Mid-Atlantic Consortium Newsletter Summer 2013

Scafidi’s Quest to Rescue Children From Premature Birth Brain Injury

Premature babyJoseph Scafidi, D.O., is on a mission – to figure out how best to intervene to prevent developmental delays in children born very prematurely.

Babies born at less than 32 weeks’ gestation (compared to a normal gestation period of 40 weeks) are at increased risk for diffuse injuries affecting the brain’s white matter, the nerve tissue allowing rapid communication from one part of the brain to another. Such injuries can cause a range of later neurodevelopmental problems, says Scafidi, assistant professor of neurology and pediatrics at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. No effective treatments are currently available to reverse damage once it occurs.

“It’s a growing population of children who have a lot of needs academically and clinically,” Scafidi says. “Many more of these children are surviving, and I would like to understand how we can use the brain’s natural ability to heal itself, and foster an environment that promotes brain recovery after developmental brain injury.”

Joseph Scafidi

Joseph Scafidi, D.O.

In his own research over the past few years, Scafidi has found that the rapidly developing brain is vulnerable to injury, but also has a high capacity for recovery thanks to the presence of immature brain cells called progenitor cells. Recovery depends, however, on a coordinated balance of different signaling pathways and growth factors, and Scafidi has been studying animal models of premature brain injury, trying to tease out the cellular, molecular, behavioral and physiological features on which to base potential treatments.

Using a mouse model of premature brain injury, in which mice are exposed to a chronic state of decreased oxygen (akin to what happens in many premature infants), Scafidi is investigating whether enhancing signaling for epidermal growth factor (EGF), a protein involved in normal cell growth and wound healing, promotes cellular and functional recovery of white matter cells called oligodendrocytes. The work, conducted in the lab of his primary mentor, Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., director of CNMC’s Center for Neuroscience Research, and its Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (IDDRC), is funded by the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Work not yet published has shown that administering several doses of EGF to mice soon after developmental injury can accelerate and enhance white matter recovery, both immediately and a few months later. “What I’m hoping this could mean is that some type of drug cocktail or growth
factor cocktail may have a benefit to premature children with brain injury.”

Scafidi says he was attracted to CNMC because of its proximity to the National Institutes of Health and the potential to work with Gallo. He graduated from a CNMC pediatric neurology fellowship in 2008, and was awarded a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, allowing him protected time to start his studies. Through the IDDRC, he has met researchers at Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, with whom he is planning additional joint research.

“The IDDRC is extremely important for what I do because it provides support for the cellular and imaging core facilities we have here at CNMC, resources absolutely critical for my work,” Scafidi says. “It definitely fosters collaboration, both clinically and for the basic science research, so it’s a nice network to have.”

Did you know…

More than 50% of children with congenital heart defects will require at least one corrective surgery in their lifetimes. Almost
half of children and adults with complex congenital heart disease have neurological and developmental disabilities.

Source: The Children’s Heart Foundation


For more information about Scafidi’s work, see http://www.childrensnational.org/findadoctor/profiles/joseph-scafidi-2659.aspx.




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