Public Health News

kidneys with cysts on them

$6M gift powers new PKD clinical and research activities

kidneys with cysts on them

PKD is a genetic disorder characterized by clusters of fluid-filled sacs (cysts) multiplying and interfering with the kidneys’ ability to filter waste from the blood.

When Lisa M. Guay-Woodford, M.D., McGehee Joyce Professor of Pediatrics at Children’s National Hospital, considers a brand-new gift, she likens it to 6 million gallons of “rocket fuel” that will power new research to better understand polycystic kidney disease.

Dr. Guay-Woodford received a $5.7 million dollar gift to support PKD clinical and research activities. PKD is a genetic disorder characterized by clusters of fluid-filled sacs (cysts) multiplying and interfering with the kidneys’ ability to filter waste from the blood. The kidneys’ smooth surface transforms to a bumpy texture as the essential organs grow oversized and riddled with cysts.

The extraordinary generosity got its start in an ordinary clinical visit.

Dr. Guay-Woodford saw a young patient in her clinic at Children’s National a few times in 2015. The child’s diagnosis sparked a voyage of discovery for the patient’s extended family and, ultimately, they attended a presentation she gave during a regional meeting about PKD. That led to a telephone conversation and in-person meeting as they invited her to describe “the white space” between what was being done at the time to better understand PKD and what could be done.

“It’s the power of the art and science of medicine. They come to see people like me because of the science. If we can convey to patients and families that who they are and their unique concerns are really important to researchers, that becomes a powerful connection,” she says. “The art plus the science equals hope. That is what these families are looking for: We give people the latest insights about their disease because information is power.”

The infusion of new funding will strengthen the global initiative’s four pillars:

  • Coordinated care for children and families impacted by renal cystic disease. The Inherited and Polycystic Kidney Disease (IPKD) program, launched September 2019, includes a cadre of experts working together as a team in the medical home so that “in a single, one-stop visit, Children’s National can address the myriad concerns they have,” she explains. A multi-disciplinary team that includes nephrologists, hepatologists and endocrinology experts meets weekly to ensure the Center of Excellence provides the highest-caliber patient care. The team includes genetic counselors to empower families with knowledge about genetic risks and testing opportunities. A nurse helps families navigate the maze of who to call about which issue. Psychologists help to ease anxiety. “There is stress. There is fear. There is pain that can be associated with this set of diseases. The good news is we can control their medical issues. The bad news is some children have difficulty coping. Our psychologists help children cope so they can be a child and do the normal things that children do,” she says.
  • Strengthening global databases to capture PKD variations. The team will expand its outreach to other centers located around the world – including Australia, Europe, India and Latin America – caring for patients with both the recessive and dominant forms of polycystic kidney disease, to better understand the variety of ways the disease can manifest in children. We really don’t know a lot about kids with the dominant form of the disease. How hard should we push to control their blood pressure, knowing that could ease symptoms? What are the ramifications of experiencing acute pain compared with chronic pain? How much do these pain flareups interfere with daily life and a child’s sense of self,” she asks. Capturing the nuances of the worldwide experience offers the power of harnessing even more data. And ensuring that teams collect data in a consistent way means each group would have the potential to extract the most useful information from database queries.
  • Filling a ‘desperate need’ for biomarkers. Developing clinical trials for new therapies requires having biomarkers that indicate the disease course. Such biomarkers have been instrumental in personalizing care for patients with other chronic conditions. “We are in desperate need for such biomarkers, and this new funding will underwrite pilot studies to identify and validate these disease markers. The first bite at the apple will leverage our imaging data to identify promising biomarkers,” she says.
  • Genetic mechanisms that trigger kidney disease. About 500,000 people in the U.S. have PKD. In many cases, children inherit a genetic mutation but, often, their genetic mutation develops spontaneously. Dr. Guay-Woodford’s research about the mechanisms that make certain inherited renal disorders lethal, such as autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease, is recognized around the world. The fourth pillar of the new project provides funding to continue her lab’s research efforts to improve the mechanistic understanding of what triggers PKD.

BPA analogues may be less likely to disrupt heart rhythm

Some chemical alternatives to plastic bisphenol-a (BPA), which is still commonly used in medical settings such as operating rooms and intensive care units, may be less disruptive to heart electrical function than BPA,

A poster at the AHA Scientific Sessions suggests bisphenol-s (BPS) and bisphenol-f (BPF) may have less impact on heart function than bisphenol-a (BPA).

