Public Health

Dr. Eurgenie Heitmiller

The origins of a go-to perioperative crisis app

Dr. Eurgenie Heitmiller

Children’s Chief of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, Dr. Heitmiller, was part of the team that originally launched the peer-reviewed perioperative crisis app, Pedi Crisis.

Around the same time that Atul Gawande and colleagues were developing adult operating room crisis checklists, a dedicated group of expert pediatric anesthesiologists were working on a set of checklists for pediatric specific, peer-reviewed algorithms to treat critical events in the perioperative setting.

Eugenie Heitmiller, M.D., chief of Anesthesiology, Pain and Perioperative Medicine at Children’s National Health System, was one of the initiators of what is known today as the Pedi Crisis App—a widely used reference tool designed to support clinician responses to life-threatening critical events.

Dr. Heitmiller and her colleagues on the Quality and Safety Committee of the Society for Pediatric Anesthesia (SPA) sought to create this series of standard algorithms that could be referenced both as teaching tools and as cognitive aids to be used in real time during rare critical occurrences in the perioperative setting.

“Most kids do well under anesthesia, but every once in a while, you have a child who has an event you don’t see that often, no matter how experienced you are,” she says. Having these checklists means we have a peer-reviewed, expert checklist at our fingertips.”

The original version of the checklists launched in 2010 as “Pediatric Critical Event Checklists”,  a Microsoft PowerPoint file that could be downloaded from the SPA website. Eventually, the checklists were adapted into an iPhone application as well as being translated into several languages.

Years after launch, these tools continue to be a mainstay for education, training, and critical event preparations for pediatric anesthesiologists and perioperative staff. A 2017 study found that in a three-month period of 2014, the app was accessed more than 4,000 times in 108 countries.

This year, the organizers of the joint SPA and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) meeting invited Dr. Heitmiller to moderate a panel that included talks on the launch of Pedi Crisis App 2.0 and its subsequent revisions. The newest edition of the Critical Events Checklists adds critical components including an updated smartphone app available for both the iPhone and Android, and the latest peer-reviewed content.

Pedi Crisis 2.0 also takes into account how people access and use the tool by incorporating elements that address human factors. The development team brought in  NASA senior research psychologist, Barbara Burian, Ph.D., to help make the content as intuitive as possible for quick access, accurate presentation, and recollection, even in a crisis. And, as Dr. Heitmiller points out, because pulling out a cell phone isn’t always the most realistic option in a sterile operating room environment, the content is always available for free outside of the mobile platform in a downloadable format on the SPA website so it can be accessed on any computer screen in any location.

Paradoxical outcomes for Zika-exposed tots

In the midst of an unprecedented Zika crisis in Brazil, there were a few flickers of hope: Some babies appeared to be normal at birth, free of devastating birth defects that affected other Brazilian children exposed to the virus in utero.

In the midst of an unprecedented Zika crisis in Brazil, there were a few flickers of hope: Some babies appeared to be normal at birth, free of devastating birth defects that affected other Brazilian children exposed to the virus in utero. But according to a study published online July 8, 2019, in Nature Medicine and an accompanying commentary co-written by a Children’s National clinician-researcher, the reality for Zika-exposed infants is much more complicated.

Study authors led by Karin Nielsen-Saines at David Geffen UCLA School of Medicine followed 216 infants in Rio de Janeiro who had been exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy, performing neurodevelopmental testing when the babies ranged in age from 7 to 32 months. These infants’ mothers had had Zika-related symptoms themselves, including rash.

Although many children had normal assessments, 29% scored below average in at least one domain of neurological development, including cognitive performance, fine and gross motor skills and expressive language, Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., and a colleague write in a companion commentary published online by Nature Medicine July 29, 2019.

The study authors found progressively higher risks for developmental, hearing and eye abnormality depending on how early the pregnancy was at the time the infants were exposed. Because Zika virus has an affinity for immature neurons, even babies who were not born with microcephaly remained at continued risk for suffering abnormalities.

Of note, 24 of 49 (49%) infants who had abnormalities at birth went on to have normal test results in the second or third year of life. By contrast, 17 of 68 infants (25%) who had normal assessments at birth had below-average developmental testing or had abnormalities in hearing or vision by age 32 months.

“This work follows babies who were born in 2015 and 2016. It’s heartening that some babies born with abnormalities tested in the normal range later in life, though it’s unclear whether any specific interventions help to deliver these positive findings,” says Dr. Mulkey, a fetalneonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National in Washington, D.C. “And it’s quite sobering that babies who appeared normal at birth went on to develop abnormalities due to that early Zika exposure.”

It’s unclear how closely the findings apply to the vast majority of U.S. women whose Zika infections were asymptomatic.

“This study adds to the growing body of research that argues in favor of ongoing follow-up for Zika-exposed children, even if their neurologic exams were reassuring at birth,” Dr. Mulkey adds. “As Zika-exposed children approach school age, it’s critical to better characterize the potential implications for the education system and public health.”

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, the perspective’s senior author, William J. Muller, Northwestern University, was the commentary’s lead author.

ID-KD vaccine induced T-cell cytotoxicity

Fighting lethal cancer with a one-two punch

The immune system is the ultimate yin and yang, explains Anthony D. Sandler, M.D., senior vice president and surgeon-in-chief of the Joseph E. Robert Jr. Center for Surgical Care at Children’s National in Washington, D.C. With an ineffective immune system, infections such as the flu or diarrheal illness can run unchecked, causing devastating destruction. But on the other hand, excess immune activity leads to autoimmune diseases, such as lupus or multiple sclerosis. Thus, the immune system has “checks and balances” to stay controlled.

Cancer takes advantage of “the checks and balances,” harnessing the natural brakes that the immune system puts in place to avoid overactivity. As the cancer advances, molecular signals from tumor cells themselves turn on these natural checkpoints, allowing cancers to evade immune attack.

Several years ago, a breakthrough in pharmaceutical science led to a new class of drugs called checkpoint inhibitors. These medicines take those proverbial brakes off the immune system, allowing it to vigorously attack malignancies. However, Dr. Sandler says, these drugs have not worked uniformly and in some cancers, they barely work at all against the cancer.

One of these non-responders is high risk neuroblastoma, a common solid tumor found outside the skull in children. About 800 U.S. children are diagnosed with this cancer every year. And kids who have the high-risk form of neuroblastoma have poor prognoses, regardless of which treatments doctors use.

However, new research could lead to promising ways to fight high-risk neuroblastoma by enabling the immune system to recognize these tumors and spark an immune response. Dr. Sandler and colleagues recently reported on these results in the Jan. 29, 2018, PLOS Medicine using an experimental model of the disease.

The researchers created this model by injecting the preclinical models with cancer cells from an experimental version of neuroblastoma. The researchers then waited several days for the tumors to grow. Samples of these tumors showed that they expressed a protein on their cell surfaces known as PD-L1, a protein that is also expressed in many other types of human cancers to evade immune system detection.

To thwart this protective feature, the researchers made a cancer vaccine by removing cells from the experimental model’s tumors and selectively turning off a gene known as Id2. Then, they irradiated them, a treatment that made these cells visible to the immune system but blocked the cells from dividing to avoid new tumors from developing.

They delivered these cells back to the experimental models, along with two different checkpoint inhibitor drugs – antibodies for proteins known as CLTA-4 and PD-L1 – over the course of three treatments, delivered every three days. Although most checkpoint inhibitors are administered over months to years, this treatment was short-term for the experimental models, Dr. Sandler explains. The preclinical models were completely finished with cancer treatment after just three doses.

Over the next few weeks, the researchers witnessed an astounding turnaround: While experimental models that hadn’t received any treatment uniformly died within 20 days, those that received the combined vaccine and checkpoint inhibitors were all cured of their disease. Furthermore, when the researchers challenged these preclinical models with new cancer cells six months later, no new tumors developed. In essence, Dr. Sandler says, the preclinical models had become immune to neuroblastoma.

