CHOC, University Lab Partners establish unique training program for the next generation of biotech innovators

The CHOC Children’s Research Institute and University Lab Partners (ULP) have jointly developed a new science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), medical innovation and entrepreneurship program geared toward inspiring Orange County high school students to become the next generation of biotech innovators. 

Through the Medical Innovation and Entrepreneurship program, students will work alongside Orange County’s top leaders in innovation and medicine to gain a real-world view of the multidisciplinary skills needed to thrive in the biotech entrepreneurial world.

The program takes students on a journey from idea to innovation, while gaining the understanding of what is required to implement their vision. Student teams will work with industry mentors to solve real-world unmet clinical needs presented by CHOC clinicians, devising a proof-of-concept, an IP and patent strategy, and exit plan that they will pitch to industry leaders on the final day.

Through pediatric-focused case studies, customized lesson plans, team project work, and mentor opportunities, students will identify real-world solutions to issues that directly impact pediatric patients. Students will learn the role a clinician and engineer play as they navigate unmet clinical needs, hospital systems, care providers, and regulatory trends required for healthcare innovation.

In addition, The Young Entrepreneur OC will foster the next generation of leaders through the transformative experience of building a startup. While teaching the skills to build and lead a company, the program also coaches young people to identify and leverage successful pathways to reach personal and professional goals.

“The CHOC Research Institute is thrilled for the opportunity to help inspire the next generation of leaders in healthcare innovation, potentially laying the groundwork for great strides in translational science, medical device development, and basic science research,”  said Dr. Terence Sanger, CHOC’s vice president of research and chief scientific officer.

During the two-week program delivered through the North Orange County ROP, 60  students from five different school districts will learn the business of medtech and biotech through 50 hours of instruction, 10 hours of dedicated mentorship, and 20 hours of clinical needs assessments, project proposals/presentations, literature reviews, and intellectual property challenges. Students will earn 2.5  UC-transferable credits for their participation.

“By connecting our most precious commodity, our students, to businesses who will invest in them, this partnership benefits us all,” said Dr. Terri Giamarino, superintendent of NOCROP. “We want our students to remain in Orange County and be a part of our growth and sustainability.”

Said Dr. George Tolomiczenko, director of medical innovations at University of California, Irvine: “Clinical needs can take many forms in a healthcare setting. Success in meeting an unmet need relies on understanding the target disease, its underlying etiologies and subgroups. I’m looking forward to teaching these high school students how to refine an unmet clinical need.”

The Medical Innovation and Entrepreneurship High School work-based learning program is one of many projects that will launch from the partnership between the CHOC Research Institute and University Lab Partners. The effort brings together clinical skills, business development skills, hospital management, technology strategy, product ideation, and technology development to help support the larger Orange County biotech and medtech community.

“This partnership is a powerful collaboration that will help generate the energy needed to transform the healthcare industry through leading technology products and platforms. This immersive program transforms career exploration and discovery for Orange County students interested in pursuing an exciting career in innovation” said Karin Koch, ULP’s ecosystem director. 

Learn more about the CHOC Children’s Research Institute.

CHOC study shows reduced risk of emergency department COVID-19 infection

A new CHOC Children’s study that could help calm public fears about contracting COVID-19 shows that asymptomatic healthcare professionals who work in a community with a low prevalence of the disease and who undergo daily health screenings are unlikely to be carriers of the coronavirus that causes the disease.

Findings of the study, one of the first of its kind and conducted during California’s projected peak of coronavirus-related use of hospital resources, shine an encouraging light on a topic where there are currently limited data available.

CHOC’s study tested patient-facing staff at its Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department during a two-week period in April 2020, using a Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19 viral RNA. Subjects were asymptomatic and had no fever, as all employees undergo daily pre-shift health and temperature screenings prior to entering the hospital. Testing found just one of 145 subjects was positive for COVID-19, and contact tracing showed that this person was not responsible for any further transmission of infection.

With these findings indicating that strict screening measures in a hospital serving a community with a lower prevalence of COVID-19 are effective in preventing the spread of the disease, the study could also offer some comfort to people who may have been reluctant to seek medical care for themselves or their children because they fear contracting COVID-19 in a healthcare setting. 

“We are encouraged by the results of the study and trust that our community will be reassured to know that the chances of acquiring COVID-19 during a visit to a pediatric emergency department can be lower than during routine activities,” said study co-investigator Dr. Terence Sanger, CHOC’s vice president of research and chief scientific officer. “We continue to urge them to seek prompt expert care for themselves and their children when the need arises.”

Hospitals nationwide have reported a significant drop in emergency department visits for major acute conditions. Patients may seek medical attention too late for adequate treatment, which could have serious, even fatal, consequences.

Preliminary data from California suggest that while healthcare workers represent 10% of all known COVID-19 cases in the state, only 18% of those cases were known to be acquired in a healthcare setting. This indicates the workers likely contacted the disease outside of the healthcare setting.

