Study of COVID-19 infection rates among CHOC’s Emergency Department personnel suggests most got virus through community exposure

A team from CHOC has published original research on the prevalence of COVID-19 infection among its Emergency Department workers during the early stages of the pandemic.

A key finding of the study, called PASSOVER (Provider Antibody Serology Study of Virus in the Emergency Room), suggests that most infections were transmitted through community exposure rather than co-workers, although the study stopped short of drawing a definitive conclusion based on the relatively small sample size of workers who agreed to be tested for SARS-CoV-2.

Researchers observed a seroconversion rate of about one new positive case every two days during the period from April 14-May 13, 2020, during which 143 CHOC ED personnel were repeatedly tested for the virus. They included doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, medical technicians, secretaries, monitor technicians, and additional administrative staff.

“The acquisition of seropositivity in our study group appeared to follow a linear trend, which is not consistent with the exponential rate of growth that would be expected for transmission within a closely interacting group of people,” the study concludes.

The research project, the results of which were electronically published on April 9, 2021 in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, was led by Dr. Theodore Heyming, chair of emergency medicine at CHOC, and Dr. Terence Sanger, a physician, engineer, and computational neuroscientist and vice president, chief scientific officer at CHOC, and vice chair of research for pediatrics at the UCI School of Medicine. The other co-authors of the study are John Schomberg, PhD, CHOC’s Department of Nursing; and Aprille Tongol, Kellie Bacon, and Bryan Lara, all of CHOC’s Research Institute.

The study noted that there is limited data that is publicly available on the seroprevalence of SARS-CoV-2 among healthcare workers. Another of the report’s key findings was that rapid antibody testing may be useful for screening for SARS-CoV-2 seropositivity in high-risk populations such as healthcare workers in the ED.

In the CHOC study, blood samples were obtained from asymptomatic ED workers by fingerstick at the start of each shift from April 14-May 13, 2020. Each worker’s blood sample was obtained every four days until the end of the study period. In addition, a nasopharyngeal swab (NPS) was collected from each participant on the date of study entry.

At the time of the study, 35 percent of the participants had known exposure to a COVID-19-positive individuals within the preceding five days.

Depending on the method used for analysis, the seroprevalence of SARS-CoV-2 among CHOC’s pediatric ED workers ranged from 2 percent to 10.5 percent – levels that were slightly higher than those reported for the local general population, the study found.

“This study would benefit from replication at additional sites that draw from larger samples of ED staff,” the report says.

Learn more about CHOC’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

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Neurosurgery Institute leaders discuss innovations and their successes, and the need for much more work to be done

Two of CHOC’s leading pediatric neurosurgeons recently shared their insights on how innovation is helping to close the gap between clinical needs and the availability of pediatric devices, but how there is much more work to be done to get critically ill kids the treatments they need.

The webinar, “From Clinical Insight to Commercialization: Innovations That Can Transform Pediatric Healthcare,” featured Dr. Suresh N. Magge, CHOC CS Neurosurgery Division Chief, and co-director of CHOC’s Neuroscience Institute, and Dr. Michael G. Muhonen, the institute’s previous co-director.

Hosting the “OC LIFe (Lifesciences Innovators Forum)” on April 28, 2021 was Dr. Terence Sanger, a physician, engineer, and computational neuroscientist and vice president, chief scientific officer at CHOC, and vice chair of research for pediatrics at the UCI School of Medicine.

“As innovators, we should never be satisfied,” said Dr. Sanger, who specializes in movement disorders and who helped pioneer deep brain stimulation, which has yielded positive outcomes. “An innovative and collaborative approach is required so that pediatric patients can have access to the fit-for-purpose devices they need.”

Brain tumor treatments

Drs. Magge and Muhonen took turns discussing new neurosurgical technologies and opportunities for interventions.

Dr. Magge focused on new technology that has been used to treat brain tumors, which are a different breed compared to adult brain tumors. More often, Dr. Magge said, pediatric brain tumors are of a lower grade and can be treated.

“Many kids have gone on to live good lives thanks to innovation, research, and applying the technologies we have,” Dr. Magge said.

In one example, he detailed how microsurgical techniques have greatly aided in the removal of a craniopharyngioma, a benign tumor that usually arises in the base of the brain near the pituitary gland that can be dangerous or life threatening if not treated.

“If you can get the tumor out,” Dr. Magge said, “you can cure the patient. But it’s challenging because it’s in a deep part of the brain.” 

During the procedure, the neurosurgeon must locate some of the natural divides of the brain and separate them out to get to the tumor. Microsurgery allows the neurosurgeon to work between very narrow areas.

