Neurology & Neurosurgery

2023 with a lightbulb

The best of 2023 from Innovation District

2023 with a lightbulbAdvanced MRI visualization techniques to follow blood flow in the hearts of cardiac patients. Gene therapy for pediatric patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. 3D-printed casts for treating clubfoot. These were among the most popular articles we published on Innovation District in 2023. Read on for our full list.

1. Advanced MRI hopes to improve outcomes for Fontan cardiac patients

Cardiac imaging specialists and cardiac surgeons at Children’s National Hospital are applying advanced magnetic resonance imaging visualization techniques to understand the intricacies of blood flow within the heart chambers of children with single ventricle heart defects like hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The data allows surgeons to make critical corrections to the atrioventricular valve before a child undergoes the single ventricle procedure known as the Fontan.
(3 min. read)

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

Children’s National Hospital became the first pediatric hospital to administer a commercial dose of Elevidys (delandistrogene moxeparvovec-rokl), the first gene therapy for the treatment of pediatric patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). Elevidys is a one-time intravenous gene therapy that aims to delay or halt the progression of DMD by delivering a modified, functional version of dystrophin to muscle cells.
(2 min. read)

3. New model to treat Becker Muscular Dystrophy

Researchers at Children’s National Hospital developed a pre-clinical model to test drugs and therapies for Becker Muscular Dystrophy (BMD), a debilitating neuromuscular disease that is growing in numbers and lacks treatment options. The work provides scientists with a much-needed method to identify, develop and de-risk drugs for patients with BMD.
(2 min. read)

4. First infants in the U.S. with specially modified pacemakers show excellent early outcomes

In 2022, five newborns with life-threatening congenital heart disease affecting their heart rhythms were the first in the United States to receive a novel modified pacemaker generator to stabilize their heart rhythms within days of birth. Two of the five cases were cared for at Children’s National Hospital. In a follow-up article, the team at Children’s National shared that “early post-operative performance of this device has been excellent.”
(2 min. read)

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

Experts from the Food and Drug Administration, Pfizer, Oracle Health, NVIDIA, AWS Health and elsewhere came together to discuss how pediatric specialties can use AI to provide medical care to kids more efficiently, more quickly and more effectively at the inaugural symposium on AI in Pediatric Health and Rare Diseases, hosted by Children’s National Hospital and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech.
(3 min. read)

6. AAP names Children’s National gun violence study one of the most influential articles ever published

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) named a 2019 study led by clinician-researchers at Children’s National Hospital one of the 12 most influential Pediatric Emergency Medicine articles ever published in the journal Pediatrics. The findings showed that states with stricter gun laws and laws requiring universal background checks for gun purchases had lower firearm-related pediatric mortality rates but that more investigation was needed to better understand the impact of firearm legislation on pediatric mortality.
(2 min. read)

7. Why a colorectal transition program matters

Children’s National Hospital recently welcomed pediatric and adult colorectal surgeon Erin Teeple, M.D., to the Division of Colorectal and Pelvic Reconstruction. Dr. Teeple is the only person in the United States who is board-certified as both a pediatric surgeon and adult colorectal surgeon, uniquely positioning her to care for people with both acquired and congenital colorectal disease and help them transition from pediatric care to adult caregivers.
(3 min. read)

8. First-of-its-kind holistic program for managing pain in sickle cell disease

The sickle cell team at Children’s National Hospital received a grant from the Founders Auxiliary Board to launch a first-of-its-kind, personalized holistic transformative program for the management of pain in sickle cell disease. The clinic uses an inter-disciplinary approach of hematology, psychology, psychiatry, anesthesiology/pain medicine, acupuncture, mindfulness, relaxation and aromatherapy services.
(3 min read)

9. Recommendations for management of positive monosomy X on cell-free DNA screening

Non-invasive prenatal testing using cell-free DNA (cfDNA) is currently offered to all pregnant women regardless of the fetal risk. In a study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, researchers from Children’s National Hospital provided context and expert recommendations for maternal and fetal evaluation and management when cfDNA screening is positive for monosomy X or Turner Syndrome.
(2 min. read)

10. Innovation in clubfoot management using 3D anatomical mapping

While clubfoot is relatively common and the treatment is highly successful, the weekly visits required for Ponseti casting can be a significant burden on families. Researchers at Children’s National Hospital are looking for a way to relieve that burden with a new study that could eliminate the weekly visits with a series of 3D-printed casts that families can switch out at home.
(1 min. read)

11. Gender Self-Report seeks to capture the gender spectrum for broad research applications

A new validated self-report tool provides researchers with a way to characterize the gender of research participants beyond their binary designated sex at birth. The multi-dimensional Gender Self-Report, developed using a community-driven approach and then scientifically validated, was outlined in a peer-reviewed article in the American Psychologist, a journal of the American Psychological Association.
(2 min. read)

12. Cardiovascular and bone diseases in chronic kidney disease

In a study published by Advances in Chronic Kidney Disease, a team at Children’s National Hospital reviewed cardiovascular and bone diseases in chronic kidney disease and end-stage kidney disease patients with a focus on pediatric issues and concerns.
(1 min. read)

Adelaide Robb

Changing the game in pediatric psychopharmacology

Adelaide Robb

“I realized adequate treatment in youth can prevent many of the harmful outcomes in adults who were never treated properly for their symptoms,” says Adelaide Robb, M.D.

Over three decades ago, Adelaide Robb, M.D., sat in her office with a clear goal in mind: follow a career in adult psychiatry. Her patients displayed all sorts of symptoms: generalized anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia.

“In the early 1990s, my patients would tell me other doctors didn’t believe in their children having bipolar disorder,” she says.

These adult patients had been sick for 5, 10 and even 15 years but had not been diagnosed or treated properly. Eventually, they started bringing their children with them, who also had similar symptoms.

“I realized adequate treatment in youth can prevent many of the harmful outcomes in adults who were never treated properly for their symptoms,” Dr. Robb says.

