CHOC awarded $2.3-million grant to study how toxic stress and unpredictability in the early environment affects neurodevelopment

The state of California has awarded CHOC, in partnership with UC Irvine and Chapman University, a $2.3-million grant to screen patients for adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and childhood unpredictability to assess how such high-stress events affect the brain and put kids at increased risk of later developing physical and mental illnesses.

In a novel aspect of the study, researchers also will determine if there are epigenetic markers on the DNA that predict whether any given child will be more adversely affected than another.

The team is among four awardees statewide that have been given a total of $9 million to assess which children are most vulnerable to the effects of ACEs and unpredictability in the home environment, and to design medical care to improve the outcomes for this particular group of patients – a model known as “precision medicine,” which eschews a one-therapy-fits-all approach to healthcare.

“The whole concept here is that kids who grow up in environments with frequent exposures to toxic levels of stress can have all kinds of internal things happen in their bodies related to prolonged or extensive stress hormone response – their brains can develop differently, and when they become adults, research has shown that they have a higher risk of developing medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma and cancer,  among other physical diseases, as well as mental disorders,” says Dr. Charles Golden, a co-investigator on the study and executive medical director of the CHOC Primary Care Network (PCN).

Dr. Charles Golden, executive medical director of the CHOC Primary Care Network (PCN)

The California Governor’s Office of Planning & Research, in partnership with the Office of the California Surgeon General, awarded the three-year research project as part of the California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine (CIAPM). The other three recipients were Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, University of California, San Francisco, and Loma Linda University.

The CHOC-UCI-Chapman research project begins in July 2021, with screening expected to start in CHOC PCN clinics by November 2021. Lead principal investigator on the project is Dr. Tallie Baram, Bren Distinguished Professor and director of the Conte Center at UCI. The National Institute of Mental Health-funded Conte Center also addresses how early-life experiences influence the brain and contribute to mental illnesses.

Results of the study are expected by the end of 2024, says Laura Glynn, PhD, a Professor of Psychology and Associate Dean for Research at Chapman University and one of the principal investigators on the study.

CHOC’s PCN has been screening its Medi-Cal patient population for ACEs since February 2020, and expanded such screening – using a tool called PEARLS, for Pediatric ACEs and Related Life Events Screener – to all patients in November 2020, Dr. Golden says.

The 17-question PEARLS tool screens for such experiences as a parent being jailed, the prevalence of alcohol or drug abuse in the household, and whether the child has been a victim of violence in his or her neighborhood, in the community at large, or at school.

“This existing infrastructure at CHOC was a very important part of the application for this grant,” Glynn says.

The CHOC-UCI-Chapman study, “Using Precision Medicine to Tackle Impacts of Adverse and Unpredictable Experiences on Children’s Neurodevelopment,” will dig deeper than standard PEARLS screening.

The children will be asked an additional five questions to assess exposure to unpredictability in the social, emotional, and physical domains. Such questions are an attempt by researchers to develop an instrument that will predict this population of kids’ resilience to, or risk of developing, physical or mental illnesses. Children from low socioeconomic and racial/ethnic minority communities are at greater risk of exposure to ACEs.

“This study will involve looking at whether routine, or lack of routine, in a child’s life contribute as an ACE,” Dr. Golden explains. “In other words, do they eat dinner every night at 6 p.m., do they have a routine bedtime, do they have a stable household versus a family with no routine or little structure.”

Such factors of unpredictability potentially are amenable to intervention, Glynn notes.

Emerging evidence from experiments with rodents show that fragmented or unpredictable maternal signals influence the maturation of systems governing emotional and cognitive function in the developing brain. In preclinical work led by Dr. Baram, the group has shown that rats exhibited diminished memory function when exposed to unpredictable maternal signals early in life, as well as anhedonia (reduced ability to experience pleasure) beginning in adolescence.

Also, as part of the study, DNA swabs will be performed on a cohort of 120 children who experience high levels of ACEs to determine if genetic expression patterns indicate a vulnerability to chaos and unpredictability in their lives. The team also will be examining whether epigenetics – the process of how genes may be altered based on environmental events – may play a role in the development of ACE-related medical conditions.

“We think potentially we can look at these epigenetic profiles to predict neurodevelopmental outcomes,” Glynn says.

Dr. Michael Weiss, vice president of population health at CHOC and a primary investigator on the study, says such information may make it easier for doctors to identify a child who has a genetic predisposition to experiencing a bad outcome from being exposed to ACEs – thus leading to targeted interventions to kids who need them the most.

