Others Also Recognized for Outstanding Work
A pioneer in the development of artificial surfactant — the substance that has helped a generation of infants survive premature birth — has received the first Career Achievement Award bestowed by Cincinnati Children’s.
Jeffrey Whitsett, MD, co-director of the Perinatal Institute, was honored for decades of work advancing neonatology and pulmonary medicine. He received the award in February, along with 14 other physicians and scientists at Cincinnati Children’s who were recognized for leadership in a variety of areas.
More than 40,000 premature infants in the United States, and many more worldwide, are alive today thanks in large part to Whitsett’s contributions to surfactant research.
During the 1980s, research conducted by Whitsett and Timothy Weaver, PhD, led to the successful cloning of proteins vital to surfactant replacement therapy. Whitsett’s laboratory also has helped identify genes critical for lung formation and function. He continues to investigate transcriptional controls and signaling cascades that guide respiratory tract development as well as gene mutations that can trigger lung disease in infants and adults.
Since joining Cincinnati Children’s in 1977, Whitsett has published more than 400 peer-reviewed papers and has trained neonatologists who oversee nearly every birth in Greater Cincinnati. He has excelled as a mentor, an entrepreneur and an outspoken advocate for children.
Whitsett is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He has received the Mead Johnson Award, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Merit Award, the first Julius Comroe Lectureship in Pulmonary Research from FASEB, the William Cooper Procter Award from Cincinnati Children’s, and the Amberson Lecture Award of the American Thoracic Society. In 2001, Whitsett also received the Daniel Drake Medal, the highest honor awarded by the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, in recognition of his many scientific contributions.
New Company Aims to Improve Quality, Outcomes
Cincinnati Children’s has joined with CincyTech, a regional venture development organization, to launch QI Healthcare, a company that will market quality improvement software developed at Cincinnati Children’s.
The new company plans to offer a suite of products to help hospitals improve outcomes and efficiency. Its first product, the Surgical Outcomes Collection System (SOCS) , aggregates data from multiple hospital records systems to analyze cases and identify opportunities to improve care.
SOCS was designed and developed at Cincinnati Children’s and has been in use for more than a year.
“The real power of this software is in the ability to analyze every significant patient case,” says Frederick Ryckman, MD, one of the software’s developers. Ryckman is a pediatric surgeon and senior vice president of Medical Operations at Cincinnati Children’s.
“Before SOCS we spent countless hours manually gathering data,” he says. “SOCS improves the process through automation and enhanced analytics – and frees up clinical resources to focus on quality improvement.”
Recent federal legislation provides incentives to hospitals to improve quality, creating a business opportunity for products like SOCS.
Cincinnati entrepreneur and health-tech executive John Atkinson will serve as QI Healthcare’s chief executive officer. Atkinson’s experience includes senior leadership roles at WebMD, Mede America and SourceMedical.
Morales Joins Heart Institute
David Morales, MD, has joined Cincinnati Children’s as chief of cardiovascular surgery and executive co-director of the Heart Institute.
Morales came to Cincinnati Children’s from Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, where he built a reputation as an international leader in pediatric heart surgery.
“Dr. Morales performs more than 250 surgeries per year, with excellent outcomes for all procedures and all ages, including neonates,” says Jeffrey Towbin, MD, Heart Institute co-executive director. “He is widely considered a star in congenital and cardiothoracic surgery and among the best and most experienced pediatric heart/lung transplant surgeons and complex congenital heart surgeons worldwide.”
Morales also is an accomplished researcher, especially in the field of pediatric ventricular assist devices (VADS), which help support patients while they wait for suitable donor organs to be found for transplant. His work includes more than 90 publications, 12 book chapters and 125 invited talks.
“His career has been characterized by his urge to excel as well as his drive to collaborate. In these respects, he is a perfect fit for the culture we enjoy at Cincinnati Children’s as well as the mission and vision that drive the Heart Institute,” says Jeffrey Robbins, PhD, executive co-director of the Heart Institute.
Morales received his medical degree at Yale University Medical School. He trained in general surgery and cardiothoracic surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, then completed training in congenital heart surgery as the Edward A. Jones Fellow in Congenital Heart Surgery at Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine. He is board certified in surgery, thoracic surgery and congenital heart surgery.
