Everyone Poops Book Cover

2022: Pediatric colorectal and pelvic reconstructive surgery today

Everyone Poops book coverAdapted from Levitt MA. New and exciting advances in pediatric colorectal and pelvic reconstructive surgery – 2021 update. Semin Pediatr Surg. 2020 Dec;29(6):150992.

As demonstrated in the popular children’s book by Taro Gomi, Everyone Poops, the physiology of stooling is a focus of early childhood development and a subject of concern for both parents and children. References to pediatric colorectal problems go back many thousands of years. In fact, the Babylonian Talmud, written in the year 200 CE, recommends that “an infant whose anus is not visible should be rubbed with oil and stood in the sun… and where it shows transparent the area should be torn crosswise with a barley grain.” Surgical techniques to manage such patients have certainly evolved since that time, but the basic principles of care remain the same.

How we got here

The modern story of the care of patients with anorectal malformations (ARMs) began in the 1940s in Melbourne, Australia, when Henry Douglas Stephens worked to define the anatomy of children with ARMs by analyzing the anatomy of twelve deceased patients with these conditions. He continued to focus on this specialty for the rest of his career and published two books on the topic in 1963 and 1971. Prior to his groundbreaking work, the anatomy of such patients was only a concept that existed in surgeons’ minds – without anatomic precision – since no one had actually seen the anatomy. These concepts were depicted in the bible of pediatric surgery in North America, the Gross textbook, which in retrospect was both oversimplified and inaccurate.

During his autopsy dissections, Stephens came to the key anatomic conclusion that the puborectalis muscle (the sphincters) lay behind the urethra. He devised an operation based on this concept: first, the urethra was identified, then a space between it and the puborectalis was dissected, and then the rectosigmoid was pulled through that space. A small incision in the perineum for the pulled-through bowel was made, within which the new anus was created. The perineal dissection was a blind maneuver. During the same time period, William Kiesewetter in Pittsburgh proposed his version of the sacral abdominoperineal pull-through using similar anatomic principles.

Justin Kelly was one of Stephens’ trainees in Australia who learned how to do this operation. At Boston Children’s Hospital in the late 1960’s, he taught what he had learned from Stephens to the surgeons there, including another trainee, Alberto Pena. Pena and his fellow surgical residents benefitted from exposure to Kelly as well as master surgeon Hardy Hendren, who operated on patients across town at Massachusetts General Hospital. Hendren, the pioneer in the care of children with cloacal anomalies, passed away this year at the age of 96.

Pena completed his training in Boston and went to Mexico City in 1972 at the age of 34 to become the head of surgery at the National Pediatric Institute. He tells the story that when he asked his new pediatric surgery faculty to choose an area of specialization, no one chose colorectal, so he decided to take on that group of patients and thus embarked on his revolutionary colorectal career. Pena at first applied the technique he had learned from Kelly to repair anorectal malformations, but he became increasingly frustrated by the procedure. He felt that the maneuvers offered very poor exposure to the anatomy, and over time his incision grew longer and longer. In 1980, Pena’s collaboration with Pieter de Vries – who had come to Mexico City to work on these cases with Pena – culminated in the first posterior sagittal anorectoplasty [Figure 1]. That same year, Pena presented his findings at a meeting of the Pacific Association of Pediatric Surgeons.

imperforate anus repair

Figure 1: Original diagrams of the posterior sagittal approach to repair imperforate anus

This posterior sagittal approach opened a beneficial Pandora’s Box in surgery. It allowed for a true understanding of the pelvic anatomy and led to the care of many conditions that were previously – to use Pena’s words – “too difficult to reach from above (via laparotomy) and too difficult to reach from below (perineally).” This new approach influenced the repair of cloacal malformations, urogenital sinus, pelvic tumors, urethral problems, reoperations for imperforate anus and Hirschsprung disease (HD), a transpubic approach for complex genitourinary problems, and a comprehensive strategy for the management of cloacal exstrophy. In addition to his surgical contributions, Pena also conceived of the intervention that has arguably improved patients’ quality of life the most: a focused approach to the bowel management of fecal incontinence. Thanks to such bowel management programs, now available at many centers across the world, thousands of children are no longer wearing diapers and have said goodbye to their stomas. The impact of bowel management is perhaps comparable to that of intermittent catheterization for patients with urinary incontinence.

My personal journey in this field began in 1992, when I was an eager medical student and signed up for an elective in pediatric surgery with Alberto Pena. This experience changed my career trajectory in a very dramatic and positive way. Medicine was becoming increasingly complex, and fields such as neonatal care, transplantation, and cardiology were benefitting from a collaborative approach. It became clear that the colorectal field needed the same approach. As a comparative example, consider the project of building a bridge. How does such a project start? The cement layers do not show up one day and lay cement prior to the steel team deciding where to place the beams. The project must begin with all parties meeting together to develop a comprehensive plan. Amazingly, however, that type of collaborative planning does not often happen in the care of medically complex patients. It most assuredly needs to.

The value of multi-disciplinary care

Medical complexity requires integrated and collaborative care because all the anatomic structures that need to be managed are located right next to each other and because each has a unique and complex physiology that can affect the other systems. To achieve success, patients with anorectal malformations, Hirschsprung disease, fecal incontinence (related to a variety of conditions), and colonic motility disorders require care from a variety of specialists throughout their lives. These include providers in the fields of colorectal surgery, urology, gynecology, gastroenterology, motility, orthopedics, neurosurgery, anesthesia, pathology, radiology, psychology, social work, nutrition, and many others. Perhaps most important to the achievement of a good functional result, however, is a patient’s connection to superb nursing care. A complex colorectal operation takes about four hours to perform, but to get a good result, it takes an additional 96 hours of work, the vast majority of which involves nursing care. The value of good nursing partners to ensure successful surgery cannot be overemphasized. They have unique skills in identifying and solving problems, a willingness to get down in the weeds, and are always striving to fill the gaps in care.

What parents want and need

Having met many parents with newborns diagnosed with colorectal problems, I have made several observations. First, it seems that no parent has ever imagined that their child could have a problem with stooling – this is a physiologic ability that is taken for granted. When they are told about the problem with their baby, they are uniformly shocked that something like this could happen. Second, when discussing that their child will need surgery to correct their colorectal anatomy, parents don’t focus on the surgical technique and elegance of the reconstruction, as surgeons tend to do. Instead, parents dwell on whether the surgery will create a working reconstructed anatomy that will allow their child to stool without difficulty or embarrassing accidents. As surgeons we need to remember this. We always need to understand what it is that the family and patient wishes us to deliver, and we need to strive to achieve those goals. As proud of our surgical skills as we are, it is the functional outcome that matters most.

Where we are in 2022

In 2022, the advances in the field of pediatric colorectal and pelvic reconstruction are significant. They include new techniques and ideas that over time have made a dramatic and positive impact on the care and quality of life of children who suffer from colorectal problems. Here are a few such advances:

