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Early Investigator Award, Microbiome and Depression, INSAR 2019, Families’ Internet Searches, Telehealth Grant, and Pediatric Medical Devices

Published on May 17, 2019 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 4 months 1 week ago


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In this week’s news roundup, a Children's Hospital of Philadelphia researcher is recognized for her work to improve clinical effectiveness for children with endocrine-related diseases, and Center for Autism scientists present findings to the international autism research community. 

Other highlights include an investigation of the effects of the microbiome on the brain that could lead to novel treatments for psychiatric conditions, a look into Google searches as a mechanism to offer more tailored support and education to families with children newly diagnosed with cancer, and a funding boost for telehealth research. In addition, the CHOP-based Pennsylvania Pediatric Medical Device Consortium announced its latest seed grants to support the creation and development of medical devices designed for children. 

Scroll to the end to see how you can still support Team CHOP as they run, walk, and cycle in this weekend’s Eagles Autism Challenge.

Vajravelu Honored With Early Investigators Award

Mary Ellen Vajravelu, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist at CHOP, is one of five recipients of the Endocrine Society's Early Investigators Awards. A core faculty member of Clinical Futures, a CHOP Research Institute Center of Emphasis, and an instructor of pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes at CHOP, Dr. Vajravelu’s research is focused on pediatric obesity and type 2 diabetes, with particular interests in the use of innovative healthcare delivery strategies such as mHealth. 

Dr. Vajravelu aims to improve clinical effectiveness of therapies for children with endocrine-related diseases by combining her experience in epidemiology, biostatistics, and qualitative research with her advanced training in quality improvement and patient safety.

The Early Investigators Awards were established to assist in the development of early career investigators and to provide greater recognition of their accomplishments in endocrine-related research. 

“One of the biggest challenges endocrine fellows and junior faculty face is gaining recognition and obtaining access to the resources they need for professional development,” said E. Dale Abel, MD, PhD, Endocrine Society president. “The Early Investigators Awards are just one of the many ways the Society values and supports our early career professionals and their research to prepare them to lead in their institutions and the field at large.”

Understanding Stress Biology May Lead to Treatments for Psychiatric Disorders

Scientists at CHOP have shown that transplanting gut bacteria from an animal vulnerable to social stress to a nonstressed animal can cause vulnerable behavior in the recipient. The research reveals details of biological interactions between the brain and gut that may someday lead to probiotic treatments for human psychiatric disorders such as depression.

Seema Bhatnagar, PhD, study leader and a neuroscientist in the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care at CHOP, also noted that stress increased inflammation in the brains of vulnerable subjects in an animal model, and that this inflammation appeared in unstressed animals after they received transplants from vulnerable ones. 

The study team published their findings, “The gut microbiome regulates the increase in depressive-type behaviors and in inflammatory processes in the ventral hippocampus of stress vulnerable rats,” online in Molecular Psychiatry. Funding support for this study came from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Army Research Office.

Dr. Bhatnagar leads the Stress Neurobiology Program at CHOP, and many of her co-authors are members of the PennCHOP Microbiome Program, a collaboration between researchers at CHOP and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The program aims to better understand the communities of microbes inside our bodies and alter their properties to improve human health. 

“Although much more research remains to be done, we can envision future applications in which we could leverage knowledge of microbiome-brain interactions to treat human psychiatric disorders,” Dr. Bhatnagar said. “People already are taking over-the-counter probiotics as supplements. If we can eventually validate beneficial behavioral effects from specific bacteria, we could set the stage for new psychiatric treatments.”

CAR Researchers Share Findings at 2019 INSAR Annual Meeting

Two Center for Autism Research (CAR) at CHOP scientists were among international experts selected to present the results of innovative studies shaping the field of autism research at the 2019 annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) in Montreal May 1 to 4. 

Study leader Julia Parish-Morris, PhD, a CAR scientist and faculty member in the Departments of Child Psychiatry and Biomedical and Health Informatics, discussed how a new virtual reality-based police safety module appears to be a safe and feasible method of training adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) on how to interact with the police. Approximately one in five adolescents with ASD will be stopped and questioned by a police officer before the age of 21. 

Researchers from CAR tested the program in 60 autistic individuals between the ages of 12 and 60 years old. Participants completed up to three visits during phase 1 of the study, during which they engaged in four two-minute interactions with virtual police officers. At the end of this phase of the study, 80 percent of participants said they would like to use this program again.

“This study showed us that this new technology is a safe and feasible with no serious adverse effects,” Dr. Parish-Morris said. “We are about to begin a randomized control trial that will test whether the skills learned with a virtual reality program will translate into positive interactions with live police officers.” 

The new study is funded by a $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Whitney Guthrie, PhD, a scientist and co-director of the Data and Statistical Core at CAR, discussed whether a routine developmental screening in primary care could identify developmental deceleration and whether this could be used to improve early detection of ASD.

Research shows children benefit most from early intervention, ideally autism-specific therapies before a child's third birthday.

The CAR study team used data collected from the Survey of Well-being in Young Children (SWYC) Developmental Milestones, which is typically administered at well-child visits at 9 months, 18 months, and 24 to 30 months. They included all patients with at least one SWYC screening in primary care who were followed in the CHOP system through at least 4 years of age.

Researchers identified a subgroup of children who showed developmental deceleration using a brief, 10-item screener. They also found that children who showed this developmental deceleration had an elevated risk of being diagnosed later with ASD compared with children who did not show developmental deceleration.

“Our findings demonstrate that clear developmental deceleration can be detected through the routine developmental screenings that primary care pediatricians are already administering,” Dr. Guthrie said. “In addition to their current utility in identifying developmental delays, our results suggest that these routine developmental screeners may also help us identify children who are at risk for ASD, but may be missed by our traditional autism screeners. We are encouraged by these results, which may move us closer to the goal of identifying all children with ASD as early as possible.”

