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Genetic Study Evolves Understanding of Common Birth Defects of the Brain

Daniel Sokoloff and his mom, Lara Sokoloff, photographed here when Daniel was younger, were one of 100 families who contributed to a study aimed at understanding common birth defects of the brain.

In the largest genetic study of the most common birth defects of the brain diagnosed during pregnancy, researchers from Seattle Children’s Research Institute say their findings evolve our understanding of brain development. The findings will also change the information given to expecting parents when cerebellar malformations, such as Dandy-Walker malformation and cerebellar hypoplasia, are detected prenatally.

With funding support from the Dandy-Walker Alliance and the Philly Baer Foundation, the results gathered from 100 families provide the most accurate information to date about the genetic and non-genetic causes of birth defects involving the cerebellum. They will also help doctors counsel parents about their child’s prognosis after they’re born and their risk of having another child with the abnormality.

“For those who are pregnant, you certainly don’t want to have a problem with the baby, but if doctors detect a brain abnormality, you want accurate information about what that means,” said Dr. William Dobyns, the senior author on the paper published in the American Journal of Human Genetics and an investigator in the Center for Integrative Brain Research. “It’s the same after birth. If you have a child at risk for developmental challenges, it helps to know the cause and what’s going to happen. This study significantly advances our ability to answer those questions.” Read full post »

Seattle Scientists Teach Tibetan Monks Modern Cell Biology

Summer school is in session for researchers at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, and although there are text books and a final exam, very little else about the biology course taught by Dr. Philip Morgan and his fellow scientist and wife, Dr. Margaret Sedensky, is business as usual. That’s because their students are Tibetan monks and their classroom is at a monastic university in southern India. Read full post »

A Stroke of Genius

Dr. Andy Shih is studying how tiny strokes called microinfarcts develop and impact the developing brain.

Strokes come in many shapes and sizes. In children and adults, strokes often present sudden limb or facial numbness, confusion and dizziness.

But some strokes that cause clots to develop in the small blood vessels of the brain don’t exhibit any symptoms at all. Studies have shown that hundreds to thousands of these small, asymptomatic strokes, known as microinfarcts, likely occur over the course of decades in adult brains and may contribute to cognitive decline as we age. Even less is known about the occurrence and consequences of microinfarcts in young, developing brains.

Enter Dr. Andy Shih, principal investigator at Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Developmental Biology and Regenerative Medicine. Shih hopes to solve the mystery of microinfarcts by using advanced optical imaging — modeling them in the lab and visualizing their effects in real-time. On the Pulse sat down with Shih to learn more about his work and how he’s applying his discoveries from studying dementia in aging brains to understanding how blood vessels and clots first emerge in the brain. Read full post »

Sonny Stays Strong as Cell Therapy for His Rare Condition Advances

Sonny D’Ambrosio, age 7, here with his parents, was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition called IPEX as an infant.

Earlier this year, Nicole D’Ambrosio found herself in front of a room full of scientists that were gathered in part to discuss their progress on a novel cell therapy that has the potential to one day save her son’s life.

She had been asked to present her family’s story as part of a company-wide meeting at Casebia Therapeutics in Boston. As she began, she recounted how her only child, 7-year-old Sonny, has reached the brink of death more times than she can remember because of the rare autoimmune disorder he was diagnosed with as an infant. How the bone marrow transplant he received was the only thing that could save him, but caused endless complications, including skin necrosis and epilepsy.

How the thought of going through another transplant when the initial transplant failed compelled her and her husband to pack up their home and move 3,000 miles west to seek other options. How she lies awake at night praying that Sonny’s body can stay strong enough until a safer treatment comes along. How, despite everything he’s been through, Sonny is still a happy little boy with a wicked sense of humor. Read full post »

‘Like Looking at a Miracle’: Baby Blossoms Thanks to Gene Therapy

Arabella Smygov, 7 months, of Lynnwood, Washington was one of the first babies in the state to receive the gene therapy, Zolgensma. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Zolgensma for the treatment of Spinal Muscular Atrophy in children less than 2 years of age this month.

When Arabella Smygov was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) type 1 at 3 months old, the first recommendation Dr. Fawn Leigh, a neurologist at Seattle Children’s, gave her parents, Sarah and Vitaliy, was to wait on searching for information about SMA online.

This is because up until a few years ago, SMA type 1 was a fatal diagnosis. Most of the information available online painted a bleak picture. Babies diagnosed with SMA type 1, the most severe and common form of the neurodegenerative disease, usually don’t survive beyond age 2 and if they do, they require full support for breathing from a ventilator.

Leigh had good reason for wanting her parents to have hope for Arabella’s future. Two treatments, including the first-ever drug approved for the condition by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2016 called Spinraza, and Zolgensma, a gene therapy approved by the drug agency this month, are rapidly changing the trajectory for children with Arabella’s condition.

