pregnant woman getting a checkup

Children’s National awarded $4.2 million to lead maternal mental health research programs

pregnant woman getting a checkup

Mothers and their babies often experience stress, depression and anxiety, which impacts the infant’s brain development.

Children’s National Hospital announces a $4.2 million funding award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) to support maternal mental health research. The Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National will lead a new program that seeks to advance perinatal mental health and well-being while addressing racial disparities in access to resources that could boost positive health outcomes for women with few opportunities.

Mothers and their babies often experience stress, depression and anxiety, which impacts the infant’s brain development. Maternal psychological distress is more pronounced among low-income mothers — a health disparity that was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The new fund will support many scientific research portfolios, including our project that will ensure pregnant women in D.C. get the care they need and deserve,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of The Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National and co-principal investigator of the project.

“I’m honored to be working alongside Dr. Limperopoulos and our partners. Collectively, our team aims to meet the needs of African American pregnant and postpartum women and their families during this important transition in their lives by providing services to address social determinants of health and prevent and treat maternal distress,” said Huynh-Nhu Le, Ph.D., the co-principal investigator of the project and professor in the Clinical Psychology program, part of the department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at George Washington University.

Cognitive-behavioral intervention, patient navigation and peer support, such tailored strategies developed in the program will provide effective mental health screening and care for 1,000 mothers living in Washington D.C. that is responsive to their cultural, social, environmental, behavioral and medical needs. The participants will access the resources either online or in-person, depending on the type of assistance that fits their lifestyle.

“I am overjoyed that PCORI has provided this essential funding, giving life to our project. The research done here will have a grand effect! Our goals are ambitious: To dissect all aspects of maternal health, beyond just mental health, literally creating a detailed timeline of events a mother can anticipate experiencing from pregnancy, at delivery and postpartum,” said Shanae Bond, one of the women whose firsthand experience giving birth in D.C. informed the study design. “With the maternal health crisis we are currently facing, it’s imperative to gain this type of insight to not only support mothers but to learn how they wish to be supported and how to best improve the care they receive – based on how it impacts, improves (or impairs) their lives,” said Bond.

The multidisciplinary group includes doctors, midwives, psychologists, advisors, community leaders and four prenatal care centers, MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Howard University, The George Washington University and Unity Health Care.

“Our initiative brings together obstetrics, pediatrics, and mental health care in an integrated care model. This collaboration brings early identification and immediate care coordination to its rightful place at the center of care,” said Loral Patchen, Ph.D., CNM, vice chair, Innovation and Community Programs at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “The prenatal period offers an opportunity for us to support emotional healing, build coping strategies, and offer a safe space for people to prepare for the complex transitions that accompany childbearing. Offering services prior to delivery optimizes opportunity for strong parent-infant attachment and mitigates potential disruptions.”

Kristin L. Atkins, M.D., FACOG, assistant professor in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at Howard University College of Medicine, mentioned that Howard University is honored to partner with Children’s National Hospital. “The new program will help discover more about prenatal care interventions related to maternal mental health and how they may impact fetal and pediatric brain development,” said Dr. Atkins. “We are just discovering the impact of long-standing stress on health and well-being, and this starts in utero.”

To Jennifer Keller, M.D., MPH, FACOG, associate professor at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences, this project is essential. “The events of the last year have had a profound impact on families in this city,” said Dr. Keller. “This project begins at a time of critical mental health needs for pregnant people in D.C.”

Siobhan Burke, M.D., director of OB/GYN at Unity Health Care, is also thrilled to be part of this partnership. “We all know underlying stressors such as financial difficulties, housing instability and systemic racism can impact health, but it’s important to find out what these things do to the developing fetus and to explore strategies to make lives better,” said Dr. Burke.

In 2020, Children’s National established The Clark Parent & Child Network funded by a $36 million investment from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation. The Clark Network aims to provide families with greater access to mental health care and community resources. New projects like the D.C. mother-infant behavioral wellness program underwritten by PCORI funding will become natural extensions of this essential work.

“This project was selected for PCORI funding not only for its scientific merit and commitment to engaging patients and other stakeholders, but also for its potential to fill an important gap in our health knowledge and give people information to help them weigh the effectiveness of their care options,” said PCORI Executive Director Nakela L. Cook, M.D., M.P.H.. “We look forward to following the study’s progress and working with Children’s National Hospital to share the results.”

This $4.2 million PCORI funding has been approved pending completion of a business and programmatic review by PCORI staff and issuance of a formal award contract.

 

doctor examining pregnant woman

Low parental socioeconomic status alters brain development in unborn babies

doctor examining pregnant woman

A first-of-its-kind study with 144 pregnant women finds that socioeconomic status (SES) has an impact in the womb, altering several key regions in the developing fetal brain as well as cortical features.

Maternal socioeconomic status impacts babies even before birth, emphasizing the need for policy interventions to support the wellbeing of pregnant women, according to newly published research from Children’s National Hospital.

A first-of-its-kind study with 144 pregnant women finds that socioeconomic status (SES) has an impact in the womb, altering several key regions in the developing fetal brain as well as cortical features. Parental occupation and education levels encompassing populations with lower SES hinder early brain development, potentially affecting neural, social-emotional and cognitive function later in the infant’s life.

Having a clear understanding of early brain development can also help policymakers identify intervention approaches such as educational assistance and occupational training to support and optimize the well-being of people with low SES since they face multiple psychological and physical stressors that can influence childhood brain development, Lu et al. note in the study published in JAMA Network Open.

“While there has been extensive research about the interplay between socioeconomic status and brain development, until now little has been known about the exact time when brain development is altered in people at high-risk for poor developmental outcomes,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Institute and senior author. “There are many reasons why these children can be vulnerable, including high rates of maternal prenatal depression and anxiety. Later in life, these children may experience conduct disorders and impaired neurocognitive functions needed to acquire knowledge, which is the base to thrive in school, work or life.”

The findings suggest that fetuses carried by women with low socioeconomic backgrounds had decreased regional brain growth and accelerated brain gyrification and surface folding patterns on the brain. This observation in lower SES populations may in part be explained by elevated parental stress and may be associated with neuropsychiatric disorders and mental illness later in life.

In contrast, fetuses carried by women with higher education levels, occupation and SES scores showed an increased white matter, cerebellar and brainstem volume during the prenatal period, and lower gyrification index and sulcal depth in the parietal, temporal and occipital lobes of the brain. These critical prenatal brain growth and development processes lay the foundation for normal brain function, which ready the infant for life outside the womb, enabling them to attain key developmental milestones after birth, including walking, talking, learning and social skills.

There is also a knowledge gap in the association between socioeconomic status and fetal cortical folding — when the brain undergoes structural changes to create sulcal and gyral regions. The study’s findings of accelerated gyrification in low SES adds to the scientific record, helping inform future research, Limperopoulos added.