She soon came to another realization: there was a massive gap in the health care world – pediatric psychopharmacology. She felt the need to bridge this gap and help children, motivating her to change the course of her career. Since joining Children’s National Hospital in 1994, she’s been an unstoppable force in the pediatric psychopharmacology world, quickly changing the rules of the game.

The big picture

Pediatricians in the United States continue to grapple with a mental health crisis that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and declared a national emergency in 2021.

Mental health plays a key role in a child’s mental, emotional and behavioral well-being. It affects the way they think, feel and act while also impacting how they handle stress, relate to their peers and make choices.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, behavior problems and depression are the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorders in children. While available treatments vary, over the years, data has proven how medications can play a role in improving most mental health conditions.

Children’s National leads the way

For decades, Dr. Robb has led research focused on pediatric psychopharmacology with more than 80 clinical trials. Children’s National is one of only a few sites nationwide to participate in federally funded mental health clinical trials. Major trials she has led include:

  • Lexapro for major depression in youth
  • Prozac for obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Abilify for pediatric bipolar and schizophrenia
  • Latuda for pediatric bipolar depression
  • Concerta for ADHD

Dr. Robb also co-chaired the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Pediatric Psychopharmacology Initiative Committee for more than 8 years. She has also been active for more than 15 years in the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on drugs (pharmacology).

“Since its inception in the ‘90s, pediatric psychopharmacology has changed in two major ways: First, we started to do regular testing of new medications in children and not just adults. Second, there’s been congressional and FDA mandates for testing of all medications that can be used in kids,” says Dr. Robb. “It’s no longer a guessing game – we have an evidence-based approach to children with mental illness using psychopharmacology.”

Currently, Dr. Robb is the principal investigator on several open clinical trials at Children’s National, including a study that compares the effectiveness of treating a parent with ADHD medication plus behavioral parent training (BPT) versus BPT alone on their child’s ADHD related symptoms.

Moving the field forward

Earlier this year, Dr. Robb moderated a panel on mental health and precision genomics which touched on what we know about depression, anxiety and other disorders and the future of pediatric behavioral health care.

“The goal is to give people with depression and other mental health illnesses the opportunity to go to school and function, whether they have depression, ADHD or any other disorder. This can make a huge difference in someone’s life,” Dr. Robb says.

Children’s National is uniquely positioned with a dedicated pharmacokinetic clinical team – which has greatly aided its ADHD and Learning Differences Program and most recent Addictions Program.

“We changed how ADHD was treated because our patients had early access to new trialed drugs,” says Dr. Robb. “This makes a big difference and gives children the opportunity to have better control of their symptoms so they’re paying attention and learning in school.”

Read more about our advances in Behavioral Health.

Drs. Catherine Limperopoulos, Yao Wu and David Wessel

AHA’s Outstanding Research Award: Three generations of pediatric cardiac excellence

Drs. Catherine Limperopoulos, Yao Wu and David Wessel

Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., Yao Wu, Ph.D., and David Wessel, M.D.

Children’s National Hospital is celebrating a remarkable milestone as three of its faculty members have been honored over 15 years with the American Heart Association’s Outstanding Research in Pediatric Cardiology Award. Yao Wu, Ph.D., became the latest researcher to earn the accolade for her groundbreaking work into congenital heart disease (CHD).

A research faculty member with the newly established Center for Prenatal, Neonatal & Maternal Health Research, Dr. Wu received the award specifically for her studies on the role of altered placental function, measured by advanced in utero imaging, and neurodevelopmental outcomes in toddlers with CHD.

Honored at the association’s annual meeting in Philadelphia, Dr. Wu returned to Children’s National to warm congratulations from her colleagues who had previously won the award: David Wessel, M.D., executive vice president and chief medical officer, and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the new center.

“I am thrilled to pass the baton to one of our own,” Dr. Limperopoulos said. “Dr. Wu’s recognition speaks to the outstanding and innovative research happening at Children’s National among junior faculty who are focusing on advancing our understanding of congenital heart disease and its long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes.”

Why we’re excited

The prestigious award represents more than individual accomplishments; it symbolizes three generations of mentorship and collaboration at the hospital. In 2007, Dr. Wessel joined Children’s National to enhance the care of newborns across specialty services by expanding programs and research, with a focus on critically ill newborns with heart disease. He recruited and mentored Dr. Limperopoulos in 2010, who became one of his research partners and creator of the hospital’s Center for Prenatal, Neonatal & Maternal Health Research. Dr. Limperopoulos, in turn, recruited and mentored Dr. Wu, providing her with the tools to conduct advanced imaging on in-utero brains and placentas, as well as the development of children with CHD.

“Each one of us is in different phases of our careers, yet we are connected by our deep interest in advancing cardiac care for critically ill newborns,” Dr. Wessel said. “In this collaborative environment, we learn from each other to improve entire lifetimes for our patients.”

Dr. Wu said she believes in sharing scientific developments for the advancement of the entire medical community. “It was an honor to be chosen to join this esteemed club, which has a relentless focus on improving health outcomes,” she said.

Children’s National leads the way

The award winners shared five collaborations published in leading journals to contribute to the ongoing dialogue in the field and the innovative work happening at Children’s National:

baby in the NICU

Painful NICU procedures change neurological development in preterm babies

baby in the NICU

Premature infants exposed to pain while in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) are at greater risk for motor delays, language deficits and autism, even in the absence of structural brain injuries, according to findings from the new Center for Prenatal, Neonatal & Maternal Health Research at Children’s National Hospital.

Premature infants exposed to pain while in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) are at greater risk for motor delays, language deficits and autism, even in the absence of structural brain injuries, according to findings from the new Center for Prenatal, Neonatal & Maternal Health Research at Children’s National Hospital.

The research sheds light on the potential outcomes of routine medical interventions – such as heel pricks, venipunctures and IV placements – and correlates these skin breaks to changes in neurological connectivity in the preterm infants’ brains. Published in BMC Medicine, the work provides valuable insights about the far-reaching impact of early medical care.