  1. Prenatal diagnosis of anorectal and cloacal malformations has been progressively improving. Perinatologists have learned to look for specific findings, such as a pelvic mass in a female with a single kidney, and consider that it could be a cloaca. Assessment of perineal anatomy, pubic bone integrity, sacral development, abnormalities of the radius bone, as well as cardiac, spinal, and renal anomalies may lead the clinician to consider that a fetus may have an anorectal malformation.
  2. Management of the newborn, particularly in the fields of newborn radiology and neonatal care, has dramatically improved as neonatal techniques have advanced. Specific to the colorectal patient have been advances in radiology such as assessments of hydronephrosis, 3D reconstruction of cloacal anomalies, and ultrasound-guided distal colostography. Further advances include improved techniques in the management of hydrocolpos and stoma care, to name a few.
  3. The treatment of associated urologic anomalies has diminished chronic renal disease, and proactive bladder management is reducing the need for bladder augmentations and renal transplantation.
  4. Understanding the gynecologic collaboration has helped clinicians define the Mullerian anatomy and better plan for menstruation and future obstetric potential.
  5. Prediction of continence, even in the newborn period, requires an understanding of the associated problems with the sacrum and spine. This knowledge has allowed clinicians to have more robust conversations with families about their child’s future.
  6. The decision of whether to do a newborn repair versus a colostomy must be guided by the surgeon’s experience and the clinical circumstances in which they find themselves.
  7. The defining of anatomy allows patients to be compared across medical centers, and for treatment options and outcomes to be uniformly analyzed. Keeping track of one’s outcomes and always striving to improve should be basic tenets of surgical practice.
  8. Recognizing the value of laparoscopy and knowing for which cases this approach should be applied. Morbidities associated with a laparoscopic approach for a rectum in an ARM patient well below the peritoneal reflection have been noted. In HD cases, laparoscopy can limit the stretching of the sphincters which occurs during the transanal rectal dissection.
  9. Development of a treatment algorithm for the management of cloacal malformations which considers the importance of their common channel and urethral lengths.
  10. Recognizing key complications after ARM and Hirschsprung surgery, knowing when and how to do a reoperation, determining the outcomes of such reoperations, and ultimately figuring out how to avoid complications altogether.
  11. Understanding the causes of fecal incontinence, the amount of incontinence that can be anticipated, and the surgical contributors to achieving continence.
  12. Development of bowel management programs in multiple centers and committing to following these patients in the long term.
  13. Learning the pathophysiology of motility disorders and developing treatment protocols, as a result of the vital collaboration between surgery and GI/motility. Medical treatments with laxatives, rectal enemas, botox injection of the anal canal, and surgical adjuncts such as antegrade colonic flush options and sometimes colon resections are key aspects of the treatment armamentarium.
  14. Developing a collaboration between colorectal surgery and urology allows the clinical team to know when the colon can be used for a bladder augment (which not only offers an augment option but also can improve antegrade flushes of the colon) or if the appendix can be shared between Malone and Mitrofanoff. The collaboration with urology to plan the management of both urinary and fecal continence during the same operation is a very valuable trend. This proactive planning has improved the lives of many patients and has reduced the numbers of operations they need as well as their hospital stays.
  15. Sacral Nerve Stimulation (SNS) has shown promise in the management of urinary incontinence and seems to have a role in improving fecal continence and promoting motility, as an adjunct to treatments for constipation.
  16. Development of dedicated colorectal centers that are integrated and collaborative allows a team to tabulate their results and strive for better outcomes. The value of a collaborative model for the care of such patients cannot be overstated, not only for patient convenience, but also for creating an integrated plan for their care. These exist now in many parts of the country and care is available in nearly every region, reducing a family’s need to travel great distances away from their home to access care.
  17. Establishing a transition to adult programs, as with congenital heart disease and cystic fibrosis. Colorectal surgeons are obligated to develop a transition plan for their patients as they enter adulthood.
  18. Using Basic Science to advance the field, including tissue engineering and genetics, will be revolutionary. We should be able to imagine the day when cloacal reconstruction could be based on a previously tissue-engineered segment of vagina, produced by the patient’s own stem cells. In addition, the genetics of anorectal malformations as well as Hirschsprung disease are being vigorously pursued which will impact parental counseling and potential therapies.
  19. Real time data used to follow outcomes is needed to keep track of complications as well. That information can be used to adjust protocols which will improve results.
  20. Development of international consortiums will help patients in a way that is not achievable by a single institution. Consortiums allow ideas to be spread rapidly which will dramatically affect how many patients can be helped and how quickly. The Pediatric Colorectal and Pelvic Learning Consortium, pcplc.org, is well on its way to achieving these goals.
  21. Bringing complex care to all corners of the world because there is a great deficiency in advanced colorectal care in the developing world. The care of colorectal patients in a resource-limited setting has unique challenges, but creative solutions by innovative surgeons in those areas have a led to dramatic improvements in care.
  22. Parent/patient organizations provide education, advocacy, and support for families at all stages of their child’s care. With internet access readily available, colorectal patients and their families can now access the welcoming environment of these organizations, and no longer feel as lost and alone as in previous years.

Why it matters

Given all these wonderful advances, we must continue to reaffirm the key principles stated by Sir Dennis Browne that “the aim of pediatric surgery is to set a standard, not to seek a monopoly.” With an integrated approach to the care of this complex group of patients, great things can be achieved. I am hopeful that the caregivers and parent/patient group organizations who commit to the care of children with colorectal problems and understand the daily struggle of improving a patient’s quality of life will learn the skills and tricks necessary to achieve good results. If they do, they will help many children.

Finally, I will share a humorous piece written by my daughter, Jess Levitt, regarding the value of bringing order to chaos. Its message is particularly relevant to the care of children with colorectal problems in 2022, as we build on our efforts to improve, streamline, and transform the formerly chaotic process through collaboration and education. As we endeavor to advance this field, we need to remember what Dr. Pena often said: “It is not the unanswered questions, but rather the unquestioned answers that one must pursue.”

“A” must come before “B,” which must come before “C,” everybody knows that. But what if the Millercamps of this world did not have to sit next to the Millerchips when it comes to seating arrangements? Can Pat Zawatsky be called before Jack Aaronson when the teacher is taking attendance? Do those 26 letters that make up all the dialogue, signs, thoughts, books, and titles in the English-speaking department of the world need their specific spots in line? Everyone can sing the well-known jingle from A to Z, but not many people can tell you why the alphabet is the way it is.

For almost as long as humans have had the English language, they have had the alphabet. The good ol’ ABCs. However, the alphabet represents the human need for order and stability. I believe that the same thinking that went into the construct of time and even government went into the alphabet. Justifiably, lack of order leads to chaos. Knife-throwing, gun-shooting chaos, in the case of lack of governmental order. Listen to me when I tell you that there is absolutely no reason that the alphabet is arranged the way that it is. Moreover, the alphabet is simply a product of human nature and how it leads people to establish order for things that do not require it.

Now I know this sounds crazy, but bear with me. Only if you really peel away the layers of the alphabet will you find the true weight it carries. People organized the letters of our speech into a specific order simply because there wasn’t already one. Questioning this order will enlighten you on the true meaning of it. Really dig deep into the meaning behind the social construct that is the alphabet. Short and sweet as it may be, the order of the ABCs is much less than meets the eye. There is no reason that “J” should fall before “K”! Understand this. Very important as order is, it is only a result of human nature.

What’s next? X-rays become independent of Xylophones in children’s books of ABCs?

You know what the best part is? Zero chance you even noticed that each sentence in this essay is in alphabetical order.

– Jess Levitt

 

Hands holding letters that spell autism

Increasing access to autism spectrum disorder services through enhanced training

Hands holding letters that spell autismMany service providers struggle to keep pace with advances in autism-specific knowledge and tend to refer children to autism specialty clinics when the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is in question. Unfortunately, it is in these settings where children most often wait for months or, worse, experience barriers to accessing any care at all. This has resulted in an access crisis for children and families with ASD concerns contributing to delays in diagnosis and treatment, particularly for children of color and for under-resourced families. Service disruptions and challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic have only added to delays. As the need for autism-related services continues to grow, innovative models must be used to enhance competence among frontline medical, behavioral health and community-based providers who currently serve these children and families on a regular basis.

Children’s National Hospital has initiated a number of endeavors focused on increasing access to ASD services through enhanced training experiences, mentorship of allied mental health and frontline professionals and utilization of multidisciplinary approaches. These approaches enhance the skills and knowledge of treatment providers, which allows them to accurately address the needs of autistic patients while they await more comprehensive evaluations and sometimes reduce the need for additional evaluation. The following are efforts currently underway.

Virtual ECHO (Extension Community Healthcare Outcomes) Autism Clinics

The Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) is hosting virtual ECHO (Extension Community Healthcare Outcomes) Autism Clinics aimed at building autism knowledge and competencies amongst community providers by creating shared learning forums with a multidisciplinary group of autism specialists for dissemination of knowledge and mentorship.

Clinics run in 6-month sessions on a bimonthly basis and target professionals in medical, community and educational/early intervention settings. There is no requirement for prior autism-related knowledge or training. The emphasis in learning stems from case-based discussions primarily, along with targeted autism specific didactics.