The Children’s National research team gathered data from 144 healthy women at 24 to 40 weeks gestation with uncomplicated pregnancies. To establish the parameters for socioeconomic status, which included occupation and education in lieu of family income, parents completed a questionnaire at the time of each brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) visit. The researchers used MRI to measure fetal brain volumes, including cortical gray matter, white matter, deep gray matter, cerebellum and brain stem. Out of the 144 participants, the scientists scanned 40 brain fetuses twice during the pregnancy, and the rest were scanned once. The 3-dimensional computational brain models among healthy fetuses helped determine fetal brain cortical folding.

Potential proximal risk factors like maternal distress were also measured in the study using a questionnaire accounting for 60% of the participants but, according to the limited data available, there was no significant association with low and high socioeconomic status nor brain volume and cortical features.

Authors in the study from Children’s National include: Yuan-Chiao Lu, Ph.D., Kushal Kapse, M.S., Nicole Andersen, B.A., Jessica Quistorff, M.P.H., Catherine Lopez, M.S., Andrea Fry, B.S., Jenhao Cheng, Ph.D., Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Yao Wu, Ph.D., Kristina Espinosa, Psy.D., Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Adre du Plessis, M.D., and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.

Lee Beers

Lee Beers, M.D., F.A.A.P, begins term as AAP president

Lee Beers

“The past year has been a stark reminder about the importance of partnership and working together toward common goals,” says Dr. Beers. “I am humbled and honored to be taking on this role at such a pivotal moment for the future health and safety of not only children, but the community at large.”

Lee Savio Beers, M.D., F.A.A.P., medical director of Community Health and Advocacy at the Child Health Advocacy Institute (CHAI) at Children’s National Hospital, has begun her term as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP is an organization of 67,000 pediatricians committed to the optimal physical, mental and social health and well-being for all children – from infancy to adulthood.

“The past year has been a stark reminder about the importance of partnership and working together toward common goals,” says Dr. Beers. “I am humbled and honored to be taking on this role at such a pivotal moment for the future health and safety of not only children, but the community at large.”

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

  • Partnering with patients, families, communities, mental health providers and pediatricians to co-design systems to bolster children’s resiliency and to alleviate growing pediatric mental health concerns.
  • Continuing to support pediatricians during the COVID-19 pandemic with a focus on education, pediatric practice support, vaccine delivery systems and physician wellness.
  • Implementation of the AAP’s Equity Agenda and Year 1 Equity Workplan.

Dr. Beers is looking forward to continuing her work bringing together the diverse voices of pediatricians, children and families as well as other organizations to support improving the health of all children.

“Dr. Beers has devoted her career to helping children,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and chief executive officer of Children’s National. “She has developed a national advocacy platform for children and will be of tremendous service to children within AAP national leadership.”

Read more about Dr. Beer’s career and appointment as president of the AAP.

Associations Between Resting State Functional Connectivity and Behavior in the Fetal Brain

Maternal anxiety affects the fetal brain

Associations Between Resting State Functional Connectivity and Behavior in the Fetal Brain

Anxiety in gestating mothers appears to affect the course of brain development in their fetuses, changing neural connectivity in the womb, a new study suggests.

Anxiety in gestating mothers appears to affect the course of brain development in their fetuses, changing neural connectivity in the womb, a new study by Children’s National Hospital researchers suggests. The findings, published Dec. 7, 2020, in JAMA Network Open, could help explain longstanding links between maternal anxiety and neurodevelopmental disorders in their children and suggests an urgent need for interventions to diagnose and decrease maternal stress.

Researchers have shown that stress, anxiety or depression in pregnant mothers is associated not only with poor obstetric outcomes but also social, emotional and behavioral problems in their children. Although the care environment after birth complicates the search for causes, postnatal imaging showing significant differences in brain anatomy has suggested that these problems may originate during gestation. However, direct evidence for this phenomenon has been lacking, says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National.

To help determine where these neurological changes might get their start, Dr. Limperopoulos, along with staff scientist Josepheen De Asis-Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., and their Children’s National colleagues used a technique called resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) to probe developing neural circuitry in fetuses at different stages of development in the late second and third trimester.

The researchers recruited 50 healthy pregnant volunteers from low-risk prenatal clinics in the Washington, D.C. area who were serving as healthy “control” volunteers in a larger study on fetal brain development in complex congenital heart disease. These study participants, spanning between 24 and 39 weeks in their pregnancies, each filled out widely used and validated questionnaires to screen for stress, anxiety and depression. Then, each underwent brain scans of their fetuses that showed connections between discrete areas that form circuits.

After analyzing rs-fMRI results for their fetuses, the researchers found that those with higher scores for either form of anxiety were more likely to carry fetuses with stronger connections between the brainstem and sensorimotor areas, areas important for arousal and sensorimotor skills, than with lower anxiety scores. At the same time, fetuses of pregnant women with higher anxiety were more likely to have weaker connections between the parieto-frontal and occipital association cortices, areas involved in executive and higher cognitive functions.

“These findings are pretty much in keeping with previous studies that show disturbances in connections reported in the years and decades after birth of children born to women with anxiety,” says Dr. De Asis-Cruz. “That suggests a form of altered fetal programming, where brain networks are changed by this elevated anxiety even before babies are born.”

Whether these effects during gestation themselves linger or are influenced by postnatal care is still unclear, adds Dr. Limperopoulos. Further studies will be necessary to follow children with these fetal differences in neural connectivity to determine whether these variations in neural circuitry development can predict future problems. In addition, it’s unknown whether easing maternal stress and anxiety can avoid or reverse these brain differences. Dr. Limperopoulos and her colleagues are currently studying whether interventions that reduce stress could alter the trajectory of fetal neural development.

In the meantime, she says, these findings emphasize the importance of making sure pregnant women have support for mental health issues, which helps ensure current and future health for both mothers and babies.

“Mental health problems remain taboo, especially in the peripartum period where the expectation is that this is a wonderful time in a woman’s life. Many pregnant mothers aren’t getting the support they need,” Dr. Limperopoulos says. “Changes at the systems level will be necessary to chip away at this critical public health problem and make sure that both mothers and babies thrive in the short and long term.”

Other Children’s National researchers who contributed to this study include Dhineshvikram Krishnamurthy, M.S., software engineer; Li Zhao, Ph.D., research faculty; Kushal Kapse, M.S., staff engineer; Gilbert Vezina, M.D., neuroradiologist; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Jessica Quistorff, M.P.H., clinical research program lead; and Catherine Lopez, M.S., clinical research program coordinator.

This study was funded by R01 HL116585-01 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and U54HD090257 from the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center.

Research & Innovation Campus

Boeing gives $5 million to support Research & Innovation Campus

Research & Innovation Campus

Children’s National Hospital announced a $5 million gift from The Boeing Company that will help drive lifesaving pediatric discoveries at the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus.

Children’s National Hospital announced a $5 million gift from The Boeing Company that will help drive lifesaving pediatric discoveries at the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus. The campus, now under construction, is being developed on nearly 12 acres of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Children’s National will name the main auditorium in recognition of Boeing’s generosity.