The low rate of infection in CHOC’s emergency department could be attributed to many factors, including the lower percentage of infection in the surrounding community, as well as people in the community following safety guidelines including social distancing and wearing masks.

Additionally, healthcare workers in a pediatric setting might be expected to have a lower risk of infection than those in an adult healthcare setting due to a lower rate of high-risk aerosolization procedures such as intubation in younger patients.

“We take every precaution we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in CHOC care settings,” said Dr. Theodore Heyming, medical director of CHOC’s emergency department and study co-investigator. “While the effects of the coronavirus continue to be devastating, this report offers a ray of hope that brave healthcare workers can continue to administer care to their patients without the added burden of putting themselves or the people they care for at further unnecessary risk.”

Also contributing to the study were Aprille Tongol, a CHOC research administrator; Jennifer MacLean, a CHOC nurse practitioner; and multiple staff from the CHOC Children’s Research Institute.

Learn more about the CHOC Children’s Research Institute.

How QR codes could improve cast care for pediatric patients

Scrawled get-well messages, doodles and friends’ autographs might be common sights on children’s casts following a bone fracture, but what about QR codes?

It turns out that quick response (QR) codes – those ubiquitous boxes with pixelated lines that lead smart phones to web pages – could be an effective way to communicate at-home cast care instructions to patients and families, according to a new study co-authored by a CHOC Children’s orthopaedic surgeon.

A QR code that leads to a website spelling out care instructions can be accessed on-demand and supplement details provided by the physician in the clinic, said study co-author Dr. John Schlechter. Use of this technology could help enhance the retention of care instructions, possibly leading to improved outcomes and reducing emergency department visits.

A QR code leading to the CHOC Children’s Orthopaedic Institute’s website

“At CHOC, we know how stressful and scary a child’s injury can be,” Dr. Schlechter said. “In these cases, it can be difficult for parents to retain information and instructions. For parents who are faced with a child who has a broken or fractured bone, simple technology like a QR code can help bring added confidence and peace of mind that they can provide quality follow-up care at home.”

Released as part of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ (AAOS) recent Virtual Education Experience, QR Codes – Alternative Methods for Cast Care Instructions in Children tracked 88 children with fractures who didn’t require surgery and had a family member with a smart phone. A waterproof QR code was secured to the child’s cast, allowing a family member to scan the code with their phone.

Dr. John Schlechter. orthopaedic surgeon, CHOC Children’s Orthopaedic Institute

Among other factors, researchers monitored cast complications, the number of times the QR code was scanned, treatment satisfaction, and whether the code helped prevent a call to the physician.

Finding that 60 families used the code, researchers also noted:

  • The QR code was scanned an average of 1.6 times, though participants believed they scanned it an average of 2.4 times.
  • Seventy-four percent of patients were very satisfied with the convenience.
  • Ninety percent of the patients found the QR code convenient and useful.
  • Thirty-seven participants reported that the information on the website the QR code led them to kept them from needing to contact a physician to ask a question.
  • Some reported problems with the QR code, including it not scanning, falling off, being unable to find the code on the cast, and the code not working after the first scan.
  • Eleven cast complications – including eight wet casts – were reported among participants.

“Our data shows that the use of a QR code for a non-surgical pediatric fracture has a high level of patient and family success and satisfaction and can reduce the number of phone calls to an attending physician,” Dr. Schlechter said.

Learn more about the CHOC Children’s Orthopaedic Institute.

CHOC study aims to determine COVID-19 antibodies present in Emergency department staff

A CHOC Children’s Hospital study could determine how many patient-facing clinicians and staff in its emergency department have COVID-19 fighting antibodies, easing concerns of asymptomatic carriers exposing others to the virus in an acute care setting.

Using rapid serological testing, the monthlong study will determine the prevalence of viral exposure and incidence of new exposure among staff at the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Children’s Hospital.

Serological blood testing looks for antibodies developed by the body to fight infection. Antibodies indicate the likelihood of past or recent infection or exposure. While researchers are still learning about COVID-19, it is also possible those who have been exposed to the virus and recovered have produced antibodies to protect them from the infection.

“While COVID-19 antibody screening is in its infancy, CHOC Children’s is pleased to help share data and contribute to this important conversation as the world’s scientific community unites in a race toward universal testing, antiviral treatment, and the development of a vaccine in order to permit a scientifically-based return to  normalcy,” said study co-principal investigator Dr. Terence Sanger, CHOC’s vice president of research and chief scientific officer.

Dr. Terence Sanger, study co-principal investigator and CHOC’s vice president of research and chief scientific officer.

Under the study, participants will undergo rapid antibody serology testing for immunoglobin G (IgG) and immunoglobin M (IgM) against COVID-19 novel coronavirus through a simple finger prick once per shift, with results available in three minutes. Additionally, all subjects will undergo viral RNA testing on their first day of the study, as well as on any day that they show IgM positive for antibodies.