Further studies on human patient tumors suggest that this could prove to be a promising treatment for children with high-risk neuroblastoma. The patient samples examined show that while tumors with a low risk profile are typically infiltrated with numerous immune cells, tumors that are high-risk are generally barren of immune cells. That means they’re unlikely to respond to checkpoint inhibiting drugs alone, which require a significant immune presence in the tumor microenvironment. However, Dr. Sandler says, activating an immune response with a custom-made vaccine from tumor cells could spur the immune response necessary to make these stubborn cancers respond to checkpoint inhibitors.

Dr. Sandler cautions that the exact vaccine treatment used in the study won’t be feasible for people. The protocol to make the tumor cells immunogenic is cumbersome and may not be applicable to gene targeting in human patients. However, he and his team are currently working on developing more feasible methods for crafting cancer vaccines for kids. They also have discovered a new immune checkpoint molecule that could make this approach even more effective.

“By letting immune cells do all the work we may eventually be able to provide hope for patients where there was little before,” Dr. Sandler says.

In addition to Dr. Sandler, study co-authors include Priya Srinivasan, Xiaofang Wu, Mousumi Basu and Christopher Rossi, all of the Joseph E. Robert Jr. Center for Surgical Care and The Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation (SZI), at Children’s National in Washington, D.C.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the EVAN Foundation, the Catherine Blair foundation, the Michael Sandler Research Fund and SZI.

ID-KD vaccine induced T-cell cytotoxicity

Mechanism of Id2kd Neuro2a vaccination combined with α-CTLA-4 and α-PD-L1 immunotherapy in a neuroblastoma model. During a vaccine priming phase, CTLA-4 blockade enhances activation and proliferation of T-cells that express programmed cell death 1 (PD1) and migrate to the tumor. Programmed cell death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) is up-regulated on the tumor cells, inducing adaptive resistance. Blocking PD-L1 allows for enhanced cytotoxic effector function of the CD8+ tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes. Artist: Olivia Abbate

zika virus

Neuroimaging essential for Zika cases

zika virus

About three years ago, Zika virus emerged as a newly recognized congenital infection, and a growing body of research indicates the damage it causes differs from other infections that occur in utero.

Seventy-one of 110 Brazilian infants at the highest risk for experiencing problems due to exposure to the Zika virus in the womb experienced a wide spectrum of brain abnormalities, including calcifications and malformations in cortical development, according to a study published July 31, 2019 in JAMA Network Open.

The infants were born at the height of Brazil’s Zika epidemic, a few months after the nation declared a national public health emergency. Already, many of the infants had been classified as having the severe form of congenital Zika syndrome, and many had microcephaly, fetal brain disruption sequence, arthrogryposis and abnormal neurologic exams at birth.

These 110 infants “represented a group of ZIKV-exposed infants who would be expected to have a high burden of neuroimaging abnormalities, which is a difference from other reported cohorts,” Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., writes in an invited commentary published in JAMA Network Open that accompanies the Rio de Janeiro study. “Fortunately, many ZIKV-exposed infants do not have abnormal brain findings or a clinical phenotype associated with congenital Zika syndrome,” adds Dr. Mulkey, a fetalneonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, a retrospective cohort of 82 women exposed to Zika during their pregnancies led by a research team at Children’s National found only three pregnancies were complicated by severe fetal brain abnormalities. Compared with the 65% abnormal computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) findings in the new Brazilian study, about 1 in 10 (10%) of babies born to women living in the continental U.S. with confirmed Zika infections during pregnancy had Zika-associated birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There appears to be a spectrum of brain imaging abnormalities in ZIKV-exposed infants, including mild, nonspecific changes seen at cranial US [ultrasound], such as lenticulostriate vasculopathy and germinolytic cysts, to more significant brain abnormalities, such as subcortical calcifications, ventriculomegaly and, in its most severe form, thin cortical mantle and fetal brain disruption sequence,” Dr. Mulkey writes.

About three years ago, Zika virus emerged as a newly recognized congenital infection, and a growing body of research indicates the damage it causes differs from other infections that occur in utero. Unlike congenital cytomegalovirus infection, cerebral calcifications associated with Zika are typically subcortical, Dr. Mulkey indicates. What’s more, fetal brain disruption sequence seen in Zika-exposed infants is unusual for other infections that can cause microcephaly.

“Centered on the findings of Pool, et al, and others, early neuroimaging remains one of the most valuable investigations of the Zika-exposed infant,” Dr. Mulkey writes, including infants who are not diagnosed with congenital Zika syndrome.  She recommends:

  • Cranial ultrasound as the first-line imaging option for infants, if available, combined with neurologic and ophthalmologic exams, and brainstem auditory evoked potentials
  • Zika-exposed infants with normal cranial ultrasounds do not need additional imaging unless they experience a developmental disturbance
  • Zika-exposed infants with abnormal cranial ultrasounds should undergo further neuroimaging with low-dose cranial CT or brain MRI.

Autonomic nervous system appears to function well regardless of mode of childbirth

Late in pregnancy, the human body carefully prepares fetuses for the rigors of life outside the protection of the womb. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, ramp up and spike during labor. Catecholamines, another stress hormone, also rise at birth, helping to kick start the necessary functions that the baby will need to regulate breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure and energy metabolism levels at delivery. Oxytocin surges, promoting contractions for the mother during labor and stimulating milk production after the infant is born.

These processes also can play a role in preparing the fetal brain during the transition to life outside the womb by readying the autonomic nervous system and adapting its cerebral connections. The autonomic nervous system acts like the body’s autopilot, taking in information it needs to ensure that internal organs run steadily without willful action, such as ensuring the heart beats and eyelids blink at steady intervals. Its yin, the sympathetic division, stimulates body processes while its yang, the parasympathetic division, inhibits them.

Infants born preterm have reduced autonomic function compared with their full-term peers and also face possible serious neurodevelopmental impairment later in life. But is there a difference in autonomic nervous system function for full-term babies after undergoing labor compared with infants delivered via cesarean section (C-section)?

A team from the Children’s National Inova Collaborative Research Program (CNICA) – a research collaboration between Children’s National in Washington, D.C., and Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Virginia – set out to answer that question in a paper published online July 30, 2019, in Scientific Reports.

They enrolled newborns who had experienced normal, full-term pregnancies and recorded their brain function and heart performance when they were about 2 days old. Infants whose conditions were fragile enough to require observation in the neonatal intensive care unit were excluded from the study. Of 167 infants recruited for the prospective cohort study, 118 newborns had sufficiently robust data to include them in the research.  Of these newborns:

  • 62 (52.5%) were born by vaginal delivery
  • 22 (18.6%) started out with vaginal delivery but ultimately switched to C-section based on failure to progress, failed labor induction or fetal intolerance to labor
  • And 34 (28.8%) were born by elective C-section.

The CNICA research team swaddled infants for comfort and slipped electrode nets over their tiny heads to simultaneously measure heart rate variability and electrocortical function through non-invasive techniques. The team hypothesized that infants who had been exposed to labor would have enhanced autonomic tone and higher cortical electroencephalogram (EEG) power than babies born via C-section.

“In a low-risk group of babies born full-term, the autonomic nervous system and cortical systems appear to function well regardless of whether infants were exposed to labor prior to birth,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetalneonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National and the study’s lead author.

However, infants born by C-section following a period of labor had significantly increased accelerations in their heart rates. And the infants born by C-section during labor had significantly lower relative gamma frequency EEG at 25.2 hours old compared with the other two groups studied.

“Together these findings point to a possible increased stress response and arousal difference in infants who started with vaginal delivery and finished delivery with C-section,” Dr. Mulkey says. “There is so little published research about the neurologic impacts of the mode of delivery, so our work helps to provide a normal reference point for future studies looking at high-risk infants, including babies born preterm.”

Because the research team saw little differences in autonomic tone or other EEG frequencies when the infants were 1 day old, future research will explore these measures at different points in the newborns’ early life as well as the role of the sleep-wake cycle on heart rate variability.