“We are deeply grateful to Boeing for their support and commitment to improving the health and well-being of children in our community and around the globe,” said Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National “The Boeing Auditorium will help the Children’s National Research & Innovation campus become the destination for discussion about how to best address the next big healthcare challenges facing children and families.”

The one-of-a-kind pediatric hub will bring together public and private partners for unprecedented collaborations. It will accelerate the translation of breakthroughs into new treatments and technologies to benefit kids everywhere.

“Children’s National Hospital’s enduring mission of positively impacting the lives of our youngest community members is especially important today,” said Boeing President and CEO David Calhoun. “We’re honored to join other national and community partners to advance this work through the establishment of their Research & Innovation Campus.”

Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus partners currently include Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS, Virginia Tech, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Food & Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), Cerner, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, National Organization of Rare Diseases (NORD) and local government.

The 3,200 square-foot Boeing Auditorium will be the focal point of the state-of-the-art conference center on campus. Nationally renowned experts will convene with scientists, medical leaders and diplomats from around the world to foster collaborations that spur progress and disseminate findings.

Boeing’s $5 million commitment deepens its longstanding partnership with Children’s National. The company has donated nearly $2 million to support pediatric care and research at Children’s National through Chance for Life and the hospital’s annual Children’s Ball. During the coronavirus pandemic, Boeing fabricated and donated 2,000 face shields to help keep patients and frontline care providers at Children’s National safe.

Youssef Kousa

Dr. Youssef Kousa awarded Pediatric Epilepsy Research Grant

zika virus

The Child Neurology Foundation has awarded Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., the 2020 Pediatric Epilepsy Research Foundation Shields Research Grant. The funds will support his work on identifying genetic risk factors in congenital Zika syndrome.

The Child Neurology Foundation has awarded Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., physician-scientist within the Division of Neurology at Children’s National Hospital, and founder and director of the Zika Genetics Consortium, the 2020 Pediatric Epilepsy Research Foundation Shields Research Grant. The funds will support his work on identifying genetic risk factors in congenital Zika syndrome.

This prestigious grant provides $100,000 of research funding to help identify treatments and cures for pediatric neurologic diseases. It will allow Dr. Kousa to test the hypothesis that rare genetic variants in individuals contributed to being affected with congenital Zika syndrome and the severity of the phenotype for those who were affected.

“Despite decades of research, identifying those at greatest risk of congenital infection or being severely affected remains an elusive goal,” says Dr. Kousa. “This research is important because identifying genetic risk or protective factors for developmental brain malformations can help teach us how the brain develops.”

Youssef Kousa

In 2015, Dr. Kousa established the Zika Genetic Consortium to investigate whether maternal and fetal genetic factors can modify the risk of brain injury from congenital infections.

Dr. Kousa adds that this work will provide key insights into maternal and fetal genetic factors that can contribute to brain malformations. The hope is that these insights may one day translate into targeted prevention efforts.

“Dr. Kousa’s project is very creative and has a fantastic opportunity to look at factors of Zika on brain development,” says William D. Gaillard, M.D., division chief of both Epilepsy and Neurophysiology, and Neurology at Children’s National. “This is a very competitive award. It’s a tremendous achievement that few accomplish.”

Children’s National is the leading site for this international research study.

In 2015, Dr. Kousa established the Zika Genetic Consortium to investigate whether maternal and fetal genetic factors can modify the risk of brain injury from congenital infections. Dr. Kousa is the principal investigator of the consortium, which includes 19 co-investigators representing 13 different institutions.

The consortium is bringing together cohorts of 12,000 mother-infant participants retrospectively and prospectively. These cohorts come from 15 international health centers in seven countries in collaboration with partners at the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This support gives us the opportunity to test our hypothesis,” says Dr. Kousa. “We also hope what we continue to learn about Zika can play a role in helping us understand other congenital infections and neurodevelopment diseases.”

zika virus

The importance of following the Zika population long-term

zika virus

Invited commentary by Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., prenatal-neonatal neurologist in the Division of Prenatal Pediatrics at Children’s National Hospital, emphasizes importance of studying the Zika population long term.

A simple measuring tape could be the key to identifying which children could develop neurological and developmental abnormalities from Zika virus exposure during gestation. This is according to an invited commentary published July 7, 2020 in JAMA Network Open and written by Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., prenatal-neonatal neurologist in the Division of Prenatal Pediatrics at Children’s National Hospital.

Zika virus (ZIKV), first isolated in 1947 in the Zika Forest in Uganda, made headlines in 2015-2016 for causing a widespread epidemic that spread through parts of North and South America, several islands in the Pacific and parts of Southeast Asia. Although previously linked with no or mild symptoms, researchers discovered during this epidemic that Zika can cross from a pregnant woman to her gestating fetus, leading to a syndrome marked by microcephaly (decreased brain growth), abnormal neurologic tone, vision and hearing abnormalities and joint contractures.

“For the 90% to 95% of ZIKV-exposed infants who fortunately were not born with severe abnormalities at birth and were normocephalic, our hope was that these children would have normal neurodevelopmental outcomes,” Dr. Mulkey writes in the commentary. “Unfortunately, this has not been the case.”

Her commentary expands on a study in the same issue entitled “Association between exposure to antenatal Zika virus and anatomic and neurodevelopmental abnormalities in children” by Cranston et al. In this study, the researchers find that head circumference — a simple measure taken regularly at postnatal appointments in the U.S. — can provide insight into which children were most likely to develop neurologic abnormalities. Their findings show that 68% of those whose head circumference was in the “normal” range at birth developed neurologic problems. Those whose head circumference was at the upper end of this range were significantly less likely to have abnormalities than those at the lower end.

Just this single measurement offers considerable insight into the risk of developing neurologic problems after Zika exposure. However, notes Dr. Mulkey, head circumference growth trajectory is also key. Of the 162 infants whose heads were initially in the normocephalic range at birth, about 10.5% went on to develop microcephaly in the months after birth.

“Because early head growth trajectory is associated with cognitive outcomes in early childhood,” Dr. Mulkey writes, “following the head circumference percentile over time can enable recognition of a child with increased risk for poor outcome who could benefit from early intervention therapies.”

This simple assessment could be significantly augmented with neuroimaging, she adds. The study by Cranston et al., as well as others in the field, have shown that brain imaging often reveals problems in ZIKV-exposed children, such as calcifications and cerebral atrophy, even in those with normal head circumferences. This imaging doesn’t necessarily need to take place at birth, Dr. Mulkey says. Postnatal development of microcephaly, failure to thrive or developmental delay can all be triggers for imaging later on.

Together, Dr. Mulkey says, the study by Cranston et al. and others that focus on ZIKV-exposed children support the need for following these patients long term. Children exposed to ZIKV in the epidemic nearly five years ago are now approaching school age, a time fraught with more complicated cognitive and social demands. Through her own research at Children’s National’s Congenital Zika Virus Program and collaboration with colleagues in Colombia, Dr. Mulkey is following multiple cohorts of ZIKV exposed children as they grow. She recently published a study on neurological abnormalities in one of these cohorts in JAMA Pediatrics in January 2020.