“We know that premature babies are often exposed to repeated medical interventions, light, sound and other stimuli that they would not experience in utero, and we wanted to better understand the long-term effect,” said Kevin Cook, Ph.D., research faculty at the new center and an expert in fetal and neonatal neurology. “Through this study, we can see that early and repeated exposure to pain appears to alter brain development and put children at risk for poor neurodevelopmental outcomes.”

The big picture

Globally, nearly 1 in 10 babies is born preterm, and the Children’s National team was particularly interested in the experience of those born “very” and “extremely” preterm, which is considered any delivery earlier than 32 and 28 weeks of gestation, respectively. While rates of prematurity have been relatively stable, survival rates of these babies have increased remarkably in recent decades, thanks to improved interventions and therapies for preterm infants. Yet neurodevelopmental challenges among these children persist, with noteworthy risks of autism and other neurological deficits.

At Children’s National, researchers are working to understand the mechanism behind those challenges. Given that the late second trimester and the third trimester are critical periods for brain development, the team wanted to study the effects of exposing babies to the world outside the womb early.

The fine print

Dr. Cook and his colleagues collected resting-state functional MRI (fMRI) scans from 148 infants born at least four weeks prematurely, along with 99 infants born full term. The fMRI scans, uniquely suited for studying the resting state of the brain in non-responsive infants, revealed significant hyperconnectivity within the cerebellum, which coordinates muscle activity, and the limbic and paralimbic regions, which govern emotions, motivation and cognitive functions.

Notably, the hyperconnectivity correlated with the number of skin break procedures, including heel pricks, venipunctures and IV placements. When the children returned for developmental evaluations at 18 months, the skin breaks were strongly associated with an increased risk of autism and lower motor and language scores. The toddlers identified at risk for autism had an average of 118 skin breaks, which is significantly more than the average of 65 skin breaks in those who were not at risk.

What’s ahead

Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for Prenatal, Neonatal & Maternal Health Research, said the findings have important implications for understanding how painful NICU procedures can impact long-term outcomes and how physicians conceptualize the risks of care given to preterm babies. She and her team at the center recommend further research into managing pain in premature babies, especially given the limits of current options and the known risk of opioids.

“With this foundational study, we should consider ways to improve pain management for preterm infants and methods to better weigh the interventions used on these incredibly vulnerable patients,” Dr. Limperopoulos said. “Saving their lives is certainly the priority, and the quality of that life should also be forefront of our minds.”

illustration of neurons with electrical impulses

Children’s National at the American Epilepsy Society Annual Meeting

illustration of neurons with electrical impulsesSeveral experts from Children’s National Hospital will be sharing their knowledge at the upcoming American Epilepsy Society Annual Meeting in Orlando, December 1-5. Here’s a sample of what you can expect.

  • Chima Oluigbo, M.D., a pediatric neurosurgeon, will be on panel with other surgeons discussing different surgical techniques and approaches related to epilepsy surgery followed by hands-on practice at teaching stations. He will focus on extra-temporal epilepsy scenarios and will be presenting on Nuances of Temporal Lobe Surgery in the Pediatric Population at the Neurosurgery Symposium highlighting Surgical Controversies in Temporal Lobe Epilepsies.
  • Ersida Buraniqi, M.D., a child neurologist, will be part of a special interest group on critical care and discuss advances in electroencephalography (EEG) and multimodal neuro-monitoring for seizures in the intensive care unit (ICU). Dr. Buranigui will be doing a special presentation on EEG features to predict electrographic seizures and mortality in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU).
  • Dana Harrar, M.D., director of Pediatric Stroke Program and co-director of Critical Care Neurology, is presenting at an invitation-only resident EEG course, providing an interactive structured curriculum on pediatric and adult EEG. Dr. Harrar will be focusing on doing an ICU-EEG nomenclature overview.
  • Madison Berl, Ph.D., director of Neuropathy Research and of the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center Program, will be presenting during the AES Annual Course. The topic “It’s About Time” will focus on the critical importance the timing in epilepsy care plays in patient outcome. Dr. Berl will be presenting on neuropsych outcomes.
  • Leigh Sepeta, Ph.D., director of Inpatient Neuropsychology, is the vice-chair of the special interest group on neuropsychology. Additionally, Freya Prentice, M.Sc., will be doing a presentation during this session on functional mapping of the cognitive memory circuit in pediatric epilepsy.
Date Time Presenter(s) Title
12/2/23 8:00 am Chima Oluigbo, M.D., FRCSC, FAANS Skills Workshop | Epilepsy Surgery Workshop: Techniques and Clinical Scenarios
12/2/23 5:30 pm Chima Oluigbo, M.D., FRCSC, FAANS SIG | Epilepsy Surgery: Homunculus Revisited: Managing Central Lobe Epilepsies
12/2/23 5:30 pm Ersida Buraniqi, M.D. SIG | Critical Care: Advances in EEG and Multimodal Neuro-monitoring for Seizures in the ICU
12/2/23 7:00am Dana Harrar M.D. Resident EEG Course
12/3/23 9:00 am Chima Oluigbo, M.D., FRCSC, FAANS Neurosurgery Symposium | Surgical Controversies in Temporal Lobe Epilepsies
12/3/23 8:45 am Madison Berl, Ph.D. Annual Course | It’s About Time: Timing in Epilepsy Evaluation and Treatment
12/4/23 7:00 am Leigh Sepeta, M.D. SIG | Neuropsychology: Mapping Cognition in Epilepsy: From the Lab to the Clinic
12/4/23 7:00 am Freya Prentice, M.D. SIG | Neuropsychology: Mapping Cognition in Epilepsy: From the Lab to the Clinic
12/5/23 7:00 am Dana Harrar M.D. SIG | Epilepsy Education: Epilepsy Education Throughout the Training Pipeline


Dr. Panagiotis Kratimenos in the lab

Understanding mechanisms of injury due to prematurity in human cerebellum

Dr. Panagiotis Kratimenos in the lab

“There is no better model to study preterm injury than the human brain. Our team, along with the expertise of the scientific advisory board of the Raynor Cerebellum Project, will approach this project in multiple ways to extract the most possible information from the extremely precious human tissues,” says Dr. Kratimenos.

