Boy, 9, showing great progress after deep brain stimulation procedure at CHOC

Ryder Montano is the third and youngest CHOC patient with a movement disorder to undergo a procedure called deep brain stimulation (DBS), which is designed to ease involuntary movements by sending electrical currents that jam malfunctioning brain signals. CHOC treated its first DBS patient in late 2020.

Ryder is also among CHOC’s dramatic DBS success stories.

The procedure is being championed by DBS pioneer 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 DBS team also includes Dr. Joffre E. Olaya, CHOC’s functional restorative neurosurgeon, who implants the electrodes, as well as collaborating partner Dr. Mark Liker, a neurosurgeon at CHLA.

In January 2021, Ryder underwent surgery at CHOC to replace four electrodes in his brain that help ease the severity of a movement disorder, post-pump chorea, that he developed after he had open-heart surgery at age 2 ½. Since those four electrodes were replaced, he has shown remarkable improvement, Ashley says.

“It’s just incredible and mind-blowing that this is happening because of DBS,” she says.

Ashley says Ryder’s clinical team at CHOC had expectations that were lower than what the outcome turned out to be. They thought his condition would worsen before it got better.

But in February 2021, for a post-op appointment, Ryder walked into Dr. Sanger’s office for the first time by himself. He also stood on a scale and sat in a chair without assistance.

Ryder was diagnosed with Williams Syndrome and a heart defect at age 2. After undergoing open-heart surgery, he developed post-pump chorea, which causes involuntary twitching or writhing.

Now, Ryder also can walk independently, feed himself, and sit down and watch a movie. He is limited verbally and uses an AAC (augmentative and alternative communication)device to say simple things. 

“I’m so happy to see how well Ryder is doing,” Dr. Olaya says. “This procedure has tremendously improved his quality of life.”

Answers at age 2

Ryder was born full term on Sept. 29, 2011. He had a heart murmur, but his mother, Ashley, didn’t get a lot of answers from Ryder’s cardiologist until their son was 2. That’s when doctors at another hospital determined that Ryder had been born with supravalvar aortic stenosis (SVAS) and Williams Syndrome.

SVAS, a heart defect that develops before birth, is a narrowing of the large blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

Williams Syndrome is a rare genetic condition that affects many parts of the body. It is caused by missing more than 25 genes from a specific area of chromosome 7. Williams Syndrome can cause mild to moderate intellectual disabilities, unique personality traits, distinctive facial features, as well as heart and blood vessel problems.

Ryder’s Williams Syndrome led to him undergoing open-heart surgery at 2 ½, which in turn led to post-pump chorea, which causes involuntary twitching or writhing.

“He was walking and talking and drinking from a cup prior to surgery,” Ashley recalls. “He woke up one day and wasn’t able to sit up or hold his head up or make eye contact. He made weird movements. I first thought it was withdrawal symptoms from the medications he took for the surgery.”

Ryder first saw Dr. Sanger in 2016 at CHLA (Dr. Sanger came to CHOC in March 2020). Ryder’s first DBS surgery was in 2017, the same year he got four permanent electrodes. One of the leads got entwined with a growing bone, which prompted the January 2021 surgery to replace all four electrodes.

The perfect team for Ryder

Ashley and her husband, Al, are determined to provide Ryder with the best quality of life possible. His DBS treatment at CHOC, they say, has made a huge difference.

“Ryder and Dr. Sanger were a perfect match,” Ashley says. “I’m very thankful for DBS and Dr. Sanger. I feel he thinks outside of the box. There are so many other neurologists who think, ‘Oh, let’s just load (the patient) up with medication.’ But Dr. Sanger wants to get at the root of the problem and fix it.”

Ryder loves to go to the beach and on nature walks. At the beach, he will roll into the shallow waters on a stroller with large, fat wheels.

Dr. Olaya stressed the importance of teamwork in treating Ryder and other DBS patients at CHOC.

“We are so fortunate to have the resources and the team here at CHOC to offer DBS treatment to patients with moving disorders,” he says. “Jennifer MacLean, Ryder’s nurse practitioner, is very involved with his care and treating other DBS patients as well. It’s not just one person. It really is the nurses, the OR staff – it’s a lot of people collaborating.”

