Public Health News

Laura Tosi

Technology bridges knowledge gaps in rare bone disease care

Laura Tosi

Dr. Tosi and colleagues presented on the NIH Rare Disease Day 2020 panel, Nontraditional Approaches to Improving Access for Rare Diseases.

As part of the global observance of Rare Disease Day in February, the NCATS and NIH Clinical Center hosted a special event to raise awareness about rare diseases, the people they affect and NIH research collaborations under way to address scientific challenges and advance new treatments.

This year, Children’s National Hospital orthopaedic surgeon Laura Tosi, M.D., took part in an afternoon panel, Nontraditional Approaches to Improving Access for Rare Diseases, where she outlined her work as the faculty chair of the Rare Bone Disease TeleECHO, a virtual meeting that allows care providers and experts to come together via the Zoom platform, discuss diagnosis of specific disorders and present cases for group input.

Dr. Tosi and the Rare Bone Disease Alliance have called Project ECHO Rare Bone Disease a game changer for care of these complex conditions. Rare bone disorders are only about 5% of all birth defects but include 461 skeletal disorders caused by 437 genes – making it difficult for any physician to see enough cases of any one disorder to correctly diagnose and treat it.

“Most doctors are like me, a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon. I need to know a lot of different rare diseases and it’s hard to keep everybody on the cutting edge,” Dr. Tosi says. “Even though we have found the genes for most of the disorders, the phenotypic overlaps, shortage of specialists and the multi-disciplinary needs of so many of the patients add to the challenges.”

So 7 months ago, Dr. Tosi joined together with colleagues at the Rare Bone Disease Alliance and the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation to launch Project ECHO Rare Bone Disease. The now monthly telehealth meeting engages a distinguished faculty of experts from around the world and from across the spectrum of care for these rare bone disorders, including specialists in genetics, endocrinology, orthopaedics and others.

Project ECHO is a specific model for bridging distance and creating a network of professionals, with the goal of leveling the playing field for all by making vital information accessible to everyone, regardless of their location. In healthcare the model transcends traditional “telemedicine,” however. The program, launched from the University of New Mexico, self-describes itself as “telementoring, a guided practice where the participating clinician retains responsibility for the patient” but is able to discuss diagnosis and therapeutic recommendations with a set of esteemed faculty via a regular virtual meeting series.

In the case of the Rare Bone Disease TeleECHO, the ECHO’s faculty decided on two major foci for the curriculum. Half of the content is about how to make the right diagnosis and the other half shares the latest information about specific diseases. The sessions also offer free CME to attendees.

Dr. Tosi says that while finding cases to discuss can sometimes be challenging when it comes to rare bone diseases, she takes responsibility on herself to make sure the content is robust each month. So far the meetings have attracted between 40 and 90 participants per session – a great engagement rate for such a young teleECHO program.

“I believe ECHO advances knowledge of healthcare and democratizes it by offering universal accessibility across the globe,” Tosi notes.

The Rare Bone Disease Alliance, which consists of 12 organizations, experts and patient families working together, is now deciding what’s next for the Rare Bone Disease TeleECHO. They may develop disorder-specific ECHOs, are studying the frequency of the sessions and how best to improve participation for all sessions. The idea is to increase access to this expertise even further, as it could have critical impacts on patients worldwide living with these rare diseases.

In terms of key take-aways from the panel of experts at Rare Disease Day, the hope is that more disease groups might leverage this type of technology to connect people in nontraditional ways. Doing so has the potential to ensure that everyone with a rare disease receives the best support and care possible because their doctors have the knowledge they need when they need it.

Watch more sessions from the NIH’s Rare Disease Day 2020.

NICU evacuation training baby on a stretcher

Innovative NICU training lauded as ‘best article’ by national journal

NICU evacuation training baby on a stretcher

“Fires, tornadoes and other natural disasters are outside of our team’s control. But it is within our team’s control to train neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) staff to master this necessary skill,” says Lisa Zell, BSN, a clinical educator at Children’s National Hospital.

Research into how to create a robust emergency evacuation preparedness plan and continually train staff that was led by Zell was lauded by editors of The Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing. The journal named the study the “best article” for the neonatal section that the prestigious journal published in 2018-19.

“We all hope for the best no matter what the situation, but we also need to extensively plan for the worse,” says Billie Lou Short, M.D., chief of the division of neonatology at Children’s National. “I’m proud that Lisa Zell and co-authors received this much-deserved national recognition on behalf of the nation’s No. 1 NICU.”

Educators worked with a diverse group within Children’s National to design and implement periodic evacuation simulations.

In addition to Zell and Lamia Soghier, M.D., FAAP, CHSE, Children’s National NICU medical unit director, study co-authors include Carmen Blake, BSN; Dawn Brittingham, MSN; and Ann-Marie Brown, MSN.