With a technology known as surgical navigation, neurosurgeons can pinpoint exactly where they are in the brain and get to very specific areas. Another technology is a powerful microscope that magnifies small areas of the brain. In addition, ultrasound and MRI within the operating room can tell you in surgery if there is any tumor left. 

“This is all thanks to innovation and technology that we are incorporating in surgery,” Dr. Magge said.

Dr. Magge then discussed medulloblastomas, one of the most common types of tumors neurosurgeons see in kids. Such large tumors grow in the lower back part of the brain — the cerebellum, which is involved in muscle coordination, balance, and movement.

Thirty years ago, Dr. Magge said, kids with medulloblastomas received high doses of radiation that left a lot of them with severe cognitive and hormonal deficits.

The treatment for medulloblastomas had evolved so that less radiation is used in the treatment. In addition, in the last decade, researchers have discovered that these tumors differ significantly based on their genetic makeup.

“These tumors have multiple genetic subtypes, and we can target them genetically with different types of treatments,” Dr. Magge explained.

He said innovation also has led to advances in the treatment of diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas (DIGP), highly aggressive and difficult-to-treat brain tumors that grow in an area of the brainstem that controls many of the body’s most vital functions such as breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate.

The prognosis for DIPGs remains very poor because they are considered non-resectable tumors – ones that cannot be removed with surgery. Life expectancy is eight to 12 months after diagnosis.

“This is one of the toughest diagnoses we have to give to families because of the lack of good treatment options,” Dr. Magge said.

For years, biopsies were ruled out because they could cause significant side effects, and neurosurgeons saw no point in performing them since there were no treatments. Without biopsies, the tumor tissue could not be studied in a lab for potentially effective treatments. 

Technology has changed this is the last 10 years, Dr. Magge said, thanks to stereotactically guided needles that allow neurosurgeons to perform DIPG biopsies safely.

“We at CHOC and other pediatric hospitals have shown we can do this safely with minimum morbidity,” said Dr. Magge, who has participated in a large clinical trial regarding DIPG biopsies.

“With this technology, we can get tissue and genetically sequence these tumors and find out if there are certain mutations that are particularly amenable to certain treatments,” Dr. Magge said of this precision-medicine approach. 

“These are small steps along the path,” he added. “We have by no means found all the answers. We have so much farther to go, but I think we’re on the right track.” 

Closing the gap

Dr. Muhonen recalled one of the first patients he saw when he came to Orange County in 1995: a young girl with severe spasms in her legs. She couldn’t walk without assistance.

“We had to do something innovative,” Dr. Muhonen said.

He had injected baclofen, a muscle relaxer and antispasmodic agent, into the spinal column of an adult the year before, but never in a child. After receiving approval to do so, he implanted a device that allowed long-term injection of baclofen in the girl’s spinal cord. Six months later, she was able to walk and even run on her own.

In another example of innovation, Dr. Muhonen worked for five years on helping to develop a wireless sensor to measure pressure in the brain. The FDA approved the device for adults, but has yet to for children.

Most companies get medical devices approved for adults because it’s easier, because there’s a larger patient population, and there’s more money to be made. 

“The bulk of challenges associated with developing and accelerating pediatric medical devices is market-driven,” Dr. Muhonen said. “We want children to get the best possible care available, but the relative market size is small compared to adults, which is one reason some device makers avoid it.”

One of Dr. Muhonen’s chief interests is treating hydrocephalus, the buildup of fluid in the ventricles deep within the brain.

Innovation in this area has been a long time coming, he said, since the invention in the early 1950s of a shunt that drained fluid from the brain into the abdominal cavity. Many problems can occur with the shunt, such as spontaneously twisting up into a knot due to a child’s movement or calcifying and breaking apart after being in the body for a long time. Kids who received a shunt typically face more than 10 surgeries, Dr. Muhonen said.

“The holy grail for pediatric neurosurgeons is, can we create a ‘smart shunt?’” Dr. Muhonen said.

An ideal shunt, he said, could be programmed to drain a specific amount of water and measure pressure.

Dr. Muhonen said a derivative from cone snails is inspiring research into a new generation of painkillers for adults, but has yet to be approved for testing on kids.

Impediments to innovation

Dr. Sanger asked Drs. Magge and Muhonen about impediments to pediatric innovation. Ethically, he posited, shouldn’t new devices and other innovations be tested in adults first? 

“I don’t think there are any easy answers to this,” Dr. Magge said. “It’s difficult. You don’t just do a biopsy on a tumor that might help kids in the future. If you perform surgery on a child, there has to be some potential benefit to that child.”

