Mihailo Kaplarevic

Extracting actionable research data faster, with fewer hassles

Mihailo Kaplarevic

Mihailo Kaplarevic, Ph.D., the newly minted Chief Research Information Officer at Children’s National Hospital and Bioinformatics Division Chief at Children’s National Research Institute, will provide computational support, advice, informational guidance, expertise in big data and data analyses for researchers and clinicians.

Kaplarevic’s new job is much like the role he played most recently at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), assembling a team of researchers and scientists skilled in computing and statistical analyses to assist as in-house experts for other researchers and scientists.

NHLBI was the first institute within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) family to set up a scientific information office. During his tenure, a half-dozen other NIH institutions followed, setting up the same entity to help bridge the enormous gap between basic and clinical science and everything related to IT.

“There is a difference compared with traditional IT support at Children’s National – which will remain in place and still do the same sort of things they have been doing so far,” he says of The Bear Institute for Health Innovation. “The difference is this office has experience in research because every single one of us was a researcher at a certain point in our career: We are published. We applied for grants. We lived the life of a typical scientist. On top of that, we’re coming from the computational world. That helps us bridge the gaps between research and clinical worlds and IT.”

Ultimately, he aims to foster groundbreaking science by recognizing the potential to enhance research projects by bringing expertise acquired over his career and powerful computing tools to help teams achieve their goals in a less expensive and more efficient way.

“I have lived the life of a typical scientist. I know exactly how painful and frustrating it can be to want to do something quickly and efficiently but be slowed by technological barriers,” he adds.

As just one example, his office will design the high-performance computing cluster for the hospital to help teams extract more useful clinical and research data with fewer headaches.

Right now, the hospital has three independent clinical systems storing patient data; all serve a different purpose. (And there are also a couple of research information systems, also used for different purposes.) Since databases are his expertise, he will be involved in consolidating data resources, finding the best way to infuse the project with the bigger-picture mission – especially for translational science – and creating meaningful, actionable reports.

“It’s not only about running fewer queries,” he explains. “One needs to know how to design the right question. One needs to know how to design that question in a way that the systems could understand. And, once you get the data back, it’s a big set of things that you need to further filter and carefully shape. Only then will you get the essence that has clinical or scientific value. It’s a long process.”

As he was introduced during a Children’s National Research Institute faculty meeting in late-September 2019, Kaplarevic joked that his move away from pure computer science into a health care and clinical research domain was triggered by his parents: “When my mom would introduce me, she would say ‘My son is a doctor, but not the kind of doctor who helps other people.’ ”

Some of that know-how will play out by applying tools and methodology to analyze big data to pluck out the wheat (useful data) from the chaff in an efficient and useful way. On projects that involve leveraging cloud computing for storing massive amounts of data, it could entail analyzing the data wisely to reduce its size when it comes back from the cloud – when the real storage costs come in. “You can save a lot of money by being smart about how you analyze data,” he says.

While he expects his first few months will be spent getting the lay of the land, understanding research project portfolios, key principal investigators and the pediatric hospital’s biggest users in the computational domain, he has ambitious longer-term goals.

“Three years from now, I would like this institution to say that the researchers are feeling confident that their research is not affected by limitations related to computer science in general. I would like this place to become a very attractive environment for up-and-coming researchers as well as for established researchers because we are offering cutting-edge technological efficiencies; we are following the trends; we are a secure place; and we foster science in the best possible way by making computational services accessible, affordable and reliable.”

Lee Beers

Getting to know Lee Beers, M.D., FAAP, future president-elect of AAP

Lee Beers

Lee Savio Beers, M.D., FAAP, Medical Director of Community Health and Advocacy at the Child Health Advocacy Institute (CHAI) at Children’s National Hospital carved out a Monday morning in late-September 2019, as she knew the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) would announce the results of its presidential election, first by telephone call, then by an email to all of its members.  Her husband blocked off the morning as well to wait with her for the results.  She soon got the call that she was elected by her peers to become AAP president-elect, beginning Jan. 1, 2020. Dr. Beers will then serve as AAP president in 2021 for a one-year term.

That day swept by in a rush, and then the next day she was back in clinic, caring for her patients, some of them teenagers whom she had taken care of since birth. Seeing children and families she had known for such a long time, some of whom had complex medical needs, was a perfect reminder of what originally motivated Dr. Beers to be considered as a candidate in the election.

“When we all work together – with our colleagues, other professionals, communities and families – we can make a real difference in the lives of children.  So many people have reached out to share their congratulations, and offer their support or help. There is a real sense of collaboration and commitment to child health,” Dr. Beers says.

That sense of excitement ripples through Children’s National.

“Dr. Beers has devoted her career to helping children. She has developed a national advocacy platform for children. I can think of no better selection for the president-elect role of the AAP. She will be of tremendous service to children within AAP national leadership,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., Children’s National Hospital President and CEO.

AAP comprises 67​,000 pediatricians, and its mission is to promote and safeguard the health and well-being of all children – from infancy to adulthood.

The daughter of a nuclear engineer and a schoolteacher, Dr. Beers knew by age 5 that she would become a doctor. Trained as a chemist, she entered the Emory University School of Medicine after graduation. After completing residency at the Naval Medical Center, she became the only pediatrician assigned to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station.

That assignment to Cuba, occurring so early in her career, turned out to be a defining moment that shapes how she partners with families and other members of the team to provide comprehensive care.

“I was a brand-new physician, straight out of residency, and was the only pediatrician there so I was responsible for the health of all of the kids on the base. I didn’t know it would be this way at the time, but it was formative. It taught me to take a comprehensive public health approach to taking care of kids and their families,” she recalls.

On the isolated base, where she also ran the immunization clinic and the nursery, she quickly learned she had to judiciously use resources and work together as a team.

“It meant that I had to learn how to lead a multi-disciplinary team and think about how our health care systems support or get in the way of good care,” she says.

One common thread that unites her past and present is helping families build resiliency to shrug off adversity and stress.

“The base was a difficult and isolated place for some families and individuals, so I thought a lot about how to support them. One way is finding strong relationships where you are, which was important for patients and families miles away from their support systems. Another way is to find things you could do that were meaningful to you.”

Cuba sits where the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico meet. Dr. Beers learned how to scuba dive there – something she never would have done otherwise – finding it restful and restorative to appreciate the underwater beauty.

“I do think these lessons about resilience are universal. There are actually a lot of similarities between the families I take care of now, many of whom are in socioeconomically vulnerable situations, and military families when you think about the level of stress they are exposed to,” she adds.

Back stateside in 2001, Dr. Beers worked as a staff pediatrician at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. In 2003, Dr. Beers joined Children’s National Hospital as a general pediatrician in the Goldberg Center for Community Pediatric Health. Currently, she oversees the DC Collaborative for Mental Health in Pediatric Primary Care, a public-private coalition that elevates the standards of mental health care for all children, and is Co-Director of the Early Childhood Innovation Network. She received the Academic Pediatric Association’s 2019 Public Policy and Advocacy Award.

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

  • Partnering with patients, families, communities, mental health providers and pediatricians to co-design systems to bolster children’s resiliency and to alleviate growing pediatric mental health concerns
  • Tackling physician burnout by supporting pediatricians through office-based education and systems reforms
  • Expanding community-based prevention and treatment

“I am humbled and honored to have the support of my peers in taking on this newest leadership role,” says Dr. Beers. “AAP has been a part of my life since I first became a pediatrician, and my many leadership roles in the DC chapter and national AAP have given me a glimpse of the collective good that pediatricians can accomplish by working together toward common strategic goals.”

AAP isn’t just an integral part of her life, it’s where she met her future husband, Nathaniel Beers, M.D., MPA, FAAP, President of The HSC Health Care System. The couple’s children regularly attended AAP meetings with them when they were young.

Just take a glimpse at Lee Beers’ Twitter news feed. There’s a steady stream of images of her jogging before AAP meetings to amazing sunrises, jogging after AAP meetings to stellar sunsets and always, always, images of the entire family, once collectively costumed as The Incredibles.

“I really do believe that we have to set an example: If we are talking about supporting children and families in our work, we have to set that example in our own lives. That looks different for everyone, but as pediatricians and health professionals, we can model prioritizing our families while still being committed to our work,” she explains.