Read more
View photos showing how disaster training occurs at Children’s National

celiac testimony on Capitol Hill

Talking on Capitol Hill about the need for increased celiac research funding

celiac testimony on Capitol Hill

Celiac Disease Program leaders joined policymakers, experts and families to make the case for additional celiac disease research funding on Capitol Hill in January 2020.

Federal funding for celiac disease has been virtually nonexistent, despite the fact that celiac is one of the most common genetic autoimmune disorders. The lack of funding directly translates into a shortage of research into better understanding celiac disease, its mechanisms and potential treatment alternatives to the strict diet that is the current standard of care.

In January, the leaders of the Celiac Disease Program at Children’s National Hospital, Dr. Benny Kerzner and Vanessa Weisbrod, gave oral testimony as part of a congressional briefing hosted by Congressman Dwight Evans (PA) on the need for significant research funding in this area. Also presenting were Jon and Leslie Bari, founders of Celiac Journey and Gluten Free Finds PA, who are parents of a child with celiac, as well as Dr. Arjunot Singh, attending physician in gastroenterology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The briefing focused on how federal funding for celiac research could bring multi-center, large scale research projects to the study of the condition for the first time, with the goal of accomplishing the following:

  • Better understanding the immunological basis of the disease
  • Identifying celiac disease’s triggers and how to prevent them
  • Exploring potential treatments and/or cures, including those that might inhibit onset of the disease or induce tolerance of the gluten protein

In their testimony, Kerzner and Weisbrod noted that the only current treatment for celiac disease is a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet, and that there is no medication or cure for the condition. Parents and children alike struggle with managing the diet and coping with the persistent fear of increased mortality from other conditions that commonly co-occur with celiac disease, including non-Hodgkins lymphoma, liver disease, small bowel cancers and other autoimmune conditions.

Weisbrod also spoke about an existing collaborative research and care infrastructure called the Celiac Kids Network – an informal consortium of 12 pediatric hospitals with celiac programs that research together, develop tools to measure gluten exposure risks, share best practices and collaborate on difficult cases. She made the case that should federal funding significantly increase, infrastructure is already in place to manage and oversee the types of research collaborations that could really make a difference for children.

“We dream of establishing a learning health system with a coordinated patient registry that is representative of all patients with celiac disease no matter where in the country they live,” Weisbrod concluded in her testimony. “A national biorepository of patient blood and tissue samples would enable researchers from every medical discipline to join us in understanding how celiac disease affects kids. We could evaluate the biological and psychological outcomes of patients to look for interventions to improve quality of life. The sky is the limit. But to do this, we need big funding to collect big data, to make big differences.”

Vote for STAT Madness

It’s a three-peat! Children’s National again competes in STAT Madness

Vote for STAT Madness

Children’s National Hospital collects patients’ blood, extracts T-cells and replicates them in the presence of specific proteins found on cancer cells which, in essence, teaches the T-cells to target specific tumor markers. Training the T-cells, growing them to sufficient quantities and ensuring they are safe for administration takes weeks. But when patients return to the outpatient clinic, their T-cell infusion lasts just a few minutes.

For the third consecutive year, Children’s National was selected to compete in STAT Madness, an annual bracket-style competition that chooses the year’s most impactful biomedical innovation by popular vote. Children’s entry, “Immunotherapy of relapsed and refractory solid tumors with ex vivo expanded multi-tumor associated antigen specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes,” uses the body’s own immune system to attack and eliminate cancer cells in pediatric and adult patients with solid tumor malignancies.

In 2018, Children’s first-ever STAT Madness entry advanced through five brackets in the national competition and, in the championship round, finished second. That innovation, which enables more timely diagnoses of rare diseases and common genetic disorders, helping to improve kids’ health outcomes around the world, also was among four “Editor’s Pick” finalists, entries that spanned a diverse range of scientific disciplines.

An estimated 11,000 new cases of pediatric cancer were diagnosed in children 14 and younger in the U.S. in 2019. And, when it comes to disease, cancer remains the leading cause of death among children, according to the National Institutes of Health. An enterprising research team led by Children’s National faculty leveraged T-cells – essential players in the body’s immune system – to treat pediatric and adult patients with relapsed or refractory solid tumors who had exhausted all other therapeutic options.

“We’re using the patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer, rather than more traditional chemotherapy drugs,” says Catherine M. Bollard, M.D., director of the Center for Cancer & Immunology Research at Children’s National and co-senior author of the study. “It’s more targeted and less toxic to the patient. These T-cells home in on any cancer cells that might be in the body, allowing healthy cells to continue to grow,” Dr. Bollard adds.

That means patients treated in the Phase I, first-in-human trial didn’t lose their hair and weren’t hospitalized for the treatment. After a quick clinical visit for their treatment, they returned to normal activities, like school, with good energy levels.