We have found good satisfaction with the program overall, as well as self-report of gains in ASD-specific knowledge and care competencies as a result of participation in ECHO. To date, CASD’s ECHO Autism program has reached 290 professionals and trainees serving autistic children and their families.

Integration of autism evaluations into primary care sites

The Community Mental Health (CMH) CORE (Collaboration, Outreach, Research, Equity) within the Children’s National Hospital Child Health Advocacy Institute (CHAI) has been working collaboratively with several other divisions, including CASD, to integrate autism evaluations into primary care sites for young children with high concern about ASD. We aim to increase capacity and access to autism services by training embedded psychologists in primary care settings in autism diagnostics.

By increasing behavioral health provider capacity and integrating in primary care, this clinic has been able to drastically decrease waits for ASD services by months to years. Families served by the program were predominately Black (81%) or Latinx (10%), and most (87%) had public insurance. Nearly one third (32%) were not primary English speakers. An ASD diagnosis was provided in 68% of all cases.

All referring PCPs surveyed indicated that they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the program, that they “strongly like the integrated clinic model,” and that the program “is increasing equitable access to ASD. Currently, CHAI-supported ASD-focused embedded clinics in primary care have served 94 children and their families.

brain network illustration

Changing the surgical evaluation of epilepsy

brain network illustrationThe choice between stereoelectroencephalography (SEEG) and subdural evaluation is not mutually exclusive, according to a new opinion piece published in JAMA Neurology.

In their article, Chima Oluigbo, M.D., pediatric epilepsy neurosurgeon, William D. Gaillard, M.D., division chief of Epilepsy and Neurophysiology and Neurology, both at Children’s National Hospital, and Mohamad Z. Koubeissi, M.D., M.A., from The George Washington University Hospital, discuss how the practicing epileptologist requires a profound understanding of the roles of different technologies. It also looks at how to integrate both traditional and emerging paradigms to optimize seizure control. This issue is particularly relevant to choosing the best method of invasive intracranial electroencephalography monitoring in individual cases.

Noting that despite the dramatic increase in SEEG use in recent years, the authors talk about how many patients still benefit from invasive monitoring using subdural grids. Therefore, it is important to define the considerations that should guide decision-making on the choice of SEEG versus subdural monitoring in each patient. The authors expand on their statement explaining that it is critical to define the roles of SEEG vs subdural grid investigation in each patient as subdural grid evaluations are still indicated in specific circumstances.

Additionally combined hybrid deployment of both techniques may be indicated in specific situations. Accommodation should be made to allow customization of the technique chosen to available technical expertise and equipment as well as patient preference.

Marva Moxey Mims

Tackling bias – the power of one

Marva Moxey MimsIn the most recent edition of the American Society of Pediatric Nephrology’s Kidney Notes, Children’s National Hospital Chief of Nephrology, Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D., wrote a perspective piece asking other providers to join her in an effort to see patients as a whole person and try to put aside personal biases, thereby improving overall patient care.

In this personal commentary, Dr. Moxey-Mims reflects on challenging herself to better serve patients by making sure they feel seen and to understand them. “Just think of the ripple effect if we can do this with even a fraction of our patients,” said Dr. Moxey-Mims. “The goodwill that patients will feel knowing that we are trying to see them is immeasurable.”

You can read the entire article “Tackling Bias – The Power of One” here.

hand holding blocks that spell out IBD

Q&A with Carmelo Cuffari, M.D., on inflammatory bowel disease

hand holding blocks that spell out IBDCarmelo Cuffari, M.D., the new director of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Program at Children’s National Hospital is a pediatric gastroenterologist with over 25 years of expertise in managing children and adolescents with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. His areas of research include drug development and the pharmacology and genomics of immunomodulatory drugs in inflammatory bowel disease and in transplantation.

Here, Dr. Cuffari tells us more about the program he is leading and what it means for the future of pediatric IBD patients at Children’s National.

Q: What are some of the most valuable changes or advancements for the program you hope to see in the next couple of years?

A: In my position as director of IBD, Children’s National supports my goals for the program which include:

  • Expanded regional accessibility to an IBD specialist
  • Potential to develop international services
  • Potential to develop a multidisciplinary pediatric IBD program that would include surgery, psychology and genetics
  • Expanding staff to include another IBD specialist to increase our reach

Q: What makes the IBD at Children’s National unique from other programs in the country?

A: We have the unique possibility of developing a colorectal team with our surgical colleagues. This level of collaboration is unique and is a function of our division being under the department of pediatric surgery.

Q: Where do you see research in IBD going in the next few years?

A: There are many areas of exciting growth in research. The areas I am most excited about include:

  • Developing a tailored therapeutic approach to disease management that is disease phenotype specific
  • Developing biomarkers that may help identify which part of the immune system is dysregulated
  • Very early onset IBD (<6yrs) will be better defined genetically and immunologically
boy with headache

Kids’ headaches can be disruptive. We need solutions.

Experts leading the Headache Program at Children’s National Hospital recognize how common these disorders are. They also know how disruptive they can be in the day-to-day of children.

Marc DiSabella, D.O., is the director of the program. He is currently leading five pediatric headache trials. In this Q&A, he tells us about the ongoing trials, offering insight into innovative solutions and how he’s carving a new path to improve the quality of life of his patients.

Q: How has your team advised other neurologists on innovative care for patients with headaches that have been refractory to medicines?

A: We receive referrals from outside institutions when they need additional input for diagnostic and management options. We receive patient consult requests from around the country – and sometimes out of the country – to help improve symptoms. In most instances, these headaches tend to be difficult to control and do not respond to available medications. We really try to take a holistic approach to their care, and use treatments in parallel. For example, diagnostic, lifestyle techniques, medications, pain focused cognitive behavioral therapy and physical therapy. We also use complementary medicine as needed, such as acupuncture, injections and infusions.

Q: It is unusual for neurology divisions to run multiple pediatric trials focused on headaches. You are currently leading five that are open. How does this work move the field forward?

A: The medications we offer through our trials allow us to offer treatments that would otherwise not be available to pediatric patients. We do this in hopes of providing them relief while advancing the field. We are hopeful that these new therapies are as effective in pediatrics as they have shown to be in adults. But it is necessary to complete randomized clinical trials to prove this is the case. Historically, pediatric patients in clinical trials investigating painful conditions like migraines have had a disproportionately high placebo response rate. This means even the patients receiving a benign placebo have a high chance of symptom improvement. The newer medications show much better tolerability to the drugs used historically.

Q: What excites you about this work?

A: Pediatric pain disorders are unbelievably gratifying to treat because we take a mysterious disorder that waxes and wanes with no clear reason and give patients back control of their lives. It is extremely frustrating for a patient and their family to know that their day-to-day life can be abruptly derailed by a pain crisis. We work to provide them with several tools they can use daily to take back their lives.

Q: How is this work unique?

A: Our program was created organically over the years through our experiences with our patients. First, we noticed the disruption to patients’ personal and school performance from having untreated pain and recognized the need for pain psychology. Then, we expanded to have physical therapy to recondition patients and perform desensitization. Finally, we recognized our patients need additional medication options not offered through the standard of care. So, we expanded to open our various clinical trials, including those with pharma and internal protocols. As a result, we incorporated the use of Botox injections, for example, and soon will use a novel remote electro-neuromodulatory device.

medical symbol on a map of the world

Observership program builds worldwide expertise to treat colorectal issues

medical symbol on a map of the worldPediatric colorectal specialists are in short supply, and this is particularly true in many areas of the developing world. When Marc Levitt, M.D., travels abroad, he consistently finds eager surgeons and nurses who wish to obtain advanced colorectal skills to help their patients. To meet this need Dr. Levitt has established an international observership program that brings leading physicians and nurses from around the globe to participate in one- to three-month-long observerships.