“It’s really important to follow these children as long as possible so we’ll really know the outcomes of this virus,” Dr. Mulkey says.

US News Badges

Children’s National ranked a top 10 children’s hospital and No. 1 in newborn care nationally by U.S. News

US News Badges

Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., was ranked No. 7 nationally in the U.S. News & World Report 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals annual rankings. This marks the fourth straight year Children’s National has made the list, which ranks the top 10 children’s hospitals nationwide.

In addition, its neonatology program, which provides newborn intensive care, ranked No.1 among all children’s hospitals for the fourth year in a row.

For the tenth straight year, Children’s National also ranked in all 10 specialty services, with seven specialties ranked in the top 10.

“Our number one goal is to provide the best care possible to children. Being recognized by U.S. News as one of the best hospitals reflects the strength that comes from putting children and their families first, and we are truly honored,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National Hospital.

“This year, the news is especially meaningful, because our teams — like those at hospitals across the country — faced enormous challenges and worked heroically through a global pandemic to deliver excellent care.”

“Even in the midst of a pandemic, children have healthcare needs ranging from routine vaccinations to life-saving surgery and chemotherapy,” said Ben Harder, managing editor and chief of Health Analysis at U.S. News. “The Best Children’s Hospitals rankings are designed to help parents find quality medical care for a sick child and inform families’ conversations with pediatricians.”

The annual rankings are the most comprehensive source of quality-related information on U.S. pediatric hospitals. The rankings recognize the nation’s top 50 pediatric hospitals based on a scoring system developed by U.S. News. The top 10 scorers are awarded a distinction called the Honor Roll.

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

Below are links to the seven Children’s National specialty services that U.S. News ranked in the top 10 nationally:

The other three specialties ranked among the top 50 were cardiology and heart surgery, gastroenterology and gastro-intestinal surgery, and urology.

Nobuyuki Ishibashi

R01 grant funds white matter protection study for congenital heart disease

Nobuyuki Ishibashi

Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., is the principal investigator on a $3.2 million NIH R01 to study white matter growth and repair in utero for fetal brains affected by congenital heart disease.

Many of the neurological deficits seen in children with congenital heart disease (CHD) are related to abnormal white matter development early in life caused by reduced oxygen supply to the brain while in utero. Children with immature white matter at birth also commonly sustain additional white matter injuries following cardiac surgery.

The NIH recently awarded a prestigious R01 grant totaling more than $3.2 million to a collaborative project led by the Center for Neuroscience Research, the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation and the Children’s National Heart Institute at Children’s National Hospital as well as MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

The research, titled “White matter protection in the fetus with congenital heart disease,” looks specifically at whether providing a supplemental amount of the naturally occurring tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4) for pregnant women could rescue white matter development of fetuses with congenital heart disease whose brains aren’t receiving enough oxygen – or suffering from hypoxic-ischemic events.

Previous preclinical studies have shown that this lack of oxygen depletes the brain’s natural BH4 level, and the researchers hypothesize that BH4 levels play a critical role in the growth and development of white matter in the fetal brain by triggering key cellular/molecular processes. Specifically, the study will focus on three aims:

  1. Establish in a preclinical model the optimal protective regiment for women pregnant with a fetus who has CHD to receive BH4.
  2. Determine the appropriate approach to deliver BH4 to this population
  3. Leverage genetic tools and biochemical techniques in the laboratory to better understand where and how BH4 levels play a role in the growth (or lack thereof) of oligodendrocytes—the primary cells of white matter.

This laboratory-based work is the first step to determining if the neurodevelopment of babies born with CHD can be preserved or recovered by addressing key brain development that occurs before the baby is even born. Findings related to congenital heart disease may also translate to other populations where white matter development is affected by hypoxia-ischemia, including premature infants.

The project is led by principal investigator Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., with co-investigators Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Joseph Scafidi, D.O., and Mary Donofrio, M.D. as well as colleagues at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Vittorio Gallo and Mark Batshaw

Children’s National Research Institute releases annual report

Vittorio Gallo and Marc Batshaw

Children’s National Research Institute directors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., and Mark Batshaw, M.D.

The Children’s National Research Institute recently released its 2019-2020 academic annual report, titled 150 Years Stronger Through Discovery and Care to mark the hospital’s 150th birthday. Not only does the annual report give an overview of the institute’s research and education efforts, but it also gives a peek in to how the institute has mobilized to address the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our inaugural research program in 1947 began with a budget of less than $10,000 for the study of polio — a pressing health problem for Washington’s children at the time and a pandemic that many of us remember from our own childhoods,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., chief research officer at Children’s National Hospital and scientific director at Children’s National Research Institute. “Today, our research portfolio has grown to more than $75 million, and our 314 research faculty and their staff are dedicated to finding answers to many of the health challenges in childhood.”

Highlights from the Children’s National Research Institute annual report

  • In 2018, Children’s National began construction of its new Research & Innovation Campus (CNRIC) on 12 acres of land transferred by the U.S. Army as part of the decommissioning of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus. In 2020, construction on the CNRIC will be complete, and in 2012, the Children’s National Research Institute will begin to transition to the campus.
  • In late 2019, a team of scientists led by Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to collect samples from 60 individuals that will form the basis of a new reference genome data set. The researchers hope their project will generate better reference genome data for diverse populations, starting with those of Central African descent.
  • A gift of $5.7 million received by the Center for Translational Research’s director, Lisa Guay-Woodford, M.D., will reinforce close collaboration between research and clinical care to improve the care and treatment of children with polycystic kidney disease and other inherited renal disorders.
  • The Center for Neuroscience Research’s integration into the infrastructure of Children’s National Hospital has created a unique set of opportunities for scientists and clinicians to work together on pressing problems in children’s health.
  • Children’s National and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are tackling pediatric research across three main areas of mutual interest: primary immune deficiencies, food allergies and post-Lyme disease syndrome. Their shared goal is to conduct clinical and translational research that improves what we know about those conditions and how we care for children who have them.
  • An immunotherapy trial has allowed a little boy to be a kid again. In the two years since he received cellular immunotherapy, Matthew has shown no signs of a returning tumor — the longest span of time he’s been tumor-free since age 3.
  • In the past 6 years, the 104 device projects that came through the National Capital Consortium for Pediatric Device Innovation accelerator program raised $148,680,256 in follow-on funding.
  • Even though he’s watched more than 500 aspiring physicians pass through the Children’s National pediatric residency program, program director Dewesh Agrawal, M.D., still gets teary at every graduation.