Children’s National Hospital has received $1 million in funding as part of the Raynor Cerebellum Project, whose mission is to improve the lives of those with cerebellar disease in seven to ten years. Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., Ph.D., principal investigator and Co-Director of Research in the Division of Neonatology at Children’s National, says the goal of this work is to understand the mechanisms of injury due to prematurity in human cerebellum and identify opportunities for intervention.

Why the research is unique

This project is unique because it focuses on postmortem human cerebellum, addressing the effect of the immune dysregulation of the mother during preterm labor. “We have established a large cohort of human term and preterm subjects and we will leverage cutting edge techniques to understand how the immune system of the mother during preterm labor shapes the cerebellum in a way that becomes more vulnerable to subsequent insults,” says Dr. Kratimenos.

Why this research matters for critical newborns

“There is no better model to study preterm injury than the human brain. Our team, along with the expertise of the scientific advisory board of the Raynor Cerebellum Project, will approach this project in multiple ways to extract the most possible information from the extremely precious human tissues. This will give us insight into the real mechanisms of preterm birth induced injury due to maternal immune dysregulation,” says Dr. Kratimenos.

illustration of the brain with concussion

20 years of leadership in the concussion space

illustration of the brain with concussion

The concussion space has evolved, especially in the pediatric field, more than ever before.

For the past two decades, the concussion space has evolved, especially in the pediatric field where more than ever before, experts are specializing in the evaluation and management of concussions in children. Gerard Gioia, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and the director of the Safe Concussion Outcome, Recovery & Education (SCORE) Program at Children’s National Hospital. He has been at the forefront of this work and is a leading expert in traumatic brain injury research and education.

For 20 years, Dr. Gioia has lent his expertise to CDC’s HEADS UP campaign providing clinical and research insights on concussion prevention, recognition and response. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Q: What has been the biggest change you have seen in the concussion landscape over the last 20 years?

A: The biggest change is awareness. Most people now recognize concussions as a serious issue. The second change is how we treat concussions. People used to think that if you got a concussion, you had to sit in a dark room and not do anything after a concussion. Now, we know better. This is where care plans (such as the ACE care plan) come in. Healthcare providers now tell people with a concussion that they need to be progressively active (physically, socially, cognitively) and that appropriate activity can speed and improve recovery. Related to active recovery management, we now provide explicit guidance to schools in supporting the returning student from day one.

Q: How have you and Children’s National been involved with CDC’s HEADS UP campaign?

A: I was excited when CDC released educational materials for physicians in 2003 on identifying mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) and concussions. I soon realized that they were not robust enough. In 2005, CDC released a tool kit for high school coaches (HEADS UP to High School Coaches). That was great — a robust toolkit full of ideas for what to do if a kid gets a brain injury. I reached out to Jean Langlois and then Kelly Sarmiento at CDC. That kicked off several efforts with CDC to create educational materials for physicians (HEADS UP: Brain Injury in Your Practice), youth sports coaches (HEADS UP: Concussion in Youth Sports) and school professionals (HEADS UP to Schools: Know Your Concussion ABCs).

Q: What do you envision for the next 20 years of concussion research and education?

A: Treatment and prevention are the ultimate goals for us. I am looking forward to refining active treatment using biomarkers, the biological underpinnings of injury. Expanding and refining our understanding of these biomarkers will change the game for concussion treatment. We also need to focus efforts on preventing these injuries and modifying how we teach/coach youth sports with greater safety in a developmentally-appropriate manner.

pregnant woman looking at sonogram

Babies with congenital heart disease display disrupted brain function before birth

pregnant woman looking at sonogram

In their study, the team at Children’s National Hospital found that specific brain regions become especially vulnerable to injury around 24 weeks of pregnancy when developing babies begin to have high energy demands and rapid neurovascular changes.

For the first time, researchers have found that babies born with congenital heart disease (CHD) have alterations to the emerging functional connectivity of their brains in utero. The changes are related to the subtype of their CHD and their oxygen status before they have lifesaving surgery to treat their cardiac malformation, according to new findings published in the American Heart Association’s Circulation Research.

In their study, the team at Children’s National Hospital found that specific brain regions become especially vulnerable to injury around 24 weeks of pregnancy when developing babies begin to have high energy demands and rapid neurovascular changes. That leaves certain parts of the brain, including the brainstem, more susceptible to injury from cardiac complications and poor circulation.

“We used a special type of magnetic resonance imaging to safely study the brains of these unborn babies, and we found that they have weakened connectivity in the deep grey structures, which are responsible for sensation, movement, alertness and other core functions,” said Josepheen De Asis-Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor at the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National and an author of the study. “This offers an important clue in utero to the type of care the babies will eventually need when they are born.”

The big picture

In the past decade, the survival rate for fetuses with CHD has greatly improved. About 80% of cases – even some of the most high-risk heart defects – can be successfully treated or palliated with surgery and survive. Yet Dr. Cruz said researchers are finding that the rates of poor neurodevelopmental outcomes are about the same. That’s why she and her colleagues are looking at what precisely may be injuring the brains of these newborns prior to surgery, offering a possible roadmap to interventions.

The fine print

The research team studied 107 healthy, low-risk pregnancies and 75 pregnancies known to be complicated by CHD. They used functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI) to examine the emerging connections of the brains of unborn babies, given fcMRI’s unique ability to query the brain in a resting state when a patient is unable to respond to tasks. They also studied the oxygen saturation levels of the babies after they were born and then mapped all of this information to the type of CHD that they were diagnosed with.