In early results, all 107 people tested so far had negative results on reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests, a COVID-19 test, and all were negative for IgGs against COVID-19. Two tested positive for IgM but their viral RNA testing was negative.

As the study progresses, up to 250 subjects are expected to enroll total, with about 100 participants being tested each day.

Secondary outcomes include determining a correlation between antibody serology and DNA testing for acute infection, test-retest reliability of serology testing, evidence for direct transmission of infection between healthcare workers, and potential for reinfection in previously infected convalescent patients. 

Antibody screening could become an additional element of  CHOC’s toolkit in protecting patients, families, physicians and staff against COVID-19. Already, the hospital conducts health screenings, requires appropriate masks and personal protective equipment and practices social distancing, in addition to stringent cleaning practices.

All combined, an additional critically important benefit of the study would be the establishment of a “safe zone” in the emergency department by reducing concerns that an asymptomatic staff member or clinician could transmit the disease to a patient seeking care, or their family, despite CHOC’s strict safety and infection prevention precautions.

Hospitals and health systems nationwide are reporting declining emergency department visits, attributed to patients delaying care out of fear of contracting COVID-19 in the facility. For example, more than half of respondents in a recent NRC Health survey have delayed healthcare for themselves or someone in their home because of the virus, and 60 percent of respondents thought there was an elevated risk when visiting their providers.

Suggesting the national trend has impacted CHOC, its current emergency department volume is about 25 percent less than typical this time of year, yet patient acuity is much higher than typical.

“Seeking prompt and expert care for children in emergent situations is critically important – especially during a pandemic,” said Dr. Theodore Heyming, medical director of CHOC’s emergency department and principal investigator of the study. “We understand how frightening COVID-19 is for parents and children alike. We are excited by the possibility that this study could further prove CHOC as a haven for worried parents, and a source of safe and expert pediatric care during this outbreak – and always.”

Dr. Theodore Heyming, medical director of CHOC’s emergency department and principal investigator of the study.

The study, expected to run through mid-May, is aided by WytCote, an Irvine-based technologies solutions company that has enabled access to testing kits from Jiangsu SuperBio Medical Inc.

“This pandemic is impacting all our communities and WytCote recognized that gaining access to such testing could play a critical role towards limiting the spread of the virus. We are pleased to be partnering with CHOC Children’s to support the testing and use of this new coronavirus antibody test,” said Frank Gomez, WytCote’s CEO/Founder.

Learn more about the CHOC Children’s Research Institute

CHOC earns $1 million grant to advance rare disease genome-editing therapy

With an aim of addressing a critical and unmet need in rare disease research, CHOC Children’s will advance rare disease genome editing therapeutics, thanks to a $1 million grant from The Larry and Helen Hoag Foundation.

The funding will help form CHOC Children’s Center for Advancing Rare disease Editing (CARE), allowing researchers to further their work to use genome editing to rapidly generate, characterize and treat preclinical models of rare disorders with known pathogenic mutations.

Genome editing therapy has the potential to permanently correct underlying pathogenic mutations in patients with some rare diseases. This treatment addresses the root cause of the disorder, eliminating the need for more standard therapies like enzyme replacement and stem cell transplantation that often require repeated treatments.

“CHOC is at the forefront of operating at the interface of translational research and clinical care of rare disorders,” said Brent Dethlefs, executive director of the CHOC Children’s Research Institute. “Our ultimate goal is to provide patients with rare diseases with an objective, rigorous assessment of whether genome editing therapy has the potential to advance their current standard of care.”

The work will build upon CHOC’s existing successes in developing preclinical models of rare diseases. For example, CHOC’s lysosomal storage disorders research team has already generated the first preclinical models of Pompe disease – a rare and fatal disorder that affects the heart and muscles – that are suitable for genome editing therapy and exhibit molecular, biochemical and functional analogy to patients with the severe infantile-onset form of the disease.

“Given the success of this project, we have received multiple inquiries from research colleagues seeking to collaborate and patient advocacy groups hoping to generate additional preclinical models of rare disease, but until now, we’ve never had the resources to participate,” CHOC scientist Dr. Jeffrey Huang said. “We believe that CARE has the potential for rapid growth given the intrinsic scalability of genome editing as a strategy to generate preclinical models and develop novel therapeutics.”

The Hoag Foundation funding complements a grant CARE recently received from the CHOC Children’s Foundation’s One Wish Grants awards. The grant awards unrestricted funds to outstanding ideas that drive advancement toward CHOC’s strategic goals.

The mission of The Larry and Helen Hoag Foundation is to educate, empower and create greater opportunity for at-risk children to become independent, productive and contributing members of society; support medical research and technology to enhance the health and well-being of children; and support such other compelling purposes that will enhance the quality of life for residents in Southern California.

Learn more about the CHOC Children’s Research Institute.