“With our specially trained T-cell therapy, many patients who previously had rapidly progressing disease experienced prolonged disease stabilization,” says Holly J. Meany, M.D., a Children’s National oncologist and the study’s co-senior author. “Patients treated at the highest dose level showed the best clinical outcomes, with a six-month, progression-free survival of 73% after tumor-associated antigen cytotoxic T-cell (TAA-T) infusion, compared with 38% with their immediate prior therapy.”

The multi-institutional team published their findings from the study online July 29, 2019, in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

“Our research team and our parents are delighted that some patients treated in our study continue to do well following T-cell therapy without additional treatment. In some cases, two years after treatment, patients do not appear to have active disease and are maintaining an excellent quality of life,” says Amy B. Hont, M.D., the study’s lead author. “One of these was a patient whose parents were told his only other option was palliative care. Our innovation gives these families new hope,” Dr. Hont adds.

The 2020 STAT Madness #Core64 bracket opened March 2, and the champion will be announced April 6.

In addition to Drs. Hont, Meany and Bollard, Children’s National co-authors include C. Russell Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., Robert Ulrey, MS, Barbara O’Brien, BS, Maja Stanojevic, M.D., Anushree Datar, MS, Shuroug Albihani, MS, Devin Saunders, BA, Ryo Hanajiri, M.D., Ph.D., Karuna Panchapakesan, MS, Payal Banerjee, MS, Maria Fernanda Fortiz, BS, Fahmida Hoq, MBBS, MS, Haili Lang, M.D., Yunfei Wang, DrPH, Patrick J. Hanley, Ph.D., and Jeffrey S. Dome, M.D., Ph.D.; and Sam Darko, MS, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the Children’s National Hospital Heroes Gala, Alex’s Army Foundation, the Children’s National Board of Visitors and Hyundai Hope on Wheels Young Investigator Grant to Support Pediatric Cancer Research, the Children’s National Research Institute Bioinformatics Unit, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the National Institutes of Health under award No. UL1-TR001876.

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.

Dr. Lauri Tosi examines a patient

Building patient-centered outcomes research in osteogenesis imperfecta

Dr. Lauri Tosi examines a patient

Children’s orthpaedic surgeon Laura Tosi, M.D., is the co-lead on a program to improve patient-centered outcomes research and education in osteogenesis imperfecta that recently received a Eugene Washington Engagement Award of $250,000 from the Patient-Centered Outcomes and Research Institute (PCORI).

Children’s orthpaedic surgeon Laura Tosi, M.D., is the co-lead on a program to improve patient-centered outcomes research and education in osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) that recently received a Eugene Washington Engagement Award of $250,000 from the Patient-Centered Outcomes and Research Institute (PCORI). Dr. Tosi serves as project co-lead alongside colleagues Tracy Hart, project lead, from the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation (OIF) and Bryce Reeve, Ph.D., co-project lead, director of the Center for Health Measurement at Duke University.

The project, which will be housed at the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation, will run for two years and seeks to:

  • Create a community of stakeholders (patients/caregivers/clinicians/researchers) who are trained or training in patient-centered outcomes research, with specific attention to priority topics identified by the OI community.
  • Expand communications and education strategies related to patient-centered outcomes research to enhance the care of the OI community.
  • Establish and extend the capacity among patients, caregivers, clinicians and researchers in OI to participate in both patient-centered outcomes research and comparative effectiveness activities.
  • Develop an OI-specific toolkit focused on disseminating evidence-based clinical care recommendations to stakeholders and care providers, based on sustainable input from the OI community.
  • Extended the reach of these activities to support other rate bone disease communities.

Osteogenesis imperfecta is a group of genetic disorders causing connective tissue dysfunction and bone fragility. It is the most common of nearly 450 rare skeletal disorders and affects an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 people in the U.S. Collecting the patient’s perspective about natural history, clinical best practices, quality of life and research priorities is challenging because, like so many rare diseases, the affected population is relatively small and  geographically dispersed.

“We hope this project will give us the ability to develop a set of best practices for care and research based on research that incorporates the patient’s point-of-view,” says Dr. Tosi. “I’m excited to work with this team and begin to change how we think about and care for OI patients and their families.”

Schistosoma

Parasitic eggs trigger upregulation in genes associated with inflammation

Schistosoma

Of the 200 million people around the globe infected with Schistosomiasis, about 100 million of them were sickened by the parasite Schistosoma haematobium.

Of the 200 million people around the globe infected with Schistosomiasis, about 100 million of them were sickened by the parasite Schistosoma haematobium. As the body reacts to millions of eggs laid by the blood flukes, people can develop fever, cough and abdominal pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Schistosomiasis triggered by S. haematobium can also include hematuria, bladder calcification and bladder cancer.

Despite the prevalence of this disease, there are few experimental models specifically designed to study it, and some tried-and-true preclinical models don’t display the full array of symptoms seen in humans. It’s also unclear how S. haematobium eggs deposited in the host bladder modulate local tissue gene expression.