“Our findings indicate that the compromised connectivity in the brains of CHD patients before delivery is linked to hypoxia after birth,” Cruz said. “There were important differences in the low- and high-risk CHD groups. Babies born with transposition of the great arteries or hypoplastic left heart syndrome – two of the most high-risk diagnoses – have notable changes in their brain function, which could someday be used as biomarkers to guide their care.”

What’s ahead

Researchers at Children’s National are working together, using a variety of modalities, to move toward precision imaging in utero to help predict a child’s neurodevelopmental outcomes. The ultimate goal: better interventions sooner.

“This work is foundational. As we fine-tune more techniques to identify babies at risk, we can understand how environmental, genetic and epigenetic factors impact brain development and guide care decisions,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for Prenatal, Neonatal & Maternal Health Research and a senior author of the paper. “We can imagine a day where we can offer pregnant mothers highly detailed and personalized information about their unborn baby, and individualized interventions that lead to healthier lifetimes.”

Motor neuron connecting to muscle fiber

FDA approves muscular dystrophy drug built on Children’s National research

Motor neuron connecting to muscle fiber

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is the most common hereditary neuromuscular disease.

Boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) have a clinically proven, new treatment option with the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of vamorolone, a steroidal-type, anti-inflammatory drug developed based on research performed at Children’s National Hospital.

Created by ReveraGen BioPharma Inc., vamorolone has a molecular structure similar to traditional corticosteroids, which are currently used to treat DMD. Yet its structure was found to be chemically different enough to reduce unwanted side effects, including brittle bones and reduced stature. Nearly two decades ago, ReveraGen leaders – President and CEO Eric Hoffman, Ph.D., and Vice President for Research Kanneboyina Nagaraju, D.V.M., Ph.D. – launched research efforts into the drug when they led the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National. They worked with then-Chief Academic Officer Mark Batshaw, M.D., on the new clinical option.

“Throughout my career, I have treated children with DMD, and I have seen over time how their shorter heights and brittle bones impact them physically and emotionally – in terms of their self-esteem and ability to participate in activities,” Dr. Batshaw said. “This drug should help these boys function more effectively and prevent certain long-term complications.”

The patient benefit

Muscular dystrophy includes a group of degenerative genetically inherited neuro-muscular diseases that strike only boys. DMD is the most common, severe and life-threatening form of muscular dystrophy. ReveraGen studied vamorolone for patients ages two years and up in the hopes of providing a new, FDA-approved treatment option for these children. In clinical trials, daily treatment with vamorolone improved muscle strength and stature with results comparable to prednisolone, but without some of the most impactful side effects of steroids, particularly the stunted growth and weakened bones.

Children’s National Hospital leads the way

Kolaleh Eskandanian, Ph.D., M.B.A., P.M.P., vice president and chief innovation officer for Children’s National, said Drs. Hoffman and Nagaraju’s work on the drug paved the way for entrepreneurship at the hospital, as they were the first faculty members to launch a spin-off company. Since then, more than 130 faculty members have been named as inventors on 132 patents. Children’s National is now home to Innovation Ventures, the hospital’s intellectual property development and commercialization arm, which provides guidance and resources to academic entrepreneurs who introduce a concept for pediatric medical products.

“We cannot wait to see the tremendous effort behind vamorolone in the hands of patients and clinicians treating Duchenne muscular dystrophy,” Eskandanian said. “Today’s FDA approval for ReveraGen shows the importance of supporting clinicians and researchers who are developing solutions to advance healthcare for children.”

Why we’re excited

Hoffman said the drug has been through a series of clinical trials showing advantages over the current treatment options. In 2024, Catalyst Pharma will market vamorolone under the trade name Agamree in the United States.

“Vamorolone was developed using a different business model and drug development approach, including partnerships with the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, the European Commission and more than a dozen international nonprofit foundations,” Dr. Hoffman said. “The collaborative, community-engaged approach—including 32 academic clinical sites in 11 countries — and the participation of hundreds of DMD families led to this approval today.”

collage of hyperspectral imaging (sHSI) camera and brain surgery

Novel camera + machine learning = hope for more precise neurosurgery

collage of hyperspectral imaging (sHSI) camera and brain surgery

Researchers at Children’s National Hospital developed a compact imaging camera capable of seeing beyond the human visual spectrum to help segment healthy brain tissue from tumors during surgery. The groundbreaking technology will allow neurosurgeons to make more precise, real-time decisions in the operating room, rather than sending samples to pathology labs for biopsies.

In a manuscript published in Bioengineering, the team of engineers and neurosurgeons details how its snapshot hyperspectral imaging (sHSI) camera can be used to capture and process images of brain tissue, using the wide spectrum of light between visible and infrared wavelengths. That additional information — beyond the human eye — has the potential to allow for more accurate and complete tumor removal.

“In the hands of a neurosurgeon, this camera, when combined with machine learning, could dramatically improve outcomes for some of our most vulnerable brain tumor patients,” said Richard Jaepyeong Cha, Ph.D., an optical engineer and principal investigator at the Sheikh Zayed Institute of Pediatric Surgical Innovation. “We are able to attach the camera to a surgical microscope and process a significant amount of information from the patient while in the operating room. Not only could this lead to more complete tumor resection, it will also allow the surgeon to save as much healthy brain tissue as possible and reduce lifelong neurological complications.”

Why we’re excited

Brain tumors are the most common solid tumors in children, accounting for the highest number of pediatric cancer deaths globally each year. To develop a treatment plan, neurosurgeons need to understand the tumor’s features, including its type, grade of malignancy, location and its categorization as a primary or metastatic cancer. This information leads to decisions about how to remove or biopsy a tumor.

Under the current protocols, surgeons evaluate tumor margins in the operating room by examining the appearance of the brain tissue and sending out small samples to the pathology department for biopsies. This can lead to longer surgeries and difficult real-time surgical decisions. For instance, some low-grade tumors are visually indistinguishable from healthy brain tissue.