“Being together in the midst of the craziness is just part of what we do as a family. We travel a lot, and our kids have gone with us to AAP meetings since they were infants. My husband even brought our infant son to a meeting at the mayor’s office when he was on paternity leave. Recognizing that not everyone is in a position to be able to do things like that, it’s important for us to do it – to continue to change the conversation and make it normal to have your family to be part of your whole life, not have a separate work life and a separate family life.”

Julia Finkel

Novel pupillary response biomarker for BBD discovered

Julia Finkel

“To our knowledge, this unique pupillary signature has not been previously seen or described in other patient populations and we have not seen it in any of our other studies,” says Julia Finkel, M.D. “It may represent a distinctive and readily-identifiable physiologic marker of disease.”

Researchers at Children’s National have discovered a potential biomarker in the pupillary response of some pediatric patients with Bowel and Bladder Dysfunction (BBD) that could improve the speed and accuracy of diagnosis and treatment, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Pediatric Urology.

BBD describes a range of lower urinary tract symptoms accompanied by bowel complaints such as enuresis (bedwetting), urgency and urinary retention, often accompanied by constipation. While these symptoms represent 40% of pediatric urology visits, BBD is considered an underdiagnosed pediatric ailment.

Julia Finkel, M.D., pediatric anesthesiologist and director of Research and Development for Pain Medicine at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National, led the pilot study to explore whether BBD could be detected from a patient’s pupillary light reflex response. Using a novel application of pupillometry, Dr. Finkel and her research team recorded and analyzed the pupillary light reflex responses of 28 patients with BBD, ages 7 – 21, from the Wetting, Infections and Stooling Help (WISH) clinic at Children’s National Health System. The study included baseline static and dynamic pupillometry assessments obtained from each patient before and after voiding. Pupillary measurements were also taken after five minutes of lying down by the patient, and again after five minutes of standing.

In reviewing the patient’s graphed data, the researchers noted a distinct “notch” shape repeated in the pupillary response graph of 11 of 28 patients with BBD symptoms. In those 11 patients, the graph notch appears to indicate a brief repeat constriction of the patient’s pupil before returning to its resting size.

Considering that bowel and bladder functions are controlled in part by the autonomic nervous system, researchers surmised that the notch on the graph is likely to reflect a characteristic disturbance in the regulation of the autonomic nervous system of those 11 patients, which would indicate a physiological cause for their BBD, either alone or in combination with a behavioral cause.

“To our knowledge, this unique pupillary signature has not been previously seen or described in other patient populations and we have not seen it in any of our other studies,” says Dr. Finkel. “It may represent a distinctive and readily-identifiable physiologic marker of disease.”

Causes of BBD can be physiological, such as anomalies in the synapsis of the nervous system, and can be related to behavioral health issues such as anxiety. Early diagnosis and treatment of BBD is important in avoiding secondary complications that can adversely impact a child’s kidney and bladder function as well as psychosocial well-being.

Dr. Finkel says that, while the results of this study are broadly consistent with other studies that examined the autonomic nervous system activity of BBD patients, this small study is preliminary. She notes that further research is needed and would include assessing abnormalities in pupillary response stemming from the parasympathetic and sympathetic functions of the autonomic nervous system.

Her hope is that further study will lead to more effective diagnostic and monitoring tools for clinicians treating BBD patients.

Dr. Finkel’s research focuses on the diagnostic potential of various pupillary reflexes. She says that pupillometry makes an ideal point-of-care diagnostic tool because it is noninvasive, easy to use, portable and provides real-time data for diagnosis and monitoring of therapeutic effects.

In addition to Dr. Finkel, study co-authors include Kevin G. Jackson, Nadia B. Kalloo, M.D., and Emily Blum, M.D., of Children’s National Health System; and Elizabeth L. Malphrus, MS-III, George Washington University.

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.

Matt Oetgen talks about an x-ray

Nicotine-like anti-inflammatories may protect limbs, testicles from inflammatory damage after injury

Daniel Casella

Daniel Casella, M.D., is teaming up with Matthew Oetgen, M.D., MBA, for a POSNA-funded pre-clinical study of the anti-inflammatories varenicline and cytisine.

A new pre-clinical study will explore the use of anti-inflammatory medications to prevent the body’s inflammatory response from further damaging limbs after an injury restricts blood flow. Varenicline and cytisine, anti-inflammatories with similarities to nicotine, have shown early promise in similar pre-clinical laboratory studies of the testicles and will now be tested in arms and legs.

Matthew Oetgen, M.D., MBA, chief of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine at Children’s National and Children’s pediatric urologist Daniel Casella, M.D., will jointly lead the new study entitled, “Modulation of the Injury Associated with Acute Compartment Syndrome,” which builds on Dr. Casella’s previous work with the two anti-inflammatory agents. Drs. Oetgen and Casella recently were awarded the Angela S.M. Kuo Memorial Award Research Grant to fund this research during the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America’s (POSNA) Annual Meeting.

“We are honored that this important research was selected by POSNA for support,” says Dr. Oetgen. “An arm or leg injury can trigger the body’s natural inflammatory response, causing severe swelling that restricts blood flow. Even after blood flow is restored, the inflammatory response can lead to permanent muscle or nerve damage or even loss of limb. This grant will give us the opportunity to truly explore the application of anti-inflammatories after injury and see if this approach can modulate the immune response to protect the limbs.”

If successful in the laboratory, the team hopes to expand this work to human clinical trials.

Matt Oetgen talks about an x-ray

“We are honored that this important research was selected by POSNA for support,” says Dr. Oetgen. “This grant will give us the opportunity to truly explore the application of anti-inflammatories after injury and see if this approach can modulate the immune response to protect the limbs.”

The Angela S.M. Kuo Memorial Award Research Grant is given each year to an outstanding investigator aged 45 or younger based on criteria including the study’s potential significance, impact, originality/innovation, the investigator’s track record and study feasibility. The award totals $30,000.

While at POSNA’s 2019 Annual Meeting, Dr. Oetgen and Children’s pediatric orthopaedic surgery colleagues also participated in podium presentations and poster sessions, including:

  • “Achieving Consensus on the Treatment of Pediatric Femoral Shaft Fractures,” Matthew Oetgen, M.D., MBA
  • “A Prospective, Multi-centered Comparative Study of Non-operative and Operative Containment Treatments in Children Presenting with Late-stage Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease,” Benjamin Martin, M.D.

The Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America is an organization of 1,400 surgeons, physicians, and allied health members dedicated to advancing musculoskeletal care for children and adolescents. The annual meeting presents the latest research and expert clinical opinion in pediatric orthopaedics through presentations, posters, and symposia. It was held May 15-18, 2019, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

germ cells in testicular tissues

Experimental fertility preservation provides hope for young men

germ cells in testicular tissues

Confirming the presence of germ cells in testicular tissues obtained from patients. Undifferentiated embryonic cell transcription factor 1 (UTF1) is an established marker of undifferentiated spermatogonia as well as the pan-germ cell marker DEAD-box helicase 4 (DDX4). UTF1 (green) and/or DDX4 (red) immunostaining was confirmed in 132 out of 137 patient tissues available for research, including patients who had received previous non-alkylating (B, E, H, K) or alkylating (C, F, I, L) chemotherapy treatment. © The Author(s) 2019. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology.

Testicular tissue samples obtained from 189 males who were facing procedures that could imperil fertility were cryopreserved at one university, proving the feasibility of centralized processing and freezing of testicular tissue obtained from academic medical centers, including Children’s National, scattered around the world.

“It’s not surprising that the University of Pittsburgh would record the highest number of samples over the eight-year period (51 patients), given its role as the central processing facility for our recruiting network of academic medical centers,” says Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of transitional urology at Children’s National. “Children’s National recruited the third-highest number of patients, which really speaks to the level of collaboration I have with Jeff Dome’s team and their commitment to thinking about the whole patient and longer-term issues like fertility.”

An estimated 2,000 U.S. boys and young men each year receive treatments or have cancers or blood disorders that place them at risk for infertility. While older youths who have undergone puberty can bank their sperm prior to undergoing sterilizing doses of chemotherapy or radiation, there have been scant fertility preservation options for younger boys. However, some older adolescents and young men are too sick or stressed to bank sperm. For patients with no sperm to bank or who are too sick or stressed to bank sperm, the experimental procedure of freezing testicular tissue in anticipation that future cell- or tissue-based therapies can generate sperm is the only option.