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Srinivas Kota, Ph.D., Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., Tareq Al-Shargabi, MSc, Christopher B. Swisher, BS, Laura Hitchings, BScM, Stephanie Russo, BS, Nicole Herrera, MPH, Robert McCarter, ScD, and Senior Author Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, all of Children’s National; and Augustine Eze Jr., MS, G. Larry Maxwell, M.D., and Robin Baker, M.D., all of Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences under award numbers UL1TR001876 and KL2TR001877.

Gavel in front of a pistol

Saving children’s lives with stricter gun laws

Gavel in front of a pistol

A new study led by clinician-researchers at Children’s National finds states with stricter gun laws had lower firearm-related deaths among children and adolescents.

A new study led by clinician-researchers at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., shows an apparent benefit to stricter laws regulating firearm access: They can save children’s lives.

The study published online July 15, 2019, in Pediatrics shows that states with stricter gun laws had lower firearm-related deaths among children and adolescents. In addition, state laws that had been in place for more than five years requiring universal background checks for firearm purchases were associated with a 35% lower firearm-related death rate among children.

The authors say the findings underscore the need for robust research to understand the interplay between legislation type and pediatric deaths due to firearm injuries.

The cross-sectional study examined 2011 to 2015 firearm fatality data from the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS), de-identified data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about fatal injuries in the U.S. The team used the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence’s gun law scorecards which measure the strength or weakness of state laws, with higher scores designating states with consistently strong firearm laws.

Some 21,241 children aged 21 years and younger died from firearm-related injuries over the five-year study period, or about 4,250 deaths per year.

“Firearm injuries represent the second-leading cause of death for U.S. children. That’s about 10 funerals a day for kids whose untimely deaths could have been prevented,” says Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE, director of research in the Division of Emergency Medicine and Trauma Services at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “For every 10-point increase in the strictness of firearm legislation, there was a 4% drop in firearm-related mortality rates among children and youth.”

States that had laws in effect for five years or longer requiring universal background checks for firearm purchase had 35% lower rates of death due to firearms in children.

“Our findings demonstrate a powerful association between the strength of firearm legislation and pediatric firearm-related mortality, Dr. Goyal adds. “This association remains strong even after we adjust for rates of firearm ownership and other population variables, such as education level, race/ethnicity and household income.”

Just as a combination of evidence-based public health approaches – including legislation mandating seatbelt use – reduced mortality from motor vehicle crashes (6.1 deaths per 100,000 children in 2015 compared with 9.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2007), the authors contend that a similar strategy could help to inform decision-making to reduce childhood injuries and deaths due to firearms.

In addition to Dr. Goyal, additional study authors include Gia M. Badolato, MPH, coauthor, Shilpa J. Patel, M.D., MPH, coauthor and emergency medicine specialist, Kavita Parikh, M.D., MSHS, coauthor and hospitalist, and Robert McCarter Jr., ScD, coauthor and research section head, design and biostatistics, all of Children’s National; and Sabah F. Iqbal, M.D., PM Pediatrics, coauthor.

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Focusing on the “little brain” to rescue cognition

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Research faculty at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., with colleagues recently published a review article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience that covers the latest research about how abnormal development of the cerebellum leads to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Cerebellum translates as “little brain” in Latin. This piece of anatomy – that appears almost separate from the rest of the brain, tucked under the two cerebral hemispheres – long has been known to play a pivotal role in voluntary motor functions, such as walking or reaching for objects, as well as involuntary ones, such as maintaining posture.

But more recently, says Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the Children’s Research Institute, the research arm of Children’s National  in Washington, D.C., researchers have discovered that the cerebellum is also critically important for a variety of non-motor functions, including cognition and emotion.

Sathyanesan, who studies this brain region in the laboratory of Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National and scientific director of the Children’s Research Institute, recently published a review article with colleagues in Nature Reviews Neuroscience covering the latest research about how altered development of the cerebellum contributes to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

These disorders, he explains, are marked by problems in the nervous system that arise while it’s maturing, leading to effects on emotion, learning ability, self-control, or memory, or any combination of these. They include diagnoses as diverse as intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Down syndrome.

“One reason why the cerebellum might be critically involved in each of these disorders,” Sathyanesan says, “is because its developmental trajectory takes so long.”

Unlike other brain structures, which have relatively short windows of development spanning weeks or months, the principal cells of the cerebellum – known as Purkinje cells – start to differentiate from stem cell precursors at the beginning of the seventh gestational week, with new cells continuing to appear until babies are nearly one year old.  In contrast, cells in the neocortex, a part of the brain involved in higher-order brain functions such as cognition, sensory perception and language is mostly finished forming while fetuses are still gestating in the womb.

This long window for maturation allows the cerebellum to make connections with other regions throughout the brain, such as extensive connections with the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the cerebrum that plays a key role in perception, attention, awareness, thought, memory, language and consciousness. It also allows ample time for things to go wrong.

“Together,” Sathyanesan says, “these two characteristics are at the root of the cerebellum’s involvement in a host of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

For example, the review article notes, researchers have discovered both structural and functional abnormalities in the cerebellums of patients with ASD. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an imaging technique that measures activity in different parts of the brain, suggests that significant differences exist between connectivity between the cerebellum and cortex in people with ASD compared with neurotypical individuals. Differences in cerebellar connectivity are also evident in resting-state functional connectivity MRI, an imaging technique that measures brain activity in subjects when they are not performing a specific task. Some of these differences appear to involve patterns of overconnectivity to different brain regions, explains Sathyanesan; other differences suggest that the cerebellums of patients with ASD don’t have enough connections to other brain regions.

These findings could clarify research from Children’s National and elsewhere that has shown that babies born prematurely often sustain cerebellar injuries due to multiple hits, including a lack of oxygen supplied by infants’ immature lungs, he adds. Besides having a sibling with ASD, premature birth is the most prevalent risk factor for an ASD diagnosis.

The review also notes that researchers have discovered structural changes in the cerebellums of patients with Down syndrome, who tend to have smaller cerebellar volumes than neurotypical individuals. Experimental models of this trisomy recapitulate this difference, along with abnormal connectivity to the cerebral cortex and other brain regions.

Although the cerebellum is a pivotal contributor toward these conditions, Sathyanesan says, learning more about this brain region helps make it an important target for treating these neurodevelopmental disorders. For example, he says, researchers are investigating whether problems with the cerebellum and abnormal connectivity could be lessened through a non-invasive form of brain stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation or an invasive one known as deep brain stimulation. Similarly, a variety of existing pharmaceuticals or new ones in development could modify the cerebellum’s biochemistry and, consequently, its function.

“If we can rescue the cerebellum’s normal activity in these disorders, we may be able to alleviate the problems with cognition that pervade them all,” he says.

In addition to Sathyanesan and Senior Author Gallo, Children’s National study co-authors include Joseph Scafidi, D.O., neonatal neurologist; Joy Zhou and Roy V. Sillitoe, Baylor College of Medicine; and Detlef H. Heck, of University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke under grant numbers 5R01NS099461, R01NS089664, R01NS100874, R01NS105138 and R37NS109478; the Hamill Foundation; the Baylor College of Medicine Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54HD083092; the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) Neuroscience Institute; the UTHSC Cornet Award; the National Institute of Mental Health under grant number R01MH112143; and the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54 HD090257.

INSAR 2019 logo

Autism’s heterogeneity on display at INSAR 2019

INSAR 2019 logo

At the INSAR Annual Meeting, presentations from around the world share a common goal: finding better ways to support and care for people with autism.

There are countless aspects of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to study, as evidenced by the 1,800-plus abstracts accepted at the 2019 International Society for Autism Research’s (INSAR) annual meeting. Presentations from investigators around the world ranged from pre-clinical studies of the genetic and biological underpinnings to community-based studies of diagnosis, assessment and treatment.