Understanding and treating the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

In a short period of time, Children’s National Research Institute has mobilized its scientists to address COVID-19, focusing on understanding the virus and advancing solutions to ameliorate the impact today and for future generations. Children’s National Research Institute Director Mark Batshaw, M.D., highlighted some of these efforts in the annual report:

  • Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, is looking at whether or not the microbiome of bacteria in the human nasal tract acts as a defensive shield against COVID-19.
  • Catherine Bollard, M.D., MBChB, director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, and her team are seeing if they can “train” T cells to attack the invading coronavirus.
  • Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., an investigator in the Center for Neuroscience Research and the Fetal Medicine Institute, is studying the effects of, and possible interventions for, coronavirus on the developing brain.

You can view the entire Children’s National Research Institute academic annual report online.

Vittorio Gallo

Special issue of “Neurochemical Research” honors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Vittorio Gallo

Investigators from around the world penned manuscripts that were assembled in a special issue of “Neurochemical Research” that honors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., for his leadership in the field of neural development and regeneration.

At a pivotal moment early in his career, Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., was accepted to work with Professor Giulio Levi at the Institute for Cell Biology in Rome, a position that leveraged courses Gallo had taken in neurobiology and neurochemistry, and allowed him to work in the top research institute in Italy directed by the Nobel laureate, Professor Rita Levi-Montalcini.

For four years as a student and later as Levi’s collaborator, Gallo focused on amino acid neurotransmitters in the brain and mechanisms of glutamate and GABA release from nerve terminals. Those early years cemented a research focus on glutamate neurotransmission that would lead to a number of pivotal publications and research collaborations that have spanned decades.

Now, investigators from around the world who have worked most closely with Gallo penned tributes in the form of manuscripts that were assembled in a special issue of “Neurochemical Research” that honors Gallo “for his contributions to our understanding of glutamatergic and GABAergic transmission during brain development and to his leadership in the field of neural development and regeneration,” writes guest editor Arne Schousboe, of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Dr. Gallo as a grad student

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D. as a 21-year-old mustachioed graduate student.

“In spite of news headlines about competition in research and many of the negative things we hear about the research world, this shows that research is also able to create a community around us,” says Gallo, chief research officer at Children’s National Hospital and scientific director for the Children’s National Research Institute.

As just one example, he first met Schousboe 44 years ago when Gallo was a 21-year-old mustachioed graduate student.

“Research can really create a sense of community that we carry on from the time we are in training, nurture as we meet our colleagues at periodic conferences, and continue up to the present. Creating community is bi-directional: influencing people and being influenced by people. People were willing to contribute these 17 articles because they value me,” Gallo says. “This is a lot of work for the editor and the people who prepared papers for this special issue.”

In addition to Gallo publishing more than 140 peer-reviewed papers, 30 review articles and book chapters, Schousboe notes a number of Gallo’s accomplishments, including:

  • He helped to develop the cerebellar granule cell cultures as a model system to study how electrical activity and voltage-dependent calcium channels modulate granule neuron development and glutamate release.
  • He developed a biochemical/neuropharmacological assay to monitor the effects of GABA receptor modulators on the activity of GABA chloride channels in living neurons.
  • He and Maria Usowicz used patch-clamp recording and single channel analysis to demonstrate for the first time that astrocytes express glutamate-activated channels that display functional properties similar to neuronal counterparts.
  • He characterized one of the spliced isoforms of the AMPA receptor subunit gene Gria4 and demonstrated that this isoform was highly expressed in the cerebellum.
  • He and his Children’s National colleagues demonstrated that glutamate and GABA regulate oligodendrocyte progenitor cell proliferation and differentiation.
Purkinje cells

Purkinje cells are large neurons located in the cerebellum that are elaborately branched like interlocking tree limbs and represent the only source of output for the entire cerebellar cortex.

Even the image selected to grace the special issue’s cover continues the theme of continuity and leaving behind a legacy. That image of Purkinje cells was created by a young scientist who works in Gallo’s lab, Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D. Gallo began his career working on the cerebellum – a region of the brain important for motor control – and now studies with a team of scientists and clinician-scientists Purkinje cells’ role in locomotor adaptive behavior and how that is disrupted after neonatal brain injury.

“These cells are the main players in cerebellar circuitry,” Gallo says. “It’s a meaningful image because goes back to my roots as a graduate student and is also an image that someone produced in my lab early in his career. It’s very meaningful to me that Aaron agreed to provide this image for the cover of the special issue.”

newborn in incubator

A bronchopulmonary dysplasia primer to guide clinicians and researchers

newborn in incubator

Six months in the writing, the “Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia Primer” published recently by Nature Reviews will be the gold standard review on this topic for years to come.

The term bronchopulmonary dysplasia, or BPD, was first coined in 1967 to describe a chronic lung disease of preterm newborns after treatment with supplemental oxygen via mechanical ventilation in an effort to save their lives. Back then, infants had 50-50 odds of surviving.

In the intervening years, survival has improved and the characteristics of BPD have evolved. Now, BPD is the most common complication of preterm birth for infants born at fewer than 28 weeks’ gestation, as more and more newborns survive premature birth. Hence, the primer.

“The contributing authors are some of the biggest thinkers on this topic,” says Robin H. Steinhorn, M.D., senior vice president, Center for Hospital-Based Specialties, at Children’s National Hospital and author of the section about BPD diagnosis, screening and prevention. “This document will guide clinical education and investigators in the field of BPD. I anticipate this will be the definitive review article on the subject for the next several years.”

Gestational age and low birth weight remain the most potent predictors of BPD. Some 50,000 extremely low gestational age newborns are born each year in the U.S. About 35% will develop some degree of BPD, according to the primer authors.

These newborns are introduced to life outside the womb well before their lungs are ready. Indeed, the pulmonary surfactants needed for normal lung function – a complex mixture of phospholipids that reduce surface tension within the lungs – don’t differentiate until late in pregnancy. Infants who persistently need respiratory support after the 14th day of life are at the highest risk of being diagnosed with BPD at 36 weeks, the coauthors note.

A number of complicating factors can come into play, including maternal diet; fetal exposure to maternal smoking and infection; structural issues such as pre-eclampsia; acute injury from mechanical ventilation and supplemental oxygen; as well as the body’s halting efforts to repair injured, inflamed lung tissue.

“The good news is the number of the smallest and youngest preterm infants who survive extreme preterm birth has steadily increased. Neonatal intensive care units, like our award-winning NICU, now routinely care for babies born at 22 weeks’ gestation,” Dr. Steinhorn says.

Treatment strategies include:

  • Reducing exposure to intubation and ventilation.
  • Leveraging respiratory stimulants, like caffeine.
  • Postnatal steroid therapy.

“Children’s National Hospital is the only center in our immediate region that provides comprehensive care for infants and children with severe BPD,” Dr. Steinhorn adds. “As the population of vulnerable and fragile infants has grown, we have invested in the equipment and the personnel – including at the Hospital for Sick Children Pediatric Center (HSC) – to create a very safe and supportive environment that improves survival and quality of life.”

