child Health Advocacy Institute (CHAI) at Children’s National Hospital carved out a Monday morning in late-September 2019, as she knew the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) would announce the results of its presidential election, first by telephone call, then by an email to all of its members.  Her husband blocked off the morning as well to wait with her for the results.  She soon got the call that she was elected by her peers to become AAP president-elect, beginning Jan. 1, 2020. Dr. Beers will then serve as AAP president in 2021 for a one-year term.

That day swept by in a rush, and then the next day she was back in clinic, caring for her patients, some of them teenagers whom she had taken care of since birth. Seeing children and families she had known for such a long time, some of whom had complex medical needs, was a perfect reminder of what originally motivated Dr. Beers to be considered as a candidate in the election.

“When we all work together – with our colleagues, other professionals, communities and families – we can make a real difference in the lives of children.  So many people have reached out to share their congratulations, and offer their support or help. There is a real sense of collaboration and commitment to child health,” Dr. Beers says.

That sense of excitement ripples through Children’s National.

“Dr. Beers has devoted her career to helping children. She has developed a national advocacy platform for children. I can think of no better selection for the president-elect role of the AAP. She will be of tremendous service to children within AAP national leadership,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., Children’s National Hospital President and CEO.

AAP comprises 67​,000 pediatricians, and its mission is to promote and safeguard the health and well-being of all children – from infancy to adulthood.

The daughter of a nuclear engineer and a schoolteacher, Dr. Beers knew by age 5 that she would become a doctor. Trained as a chemist, she entered the Emory University School of Medicine after graduation. After completing residency at the Naval Medical Center, she became the only pediatrician assigned to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station.

That assignment to Cuba, occurring so early in her career, turned out to be a defining moment that shapes how she partners with families and other members of the team to provide comprehensive care.

“I was a brand-new physician, straight out of residency, and was the only pediatrician there so I was responsible for the health of all of the kids on the base. I didn’t know it would be this way at the time, but it was formative. It taught me to take a comprehensive public health approach to taking care of kids and their families,” she recalls.

On the isolated base, where she also ran the immunization clinic and the nursery, she quickly learned she had to judiciously use resources and work together as a team.

“It meant that I had to learn how to lead a multi-disciplinary team and think about how our health care systems support or get in the way of good care,” she says.

One common thread that unites her past and present is helping families build resiliency to shrug off adversity and stress.

“The base was a difficult and isolated place for some families and individuals, so I thought a lot about how to support them. One way is finding strong relationships where you are, which was important for patients and families miles away from their support systems. Another way is to find things you could do that were meaningful to you.”

Cuba sits where the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico meet. Dr. Beers learned how to scuba dive there – something she never would have done otherwise – finding it restful and restorative to appreciate the underwater beauty.

“I do think these lessons about resilience are universal. There are actually a lot of similarities between the families I take care of now, many of whom are in socioeconomically vulnerable situations, and military families when you think about the level of stress they are exposed to,” she adds.

Back stateside in 2001, Dr. Beers worked as a staff pediatrician at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. In 2003, Dr. Beers joined Children’s National Hospital as a general pediatrician in the Goldberg Center for Community Pediatric Health. Currently, she oversees the DC Collaborative for Mental Health in Pediatric Primary Care, a public-private coalition that elevates the standards of mental health care for all children, and is Co-Director of the Early Childhood Innovation Network. She received the Academic Pediatric Association’s 2019 Public Policy and Advocacy Award.

As a candidate, Dr. Beers pledged to continue AAP’s advocacy and public policy efforts and to further enhance membership diversity and inclusion. Among her signature issues:

  • Partnering with patients, families, communities, mental health providers and pediatricians to co-design systems to bolster children’s resiliency and to alleviate growing pediatric mental health concerns
  • Tackling physician burnout by supporting pediatricians through office-based education and systems reforms
  • Expanding community-based prevention and treatment

“I am humbled and honored to have the support of my peers in taking on this newest leadership role,” says Dr. Beers. “AAP has been a part of my life since I first became a pediatrician, and my many leadership roles in the DC chapter and national AAP have given me a glimpse of the collective good that pediatricians can accomplish by working together toward common strategic goals.”

AAP isn’t just an integral part of her life, it’s where she met her future husband, Nathaniel Beers, M.D., MPA, FAAP, President of The HSC Health Care System. The couple’s children regularly attended AAP meetings with them when they were young.

Just take a glimpse at Lee Beers’ Twitter news feed. There’s a steady stream of images of her jogging before AAP meetings to amazing sunrises, jogging after AAP meetings to stellar sunsets and always, always, images of the entire family, once collectively costumed as The Incredibles.