“This project is a great demonstration of a collaboration between CHOC and UCI and Chapman University involving primary care research,” Dr. Weiss says.

Other CHOC researchers who will participate in the research project are Dr. Dan Cooper, who treats kids with lung conditions at CHOC and who serves as director of UC Irvine’s Institute for Clinical & Translational Science; Dr. Candice Taylor Lucas, co-director of LEAD-ABC (Leadership Education to Advance Diversity–African, Black and Caribbean) at UCI/CHOC; Louis Ehwerhemuepa, PhD, a senior data scientist; and Dr. Mary Zupanc, co-medical director of the Neuroscience Institute.

CHOC-UCI Pediatric Urology study illustrates how COVID-19 delayed emergency care

CHOC’s pediatric urology team, in a partnership with UCI Health, has published the largest study of its kind on an emergency condition that afflicts young males, adding to the emerging body of data on how the COVID-19 pandemic has caused patients to delay seeking emergency treatment.

The CHOC/UCI-led study, recently published in the Journal of Pediatric Urology, also marks a first for the Western Pediatric Urology Consortium (WPUC), a group of several leading pediatric healthcare centers that CHOC was instrumental in founding in 2020.

“This study is a good example of CHOC leading the way and bringing together institutions to answer questions that haven’t been answered before,” says Carol Davis-Dao, PhD, a clinical epidemiologist in CHOC’s Department of Pediatric Urology who has a joint appointment in the UC Irvine Department of Urology.

Dr. Davis-Dao leads urology research efforts at CHOC to provide patients and their families with the most current, evidence-based diagnoses and treatments.

The lead author of “A Multicenter Study of Acute Testicular Torsion in the Time of COVID-10,” Dr. Sarah Holzman, a research fellow at UCI-CHOC, says the research paper is the only multicenter urology study and the largest one related to torsion and COVID-19. Most importantly, she adds, it’s the only study that shows patients were delaying presenting to the Emergency Department for testicular torsion.  

The study’s key finding: Patients significantly delayed seeking treatment in the Emergency Department following the onset of symptoms of a testicular torsion during the early months of the pandemic, and, as a result, more of them had to have a testicle removed compared to patients with the same condition who sought care before the pandemic.

“This is the largest study of testicular torsion during COVID-19 and the first to show a significantly longer time from symptom onset to presentation (in the Emergency Department),” the paper states.

“Low baseline awareness of torsion may contribute to delays in care that were present even before the pandemic, making patients and their families less likely to present for emergency care during the pandemic when there is concern for exposure to COVID-19.”

Also participating as authors of the study were CHOC pediatric urologists Dr. Heidi Stephany, Dr. Kai-wen Chuang, Dr. Elias Wehbi, and Dr. Antoine Khoury, chief of pediatric urology at both CHOC and UC Irvine Medical Center. 

Testicular torsion occurs when the spermatic cord that supplies blood to the testicle twists, cutting off the testicle’s blood supply. It presents as acute and severe scrotal pain that quickly worsens, as well as nausea and vomiting.

Testicular torsion occurs when the spermatic cord that supplies blood to the testicle twists, cutting off the blood supply.

It’s a relatively rare surgical emergency, with an incidence rate of around 4 per 100,000 males per year in the United States. It most frequently occurs in males between the ages of 10 and 19, with one peak in the neonatal period and the second peak around puberty.

Surgery is required for all patients with testicular torsion.

When torsion is caught early — typically within the first six hours — a detorsion orchiopexy can be performed. In the detorsion surgery, the spermatic cord is untwisted and the blood flow returns to the testicle. The surgeon then secures the testis to the inner scrotum so it can never twist again. However, if patients delay coming to the hospital and the testicle does not have blood supply for several hours, the testicle may have to be removed in a procedure called an orchiectomy.

The CHOC-UCI led study involved a total of 221 patients enrolled at one of seven hospitals in the WPUC (CHOC, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Seattle Children’s, UC San Francisco, UCLA, UC San Diego and Western University in Ontario, Canada).

A total of 84 patients with testicular torsion, ages 2 months to 18 years, made up the first cohort. They were studied from March 2020 through July 2020.

The second cohort totaled 137 patients who were treated from January 2019 through February 2020.