Along that broad spectrum of autism research, the work at Children’s National emphasizes better understanding of the clinical implications and community experiences of autism, with a particular focus on:

  • How well diagnostic and assessment tools capture the many differences between subpopulations of children with autism, whether based on sex/gender identity, cultural background or age
  • Understanding what children and adolescents with autism, and their parents, really need to help them thrive, and how to target supports to their unique needs
  • Finding the best ways to deliver vital information to autistic youth and their families in clear and accessible ways.

Researchers from Children’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) presented nearly 20 scientific panels, oral presentations and posters at INSAR highlighting their most recent findings in these areas.

In addition to their own research, the CASD team attended sessions from INSAR’s global community of researchers, clinicians, and others with vested interest in the study of ASD. Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., CASD’s director, shared some of her key takeaways from the meeting with the ASD-focused publication Spectrum.

“At many levels of analyses, we are learning that a diagnostic label may not always be the best construct for identifying, treating or probing the biology underlying a person’s problems,” she said. “The keynote by Jason Lerch, professor at Oxford University, for example, was an elegant synthesis of imaging and genetic findings that made a strong case for the importance of exploring subtypes within autism and across developmental and psychiatric problems.”

“We also received another powerful reminder of our field’s complex heterogeneity,” Dr. Kenworthy noted. “Katherine Gotham, assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, was able to divide groups of autistic individuals in a study according to different criteria than the study’s initial design and effectively erase what appeared to be clear, statistically significant differences between typically developing and autistic participants. Her presentation demonstrated once more the importance of looking deeply at our data from many angles before drawing conclusions based on study outcomes.”

These studies, both at Children’s and elsewhere, all share one common theme: the importance of asking these questions and exploring the answers, with the goal of finding better ways to support and care for the millions of people around the world with autism and their families, no matter what autism looks like for them.

CASD presentations at INSAR 2019

Panel presentation: Clinical Presentation of ASD and Access to Care Among Girls

Allison Ratto, Ph.D., chaired a panel focused on the differences in performance on standard diagnostic tools based on the sex of autistic youth. The panel included presentations such as:

  • Sex Differences in Youth with ASD: Language Phenotype and Relation to Autism Behaviors from the ACE GENDAAR Network, presented by Sara Jane Webb of the University of Washington
  • Social Strengths of Autistic Girls: Sex Differences in Clinician-Rated and Parent-Reported Autistic Traits, presented by Dr. Ratto
  • Gender and Psychiatric Symptoms among Youth with ASD and ADHD, Alyssa Verbalis, Ph.D.
  • Evidence for Undertreatment of ADHD in Girls with ASD in the National Survey of Children’s Health, Kelly Register-Brown, M.D., MSc.

Oral and poster presentations

Oral session: Comparing Online and in-Person Parent Trainings to Support Executive Function and Self-Regulation: Feasibility, Acceptability, and Outcomes, presented by Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D.

Poster sessions:

  • Executive Function and School-Based Interventions
    • Self-Report and Parent-Report Reveal Similar Patterns of Executive Function Problems in Autistic Adolescents, presented by Rachael Clinton and Charlotte Jeppsen
    • What Services Are Families of Children with Executive Function Challenges Getting? What Do Parents Say They Want?
    • A Mixed Methods Approach to Evaluation of Student Acceptability of the School-Based Interventions Unstuck and on Target and Parents and Teachers Supporting Students
    • A New Way to Help Parents? Exploring the Impact of School-Based Interventions on Parenting Outcomes
    • Executive Function and Academic Achievement in Autism Spectrum Disorder
    • Development of an Interactive, E-Learning Tool to Support Parent Implementation of an Executive Function Intervention
    • The Moderating Effects of Implementation Factors on Improvement in Classroom Behaviors in Unstuck and on Target and Contingency Behavior Management
  • Youth with ASD making the transition to adulthood
    • Preliminary Outcomes of a New Executive Function Treatment for Transition-Age Youth with ASD, presented by Cara Pugliese, Ph.D.
    • Self-determination in transition-aged individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
  • ASD population subgroups, including gender and ethnically diverse:
    • Parent-Teacher Discrepancy in Ratings of Executive Functioning in Black and White Children with ASD, presented by Serene Habayeb
    • Capturing the Autistic Experience: Self-Advocates Develop Self-Assessment Tools to Inform Autism Diagnosis and Validate Neuroimaging Findings across the Gender Spectrum
    • Comparing Parent-Report of Non-Intellectually Disabled Asian-American Youth with ASD and ADHD to Their White Peers
    • Autistic Traits in Transgender Youth: Dysphoria, Stigma, and Barriers to Care
    • Higher Rates of Gender Diversity in Children with ASD Based on Self-Report, Not Parent Report
Denice Cora-Bramble with the Mayor’s Commission on Healthcare Systems Transformation

Denice Cora-Bramble, M.D., MBA, selected for Mayor’s Commission on Healthcare Systems Transformation

Denice Cora-Bramble with the Mayor’s Commission on Healthcare Systems Transformation

Photo credit: Executive Office of the Mayor

Denice Cora-Bramble, M.D., MBA, chief medical officer and executive vice president of Ambulatory and Community Health Services at Children’s National, has been selected to serve as a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Healthcare Systems Transformation. Established by Mayor Muriel Bowser, the commission will make recommendations on strategies and investments necessary to transform health care delivery in the District of Columbia.

Dr. Cora-Bramble is one of three representatives appointed to the commission from specialty hospitals in the District. “I am honored to have been invited to participate in the commission’s important discussions,” she says.

While D.C. has many resources related to health care and is home to several acute care hospitals, residents still need help accessing services. The 27-member commission will work to alleviate these challenges and over the next six months they will develop recommendations for improving access to primary, acute and specialty care services, addressing health system capacity issues for inpatient, outpatient, pre-hospital and emergency room services and maternal health.

The commission will also work to promote equitable acute care and specialty services in communities east of the Anacostia River.

“I’m looking forward to serving as a resource to citizens living within the District,” says Dr. Cora-Bramble.  “I am hopeful that the group’s recommendations will improve the delivery of health services, particularly for vulnerable and underserved populations.”

Dr. Cora-Bramble joined Children’s National in 2002. In her role as chief medical officer, she leads the tri-state clinical operations of Children’s National primary and specialty sites, including regional outpatient centers, emergency departments, community health centers, pediatric practices, school-based health centers, mobile medical units and nursing services in D.C. Public Schools and Public Charter Schools. She also oversees the telemedicine program and the Children’s National Health Network.

Children’s National ranked No. 6 overall and No. 1 for newborn care by U.S. News

Children’s National in Washington, D.C., is the nation’s No. 6 children’s hospital and, for the third year in a row, its neonatology program is No.1 among all children’s hospitals providing newborn intensive care, according to the U.S. News Best Children’s Hospitals annual rankings for 2019-20.

This is also the third year in a row that Children’s National has been in the top 10 of these national rankings. It is the ninth straight year it has ranked in all 10 specialty services, with five specialty service areas ranked among the top 10.

“I’m proud that our rankings continue to cement our standing as among the best children’s hospitals in the nation,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., President and CEO for Children’s National. “In addition to these service lines, today’s recognition honors countless specialists and support staff who provide unparalleled, multidisciplinary patient care. Quality care is a function of every team member performing their role well, so I credit every member of the Children’s National team for this continued high performance.”

The annual rankings recognize the nation’s top 50 pediatric facilities based on a scoring system developed by U.S. News. The top 10 scorers are awarded a distinction called the Honor Roll.

“The top 10 pediatric centers on this year’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll deliver outstanding care across a range of specialties and deserve to be nationally recognized,” says Ben Harder, chief of health analysis at U.S. News. “According to our analysis, these Honor Roll hospitals provide state-of-the-art medical expertise to children with rare or complex conditions. Their rankings reflect U.S. News’ assessment of their commitment to providing high-quality, compassionate care to young patients and their families day in and day out.”