Some chemical alternatives to plastic bisphenol-a (BPA), which is still commonly used in medical settings such as operating rooms and intensive care units, may be less disruptive to heart electrical function than BPA, according to a pre-clinical study that explored how the structural analogues bisphenol-s (BPS) and bisphenol-f (BPF) interact with the chemical and electrical functions of heart cells.

The findings suggest that in terms of toxicity for heart function, these chemicals that are similar in structure to BPA may actually be safer for medically fragile heart cells, such as those in children with congenital heart disease. Previous research has found a high likelihood that BPA exposure may impact the heart’s electrical conductivity and disrupt heart rhythm, and patients are often exposed to the plastic via clinical equipment found in intensive care and in the operating room.

“There are still many questions that need to be answered about the safety and efficacy of using chemicals that look and act like BPA in medical settings, especially in terms of their potential contribution to endocrine disruption,” says Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D., the poster’s senior author and a principal investigator in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Hospital. “What we can say is that, in this initial pre-clinical investigation, it appears that these structural analogues have less of an impact on the electrical activity within the heart and therefore, may be less likely to contribute to dysrhythmias.”

Future studies will seek to quantify the risk that these alternative chemicals pose in vulnerable populations, including pediatric cardiology and cardiac surgery patients. Since pediatric patients’ hearts are still growing and developing, the interactions may be different than what was seen in this pilot study.

Learn more the impacts of exposure to plastics such as bisphenol-A and plasticizers such as DEHP and MEHP that are commonly used in medical devices:

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Bisphenol-a Analogues May Be Safer Alternatives For Plastic Medical Products
Rafael Jaimes, Damon McCullough, Luther M Swift, Marissa Reilly, Morgan Burke, Jiansong Sheng, Javier Saiz, Nikki G Posnack
Poster Presentation by senior author Nikki G Posnack
CH.APS.01 – Translational Research in Congenital Heart Disease
AHA Scientific Sessions
November 16, 2019
1:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.

Marva Moxey-Mims in her office at Children's National.

Kidney disease outcomes differ between severely obese kids vs. adults after bariatric surgery

Marva Moxey-Mims in her office at Children's National.

“We know that bariatric surgery improves markers of kidney health in severely obese adults and adolescents,” says Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D. “This research helps to elucidate possible differences in kidney disease outcomes between children and adults post-surgery.”

Adolescents with Type 2 diabetes experienced more hyperfiltration and earlier attenuation of their elevated urine albumin-to-creatinine ratio (UACR) after gastric bypass surgery compared with adults. This finding contrasts with adolescents or adults who did not have diabetes prior to surgery, according to research presented Nov. 8, 2019, during the American Society of Nephrology’s Kidney Week 2019, the world’s largest gathering of kidney researchers.

“Findings from this work support a recent policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that advocates for increasing severely obese youths’ access to bariatric surgery,” says Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D., Chief of the Division of Nephrology at Children’s National Hospital and a study co-author.  “We know that bariatric surgery improves markers of kidney health in severely obese adults and adolescents. This research helps to elucidate possible differences in kidney disease outcomes between children and adults post-surgery.”

According to the AAP, the prevalence of severe obesity in youth aged 12 to 19 has nearly doubled since 1999. Now, 4.5 million U.S. children are affected by severe obesity, defined as having a body mass index ≥35 or ≥120% of the 95th percentile for age and sex.

In a Roux-en-Y gastric bypass, the surgeon staples the stomach to make it smaller, so people eat less. Then, they attach the lower part of the small intestine in a way that bypasses most of the stomach so the body takes in fewer calories.

The multi-institutional study team examined the health effects of such gastric bypass surgeries by comparing 161 adolescents with 396 adults enrolled in related studies. They compared their estimated glomerular filtration rates by serum creatinine and cystatin C. UACR was also compared at various time periods, up till five years after surgery.

Across the board, adolescents had higher UACR – a key marker for chronic kidney disease – than adults. However, for kids who had Type 2 diabetes prior to surgery, the prevalence of elevated UACR levels dip from 29% pre-surgery to 6% one year post-surgery. By contrast, adults who had diabetes prior to surgery and elevated UACR did not see a significant reduction in UACR until five years post-surgery.