Recent research in experimental models indicates that such testicular tissue biopsies contain stem cells, blank slate cells, hinting at the potential of generating sperm from biopsied tissue.

“This study demonstrates that undifferentiated stem and progenitor spermatogonia may be recovered from the testicular tissues of patients who are in the early stages of their treatment and have not yet received an ablative dose of therapy. The function of these spermatogonia was not tested,” writes lead author Hanna Valli-Pulaski, Ph.D., research assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues in a study published online May 21, 2019, in Human Reproduction.

Right now, hematologists and oncologists discuss future treatment options with patients and families, as well as possible long-term side effects, including infertility. At Children’s National, they also mention the ongoing fertility preservation study and encourage families to speak with Dr. Hsieh. He meets with families, explains the study goals – which include determining better ways to freeze and thaw tissue and separating malignant cells from normal cells – what’s known about experimental fertility preservation and what remains unknown. Roughly half of patients decide to enroll.

“This study is unique in that there is definitely a potential direct patient benefit,” Dr. Hsieh adds. “One of the reasons the study is compelling is that it presents a message of hope to the families. It’s a message of survivorship: We’re optimistic we can help your child get through this and think about long-term issues, like having their own families.”

In this phase of the study, testicular tissue was collected from centers in the U.S. and Israel from January 2011 to November 2018 and cryopreserved. Patients designated 25% of the tissue sample to be used for the research study; 75 percent remains stored in liquid nitrogen at temperatures close to absolute zero for the patient’s future use. The fertility preservation patients ranged from 5 months old to 34 years old, with an average age of 7.9 years.

Thirty-nine percent of patients had started medical treatment prior requesting fertility preservation. Sixteen percent received non-alkylating chemotherapy while 23% received alkylating chemotherapy, which directly damages the DNA of cancer cells.

The research team found that the number of undifferentiated spermatogonia per seminiferous tubule increase steadily with age until about age 11, then rise sharply.

“We recommend that all patients be counseled and referred for fertility preservation before beginning medical treatments known to cause infertility. Because the decision to participate may be delayed, it is encouraging that we were able to recover undifferentiated spermatogonia from the testes of patients already in the early stages of chemotherapy treatments,” Dr. Hsieh says.

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, study co-authors include lead author, H. Valli-Pulaski, K.A. Peters, K. Gassei, S.R. Steimer, M. Sukhwani, B.P. Hermann, L. Dwomor, S. David, A.P. Fayomi, S.K. Munyoki, T. Chu, R. Chaudhry, G.M. Cannon, P.J. Fox, T.M. Jaffe, J.S. Sanfilippo, M.N. Menke and senior author, K.E. Orwig, all of University of Pittsburgh; E. Lunenfeld, M. Abofoul-Azab and M. Huleihel, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; L.S. Sender, J. Messina and L.M. Klimpel, CHOC Children’s Hospital;  Y. Gosiengfiao, and E.E. Rowell, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago; C.F. Granberg, Mayo Clinic; P.P. Reddy, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center; and J.I. Sandlow, Medical College of Wisconsin.

Financial support for the research covered in this post was provided by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development under awards HD061289 and HD092084; Scaife Foundation; Richard King Mellon Foundation; University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation and Kahn Foundation.

boy and his mom at the doctors

Two-stage orchiopexy: making sure families follow through

boy and his mom at the doctors

Sometime in the third trimester of pregnancy, a male fetus’ testes migrate from where they formed, in the abdomen, to where they’ll reside for the rest of his life, in the scrotum. In some baby boys, the testes take some additional time to make this journey, descending sometime before 6 months of age. But 5% of term male births will have an undescended testis (up to 30% in preterm boys), necessitating surgery to get them in the right place.

For testes that are in the abdomen, the surgical approach with the highest likelihood of moving the testis into the scrotal position without loss of the testis is a two stage, laparoscopic approach, explains Tanya Davis, M.D., a pediatric urologist at Children’s National Health System. First, surgeons divide the blood supply for the undescended testicle, clipping some vessels that are too short to extend to the scrotum and sparing others. After waiting four to six months to give these spared vessels time to grow and develop further, they perform a second procedure that repositions the testicle in the scrotum.

“Doing an orchiopexy in two parts is much less traumatic for the testicle,” Dr. Davis explains. “It significantly improves the chances that the testicle will end up with enough oxygenated blood to survive the procedure.”

“This surgery is pivotal for fertility – unless the testes are correctly positioned, they won’t develop normally to produce viable sperm. Proper placement is important for testis cancer screening in the future. Testes that are undescended have a higher risk of testis cancer and are unable to be easily screened for developing cancers since they can’t be examined,” Dr. Davis says.

But she and her colleagues – H. Gil Rushton, M.D., division chief of urology at Children’s National, and resident Campbell Grant, M.D., who will be a pediatric urology fellow at Cincinnati Children’s starting this summer – suspected that not everyone who received the first part of this procedure was completing the process.

“It felt like we were doing more of the first stage than the second stage,” Dr. Davis says. “We wanted to see whether what we suspected anecdotally was actually true.”

To investigate that question, the three researchers gathered medical records from all patients at Children’s who had the two-stage laparascopic orchiopexy procedure over the past decade – 105 in all. They then looked to see who didn’t undergo the second stage, the length of the time interval between the two stages for those who’d had both parts, and whether there were any risk factors to taking longer than recommended to have the second stage or missing it altogether. They also planned to “recapture” any patients who never had the second stage to schedule it – a pivotal step toward not only preserving fertility and improving the ability to detect testis cancer in the future, but for making sure they didn’t receive the invasive first part of the procedure for nothing.

Their results, presented at George Washington University’s GW Research Days and Children’s National annual Research & Education Week, showed that the vast majority of patients seem to receiving both parts of two-stage laparascopic orchiopexy at Children’s National: Only four of the 105 patients didn’t receive the second stage. “Three of those were lost to follow-up completely”, says Dr. Davis, “but they were able to recapture one patient, whose parents had been concerned about exposure to anesthesia twice – valuable insight for counseling other patients in the future on options for this procedure.”

In addition, while they found that most patients received the second stage during the recommended four-to-six month window after the first stage, a fraction went beyond that timeframe. According to Dr. Davis, the older age of the patient was the most significant risk factor for waiting too long.

“When a child is older, you might have to coordinate surgery around his school schedule or activities that affect the rest of the family, a concern that’s probably not as pressing for those who get this surgery done when their children are infants,” she adds.

The study has prompted Dr. Davis and her colleagues to institute a protocol to routinely contact patients three months after their first surgery to remind them to get their second procedure scheduled. In the meantime, she says, it’s a relief that fewer patients are missing the second stage than they’d suspected.

“We were happy to be wrong,” Dr. Davis says. “It shows that we’re doing a good job in terms of counseling patients to understand what’s wrong and what they need to do to correctly complete their course of treatment.”

DNA Molecule

Decoding cellular signals linked to hypospadias

DNA Molecule

“By advancing our understanding of the genetic causes and the anatomic differences among patients, the real goal of this research is to generate knowledge that will allow us to take better care of children with hypospadias,” Daniel Casella, M.D. says.

Daniel Casella, M.D., a urologist at Children’s National, was honored with an AUA Mid-Atlantic Section William D. Steers, M.D. Award, which provides two years of dedicated research funding that he will use to better understand the genetic causes for hypospadias.

With over 7,000 new cases a year in the U.S., hypospadias is a common birth defect that occurs when the urethra, the tube that transports urine out of the body, does not form completely in males.

Dr. Casella has identified a unique subset of cells in the developing urethra that have stopped dividing but remain metabolically active and are thought to represent a novel signaling center. He likens them to doing the work of a construction foreman. “If you’re constructing a building, you need to make sure that everyone follows the blueprints.  We believe that these developmentally senescent cells are sending important signals that define how the urethra is formed,” he says.

His project also will help to standardize the characterization of hypospadias. Hypospadias is classically associated with a downward bend to the penis, a urethra that does not extend to the head of the penis and incomplete formation of the foreskin. Still, there is significant variability among patients’ anatomy and to date, no standardized method for documenting hypospadias anatomy.