“I’m so thankful for everybody at CHOC,” Ashley says. “I just feel that without the entire team, none of this would be possible for Ryder or for really anybody. It makes me so happy to know we’ve not only improved Ryder’s life so much, but we’re helping improve other kids’ lives, too. Dr. Sanger goes the extra mile and it’s so amazing to think, yes, that’s our doctor.”

Ashley says Ryder has worked very hard to get to where he is today.

“We’ve all worked hard together to get to this place and give Ryder the validation to show him how much we realize how hard he’s been working,” she says. “I know it’s defeating for a kid who understands but can’t communicate well, but he’s working very hard.”

Learn more about CHOC’s Neuroscience Institute.

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

CHOC’s growing thyroid surgery program can compete with the busiest centers when it comes to favorable outcomes, research shows

When Dr. Kevin Huoh arrived at CHOC in September 2013, the hospital wasn’t doing a lot in the way of thyroid surgeries and instead was referring out most cases.

A highly regarded pediatric otolaryngologist, Dr. Huoh has a special interest in thyroid surgery, especially thyroid cancer surgeries. So, working with endocrinologists at CHOC, he spearheaded a multi-disciplinary thyroid surgery program that steadily has grown since then.

Now, in a recently published research paper, Dr. Huoh and co-author Dr. Himala Kashmiri, a CHOC endocrinologist, have shown that the growing program at CHOC enjoys favorable outcomes comparable with those found at the nation’s largest-volume pediatric thyroid surgery centers.

“Other research papers and guidelines say in order to have the best outcomes for thyroid surgery, you need to do 30 surgeries per year,” Dr. Huoh says. “Fortunately, pediatric thyroid surgery is fairly uncommon. This makes it difficult for many newer thyroid surgery programs to achieve these numbers. Our study shows outcomes similar to those at higher volume centers.”

In the paper, published in early February 2021 in the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, Drs. Huoh and Kashmiri studied 31 patients who underwent thyroid surgery at CHOC between 2014 and 2020. The numbers have grown from two to three a year to nearly nine, and are expected to continue to increase, Dr. Huoh says.

Key finding in the research paper: The 31 CHOC thyroid surgery patients, who ranged in age from 8 months to 20 years, experienced a rate of complications comparable to larger-volume pediatric thyroid surgical programs.

“Recent publications have advocated that patients in need of thyroid surgery should be referred to high-volume surgical centers, asserting that high-volume centers experience fewer complications,” the paper states. “In contrast to recent publications, our study demonstrates that low-volume and intermediate-volume thyroid surgery centers can achieve comparable results.”

A key reason why, according to the paper, is having a multidisciplinary team of pediatric otolaryngologists and endocrinologists, such as the team at CHOC.

Kids at greater risk of cancer

The thyroid is a gland that makes and stores hormones that help regulate the heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and the rate at which food is converted into energy.

The prevalence of thyroid masses in children is much lower compared with adults. But such masses in children tend to carry a greater risk of harboring malignancy compared with their adult counterparts. And thyroid surgery in the pediatric population is associated with a higher rate of complications than adult thyroid surgery.

Thyroid cancer is on the rise around the world, including in adolescents, Dr. Huoh notes.

“We saw a definite need for this program at CHOC,” he says.

Dr. Huoh works very closely with Dr. Kashmiri, a pediatric endocrinologist, in CHOC’s thyroid cancer program.

“When I first started here in 2015, as director of the thyroid cancer clinic program here at CHOC, our typical workflow was to find ENT surgeons for our patients in the community of Orange County or even Los Angeles,” Dr. Kashmiri says. “However, rather quickly as a pediatric endocrinologist who puts the patient first, I gained accelerated confidence with Dr. Huoh’s expertise, interpersonal skills, and poise to handle our simple-to-complex neck surgeries.

“This has been a game-changing experience for us to have a surgeon who we trust and value to take care of patients with excellent outcomes whom we recommend fully without any hesitation. I would just like to say thanks to Dr. Huoh for bringing his passion and commitment to CHOC and the children we serve.”