To better understand the interplay between the parasite and its human host, a team led by Children’s National Hospital injected 6,000 S. haematobium eggs into the bladder wall of seven-week-old experimental models.

After four days, they isolated RNA for analysis, comparing differences in gene expression in various treatment groups, including those that had received the egg injection and experimental models whose bladders were not exposed to surgical intervention.

Using the Database for Annotation, Visualization and Integrated Discovery (DAVID) – a tool that helps researchers understand the biological meaning of a long list of genes – the team identified commonalities with other pathways, including malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and the p53 signaling pathway, the team recently presented during the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 2019 annual meeting. Some 325 genes were differentially expressed, including 34 genes in common with previous microarray data.

“Of particular importance, we found upregulation in genes associated with inflammation and fibrosis. We also now know that the body may send it strongest response on the first day it encounters a bolus of eggs,” says Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of transitional urology at Children’s National, and the research project’s senior author. “Next, we need to repeat these experiments and further narrow the list of candidate genes to key genes associated with immunomodulation and bladder cancer.”

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, presentation co-authors include Lead Author Kenji Ishida, Children’s National; Evaristus Mbanefo and Nirad Banskota, National Institutes of Health; James Cody, Vigene Biosciences; Loc Le, Texas Tech University; and Neil Young, University of Melbourne.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award No. R01-DK113504.

clatharin cage viewed by electron microscopy

IPSE infiltrates nuclei through clathrin-mediated endocytosis

clatharin cage viewed by electron microscopy

IPSE, one of the important proteins excreted by the parasite Schistosoma mansoni, infiltrates human cellular nuclei through clathrin-coated vesicles, like this one.

IPSE, one of the important proteins excreted by the parasite Schistosoma mansoni infiltrates human cellular nuclei through clathrin-mediated endocytosis (a process by which cells absorb metabolites, hormones and proteins), a research team led by Children’s National Hospital reported during the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 2019 annual meeting.

Because the public health toll from the disease this parasite causes, Schistosomiasis, is second only to malaria in global impact, research teams have been studying its inner workings to help create the next generation of therapies.

In susceptible host cells – like urothelial cells, which line the urinary tract – IPSE modulates gene expression, increasing cell proliferation and angiogenesis (formation of new blood vessels). On a positive note, neurons appear better able to fend off its nucleus-infiltrating ways.

“We know that IPSE contributes to the severity of symptoms in Schistosomiasis, which leads some patients to develop bladder cancer, which develops from the urothelial lining of the bladder. Our team’s carefully designed experiments reveal IPSE’s function in the urothelium and point to the potential of IPSE playing a therapeutic role outside of the bladder,” says Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of transitional urology at Children’s National and the research project’s senior author.

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, research co-authors include Evaristus Mbanefo, Ph.D.; Kenji Ishida, Ph.D.; Austin Hester, M.D.; Catherine Forster, M.D.; Rebecca Zee, M.D., Ph.D.; and Christina Ho, M.D., all of Children’s National; Franco Falcone, Ph.D., University of Nottingham; and Theodore Jardetzky, Ph.D., and Luke Pennington, M.D., Ph.D., candidate, both of Stanford University.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award No. R01-DK113504.

Hepatocytes

H-IPSE internalized by just a limited range of cells

Hepatocytes

A team led by Children’s National Hospital found that H-IPSE is internalized by just a limited range of cells, including hepatocytes.

Schistosoma mansoni is a parasite that hides out in snails, breaks free into waterways, and then infects humans, spending much of its life inside blood vessels, laying eggs and jeopardizing public health when those eggs are excreted in urine or feces. As parasitic diseases go, the ailment it causes, Schistosomiasis, is second only to malaria in global impact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In order to elude the human host’s defenses, S. mansoni uses self-defense tactics that researchers are trying to better understand in order to outmaneuver the parasite. A research team led by Children’s National Hospital is trying to tease out the multiple steps that enable this parasite to reproduce and generate millions of eggs without killing its host.

The parasite’s eggs secrete a number of proteins, with IPSE as one of the most abundant, the team recently presented during the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 2019 annual meeting. That protein binds immunoglobulin, which induces basophils and mast cells to release IL-4. After sequestering chemokines, H-IPSE infiltrates the cell nucleus (thus H-IPSE is called an infiltrin), modulating gene expression.

“H-IPSE tips the immune system balance, making it more likely to trigger a Th2 anti-inflammatory response,” says Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of transitional urology at Children’s National and the research project’s senior author. “It downregulates pro-inflammatory pathways, but we wanted to know more about which specific human cells it targets.”

Using Trypan Blue, a stain that selectively colors certain cells bright blue, they solved the mystery, finding that H-IPSE is internalized by just a limited range of cells. What’s more, some cell types, like urothelial cells and hepatocytes (the liver’s chief functioning cells, which activate innate immunity), are more susceptible than neurons, endothelial cells or immature dendritic cells.

