Clinic Marks 2 Years of Treating Disorders of the Immune System
Cook Children's Immunology Clinic is a center for the evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of rare and complex disorders in children from newborn to 20 years old.
By Jean Yaeger
Every week, 7-year-old Landon Clayton gets an infusion of medicine that builds up his immunity to fight off infection. Nineteen-year-old Abigail Novak also receives a weekly infusion to strengthen her immune system.
Thanks to those infusions – called immunoglobin replacement therapy -- Landon’s and Abigail’s antibodies are now better equipped to protect them from the bacteria and viruses that made them frequently ill. They are among more than 800 patients seen at the Cook Children’s Immunology Clinic since it opened on July 27, 2021.
Naty Chaimowitz, M.D., Ph.D. runs the Immunology Clinic, which is celebrating its two-year anniversary today. It’s a center for the evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of rare and complex disorders in children from newborn to 20 years old. The clinic works in partnership with the Cook Children’s Infectious Diseases Department. The goal? Increased awareness and access to care for those whose immune system does not function the way it should.
“I’d get sick with something and then it would take me a lot longer than most people to get over it,” Abigail said of her low antibody diagnosis. “When I did get over it, I’d have a little bit of relief, and then I’d get sick again.”
It was the same for Landon – he kept coming down with respiratory ailments that required antibiotics or steroids or even hospitalization.
“When we think about disorders of the immune system, there are mostly two ways patients present,” Dr. Chaimowitz said. “One of the ways is when you have a hole in your immune system that makes you more susceptible to infection. These are kids who are on antibiotics all the time, or they have more unusual infections or infections with things that normally don't make kids sick.”
The second broad category, called immune dysregulation, happens when the immune system misfires and attacks the body’s own cells instead of foreign invaders.
Patients come to the clinic on referral from their primary care physician or from a specialist. For example, an Ear, Nose, Throat (ENT) doctor might refer a patient who continues to struggle with ear infections even after having tubes put in. Or a pulmonologist might refer a patient who keeps getting lung infections.
Additionally, the Texas Department of Health and Human Services refers infants whose newborn screening indicated Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID), a potentially fatal condition.
The clinic also collaborates with the Cook Children’s Genetics team to establish or rule out any congenital causes for the patient’s symptoms.
Dr. Chaimowitz studies the patient’s health history and blood samples. Oftentimes she prescribes infusions or a regular dose of oral antibiotics to prevent infection. Extreme cases of immunodeficiency might require a bone marrow transplant.
Here's how subcutaneous (under the skin) infusions can help patients:
- Immunoglobin G (IgG) protein molecules are collected from the plasma of healthy blood donors. Those IgG antibodies are used to make the infusion medications.
- A needle injects the medication into the tissue layer between skin and muscle.
- The boost of antibodies gives patients more energy and fewer sick days. Parents worry less about exposing their immune-compromised child to germs at school or elsewhere.
“Just coming and seeing us gives them hope,” Dr. Chaimowitz said. “I hear from a lot of parents that they know in their heart there's something different about their child. I say, ‘You came to the right place. I have hundreds of patients who share your story.’”
Abigail Novak has a kidney disease that requires her to take an immunosuppressant drug. During her teen years, it seemed like she was always dealing with health problems … flu, sinus infections, urinary tract infections, kidney stones, an abscessed cyst. If a contagious illness was making the rounds, Abigail caught it – and it took a long time to recover. In the fall semester of her freshman year in college, her fatigue and frequent bouts with illness got worse. Even a case of sniffles would escalate.
“A cold would turn into almost pneumonia and bronchitis,” said her mom, Kristi Novak. “Anything she got was 10 times worse than a normal kid.”
Cook Children’s nephrologist Randa Razzouk, M.D. was Abigail’s kidney doctor at the time. Dr. Razzouk sent Abigail to the Immunology Clinic, where Dr. Chaimowitz diagnosed an antibody deficiency. Abigail started on infusion therapy in January 2023. From her dorm room at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, she would insert the needle and then study or watch a movie while the medicine entered her stomach tissue.
She saw improvement after about the third or fourth week of infusions.
“After a while, I started noticing, “Wow, I haven’t been sick!’ That was a big difference.”
With more energy to devote to her classes, the biochemistry major made the President’s Honor List in the spring semester.
She continues to visit with Dr. Chaimowitz every three months or so via virtual appointments, which means no need to commute from Lubbock or her family’s home in Seymour, almost a three-hour drive from Fort Worth.
Landon Clayton was born with cystic fibrosis (CF), which affects the lungs, digestive system and other organs. From about age 3, he began getting sick more often than typical for people with CF.
“He kept getting sick, and it was horrible,” said mom Jessica Clayton. “He would have a good one or two weeks and then it would start again.”
His parents held him out of preschool because of the constant cycle of sickness.
“It was frustrating,” Jessica said. “My child shouldn’t be this sick and be on this many antibiotics and steroids. I know other CF kids, and this is not how they live.”
Landon came to Cook Children’s in 2022 under the care of Karen Schultz, M.D., medical director of Pulmonology Services. Dr. Schultz referred him to the Immunology Clinic, where Dr. Chaimowitz made a preliminary diagnosis of antibody deficiency.
Jessica remembers feeling a sense of relief and hope.
“That appointment was probably the best I ever felt after leaving a doctor’s appointment,” she said.
The official diagnosis came about a month later when blood tests showed that Landon had barely any immune response to a recent pneumonia vaccine. He started infusion therapy in November.
Landon does his weekly infusion at home in Wichita Falls. His mom starts by applying a cream to numb the outside of his thigh. Then she inserts a short needle and a pump delivers the drug that boosts Landon’s antibodies. The infusion takes about 50 minutes and he plays Mario Kart with his dad to pass the time.
Needles make him anxious, but his parents award him a small prize for cooperating with the process. “Not so bad,” he reports.
Jessica points out that Landon was sick so much that he missed 20 days of school in the fall of first grade. After starting the infusions, his only absences in the spring were two days out due to routine checkups. Now he has energy for his favorite hobbies: trampolines, Mario and dinosaurs.
“He’s like, ‘Mom, I can keep up with my friends now,’” Jessica said. “He can feel the difference.”
Resources and Reassurance
The Immunology Clinic provides education to patient families in an ongoing dialogue about treatment options. Dr. Chaimowitz applies her research skills to assess each patient’s unique situation against the array of more than 450 primary immune deficiency disorders. Periodic reassessment is needed, she said, because sometimes young children grow out of the condition as their immune system matures.
Dr. Chaimowitz says it’s rewarding to take even small steps that help strengthen a child’s weak immune system.
“Immune issues can present as frequent infections, severe infections or early-onset autoimmune disease,” she said. “And that when these things happen, you should at least think about the immune system.”
Dr. Chaimowitz was born in Argentina and decided early in life that she wanted to be a pediatrician. Since childhood, she was enamored with medicine and the workings of the human body. She earned her medical degree and a Ph.D. in immunology, focusing her career on primary immune disorders. Dr. Chaimowitz also enjoys spending time with her husband and three daughters, reading and crocheting.
The immunology team at Cook Children’s is dedicated to providing up-to-date therapies and clinical research for many types of disorders. We offer inpatient and outpatient consultations, diagnosis, and other services on the first floor of Dodson Specialty Clinics at 1500 Cooper Street in Fort Worth. If your child’s immune system doesn’t work properly, we can help. To schedule an appointment or find more information, call 682-303-0600 or visit Cook Children's Immunology (cookchildrens.org).