During 2022, the program will welcome participants from 13 different countries including Spain, Belgium, Vietnam, Indonesia, Chile, Pakistan, Uganda, Iraq, Mexico, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

Under the colorectal team’s instruction, participating physicians and nurses will learn how to diagnose and care for children with complex colorectal conditions. They will learn about the wide range of malformations and successful treatment options so they can bring these skills to patients in their home countries. Those selected for these observerships are among the most promising providers in their communities who currently work to improve treatment for children with colorectal issues.  The patients they care for are those who would otherwise have no or limited access to this specialty care.

For information about applying for the observership program, please contact the colorectal department at ColorectalVisitors@childrensnational.org.

masked kids giving thumbs up in front of school bus

Pediatricians and public health officials should unite against controversial school masking bans

masked kids giving thumbs up in front of school bus

To keep in-person learning and protect students in schools, pediatricians and public health officials must advocate for evidence-based mitigation strategies that can reduce COVID-19 transmission — especially the Delta variant, which overwhelmed pediatric emergency rooms and hospitals, argued Yang et al. in a Perspective published in the journal Pediatrics.

To keep in-person learning and protect students in schools, pediatricians and public health officials must advocate for evidence-based mitigation strategies that can reduce COVID-19 transmission — especially the Delta variant, which overwhelmed pediatric emergency rooms and hospitals, argued Yang et al. in a Perspective published in the journal Pediatrics.

The authors propose that pediatricians and their associated institutions actively advocate for masking in schools and debunk myths and misinformation during well and sick visits. In addition, they encourage doctors to develop and disseminate behavioral strategies to support children’s compliance with masking based on individual abilities and needs. Finally, providers can partner with educators at the local, district, state and national levels to advocate for evidence-based masking policies.

“As pediatricians, it is our responsibility to advocate for universal masking to facilitate safe in-person schooling for all children,” said Sarah Schaffer DeRoo, M.D., pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital and co-author of the Perspective. “Children have readily adapted to masking during the pandemic and continuing this practice in schools is not a significant change from their recent experience.”

To date, nine states have enacted policies to prohibit school masking mandates, disregarding evidence that masking is a crucial COVID-19 preventive measure, Yang et al. wrote. The court overturned these mandates in four states out of the nine because they either exceeded the governor’s executive authority or did not comply with the law granting the executive order’s authority. In other instances, judges have only placed a temporary block.

“Despite politically charged rhetoric and headline-grabbing lawsuits, evidence shows that schools without mask mandates are more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks,” said Y. Tony Yang, Sc.D., endowed professor of health policy and executive director of the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at the George Washington University, and lead author of the Perspective. “Pediatricians have generally commanded a heightened level of public trust, which suggests that pediatricians who make the case for policies that advance sound medical and public health science may have a greater chance than other advocates of generating the public and political will needed to make evidence-based policy ideas, such as school mask mandates, a reality.”

Some localities have found creative ways to circumvent state mask mandate bans by altering the school dress code to include face coverings and finding loopholes that do not apply to individual cities. Parents have also tried to challenge the policies in court, asserting that mask mandate bans violate federal anti-discrimination laws.

“Continued efforts are needed to ensure schools are able to promote reasonable, evidence-based strategies to promote the health of their students, teachers and communities, and we, as advocates for children, are obligated to emphatically support these efforts,” said Yang et al.

Cover of the December issue of Seminars on Pediatric Surger

Reflections on Seminars in Pediatric Surgery December 2020

Cover of the December issue of Seminars on Pediatric Surger

Marc Levitt, M.D., served as guest editor of a special December Seminars in Pediatric Surgery dedicated to the care and treatment of anorectal malformations.

By Marc Levitt, M.D., chief of the Division of Colorectal and Pelvic Reconstruction at Children’s National Hospital

I was honored to serve as the Guest Editor on the topic of “Anorectal Malformations” in the prestigious Seminars in Pediatric Surgery Volume 29, Issue 6, December 2020.

We had 64 contributing authors from 12 countries; Australia, Austria, Germany, Ghana, Italy, Israel, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Spain, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, and 12 U.S. colorectal collaborating programs; Children’s National, Boston Children’s, Children’s Mercy, Children’s Wisconsin, C.S. Mott Children’s, Cincinnati Children’s, Nationwide Children’s, Nicklaus Children’s, Omaha Children’s, Primary Children’s, Seattle Children’s, and UC Davis Children’s.

There were eight authors from the Children’s National team; myself, Colorectal Director Andrea Badillo, M.D., Colorectal Program Manager Julie Choueiki, MSN, RN, Surgical Center Director Susan Callicott, Katie Worst, CPNP-AC, Grace Ma, M.D., Chief of Urology Hans Pohl, M.D., and Chief of Gynecology Veronica Gomez-Lobo, M.D.

The series of articles included in this collection illustrate new techniques and ideas that over time have made a dramatic and positive impact on the care and quality of life of children who suffer from colorectal problems. With an integrated approach to the care of this complex group of patients, great things can be achieved. As we endeavor to advance this field, we need to always remember that, as Alberto Pena, M.D., often said, “it is not the unanswered questions, but rather the unquestioned answers that one must pursue.”

In my own article on advances in the field, a 2021 update, I reproduce a piece by my daughter, Jess Levitt, who wrote something applicable to the care of children with colorectal problems, with the message that helping to create order is vital to improve a somewhat chaotic medical process traditionally available for the care of complex care. Her essay is reproduced here:

“A” must come before “B,” which must come before “C,” everybody knows that. But what if the Millercamp’s of this world did not have to sit next to the Millerchip’s when it comes to seating arrangements? Can Pat Zawatsky be called before Jack Aaronson when the teacher is taking attendance? Do those 26 letters that make up all the dialogue, signs, thoughts, books, and titles in the English-speaking departments of the world need their specific spots in line? Everyone can sing you the well-known jingle from A to Z, but not many people can tell you why the alphabet is the way it is. For almost as long as humans have had the English language, they have had the alphabet. The good ole ABCs.

However, the alphabet represents the human need for order and stability. I believe that the same thinking that went into the construct of time and even government went into the alphabet. Justifiably, lack of order leads to chaos. Knife-throwing, gun-shooting chaos, in the case of lack of governmental order. Listen to me when I tell you that there is absolutely no reason that the alphabet is arranged the way that it is. Moreover, the alphabet is simply a product of human nature and how it leads people to establish order for things that do not require it. 

Now I know this sounds crazy but bear with me. Only if you really peel away the layers of the alphabet will you find the true weight it carries. People organized the letters of our speech into a specific order simply because there wasn’t already one. Questioning this order will enlighten you on the true meaning of it. Really dig deep into the meaning behind the social construct that is the alphabet. Short and sweet as it may be, the order of the ABCs is much less than meets the eye. There is no reason that “J” should fall before “K!” Understand this. Very important as order is, it is only a result of human nature.  What’s next? X-rays become independent of Xylophones in children’s books of ABCs? 

You know what the best part is? Zero chance you even noticed that each sentence in this essay is in alphabetical order.

Her literary contribution inspired me to do something similar. Take a look at the list of articles in this Seminars edition:

  1. Creating a collaborative program for the care of children with colorectal and pelvic problems. Alejandra Vilanova-Sánchez, Julie Choueiki, Caitlin A. Smith, Susan Callicot, Jason S. Frischer and Marc A. Levitt
  2. Optimal management of the newborn with an anorectal malformation and evaluation of their continence potential. Sebastian K. King, Wilfried Krois, Martin Lacher, Payam Saadai, Yaron Armon and Paola Midrio
  3. Lasting impact on children with an anorectal malformations with proper surgical preparation, respect for anatomic principles, and precise surgical management. Rebecca M. Rentea, Andrea T. Badillo, Stuart Hosie, Jonathan R. Sutcliffe and Belinda Dickie
  4. Long-term urologic and gynecologic follow-up and the importance of collaboration for patients with anorectal malformations. Clare Skerritt, Daniel G. Dajusta, Molly E. Fuchs, Hans Pohl, Veronica Gomez-Lobo and Geri Hewitt
  5. Assessing the previously repaired patient with an anorectal malformation who is not doing well. Victoria A. Lane, Juan Calisto, Ivo Deblaauw, Casey M. Calkins, Inbal Samuk and Jeffrey R. Avansino
  6. Bowel management for the treatment of fecal incontinence and constipation in patients with anorectal malformations. Onnalisa Nash, Sarah Zobell, Katherine Worst and Michael D. Rollins
  7. Organizing the care of a patient with a cloacal malformation: Key steps and decision making for pre-, intra-, and post-operative repair. Richard J. Wood, Carlos A. Reck-Burneo, Alejandra Vilanova-Sanchez and Marc A. Levitt
  8. Radiology of anorectal malformations: What does the surgeon need to know? Matthew Ralls, Benjamin P. Thompson, Brent Adler, Grace Ma, D. Gregory Bates, Steve Kraus and Marcus Jarboe
  9. Adjuncts to bowel management for fecal incontinence and constipation, the role of surgery; appendicostomy, cecostomy, neoappendicostomy, and colonic resection. Devin R. Halleran, Cornelius E.J. Sloots, Megan K. Fuller and Karen Diefenbach
  10. Treating pediatric colorectal patients in low and middle income settings: Creative adaptation to the resources available. Giulia Brisighelli, Victor Etwire, Taiwo Lawal, Marion Arnold and Chris Westgarth-Taylor
  11. Importance of education and the role of the patient and family in the care of anorectal malformations. Greg Ryan, Stephanie Vyrostek, Dalia Aminoff, Kristina Booth, Sarah Driesbach, Meghan Fisher, Julie Gerberick, Michel Haanen, Chelsea Mullins, Lori Parker and Nicole Schwarzer
  12. Ongoing care for the patient with an anorectal malfromation; transitioning to adulthood. Alessandra Gasior, Paola Midrio, Dalia Aminoff and Michael Stanton
  13. New and exciting advances in pediatric colorectal and pelvic reconstructive surgery – 2021 update. Marc A. Levitt

The first letter of each article forms an acrostic of the word “COLLABORATION” which is the secret sauce behind any success in the field of pediatric colorectal care.

Drs. Oluigbo and Myseros

Spotlight on Children’s National Hospital Neurosurgery

Drs. Oluigbo and Myseros

Our neurosurgery team is among the most experienced in the nation. We have performed thousands of surgeries and are dedicated to giving the best possible care. The Children’s National Hospital Division of Neurosurgery consistently ranks among the country’s top programs according to U.S. News & World Report.

Patients travel to us from all over the world because we have the resources and expertise necessary to care for their neurological conditions through multidisciplinary programs such as:

  • Spine Disorders
  • Deep Brain Stimulation Program
  • Neuro Intensive Care Unit (Neuro ICU)
  • Neuro-ophthalmology
  • Spina Bifida Program
  • Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors
  • Craniofacial Disorders
  • Chiari Malformations
  • Epilepsy
  • Brachial Plexus Injury
  • Spasticity Program
  • Neurovascular diseases such as AVM’s and Moyamoya

Minimally invasive surgery

The Children’s National Hospital Division of Neurosurgery is among the first in the country to develop new techniques and adopt the latest technologies that make minimally invasive neurosurgery possible by utilizing state of the art equipment and developing new techniques, including:

  • ROSA surgical robot / SEEG placement
  • Surgical Theater with virtual reality visualization
  • Visualase® magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-guided laser ablation
  • 5T intra-operative MRI (iMRI)
  • Deep brain stimulation
  • Neuropace epilepsy control

Advanced treatment and cutting edge research

Children’s National is involved in cutting edge scientific research offering new hope for our patients and new methods of treatment. Our doctors have developed some of the most advanced treatments and clinics for our patients including:

  • Multidisciplinary skull base neurosurgery program
  • Participating in the 1st generation of genetic modulation trials
  • CAR T-Cell Therapy research
  • Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) /Hypermobility Program
  • Pseudotumor Cerebri Multidisciplinary panel
  • Leader in open and endoscopic craniosynostosis surgery

Ranked No. 5 in the nation

U.S. News & World Report ranks our neurosurgery program number five in the nation, reflecting our commitment to excellence in care for our patients and families.

Level 1 surgery verification

Children’s National is one of only 12 children’s hospitals in the country to attain Level 1 Surgery Verification from the American College of Surgeons.

doctor performing neurosurgery

Successful outcomes

Children with rare and medically complex conditions, such as brain tumors, craniofacial disorders, Chiari malformations, vascular disorders and brachial plexus palsy, to name a few, achieve exceptional outcomes at Children’s National. Our patients experience fewer complications, go home sooner and maintain long-term symptom relief.

Specialized expertise

Our entire team is dedicated to meeting your child’s unique needs. Our Neuro-Intensive Care Unit nurses recognize signs of pain and complications your child may not be able to explain.

Pioneering new treatments

Children’s National is at the forefront of new device-based treatments that not only fix neurologic problems, but also restore brain function. We are one of the few pediatric programs in the country offering dedicated pediatric deep brain stimulation, which uses a pacemaker-like device to significantly reduce the burden of movement disorders and difficult-to-control epilepsy, as well as Neuropace implantation to help with seizures in eloquent areas of the brain.

Training the next generation of top neurosurgeons

We are proudly training the next generation of pediatric neurosurgeons through residency programs and fellowships in conjunction with several area medical schools.

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

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

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

Prescription for a healthy heart: pediatric-driven partnerships

Dr. Martin and a patient share a smile after a visit at Children’s National Health System.

For pediatric cardiologists, February, National Heart Month, is a special time. We share health tips in the hospital and talk about heart health with those looking for advice, especially with patients and families impacted by congenital heart disease (CHD). It’s also a time to look back at what’s worked well in the field, while accelerating advancements for CHD treatment.

To start, congenital heart disease, a structural abnormality of the heart or of the blood vessels surrounding it, is the most common birth defect and occurs in about one in every 100 live births, affecting 40,000 babies born in the U.S. each year. One million children and 1.4 million adults in the U.S. have CHD. Over the past 15 years, pediatric cardiologists have cut mortality rates for CHD in half. Gratefully, now instead of saving children’s lives, the emphasis is on improving them. The catalyst for this paradigm shift isn’t simply due to a medical breakthrough, but is also the result of collaboration and advocacy.

Pediatric cardiologists worked together with other stakeholders – nurses, neonatologists, parents, state and federal agencies – to implement newborn screening methods in hospitals, with the introduction pulse oximetry screenings for critical congenital heart defects (CCHD). The screening, which measures blood oxygen levels in newborns, focuses on screening babies for CCHD before they leave the hospital. The concept and a national protocol for screening began with a small project in 2002, was endorsed by medical associations by 2012 and required by all states in 2018. The impact of CCHD screening of newborns is remarkable. Data published in JAMA showed a 33 percent reduction in CCHD infant deaths associated with states that required CCHD screening.

The pulse oximetry screening’s impact on the number of lives saved goes beyond identifying newborns with CCHD. Worldwide, though the detection of secondary conditions, such as hypothermia, pneumonia, and sepsis, the pulse oximetry screening is estimated to save roughly 772,000 lives by 2030.

In addition to newborn screening recommendations for CCHD, a group of cardiologists, including myself, worked for the Joint Council on Congenital Heart Disease (JCCHD) to form and support the National Pediatric Cardiology Quality Improvement Collaborative (NPC-QIC). We developed measures to see how we could improve survival rates between surgeries for infants born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), one of the most common and severe forms of CCHD.

Babies born with HLHS require two heart surgeries within the baby’s first six months. Babies that survived the first operation had a significant mortality rate (15 percent) and frequent growth failure, while waiting for the second operation. Our focused aims were to both decrease the death rate and improve growth in these children. We analyzed data from medical centers, utilized quality improvement principals from the Institute for Health Care Improvement, talked with doctors and families, and invited teams from across the U.S. to partner with us to put quality and safety measures into place.