In four investigational cases approved by the hospital’s institutional research board, the sHSI camera was used in the operating room to help segment healthy pediatric brain tissue from tumors. Unlike the conventional red-green-blue (RGB) imaging cameras, which use only those three colors, HSI captures spectral data at each pixel of the image — a task too complex for the human eye — and sends it instantly for processing by an algorithm designed to assist in tumor segmentation.

What’s ahead

Despite the small dataset, the researchers were able to successfully segment healthy brain tissue from lesions with a high specificity during pediatric brain tumor resection procedures. Significant work remains to refine the technology and the machine learning behind it. Researchers also plan to integrate the sHSI camera into a laparoscope to visualize tumors that are not on the brain’s surface and collect data from more angles.

“As we develop these groundbreaking tools, we plan to continue to expand the dataset and refine the algorithm to make pediatric neurosurgery continually more precise,” said Naomi Kifle, M.S., research and development engineer at Children’s National and first author on the paper. “As our dataset grows, we hope to create a model that can distinguish healthy brain tissue, tumor and skull. This groundbreaking surgical tool shows significant promise.”

Winners of the International Conference on Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Intervention

AI team wins international competition to measure pediatric brain tumors

Winners of the International Conference on Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Intervention
Children’s National Hospital scientists won first place in a global competition to use artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze pediatric brain tumor volumes, demonstrating the team’s ground-breaking advances in imaging and machine learning.

During the International Conference on Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Intervention (MICCAI), the Children’s National team demonstrated the most accurate algorithm to study the volume of brain tumors – the most common solid tumors affecting children and adolescents and a leading cause of disease-related death at this young age. The technology could someday help oncologists understand the extent of a patient’s disease, quantify the efficacy of treatments and predict patient outcomes.

“The Brain Tumor Segmentation Challenge inspires leaders in medical imaging and deep learning to try to solve some of the most vexing problems facing radiologists, oncologists, computer engineers and data scientists,” said Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil., M.A., M.Sc., the Connor Family Professor in Research and Innovation and principal investigator in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation. “I am honored that our team won, and I’m even more thrilled for our clinicians and their patients, who need us to keep moving forward to find new ways to treat pediatric brain tumors.”

Why we’re excited

With roughly 4,000 children diagnosed yearly, pediatric brain tumors are consistently the most common type of pediatric solid tumor, second only to leukemia in pediatric malignancies. At the urging of Linguraru and one of his peers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, pediatric data was included in the international competition for the first time, helping to ensure that children are represented in medical and technological advances.

The contest required participants to use data from multiple institutions and consortia to test competing methods fairly. The Children’s National team created a method to tap into the power of two types of imaging and machine learning: 3D convolutional neural network and 3D Vision Transformer-based deep learning models. They identified regions of the brain affected by tumors, made shrewd data-processing decisions driven by the team’s experience in AI for pediatric healthcare and achieved state-of-the-art results.

The competition drew 18 teams who are leaders from across the AI and machine learning community. The runner-up teams were from NVIDIA and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China.

The big picture

“Children’s National has an all-star lineup, and I am thrilled to see our scientists recognized on an international stage,” said interim Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B., director of the Center for Cancer for Immunology Research. “As we work to attack brain tumors from multiple angles, we continue to show our exceptional ability to create new and better tools for diagnosing, imaging and treating these devastating tumors.”

Patient and doctor demoing Rare-CAP technology

M.D. in your pocket: New platform allows rare disease patients to carry medical advice everywhere

When someone has a rare disease, a trip to the emergency room can be a daunting experience: Patients and their caregivers must share the particulars of their illness or injury, with the added burden of downloading a non-specialist on the details of a rare diagnosis that may change treatment decisions.

Innovators at Children’s National Hospital and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, supported by Takeda, are trying to simplify that experience using a new web-based platform called the Rare Disease Clinical Activity Protocols, or Rare-CAP. This revolutionary collection of medical information allows patients to carry the latest research-based guidance about their rare disorders in their phones, providing a simple QR code that can open a trove of considerations for any medical provider to evaluate as they work through treatment options for someone with an underlying rare disease.

“No one should worry about what happens when they need medical help, especially patients with rare diseases,” said Debra Regier, M.D., division chief of Genetics and Metabolism at Children’s National and Rare-CAP’s lead medical advisor. “We built this new tool because I have watched as my patient-families have wound up in an emergency room — after all, kids get sprains or fractures — but they don’t have the expertise of a rare disease specialist with them. My hope is that they’re going to pull out their phones and access Rare-CAP, which will explain their rare disease to a new provider who can provide more thoughtful and meaningful care.”

The big picture

A rare disease is defined as any disorder that affects less than 200,000 people in the United States. Some 30 million Americans are believed to be living with one of the 7,000 known rare disorders tracked by the National Organization of Rare Diseases (NORD). Led by Dr. Regier, the Rare Disease Institute at Children’s National is one of 40 NORD centers for excellence in the country that provide care, guidance and leadership for the wide array of disorders that make up the rare disease community.

While a key goal of Rare-CAP is to bolster patient self-advocacy, the platform will also allow medical providers to proactively search for protocols on rare diseases when they know they need specialized advice from experts at Children’s National, a network of tertiary care centers and patient organizations.

As a leading values-based, R&D-driven biopharmaceutical company, Takeda has committed $3.85 million to the project to help activate meaningful change and empower a brighter future for rare disease communities, providing a unique understanding of the struggle that patients and caregivers face when they need care.

“Our team, alongside the medical and rare disease community, saw the need for a single portal to collect standardized care protocols, and we are thrilled to see this innovative tool come to life,” said Tom Koutsavlis, M.D., head of U.S. Medical Affairs at Takeda. “People with rare diseases and their caregivers need faster access to authoritative medical information that providers anywhere can act on, this will lead to improving the standard of care, accelerating time to diagnosis and breaking down barriers to increase equitable access.”

The patient benefit

The creators of Rare-CAP imagined its use in a wide range of settings, including emergency rooms, surgical suites, dental offices, urgent care offices and school clinics. The platform will eventually profile thousands of rare diseases and lay out the implications for care, while also creating a dynamic conversation among users who can offer updates based on real-world experience and changes in medical guidance.