“Some surgeons take measurements in the operating room, but without a standardized classification system, there is no definitive way to compare measurements among providers or standardize diagnoses from measurements that every surgeon makes,” he adds. “What one surgeon may call ‘distal’ may be called ‘midshaft’ by another.” (With distal hypospadias, the urethra opening is near the penis head; with midshaft hypospadias, the urethra opening occurs along the penis shaft.)

“By advancing our understanding of the genetic causes and the anatomic differences among patients, the real goal of this research is to generate knowledge that will allow us to take better care of children with hypospadias,” he says.

Parents worry about lingering social stigma, since some boys with hypospadias are unable to urinate while standing, and in older children the condition can be associated with difficulties having sex. Surgical correction of hypospadias traditionally is performed when children are between 6 months to 1 year old.

When reviewing treatment options with family, “discussing the surgery and postoperative care is straight forward. The hard part of our discussion is not having good answers to questions about long-term outcomes,” he says.

Dr. Casella’s study hopes to build the framework to enable that basic research to be done.

“Say we wanted to do a study to see how patients are doing 15-20 years after their surgery.  If we go to their charts now, often we can’t accurately describe their anatomy prior to surgery.  By establishing uniform measurement baselines, we can accurately track long-term outcomes since we’ll know what condition that child started with and where they ended up,” he says.

Dr. Casella’s research project will be conducted at Children’s National under the mentorship of Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., an international expert in sex and genitalia development; Dolores J. Lamb, Ph.D., HCLD, an established leader in urology based at Weill Cornell Medicine; and Marius George Linguraru, DPhil, MA, MSc, an expert in image processing and artificial intelligence.

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

Research and Education Week honors innovative science

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

Billie Lou Short, M.D., received the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Clinical Science.

People joke that Billie Lou Short, M.D., chief of Children’s Division of Neonatology, invented extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, known as ECMO for short. While Dr. Short did not invent ECMO, under her leadership Children’s National was the first pediatric hospital to use it. And over decades Children’s staff have perfected its use to save the lives of tiny, vulnerable newborns by temporarily taking over for their struggling hearts and lungs. For two consecutive years, Children’s neonatal intensive care unit has been named the nation’s No. 1 for newborns by U.S. News & World Report. “Despite all of these accomplishments, Dr. Short’s best legacy is what she has done as a mentor to countless trainees, nurses and faculty she’s touched during their careers. She touches every type of clinical staff member who has come through our neonatal intensive care unit,” says An Massaro, M.D., director of residency research.

For these achievements, Dr. Short received the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Clinical Science.

Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., has provided new insights into the central role that the placental hormone allopregnanolone plays in orderly fetal brain development, and her research team has created novel experimental models that mimic some of the brain injuries often seen in very preterm babies – an essential step that informs future neuroprotective strategies. Dr. Penn, a clinical neonatologist and developmental neuroscientist, “has been a primary adviser for 40 mentees throughout their careers and embodies Children’s core values of Compassion, Commitment and Connection,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D.

For these achievements, Dr. Penn was selected to receive the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Basic and Translational Science.

The mentorship awards for Drs. Short and Penn were among dozens of honors given in conjunction with “Frontiers in Innovation,” the Ninth Annual Research and Education Week (REW) at Children’s National. In addition to seven keynote lectures, more than 350 posters were submitted from researchers – from high-school students to full-time faculty – about basic and translational science, clinical research, community-based research, education, training and quality improvement; five poster presenters were showcased via Facebook Live events hosted by Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Two faculty members won twice: Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for research about mindfulness-based stress reduction and Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for research related to HIV. So many women at every stage of their research careers took to the stage to accept honors that Naomi L.C. Luban, M.D., Vice Chair of Academic Affairs, quipped that “this day is power to women.”

Here are the 2019 REW award winners:

2019 Elda Y. Arce Teaching Scholars Award
Barbara Jantausch, M.D.
Lowell Frank, M.D.

Suzanne Feetham, Ph.D., FAA, Nursing Research Support Award
Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for “Psychosocial and biological effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in adolescents with CHD/CIEDs: a randomized control trial”
Renee’ Roberts Turner for “Peak and nadir experiences of mid-level nurse leaders”

2019-2020 Global Health Initiative Exploration in Global Health Awards
Nathalie Quion, M.D., for “Latino youth and families need assessment,” conducted in Washington
Sonia Voleti for “Handheld ultrasound machine task shifting,” conducted in Micronesia
Tania Ahluwalia, M.D., for “Simulation curriculum for emergency medicine,” conducted in India
Yvonne Yui for “Designated resuscitation teams in NICUs,” conducted in Ghana
Xiaoyan Song, Ph.D., MBBS, MSc, “Prevention of hospital-onset infections in PICUs,” conducted in China

Ninth Annual Research and Education Week Poster Session Awards

Basic and Translational Science
Faculty:
Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for “Differences in the gut microbiome of HIV-infected versus HIV-exposed, uninfected infants”
Faculty: Hayk Barseghyan, Ph.D., for “Composite de novo Armenian human genome assembly and haplotyping via optical mapping and ultra-long read sequencing”
Staff: Damon K. McCullough, BS, for “Brain slicer: 3D-printed tissue processing tool for pediatric neuroscience research”
Staff: Antonio R. Porras, Ph.D., for “Integrated deep-learning method for genetic syndrome screening using facial photographs”
Post docs/fellows/residents: Lung Lau, M.D., for “A novel, sprayable and bio-absorbable sealant for wound dressings”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Kelsey F. Sugrue, Ph.D., for “HECTD1 is required for growth of the myocardium secondary to placental insufficiency”
Graduate students:
Erin R. Bonner, BA, for “Comprehensive mutation profiling of pediatric diffuse midline gliomas using liquid biopsy”
High school/undergraduate students: Ali Sarhan for “Parental somato-gonadal mosaic genetic variants are a source of recurrent risk for de novo disorders and parental health concerns: a systematic review of the literature and meta-analysis”

Clinical Research
Faculty:
Amy Hont, M.D., for “Ex vivo expanded multi-tumor antigen specific T-cells for the treatment of solid tumors”
Faculty: Lauren McLaughlin, M.D., for “EBV/LMP-specific T-cells maintain remissions of T- and B-cell EBV lymphomas after allogeneic bone marrow transplantation”

Staff: Iman A. Abdikarim, BA, for “Timing of allergenic food introduction among African American and Caucasian children with food allergy in the FORWARD study”
Staff: Gelina M. Sani, BS, for “Quantifying hematopoietic stem cells towards in utero gene therapy for treatment of sickle cell disease in fetal cord blood”
Post docs/fellows/residents: Amy H. Jones, M.D., for “To trach or not trach: exploration of parental conflict, regret and impacts on quality of life in tracheostomy decision-making”
Graduate students: Alyssa Dewyer, BS, for “Telemedicine support of cardiac care in Northern Uganda: leveraging hand-held echocardiography and task-shifting”
Graduate students: Natalie Pudalov, BA, “Cortical thickness asymmetries in MRI-abnormal pediatric epilepsy patients: a potential metric for surgery outcome”
High school/undergraduate students:
Kia Yoshinaga for “Time to rhythm detection during pediatric cardiac arrest in a pediatric emergency department”

Community-Based Research
Faculty:
Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for “Recent trends in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area”
Staff: Gia M. Badolato, MPH, for “STI screening in an urban ED based on chief complaint”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Christina P. Ho, M.D., for “Pediatric urinary tract infection resistance patterns in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area”
Graduate students:
Noushine Sadeghi, BS, “Racial/ethnic disparities in receipt of sexual health services among adolescent females”

Education, Training and Program Development
Faculty:
Cara Lichtenstein, M.D., MPH, for “Using a community bus trip to increase knowledge of health disparities”
Staff:
Iana Y. Clarence, MPH, for “TEACHing residents to address child poverty: an innovative multimodal curriculum”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Johanna Kaufman, M.D., for “Inpatient consultation in pediatrics: a learning tool to improve communication”
High school/undergraduate students:
Brett E. Pearson for “Analysis of unanticipated problems in CNMC human subjects research studies and implications for process improvement”

Quality and Performance Improvement
Faculty:
Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for “Implementing a mindfulness-based stress reduction curriculum in a congenital heart disease program”
Staff:
Caleb Griffith, MPH, for “Assessing the sustainability of point-of-care HIV screening of adolescents in pediatric emergency departments”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Rebecca S. Zee, M.D., Ph.D., for “Implementation of the Accelerated Care of Torsion (ACT) pathway: a quality improvement initiative for testicular torsion”
Graduate students:
Alysia Wiener, BS, for “Latency period in image-guided needle bone biopsy in children: a single center experience”

View images from the REW2019 award ceremony.