We emphasized the following points:

  1. Clear communication. Parents leaving the hospital received consistent messages about CHD, the type of surgery their baby had, next steps and how to care for their child at home.
  2. Improved nutrient intake. Parents received clear guidelines about how many calories babies needed to consume, were asked to weigh their baby each day, and taught how to augment feeding.
  3. Warning signs.Parents received a list of typical infant behaviors and HLHS red flags to watch out for, such as if a baby isn’t gaining a certain amount of weight. They received monitors to measure oxygen saturation levels at home. If oxygen saturation dropped significantly or if parents noticed a problem, they called their doctor immediately.

The implementation of these procedures reduced interstage mortality rates and the number of growth failures for HLHS patients. In 2008, six centers participated in the NPC-QIC pilot. By 2018, 65 medical centers in the U.S. and Canada used these methods. Similar to the pulse oximetry screening guidelines, this new method wasn’t the result of a medical breakthrough, but the result of shared learning and shared infrastructure.

Now, we’re referring more adult congenital heart patients to board-certified adult congenital heart disease (ACHD) specialists, a better fit than internists or pediatric cardiologists. Adults with congenital heart defects should have their heart examined at least once by a specialist and those with complex needs should meet with a specialist at least every two years. More than 300 board-certified ACHD specialists practice in the U.S. and the field is growing. The third ACHD board exam takes place this year.

Over the next few decades, I hope we’ll make even more progress with understanding, diagnosing and treating CHD.

Emerging research examines genetic clues for congenital heart defects, which were once thought to account for 8 percent of cases and may now account for 30 percent of conditions. We’re working with neurologists to examine the timing and pathway of potential oxygen inefficiencies that occur as the brain develops in utero, infancy, and after neonatal surgery. We’ve come a long way, but we continue looking at new frontiers and for innovative solutions.

Fortunately, as cardiologists, we’re good at fixing problems. We work with surgeons and medical teams to repair holes in hearts, or replace them, and reroute blood from an underdeveloped left ventricle to improve circulation. For almost every heart defect, we have evidence-based solutions. However, to continue to help children worldwide, it’s imperative that we don’t forget about what works well: good science, tracking data, sharing best practices, active listening, transparency and constant collaboration.

Gerard Martin, M.D., F.A.A.P., F.A.C.C., F.A.H.A., is a cardiologist and the medical director of global services at Children’s National Health System. Dr. Martin has practiced pediatric cardiology for 34 years and is the Dan G. McNamara keynote speaker at the American College of Cardiology’s 2019 Scientific Sessions. Follow Dr. Martin on Twitter @Gerard_MD.

This article first appeared on KevinMD.com.

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D

Serving patients with polycystic kidney disease

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D

Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D., is internationally recognized for her examination of the mechanisms that make certain inherited renal disorders particularly lethal, a research focus inspired by her patients.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Dauber at his computer doing a Reddit AMA

Thirteen questions for a pediatric endocrinologist

Andrew Dauber at his computer doing a Reddit AMA

Andrew Dauber, M.D., hosts an AMA chat with Reddit’s science community and offers feedback about height, growth disorders and pediatric endocrinology.

Andrew Dauber, M.D., MMSc., the division chief of endocrinology at Children’s National, spoke about epigenetics – how genes are expressed – and about all things related to pediatric endocrinology in a recent Ask Me Anything (AMA) chat with Reddit’s science community.

We’ve selected highlights from several questions Dr. Dauber received. You can view the full AMA discussion on Reddit.

Q1: What will the future of type 1 diabetes treatment look like?

As a pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Dauber sees a lot of patients with type 1 diabetes. He predicts technology will pave the way for advancements with continuous glucose monitoring and encourage a ‘real-time’ interaction between patients and providers:

“I anticipate that within a few years, everyone will have access to continuous glucose monitoring technology and that these will be seamlessly connected to insulin pumps or artificial pancreas technologies,” types Dr. Dauber in response to the first AMA question. “I also think there will be more virtual interaction between medical providers and patients with doctors and nurses reviewing blood sugar data in the cloud.”

Q2: What height range is considered normal for a growing child? What is the difference between short stature and a height problem?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a growth chart, which shows ‘normal’ ranges, based on statistical definitions of height in the general population.

“The truth is that I know plenty of people who have heights below the ‘normal’ population, and they don’t think they have a problem at all,” says Dr. Dauber. “From a genetics point of view, the question can be reframed: When do we call a genetic variant a ‘mutation’ versus a rare variant in the population? For example: If there is a genetic change that 1 in a 1,000 people have that causes you to be 2 inches shorter – is that a problem? Is that a disease?”

“From a clinical perspective, I tend to have a discussion with my patients and their families and ask them how their stature is affecting their lives and whether changing that would really make a meaningful difference,” adds Dr. Dauber. “I believe that this is a very personal decision but people need to be realistic about expected outcomes.”

Q3: What are your favorite case studies about atypical growth or height patterns?

Dr. Dauber references two case studies about growth and puberty:

The growth case study refers to the PAPPA2 gene, which was particularly meaningful for Dr. Dauber since he got to know the family and was able to provide answers to a previously undiagnosed medical mystery about short stature. This research is also opening future studies and analysis about the regulation of IGF-1 bioavailability.

The puberty case study looks at the opposite end of growth and development: precocious puberty. In this case an inherited MKRN3 gene mutation resulted in new insight about the regulation of pubertal timing: Deficiency of MKRN3 caused central precocious puberty in humans. Girls who had inherited the mutated genes from their father (an imprint gene) started to develop breasts before age 6. The results were published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Q4: What are the differences with consistent and inconsistent growth disorders? Could one arm or leg experience accelerated or stunted growth?

“Most genetic disorders that affect growth will have a uniform effect throughout the body as they are likely to affect all aspects of the skeleton,” says Dr. Dauber. “That being said, there are some notable exceptions such as Russell-Silver syndrome which presents with body asymmetry. There are also somatic mutations (mutations which are just present in some cells in the body) that can lead to segmental areas of overgrowth leading to asymmetry.”

Q5: Can you predict height and growth by looking at genetic factors? What are your thoughts about polygenic risk scores?

“Polygenic risk scores will probably play more of a role in the future to help determine risk of a certain disease,” says Dr. Dauber. “Right now, for most conditions, the risk score does not explain a substantial enough fraction of the variation to help with prediction.”

Dr. Dauber discusses how this works for height, a highly hereditable trait, in The Journal for Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. In the review, Dr. Dauber and the study co-authors note that individuals with extreme heights are more likely to have abnormal stature as a result of a severe mutation that causes a growth disorder. For these individuals, whole exome sequencing may reveal gene mutations.

However, the study authors note that for now, the role of these technologies in individuals with extreme stature but without any syndromic features has not been rigorously and systematically explored. (Dr. Dauber and a team of endocrinologists from leading children’s hospitals are currently using electronic health records to study and track these types of genetic clues over time.)

Q6: The general public is excited about genetics and ongoing research, especially with consumer applications – such as genetic tests, including 23andMe. What misconceptions about genetics do people have? What ethical concerns do geneticists share right now?

“Many people think that genetics is completely deterministic,” says Dr. Dauber. “In reality, most genetic variants influence a person’s predisposition toward a trait or disease but don’t actually determine the outcome. Also, the genetic sequence itself is just the first step. Epigenetics, gene regulation, and gene-environment interactions are all important and we are just scratching the surface of understanding these areas.”

“I think that people engaged in genetics research are very interested in the ethical questions,” adds Dr. Dauber. “The problem is that technology is advancing at such a rapid pace, that often consumers are using technologies in ways that we haven’t yet had time to figure out the ethics for. The medical community is often playing catch up.”

Q7: Aside from using gene modifications to cure diseases, where or when should we draw the line in terms of enhancement?

“I think genetic modification for enhancement is a very dangerous slippery slope that we should avoid,” says Dr. Dauber. “We really don’t know the full effect of many genes and by enhancing them, we could be causing lots of problems that we can’t anticipate. There is a reason that evolution is a slow process that happens over millions of years. I think we need to start with the most devastating diseases and try to cure those first.”

Q8: Would it be ethical to use CRISPR on the genes for short stature to produce tall offspring if the risks are sufficiently small? This would be similar to what Dr. He did, but without the ethical violations.