“I really do believe that we have to set an example: If we are talking about supporting children and families in our work, we have to set that example in our own lives. That looks different for everyone, but as pediatricians and health professionals, we can model prioritizing our families while still being committed to our work,” she explains.

“Being together in the midst of the craziness is just part of what we do as a family. We travel a lot, and our kids have gone with us to AAP meetings since they were infants. My husband even brought our infant son to a meeting at the mayor’s office when he was on paternity leave. Recognizing that not everyone is in a position to be able to do things like that, it’s important for us to do it – to continue to change the conversation and make it normal to have your family to be part of your whole life, not have a separate work life and a separate family life.”

Dr. Bornhorst talks with her patient Maddox Gibson,

A melanoma drug shows promise for NF1 plexiforms

Dr. Bornhorst talks with her patient Maddox Gibson,

Dr. Bornhorst talks with her patient Maddox Gibson, who is part of the compassionate use trial of selumentinib for which she serves as site principal investigator.

A class of drugs originally approved for stopping tumor growth in adult cancers including melanoma and small cell lung cancer may be the key to treating plexiform neurofibromas in neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), too. If effective, doctors will finally have a treatment to offer for children with complicated plexiform neurofibromas that can’t be removed via surgery.

These drugs, including selumentinib, work by inhibiting the activity of the mitogen-activated protein kinase enzymes MEK1 and MEK2. The enzymes have a direct impact on the activity of the cellular signaling pathway MAPK/ERK, which can be overactive some cancers.

Ongoing pre-clinical studies made possible by national and international neurofibromatosis research collaborations demonstrated that this same pathway is overactive in children with NF1 who have plexiform neurofibromas. The compelling findings from these studies set the stage for clinical trials to test the safety and efficacy of selumetinib and other MEK inhibitors as a therapy for pediatric NF1 patients with inoperable plexiform neurofibromas.

At Children’s National, these studies are run by clinicians such as Miriam Bornhorst, M.D., clinical director of the Gilbert Family Neurofibromatosis Institute and Aerang Kim, M.D., Ph.D. Children’s is one of only four sites in the United States to participate in a National Institutes of Health-led clinical trial to study the use of selumetinib in NF1. Dr. Kim is the site principal investigator and Dr. Bornhorst serves as co-principal investigator on phase 2 of the trial.

“Any time we find a medication that works with NF1, we’re excited, especially because for so many years, we didn’t have any of these options for these families,” Dr. Bornhorst says. “We’re offering something these families have never had before – a treatment that may stop growth and maybe even keep these tumors from returning. It means we’re doing more than managing symptoms – we’re really treating them.”

NF1 affects a relatively small number of people, particularly children. However, researchers and clinicians who are dedicated to the condition have banded together via collaborations and consortia to fuel research and development of new therapies across multiple institutions in the U.S. and abroad.

“Patients come to see me who’ve been at our clinic for years and I’ll talk about MEK inhibitors, and they are just shocked to hear there may be a new option,” Dr. Bornhorst says.

The NIH trial continues to collect data at four U.S. centers, with the ultimate goal of submitting the results for FDA review. Additional data is also collected from patients who didn’t qualify for the trial but who received the drug for compassionate use, an effort led by Dr. Bornhorst. The information collected from that compassionate use trial also helps investigators make the case to broaden the eligibility criteria for future trials.

“The medications are showing that they work,” Dr. Bornhorst notes. “Now we need to determine how to identify the patients who we know will need these therapies.”

To meet that need, other studies, led by both Dr. Bornhorst and Dr. Kim, seek radiographic and blood biomarkers that will identify children with NF1 who are more likely to develop plexiform neurofibromas, and whose plexiforms may progress to something malignant.

Julia Finkel

Two Children’s National spin-outs join Johnson & Johnson–JLABS

Julia Finkel

AlgometRx, which joins JPOD @ Philadelphia, was founded by Julia Finkel, M.D., pediatric anesthesiologist and director of Pain Medicine and Research at Children’s Sheikh Zayed Institute.

AlgometRx and Adipomics, two companies that spun out of innovations discovered at Children’s National Health System, have been selected by Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS to join JPOD @ Philadelphia and JPOD @ Boston, respectively.

JLABS is a global network of no-strings-attached incubators for innovative companies from across the pharmaceutical, medical device, consumer and health technology sectors. Start-up companies are free to pursue their own research priorities independently, with access to state-of-the-art facilities to develop new drugs, medical devices, precision diagnostics and health technologies for people around the world.

Both companies got their start at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National. The Institute focuses on research and innovation that can improve health for children everywhere.