Dr. Muhonen said children are the most vulnerable of society and thus are the worthiest of innovations in healthcare. 

Dr. Magge said he and others at CHOC have been looking at ways to inject dyes to paint brain tumors to more easily distinguish them from healthy brain tissue.

“Sometimes the tumor is obvious, sometimes it’s more challenging,” he said.  While dye injections have been used in adults, it is less commonly used in children.

Dr. Sanger mentioned “big effect sizes” resulting from innovation in pediatric medicine. 

“We’re used to the idea of statistical research involving a lot of patients,” he said. “But this is a different type of research. You take someone who has never walked before and now they’re running. You take someone who is going to die of a brain tumor and now they’re not. These are very big effect sizes.” 

“There are good reasons for the regulations we have,” Dr. Magge said. “That being said, that doesn’t mean we can’t innovate. And there are mechanisms for us to do that, and to do it safely.

“Our first motto is, ‘Do no harm,’” Dr. Magge continued. “I always tell residents to do the right thing and treat each patient as if they were your own child. Doing the right thing means asking the right questions. ‘How can we do this better?’ You can always learn from everything you do. At the end of every procedure, you critique it. You’re constantly learning. That’s what I always encourage.” 

Dr. Sanger closed the session by noting that clinical evidence should ideally be reflective of the spectrum of pediatric patients and the developmental differences that can impact the use and effectiveness of medical devices.

“This is a collaborative effort,” he added. “CHOC is working closely with the FDA’s new System of Hospitals for Innovation in Pediatrics – Medical Devices (SHIP-MD) Program, our academic partners, industry, entrepreneurs and the investor community to close the gaps. Also, we are now practicing medicine in a world immersed with data. Advances in computing and health information technology have given rise to new sources and types of biomedical data. Clinicians know real-world data will continue to emerge as a source of clinical evidence.”

The Presenting Sponsor of the webinar, “From Clinical Insight to Commercialization: Innovations That Can Transform Pediatric Healthcare,”  was Biocom California, which connects life science organizations to each other so they can collaborate and work smarter together. The CHOC Research Institute co-sponsored the hour-plus session.

The webinar was presented in partnership with SBDC @ UCI Beall Applied Innovation, a resource for any high-technology, high-growth, scalable venture from the community or the UCI ecosystem that needs help with business planning, business development and funding-readiness.

Learn more about CHOC’s Neurosciences Institute

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Three-stage DBS results in better outcomes for secondary dystonia

Due to the complexity of secondary dystonia and the brain’s potentially unpredictable response, deep brain stimulation (DBS) has seldom been used in the treatment of this disorder. However, a CHOC neuroscientist has developed a breakthrough method of DBS to treat secondary dystonia in pediatric patients.

Dr. Terence Sanger, pediatric neurologist and chief scientific officer at CHOC, has pioneered a new surgical approach in DBS for pediatric secondary dystonia. Patients undergo three procedures rather than two, nullifying the need for patients to be awake during DBS surgery. Not only does this save children from the potentially traumatic experience of being awoken during brain surgery, it leads to significantly better outcomes in secondary dystonia treatment, with a current success rate between 85% and 90%.

Dr. Terence Sanger, pediatric neurologist and chief scientific officer at CHOC

Unlike patients receiving DBS for other disorders, where results can be observed during surgery, a child with secondary dystonia may have concerns with movements or actions that can’t be addressed on the operating table. For example, a child with secondary dystonia may have difficulty walking, but the physician cannot test DBS’ effectiveness by waking the child and asking him or her to walk.

To overcome this obstacle, Dr. Sanger and his team first insert test electrodes into the patient’s brain. The initial procedure is followed by a week of surveillance and testing. After selecting which electrodes are most effective at treating the patient’s symptoms, the team places permanent electrodes followed by a third procedure to implant the stimulator. The week between the placement of test electrodes and the placement of permanent electrodes allows Dr. Sanger and his team to observe which electrodes are effective.

“The biggest benefit of the three-procedure method is we know where the wires need to be in the patient’s brain for the most effective treatment,” Dr. Sanger says. “By the time we get to the third surgery, we know exactly what’s going to happen. As an engineer, I’m a big believer in measuring twice and cutting once, and effectively, that’s what these three procedures allow us to do. Every child’s brain is different, so we have to learn about how each brain operates before we can perform a successful surgery.”

In addition to his revolutionary procedure for secondary dystonia, Dr. Sanger believes in the future of neuroscience at CHOC.