This is a fascinating question and it will become more of an issue over time,” says Dr. Dauber. “Where do we draw the line between fixing, preventing disease and enhancing physical function? Personally, I think using genome editing to promote height is a terrible idea. Our current perception that taller height is more desirable is a social construct and varies by culture. This idea also changes over time.”

Q9: Overall, how does this fit into meeting unmet medical needs?

I would be very wary about trying to design our children’s physical features,” Dr. Dauber notes. “We need to figure out as a society what diseases are sufficiently problematic that we feel comfortable trying to eliminate them via genome editing.”

Q10: How many genes control acromegaly? Is it possible (in theory) to Top of Formselect them just to gain the positive effects of gigantism without the health risks?

Dr. Dauber explains that acromegaly, a condition often referred to as gigantism, is caused by a growth hormone-producing tumor. There are a few genes known to cause these tumors, including the AIP, and there was recently a genetic cause of X-linked gigantism, which was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

“This basic idea is a good one,” notes Dr. Dauber. “We can find genes that when mutated can cause tall stature – and then try to manipulate those pathways. A great example is the NPR2 gene, which when mutated can cause short or tall stature. This pathway is being targeted for therapeutics related to achondroplasia.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) refers to achondroplasia as ‘short-limbed dwarfism,’ which results in an average-sized trunk with short limbs, especially arms and legs, due to a lack of cartilage turning into bone. The average height of an adult male with achondroplasia is 4 feet, 4 inches, while the average height of adult females with achondroplasia is less than 4 feet, 1 inch. In this case, manipulating growth pathways may help alleviate health problems associated with achondroplasia: lack of mobility or range of motion, an enlarged head, apnea, ear infections and spinal stenosis, or a compression or pinching of the spinal cord.

Q11: Give us a history lesson. Why are there variations of height within populations, such as Asia and Latin America?

“The average height in a population is due to the influence of literally thousands of common genetic variants,” says Dr. Dauber. “These population differences have evolved over thousands of years due to a combination of migration and selection. There is a well-known difference in the genetic makeup of various populations which likely underlies the differences across the globe. There are even differences within Europe.”

Q12: Are there examples of pseudoscience or theories about growth, such as recommendations to eat a certain food instead of taking growth hormones to correct for a growth disorder, which runs contrary to scientific evidence, that drive you crazy?

“I don’t really get bothered by crazy theories, but it is upsetting when patients and their families get swindled into spending their money on therapies that aren’t truly effective,” says Dr. Dauber. “People ask me all the time if a certain food or exercise can make their child taller. The bottom line is that in a well-nourished (and healthy) child, there is no magical food that is going to make them tall.”

Q13: According to almost every theory of how life evolved on Earth, from religion to evolution, we all have one common ancestor. In theory doesn’t that make us all cousins?

“Yes, just very distant ones,” says Dr. Dauber. “People always point out the vast number of differences between races but in fact we are all more than 99.9 percent identical on a genetic level.”

Stay on top of the latest pediatric endocrinology news by following @EndoDocDauber and @ChildrensHealth on Twitter: #GrowUpStronger.

Epilepsy Infographic

By the Numbers: Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program

Children’s National Health System’s Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program is one of the largest and most experienced multidisciplinary epilepsy programs in the country. With a range of programs specializing in new onset epilepsy, the Ketogenic diet, intractable epilepsy, neuroinflammation, neurogenetics, epilepsy surgery and more. The epilepsy program at Children’s National is continuously working to improve care for patients through clinical innovation, active studies and utilizing the most advanced technologies in epilepsy surgery. Children’s National has one of the best surgical outcomes in the county, aided by advanced structural and functional imaging, minimally invasive techniques, deep brain stimulation, neuronavigation, neurorobotics using the ROSA stereotactic neurosurgical robot and intraoperative MRI.

Epilepsy Infographic

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Leading conversations about what’s right for children

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

“Who speaks for children?” That’s a question Children’s National President and CEO Kurt Newman, M.D., often asks when he talks to groups around the country. As he sees it, children’s hospitals and their pediatric specialists should follow two main principles: Speak out to our nation’s policy leaders, local government officials and other business leaders about what’s right for the most vulnerable among us, namely our children; and listen to parents, helping them find their voices when it comes to health care decisions.

Pediatric specialists have a unique opportunity to serve as the voice for children and families who are so often lost in state and federal health care policy debates. As the children’s hospital located in the nation’s capital, Children’s National has leveraged both its expertise and close proximity to key decision makers to engage in a dialogue about issues vital to the health and well-being of kids.

Amplifying the CHIP call to action

In a perfect example of politics getting in the way of doing the right thing for children, it took almost four months for Congress to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), which provides health coverage for nearly 9 million children of working families in the United States. CHIP often supports the patients with the most medically complex needs – and is pivotal to their care at Children’s National and hospitals around the country.

During the agonizing wait for the extension, Dr. Newman, as well as countless Children’s National pediatricians and government affairs leaders, spent hours encouraging, asking and telling policymakers at every level of government about the importance of investing more in children, not less.

He stresses that it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s a wise investment. Spending dollars on children for prevention, early detection and education means that we have a healthier workforce, military and national community. It’s less expensive to treat mental and behavioral health problems, asthma and diabetes early on, before they become chronic issues.

The steady drumbeat from Children’s National supported national advocacy urging Congress to protect health insurance for the millions of children who rely on CHIP for all their health care needs.

The restored measure makes a world of difference for working families, but additional advocacy is needed as Congress continues to seek agreement on a long-term budget and other important legislation, some of which could have tremendous impacts on children’s health.

Leading a conversation about the needs of military families with terminally ill children

Concurrent care for terminally ill children – where lifesaving treatments such as chemotherapy and physical rehabilitation can take place alongside comfort measures and palliative care like 24-hour nursing – is covered by most insurance programs, including CHIP and Medicaid. However, until recently, military families covered under Tricare with such desperately ill children were forced to choose coverage for one OR the other.

Children’s National brought this challenge to its coalition partners at Tricare for Kids after watching several military families forced to make an agonizing decision between comfort and treatment. The coalition, a collection of military advocacy groups, children’s hospitals and other advocates, then fought hard to add a landmark provision to the National Defense Authorization Act allowing military families concurrent care coverage for their children. Implementing Tricare adjustments that deviate from Medicare provisions has been extremely difficult and politically fraught in the past, but when advocates and lawmakers focused on doing what’s right for kids, there was little to no Capitol Hill opposition and the change was easily passed in both the House and Senate.

In addition to advocacy, every day, a children’s hospital should help parents find their voices as active, empowered and engaged team members when it comes to caring for a sick child.

“It is crucial for a child’s care team to include his or her parents – the people who know them best,” Dr. Newman recently wrote. “I want every parent to feel comfortable being a true champion for their children at the pediatrician’s office or the hospital in the same way they champion them on the playing field or in the classroom.”

“That’s why I wrote the book Healing Children,” he says during book talks and interviews. “If parents knew what I knew, they’d make sure the doctors and nurses caring for their kids were experts in treating children. These stories show the power of pediatric specialty medicine, illustrate why parents should think ahead about how best to demand the care they deserve when something bad happens and show why we should always listen to parents’ concerns.”

Children and their families are at the center of every decision made at Children’s National, from day-to-day care planning to large scale business initiatives. When focusing on doing what’s right for them, everyone – the children, their families, the community AND the healthcare organization – benefits.

vaccination

How to talk with parents who are vaccine hesitant

vaccination

The single most important factor in parents deciding to accept vaccines is one-on-one contact with an informed, caring and concerned pediatrician.

When facing vaccine-hesitant parents, the key for me is to be collaborative and not to dismiss their questions or concerns.  That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics advises pediatricians to talk with parents to determine their individual concerns so we can address them. The decision whether to immunize a child ultimately rests with the parents. It’s understandable for parents to be worried – but it also critical that they get the facts.

The conversation can begin simply.

Here’s what I say to vaccine-hesitant parents: You work hard to protect your child every day. Vaccines are as important as feeding your child healthy foods, using a car seat or seat belt and installing a smoke detector.