While hyperfiltration prevalence was similar in study participants who did not have Type 2 diabetes, adolescents who had Type 2 diabetes prior to surgery had an increased prevalence of hyperfiltration for the duration of the study period.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

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ASN Kidney Week 2019 presentation

Five-year kidney outcomes of bariatric surgery in adolescents compared with adults
Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, 10 a.m. to noon (EST)
Petter Bjornstad, University of Colorado School of Medicine; Todd Jenkins, Edward Nehus and Mark Mitsnefes, all of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital; Marva M. Moxey-Mims, Children’s National Hospital; and Thomas H. Inge, Children’s Hospital Colorado.

2019 National Maternal & Infant Health Summit

Children’s National Hospital participated in the second annual National Maternal & Infant Health Summit which highlights the District’s approaches to ensure the health of women, babies and families. From L to R are: Sahira Long, M.D., Jessica Nash, M.D., Hope Rhodes, M.D., and Kofi Essel, M.D.

Children’s National Hospital participated in the second annual National Maternal & Infant Health Summit hosted by Mayor Muriel Bowser. The summit was built upon highlighting the District’s approaches to ensure the health of women, babies and families, while also seeking to increase public awareness and interest on these topics.

“I enjoyed the summit as a mother, parent, physician and presenter,” said Jessica Nash, M.D., a pediatrician at Children’s National. “I am excited about the future conversations about infant and maternal mortality and the strides needed in the District.”

Nash led a panel titled “Maternal and Infant Mental Health Landscape: Taking Steps to Improve Practice and Policy,” with Hope Rhodes, MD, MPH, Dominique Charlot-Swilley, Ph.D., Leandra Godoy, Ph.D. and Sarah Barclay Hoffman. The discussion identified infant and early childhood mental health resources available in the District, the current state of infant and early childhood mental health, future potential policy changes and the collaborative model that places HealthySteps DC within a child’s primary care medical home.

Children’s National Hospital’s Saharia Long, M.D., discusses the local efforts to improve healthy food access for families.

The day-long summit covered many topics including The Role of Food Policy, Access, and Nutrition in Supporting Positive Outcomes for Families, which focused on national and local efforts to improve healthy food access for families, breastfeeding and babies’ first foods. The discussion was a direct response to feedback on the absence of information about breastfeeding and nutrition during last year’s summit. Sahira Long, M.D., and Kofi Essel, M.D.  served as panalists.

“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), low rates of breastfeeding add $3 billion a year to medical costs for mothers and children in the U.S.” said Dr. Long. “Breastfeeding is more than an infant feeding choice, it’s a public health decision due to its impact on maternal and infant health.”

The Maternal and Infant Health Summit brings together residents of the District, elected officials, health and education officials and community-based partners to collaborate and explore strategies that will improve perinatal health and address racial disparities in birth outcomes.

Mother receives bad news from pediatrician

All in the family: How to run an effective family meeting

Mother receives bad news from pediatrician

Tessie October, M.D., M.P.H., led a qualitative study that discovered an increase in important information shared from families to the physician when physicians had openly responded with empathy and made time for families to share.

When critically ill children are in the intensive care unit (ICU), physicians must often lead difficult discussions with their families about the direction of care. These family conferences can be challenging for both the doctors leading them and for the families, who are unsure of their options, are under emotional strain and who may feel pressured to make decisions.

“We have patients with serious illnesses discussing major decisions and we don’t do a great job thinking about how to structure those meetings,” says Tessie October, M.D., M.P.H., a critical care specialist at Children’s National Hospital.

Dr. October seeks to help doctors better bridge the gap between themselves and families with her presentation entitled “All in the family: How to run an effective family meeting,” which she presented during the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans on October 28th.

During her session, Dr. October role-played a family conference scenario and allowed the audience to experience key skills needed to successfully facilitate them. “Many people think family conferences are about being nice and assume that physicians know how to do this well,” says October. “There is a skill to navigating the conversation where you ensure that the family hears what you’re saying and you respond to the emotions that follow.”