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

Below are links to the five specialty services that U.S. News ranked in the top 10 nationally:

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

Vittorio Gallo Alpha Omega Alpha Award

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., inducted into Alpha Omega Alpha

Vittorio Gallo Alpha Omega Alpha Award

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National, was inducted into Alpha Omega Alpha (AΩA), a national medical honor society that since 1902 has recognized excellence, leadership and research in the medical profession.

“I think it’s great to receive this recognition. I was very excited and surprised,” Gallo says of being nominated to join the honor society.

“Traditionally AΩA membership is based on professionalism, academic and clinical excellence, research, and community service – all in the name of ‘being worthy to serve the suffering,’ which is what the Greek letters AΩA stand for,” says Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., Ph.D., an ΑΩΑ member and attending neonatologist at Children’s National who conducts neuroscience research under Gallo’s mentorship. Dr. Kratimenos nominated his mentor for induction.

“Being his mentee, I thought Gallo was an excellent choice for AΩΑ faculty member,” Dr. Kratimenos says. “He is an outstanding scientist, an excellent mentor and his research is focused on improving the quality of life of children with brain injury and developmental disabilities – so he serves the suffering. He also has mentored numerous physicians over the course of his career.”

Gallo’s formal induction occurred in late May 2019, just prior to the medical school graduation at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences (GWSMHS) and was strongly supported by Jeffrey S. Akman, Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean of the university’s medical school.

“I’ve been part of Children’s National and in the medical field for almost 18 years. That’s what I’m passionate about: being able to enhance translational research in a clinical environment,” Gallo says. “In a way, this recognition from the medical field is a perfect match for what I do. As Chief Research Officer at Children’s National, I am charged with continuing to expand our research program in one of the top U.S. children’s hospitals. And, as Associate Dean for Child Health Research at GWSMHS, I enhance research collaboration between the two institutions.”

nurse checking boy's blood sugar levels

Improving glycemic control in diabetic children

nurse checking boy's blood sugar levels

A 10-week pilot study at Children’s National Health System integrated weekly caregiver coaching, personalized glucose monitoring and incentives into standard treatment for 25 pediatric patients with type 1 diabetes, lowering A1c by .5%

The life of a type 1 diabetes patient – taking daily insulin shots or wearing an insulin pump, monitoring blood sugar, prioritizing healthful food choices and fitting in daily exercise – can be challenging at age 5 or 15, especially as holidays, field trips and sleepovers can disrupt diabetes care routines, creating challenges with compliance. This is why endocrinologists from Children’s National Health System experimented with using health coaches over a 10-week period to help families navigate care for children with type 1 diabetes.

By assembling a team of diabetes educators, dietitians, social workers, psychologists and health care providers, Fran Cogen, M.D., C.D.E., director of diabetes care at Children’s National, helped pediatric patients with type 1 diabetes manage their glycemic status, or blood-sugar control.

On Saturday, June 8, 2019, Dr. Cogen will share results of the pilot program as poster 1260-P, entitled “A Clinical Care Improvement Pilot Program: Individualized Health Coaching and Use of Incentives for Youth with Type 1 Diabetes and their Caregivers,” at the American Diabetes Association’s 79th Scientific Sessions, which takes place June 7-11 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Dr. Cogen’s study was offered at no cost to caregivers of 179 patients at Children’s National seeking treatment for type 1 diabetes. The pilot program included two components: 1) Weekly phone calls or emails from a health coach to a caregiver with personalized insulin adjustments, based on patient blood sugars submitted through continuous glucose monitoring apps; and 2) Incentives for patients to participate in the program and reach health targets.

Twenty-five participants, ages 4-18, with a mean age of 11.6 and A1c ranges between 8.6 – 10% joined the study. The average A1c was 9.4% at the beginning of the program and dropped by an average of .5% at the end of the trial. Twenty of the 25 participants, 80%, improved A1c levels by .5%. Seventeen participants, 68%, improved A1c levels by more than .5%, while seven participants, 28%, improved A1c levels by more than 1%.

“Chronic disease is like a marathon,” says Dr. Cogen. “You need to have constant reinforcement and coaching to get people to do their best. Sometimes what drives people is to have people on the other end say, ‘Keep it up, you’re doing a good job, keep sending us information so that we can make changes to improve your child’s blood sugar management,’ which gives these new apps and continuous glucose monitoring devices a human touch.”

Instead of waiting three months between appointments to talk about ways a family can make changes to support a child’s insulin control and function, caregivers received feedback from coaches each week. Health coaches benefitted, too: They reported feeling greater empathy for patients, while becoming more engaged in personalizing care plans.

Families who participated received a gift card to a local grocery store, supporting a child’s dietary goals. Children who participated were also entered into an iPad raffle. Improvements in A1c levels generated extra raffle tickets per child, which motivated participants, especially teens.

“These incentives are helpful in order to get kids engaged in their health and in an immediate way,” says Dr. Cogen. “Teenagers aren’t always interested in long-term health outcomes, but they are interested in what’s happening right now. Fluctuating blood sugars can cause depression and problems with learning, while increasing risk for future complications, including eye problems, kidney problems and circulation problems. As health care providers, we know the choices children make today can influence their future health outcomes, which is why we designed this study.”

Moving forward, Dr. Cogen and the endocrinologists at Children’s National would like to study the impact of using this model over several months, especially for high-risk patients, while  asynchronously targeting information to drive behavior change – accommodating the needs of families, while delivering dose-specific recommendations from health care providers.

Dr. Cogen adds, “We’re moving away from office-centric research models and creating interventions where they matter: at home and with families in real time.”

Read more about the study at Healio.com and dLife.

Additional study authors, all of whom work within the division of diabetes and endocrinology at Children’s National, include Lauren Clary, Ph.D., Sue-Ann Airborne, C.D.E., Andrew Dauber, M.D., Meredith Dillon, R.D., L.D.N., C.D.E., Beakel Eshete, B.S.N., R.N., C.D.E., Shaina Hatchell, B.S.N., R.N., Shari Jones, R.N., C.D.E., and Priya Vaidyanathan, M.D.

Robert J. Freishtat working in the lab

Detecting early signs of type 2 diabetes through microRNA

Robert J. Freishtat working in the lab

Obesity is a major risk factor for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Now researchers understand the pathogenesis better among teens with mid-level obesity, thanks to clues released from circulating adipocyte-derived exosomes.

Researchers know that exosomes, tiny nanoparticles released from fat cells, travel through the bloodstream and body, regulating a variety of processes, from growth and development to metabolism. The exosomes are important in lean, healthy individuals in maintaining homeostasis, but when fat gets ‘sick’ – the most common reason for this is too much weight gain – it can change its phenotype, becoming inflammatory, and disrupts how our organs function, from how our skeletal muscle and liver metabolize sugar to how our blood vessels process cholesterol.

Robert J. Freishtat, M.D., M.P.H., the chief of emergency medicine at Children’s National Health System and a professor of precision medicine and genomics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and Sheela N. Magge M.D., M.S.C.E., who is now the director of pediatric endocrinology and an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, were curious about what this process looked like in teens who fell in the mid-range of obesity.

Obesity is a major risk factor for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, but Dr. Freishtat and Dr. Magge wanted to know: Why do some teens with obesity develop type 2 diabetes over others? Why are some teens in this mid-range of obesity metabolically healthy while others have metabolic syndrome? Can fat in obese people become sick and drive disease?

To test this, Dr. Freishtat and Dr. Magge worked with 55 obese adolescents, ages 12 to 17, as part of a study at Children’s National. The participants – 32 obese normoglycemic youth and 23 obese hyperglycemic youth – were similar in age, sex, race, pubertal stage, body mass index and overall fat mass. The distinguishing factor: The hyperglycemic study participants, the teens with elevated blood sugar, differed in where they stored fat. They had extra visceral fat (or adipose tissue) storage, the type of fat that surrounds the liver, pancreas and intestines, a known risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Magge and Dr. Freishtat predicted that circulating exosomes from the teens with elevated blood sugar are enriched for microRNAs targeting carbohydrate metabolism.