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, presentation co-authors include Olivia Lamanna, Evaristus Mbanefo and Kenji Ishida, all of Children’s National; Franco Falcone, of University of Nottingham; and Theodore Jardetzky and Luke Pennington, of Stanford University.

Lataisia C. Jones on Mission Unstoppable

Getting to know the unstoppable Lataisia C. Jones, Ph.D.

Lataisia C. Jones on Mission Unstoppable

Children’s National Hospital neuroscientist Lataisia C. Jones, Ph.D., appears in the Jan. 18, 2020, edition of Mission Unstoppable, a Saturday morning show aired by CBS that spotlights cutting-edge women leaders in science, technology, engineering and math.

Budding neuroscientist Lataisia C. Jones, Ph.D., is unstoppable. For instance, using everyday items that families can pluck from their own kitchen cabinets, she walks kids through the steps of creating homemade lava lamps. In the process, the youngsters learn a bit of science, like the fact that oil and water do not mix provides the hypnotic magic behind their new lamps.

Jones’ infectious enthusiasm for science that Children’s National Hospital patients and families experience in person during weekly Young Scientist sessions she hosts will be shared nationwide as Jones appears in the Jan. 18, 2020, edition of “Mission Unstoppable.” The half-hour show aired by CBS on Saturday mornings is co-produced by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and spotlights cutting-edge women leaders in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“I’m excited,” Jones says of the filming experience. “It’s going to be an amazing opportunity to show kids that there is a fun way of learning. This show is opening a lot of doors and a lot of eyes to the fact that science can be fun.”

Jones’ scientific inquiry focuses on the corpus callosum, a network of fibers centrally located in the middle of the brain that is responsible for transferring information from one lobe to another. Her current research leverages experimental models to better understand brain abnormalities associated with autism spectrum disorder. Or, as she tells CBS viewers, studying the brain helps the field better understand how information is processed in order for people to move, learn and think effortlessly.

Lataisia C. Jones on Mission Unstoppable

“I’m excited,” Jones says of the filming experience. “It’s going to be an amazing opportunity to show kids that there is a fun way of learning. This show is opening a lot of doors and a lot of eyes to the fact that science can be fun.”

In September 2019, Jones was selected to serve as an IF/THEN Ambassador by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society, to inspire the next generation of women pursuing STEM careers. A postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Neuroscience Research lab run by Masaaki Torii, Ph.D., Jones now also serves as a role model for future scientists, connecting with middle school students in person, virtually and via the CBS network television show.

“A lot of my inspiration comes from individuals who I mentor, which also shows that I am learning as well. If I am able to teach science, translate it in different ways to different audiences, I am helping to fulfill my lifelong dream,” she adds. “I always say we all have an inner scientist.”

As the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Florida State University’s College of Medicine, Department of Neuroscience, Jones has continued to acquire “first” experiences throughout her academic and professional career. But she’s also motivated to diversify the ranks of science to ensure she’s not the last.

“I am not the normal face you see in science,” she says. “Another reason for me to be stronger and to work harder and get more things done in science is so people who look like me know they can do the same things and know that they’re just as good.”

WATCH: Lataisia C. Jones, Ph.D., explains her research

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.

newborn baby

Directly measuring function in tiny hearts

newborn baby

The amount of blood the heart pumps in one minute can be directly measured safely in newborns by monitoring changes in blood velocity after injecting saline, indicates the first clinical study of direct cardiac output measurement in newborns.

The amount of blood that the heart pumps in one minute (cardiac output) can be directly measured safely in newborns by monitoring changes in blood velocity after injecting saline, indicates a paper published online Dec. 17, 2019 in the Journal of Pediatrics and Neonatal Medicine. The research, conducted by Children’s National Hospital faculty, is believed to be the first clinical study of direct cardiac output measurement in newborns.

Right now, cardiac output is measured indirectly in the nation’s neonatal intensive care units (NICU) using newborns’ blood pressure, heart rate, urine output and other indirect measures. However, these techniques can produce imprecise readings in children. And the field lacks a feasible “gold standard” to measure cardiac output in newborns.

The COstatus monitor already uses ultrasound dilution – the expected decrease in the velocity of blood when saline is injected, producing a dilution curve. A Children’s National research team used ultrasound dilution in their small pilot study to gauge the feasibility of directly measuring cardiac output in newborns.

“Infants who stand to benefit most from directly monitoring cardiac hemodynamics are often so sick they already have central venous access,” says Khodayar Rais-Bahrami, M.D., an attending neonatologist at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “Using the COstatus monitor in these children would enable the clinical team to personalize care based on the newborn’s current hemodynamic status, while introducing minimal fluid during measurements,” Dr. Rais-Bahrami adds.

COstatus monitor

The COstatus Monitor uses an extracorporeal loop attached to arterial and venous lines to measure cardiac output using ultrasound dilution. The research team injected 1mL/kg of body temperature saline into the loop and performed up to two measurement sessions daily.