INSAR's annual meeting is the world's largest gathering of scientists and specialists to exchange and disseminate the latest scientific discoveries and stimulate progress into the nature, causes, and treatments for ASD.

Google Search Content Could Inform Family Education and Support

Charles Phillips, MD, MSHP, a pediatric oncologist at CHOP, led a National Institutes of Health-funded study that investigated parents' online Google searches before and after their child's cancer diagnosis. He found that, among other things, parents frequently focus on ways to best support their child and on logistical issues, such as directions to medical centers and appropriate pharmacies. 

“There's been a lot of research into what people say they want to find online, but little is known about the specific, granular details that parents of cancer patients seek out,” Dr. Phillips said. “To our knowledge, this is the first study of online Google searches by parents of children with cancer.”

Phillips and colleagues published the results of their pilot study online in Pediatric Blood and Cancer. Results demonstrated that parents performed health-related searches at more than twice the rate performed by the general population — 13 percent versus 5 percent of total Google searches. Parents' Google use peaked approximately one month after their child’s cancer diagnosis. 

Eighteen percent of health-related searches (about 1,900 out of 11,000) were cancer-specific, and more than half of the cancer-specific searches were for cancer support. Among the overall health-related searches, 31 percent were for “symptoms, disease and medical information,” followed closely by 29 percent for “information about hospital/care sites/pharmacy.” 

A notable finding was the uptick in symptom searches in the months before a child was actually diagnosed, which Dr. Phillips said was in accordance with his experience with families. “Every time I meet with parents for the first time after a diagnosis, they tell me, ‘I knew that something wasn't right,’” he said.

While he cautioned against overgeneralizing from the current small, single-center study, Dr. Phillips said the study findings could inform family support and education. For example, hospitals might design educational interventions to help parents better navigate the internet for cancer information, and researchers could evaluate such interventions in a randomized trial. Next steps might include larger studies covering a broader variety of cancers or a larger range of online information sources, such as a future paired study to investigate how adolescent patients search for health information, compared to how their parents search.

Pediatric Telehealth Research Network Gets Funding Boost

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is a sub-awardee of a $3.6 million primary grant to The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) for the SPROUT (Supporting Pediatric Research on Outcomes and Utilization of Telehealth)-Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program Collaborative Telehealth Research Network. This five-year grant is focused on supporting the development of telehealth research efforts, metric development, identification of best practices, and the development of collaborative policy and advocacy materials across the country.

It builds on work already underway as part of the SPROUT collaborative, an established network of institutions and pediatric providers operating within the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is another sub-awardee of the grant along with the University of Colorado – Children’s Hospital Colorado and Mercy Clinic in St. Louis, Missouri.

The program will operate in collaboration with CTSA sites across the country to facilitate research development and support current and future telehealth researchers to develop projects and apply for funding. As opposed to supporting a specific clinical research study, this grant seeks to establish an easily accessible support structure around telehealth research: tools, resources, guidance, collaboration, education, and advocacy materials that will be valuable to anyone across the country who wants to study telehealth programs.

Four Proposals Receive Seed Funds to Develop Medical Devices for Children

The Pennsylvania Pediatric Medical Device Consortium (PDDC) announced its latest round of seed grants to companies developing medical devices for children. Four companies chosen from 11 finalists will receive seed grants of $50,000 each. The new round of awards is the sixth by the PPDC.

“This year’s sponsored project competition attracted the highest number of applications ever submitted to the PPDC,” said Robert Levy, MD, PDDC principal investigator and cardiologist at CHOP. “These pediatric medical devices chosen for PPDC support have great promise.”

The devices being developed are a rapid platelet monitoring system for newborns, a tracheostomy tube dislodgement alarm, a novel electrically based intravenous catheter insertion system, and a negative pressure noninvasive ventilator for newborn intensive care.

Funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and based at CHOP, the PPDC provides know-how and seed funding to help innovators translate promising ideas into commercial medical devices for use in children. The PPDC is a collaboration involving CHOP, the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and sciVelo (both of the University of Pittsburgh), Drexel University, and the University of Pennsylvania.


CHOP Awarded Inaugural Eagles Autism Challenge Grants

Last year’s inaugural Eagles Autism Challenge raised $2.5 million to address the complexities of autism through collaborative research among founding beneficiary partners Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Drexel University, and Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health. These organizations aim to share their discoveries to advance autism research in Philadelphia and around the world. 

Putting the event goals into action, the Eagles Autism Challenge recently awarded $936,000 to CHOP researchers to support three clinical research projects. All submitted proposals were reviewed by a distinguished scientific peer review panel and evaluated for potential for measureable outcomes and impact in the field of autism research. Each of the funded projects at CHOP seek to clarify the interplay of autism and co-occurring conditions. As participants gear up and excitement builds for this year’s Challenge, happening May 18, Cornerstone spoke with the principal investigator from each project to learn more about their work. 

Support Team CHOP: It’s not too late to support your CHOP colleagues and patients participating in the Eagles Autism Challenge May 18!  Make a donation to any member of Team CHOP, and help reach the goal of raising more $2.5M for autism research and care.

Catch up on our headlines from our last edition of In the News:

  • Experts Convene for Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting
  • Helmet Safety Researcher Featured by ESPN, WaPo
  • Beverly Davidson Elected VP, Board of Directors of American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy
  • Study Finds Gene-based Clotting Factor Prevents Bleeding in Animals With Hemophilia
  • Researchers Treat Lethal Lung Disease In Utero via CRISPR Gene Editing

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