They used three tests to examine study participants’ metabolism, body composition and circulating exosomes. The first test, an oral glucose tolerance test, measures how efficiently the body metabolizes sugar; the second test is the whole body DXA, or dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry, which analyzes body composition, including lean tissue, fat mass and bone mineral density; and the third test, the serum adipocyte-derived exosomal microRNA assays, is an analysis of circulating fat signals in the bloodstream.

They found that teens with elevated blood sugar and increased visceral fat had different circulating adipocyte-derived exosomes. These study participants’ exosomes were enriched for 14 microRNAs, targeting 1,304 mRNAs and corresponding to 179 canonical pathways – many of which are directly associated with carbohydrate metabolism and visceral fat.

Dr. Magge will present this research, entitled “Changes in Adipocyte-Derived Exosomal MicroRNAs May Play a Role in the Progression from Obese Normoglycemia to Hyperglycemia/Diabetes,” as an oral abstract at the American Diabetes Association’s 79th Scientific Sessions on Saturday, June 8.

Dr. Freishtat envisions having this information will be especially helpful for a patient in a mid-range of obesity. Exosomes primarily consist of small non-coding RNAs. In the current study, the altered RNAs affect P13K/AKT and STAT3 signaling, vital pathways for metabolic and immune function.

“Instead of waiting until someone has the biochemical changes associated with type 2 diabetes, such as hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia and insulin resistance, we’re hoping physicians will use this information to work with patients earlier,” says Dr. Freishtat. “Through earlier detection, clinicians can intervene when fat shows sign of illness, as opposed to when the overt disease has occurred. This could be intervening with diet and lifestyle for an obese individual or intervening with medication earlier. The goal is to work with children and teens when their system is more plastic and responds better to intervention.”

As this research evolves, Dr. Freishtat continues to look at the intergenerational effects of circulating adipocyte-derived exosomes. Through ongoing NIH-funded research in India, he finds these exosomes, similar in size to lipoproteins, can travel across the placenta, affecting development of the fetus in utero.

“What we’re finding in our initial work is that these exosomes, or ‘sick’ fat, cross the placenta and affect fetal development,” Dr. Freishtat says. “Some of the things that we’re seeing are a change in body composition of the fetus to a more adipose phenotype. Some of our work in cell cultures shows changes in stem cell function and differentiation, but what’s even more interesting to us is that if the fetus is a female sex that means her ovaries are developing while she’s in utero, which means a mother’s adipocyte-derived exosomes could theoretically be affecting her grandchild’s phenotype – influencing the health of three generations.”

While this research is underway, Dr. Freishtat is working with JPOD @ Boston, co-located with the Cambridge Innovation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to develop a test to provide analyses of adipocyte-derived exosomal microRNAs.

“It’s important for families to know that these studies are designed to help researchers and doctors better understand the development of disease in its earliest stages, but there’s no need for patients to wait for the completion of our studies,” says Dr. Freishtat. “Reaching and maintaining a healthy body weight and exercising are important things teens and families can do today to reduce their risk for obesity and diabetes.”

Gustavo Nino

Gustavo Nino, M.D., honored with national award from American Thoracic Society

Gustavo Nino

Gustavo Nino, M.D., a pulmonologist who directs the Sleep Medicine program at Children’s National, was honored by the American Thoracic Society with The Robert B. Mellins, M.D. Outstanding Achievement Award in recognition of his contributions to pediatric pulmonology and sleep medicine.

“I am humbled and pleased to be recognized with this distinction,” says Dr. Nino. “This national award is particularly special because it honors both academic achievements as well as research that I have published to advance the fields of pediatric pulmonology and sleep medicine.”

After completing a mentored career development award (K Award) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Nino established an independent research program at Children’s National funded by three different NIH R-level grants, an R01 research project grant; an R21 award for new, exploratory research; and an R4 small business/technology transfer award to stimulate research innovation.

The research team Dr. Nino leads has made important contributions to developing novel models to study the molecular mechanisms of airway epithelial immunity in newborns and infants. He also has pioneered the use of computer-based lung imaging tools and physiological biomarkers to predict early-life respiratory disease in newborns and infants.

Dr. Nino has published roughly 60 peer-review manuscripts including in the “Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology,” the “European Respiratory Journal,” and the “American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine,” the three top journals in the field of respiratory medicine. He has been invited to chair sessions about sleep medicine during meetings held by the Pediatric Academic Societies, American College of Chest Physicians and the American Thoracic Society (ATS).

Dr. Nino also has served as NIH scientific grant reviewer of the Lung Cellular and Molecular Immunology Section; The Infectious, Reproductive, Asthma and Pulmonary Conditions Section; and The Impact of Initial Influenza Exposure on Immunity in Infants NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Special Emphasis Panel.

In addition to his research and academic contributions, over the past five years Dr. Nino has led important clinical and educational activities at Children’s National and currently directs the hospital’s Sleep Medicine program, which has grown to become one of the region’s largest programs conducting more than 1,700 sleep studies annually.

He has developed several clinical multidisciplinary programs including a pediatric narcolepsy clinic and the Advanced Sleep Apnea Program in collaboration with the Division of Ear, Nose and Throat at Children’s National. In addition, Dr. Nino started a fellowship program in Pediatric Sleep Medicine accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education in collaboration with The George Washington University and has served as clinical and research mentor of several medical students, pediatric residents and fellows.

JLABS

Children’s National and Johnson & Johnson launch JLABS @ Washington, DC

Kurt Newman at JLABS event

Children’s National President and CEO Kurt Newman, M.D.

On April 9, 2019, Children’s National Health System and Johnson & Johnson Innovation LLC announced a collaboration to launch JLABS @ Washington, DC, a 32,000-square foot facility that will be located at the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus. The new site will serve as an incubator for pharmaceutical, medical device, consumer and health technology companies. The JLABS @ Washington, DC will be the first and only JLABS embedded in an academic environment with a strong pediatric focus. This new endeavor creates additional opportunities for Children’s National  and Johnson & Johnson, together with partners, to shape the landscape of policy and funding to improve research and innovation in pediatric health care.

“The vision we pursued for this campus required a global innovation partner with a strong commitment to pediatric health and a clear understanding of the next big areas of opportunity for improving human health. We believe the JLABS model is exactly what is needed to help us drive discoveries that are then rapidly translated into new treatments and technologies,” said Kurt Newman, M.D., president and chief executive officer of Children’s National.

In addition to fast-tracking scientific innovation, JLABS will serve as a significant economic engine by creating new high-paying jobs in Washington, ultimately attracting venture investment in the region. An economic impact report suggests that the completion of the project will produce up to 110 permanent jobs and $150 million in revenue for the city by 2020. By 2030 the project will produce $6.2 billion in cumulative economic activity, 2,100 permanent jobs and $290 million in cumulative tax revenue for the district.

JLABS provides a continuum of innovators from first-time entrepreneurs to serial scientific founders representing diverse experiences across academic, startup, corporate, government regulators, funders and venture worlds.

“The best part of our collaboration with JLABS is facilitating speed to market for breakthrough therapies and technologies that are conceived in our region, including here in our own institution,” said Kolaleh Eskandanian, Ph.D., M.B.A., P.M.P., vice president and chief innovation officer at Children’s National. “I am excited that our partnership will unlock the untapped talent and great science in our region and bring better innovation to market faster with a strong focus on pediatric health.”

The facility will house state-of-the-art research labs and space for pediatric device development. This will expand Children’s National’s molecular genetic testing and biochemical analysis capabilities and enhance device development and computing infrastructure through collaborations with industry, universities, federal agencies and academic medical centers. “The selection of resident companies for the JLABS @ Washington, DC space will be done on a very competitive basis,” says Dr. Eskandanian. “Startup companies that qualify and are selected by JLABS will be offered laboratory and office space as well as mentorship.”