AlgometRx, which joins JPOD @ Philadelphia, was founded by Julia Finkel, M.D., pediatric anesthesiologist and director of Pain Medicine and Research at Children’s Sheikh Zayed Institute. The AlgometRx device is a first-of-its-kind platform technology that aims to objectively measure pain intensity, type and drug effects in real time by capturing a digital image of a patient’s pupillary light response and applying a series of proprietary algorithms to various characteristics.

AlgometRx is designed to provide an objective pain measurement that aims to help physicians select the correct analgesic class of drug and dosage. By optimizing pain assessment, drug selection and drug management, AlgometRx aims to impact the opioid epidemic and the monitoring and management of Opioid Use Disorder.

Robert Freishtat and Evan Nadler

Adipomics, which joins JPOD @ Boston, was co-founded by Robert Freishtat, M.D., M.P.H., senior investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine of the Children’s Research Institute and chief of the Division of Emergency Medicine at Children’s National, and pediatric surgeon Evan P. Nadler, M.D., co-director of the Obesity Program and director of the Bariatric Surgery Program at Children’s National.

Adipomics, which joins JPOD @ Boston, was co-founded by pediatric surgeon Evan P. Nadler, M.D., co-director of the Obesity Program and director of the Bariatric Surgery Program at Children’s National, and Robert Freishtat, M.D., M.P.H., senior investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine of the Children’s Research Institute and chief of the Division of Emergency Medicine at Children’s National. Adipomics was founded with the aim to address the global epidemic of obesity-related diseases including Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. World health experts predict that one billion people worldwide will be obese by 2030.

Drs. Nadler and Freishtat discovered that exosomes released from fat cells (adipocytes) carry genetic material that can mediate various diseases related to obesity. Through their research, they developed a proprietary method that aims to detect how obesity affects an individual patient’s metabolism before the onset of overt disease. Adipomics aims to create the first non-invasive, “anticipatory medicine” diagnostic that detects risk for obesity-related diseases prior to the onset of clinical signs or even biochemical abnormalities. If successful, this predictive methodology would enable treatment much earlier in the disease process, which is likely to improve effectiveness.

A recent news release from Children’s National provides more details on these innovations.

As organizations that share a commitment to improving the pace of healthcare innovation, Children’s National and Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS also recently announced their collaboration to launch JLABS @ Washington, DC,  a 32,000-square foot facility to be located at the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus in Washington, D.C. The JLABS @ Washington, DC will have the capacity to house up to 50 pharmaceutical, medical device, consumer and health technology companies that are aiming to advance the development of new drugs, medical devices, precision diagnostics and health technologies, including applications in pediatrics. The campus is located on a 12-acre portion of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus in the nation’s capital and is slated to open in 2020, coinciding with the 150th Anniversary of Children’s National Health System.

Test tube with DNA

“Liquid biopsies” could track diffuse midline gliomas

Test tube with DNA

A multi-institutional team led by researchers at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., developed and tested “liquid biopsy,” a measure of circulating tumor DNA in patients’ cerebrospinal fluid and blood plasma. They show that quantifying the amount of circulating tumor DNA possessing key mutations characteristic of diffuse midline gliomas could reliably predict the tumors’ response to radiotherapy.

Diffuse midline gliomas are rare, diagnosed in fewer than 800 Americans every year, the majority of whom are children. These cancers arise in the cellular “glue” that holds the brain and spinal cord’s neurons together, grow swiftly and have no cure. About half of patients with these cancers, including diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, die within one year of diagnosis.

Clinical trials are increasingly investigating new treatments that could offer hope for patients and their families. Yet, thus far, there have been few ways to track the progression of these conditions, offering little insight on whether a treatment is hitting its intended goal.

To solve this problem, a multi-institutional team led by researchers at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., developed and tested “liquid biopsy,” a measure of circulating tumor DNA in patients’ cerebrospinal fluid and blood plasma. They show that quantifying the amount of circulating tumor DNA possessing key mutations characteristic of these cancers could reliably predict the tumors’ response to radiotherapy. The scientists published their results online Oct. 15, 2018, in Clinical Cancer Research.

“We heard from our clinician colleagues that many kids were coming in and their magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) suggested a particular type of tumor. But it was always problematic to identify the tumor’s molecular subtype,” says Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., MSC, a principal investigator in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research. “Our colleagues wanted a more accurate measure than MRI to find the molecular subtype. That raised the question of whether we could actually look at their blood to determine the tumor subtype.”

Children’s liquid biopsy, which remains at the research phase, starts with a simple blood draw using the same type of needle as is used when people donate blood. When patients with brain tumors provide blood for other laboratory testing, a portion of it is used for the DNA detective work. Just as a criminal leaves behind fingerprints, tumors shed telltale clues in the blood. The team at Children’s National searches for the histone 3K27M (H3K27M), a mutation associated with worse clinical outcomes.