The research team recruited 12 newborns younger than 2 weeks old who already had central venous and arterial access. The venous line of the arteriovenous AV loop is connected to the umbilical venous catheter while the COstatus monitor’s arterial line is connected to the umbilical arterial catheter. During measurement sessions, two injections of solution are injected into the venous loop, allowing for two measures of cardiac output, cardiac index, active circulating volume index, central blood volume index and systemic vascular resistance index.

Infants enrolled in the pilot study underwent up to two measurement sessions per day for up to four days, for a total of 54 cardiac hemodynamic measurements. The newborns ranged from 720 to 3,740 grams in weight and 24 to 41.3 weeks in gestational age.

The infants’ mean cardiac output was 0.43L/min and increased with gestational age. By contrast, the mean cardiac index was 197mL/kg/min and changed little with infants’ increasing maturity – either by gestational age or postnatal age. Two of the study participants were undergoing therapeutic cooling for hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy and had their measurements taken during cooling and after rewarming.

“Although this study size is small, it demonstrates that this minimally invasive technique can safely be used in newborns to directly measure cardiac hemodynamics,” says Simranjeet S. Sran, M.D., a Children’s National neonatalogist and the study’s lead author. “This technology may allow for more precise and personalized care of critically ill newborns in a range of disease states – real-world utility in NICUs that serve some of the youngest and sickest newborns,” Dr. Sran adds.

The research team notes that direct measurement by ultrasound dilution revealed a stark increase in cardiac index as infants undergoing therapeutic hypothermia were rewarmed, raising questions about whether indirect measures using other technology, such as echocardiography, underestimate hypothermia’s effect on hemodynamics.

In addition to Drs. Rais-Bahrami and Sran, Mariam Said, M.D., also a Children’s National neonatalogist, was a study co-author.

Alexandra M. Sim

From the mouths of babes: Lessons in humility

Alexandra M. Sims

A poem written by Alexandra M. Sims, M.D., FAAP, was published Jan. 7, 2020, in JAMA, as part of its series of works by artists and physicians that explore the meaning of healing and illness.

Each encounter is like a single shard in a mosaic that, taken as a whole, presents a picture of amazing optimism despite myriad challenges.

Alexandra M. Sims, M.D., FAAP, a General Academics Pediatric Fellow at Children’s National Hospital, captured the anonymized vignettes in her journal, using writing as a way to help process both the unbounded joy and sobering trauma experienced by her young patients.

Dr. Sims distilled the snippets into a 27-line poem published Jan. 7, 2020, in JAMA, as part of “Poetry and Medicine,” poems penned by artists and physicians to explore the meaning of healing and illness.

One of the vignettes collapses eye-opening comments she heard during a number of clinical encounters, including a childhood immunization session for a 4-year-old: Doesn’t flinch with the vaccines, but tells me not to call them ‘shots’ / His classmate was shot last year / And she died

“When I’m talking about a ‘shot,’ the first thing that comes to my mind – because of what I do for a living and how my life has unfolded – is a vaccination,” Dr. Sims explains. “That caught me off guard. Even though I have been doing this job for a while, I can always learn from patients and families. It really made me shift the language I use, avoiding words that I might think are innocuous that can be translated in ways that can be scary for a child.”

And the poem’s title, “Keep That Same Energy,” was inspired by a young man who, like many patients, calls her Dr. Seuss, and ended his visit by doing 10 pushups: Keep that same energy, sweet Black boy, I silently pray / That agency, that confidence / When the world tries to tell you who you are

During each clinical encounter, Dr. Sims says she tries to instill a sense of pride and competence in the hopes it helps her patients continue to persevere in the face of adversity.

“The patients we see here experience trauma in a lot of big and small ways,” she says. “I’m blown away by their positivity and resilience and ability to deal with a lot of things life is throwing at them. My worry is when – and if – the resiliency will wear down and what things we should be doing as providers to build up that self-efficacy and resiliency so it will last a lifetime.”

LISTEN: Dr. Sims reads “Keep That Same Energy”

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.

expired drugs

Fewer than half of California pharmacies provide correct drug disposal info

expired drugs

Fewer than half of California pharmacies provided correct prescription drug disposal details, a percentage that dropped if “secret shoppers” made their call on a weekend, according to a brief research report published online Dec. 31, 2019, in Annals of Internal Medicine.

The callers pretended to be well-meaning parents who were trying to safely dispose of unneeded antibiotics and opioid-based prescription painkillers after their child’s surgery. Fewer than half of the California pharmacies they called provided correct prescription drug disposal details, a percentage that dropped sharply if the “secret shoppers” made their call on a weekend, according to a brief research report published online Dec. 31, 2019, in Annals of Internal Medicine.