Read more about the partnership in the Washington Business Journal and watch an interview on WJLA with Dr. Newman.

Sadiqa Kendi

Sadiqa Kendi, M.D., FAAP, CPST, is 2019 Bloomberg Fellow

Sadiqa Kendi

Sadiqa Kendi, M.D., FAAP, CPST, a pediatric emergency physician at Children’s National and medical director of Safe Kids DC, is among the 2019 cohort of Bloomberg Fellows, an initiative that provides world-class training to public health professionals tackling some of the most intractable challenges facing the U.S.

The Bloomberg American Health Initiative at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on June 6, 2019, announced fellows who will receive full scholarships to earn an MPH or DrPH as they tackle five U.S. health challenges: addiction and overdose, environmental challenges, obesity and the food system, risks to adolescent health and violence. Now in its third year, the largest group of fellows to date includes representatives from organizations headquartered in 24 states and the District of Columbia.

As part of her environmental challenges fellowship, Dr. Kendi will attempt to lessen the significant morbidity and mortality suffered by children, especially children of color, due to unintentional injuries. Children’s emergency department handles more than 100,000 pediatric visits per year, 1,200 of which result in hospital admission.

“The numbers are staggering: 25% of emergency department visits by kids and more than $28 billion in health care spending are associated with injuries. These preventable injuries claim the highest number of pediatric lives, and children of color and lower income families often disproportionately bear this burden,” Dr. Kendi says.

Bloomberg Fellows Graphic

“Regrettably, I have seen the personal toll close up, and it has been sobering to hug a sobbing parent whose child clings to life after being struck by a car; to clasp the hand of a frightened child who has fallen from playground equipment and suffered a severe fracture; to see the angst written on a caregiver’s face as I lead our team in trying to save a life that easily could have been safeguarded by installing a window guard,” she adds.

Under the auspices of Safe Kids District of Columbia, Dr. Kendi is developing a one-stop Safety Center at Children’s National to provide injury prevention equipment and education to families in five focus areas: child passenger safety, home, pedestrian, sleep and sports.

Safe Kids Worldwide, the umbrella non-profit organization for Safe Kids DC, started at Children’s National and has grown to more than 400 coalitions around the world. Safe Kids DC is the local coalition that is working to address the burden of injury in local District of Columbia communities.

“I’m grateful to be named a Bloomberg Fellow because this opportunity will enable me to better understand the theories, methods of evaluation and tools for addressing the burden of injury in the District of Columbia, including how to assess and address the built environment. This training will help me to better lead my Safe Kids DC team in developing projects, outreach programs and legislative advocacy that have the potential to directly impact the communities we serve,” she adds.

Suvankar Majumdar

Spotlight on Suvankar Majumdar, M.D.

Suvankar Majumdar

As a provider with international experience, Suvankar Majumdar, M.D., joined Children’s National in August 2017 as chief of Children’s Division of Hematology within the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. Dr. Majumdar is excited to be at Children’s National because of the opportunities for growth, cutting-edge research and continuing education that our diverse population of patients can provide clinicians.

Born in Zambia, in southern Africa, and educated in the United Kingdom, Dr. Majumdar moved to Zimbabwe to study medicine, which he considers the turning point of his career. While in medical school, Dr. Majumdar oversaw and managed the treatment of patients with HIV and other chronic illnesses and determined that blood disorders, particularly sickle cell, was where he wanted to place his focus. Since then, he has served as the Director of the Comprehensive Pediatric Sickle Cell Program as well as Director of the Hemophilia Treatment Center at the University of Mississippi and is a recognized leader in hematology and sickle cell disease. It is this expertise, as well as his dedication to research studies, that have already made him an asset to Children’s National.

Within the Division of Hematology, Children’s providers focus on treating patients with blood disorders, bleeding and clotting disorders, red blood cell disorders (such as sickle cell) and more. Since coming to Children’s National, Dr. Majumdar has experienced a tremendous amount of dedication and enthusiasm from his colleagues. “I’m excited to build on what our faculty has accomplished so far. We’re already well poised to become a national leader in hematology,” he says. “I have no doubt that we will continue to accomplish our goals through collaboration and working toward a common life-saving cause.”

One of his immediate goals for the division is to focus on bringing improved patient care and accessibility in the surrounding Washington area. Additionally, Dr. Majumdar is currently conducting two research studies for sickle cell disease. As one of his studies enters the second phase, he’s focused on seeing the impact of an intravenous citrulline, a nitric oxide booster, on patients with sickle cell disease. Another study has begun to determine if specific genetic mutations that cause prolonged QT, or irregular heartbeats in patients, cause mortality, as sickle cell patients are predisposed to cardiac episodes.

It is Dr. Majumdar’s hope that the hematology team at Children’s National will also continue training the next generation of providers to advance research, education and clinical aspects of the field. To those looking to join the specialty, Dr. Majumdar suggests keeping an open mind when it comes to collaborating with colleagues. “My dad always said to my siblings and I that ‘to break one stick is easy, but to break three sticks is harder’ and really impressed upon us that we’re stronger together,” he says. “By working together, we’re more likely to produce the results that we’re looking for.”

Being located in the nation’s capital, providers at Children’s National are accustomed to seeing a diverse array of patients. For Dr. Majumdar, this presents a unique opportunity. “Meeting and interacting with different patients and families was really appealing when I decided to come to Children’s National. The variety of cases we see in the Division of Hematology can definitely present new challenges, but it’s also more rewarding,” he says.

Working with the pediatric population is also a passion of his. “Children are resilient and tend to bounce back quickly,” Dr. Majumdar says. “As a parent, I try to empathize with treatment concerns and always treat every child as if they were my own. I’m always going to make sure it’s the best level of care possible.”

sketch of muscle cells

Losing muscle to fat: misdirected fate of a multipotent stem cell drives LGMD2B

Fibro/adipogenic precursors (FAPs) control the onset and severity of disease in limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2 (LGMD2B)

Fibro/adipogenic precursors (FAPs) control the onset and severity of disease in limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2 (LGMD2B). a) Healthy and/or pre-symptomatic LGMD2B muscle contains resident FAPs. b) After myofiber injury, inflammatory cells invade and trigger FAP proliferation. c) In symptomatic LGMD2B muscle, there is a gradual accumulation of extracellular AnxA2, which prolongs the pro-inflammatory environment, causing excessive FAP proliferation. d) Blocking aberrant signaling due to AnxA2 buildup blocks FAP accumulation and thus preventing adipogenic loss of dysferlinopathic muscle. Credit: “Fibroadipogenic progenitors are responsible for muscle loss in limb girdle muscular dystrophy 2B.” Published online June 3, 2019, in Nature Communications. Marshall W. Hogarth, Aurelia Defour, Christopher Lazarski, Eduard Gallardo, Jordi Diaz Manera, Terence A. Partridge, Kanneboyina Nagaraju and Jyoti K. Jaiswal. https://rdcu.be/bFu9U.

Research led by faculty at Children’s National published online June 3, 2019, in Nature Communications shows that the sudden appearance of symptoms in limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2 (LGMD2B) is a result of impaired communication between different cell types that facilitate repair in healthy muscle. Of particular interest are the fibro/adipogenic precursors (FAPs), cells that typically play a helpful role in regenerating muscle after injury by removing debris and enhancing the fusion of muscle cells into new myofibers.

LGMD2B is caused by mutations in the DYSF gene that impair the function of dysferlin, a protein essential for repairing injured muscle fibers. Symptoms, like difficulty climbing or running, do not appear in patients until young adulthood. This late onset has long puzzled researchers, as the cellular consequences of dysferlin’s absence are present from birth and continue through development, but do not impact patients until later in life.

The study found that in the absence of dysferlin, muscle gradually increases the expression of the protein Annexin A2 which, like dysferlin, facilitates repair of injured muscle fiber. However, increasing Annexin A2 accumulates outside the muscle fiber and drives an increase in FAPs within the muscle as well as encourages these FAPs to differentiate into adipocytes, forming fatty deposits. Shutting down Annexin A2 or blocking the adipocyte fate of FAPs using an off-the-shelf medicine arrests the fatty replacement of dysferlinopathic muscle.