“I always remember back to when I had to offer my first SMA diagnosis,” Leigh said. “I was heartbroken to tell this young couple that we didn’t have anything for their baby. Now, we’re planning a future for these babies because we have not one, but two good treatment options.” Read full post »

Makenzie Dances Again After Pediatric Stroke

Makenzie Childs, 6, has returned to doing what she loves most – competitive dance – following a stroke in October 2017.

The lopsided smile on Makenzie’s face said it all. She had just thrown up, and her dad, Shawn Childs, was helping her get cleaned up in the bathtub.

“My husband yelled for me to come into the bathroom and then asked Makenzie to smile,” Jamie Childs, Makenzie’s mom, said. “The smile was devastating. It was only the right half of her face. I knew something wasn’t right.” Read full post »

Researchers Ready B Cells for Novel Cell Therapy

Dr. Richard James is leading research to edit human B plasma cells to act as cell factories capable of delivering sustained, high doses of a therapeutic protein.

Scientists at Seattle Children’s Research Institute are paving the way to use gene-edited B cells – a type of white blood cell in the immune system – to treat a wide range of potential diseases that affect children, including hemophilia and other protein deficiency disorders, autoimmune diseases, and infectious diseases. If successful, their research would open the door to offering this experimental cell therapy as the first-of-its-kind in clinical trials at Seattle Children’s in as soon as five years. Read full post »

Doctor Creates Virtual Reality Simulation to Save Babies’ Lives

Trainees in Africa participate in a pilot study of a virtual reality simulation that teaches care providers how to care for a newborn unable to breathe on their own.

Wanting to do something different to address the alarmingly high number of newborn deaths in low income countries, Dr. Rachel Umoren, a neonatologist at Seattle Children’s, turned to virtual reality (VR).

As mobile phone-based VR programs became increasingly accessible, Umoren thought the emerging technology could offer a better way to equip health care providers with the skills necessary to save babies’ lives in low- and middle-income countries with high neonatal mortality rates.

Her case was compelling: with mobile VR training, providers could learn and easily maintain new skills at their own convenience, on their own smartphone, and with game-based automated feedback that is ideal for learning. With its on-demand availability, she believed mobile phone-based VR training could effectively translate into clinical practice better than current training methods.

“Mobile technologies are ubiquitous in low and middle income countries, yet they are relatively untested at disseminating health care information or training in these settings,” Umoren said. “I wanted to see how we could apply innovations in virtual reality to address the pressing issue of neonatal mortality.” Read full post »

HIV Protection for Infants May Come From Breastfeeding and the Gut

Scientists at Seattle Children’s Research Institute are investigating how an infant’s microbiome may offer protection from HIV infection. (Photo by Getty Images)

Every year, over 1.2 million people continue to be infected by HIV. Of these, about 160,000 are infants that contract the virus from their mother. Without treatment, a third of these infants die by their first birthday, and half of them do not make it to age 2.

Thanks to programs that identify and treat HIV-infected mothers and children, the number of deaths in children has decreased nearly 50% since 2010. Despite this success, HIV infections in infants remain persistent primarily because not all mothers know if they are infected or, for a variety of reasons, are unable to adhere to taking the antiretroviral medications they need to prevent transmission.

To close the gap, scientists at Seattle Children’s Research Institute are looking for new clues in an important indicator of overall infant health – a baby’s developing immune system and microbiome. Ongoing research not only examines how an infant’s microbiome can evolve to help protect against HIV infection, but also what factors, such as diet, alter an infant’s susceptibility when exposed to HIV through their mother’s breast milk. Read full post »

Smoking During Pregnancy Doubles the Risk of Sudden Unexpected Infant Death, Study Warns

A new study finds that any amount of smoking during pregnancy – even just one cigarette a day – doubles the risk of an infant dying from sudden unexpected infant death. (Photo by Getty Images)

The first findings to result from a collaboration between Seattle Children’s Research Institute and Microsoft data scientists provides expecting mothers new information about how smoking before and during pregnancy contributes to the risk of an infant dying suddenly and unexpectedly before their first birthday.

According to the study published in Pediatrics, any amount of smoking during pregnancy – even just one cigarette a day – doubles the risk of an infant dying from sudden unexpected infant death (SUID). For women who smoked an average of 1-20 cigarettes a day, the odds of SUID increased by 0.07 with each additional cigarette smoked.

“With this information, doctors can better counsel pregnant women about their smoking habits, knowing that the number of cigarettes smoked daily during pregnancy significantly impacts the risk for SUID,” said Dr. Tatiana Anderson, a researcher in Seattle Children’s Center for Integrative Brain Research and lead author on the study. “Similar to public health campaigns that educated parents about the importance of infant sleep position, leading to a 50% decrease in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) rates, we hope advising women about this risk will result in less babies dying from these tragic causes.”

If no women smoked during pregnancy, Anderson and her co-authors estimate that 800 of the approximately 3,700 deaths from SUID every year in the U.S. could be prevented, lowering current SUID rates by 22%. Read full post »