Beth Tarini

Getting to know SPR’s future President, Beth Tarini, M.D., MS

Beth Tarini

Quick. Name four pillar pediatric organizations on the vanguard of advancing pediatric research.

Most researchers and clinicians can rattle off the names of the Academic Pediatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Pediatric Society. But that fourth one, the Society for Pediatric Research (SPR), is a little trickier. While many know SPR, a lot of research-clinicians simply do not.

Over the next few years, Beth A. Tarini, M.D., MS, will make it her personal mission to ensure that more pediatric researchers get to know SPR and are so excited about the organization that they become active members. In May 2019 Dr. Tarini becomes Vice President of the society that aims to stitch together an international network of interdisciplinary researchers to improve kids’ health. Four-year SPR leadership terms begin with Vice President before transitioning to President-Elect, President and Past-President, each for one year.

Dr. Tarini says she looks forward to working with other SPR leaders to find ways to build more productive, collaborative professional networks among faculty, especially emerging junior faculty. “Facilitating ways to network for research and professional reasons across pediatric research is vital – albeit easier said than done. I have been told I’m a connector, so I hope to leverage that skill in this new role,” says Dr. Tarini, associate director for Children’s Center for Translational Research.

“I’m delighted that Dr. Tarini was elected to this leadership position, and I am impressed by her vision of improving SPR’s outreach efforts,” says Mark Batshaw, M.D., Executive Vice President, Chief Academic Officer and Physician-in-Chief at Children’s National. “Her goal of engaging potential members in networking through a variety of ways – face-to-face as well as leveraging digital platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn – and her focus on engaging junior faculty will help strengthen SPR membership in the near term and long term.”

Dr. Tarini adds: “Success to me would be leaving after four years with more faculty – especially junior faculty – approaching membership in SPR with the knowledge and enthusiasm that they bring to membership in other pediatric societies.”

SPR requires that its members not simply conduct research, but move the needle in their chosen discipline. In her research, Dr. Tarini has focused on ensuring that population-based newborn screening programs function efficiently and effectively with fewer hiccups at any place along the process.

Thanks to a heel stick to draw blood, an oxygen measurement, and a hearing test, U.S. babies are screened for select inherited health conditions, expediting treatment for infants and reducing the chances they’ll experience long-term health consequences.

“The complexity of this program that is able to test nearly all 4 million babies in the U.S. each year is nothing short of astounding. You have to know the child is born – anywhere in the state – and then between 24 and 48 hours of birth you have to do testing onsite, obtain a specific type of blood sample, send the blood sample to an off-site lab quickly, test the sample, find the child if the test is out of range, get the child evaluated and tested for the condition, then send them for treatment. Given the time pressures as well as the coordination of numerous people and organizations, the fact that this happens routinely is amazing. And like any complex process, there is always room for improvement,” she says.

Dr. Tarini’s research efforts have focused on those process improvements.

As just one example, the Advisory Committee on Heritable Disorders in Newborns and Children, a federal advisory committee on which she serves, was discussing how to eliminate delays in specimen processing to provide speedier results to families. One possible solution floated was to open labs all seven days, rather than just five days a week. Dr. Tarini advocated for partnering with health care engineers who could help model ways to make the specimen transport process more efficient, just like airlines and mail delivery services. A more efficient and effective solution was to match the specimen pick-up and delivery times more closely with the lab’s operational times – which maximizes lab resources and shortens wait times for parents.

Conceptual modeling comes so easily for her that she often leaps out of her seat mid-sentence, underscoring a point by jotting thoughts on a white board, doing it so often that her pens have run dry.

“It’s like a bus schedule: You want to find a bus that not only takes you to your destination but gets you there on time,” she says.

Dr. Tarini’s current observational study looks for opportunities to improve how parents in Minnesota and Iowa are given out-of-range newborn screening test results – especially false positives – and how that experience might shake their confidence in their child’s health as well as heighten their own stress level.

“After a false positive test result, are there parents who walk away from newborn screening with lingering stress about their child’s health? Can we predict who those parents might be and help them?” she asks.

Among the challenges is the newborn screening occurs so quickly after delivery that some emotionally and physically exhausted parents may not remember it was done. Then they get a call from the state with ominous results. Another challenge is standardizing communication approaches across dozens of birthing centers and hospitals.

“We know parents are concerned after receiving a false positive result, and some worry their infant remains vulnerable,” she says. “Can we change how we communicate – not just what we say, but how we say it – to alleviate those concerns?”

Parasite collage

Which micro-organisms lurk within urine?


mitochondria

Treating nephrotic-range proteinuria with tacrolimus in MTP

mitochondria

Mitochondria are the cell’s powerplants and inside them the MTP enzymatic complex catalyzes three steps in beta-oxidation of long-chain fatty acids.

In one family, genetic lightning struck twice. Two sisters were diagnosed with mitochondrial trifunctional protein (MTP) deficiency. This is a rare condition that stops the body from converting fats to energy, which can lead to lactic acidosis, recurrent breakdown of muscle tissue and release into the bloodstream (rhabdomyolysis), enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy) and liver failure.

Mitochondria are the cell’s powerplants and inside them the MTP enzymatic complex catalyzes three steps in beta-oxidation of long-chain fatty acids. MTP deficiency is so rare that fewer than 100 cases have been reported in the literature says Hostensia Beng, M.D., who presented an MTP case study during the American Society of Nephrology’s Kidney Week.

The 7-month-old girl with known MTP deficiency arrived at Children’s National lethargic with poor appetite. Her laboratory results showed a low corrected serum calcium level, elevated CK level and protein in the urine (proteinuria) at a nephrotic range. The infant was treated for primary hypoparathyroidism and rhabdomyolysis.

Even though the rhabdomyolysis got better, the excess protein in the girl’s urine remained at worrisome levels. A renal biopsy showed minimal change disease and foot process fusion. And electron microscopy revealed shrunken, dense mitochondria in visceral epithelial cells and endothelium.

“We gave her tacrolimus, a calcineurin inhibitor that we are well familiar with because we use it after transplants to ensure patient’s bodies don’t reject the donated organ. By eight months after treatment, the girl’s urine protein-to-creatinine (uPCR) ratio was back to normal. At 35 months, that key uPCR measure rose again when tacrolimus was discontinued. When treatment began again, uPCR was restored to normal levels one month later,” Dr. Beng says.

The girl’s older sister also shares the heterozygous deletion in the HADHB gene, which provides instructions for making MTP. That missing section of the genetic how-to guide was predicted to cause truncation and loss of long-chain-3-hydroxyacl CoA dehydrogenase function leading to MTP deficiency.

The older sister was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome and having scar tissue in the kidney’s filtering unit (focal segmental glomerulosclerosis) when she was 18 months old. By contrast, she developed renal failure and progressed to end stage renal disease at 20 months of age.

“Renal involvement has been reported in only one patient with MTP deficiency to date, the older sister of our patient,” Dr. Beng adds.

Podocytes are specialized cells in the kidneys that provide a barrier, preventing plasma proteins from leaking into the urine. Podocytes, however, need energy to function and are rich in mitochondria.

“The proteinuria in these two sisters may be related to their mitochondrial dysfunction. Calcineurin inhibitors like tacrolimus have been reported to reduce proteinuria by stabilizing the podocyte actin cytoskeleton. Tacrolimus was an effective treatment for our patient, who has maintained normal renal function, unlike her sister,” Dr. Beng says.

American Society of Nephrology’s Kidney Week presentation

  • “Treatment of nephrotic-range proteinuria with tacrolimus in mitochondrial trifunctional protein deficiency

Hostensia Beng, M.D., lead author; Asha Moudgil, M.D., medical director, transplant, and co-author; Sun-Young Ahn, M.D., MS, medical director, nephrology inpatient services, and senior author, all of Children’s National Health System.

Dr. Michael Hsieh's clay shield

Innovative urologist Michael Hsieh takes unbeaten path

Dr. Michael Hsieh's clay shield

For an elementary school art project, Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., was instructed to fashion a coat of arms out of clay. In addition to panels for truth, justice and Taiwan, in the shield’s M.D. panel, a snake twists around a rod, like the staff for Asclepius, a Greek god associated with healing.