“We propose a feed-forward loop in which repeated myofiber injury triggers chronic inflammation which, over time, creates an environment that promotes FAPs to accumulate and differentiate into fat. This, in turn, contributes to more myofiber damage,” says Jyoti K. Jaiswal, MSc, Ph.D., a principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National and the study’s senior author.

“Adipogenic accumulation becomes the nucleating event that results in an abrupt decline in muscle function in patients. This new view of LGMD2B disease opens previously unrealized avenues to intervene,” adds Marshall Hogarth, Ph.D., the study’s lead author.

Joyti Jaiswal

“We propose a feed-forward loop in which repeated myofiber injury triggers chronic inflammation which, over time, creates an environment that promotes FAPs to accumulate and differentiate into fat. This, in turn, contributes to more myofiber damage,” says Jyoti K. Jaiswal, MSc, Ph.D.

A research team led by Jaiswal collaborated with Eduard Gallardo and Jordi Diaz Manera, of Hospital de la Santa Creu in Barcelona, Spain, to examine muscle biopsies from people with LGMD2B who had mild to severe symptoms. They found that adipogenic deposits originate in the extracellular matrix space between muscle fibers, with the degree of accumulation tied to disease severity. They found a similar progressive increase in lipid accumulation between myofibers predicted disease severity in dysferlin-deficient experimental models. What’s more, this process can be accelerated by muscle injury, triggering increased adipogenic replacement in areas that otherwise would be occupied by muscle cells.

“Accumulation and adipogenic differentiation of FAPs is responsible for the decline in function for dysferlinopathic muscle. Reversing this could provide a therapy for LGMD2B, a devastating disease with no effective treatment,” predicts Jaiswal as the team continues research in this field.

Promising off-the-shelf drugs include batimastat, an anti-cancer drug that inhibits the extracellular matrix enzyme matrix metalloproteinase. This drug reduces FAP adipogenesis in vitro and lessens injury-triggered lipid formation in vivo. In experimental models, batimastat also increases muscle function.

In addition to Jaiswal, Hogarth, Gallardo and Diaz Manera, other study co-authors include Aurelia Defour, Christopher Lazarski, Terence A. Partridge and Kanneboyina Nagaraju, all of Children’s National.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the Muscular Dystrophy Association under awards MDA477331 and MDA277389, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases under award R01AR055686 and the National Institutes of Health under awards K26OD011171, R24HD050846 and P50AR060836.

Pediatric Neurology Update Attendees

Pediatric neurologists get a primer on the state of ASD research and care

Pediatric Neurology Update Attendees

Neurologists who attended the 2019 Pediatric Neurology Update received a broad look at autism spectrum disorders, ranging from biology to clinical care and advocacy.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) took center stage for the afternoon sessions of the annual Pediatric Neurology Update in April. The meeting, hosted by the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Health System, brings together 150-plus pediatric neurologists each year to discuss critical research and clinical care of pediatric neurological conditions.

Led by the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders Director Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., the afternoon’s slate of presentations sought to give broad perspective of the current state of ASD research and treatment best practices.

“We know that the brain is different in autism, but many times we continue to define autism by behavioral traits,” Dr. Kenworthy told the crowd in her introduction. “Sitting between the brain and behavior often is cognition – how do you understand your world and interpret it?”

The afternoon’s presentations were organized to provide the audience with a clear picture of many facets of ASD research and treatment. Highlights included:

  • Joshua Corbin, Ph.D., director of the Center for Neuroscience Research, offered “New Insights into the Neurobiologic Underpinnings of Autism,” which mapped out some of the biological mechanisms of autism.
  • Adelaide Robb, M.D., and Dr. Kenworthy presented current clinical care outlines, with Dr. Robb focusing on pharmacological therapies and Dr. Kenworthy sharing successful strategies to improve executive functioning and day to day task management for school-aged children.

Attendees also received a taste of two current “hot topics” in autism research and care:

  • Kevin Pelphrey, Ph.D., presented recent findings on “Gender Differences in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Girls with Autism” calling attention to the fact that the current diagnostic standards may not capture some female-associated phenotypes of ASD.
  • Julia Bascom of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network brought the autistic person’s point of view to the table via her presentation: “Autism: Society and Government Challenges and Solutions,” which focused on her organization’s efforts to improve inclusivity in advocacy and research, which she sums up as, “Nothing about us without us.”

The session concluded with a real-world focused “Autism-Friendly Hospital Roundtable,” of six panelists from the clinical, advocacy, community and technology fields, who are all involved in hands-on practices to improve medical experiences for autistic children and adults.

  • CASD’s Yetta Myrick talked about her work to engage families of autistic children in discussions of research and clinical care programs, including the start of CASD’s first-ever Stakeholder Advisory Board.
  • Julia Bascom talked about some of the less-often discussed challenges for many autistic people who seek medical services.
  • Kathleen Atmore, Psy.D., and Eileen Walters, MSN, RN, CPN, provided an overview of Beyond the Spectrum, the clinical service at Children’s National that coaches providers and families in techniques to reduce the stress of routine medical visits for patients with autism and other developmental disabilities.
  • Amy Kratchman, director of the LEND Family Collaboration at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, talked about some of the autism-friendly strategies underway at her institution.
  • Michael O’Neil, JD, MBA, founder and CEO of the GetWell Network, Inc., previewed how GetWell and Children’s National are partnering on a new tool that harnesses app technology to bring better information to autistic children and their families after a new autism diagnosis.
  • Vijay Ravindran, CEO and co-founder at Floreo, demonstrated how it might be possible to reduce stress and create a calm peaceful autism-friendly environment even in the busiest of waiting rooms, by allowing the patient to escape via virtual reality.

The roundtable showcased how Children’s National and other health care institutions are using evidence-based strategies to improve medical care experiences for autistic people and their families. Ideally any provider, including pediatric neurologists, who cares for people from the autism community, can incorporate any or all of these strategies as a way to meet the unique needs of this patient population.

The content was so timely and relevant to the audience that many attendees stayed past the official end of the meeting to continue discussing best practices with the panelists and each other.

Fewer than 60% of young women diagnosed with STIs in emergency departments fill scripts

Fewer than 60% of young women diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the emergency department fill prescriptions for antimicrobial therapy to treat these conditions, according to a research letter published online May 28, 2019, by JAMA Pediatrics.

Adolescents make up nearly half of the people diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, untreated sexually transmitted diseases in women can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection of the reproductive organs that can complicate getting pregnant in the future.

“We were astonished to find that teenagers’ rates of filling STI prescriptions were so low,” says Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE, assistant chief of Children’s Division of Emergency Medicine and Trauma Services and the study’s senior author. “Our findings demonstrate the imperative need to identify innovative methods to improve treatment adherence for this high-risk population.”

The retrospective cohort study, conducted at two emergency departments affiliated with a large, urban, tertiary care children’s hospital, enrolled adolescents aged 13 to 19 who were prescribed antimicrobial treatment from Jan. 1, 2016, to Dec. 31, 2017, after being diagnosed with PID or testing positive for chlamydia.

Of 696 emergency department visits for diagnosed STIs, 208 teenagers received outpatient prescriptions for antimicrobial treatments. Only 54.1% of those prescriptions were filled.

“Teenagers may face a number of hurdles when it comes to STI treatment, including out-of-pocket cost, access to transportation and confidentiality concerns,” Dr. Goyal adds.

Future studies will attempt to identify barriers to filling prescriptions in order to inform development of targeted interventions based in the emergency department that promote adherence to STI treatment.

In addition to Dr. Goyal, study co-authors include Lead Author, Alexandra Lieberman, BA, The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences; and co-authors Gia M. Badolato, MPH, and Jennifer Tran, PA-C, MPH, both of Children’s National.