“At CHOC, our tagline for research is ‘Go beyond,’ and I’ve never seen that belief more exemplified than in the work I’ve seen at our Neuroscience Institute,” Dr. Sanger says. “We are not going to improve pediatric neurology care by doing what other hospitals do, but better. We are going to improve by doing something different, like we’ve done with DBS for secondary dystonia. It’s very exciting, and I believe we have the opportunity to make a huge difference.”

Our Care and Commitment to Children Has Been Recognized

CHOC Children’s Hospital was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the neurology/neurosurgery specialty.

USNWR Neurology and Neurosurgery award

Learn how CHOC’s neuroscience expertise, coordinated care, innovative programs and specialized treatments preserve childhood for children in Orange County, Calif., and beyond.

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CHOC-UCI origami mask project gets some national attention

Back in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, in late March 2020, Jonathan Realmuto, a visiting scientist at CHOC and a postdoctoral researcher at UC Irvine, got a call from his lab leader, Dr. Terence Sanger.

Dr. Sanger, a physician, engineer, and computational neuroscientist who joined CHOC in January 2020 as its vice president of research and first chief scientific officer, was concerned about the possibility of CHOC running out of masks for its frontline healthcare workers.

“Could you please think about this problem and see if you can come up with a solution just in case the supply runs out?” Dr. Sanger asked Realmuto, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and whose expertise is wearable robotics, which help people regain and strengthen their movements.

Dr. Terence Sanger, chief scientific officer at CHOC

Since September 2017, the two had been working together after Realmuto earned his doctorate degree from the University of Washington.

Thus began the UCI Face Mask Project, a collaboration between Dr. Sanger and Realmuto that grew to a team of five that includes two other UCI professors, aerosol chemist Jim Smith and environmental toxologist Michael Kleinman, and Michael Lawler, an atmospheric chemist and assistant project scientist who works in Smith’s lab.

The work of the UCI Face Mask Project ultimately led to the creation of what experts call a mask for the masses — an inexpensive face covering that takes its cues from origami, the art of paper folding closely associated with Japanese culture.

No sewing is needed to make the origami mask – just a filter material that can be purchased at a craft or hardware store, a stapler, two elastic straps, and a nose clip fashioned from a metal wire such as a twist tie.

Illustrated directions for creating the origami mask

Realmuto was among several origami mask experts recently featured in a National Geographic story that highlights the inexpensive (less than $1 of materials per mask), disposal masks that can be made by anyone after a little practice. The story details how origami pleats and interlocking folds can result in better-fitting, more comfortable, and more stylish face coverings.

Dr. Sanger, who served in an advisory capacity on the UCI Face Mask Project, played a “very critical role” in developing the mask, which has not been mass produced but was designed in case there is a shortage of face coverings such as N95 masks, the gold standard at preventing expelled air leakage during coughing.

“CHOC and UCI were one of the first out of the gate to work on this,” says Realmuto, who with his colleagues has written a paper, “A Sew-Free Origami Mask for Improvised Respiratory Protection,” that details the research that went into the project.

The team put several masks through rigorous testing using a custom-made mannequin head equipped with a breathing tube and mounted inside a chamber.

The team concluded, in the paper they plan to get reviewed by peers and published, that origami masks combine high filtration efficiency with ease of breathing, minimal leakage that can dramatically reduce overall mask performance, and greater comfort compared to some commercial alternatives.

Because of this, origami face coverings are “likely to promote greater mask-wearing tolerance and acceptance,” the researchers concluded in their paper.

Says Realmuto: “Origami presents this really nice solution where you can use the folds as a way to make seams that won’t leak.”

The team produced a how-to video starring Realmuto, who shows how to construct the single-use masks. They tested a variety of materials that have an inner layer of non-woven polypropylene that can be easily and rapidly sourced locally from a hardware or craft store, in addition to a material made by Filti that can be purchased through the manufacturer.

“For a novice without prior experience,” they write, “construction takes approximately 10 minutes. In our experience, practice decreases assembly time to under five minutes.”

Dr. Sanger and Realmuto have collaborated on another unrelated project that earned them accolades. That project involved developing a non-rigid forearm orthosis – a brace to correct alignment or provide support – to help make it easier for people with movement disorders such as cerebral palsy to feed themselves, open doors, and complete other daily tasks. Their work made them finalists in the Best Paper category at the 2019 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Conference on Soft Robotics.

In July 2021, Realmuto will become a full-time assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UC Riverside. He says he hopes to maintain his collaboration with Dr. Sanger and CHOC on future projects.

“It’s been a great partnership,”Realmuto says.