Some preterm infants spend their first 9 to 10 months of life at Children’s National, and their days are filled with concentrated physical, occupational and speech therapy, as well as music and play therapy to hasten their rehabilitation.

Once their medical condition stabilizes, they transition to HSC to focus more intently on rehabilitation.

“We see HSC as filling a very important role in their care. When our children graduate to HSC, they are going for ongoing care of their lung disease, but also their ongoing rehabilitation. At HSC, they focus on creating the most normal life that we can possibly create and, over time, that is a life free of ventilators and tracheostomy tubes.”

In addition to Dr. Steinhorn, BPD Primer co-authors include Bernard Thébaud, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario; Kara N. Goss, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Matthew Laughon, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Jeffrey A. Whitsett and Alan H. Jobe, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center; Steven H. Abman, Children’s Hospital Colorado;  Judy L. Aschner, Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital; Peter G. Davis, The Royal Women’s Hospital; Sharon A. McGrath- Morrow, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and Roger F. Soll, University of Vermont.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under grant Nos. U01HL122642, U01HL134745, RO1HL68702, R01HL145679, U01HL12118-01 and K24 HL143283; the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council; the Canadian Institute for Health Research; Stem Cell Network and the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

T2-Weighted Magnetic Resonance (MR) Imaging Brain Segmentation

Maternal mental health alters structure and biochemistry of developing fetal brain

Even when pregnant women have uncomplicated pregnancies and high socioeconomic status, when they experience elevated anxiety, stress or depression these prenatal stressors can alter the structure of the developing fetal brain and disrupt its biochemistry, according to Children’s National Hospital research published online Jan. 29, 2020, in JAMA Network Open.

The Children’s National research findings “have enormous scientific, clinical and public health implications,” Charles A. Nelson III, Ph.D.,  Boston Children’s Hospital, writes in a companion editorial.

“Previously we found that 65% of pregnant women who received a diagnosis of fetal congenital heart disease had elevated levels of stress. It’s concerning but not surprising that pregnant women who wonder if their baby will need open heart surgery would feel stress,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “In this latest study, we ran the same panel of questionnaires and were surprised to find a high proportion of otherwise healthy pregnant women whose unborn babies are doing well also report high levels of stress.”

Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems during pregnancy. To learn more about the implications for the developing fetal brain, the Children’s National research team recruited 119 healthy volunteers with low-risk pregnancies from obstetric clinics in Washington, D.C., from Jan. 1, 2016, to April 17, 2019. The women’s mean age was 34.4 years old. All were high school graduates, 83% were college graduates, and 84% reported professional employment.

T2-Weighted Magnetic Resonance (MR) Imaging Brain Segmentation.

T2-Weighted Magnetic Resonance (MR) Imaging Brain Segmentation. Segmentation results of total brain (orange), cortical gray matter (green), white matter (blue), deep gray matter (brown), brainstem (yellow), cerebellum (light blue), left hippocampus (purple) and right hippocampus (red) on a 3-Dimensional reconstructed T2-weighted MR image of a fetus at 26.4 gestational weeks. The hippocampus plays a central role in memory and behavioral inhibition and contains high concentrations of corticosteroid receptors and, thus, this brain region is sensitive to stress. Credit: JAMA Network Open.

The team performed 193 fetal brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) sessions between 24-40 weeks gestation and measured the volume of the total fetal brain as well as the cortical gray matter, white matter, deep gray matter, cerebellum, brainstem and hippocampus volumes. On the same day as their MRI visit, the pregnant women completed validated questionnaires to measure maternal stress, anxiety and depression, answering questions such as “how do you feel right now,” “how do you generally feel” as well as the degree of stressful feelings they experienced the month prior.

Of the pregnant women in the study:

  • 27% tested positive for stress
  • 26% tested positive for anxiety
  • 11% tested positive for depression
  • Maternal anxiety and stress were associated with increased fetal cortical gyrification
  • Elevated maternal depression was associated with decreased creatine and choline levels in the fetal brain
  • Maternal stress scores decreased with increasing gestational age, while anxiety and depression did not

“We report for the first time that maternal psychological distress may be associated with increased fetal local gyrification index in the frontal and temporal lobes,” says Yao Wu, Ph.D., a research associate working with Limperopoulos at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “We also found an association with left fetal hippocampal volume, with maternal psychological distress selectively stunting the left hippocampal volumetric growth more than the right. And elevated maternal depression was associated with decreased creatine and choline levels in the fetal brain,” Wu adds.

Late in pregnancy – at the time these women were recruited into the cohort study – the fetal brain grows exponentially and key metabolite levels also rise. Creatine facilitates recycling of adenosine triphosphate, the cell’s energy currency. Typically, levels of this metabolite rise, denoting rapid changes and higher cellular maturation; creatine also is known to support cognitive function. Choline levels also typically rise, marking cell membrane turnover as new cells are generated and support memory, mental focus and concentration.

“These women were healthy, and of high socioeconomic status and educational level, leading us to conclude that the prevalence of prenatal maternal psychological distress may be underestimated,” Limperopoulos adds. “While stress is an everyday reality for most of us, this is different because elevated stress during pregnancy can alter fetal brain programming. Our findings underscore the critical need to universally screen all pregnant women for prenatal psychological distress, even young mothers whose pregnancies wouldn’t otherwise raise red flags.”

In addition to Limperopoulos and Wu, Children’s National study co-authors include Yuan-Chiao Lu, Ph.D., research associate; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., biostatistician; Subechhya Pradhan, Ph.D., research faculty; Kushal Kapse, MS, staff engineer; Li Zhao, Ph.D., research faculty; Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Gilbert Vezina, M.D., director of the neuroradiology program; and Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., director, Fetal Medicine Institute. Research coordinators Catherine Lopez, MS, Kathryn Lee Bannantine, BSN, and Jessica Lynn Quistorff, MPH, assisted with subject recruitment.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under grant No. RO1 HL116585-01 and the Thrasher Research Fund under Early Career award No. 14764.

Journal Reference:
Yao Wu, Yuan-Chiao Lu, Marni Jacobs, Subechhya Pradhan, Kushal Kapse, Li Zhao, Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, Gilbert Vezina, Adré J. du Plessis, Catherine Limperopoulos. “Association of prenatal maternal psychological distress with fetal brain growth, metabolism and cortical maturation,” JAMA Network Open, 3(1): e1919940, 2020

Catherine Limperopoulos

Stressful pregnancies can leave fingerprint on fetal brain

Catherine Limperopoulos

“We were alarmed by the high percentage of pregnant women with a diagnosis of a major fetal heart problem who tested positive for stress, anxiety and depression,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s corresponding author.

When a diagnosis of fetal congenital heart disease causes pregnant moms to test positive for stress, anxiety and depression, powerful imaging can detect impaired development in key fetal brain regions, according to Children’s National Hospital research published online Jan. 13, 2020, in JAMA Pediatrics.