Dr. October led a qualitative study that discovered an increase in important information shared from families to the physician when physicians had openly responded with empathy and made time for families to share. “Families experience increased satisfaction, physicians become more confident in leading these family conferences and the time needed to make medical decisions is shortened because the family heard the information clearly enough for them to make the decision,” says Dr. October.

Within her study, the 68 recorded conferences that took place at Children’s National pediatric ICU (PICU) showed that physicians missed opportunities to respond to the emotions expressed by a patient’s family in 26% of their interactions. “Families want a doctor to be professional caregiver, to be honest with them, and to present clear information that allows the family to make an informed decision.”

Dr. October and her colleagues intend to help physicians learn to communicate better, starting at Children’s National. “My goal is to expand the program hospital-wide, starting with hematology, neonatology, emergency medicine and cardiology fellows, all of whom will most likely have these difficult treatment and end-of-life discussions with families at some point.”

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

Novel approach to detect fetal growth restriction

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

little girl reaching for gun

Empowering pediatricians to reduce preventable firearm injuries and deaths

little girl reaching for gun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

doctor giving girl checkup

Decision support tool reduces unneeded referrals of low-risk patients with chest pain

doctor giving girl checkup

A simple evidence-based change to standard practice could avert needless referrals of low-risk patients to cardiac specialists, potentially saving nearly $4 million in annual health care spending while also easing worried parents’ minds.

Few events strike more fear in parents than hearing their child’s heart “hurts.”

When primary care pediatricians – who are on the frontline of triaging such distressing doctor visits – access a digital helping hand tucked into the patient’s electronic health record to help them make assessments, they are more likely to refer only the patients whose chest pain is rooted in a cardiac problem to a specialist.

That simple evidence-based change to standard practice could avert needless referrals of low-risk patients to cardiac specialists according to a quality-improvement project presented during the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition. This has the potential to save nearly $4 million in annual health care spending while also easing worried parents’ minds.

“Our decision support tool incorporates the know-how of providers and helps them to accurately capture the type of red flags that point to a cardiac origin for chest pain,” says Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., FACC, FAAP, pediatric and preventive cardiologist and director of Resident Education in Cardiology at Children’s National Hospital. Those red flags include:

  • Abnormal personal medical history
    • Chest pain with exertion
    • Exertional syncope
    • Chest pain that radiates to the back, jaw, left arm or left shoulder
    • Chest pain that increases with supine position
    • Chest pain temporarily associated with a fever (>38.4°C)
  • A worrisome family history, including sudden unexplained death and cardiomyopathy.

“We know that evidence-based tools can be very effective in guiding physician behavior and reducing unnecessary testing and referrals which saves both the health care system in dollars and families in time and anxiety,” Dr. Harahsheh adds.

The abstract builds on a multi-institutional study published in Clinical Pediatrics in 2017 for which Dr. Harahsheh was lead author. More than 620,000 office-based visits (1.3%) to pediatricians in 2012 were for chest pain, he and co-authors wrote at the time. While children often complain of having chest pain, most of the time it is not due to an actual heart problem.

Over recent years, momentum has built for creating an evidence-based approach for determining which children with chest pain to refer to cardiac specialists. In response, the team’s quality-improvement tool, first introduced at two local primary pediatric offices, was expanded to the entire Children’s Pediatricians & Associates network of providers who offer pediatric primary care in Washington, D.C., and Maryland.

One daunting challenge: How to ensure that busy clinicians actually use the tool. To improve adoption, the project team embedded the decision support tool within the patient’s electronic medical record.  Now, they seek to make sure the tool gets used by more pediatricians around the country.

“If the chest pain decision support tool/medical red-flags criteria were adopted nationwide, we expect to save a minimum of $3.8 million in health care charges each year,” Dr. Harahsheh says. “That figure is very likely an underestimate of the true potential savings, because we did not calculate the value of lost productivity and other direct costs to families who shuttle from one appointment to the next.”

To ensure the changes stick, the team plans to train fledgling physicians poised to embrace the quality-improvement approach as they first launch their careers, and also look for evangelists within outpatient cardiology and pediatric clinics who can catalyze change.

“These types of quality-improvement projects require a change to the status quo. In order to be successful, we need members of the care team – including frontline clinicians and nurse practitioners – to champion change at the clinic level. With their help, we can continue to refine this tool and move toward nationwide implementation,” he explains.