“Our patients are unique, and so is this tool,” Dr. Regier said. “As we roll out Rare-CAP, we believe it is just the beginning of the conversation to expand the platform and see its power for the patient and provider grow, with each entry and each new rare disease that’s added to the conversation.”

Catherine Limperopoulos

Imaging reveals altered brain chemistry of babies with CHD

Researchers at Children’s National Hospital used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to find new biomarkers that reveal how congenital heart disease (CHD) changes an unborn baby’s brain chemistry, providing early clues that could someday guide treatment decisions for babies facing lifelong health challenges.

Published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the findings detail the ways that heart defects disrupt metabolic processes in the developing brain, especially during the third trimester of pregnancy when babies grow exponentially.

“Over the past decade, our team has been at the forefront of developing safe and sophisticated ways to measure and monitor fetal brain health in the womb,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for Prenatal, Neonatal and Maternal Health Research at Children’s National. “By tapping into the power of advanced imaging, we were able to measure certain maturational components of the brain to find early biomarkers for newborns who are going to struggle immediately after birth.”

The fine print

In one of the largest cohorts of CHD patients assembled to date, researchers at Children’s National studied the developing brains of 221 healthy unborn babies and 112 with CHD using magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a noninvasive diagnostic test that can examine chemical changes in the brain. They found:

  • Those with CHD had higher levels of choline and lower levels of N-Acetyl aspartate-to-choline ratios compared to healthy babies, potentially representing disrupted brain development.
  • Babies with more complex CHD also had higher levels of cerebral lactate compared to babies with two ventricle CHD. Lactate, in particular, is a worrying signal of oxygen deprivation.

Specifically, elevated lactate levels were notably increased in babies with two types of heart defects: transposition of the great arteries, a birth defect in which the two main arteries carrying blood from the heart are switched in position, and single ventricle CHD, a birth defect causing one chamber to be smaller, underdeveloped or missing a valve. These critical heart defects generally require babies to undergo heart surgery not long after birth. The elevated lactate levels also were associated with an increased risk of death, highlighting the urgency needed for timely and effective interventions.

The research suggests that this type of imaging can provide a roadmap for further investigation and hope that medicine will someday be able to better plan for the care of these children immediately after their delivery. “With important clues about how a fetus is growing and developing, we can provide better care to help these children not only survive, but thrive, in the newborn period and beyond,” said Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Children’s National neonatologist and first author on the paper.

The big picture

CHD is the most common birth defect in the United States, affecting about 1% of all children born or roughly 40,000 babies each year. While these defects can be fatal, babies who survive are known to be at significantly higher risk of lifelong neurological deficits, including lower cognitive function, poor social interaction, inattention and impulsivity. The impact can also be felt in other organ systems because their hearts did not pump blood efficiently to support development.

Yet researchers are only beginning to pinpoint the biomarkers that can provide information about which babies are going to struggle most and require higher levels of care. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center supported the research at Children’s National to improve this understanding.

“For many years we have known that the brains of children with severe heart problems do not always develop normally, but new research shows that abnormal function occurs already in the fetus,” said Kathleen N. Fenton, M.D., M.S., chief of the Advanced Technologies and Surgery Branch in the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). “Understanding how the development and function of the brain is already different before a baby with a heart defect is born will help us to intervene with personal treatment as early as possible, perhaps even prenatally, and improve outcomes.”

Note: This research and content are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH. The NIH provided support for this research through NHLBI grant R01HL116585 and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant P50HD105328.

child being evaluated for autism

Using a multisystem approach to improve access to autism care in Washington, D.C.

child being evaluated for autism

Children with autism face significant barriers to accessing evaluations and intervention services.

An article in the journal Pediatrics reviews the outcomes from a collective, targeted advocacy approach to improving access to autism supports and resources for children and their families in Washington, D.C. The effort was led by Children’s National Hospital and engaged a multidisciplinary team from within the hospital and across a wide range of community sectors.

What this means

Children’s National and DC Autism Parents worked collaboratively with a coalition of organizations from the broader District of Columbia community to address some of the biggest challenges and barriers that prevent autistic children and their families from receiving the resources and support they need in the nation’s capital.

Why it matters

Children with autism face significant barriers to accessing evaluations and intervention services often because of confusing referral processes, lack of centralized coordination across organizations serving children with autism, insurance coverage gaps, multiyear waitlists for diagnostic services and limited provider knowledge about autism. Racism and systemic inequities also persist in autism care across the United States.

Long and growing wait times in autism diagnostic clinics and lack of centralized care coordination for autistic children are prevalent across the District of Columbia, and as a result, many children and families in the region continue to lack access to the support they need.

What’s unique

The study describes multiyear efforts (2017–2022) to improve autism care throughout the District of Columbia using a collective impact framework to unite organizations from different sectors. This approach features the creation of a common agenda (including defining goals and priorities), shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and infrastructure support.

Together, the group members sought to address barriers and overcome challenges at multiple levels of the healthcare system at the same time by focusing advocacy in three specific areas:

  • Infrastructure-building initiatives/system-level approaches.
  • Population- and community-level services to build capacity and connect providers and families to needed resources.
  • Direct services that provide innovative, gap-filling supports to children and families as a stopgap until the necessary supports can be more sustainably provided across the board.

Bottom line

While more work is needed to continue expanding the availability of needed services, the findings from this initial effort can inform the next steps in Washington, D.C., and serve as a model for a collective framework approach for autism services in other parts of the United States.

You can read the full study “A Multisystem Approach to Improving Autism Care” in the journal Pediatrics.

More information and resources about these autism initiatives can be found at:

Drs. Robert Keating, Brian Rood and Catherine Bollard

Children’s National announces new professorships

Drs. Robert Keating, Brian Rood and Catherine Bollard

Robert Keating, M.D., Brian Rood, M.D., and Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B.