While additional research is needed, the Children’s National study authors say their unprecedented findings underscore the need for universal screening for psychological distress as a routine part of prenatal care and taking other steps to support stressed-out pregnant women and safeguard their newborns’ developing brains.

“We were alarmed by the high percentage of pregnant women with a diagnosis of a major fetal heart problem who tested positive for stress, anxiety and depression,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s corresponding author. “Equally concerning is how prevalent psychological distress is among pregnant women generally. We report for the first time that this challenging prenatal environment impairs regions of the fetal brain that play a major role in learning, memory, coordination, and social and behavioral development, making it all the more important for us to identify these women early during pregnancy to intervene,” Limperopoulos adds.

Congenital heart disease (CHD), structural problems with the heart, is the most common birth defect. Still, it remains unclear how exposure to maternal stress impacts brain development in fetuses with CHD.

The multidisciplinary study team enrolled 48 women whose unborn fetuses had been diagnosed with CHD and 92 healthy women with uncomplicated pregnancies. Using validated screening tools, they found:

  • 65% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for stress
  • 27% of women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for stress
  • 44% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for anxiety
  • 26% of women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for anxiety
  • 29% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for depression and
  • 9% women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for depression

All told, they performed 223 fetal magnetic resonance imaging sessions for these 140 fetuses between 21 and 40 weeks of gestation. They measured brain volume in cubic centimeters for the total brain as well as volumetric measurements for key regions such as the cerebrum, cerebellum, brainstem, and left and right hippocampus.

Maternal stress and anxiety in the second trimester were associated with smaller left hippocampi and smaller cerebellums only in pregnancies affected by fetal CHD. What’s more, specific regions — the hippocampus head and body and the left cerebellar lobe – were more susceptible to stunted growth. The hippocampus is key to memory and learning, while the cerebellum controls motor coordination and plays a role in social and behavioral development.

The hippocampus is a brain structure that is known to be very sensitive to stress. The timing of the CHD diagnosis may have occurred at a particularly vulnerable time for the developing fetal cerebellum, which grows faster than any other brain structure in the second half of gestation, particularly in the third trimester.

“None of these women had been screened for prenatal depression or anxiety. None of them were taking medications. And none of them had received mental health interventions. In the group of women contending with fetal CHD, 81% had attended college and 75% had professional educations, so this does not appear to be an issue of insufficient resources,” Limperopoulos adds. “It’s critical that we routinely to do these screenings and provide pregnant women with access to interventions to lower their stress levels. Working with our community partners, Children’s National is doing just that to help reduce toxic prenatal stress for both the health of the mother and for the future newborns. We hope this becomes standard practice elsewhere.”

Adds Yao Wu, Ph.D., a research associate working with Limperopoulos at Children’s National and the study’s lead author: “Our next goal is exploring effective prenatal cognitive behavioral interventions to reduce psychological distress felt by pregnant women and improve neurodevelopment in babies with CHD.”

In addition to Limperopoulos and Wu , Children’s National study co-authors include Kushal Kapse, MS, staff engineer; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., biostatistician; Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Mary T. Donofrio, M.D., director, Fetal Heart Program; Anita Krishnan, M.D., associate director, echocardiography; Gilbert Vezina, M.D., director, Neuroradiology Program; David Wessel, M.D., Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer; and Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., director, Fetal Medicine Institute. Jessica Lynn Quistorff, MPH, Catherine Lopez, MS, and Kathryn Lee Bannantine, BSN, assisted with subject recruitment and study coordination.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under grant No. R01 HL116585-01 and the Thrasher Research Fund under Early Career award No. 14764.

sleeping baby

False negatives: Delayed Zika effects in babies who appeared normal at birth

sleeping baby

Colombian infants exposed to Zika virus in the womb showed neurodevelopmental delays as toddlers, despite having “normal” brain imaging and head circumference at birth, a finding that underscores the importance of long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up for Zika-exposed infants.

Colombian infants exposed to Zika virus in the womb showed neurodevelopmental delays as toddlers, despite having “normal” brain imaging and head circumference at birth, a finding that underscores the importance of long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up for Zika-exposed infants, according to a cohort study published online Jan. 6, 2020, in JAMA Pediatrics.

“These infants had no evidence of Zika deficits or microcephaly at birth. Neurodevelopmental deficits, including declines in mobility and social cognition, emerged in their first year of life even as their head circumference remained normal,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D. Ph.D., a fetal/neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Hospital and the study’s first author. “About one-third of these newborns who underwent postnatal head ultrasound had nonspecific imaging results, which we believe are the first published results finding a link between subtle brain injuries and impaired neuromotor development in Zika-exposed children.”

The multi-institutional research group led by Children’s National enrolled pregnant women in Atlántico Department, which hugs the Caribbean coast of Colombia, who had been exposed to Zika, and performed a series of fetal magnetic resonance images (MRI) and ultrasounds as their pregnancies progressed.

Even though their mothers had laboratory-confirmed Zika infections, 77 out of 82 of their offspring were born with no sign of congenital Zika syndrome, a constellation of birth defects that includes severe brain abnormalities, eye problems and congenital contractures, and 70 underwent additional testing of neurodevelopment during infancy. These apparently normal newborns were born between Aug. 1, 2016, and Nov. 30, 2017, at the height of the Zika epidemic, and had normal head circumference.

When they were 4 to 8 months or 9 to 18 months of age, the infants’ neurodevelopment was evaluated using two validated tools, the Warner Initial Developmental Evaluation of Adaptive and Functional Skills (a 50-item test of such skills as self-care, mobility, communication and social cognition) and the Alberta Infant Motor Scale (a motor examination of infants in prone, supine, sitting and standing positions). Some infants were assessed during each time point.

Women participating in the study were highly motivated, with 91% following up with appointments, even if it meant traveling hours by bus. In addition to Children’s National faculty traveling to Colombia to train staff how to administer the screening instruments, videotaped assessments, MRIs and ultrasounds were read, analyzed and scored at Children’s National. According to the study team, the U.S. scoring of Alberta Infant Motor Scale tests administered in Colombia is also unprecedented for a research study and offers the potential of remote scoring of infants’ motor skill maturity in regions of the world where pediatric specialists, like child neurologists, are lacking.

“Normally, neurodevelopment in infants and toddlers continues for years, building a sturdy neural network that they later use to carry out complex neurologic and cognitive functions as children enter school,” Dr. Mulkey adds. “Our findings underscore the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that all infants exposed to Zika in the womb undergo long-term follow-up, providing an opportunity to intervene earlier.”

An accompanying editorial by CDC staffers concurs, saying the study reported “intriguing data” that add “to the growing evidence of the need for long-term follow-up for all children with Zika virus exposure in utero to ensure they receive the recommended clinical evaluations even when no structural defects are identified at birth.”