For more information about the UCI Face Mask Project, click here.

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CHOC clinicians pitch ideas for new medical devices to UCI students

In the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at CHOC, most pre-term babies are not able to take all their food through a bottle until they’re closer to term. They also must rely on a tube connected to a feeding pump.

In hospitals that have a centralized room where technicians prepare feedings for the nurse, the feeding is often delivered pre-drawn up in a syringe since it is unknown if all of the feeding will be given via the tube or if the baby will be able to take some by mouth.

If the baby is alert enough to eat by mouth, the nurse would need to transfer some of the feeding from the syringe to a bottle. If the baby did not take the full volume in the bottle, the nurse would need to draw any remaining milk back into the syringe to be able to deliver it via a tube.

Because of all these steps, there’s a risk of contamination, misadministration (giving the wrong milk to the wrong baby) and a loss of nutrients caused by milk adhering to the side of the containers.

Wouldn’t it be great to create a device that could solve those concerns and make feeding premature infants safer and more efficient?

That was the concept presented by Michelle Roberts, a registered nurse and lactation consultant, to UCI biomedical engineering graduates at the annual UCI BioENGINE Reverse Project Pitch Night.

Undergraduates students in the BioENGINE Program (Bioengineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship) obtain hands-on experience in the technical and business development aspects of biomedical engineering as they work in teams to further develop med-tech startups into marketable products.

Roberts was among several CHOC associates who gave two-minute presentations at the Fall 2020 Reverse Project Pitch Night, held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kicking off the 90-minute session, which featured some 30 presenters, was Dr. Terence Sanger, a physician, engineer and computational neuroscientist who joined CHOC in January 2020 as its vice president of research and first chief scientific officer.

BioENGINE partners with the UCI School of Medicine, the Henry Samueli School of Engineering, the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, the Beckman Laser Institute, UCI Athletics and UCI Applied Innovation. 

At Reverse Project Pitch Night, physicians, scientists, clinicians and industry representatives describe their concepts for new medical devices. Students are matched with projects that interest them and are mentored by the presenters to help develop healthcare solutions.

“Physicians and engineers need to work together,” said Dr. Sanger, a child neurologist who specializes in movement disorders. “The goal is to identify an important problem, marry it to a piece of technology, and create a device in a way that will have an impact. Different knowledges have to be brought together, and personally I find that very inspiring.”

In the final quarter of 2020, the CHOC Research Institute sponsored three pediatric-focused projects that were presented at Reverse Project Pitch Night.

One software project, presented by Sira Medical, involves the use of patient-specific, high fidelity 3D holograms to enable surgeons to better understand complicated anatomy, collaboratively plan an operation, and virtually size medical implants — all before stepping into the operating room.

Another project, presented by Adventure BioFeedback, is designed to deliver speech therapy anywhere, anytime. The company is producing a series of audio linguistic tools that can analyze and learn on-the-fly from the utterances of children performing vocal exercises using a smartphone. 

The third CHOC Research Institute-sponsored project, NeuroDetect, places a patient’s own stem cells on a computer chip to replicate the brain chemistry of the neurological disorder in a laboratory environment and facilitate rapid development of precision-guided therapeutics.  

Roberts offered to serve as a mentor on her project along with Caroline Steele, director of Clinical Nutrition and Lactation Services at CHOC. Edwards Lifesciences is involved in designing the device.

Kaitlin Hipp, another CHOC NICU nurse, introduced her project, Touche, at BioENGINE Reverse Project Pitch Night. It’s a hands-free communications system for nurses and healthcare workers that is especially relevant in the era of COVID-19. The Bluetooth device can communicate with several devices – phones, monitors, etc. — thereby reducing or eliminating the need for nurses to touch the surfaces of items.

“We need to be better about using touchless technology in the healthcare setting,” Hipp said. “Long term, think of this as Alexa for healthcare providers.”

Dr. Timothy Flannery, a pediatric endocrinologist at CHOC, introduced Cervos, a non-invasive device to address cervical incompetence, which affects 1 percent of all pregnancies. The goal is to get Cervos approved for clinical trials at medical schools, Dr. Flannery said.

Dr. Sanger, in his remarks, noted CHOC’s critical mission of ramping up research to better address unmet healthcare needs by marrying engineering with healthcare.

“Medicine is about decision making,” Dr. Sanger said. “Biology is so complicated we can’t hope to ever understand it fully. When you want to make decisions in healthcare, you need to take measurements and design interventions that will respond to those measurements. In medicine, the goal is always to make the next big decision. You don’t even need to know the diagnosis if you can make the right decisions.”