Children’s urologist Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., knew from age 10 that he would become a doctor. Proof is at his parents’ home. For an elementary school art project, students were instructed to fashion a coat of arms out of clay. In addition to panels for truth, justice and Taiwan, in the shield’s M.D. panel, a snake twists around a rod, like the staff for Asclepius, a Greek god associated with healing.

“I liked science. When I can use it to help patients, that is very rewarding,” says Dr. Hsieh, the first doctor in his family.

These days, Dr. Hsieh’s Twitter profile serves as a digital coat of arms, describing him as “tinker, tailor,” #UTI #biologist, epithelial #immunologist, helminthologist and #urologist.

Tinker/tailor is shorthand for the mystery drama, “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” he explains, adding that the “tinker” part also refers “to the fact that I am always questioning things, and science is about experimentation, trying to seek answers to questions.”

While still in medical school during a rotation Dr. Hsieh saw a bladder operation on a young child and thought it was “amazing.” That experience in part inspired Dr. Hsieh to become a urologist and bladder scientist. His training in immunology and study of the bladder naturally led him to study urinary tract infections and parasitic worms that affect the urinary tract. In addition, thanks to R01 funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Hsieh is co-principal investigator with Axel Krieger, University of Maryland, and Jin U. Kang, Johns Hopkins, on a project to develop imaging robots for supervised autonomous surgery on soft tissue.

The $1 million in NIH funding pushes the boundaries on amazing by using multi-spectral imaging technology and improved techniques to reduce surgical complications.

Anastomosis is a technique used by surgeons to join one thing to another, whether it’s a vascular surgeon suturing blood vessels, an orthopedic surgeon joining muscles or a urologist stitching healthy parts of the urinary tract back together. Complications can set in if their stitching is too tight, prompting scar tissue to form, or too loose, letting fluid seep out.

“The human eye can see a narrow spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. These multi-spectral imaging cameras would see across greater set of wavelengths,” he says.

The project has three aims: figuring out the best way to place sutures using multi-spectral imaging, accurately tracking soft tissue as they model suturing and comparing the handicraft of a robot against anastomosis hand-sewn by surgeons.

“I like challenges, and I like new things. I am definitely not interested in doing permutations of other people’s work,” Dr. Hsieh explains. “I would much rather go on a path that hasn’t been tread. It is more difficult in some ways, but on a day-to-day basis, I know I am making a contribution.”

In another innovative research project, Dr. Hsieh leveraged a protein secreted by a parasitic worm, Schistosoma haematobium, that suppresses inflammation in hosts as a new therapeutic approach for chemotherapy-induced hemorrhagic cystitis, a form of inflammation of the bladder.

Watching his first surgery nearly 30 years ago, he had no idea robots might one day vie to take over some part of that complicated procedure, or that parasite proteins could be harnessed as drugs. However, he has a clear idea which innovations could be on the horizon for urology in the next three decades.

“My hope is 30 years from now, we will have a solid UTI vaccine and more non-antibiotic therapies. UTIs are the second-most common bacterial infection in childhood and, in severe cases, can contribute to kidney failure,” he says.

Globally, parasitic worms pose an ongoing challenge, affecting more than 1 billion worldwide – second only to malaria. People persistently infected by schistosome worms fail to reach their growth potential, struggle academically and lack sufficient energy for exercise or work.


“There is a feeling that the infection prevalence might be decreasing globally, but not as quickly as everyone hopes. In 30 years perhaps with more mass drug administration and additional drugs – including a vaccine – we’ll have it close to eliminated globally. It would become more like polio, casting a slim shadow with small pockets of infection here or there, rather than consigning millions to perpetual poverty.”

Lactobacillis-Bacteria

Does ZIP code factor into genitourinary system health?

Lactobacillis-Bacteria

Clinicians suspect that taking probiotics, such as lactobacillus supplements, and making changes to diet may prevent urinary diseases that occur commonly among pediatric patients. A research team led by Children’s faculty is exploring whether changes in the built environment also affect the urinary microbiome.

Emerging evidence suggests that the variety and volume of bacteria that reside in the bladder – the urinary microbiome – significantly impact whether people’s genitourinary systems remain healthy or become susceptible to disease.

Already, clinicians suspect that taking probiotics and making changes to diet may prevent urinary diseases that occur commonly among pediatric patients. A research team led by Children’s faculty is exploring whether changes in the built environment also affect the urinary microbiome.

Using experimental models, they looked at how stable the urinary microbiome was over time. Then, they measured the potential effect of changing the built environment on the urinary microbiome of preclinical models.

They did this by following six C57BL/6 experimental models for five months, starting from when they were nine weeks old. They collected urine specimens when the study began and repeated sample collections each month. The multidisciplinary team isolated microbial DNA from these specimens to determine the makeup of the bacterial community present in their urinary tracts.

All of the experimental models shared a single cage, drank the same water and ate the exact same chow. At four months, however, they moved the preclinical models to a different facility within the same county. Their chow and bedding remained unchanged, but the water source changed since they received tap water at both locations.

“There were no changes in the proportion of specific bacteria in the urinary microbiomes from month zero through month five, which means the urinary microbiomes of healthy experimental models remain stable over time,” says Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., a urologist at Children’s National Health System and senior author of the work presented during the Pediatric Urology Fall Conference. “However, the convergence of the Shannon Diversity Index, the clustering seen on Principal coordinate analyses and changes in functional analyses taken as a whole suggest that an overall shift of the urinary microbiome occurred due to a change in the physical environment.”

This work suggests that where patients live could influence which bacteria grow in the urinary tracts, including during urinary tract infections.

The Societies for Pediatric Urology’s Pediatric Urology Fall Conference

  • “Effects of time and the built environment on the stability of the mouse urinary microbiome: implications for clinical utility.”

Catherine S. Forster, M.D., MS, pediatric hospitalist, Children’s National; James Cody, Ph.D., Biomedical Research Institute; Nirad Banskota, MS, Biomedical Research Institute; Crystal Stroud, MS, Children’s National; Ljubica Caldovic, Ph.D., principal investigator, Children’s National; and Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., urologist, Children’s National.

AlgometRX

Breakthrough device objectively measures pain type, intensity and drug effects

AlgometRX

Clinical Research Assistant Kevin Jackson uses AlgometRx Platform Technology on Sarah Taylor’s eyes to measure her degree of pain. Children’s National is testing an experimental device that aims to measure pain according to how pupils react to certain stimuli. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Pediatric anesthesiologist Julia C. Finkel, M.D., of Children’s National Health System, gazed into the eyes of a newborn patient determined to find a better way to measure the effectiveness of pain treatment on one so tiny and unable to verbalize. Then she realized the answer was staring back at her.

Armed with the knowledge that pain and analgesic drugs produce an involuntary response from the pupil, Dr. Finkel developed AlgometRx, a first-of-its-kind handheld device that measures a patient’s pupillary response and, using proprietary algorithms, provides a diagnostic measurement of pain intensity, pain type and, after treatment is administered, monitors efficacy. Her initial goal was to improve the care of premature infants. She now has a device that can be used with children of any age and adults.

“Pain is very complex and it is currently the only vital sign that is not objectively measured,” says Dr. Finkel, who has more than 25 years of experience as a pain specialist. “The systematic problem we are facing today is that healthcare providers prescribe pain medicine based on subjective self-reporting, which can often be inaccurate, rather than based on an objective measure of pain type and intensity.” To illustrate her point, Dr. Finkel continues, “A clinician would never prescribe blood pressure medicine without first taking a patient’s blood pressure.”

The current standard of care for measuring pain is the 0-to-10 pain scale, which is based on subjective, observational and self-reporting techniques. Patients indicate their level of pain, with zero being no pain and ten being highest or most severe pain. This subjective system increases the likelihood of inaccuracy, with the problem being most acute with pediatric and non-verbal patients. Moreover, Dr. Finkel points out that subjective pain scores cannot be standardized, heightening the potential for misdiagnosis, over-treatment or under-treatment.