Pulmonary Hypertension Biobank Will Be World’s Largest
Cincinnati Children’s will soon become a national biobank for scientists searching for better ways to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), thanks to a five-year, $10 million federal grant awarded to the Division of Human Genetics.
William Nichols, PhD, will be principal investigator for a project that will collect clinical data and blood samples from more than 2,500 PAH patients followed at 23 medical centers. Genetic data generated from the samples will be shared with researchers worldwide. The grant is funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
The biobank specifically targets “World Health Organization group 1 pulmonary arterial hypertension.” This group includes PAH that is inherited or caused by certain drugs or toxins; that is caused by congenital heart disease and other conditions; and that has no known cause.
Approximately 1,000 new cases of WHO Group 1 PAH are diagnosed each year, a subset of the 100,000 cases of pulmonary hypertension diagnosed annually. Despite recent advances, the five-year survival rate is still only about 60 percent.
The relative rarity of PAH cases has been an obstacle for scientists working to identify the genes, molecular pathways and biomarkers related to the disease. That in turn has slowed efforts to develop improved treatments.
“This new biobank will become the world’s largest collection of patient samples for this disease,” Nichols says. “Once we receive samples, we will generate whole-genome SNP data and make that information available to other researchers along with the patient samples and associated clinical data. We also will sequence three or four genes known to contribute to the disease for mutations.”
The grant is the largest ever received by the Division of Human Genetics and one of several recent grants to Cincinnati Children’s that exceed $10 million.
“We believe this project will provide a much-needed catalyst for accelerating the effort to identify novel therapies for treating this devastating disorder,” Nichols says.
Promising Lead Drug Halts Disease-Feeding Inflammation
Finding new drugs that block disease-fueling inflammation in the blood has long been fraught with problems of toxicity. Now, a team of Cincinnati Children’s researchers has identified a class of compounds that appear to sidestep those problems.
Yi Zheng, PhD, Marie-Dominique Filippi, PhD, and a team from the Division of Experimental Hematology and Cancer Biology at Cincinnati Children’s discovered a class of chemicals, Phox-I, that slows down excessive production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) molecules in inflammatory blood cells. Zheng was lead investigator on the study, published in the Feb. 24 issue of Chemistry & Biology.
Using computer-assisted drug design, the team found that one substance, Phox-I, precisely targeted a single component of the NOX2 enzyme network, which drives ROS production in white blood cells. The work was verified in lab tests on both human and animal inflammatory cells.
“Drugs that potently and specifically target ROS production by NOX2 enzyme are an unmet clinical need that will have far-reaching implications for treatment of inflammatory diseases,” says Zheng, director of Experimental Hematology and Cancer Biology at Cincinnati Children’s. “The lead candidate we developed, Phox-I, shows promising anti-inflammation activity in cells and mouse models.”
A significant amount of additional research is needed before Phox-I can be tested in humans, Zheng says. The research team continues to experiment with structural alterations to make the compounds more potent in inhibiting excessive ROS production without being toxic to normal cells.
The results are part of an application filed by Cincinnati Children’s with the United States Patent Office for Phox-I inhibitors. The medical center’s Center for Technology Commercialization is exploring opportunities to rapidly advance continuing research and development of the compounds that could possibly accelerate their transition to future clinical testing.
The research was funded by an innovation grant from CincyTech USA and a National Institutes of Health Small Business Technology Transfer Grant.
Surgical Mission to Ghana Goes Beyond Treating Tough Cases
The one thing these volunteers did not want to do was swoop into this West African nation, do a batch of operations, and go home.
Thirty-two children did receive complex surgeries to repair rare colorectal and gynecological conditions. But the 34-member team organized by Marc Levitt, MD, director of the Colorectal Center at Cincinnati Children’s, did far more.
They provided three shipping containers packed with donated medical equipment, supplies and gifts for the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra. They renovated a 21-room Mothers’ Hostel. And they provided advanced training to dozens of doctors and nurses so that many more Ghanaian children will benefit in years to come.
The mission included 34 surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses and volunteers, who traveled to Ghana in March 2012. Team members came from the U.S., the Netherlands, Israel and South Africa to run three operating rooms for five days. Some of the patients had been waiting years for treatment.
“This is part of our commitment to education and our mission to improve outcomes for all children,” Levitt says. “Our goal is to help them become a regional referral center for a large part of western Africa.”