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AAP National Conference and Exhibition presentation
Saturday, Oct. 26, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. (ET)
H2086 Council on Quality Improvement and Patient Safety Program

Saturday, Oct. 26, noon to 1 p.m. (ET)
Poster viewing
“Reducing low-probability cardiology referrals for chest pain from primary care: a quality improvement initiative”
Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., FACC, FAAP; Ellen Hamburger, M.D.; Lexi Crawford, M.D.; Christina Driskill, MPH, RN, CPN; Anusha Rao, MHSA; Deena Berkowitz, M.D., MPH

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Additional AAP 2019 activities featuring cardiology faculty at Children’s National Hospital include:

    • Rohan Kumthekar, M.D., recipient of the “Trainee Pediatric Cardiology Research Award” sponsored by the Children’s Heart Foundation
    • “Motion-corrected cardiac MRI limits anesthesia exposure and healthcare costs in children,” Adam B. Christopher, M.D.; Rachel Quinn, M.D.; Sara Zoulfagharian; Andrew Matisoff, M.D.; Russell Cross, M.D.; Adrienne Campbell-Washburn, Ph.D.; Laura Olivieri, M.D.
    • “Prevalence of abnormal echocardiograms in healthy, asymptomatic adolescents with Down syndrome,” Sarah B. Clauss, M.D.; Samuel S. Gidding M.D.; Claire I. Cochrane, BA; Rachel Walega, MS; Babette S. Zemel, Ph.D.; Mary E. Pipan, M.D.; Sheela N. Magge, M.D., MSCE;  Andrea Kelly, M.D., MSCE; Meryl S. Cohen, M.D.
    • “American College of Cardiology body mass index measurement and counseling quality improvement initiative,” Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., FACC, FAAP; Arash Sabati, M.D., FACC; Jeffrey Anderson, M.D.; Clara Fitzgerald; Kathy Jenkins, M.D., MPH; Carolyn M. Wilhelm, M.D., MS, FACC, FAAP; Roy Jedeikin, M.D. FACC, MBA; Devyani Chowdhury, M.D.
Andrea Gropman

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

Andrea Gropman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the topics they will study:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

allopregnanolone molecule

Autism spectrum disorder risk linked to insufficient placental steroid

allopregnanolone molecule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preserving brain function by purposely inducing strokes

Bella when she was sick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bella's brain scan

Born with hemimegalencephaly, Bella now has a bright future

bella's brain scans

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

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

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

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

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nurse checking boy's hearbeat

Children’s National launches telehealth collaboration with Whittle School & Studios

nurse checking boy's hearbeat

The School-Based Telehealth Program provides students quick access to medical care, rapid diagnosis of medical conditions, and better management of chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes, while minimizing time away from school for children – and from work for parents.

Children’s National Hospital and Whittle School & Studios announced a collaboration to provide students at the Whittle School’s D.C. campus with on-site video connectivity to health professionals at the hospital throughout the 2019-20 school year.

“We are thrilled to collaborate with Children’s National to offer our students world-class medical care from compassionate providers,” said Dennis Bisgaard, head of Whittle’s D.C. campus. “The health and safety of our students is our top priority, and this new collaboration ensures that they’ll be in excellent hands.”

A registered nurse from Children’s National will work on-site at Whittle’s D.C. campus to provide acute care, first aid, immunization record-keeping, medication management, EpiPen storage and training and more.

Children’s National’s School-Based Telehealth Program will also be available at the Whittle School. The on-site nurse will have the ability to use secure video-conferencing technology to connect students with board-certified physicians from Children’s National, if necessary.

The School-Based Telehealth Program provides students quick access to medical care, rapid diagnosis of medical conditions, and better management of chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes, while minimizing time away from school for children – and from work for parents. The program will complement existing care the student may already receive from their medical home or primary care provider.

“We are excited to collaborate with the Whittle School to design a program centered on our shared vision of helping children,” said Denice Cora-Bramble, M.D., executive vice president and chief medical officer, ambulatory and community health services at Children’s National. “Our goal is that this new collaboration will provide access to highly-specialized health care expertise to patients and families and our hope is that school-based nursing services, coupled with telehealth technology, will improve students’ health and education outcomes.”