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Margarita Arroyave-Wessel, MPH, Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D., chief of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, JiJi Jiang, MS, Stephanie Russo, BS, Robert McCarter, ScD, research section head, design and biostatistics,  Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, chief of the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine, and co-Senior Author, Roberta L. DeBiasi, MD, MS, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, all of Children’s National; Colleen Peyton, PT, DPT, of Northwestern University; Yamil Fourzali, M.D., of Sabbag Radiologos, Barranquilla, Colombia; Michael E. Msall, M.D., of University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital; and co-Senior Author, Carlos Cure, M.D., BIOMELab, Barranquilla, Colombia.

Funding for the research described in this post was provided by the Thrasher Research Fund, the National Institutes of Health under award Nos. UL1TR001876 and KL2TR001877, and the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disorders Training Program under grant HRSA/MCHB T73 MC11047.

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Making healthcare innovation for children a priority

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Recently, Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National Hospital, authored an opinion piece for the popular political website, The Hill. In the article, he called upon stakeholders from across the landscape to address the significant innovation gap in children’s healthcare versus adults.

As Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Children’s Hospital Association,  Dr. Newman knows the importance of raising awareness among policy makers at the federal and state level about the healthcare needs of children. Dr. Newman believes that children’s health should be a national priority that is addressed comprehensively. With years of experience as a pediatric surgeon, he is concerned by the major inequities in the advancements of children’s medical devices and technologies versus those for adults. That’s why Children’s National is working to create collaborations, influence policies and facilitate changes that will accelerate the pace of pediatric healthcare innovation for the benefit of children everywhere. One way that the hospital is tackling this challenge is by developing the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, which will be the nation’s first innovation campus focused on pediatric research.

Research & Innovation Campus

Children’s National welcomes Virginia Tech to its new campus

Children’s National Hospital and Virginia Tech create formal partnership that includes the launch of a Virginia Tech biomedical research facility within the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus.

Children’s National Hospital and Virginia Tech recently announced a formal partnership that will include the launch of a 12,000-square-foot Virginia Tech biomedical research facility within the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus. The campus is an expansion of Children’s National that is located on a nearly 12-acre portion of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and is set to open its first phase in December 2020. This new collaboration brings together Virginia Tech, a top tier academic research institution, with Children’s National, a U.S. News and World Report top 10 children’s hospital, on what will be the nation’s first innovation campus focused on pediatric research.

Research & Innovation Campus

“Virginia Tech is an ideal partner to help us deliver on what we promised for the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus – an ecosystem that enables us to accelerate the translation of potential breakthrough discoveries into new treatments and technologies,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO, Children’s National. “Our clinical expertise combined with Virginia Tech’s leadership in engineering and technology, and its growing emphasis on biomedical research, will be a significant advance in developing much needed treatment and cures to save children’s lives.”

Earlier this year, Children’s National announced a collaboration with Johnson & Johnson Innovation LLC to launch JLABS @ Washington, DC at the Research & Innovation Campus. The JLABS @ Washington, DC site will be open to pharmaceutical, medical device, consumer and health technology companies that are aiming to advance the development of new drugs, medical devices, precision diagnostics and health technologies, including applications in pediatrics.

“We are proud to welcome Virginia Tech to our historic Walter Reed campus – a campus that is shaping up to host some of the top minds, talent and innovation incubators in the world,” says Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. “The new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus will exemplify why D.C. is the capital of inclusive innovation – because we are a city committed to building the public and private partnerships necessary to drive discoveries, create jobs, promote economic growth and keep D.C. at the forefront of innovation and change.”

Faculty from the Children’s National Research Institute and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion (VTC) have worked together for more than a decade, already resulting in shared research grants, collaborative publications and shared intellectual property. Together, the two institutions will now expand their collaborations to develop new drugs, medical devices, software applications and other novel treatments for cancer, rare diseases and other disorders.

“Joining with Children’s National in the nation’s capital positions Virginia Tech to improve the health and well-being of infants and children around the world,” says Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, Ph.D. “This partnership resonates with our land-grant mission to solve big problems and create new opportunities in Virginia and D.C. through education, technology and research.”

The partnership with Children’s National adds to Virginia Tech’s growing footprint in the Washington D.C. region, which includes plans for a new graduate campus in Alexandria, Va. with a human-centered approach to technological innovation. Sands said the proximity of the two locations – just across the Potomac – will enable researchers to leverage resources, and will also create opportunities with the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va. and the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Science and Technology campus in Roanoke, Va.

Carilion Clinic and Children’s National have an existing collaboration for provision of certain specialized pediatric clinical services. The more formalized partnership between Virginia Tech and Children’s National will drive the already strong Virginia Tech-Carilion Clinic partnership, particularly for children’s health initiatives and facilitate collaborations between all three institutions in the pediatric research and clinical service domains.

Children’s National and Virginia Tech will engage in joint faculty recruiting, joint intellectual property, joint training of students and fellows, and collaborative research projects and programs according to Michael Friedlander, Ph.D., Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology, and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

“The expansion and formalization of our partnership with Children’s National is extremely timely and vital for pediatric research innovation and for translating these innovations into practice to prevent, treat and ultimately cure nervous system cancer in children,” says Friedlander, who has collaborated with Children’s National leaders and researchers for more than 20 years. “Both Virginia Tech and Children’s National have similar values and cultures with a firm commitment to discovery and innovation in the service of society.”

“Brain and other nervous system cancers are among the most common cancers in children (alongside leukemia),” says Friedlander. “With our strength in neurobiology including adult brain cancer research in both humans and companion animals at Virginia Tech and the strength of Children’s National research in pediatric cancer, developmental neuroscience and intellectual disabilities, this is a perfect match.”

The design of the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus not only makes it conducive for the hospital to strengthen its prestigious partnerships with Virginia Tech and Johnson & Johnson, it also fosters synergies with federal agencies like the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which will collaborate with JLABS @ Washington, DC to establish a specialized innovation zone to develop responses to health security threats. As more partners sign on, this convergence of key public and private institutions will accelerate discoveries and bring them to market faster for the benefit of children and adults.

“The Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus pairs an inspirational mission to find new treatments for childhood illness and disease with the ideal environment for early stage companies. I am confident the campus will be a magnet for big ideas and will be an economic boost for Washington DC and the region,” says Jeff Zients, who was appointed chair of the Children’s National Board of Directors effective October 1, 2019. As a CEO and the former director of President Obama’s National Economic Council, Zients says that “When you bring together business, academia, health care and government in the right setting, you create a hotbed for innovation.”

Ranked 7th in National Institutes of Health research funding among pediatric hospitals, Children’s National continues to foster collaborations as it prepares to open its first 158,000-square-foot phase of its Research & Innovation Campus. These key partnerships will enable the hospital to fulfill its mission of keeping children top of mind for healthcare innovation and research while also contributing to Washington D.C.’s thriving innovation economy.

t-cells

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

t-cells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Children’s National-NIAID 2019 symposium presentations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Also read: Johan’s story
View: Safeguarding Johan’s future

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

Novel approach to detect fetal growth restriction

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrea Gropman

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

Andrea Gropman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the topics they will study:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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