Here’s what I ask vaccine-hesitant parents: What information can I provide to help you make an informed decision, or to help you feel comfortable with vaccinating your child?  As with most of what we pediatricians do, my goal is to partner with the parent so that we help their child to attain optimal health as a team.

I am a parent. Although my husband and I did not hesitate in vaccinating our daughter, I understand why parents want to feel comfortable about the choices they make for their children.

I also am a pediatrician. I have seen children die from the flu or develop a life-threatening brain infection from chickenpox.  Thanks to the herd immunity that results from decades of vaccination, many of these diseases are now rare in the United States, but there are still episodic outbreaks throughout the country that remind us why we vaccinate children.

Vaccinating is the norm.  Only about 1 percent of children in the United States receive no vaccinations. Most parents who are hesitant about vaccines are not opposed to immunizing their children; they are unsure or have unanswered questions. Fortunately, most vaccine-hesitant parents are responsive to receiving information about vaccines, consider vaccinating their children and do not oppose all vaccines.

When it comes to vaccine-hesitant parents, one-on-one counseling is effective. The single most important factor in parents deciding to accept vaccines is one-on-one contact with an informed, caring and concerned pediatrician.

About the Author

Lanre Omojokun FalusiLanre Omojokun Falusi, M.D., F.A.A.P.
General pediatrician and Associate Medical Director for Municipal and Regional Affairs at Child Health Advocacy Institute

It took an act of Congress to save lives

Boosting research and innovation to find cures and develop new medical devices for children and adults who carry childhood and rare diseases will transform our health system and save lives.

Until now, medical research and innovation have been severely limited in the U.S. by regulations and lack of funding. On behalf of healthcare systems and medical innovators across the U.S., we applaud the House and Senate for their tremendous bipartisan effort to pass the 21st Century Cures Act that will transform our health and research system and enable us to more effectively fight diseases.

We are encouraged by the provisions in the act that break down regulatory barriers and expedite the approvals of drugs and devices. We are particularly excited about the provisions to increase funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as the establishment of precision medicine, the cancer moonshot initiatives and new programs that will improve our mental health system and fight the worsening opioid epidemic. Boosting research and innovation to find cures and develop new medical devices for children and adults who carry childhood and rare diseases is at the core of our mission at Children’s National. Our researchers are working to find new biomarkers, map the human genome, develop medical devices for children and personalize medicine to make treatment and cures more targeted and effective. They are also studying pain and looking at new ways to detect the presence of opioids and cannabinoids. Thanks in large part to funding from the NIH, institutions like ours are able to continue groundbreaking biomedical research. This legislation brings hope to our children and their families, especially those who volunteer to participate in research, that our scientific breakthroughs will be translated to drugs, therapeutics and medical devices safer and faster.

Another victory for all of us in the pediatric medical device field is the expansion of the Humanitarian Use Device program to include devices used by up to 8,000 individuals rather than the current 4,000 individual cap. The hard cap at 4,000 individuals was excessively restrictive and was a significant disincentive blocking the development of devices for rare diseases and conditions, especially those affecting children. The 4,000 limit was also an obstacle for the development of diagnostic devices, since the FDA interprets the limitation to apply to the number of patients that would receive the diagnostic test, rather than the number of individuals affected or manifesting the rare disease.

Currently, medical device development for children lags woefully behind adults. Children have medical device needs that are considerably different from adults. The subtleties of developing devices for pediatric patients are fundamentally different than those for adults. The challenges include small markets, scarce financial incentives, regulatory issues, and the procedural dissimilarities of premarket clinical trials and post-market surveillance. The lack of available pediatric devices often forces clinicians to treat pediatric patients by using or modifying adult devices, adjusting implants designed for other purposes, and using implants designed decades ago. Because devices are being used “off-label,” clinicians and regulators are not able to collect information on their effectiveness. This act promises a faster regulatory approval process, which increases the enthusiasm of the venture community in investing in drug and device development, which in turn can help startup companies in the field secure private capital.

Thank you to everyone who worked tirelessly to create this bill and to those who lobbied on its behalf. It’s efforts like the 21st Century Cures Act, that break down regulatory barriers and provide the resources to expedite the approvals of life-saving drugs and devices, that save children’s lives.

About the Author

Kolaleh Eskandanian, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation
Research interests: device development, entrepreneurship, innovation in health care

What rare diseases teach us about common ones

Think of the urea cycle as a river. A normal river flows to where it empties, similar to the process the body uses to rid itself of harmful ammonia via the urea cycle.

Think of the urea cycle as a river. A normal river flows to where it empties, similar to the process the body uses to rid itself of harmful ammonia via the urea cycle.

I recently presented at Spotlight Health 2016, the health-focused portion of the Aspen Ideas Festival, about how studying and treating rare diseases can inform innovative treatment approaches for more common medical conditions. Our Division of Genetics and Metabolism sees more than 8,000 patients a year with rare conditions, such as urea cycle disorders and Down syndrome. Through decades of analyzing these diseases and treating children who have them, we have developed therapies that apply not only for the small numbers of patients who have rare diseases but also for more common conditions caused by environmental factors leading to a similar physical response.

For instance, we’ve demonstrated that the stress of cardiopulmonary bypass during surgery to correct congenital heart disease creates conditions similar to a critical blockage in the urea cycle, specifically the biochemical creation of citrulline, a key biochemical.

When that cycle is unable to flow, or continuing the river analogy, becomes dammed up due to a genetic defect, as in urea cycle disorders, or an environmental factor, such as the extreme stress of cardiopulmonary bypass, the body is unable to make enough citrulline which is critical for maintaining normal blood pressure. We’ve shown that replacing that citrulline can correct a lot of these problems whether caused by rare genetics or the cardiac OR.

Applying rare disease treatment approaches to more common diseases is not limited to urea cycle disorders. Work by my colleague Carlos Ferreira, MD, demonstrates how a rare genetic calcifying arterial disease (generalized arterial calcification in infancy, GACI) causes the same calcium buildup and blockages as chronic kidney disease. Dr. Ferreira hypothesizes that life-saving drugs developed for use in GACI could help patients with long-term kidney disease by averting organ damage and eventual failure caused by the buildup of calcium crystals.

The more we learn about these rare diseases, the more we come to appreciate the tremendous implications our findings have for patients with the rare disorders and potentially hundreds of thousands of others.

About the Author

Marshall Summar, MD
Research interests: The interactions between common genetic variations and the environment.

Exploration of the developing brain

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Common, lifelong health conditions like diabetes and hypertension have footprints that can be traced back to the womb. With advanced fetal MRI we seek to understand as much as possible about brain development during the time in utero. Non-invasive imaging technology helps us to identify signs of abnormal fetal development that may facilitate earlier diagnoses of chronic conditions and intervention.

We’re exploiting both the power and safety of MRI to develop ways to pick up early signs and signals in fetuses whose brain development may be veering off in the wrong direction. Using this advanced technology we can begin to detect varying signals or other signs of distress. These signs of distress may appear in the form of a brain chemical imbalance or a structural brain abnormality that is too subtle to be seen by an ultrasound or other scan. We now have the ability to leverage magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brain in utero for even the most subtle derailments that can lead to lifelong consequences.

The first nine months of life, when a fetus is in the womb, is a time of unparalleled growth and a critical time for fetal brain development. As we examine the maturation of the fetal brain, we know that each and every cortical fold represents future function lost or gained and lays the fundamental background or platform from which critical functions will emerge such as language and social and behavioral development.

We are developing technology that can quickly and reliably pick up early signals of a fetal brain that’s going off route to provide the ability to access therapeutic windows that are currently inaccessible. Earlier identification and intervention can improve the quality of life for children and potentially could even reverse the abnormality.

Early identification of fetal distress is critical. To be able to provide an intervention you must first be able to know that a fetus is getting into trouble, and you must be able to identify the problem early enough, in order to intervene before it has already caused injury to the fetus.

About the Author

Catherine LimperopoulosCatherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.
Director, MRI Research of the Developing Brain; Director, Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology/Fetal and Transitional Medicine
Research interests:
Fetal neonatal brain injury