Dr. Finkel, who serves as director of Research and Development for Pain Medicine at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National, says that a key step in addressing the opioid crisis is providing physicians with objective, real-time data on a patient’s pain level and type, to safely prescribe the right drug and dosage or an alternate treatment.,

She notes that opioids are prescribed for patients who report high pain scores and are sometimes prescribed in cases where they are not appropriate. Dr. Finkel points to the example of sciatica, a neuropathic pain sensation felt in the lower back, legs and buttocks. Sciatica pain is carried by touch fibers that do not have opioid receptors, which makes opioids an inappropriate choice for treating that type of pain.

A pain biomarker could rapidly advance both clinical practice and pain research, Dr. Finkel adds. For clinicians, the power to identify the type and magnitude of a patient’s nociception (detection of pain stimuli) would provide a much-needed scientific foundation for approaching pain treatment. Nociception could be monitored through the course of treatment so that dosing is targeted and personalized to ensure patients receive adequate pain relief while reducing side effects.

“A validated measure to show whether or not an opioid is indicated for a given patient could ease the health care system’s transition from overreliance on opioids to a more comprehensive and less harmful approach to pain management,” says Dr. Finkel.

She also notes that objective pain measurement can provide much needed help in validating complementary approaches to pain management, such as acupuncture, physical therapy, virtual reality and other non-pharmacological interventions.

Dr. Finkel’s technology, called AlgometRx, has been selected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to participate in its “Innovation Challenge: Devices to Prevent and Treat Opioid Use Disorder.” She is also the recipient of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Bladder cancer’s unique bacterial “fingerprint”

Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

Decades ago, researchers thought that the native bacteria scattered throughout the human body—such as in the gut, the oral cavity and the skin—served little useful purpose. This microbiota, whose numbers at least match those of the cells in the body they live on and in, were considered mostly harmless hitchhikers.

More recently, research has revealed that these natural flora play key roles in maintaining and promoting health. In addition, studies have shown that understanding what a “typical” microbiome looks like and how it might change over time can provide an early warning system for some health conditions, including cancer.

Now, a small, multi-institutional study conducted in experimental models suggests that as bladder cancer progresses, it appears to be associated with a unique bacterial fingerprint within the bladder—a place thought to be bacteria-free except in the case of infection until just a few years ago. The finding opens the possibility of a new way to spot the disease earlier.

Bladder cancer is the fourth-most common malignancy among U.S. men but, despite its prevalence, mortality rates have remained stubbornly high. Patients often are diagnosed late, after bladder cancer has advanced. And, it remains difficult to discern which patients with non-invasive bladder cancer will go on to develop muscle-invasive disease.

Already, researchers know that patients with grade 4 oral squamous cell carcinoma, women with increasingly severe grades of cervical cancer and patients with cirrhosis who develop liver cancer have altered oral, vaginal and gut microbiomes, respectively.

New technological advances have led to identification of a diverse community of bacteria within the bladder, the urinary microbiome. Leveraging these tools, a research team that includes Children’s National Health System investigators studied whether an experimental model’s urinary bacterial community changed as bladder cancer progressed, evolving from a microbiome into a urinary “oncobiome.”

To test the hypothesis, the research team led by Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., a Children’s urologist, exposed an experimental model of bladder cancer to a bladder-specific cancer-causing agent, n-butyl-n-(4-hydroxybutyl) nitrosamine (BBN). Bladder cancers induced by BBN closely resemble human cancers in tissue structure at the microscopic level and by gene expression analyses. Ten of the preclinical models received a .05 percent concentration of BBN in their drinking water over five months and were housed together. Ten other experimental models received regular tap water and shared a separate, adjacent cage.

Researchers collected urine samples ranging from 10 to 100 microliters at the beginning of the longitudinal study, one week after it began, then once monthly. They isolated microbial DNA from the urine and quantified it to determine how much DNA was microbial. All of the bladders from experimental models exposed to BBN and two bladders from the control group were analyzed by a pathologist trained in bladder biology.

According to the study published online July 5, 2018, by the biology preprint server Biorxiv, they found a range of pathologies:

  • Five of the experimental models that received BBN did not develop cancer but had histology consistent with inflammation. Three had precancer on histology: urothelial dysplasia, hyperplasia or carcinoma in situ. Two developed cancer: invasive urothelial carcinomas, one of which had features of a squamous cell carcinoma.
  • The experimental model that developed invasive carcinoma had markedly different urinary bacteria at baseline, with Rubellimicrobium, a gram negative organism found in soil that has not been associated with disease previously, Escherichia and Kaistobacter, also found in soil, as the most prominent bacteria. By contrast, in the other experimental models the most common urinary bacteria were Escherichia, Prevotella, Veillonella, Streptococcus, Staphyloccoccus and Neisseria.
  • By month four, the majority of experimental models exposed to BBN had significantly higher proportion of Gardnerella and Bifidobacterium compared with their control group counterparts.

“Closely analyzing the urinary bacterial community among experimental models exposed to BBN, we saw distinct differences in microbial profiles by month four that were not present in earlier months,” Dr. Hsieh says. “While Gardnerella is associated with the development of cancer, Bifidobacterium has been shown to exert antitumor immunity, and its increasing abundance points to the need for additional research to understand its precise role in oncogenesis.”

Dr. Hsieh adds that although the study is small, its findings are of significance to children who are prone to developing urinary tract infections (UTIs), including children with spina bifida, due to the association between UTIs and bladder cancer. “This work is important because it not only suggests that the urinary microbiome could be used to diagnose bladder cancer, but that it could also perhaps predict cancer outcomes. If the urinary microbiome contributes to bladder carcinogenesis, it may be possible to favorably change the microbiome through antibiotics and/or probiotics in order to treat bladder cancer.”

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, co-authors include Catherine S. Forster, M.D., M.S., and Crystal Stroud, of Children’s National; James J. Cody, Nirad Banskota, Yi-Ju Hsieh and Olivia Lamanna, of the Biomedical Research Institute; Dannah Farah and Ljubica Caldovic, of The George Washington University; and Olfat Hammam, of Theodor Bilharz Research Institute.

Research reported in this news release was supported by the National Institutes of Health under award number R01 DK113504 and the Margaret A. Stirewalt Endowment.

Making the grade: Children’s National is nation’s Top 5 children’s hospital

Children’s National rose in rankings to become the nation’s Top 5 children’s hospital according to the 2018-19 Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll released June 26, 2018, by U.S. News & World Report. Additionally, for the second straight year, Children’s Neonatology division led by Billie Lou Short, M.D., ranked No. 1 among 50 neonatal intensive care units ranked across the nation.

Children’s National also ranked in the Top 10 in six additional services:

For the eighth year running, Children’s National ranked in all 10 specialty services, which underscores its unwavering commitment to excellence, continuous quality improvement and unmatched pediatric expertise throughout the organization.

“It’s a distinct honor for Children’s physicians, nurses and employees to be recognized as the nation’s Top 5 pediatric hospital. Children’s National provides the nation’s best care for kids and our dedicated physicians, neonatologists, surgeons, neuroscientists and other specialists, nurses and other clinical support teams are the reason why,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., Children’s President and CEO. “All of the Children’s staff is committed to ensuring that our kids and families enjoy the very best health outcomes today and for the rest of their lives.”

The excellence of Children’s care is made possible by our research insights and clinical innovations. In addition to being named to the U.S. News Honor Roll, a distinction awarded to just 10 children’s centers around the nation, Children’s National is a two-time Magnet® designated hospital for excellence in nursing and is a Leapfrog Group Top Hospital. Children’s ranks seventh among pediatric hospitals in funding from the National Institutes of Health, with a combined $40 million in direct and indirect funding, and transfers the latest research insights from the bench to patients’ bedsides.

“The 10 pediatric centers on this year’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll deliver exceptional care across a range of specialties and deserve to be highlighted,” says Ben Harder, chief of health analysis at U.S. News. “Day after day, these hospitals provide state-of-the-art medical expertise to children with complex conditions. Their U.S. News’ rankings reflect their commitment to providing high-quality care.”

The 12th annual rankings recognize the top 50 pediatric facilities across the U.S. in 10 pediatric specialties: cancer, cardiology and heart surgery, diabetes and endocrinology, gastroenterology and gastrointestinal surgery, neonatology, nephrology, neurology and neurosurgery, orthopedics, pulmonology and urology. Hospitals received points for being ranked in a specialty, and higher-ranking hospitals receive more points. The Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll recognizes the 10 hospitals that received the most points overall.

This year’s rankings will be published in the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Hospitals 2019” guidebook, available for purchase in late September.