The median time it took patients in the COVID-19 cohort to show up at the Emergency Department from the onset of symptoms was 17.9 hours, the study found. This compares to 7.5 hours for patients in the pre-pandemic cohort.

A total of 42 percent of patients in the COVID-19 cohort underwent an orchiectomy (removal of the twisted testicle), compared to 29 percent in the pre-pandemic population.

Distribution of patterns in acute testicular torsion presentation by month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Blue bars represent rate of orchiectomy by month, while the navy-blue line represents median time from onset of symptoms to presentation by month.

Other studies have shown that COVID-19 has caused people to delay Emergency Department treatment, including one that examined acute appendicitis from the New York metropolitan region and another similar study in Virginia.

During the last week of June 2020, 41 percent of U.S. adults admitted to avoiding medical care because of COVID-19 exposure concerns and 12 percent avoided urgent or emergent care, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, an epidemiological digest for the United States published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drs. Holzman and Davis-Dao say they plan to continue the study as the pandemic progresses.

Read more about CHOC’s Department of Urology.

In the spotlight: Dr. Coleen Cunningham

Dr. Coleen Cunningham’s family has long joked that she knew she wanted to be a pediatrician before she was born. By eighth grade, she was certain that she’d work in pediatrics – and she never looked back.

“Kids are just wonderful,” she says. “They’re always a pleasure to be around – how could you ever not want to help a child?”

Today, she serves as both senior vice president and pediatrician-in-chief at CHOC and chair for the UCI Department of Pediatrics. In this unique dual role, which she began in March, Dr. Cunningham acts as a senior clinical leader with oversight responsibility for CHOC’s vast pediatric medical and surgical services, academic advancement, research and teaching programs.

Dr. Coleen Cunningham, senior vice president and pediatrician-in-chief at CHOC and chair for the UCI Department of Pediatrics

“The big job here is integrating our two institutions, CHOC and UCI, and learning how we can align better,” says Dr. Cunningham.

In this role, she explains, she works as a liaison between physicians and administration, which allows her to communicate the patient care needs from the standpoint of a physician to administration, and vice versa. She will also be overseeing the medical education components, so that both entities can ensure they are recruiting and providing the best trainees, residents and fellows.

“As an insider at both CHOC and UCI, I understand what the issues are, but I’m also able to speak for both teams,” she says. “I can take a step back and advocate for the group as a whole. This is a new perspective, but it affords each institution the room to adjust and align.”

Most recently, Dr. Cunningham served as professor with tenure at Duke University in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and as chief of Global Health and vice chair for research in the Department of Pediatrics. She held secondary appointments in the Department of Pathology at Duke and the Duke Global Health Institute.

She earned her medical degree from the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY, where she also did her residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases. At SUNY, she served as an associate professor of pediatrics and started a pediatric HIV clinic.

Her work on HIV and AIDS in children has been recognized numerous times and is one of the stand-out moments of her career.

“When I started my job, I was telling mothers that their baby had HIV,” she says. “I would be crying alongside them, because at the time, there wasn’t much we could do. Today, when babies are diagnosed, they can be effectively treated – they can live to be 60 or 70, and we get to tell their parents that they’re going to lead a normal life. Seeing that evolve over the course of my career has been very rewarding.”

Dr. Cunningham has published more than 140 manuscripts and led many multicenter clinical trials aimed at the treatment and prevention of HIV infection in children. The progress that has been made in treating HIV, she says, reinforces the importance of integrating clinical care and research.

“Driving the best care for tomorrow requires integrating research and data analysis into our patient care environment, saying ‘Can I improve? Can I do it better?’” says Dr. Cunningham.

Her goal at CHOC, she says, is making research visible.

“CHOC already provides exceptional, top-notch medical care to children,” says Dr. Cunningham. “And if people heard about some of the incredible things we’re doing here, they’d be amazed. We want to lead the nation in care, but we also need to make that care more visible and teach others how to follow suit.”

Her drive to teach extends beyond her role with CHOC and has long been one of her passions. A few years ago, she was recognized as a top mentor by Duke, and she continues to actively mentor several junior faculty at the university.

“I love watching my mentees come into their own, fly and go beyond what I can do – it’s like having more kids,” says the mother of five. “I get excited to watch them grow and move their career in the direction they want it to go.”

Dr. Cunningham’s ultimate goals at CHOC are to fully and successful integrate the health system and UCI; develop the physicians, including the physician-scientists at both institutions; and enhance CHOC’s national reputation.