“The Food and Drug Administration advises consumers about how to safely dispose of unneeded medicines and, because pharmacists can play an integral role in this conversation, the American Pharmacists Association says prescription medication disposal should follow FDA guidelines,” says Rachel E. Selekman, M.D., MAS, a pediatric urologist at Children’s National Hospital and the study’s first author. “We found very few California pharmacies permitted take-back of unneeded medications. There was also a striking difference in the accuracy and completeness of drug disposal information depending on whether they answered the call on a weekday or a weekend. That suggests room for improvement,” Dr. Selekman says.

The multi-institutional research team, led by Primary Investigator and senior author Hillary L. Copp, M.D., MS, at University of California, San Francisco, identified licensed pharmacies located in urban and rural settings in California. That state that accounts for 10% of all U.S. pharmacies. They wrote a script that guided four male and two female “secret shoppers” to ask about what to do about leftover antibiotics (sulfamethoxazole-trimethoprim tablets) and a liquid opioid-based painkiller (hydrocodone-acetaminophen). From late-February to late-April 2018, they called 898 pharmacies from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., asking about the correct way to dispose of these medicines.

According to the FDA, consumers should mix most unused medicines with an unappealing substance, like kitty litter, place it in a sealed container and toss the container in the trash.  Medicines that can be harmful to others, like opioids, should be flushed down the sink or toilet. Many pharmacies have programs or kiosks to handle unused prescription medicines.

Of the pharmacies surveyed in California:

  • 47% provided correct information about disposing of antibiotics
  • 29% provided correct information about how to dispose of both antibiotics and opioids
  • 19% provided correct information about how to dispose of opioids
  • 49% provided correct antibiotic disposal information and 20% provided correct opioid disposal information on weekday calls
  • 15% provided correct antibiotic disposal information and 7% provided correct opioid disposal information on weekend calls

Asked specifically about drug take-back programs, just 11% said their pharmacy had one that could be used to dispose of antibiotics or opioids.

“Unused prescription medications can be misused by others and can result in accidental childhood poisonings,” Dr. Selekman adds. “The bottom line is that we often talk about how to address the problem of too many unused medications lingering in homes. There are many reasons this is a problem, but part of the problem is nobody knows what to do if they have too many prescription medicines. Because of this research, we have discovered that pharmacies don’t uniformly provide accurate information to our patients. Patients, families and health care professionals who advise families should work together to help improve and expand safe disposal options for these powerful medications.”

In addition to Drs. Selekman and Copp, the research team includes co-authors Thomas W. Gaither, M.D., MAS, Zachary Kornberg, BA, and Aron Liaw, M.D., all of whom were at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, Division of Pediatric Urology at the time the study was performed.

little girl drinking milk

Children allergic to cow’s milk smaller and lighter

little girl drinking milk

Children allergic to cow’s milk are smaller and weigh less, according to the first published study to characterize growth trajectories from early childhood to adolescence in children with persistent food allergies.

Children who are allergic to cow’s milk are smaller and weigh less than peers who have allergies to peanuts or tree nuts, and these findings persist into early adolescence. The results from the longitudinal study – believed to be the first to characterize growth patterns from early childhood to adolescence in children with persistent food allergies – was published online in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

“Published data about growth trajectories for kids with ongoing food allergies is scarce,” says Karen A. Robbins, M.D.,* lead study author and an allergist in the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Children’s National Hospital when the study was conducted. “It remains unclear how these growth trends ultimately influence how tall these children will become and how much they’ll weigh as adults. However, our findings align with recent research that suggests young adults with persistent cow’s milk allergy may not reach their full growth potential,” Dr. Robbins says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 13 U.S. children has a food allergy with milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts accounting for the most serious allergic reactions. Because there is no cure and such allergies can be life-threatening, most people eliminate one or more major allergen from their diets.

The multi-institutional research team reviewed the charts of pediatric patients diagnosed with persistent immunoglobulin E-mediated allergy to cow’s milk, peanuts or tree nuts based on their clinical symptoms, food-specific immunoglobulin levels, skin prick tests and food challenges. To be included in the study, the children had to have at least one clinical visit during three defined time frames from the time they were age 2 to age 12. During those visits, their height and weight had to be measured with complete data from their visit available to the research team. The children allergic to cow’s milk had to eliminate it completely from their diets, even extensively heated milk.

From November 1994 to March 2015, 191 children were enrolled in the study, 111 with cow’s milk allergies and 80 with nut allergies. All told, they had 1,186 clinical visits between the ages of 2 to 12. Sixty-one percent of children with cow’s milk allergies were boys, while 51.3% of children with peanut/tree nut allergies were boys.

In addition to children allergic to cow’s milk being shorter, the height discrepancy was more pronounced by ages 5 to 8 and ages 9 to 12. And, for the 53 teens who had clinical data gathered after age 13, differences in their weight and height were even more notable.

