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Research at CHOP: It's Not Just a Job, It's an Adventure!

Published on
May 15, 2015

Bookended by references to the 1980s and 1990s — in the form of an iconic U.S. Navy commercial and a discussion of the 1991 measles outbreak in Philadelphia — the 2015 CHOP Research Institute Scientific Symposium offered a snapshot of the inspirational work going on at CHOP every day. Researchers from a variety of disciplines gave talks on everything from the challenges intrinsic to running a large research enterprise, to the human microbiome, to traumatic brain injury.

The day started off with a presentation from Dennis Durbin, MD, MSCE, director of CHOP Research’s Office of Clinical and Translational Research (OCTR). Dr. Durbin, who took OCTR’s reins a little more than a year ago after many at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention, is a recognized leader in pediatric injury prevention research. Discussing his time at the helm of OCTR, Dr. Durbin compared the work of aiding investigations to the aforementioned Navy commercial, the tagline of which is “Navy. It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure”.

The morning’s first session saw two more presentations, including one from gene therapy expert Beverly Davidson, PhD, whose talk was largely focused on the neurodegenerative disorder Huntington’s disease. Characterized by uncontrolled movements and progressively worsening mood issues and cognitive abilities, the condition affects approximately 10 to 17 per 100,000 live births. Dr. Davidson and her team have been investigating using gene therapy to treat Huntington’s disease in animal models.

Dr. Davidson’s presentation set the tone for much of the rest of the day, as many symposium presentations were highly focused, often basic, microbiological, immunological, and genetic investigations. An exception was the presentation by the Center for Injury Research and Prevention’s Yi-Ching Lee, PhD, on her work developing computational techniques to model teen drivers’ behaviors.

Let’s Do Lunch

The timing of the symposium’s external keynote speech — by Ronald M. Evans, PhD, of the Salk Institute — was particularly appropriate this year. As attendees ate lunch, Dr. Evans gave a talk on nuclear receptors, a class of proteins that play a key role in metabolism.

A faculty member at the Salk Institute since 1978, Dr. Evans has also been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 1985. His numerous awards and honors include a 2004 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award and the 2012 Wolf Prize in Medicine.

During his speech, Dr. Evans discussed the research that led to the development of fexaramine, and investigational compound developed in his laboratory that, per the Salk Institute, “tricks the body into thinking it has consumed calories, causing it to burn fat.”

In short, fexaramine, “reduces diet-induced weight gain, body-wide inflammation and hepatic glucose production,” write Dr. Evans and colleagues in a February Nature Medicine study. The drug’s “pronounced metabolic improvements suggest tissue-restricted FXR activation as a new approach in the treatment of obesity and metabolic syndrome,” the authors write.

After lunch, attendees settled in for a series of talks about vaccinology, genetics, neurology, and oncology. A highlight was the presentation given by former Research Institute Chief Scientific Officer Philip R. Johnson, MD, on his lab’s work developing an HIV vaccine. Dr. Johnson’s efforts have led to a Phase 1 clinical trial sponsored by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative to study the safety of the vector carrying the broadly neutralizing antibody PG9, which has been shown to protect against HIV.

And last, but most certainly not least, the day’s events were capped off by a presentation by Paul A. Offit, MD. Perhaps CHOP’s best-known vaccine advocate, Dr. Offit is co-creator of the rotavirus vaccine Rotateq, director of CHOP’s Vaccine Education Center, and author of numerous books, the latest of which is Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine.

Dr. Offit’s talk, “The Philadelphia Measles Epidemic: Lesson from the Past or Prologue to the Future,” discussed the 1991 Philadelphia measles outbreak in depth, with a focus on the role several churches played in the outbreak. Though it was largely dormant in the U.S. for many years, measles seems to be somewhat resurgent, with 166 cases diagnosed between January 1 and April 24, 2015, in the District of Columbia and 17 states across the U.S., according to the CDC. The recent rise in measles cases is largely due to children and adults not being vaccinated.

“The reason that we’re hearing about these epidemics is because parents aren’t vaccinating their children because they’re not scared of the disease,” Dr. Offit said. “But I am.”

To learn more about the day, and to see the entire 2015 CHOP Research Institute Symposium’s lineup of presentations, check out the Symposium web page.