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Deputy Clinical Director

Office of the Clinical Director


B.A. University of California, San Diego, 1973

M.S. Rutgers University, 1975

Ph.D. University of Texas, Houston, 1981

M.D. University of Texas, Houston, 1983


Dr. Tifft received her B.A. in biology from Revelle College at the University of California at San Diego and her M.S. in genetic counseling from Rutgers University. She received her Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Science at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and her M.D. from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. She completed her pediatric residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital and fellowship in Medical Genetics at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Tifft joined the faculty of the George Washington University School of Medicine at Children's National Medical Center in 1991, becoming chair of the Division of Genetics and Metabolism in 1996. In 2009, she was recruited to the National Human Genome Research Institute as deputy clinical director, where she also directs the Pediatric Undiagnosed Diseases Program.

Dr. Tifft's clinical and research interests for many years have been lysosomal disorders affecting the central nervous system. She is the principal investigator of a longitudinal natural history study of children and adults with glycosphingolipid and glycoprotein disorders including Tay-Sachs and Sandhoff disease, GM1 gangliosidosis, and type 1 sialidosis. Plans for a gene therapy trial for juveniles with GM1 gangliosidosis is in progress.

As director of the Pediatric Undiagnosed Diseases Program, Dr. Tifft coordinates the selection and clinical evaluation of children whose diagnoses have long eluded the medical community. Using comprehensive phenotyping and next generation sequencing, she and her team have provided diagnoses to nearly one-third of selected patients and have strong candidate genes under study for additional cases.

Scientific Summary

Important collaborations come from synergy between the clinic and the laboratory. This has been the hallmark of Dr. Tifft's research program on glycosphingolipid and glycoprotein storage disorders affecting the central nervous system. These rare, uniformly fatal, lysosomal disorders affect males and females, children and adults and the diagnosis is often delayed years to decades from the onset of symptoms. In a collaboration with Dr. Richard Proia (GDDB/NIDDK) that spans more than 20 years the two have used mouse models of Tay-Sachs and Sandhoff disease to understand the pathogenesis of disease progression and explore therapeutic options.

The collaborators determined that bone marrow transplantation could double the lifespan of Sandhoff disease mice, not by decreasing the storage of GM2 ganglioside, but by inhibiting activation of macrophage-derived microglial cells leading to neuronal apoptosis. This was the first demonstration that inflammation was pivotal in the pathogenesis of lysosomal storage disorders (LSDs) affecting the CNS, an observation that has been subsequently extended to include many neurodegenerative LSDs. Anti-inflammatory compounds have also improved behavior and lifespan in the Sandhoff mouse, further supporting inflammation as an important contributing factor to neurodegeneration.

GM1 Image

To further investigate the molecular pathogenesis of these disorders, the Proia/Tifft team have generated induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from a patient with infantile Sandhoff disease and used the CRISPR/Cas system to correct the mutation and produce isogenic iPS lines for neuronal differentiation and differential gene expression studies. Likewise, the group has used CRISPR/Cas to create GM1 iPS cells with mutations in the exons most commonly associated with juvenile disease. Isogenic disease and control iPS lines from both diseases have been differentiated into cerebral organoids in culture and faithfully replicate neuronal storage of GM2 and GM1 ganglioside respectively. Abnormally increased cellular proliferation in the visibly larger Sandhoff organoids may explain the megalencephaly observed in infantile GM2 patients.

Using facilities of the NHGRI Mouse Core facility, the group has created and characterized a CRISPR/Cas knock out mouse that recapitulates the skeletal and CNS phenotypes of juvenile GM1 patients. This mouse will be important for ongoing pre-clincial testing of therapeutics for GM1 patients.

GM1 gangliosidosis is a rare disorder caused by the enzyme deficiency of lysosomal b-galactosidase. The researchers have recruited 35 Type II patients for careful phenotyping and longitudinal monitoring of disease progression. In collaboration with Dr. Eva Baker at the NIH Clinical Center Department of Diagnostic Imaging, and Dr. Gilbert Vezina chief of neuroradiology at the Children's National Health System, they have used MRI and MR spectroscopy (specifically volumetrics and quantitation of brain metabolites), the team is able to monitor the disease progression that correlates with neurocognitive decline.

Ongoing work in the laboratory focuses on the mechanisms of neurodegeneration and on the identification of biomarkers of disease progression, including ganglioside quantitation and identification of inflammatory markers in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), and, in collaboration with Dr. Xuntian Jiang, oligosaccharide profiling by tandem mass spectrometry in urine, plasma, and CSF of GM1 patients.

As director of the Pediatric Undiagnosed Diseases Program (UDP) part of the Undiagnosed Diseases Network of the NIH Common Fund, Dr. Tifft and her team evaluate patients who have long eluded diagnosis at major academic centers throughout the country. The majority of patients have neurologic, often neurodegenerative, disease as part of their symptomatology. By careful clinical phenotyping and use of the latest techniques in next generation sequencing and agnostic screening, the team tries to solve mysterious conditions that may represent very rare presentations of previously described disorders or entirely new disorders. Together with 10 UDN clinical sites across the country and core laboratories for sequencing, metabolomics and generation of model organisms, the UDP is able to investigate the functional consequences of mutations in novel gene candidates and search for additional cases to describe new disease entities.


Allende ML, Cook EK, Larman BC, Nugent A, Brady JM, Golebiowski D, Sena-Esteves M, Tifft CJ, Proia RL Cerebral organoids derived from Sandhoff disease-induced pluripotent stem cells exhibit impaired neurodifferentiation. J. Lipid Res, 59:550-563. 2018. [PubMed]

Tifft CJ, Adams DR. The National Institutes of Health undiagnosed diseases program. Curr. Opin. Pediatr, 26(6):626-33. 2014. [PubMed]

Regier DS, Proia RL, D'Azzo A, Tifft CJ. The GM1 and GM2 Gangliosidoses: natural history and progress toward therapy. Pediatr Endocrinol Rev, 13 Suppl 1:663-73. 2016. [PubMed]

Regier DS, Kwon JH, Johnston J, Golas G, Yang S, Wiggs E, Latour Y, Thomas S, Portner C, Adams D, Vezina G, Baker EH Tifft CJ. MRI/MRS as a surrogate marker for disease progression in GM1 gangliosidosis. Am. J. Med. Genet A, 170(3):634-44. 2016. [PubMed]

Trehan A, Brady JM, Maduro V, Bone WP, Huang Y, Golas GA, Kane MS, Lee PR, Thurm A, Gropman AL, Paul SM, Vezina G, Markello TC, Gahl WA, Boerkoel CF, Tifft CJ. MED23-assoicated intellectual disability in a non-consanguineous family. Am J Med Genet A167(6):1374-80. 2015. [PubMed]

Gahl WA, Tifft CJ. The NIH Undiagnosed Disease Program: lessons learned. JAMA, 305(18):1904-5. 2011. [PubMed]

Glycosphigolipid Disorders Laboratory Staff

Jean M. Johnston
Jean M. Johnston
  • Research Nurse Coordinator
  • Office of the Clinical Director
Precilla D'souza
Precilla D'souza
  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Office of the Clinical Director
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Ted Han, Ph.D.
  • Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Office of the Clinical Director
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Brianna N. Glase, B.A.
  • Postbaccalaureate Fellow
  • Undiagnosed Diseases Program
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Robin H. Yoon, B.A.
  • Postbaccalaureate Fellow
  • Office of the Clinical Director

Last updated: September 11, 2018