Children’s National Hospital named Robert Keating, M.D., as the McCullough Distinguished Professor of Neurosurgery. He serves as the chief of neurosurgery and co-director of the high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) program at Children’s National.

Children’s National Hospital named Brian Rood, M.D., as the Kurt D. Newman, M.D., Professor of Neuro-Oncology. He serves as director of clinical neuro-oncology and medical director of the Brain Tumor Institute at Children’s National.

Children’s National Hospital elevated Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B., to the Dr. Robert J. and Florence T. Bosworth Distinguished Professor of Cancer and Transplantation Biology Research. She is the Interim Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer and Interim Director, Children’s National Research Institute. She also serves as the director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research and director of the Program for Cell Enhancement and Technologies for Immunotherapy at Children’s National.

About the awards

Professorships at Children’s National support groundbreaking work on behalf of children and their families and foster new discoveries and innovations in pediatric medicine. These appointments carry prestige and honor that reflect the recipient’s achievements and donor’s forethought to advance and sustain knowledge. Children’s National is grateful for its generous donors, who have funded 47 professorships.

Dr. Keating is a longstanding leader in neurosurgery research and care. His areas of expertise include brain tumors, traumatic brain injuries, craniofacial anomalies, Chiari malformations and spinal dysraphism. With Dr. Keating’s leadership, the neurosurgery department is pioneering innovations such as HIFU, a non-invasive therapy using focused ultrasound waves to ablate a focal area of tissue. It can treat tumors located in difficult locations of the brain, movement disorders and epilepsy. Children’s National was one of the first pediatric hospitals in the nation to use HIFU for neuro-oncology patients.

“Our goal is to elevate our top-ranked program to even greater heights,” says Dr. Keating. “We will continue to use cutting-edge technology and non-invasive approaches to make the knife obsolete in pediatric neurosurgery and improve outcomes for children.”

Dr. Rood studies the biology of pediatric brain tumors. He focuses on protein signatures and biomarkers specific to different types of brain cancers. His study of neoantigens is informing the development of T-cell immunotherapies to target a tumor’s unique proteins.

“Immunotherapy is revolutionizing how we treat childhood brain tumors — safely, effectively and with the precision made possible by using a patient’s own cells,” says Dr. Rood. “This professorship enables our team to advance this revolution, which will save lives and improve lifetimes.”

Dr. Bollard received the Dr. Robert J. and Florence T. Bosworth Professor of Cancer and Transplantation Biology Research in 2018 to support her work to develop cell and gene therapies for patients with cancer and underlying immune deficiencies. Her professorship has been elevated to a distinguished professorship to amplify her research and celebrate her accomplishments in the field of immunotherapy.

About the donor

These appointments were made possible through an extraordinary $96 million investment from an anonymous donor family for rare pediatric brain tumor research and care. It is one of the hospital’s largest donations and will transform the hospital’s ability to give patients with rare brain cancer a better chance at healthy lifetimes.

The anonymous family brings a depth of compassion for children facing rare and often challenging diagnoses. Their partnership will immediately advance every aspect of our globally recognized leadership to create new, more effective treatments.

Their investment also endowed the Professorship in Molecular Neuropathology. We look forward to bestowing that honor on a Children’s National pediatric leader.

model of the brain

A new way to treat pediatric gliomas with BRAF V600 mutations

model of the brain

Gliomas account for 45% of all pediatric tumors of the central nervous system.

Gliomas, which can be classified according to histologic grade as high or low grade, account for 45% of all pediatric tumors of the central nervous system. Detection of the BRAF V600E mutation in pediatric low-grade glioma has been associated with a lower response to standard chemotherapy. In previous trials, dabrafenib (both as monotherapy and in combination with trametinib) has shown efficacy in recurrent pediatric low-grade glioma with BRAF V600 mutations, findings that researchers found warrant further evaluation of this combination as first-line therapy.

The big picture

In a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, experts found that among a randomized cohort of 110 children with low-grade glioma with BRAF V600 mutations, dabrafenib plus trametinib resulted in significantly more responses, longer progression-free survival and a better safety profile than standard chemotherapy as first-line therapy.

“For the past 20 to 30 years, the only effective safe therapy was chemotherapy. In older children, radiation can also be effective, but there’s reluctance on using radiation on a developing brain,” said Roger Packer, M.D., director of the Brain Tumor Institute at Children’s National Hospital and co-author of the study. “As we learned the specific molecular genetic makeups of these tumors, either high- or low-grade gliomas, we found it to be effective to use molecular therapies. These are safer and more effective than chemotherapy alone.”

Dr. Packer also added that there’s approval from the FDA, proving that the industry sees value in investing in pediatrics.

Why it matters

This randomized trial shows the superiority of dabrafenib plus trametinib as a first systemic therapy for pediatric patients with low-grade glioma with BRAF V600 mutations as compared with carboplatin plus vincristine, the standard chemotherapy approach. This benefit was evident in the higher independently determined response, longer progression-free survival and better side-effect profile as reflected in the lower frequency of treatment discontinuation because of toxicity.

“Children treated with a molecular targeted therapy could safely tolerate the therapy and had better outcomes than children who were treated with chemotherapy,” Dr. Packer added.

Overall, these findings show the value of early molecular testing in children with low-grade glioma to determine the presence or absence of BRAF V600 mutations.

You can read the full study “Dabrafenib plus Trametinib in Pediatric Glioma with BRAF V600 Mutations” here.

Andrea L. Gropman

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

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

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

About the award

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

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

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

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

About the donors

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

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

boy being assessed for concussion

Concussion treatments for children need more priority

boy being assessed for concussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Why is it important to update the literature?

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

Q: How will this work benefit patients?

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

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

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

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

Hiram receives the first commercial dose of Elevidys

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

Hiram receives the first commercial dose of Elevidys

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

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

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

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

The background

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

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

How it works

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

photo of muscle collagen

New Becker muscular dystrophy drug on the horizon

photo of muscle collagen

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

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

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

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

The big picture

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

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

Why we’re excited

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

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

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