Bill Holmes Tower Exterior at CHOC

First batch of awardees announced for new Chief Scientific Officer small grant program

When Dr. Terence Sanger started at CHOC in January 2020 as its first vice president for research and chief scientific officer, one of his priorities was to “Go Beyond” by making the CHOC Research Institute more robust.

One example of how he’s going about that is a new small grant program he’s funding that is open to all CHOC associates, staff, and faculty with principal investigator (PI) status.

The first batch of awardees in the CSO Small Grant Program, which launched in the third quarter of the current fiscal year, has been announced. Research projects of the winning applicants – 12 of 23 were awarded funding – range from virtual reality training for autism caregivers to racial and ethnic influences in adolescent obesity to the use of artificial intelligence to predict COVID-19 and related diseases.

The amount of all grants totaled $589,365, with recipients receiving up to $75,000 each, says Aprille Tongol, CSO Small Grants Program administrator. In the coming fiscal year, Dr. Sanger, a physician, engineer, and computational neuroscientist who also is vice chair of research for pediatrics at the UCI School of Medicine, will award a total of $1 million in CSO grants, Tongol says.

The CSO Small Grant Program aims to develop promising new research, expand current research activities, and encourage collaboration internally and externally with CHOC research partners. The program promotes and supports CHOC researchers who aspire to leverage research to improve the quality of care, patient outcomes, and well-being for children.

Virtual reality training and autism

Casey Clay, PhD,director of the Behavior Program at the Thompson Autism Center (TAC), was awarded a grant for a project that will examine if a newly developed virtual reality (VR) simulation using behavioral skills training (BST) is effective for training parents of children with autism who exhibit challenging behavior.

Clay says VR simulation is an improvement to typical training because it may increase skills of trainees without exposing them, or individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), to risk such as aggression, property destruction, etc.

Clay’s project builds off previous research he did at the University of Missouri, where he worked before joining CHOC in January 2020. That prior project involved training pre-clinical students to work with kids with autism. Clay’s CHOC project will do the same for parents or caregivers of children with ASD.

“Using the simulation, parents will follow training methods to engage with a virtual avatar and try to say and do the right things and arrange the environment in the right way,” Clay explains. “The idea is to work collaboratively with parents to build their skills at increasing appropriate behavior, and modifying the environment to decrease challenging behavior.”

Clay’s one-year project will begin in August 2021. He plans to sign up 16 teams of parents/children and measure pre- and post-skill levels of the participants, as well as assess parents’ acquired skills with live children during intervention sessions.

“This VR simulation will give parents the opportunity to practice and get immediate feedback from a clinician,” Clay says. “And it’s the practice that makes behavioral intervention effective over time.”

Clay praised the launch of the CSO Small Grants Program.

“It’s a great opportunity to jump start a lot of research,” he says.

Adolescent obesity study

Dr. Uma Rao, director of education and research in psychiatry at CHOC, was awarded a grant to study obesity in adolescents in the African-American, Hispanic/Latina, and Non-Hispanic White female population. The goal of the study is to reduce racial/ethnic health disparities and morbidity and mortality in this population, says Rao, also a professor and vice chair for child and adolescent psychiatry, psychiatry, and human behavior at the UCI School of Medicine.

Adolescence is a critical period for the development and life-long persistence of obesity, a public health epidemic with a range of short- and long-term medical and psychosocial problems and earlier death, Dr. Rao notes.

Her CSO grant is supplemental to a parent grant funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That study, which Rao began in 2018, is assessing biobehavioral processes and social/environmental factors associated with obesity risk from a multi-dimensional perspective in the African-American, Hispanic/Latina, and Non-Hispanic White female population.

The aim of the CSO grant is to identify early stages of liver fibrosis and type 2 diabetes in these samples and assess whether inflammatory biomarkers serve as risk mechanisms for these two obesity-related disease outcomes. 

Knowledge regarding the underlying mechanisms of obesity-related disease burden among high-risk groups will be helpful in early detection and developing effective personalized interventions, thereby reducing racial/ethnic health disparities, morbidity and mortality associated with the obesity epidemic, Dr. Rao says.

Ultimately, she says, the goal is to enroll 300 participants in the study – 100 from each of the three ethnic groups. Participants will range in age from 13 to 17.

“We hope this research ultimately leads to the development of more personalized interventions for these groups to reduce disparities, which cause real havoc,” Dr. Rao says.

List of grant awardees

The second group of awardees of CSO grants was notified on Monday, June 21, 2021.

Here are the 12 recipients of the first round of CSO grants with a brief description of their projects:

Lisa Murdock, RN — Evaluation of a Nurse-Administered Screening Tool to Identify Victims of Child Trafficking in Patients with High-Risk Chief Complaints in a Pediatric Emergency Department

Dr. Autumn Ivy — Identifying Targetable Epigenetic Mechanisms of Early-Life Seizures and Exercise Intervention

Dr. Van Huynh — Utility of Antifungal Prophylaxis to Prevent Invasive Fungal Disease in Pediatric and Adolescent Patients with Hematologic Malignancy

Michelle Fortier, PhD — Opioid Prescribing Patterns in Pediatric and Young Adult Cancer Patients

Dr. Diane Nugent – COVID Antibody Response in Children: Protection and Risk for MIS-C and Late Effects

Dr. Suresh Magge — School-age Outcomes in Patients with Single Suture Craniosynostosis After Endoscopic-assisted Strip Craniectomy and Orthotic Therapy

Dr. Lilibeth Torno — Monitoring of Plasma Cell Free DNA BRAF V600E+ Mutations in Patients with Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis

Casey Clay, PhD — Virtual Reality Training for Autism Caregivers

Alexander Stover, MS — Derivation and Characterization of an NDUFAF5 Mouse Model for the Study of Mitochondrial Complex I Disorders

Louis Ehwerhemuepha, PhD — Artificial Intelligence for Prediction of COVID-19, MIS-C, and Juvenile Dermatomyositis

Dr. Theodore Heyming — Identification of Social and Environmental Determinants of Pediatric Health in an Emergency Setting and Referral Utilization

Dr. Uma Rao — Racial/Ethnic Influences in Adolescent Obesity: Risk Mechanisms for Disease Burden