“As these children often have multiple food allergies and other conditions, such as asthma, there are likely factors besides simply avoiding cow’s milk that may contribute to these findings. These children also tend to restrict foods beyond cow’s milk,” she adds.

The way such food allergies are handled continues to evolve with more previously allergic children now introducing cow’s milk via baked goods, a wider selection of allergen-free foods being available, and an improving understanding of the nutritional concerns related to food allergy.

Dr. Robbins cautions that while most children outgrow cow’s milk allergies in early childhood, children who do not may be at risk for growth discrepancies. Future research should focus on improving understanding of this phenomenon.

In addition to Dr. Robbins, the research team includes co-author Robert A. Wood, M.D., and senior author Corinne A. Keet, M.D., Ph.D., both of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

*Dec. 18, 2019 update: After leaving full-time employment at Children’s National Hospital, Dr. Robbins became an AstraZeneca employee, working on immuno-oncology safety.

brain network illustration

$2.5M to protect the brain from metabolic insult

brain network illustration

The brain comprises only 2% of the body’s volume, but it uses more than 20% of its energy, which makes this organ particularly vulnerable to changes in metabolism.

More than 30 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority having Type 2 disease. Characterized by insulin resistance and persistently high blood sugar levels, poorly controlled Type 2 diabetes has a host of well-recognized complications: compared with the general population, a greatly increased risk of kidney disease, vision loss, heart attacks and strokes and lower limb amputations.

But more recently, says Nathan A. Smith, MS, Ph.D., a principal investigator in Children’s National Research Institute’s Center for Neuroscience Research, another consequence has become increasingly apparent. With increasing insulin resistance comes cognitive damage, a factor that contributes significantly to dementia diagnoses as patients age.

The brain comprises only 2% of the body’s volume, but it uses more than 20% of its energy, Smith explains – which makes this organ particularly vulnerable to changes in metabolism. Type 2 diabetes and even prediabetic changes in glucose metabolism inflict damage upon this organ in mechanisms with dangerous synergy, he adds. Insulin resistance itself stresses brain cells, slowly depriving them of fuel. As blood sugar rises, it also increases inflammation and blocks nitric oxide, which together narrow the brain’s blood vessels while also increasing blood viscosity.

When the brain’s neurons slowly starve, they become increasingly inefficient at doing their job, eventually succumbing to this deprivation. These hits don’t just affect individual cells, Smith adds. They also affect connectivity that spans across the brain, neural networks that are a major focus of his research.

While it’s well established that Type 2 diabetes significantly boosts the risk of cognitive decline, Smith says, it’s been unclear whether this process might be halted or even reversed. It’s this question that forms the basis of a collaborative Frontiers grant, $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation split between his laboratory; the lead institution, Stony Brook University; and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

Smith and colleagues at the three institutions are testing whether changing the brain’s fuel source from glucose to ketones – byproducts from fat metabolism – could potentially save neurons and neural networks over time. Ketones already have shown promise for decades in treating some types of epilepsy, a disease that sometimes stems from an imbalance in neuronal excitation and inhibition. When some patients start on a ketogenic diet – an extreme version of a popular fat-based diet – many can significantly decrease or even stop their seizures, bringing their misfiring brain cells back to health.

Principal Investigator Smith and his laboratory at the Children’s National Research Institute are using experimental models to test whether ketones could protect the brain against the ravages of insulin resistance. They’re looking specifically at interneurons, the inhibitory cells of the brain and the most energy demanding. The team is using a technique known as patch clamping to determine how either insulin resistance or insulin resistance in the presence of ketones affect these cells’ ability to fire.

They’re also looking at how calcium ions migrate in and out of the cells’ membranes, a necessary prerequisite for neurons’ electrical activity. Finally, they’re evaluating whether these potential changes to the cells’ electrophysiological properties in turn change how different parts of the brain communicate with each other, potentially restructuring the networks that are vital to every action this organ performs.

Colleagues at Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, led by Principal Investigator Eva-Maria Ratai, Ph.D.,  will perform parallel work in human subjects. They will use imaging to determine how these two fuel types, glucose or ketones, affect how the brain uses energy and produces the communication molecules known as neurotransmitters. They’re also investigating how these factors might affect the stability of neural networks using techniques that investigate the performance of these networks both while study subjects are at rest and performing a task.

Finally, colleagues at the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology at Stony Brook University, led by Principal Investigator Lilianne R. Mujica-Parodi, Ph.D., will use results generated at the other two institutions to construct computational models that can accurately predict how the brain will behave under metabolic stress: how it copes when deprived of fuel and whether it might be able to retain healthy function when its cells receive ketones instead of glucose.

Collectively, Smith says, these results could help retain brain function even under glucose restraints. (For this, the research team owes a special thanks to Mujica-Parodi, who assembled the group to answer this important question, thus underscoring the importance of team science, he adds.)

“By supplying an alternate fuel source, we may eventually be able to preserve the brain even in the face of insulin resistance,” Smith says.

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