Schistosoma haematobium egg

For hemorrhagic cystitis, harnessing the power of a parasite

Schistosoma haematobium egg

“Urogenital Schistosoma infestation, which is caused by S. haematobium, also causes hemorrhagic cystitis, likely by triggering inflammation when the parasite’s eggs are deposited in the bladder wall or as eggs pass from the bladder into the urinary stream. S. haematobium eggs secrete proteins, including IPSE, that ensure human hosts are not so sickened that they succumb to hemorrhagic cystitis,” says Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of U.S. patients – and even more throughout the world – are prescribed cyclophosphamide or ifosfamide. These two chemotherapy drugs can be life-saving for a wide range of pediatric cancers, including leukemias and cancers of the eyes and nerves. However, these therapies come with a serious side effect: Both cause hemorrhagic cystitis in up to 40 percent of patients. This debilitating condition is characterized by severe inflammation in the bladder that can cause tremendous pain, life-threatening bleeding, and frequent and urgent urination.

Infection with a parasitic worm called Schistosoma haematobium also causes hemorrhagic cystitis, but this organism has a fail-safe: To keep its host alive, the parasite secretes a protein that suppresses inflammation and the associated pain and bleeding.

In a new study, a Children’s-led research team harnessed this protein to serve as a new therapy for chemotherapy-induced hemorrhagic cystitis.

“Urogenital Schistosoma infestation, which is caused by S. haematobium, also causes hemorrhagic cystitis, likely by triggering inflammation when the parasite’s eggs are deposited in the bladder wall or as eggs pass from the bladder into the urinary stream. S. haematobium eggs secrete proteins, including IPSE, that ensure human hosts are not so sickened that they succumb to hemorrhagic cystitis,” says Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., senior author of the study published April 3, 2018, by The FASEB Journal. “This work in an experimental model is the first published report of exploiting an uropathogen-derived host modulatory molecule in a clinically relevant model of bladder disease, and it points to the potential utility of this as an alternate treatment approach.”

S. mansoni IPSE binds to Immunoglobulin E (IgE), an antibody produced by the immune system that is expressed on the surface of basophils, a type of immune cell; and mast cells, another immune cell that mediates inflammation; and sequesters chemokines, signaling proteins that alert white cells to infection sites. The team produced an ortholog of the uropathogen-derived protein. A single IV dose proved superior to multiple doses of 2-Mercaptoethane sulfonate sodium (MESNA), the current standard of care, in suppressing chemotherapy-induced bladder hemorrhaging in an experimental model. It was equally potent as MESNA in dampening chemotherapy-induced pain, the research team finds.

“The current array of medicines we use to treat hemorrhagic cystitis all have shortcomings, so there is a definite need for novel therapeutic options,” says Dr. Hsieh, a Children’s National Health System urologist. “And other ongoing research projects have the potential to further expand patients’ treatment options by leveraging other urogenital parasite-derived, immune-modulating molecules to treat inflammatory bowel diseases and autoimmune disorders.”

Future research will aim to describe the precise molecular mechanisms of action, as well as to generate other orthologs that boost efficacy while reducing side effects.

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, Children’s study co-authors include Lead Author, Evaristus C. Mbanefo; Loc Le and Luke F. Pennington; Justin I. Odegaard and Theodore S. Jardetzky, Stanford University; Abdulaziz Alouffi, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology; and Franco H. Falcone, University of Nottingham.

Financial support for this research was provided by National Institutes of Health under award number RO1-DK113504.

Eric Vilain

Exploring differences of sex development

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D.

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., analyzes the genetic mechanisms of sex development to give families more answers that will help them make better treatment (or non treatment) decisions for a child diagnosed with DSD.

Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., is well versed in the “world of uncertainty” that surrounds differences of sex development. Since joining Children’s National as the director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research in 2017, he’s shared with our research and clinical faculty and staff his expertise about the ways that genetic analysis might help address some of the complex social, cultural and medical implications of these differences.

Over the summer, he gave a keynote address entitled “Disorders/Differences of Sex Development: A World of Uncertainty” during Children’s National’s Research and Education Week, an annual celebration of research, education, innovation and scholarship at Children’s National and around the world. In January 2018, he shared a more clinically oriented version of the talk at a special Children’s National Grand Rounds session.

The educational objective of these talks is to inform researchers and providers about the mechanisms of differences of sex development (DSD), which are defined as congenital conditions in which the development of chromosomal, gonadal or anatomical sex is atypical.

The primary goal, though, is to really shine light on the complexity of this hot topic, and share how powerful genetic tools can be used to provide vital, concrete information for care providers, patients and families to assist with difficult treatment (and non-treatment) decisions.

“A minority of DSD cases are able to receive a genetic diagnosis today,” he points out. “But geneticists know how important it is to come to a diagnosis and so we seek to increase the number of patients who receive a concrete genetic diagnosis. It impacts genetic counseling and reproductive options, and provides a better ability to predict long term outcomes.”

“These differences impact physiology and medicine. We want to better understand the biology of reproduction, with an emphasis on finding ways to preserve fertility at all costs, and how these variations may lead to additional complications, including cancer risk.”

At conception, he explains, both XX and XY embryos have bipotential gonads capable of differentiating into a testis or an ovary, though embryos are virtually indistinguishable from a gender perspective up until six weeks in utero.

Whether or not a bipotential gonad forms is largely left up to the genetic makeup of the individual. For example, a gene in the Y chromosome (SRY) triggers a cascade of genes that lead to testis development. If there is no Y chromosome, it triggers a series of pro-female genes that lead to ovarian development.

Dr. Vilain notes that a variation of enzymes or transcription factors can occur at any single step of sex development and alter all the subsequent steps. Depending on the genotype, an individual may experience normal gonadal development, but abnormal development of the genitalia, for example.

He also noted that these genes are critical to determining the differences between men and women in non-gonadal tissues, including differences in gene expression within the brain. One study in the lab of investigator Matt Bramble, Ph.D., investigates if gonadal hormones impact sex differences in the brain by modifying the genome.

This work is a prime example of research informing the care provided to patients and families. Dr. Vilain is also a member of the multidisciplinary clinical team of the PROUD Clinic at Children’s National, a program completely devoted to caring for patients with a wide array of genetic and endocrine issues, including urogenital disorders and variations of sex development.

Love is in the air and, for parasites, inside our bodies

Michael H. Hsieh

As featured in a PBS video, schistosome worms form lifelong bonds and females produce thousands of eggs daily only when they live inside human hosts, says Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

“Love is in the air, the sea, the earth and all over and inside our bodies,” the PBS Valentine’s Day-themed video begins. As the public television station notes, what humans consider romance can look vastly different for creatures big and small, including serenading mice, spiders who wrap their gifts in silk and necking giraffes.

The “spooning” parasites segment of the video is where viewers see research conducted by Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Clinic for Adolescent and Adult PedIatric OnseT UroLogy at Children’s National Health System, and video filmed in his lab.

Schistosomiasis, a chronic infection with schistosome worms, is a distinctly one-sided love affair. As shown in Dr. Hsieh’s video clips, the male worm is shorter and fatter and equipped with a groove, a love canal where the longer, thinner female lodges, enabling the pair to mate for decades. This lifelong bond and the thousands of eggs it produces daily can only occur when the worms are inside the human host, Dr. Hsieh says.

While the video stresses Valentine’s Day romance, there are few rosy outcomes for humans who are the subject of the schistosome worms’ attention.

“Heavily and chronically infected individuals can have lots of problems,” Dr. Hsieh says. “This is a stunting and wasting health condition that prevents people from reaching their growth potential, impairs their academic performance and leaves them sapped of the energy needed to exercise or work. It truly perpetuates a cycle of poverty, particularly for affected children.”

Even the potential bright spot in this sobering story, the ability of the body’s immune system to fend off the parasitic worms, is only partly good news.

Schistosome worms have co-evolved with their human hosts, learning to take advantage of human vulnerabilities. Take the immune system. If it kicks too far into overdrive in trying to wall off the eggs from the rest of the body, it can interfere with organ function and trigger liver failure, kidney failure and early onset of bladder cancer, he says.

However, Dr. Hsieh and other schistosomiasis researchers are working on ways to positively harness the human immune response to schistosome worms, including developing diagnostics, drugs and vaccines. He says he and his colleagues would “love” to eliminate schistosomiasis as a global scourge.