“With liquid biopsy, we were able to detect a few copies of tumor DNA that were hiding behind a million copies of healthy DNA,” Nazarian says. “The blood draw and liquid biopsy complement the MRI. The MRI gives the brain tumor’s ZIP code. Liquid biopsy gives you the demographics within that ZIP code.”

Working with collaborators around the nation, Children’s National continues to refine the technology to improve its accuracy.

Even though this research technique is in its infancy, the rapid, cheap and sensitive technology already is being used by people around the globe.

“People around the world are sending blood to us, looking for this particular mutation, H3K27M,” says Lindsay B. Kilburn, M.D., a neurooncologist, principal investigator at Children’s National for the Pacific Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium, and study co-author. “In many countries or centers children to not have access to teams experienced in taking a biopsy of tumors in the brainstem, they can perform a simple blood draw and have that blood processed and analyzed by us. In only a few days, we can provide important molecular information on the tumor subtype previously only available to patients who had undergone a tumor biopsy.”

With that DNA finding, physicians can make more educated therapeutic decisions, including prescribing medications that could not have been given previously, Nazarian adds.

In addition to Nazarian and Dr. Kilburn, study co-authors include Eshini Panditharatna, Madhuri Kambhampati, Heather Gordish-Dressman, Ph.D., Suresh N. Magge, M.D., John S. Myseros, M.D., Eugene I. Hwang, M.D., and Roger J. Packer, M.D., all of Children’s National; Mariam S. Aboian, Nalin Gupta, Soonmee Cha, Michael Prados and Co-Senior Author Sabine Mueller, all of University of California, San Francisco; Cassie Kline, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital;  John R. Crawford, UC San Diego; Katherine E. Warren, National Cancer Institute; Winnie S. Liang and Michael E. Berens, Translational Genomics Research Institute; and Adam C. Resnick, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Financial support for the research described in the report was provided by the V Foundation for Cancer Research, Goldwin Foundation, Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, Smashing Walnuts Foundation, The Gabriella Miller Kids First Data Resource Center, Zickler Family Foundation, Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National under award 5UL1TR001876-03, Piedmont Community Foundation, Musella Foundation for Brain Tumor Research, Mathew Larson Foundation, The Lilabean Foundation for Pediatric Brain Cancer Research, The Childhood Brain Tumor Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and American Society of Neuroradiology.

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,” Shannon Chin says after learning the reason her newborn daughter, Sariyah, who turned 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 tests 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?

Debra Regier, M.D., a medical geneticist at Children’s National Health System, encouraged Chin to follow up with a genetic test to answer these questions and to confirm 22q11.2 deletion syndrome symptoms she observed in Rueben.

A microarray analysis recently revealed 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 her patients, including Rueben, who had challenges with in-person visits. She thought: How can we make medical care easier for patients and families?

In January, Dr. Shur expanded virtual visits into a 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 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 mentions 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 and 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 coordinates 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?”

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 feature is letting doctors observe her children at home.

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

For example, instead of describing Rueben’s rapid, rhythmic arm movements, a flinging of the arms, 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 support personalized treatment and to help the patient adapt 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 try the 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.

However, Dr. Shur finds the program can 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 makes every virtual 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. Officials at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are 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.

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, investing in physician-patient partnerships

A poster at the Future of Pediatrics conference

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports telemedicine technologies that enhance the quality of care and the quality of life for children with special health care needs.

“The feedback has been phenomenal,” Dr. Shur says about the future of virtual visits for genetics. “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 introducing virtual visits to their patients, and many providers plan to do so as the program expands.

Sarah Viall, PPCNP, a nurse practitioner and newborn screening specialist, works with Dr. Shur and the geneticists during some visits to explain non-urgent newborn screening results to parents through virtual connections. Some parents find it’s easier to dial in during lunch 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.”

As Chin navigates atypical 22q11.2 deletion syndrome and ASD, she continues to appreciate the virtual waiting room and the ease of access virtual visits provides.

Sharing screens during virtual visits enables Chin to examine and better understand 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 about her children’s DNA, 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.

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

As research about 22q11.2 deletion syndrome advances, geneticists, pediatric subspecialists and pediatricians are unifying 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.

Attendees at the Future of Pediatrics conference

Nearly 400 pediatricians attend the Children’s National Future of Pediatrics CME symposium to learn about the future of pediatrics and about ways to work together as a diagnostic and treatment team.

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 for each child.

She hopes that by sharing her story and knowledge about 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, she can help other parents navigate similar situations. Heradvice to parents is to follow up 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 she hopes to learn more about her middle child’s DNA, unraveling another medical mystery.

Read more about the virtual visits pilot program at Becker’s Hospital Review and listen to an interview with Dr. Shur and Shannon Chin on WTOP.

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.