Scary experience, good outcome

In November 2019, Molly Pearce noticed a lump on the left side of her throat.

Then 13, Molly ended up at CHOC after a friend of her mother, Jacqueline, recommended going there and after Jacqueline did a lot of research.

“Dr. Huoh’s name kept coming up,” Jacqueline says.

Molly Pearce had her thyroid removed by Dr. Huoh in 2020 after discovering a lump in her neck.

 The two met with Dr. Huoh in January 2020.

“From the second we met,” Jacqueline says, “we knew we were going to love him. He’s got a great bedside manner. He’s reassuring. He’s thorough. He answered all our questions. He spent a lot of time with us, which isn’t always the case with busy surgeons. We definitely got the impression that he cared a lot.” 

In February 2020, Dr. Huoh removed one half of Molly’s thyroid.

The tumor was encapsulated, but pathology reports after surgery turned up concerning cancerous cells in the mass. Dr. Huoh went ahead with a second surgery, removing the second half of Molly’s thyroid in April 2020.

“It was a very scary time, especially during the pandemic,” Jacqueline recalls, “but CHOC offered us a broad range of resources should we want to reach out and get some support. COVID-19 added an extra layer of fear. I have to say we felt comfortable in terms of the level of cleanliness. Molly had to do COVID tests. I really feel it was a challenging time kicked up to a much more challenging time, and we still felt comfortable and safe and well cared for.”

Jacqueline praises Dr. Huoh’s skill as a surgeon.

“A plastic surgeon could not have done the incision as well as he did,” says Jacqueline, who explained that only a faint pink incision line remains on Molly’s neck.

“You wouldn’t even know she was worse for the wear,” Jacqueline says. “Everything about the care we got at CHOC, from pre-registration to when we got to the hospital, to the post-op follow-ups, was exceptional.”

With regular blood work and ultrasounds, Molly continues to be under the continuous care and careful watch of Dr. Kashmiri.

“He has a great way of communicating and empathizing with his patients in a comfortable setting,” Jacqueline says. “We know we are in good hands. He has truly been a blessing to us on our journey.”

Molly now is 15. She will need to be on a thyroid supplement the rest of her life, but says she feels great.

“I feel good but sometimes feel a phantom thing,” she says. “I feel like my thyroid is still there but it’s not. Overall, I feel amazing.” 

Molly, a freshman at Dana Hills High School who loves beach volleyball and yoga and is a member of the National Charity League, says she appreciates the personal touches CHOC provided went she went in for her surgeries.

Ties to nuclear medicine program

Dr. Huoh notes that some patients need radioactive iodine treatment after thyroid cancer surgery. Such treatment requires a nuclear medicine program. It’s fortuitous, he says, that construction is under way on space that will house CHOC’s first nuclear medicine program.

The new space, which totals some 4,000 square feet, is scheduled to open in fall 2021 in the Bill Holmes Tower at CHOC’s main hospital campus.

 Its opening will be especially important for patients undergoing thyroid surgery who now must go to other hospitals for radioactive iodine treatment, says Dr. Hollie Lai, a radiologist who will be in charge of CHOC’s nuclear medicine program.

“This will be a huge benefit to patients,” Dr. Lai says. “Many of our thyroid cancer patients now have to go to adult facilities.”

Such treatment involves giving patients medicine, usually orally, that has radiation in it that zaps away remnants of cancerous tissue following surgery. Thyroid surgery patients will be one part of CHOC’s nuclear medicine program, which will provide full-service therapies in addition to research.

She praises Dr. Huoh’s skills.

“He’s a great surgeon who relates very well to his patients,” Dr. Lai says.

Dr. Huoh has big hopes for CHOC’s thyroid surgery program.

“Our goal is to be one of those centers doing 30 or more surgeries a year,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to show great outcomes on our way to becoming one of the high-volume pediatric surgery thyroid programs.”

Learn more about CHOC’s otolaryngology program.

Read another recent example of research conducted by Dr. Kevin Huoh.

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.

Neuroscience 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 Neuroscience Institute.