Once she has accomplished that, she says, she has only two things she wants to focus on: her garden and her grandchildren.

Virtual pediatric lecture series: The scope of a fetal center

CHOC’s virtual pediatric lecture series continues with “The scope of a fetal center.”

This online discussion will be held Tuesday, June 8 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. and is designed for general practitioners, family practitioners, obstetrician-gynecologists, perinatologists and other healthcare providers.

Dr. Jennifer Jolley, associate clinical professor of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at University of California, Irvine, will discuss several topics, including:

  • Recognizing indications for referral to a fetal center.
  • Augmenting patient care with a multidisciplinary approach to management of high-risk pregnancies.

This virtual lecture is part of a series provided by CHOC that aims to bring the latest, most relevant news to community providers. You can register here.

CHOC is accredited by the California Medical Association (CMA) to provide continuing medical education for physicians and has designated this live activity for a maximum of one AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™. Continuing Medical Education is also acceptable for meeting RN continuing education requirements, as long as the course is Category 1, and has been taken within the appropriate time frames.

Please contact CHOC Business Development at 714-509-4291 or BDINFO@choc.org with any questions.

CHOC leads first ED study on adverse childhood experiences and prevalence of food and housing insecurity

In the only known hospital research project of its kind in the United States, CHOC’s Emergency Department is leading a study on how food and housing insecurity impacts children’s health and environment.

The project, being conducted in collaboration with departments at UC Irvine and Chapman University, involves surveying 7,000 CHOC ED patients by September 2021, with results expected by the end of the year, says Dr. Theodore Heyming, medical director of emergency medicine at CHOC and chief architect of the effort.

Dr. Theodore Heyming, medical director of emergency medicine at CHOC

The study, which to date already has enrolled some 2,500 CHOC patients, will assess ACEs, also known as adverse childhood experiences. Most ACEs studies conducted to date by other hospitals have been limited to the primary care setting. Since July 2020, CHOC’s ED has been screening for ACEs with particular attention to the following three areas: abuse, neglect, and/or household challenges. 

“To my knowledge, we’re the only pediatric hospital that has this kind of health research project implemented in an emergency department,” Dr. Heyming says. And that makes sense, he adds.

“People don’t usually think of an emergency room as a primary care setting,” Dr. Heyming says. “However, the opposite actually is true. A lot of patients use the ER as their primary care. EDs also have the ability to potentially intervene on patients even to a greater extent than in the primary care setting, given the availability of experienced social workers.”

The potential benefits of the study, which involves questioning patients in more depth than standard ACEs screenings, are numerous, as detailed in an abstract that Dr. Heyming and his collaborators have submitted to the American Public Health Association (APHA), a Washington, D.C.-based organization for public health professionals.

For example, ED-based research has yet to investigate the extent to which neighborhood-level factors such as fast-food accessibility and a lack of healthy food options contribute to poor pediatric health outcomes.

The CHOC-led study aims to identify such neighborhood-level factors and generate valuable information that could be leveraged for public policy and advocacy efforts to improve pediatric health. That, in turn, could lead to a reduction of ED overutilization and associated healthcare costs.

Disadvantaged kids hit hardest

Food and housing insecurity disproportionately impact children in disadvantaged communities, studies show.

And children living in so-called “food swamps” — areas with an abundance of fast-food restaurants, pharmacies and discount stores that sell cheap but unhealthy food — as well as “food deserts,” areas that lack affordable food that is fresh and nutritious, are more at risk of obesity, diabetes and other adverse health conditions, as well as mental and behavioral issues and trauma, the paper explains.

The study of 7,000 CHOC ED patients comes on the heels of a smaller CHOC ED study on the prevalence of ACEs in patients that was conducted between July 2020 and February 2021. Twenty-four CHOC ED doctors were certified in state-run ACEs modules and 1,861 patients participated – the biggest cross-sectional survey that CHOC has done to date, according to Dr. Heyming.

About 20 percent of respondents in that smaller-scale survey reported at least one ACE or more — a percentage consistent with national numbers, Dr. Heyming says. In addition, the survey found that the prevalence of food insecurity among CHOC patients is about 15 percent. 

Now, in partnering with Chapman University and UCI, CHOC is digging deeper into the prevalence of food and housing insecurity with its study of 7,000 patients — and the potential neighborhood-level factors that contribute to such insecurity.

Dr. Jason Douglas, an assistant professor of public health at Chapman University, specializes in investigating social and environmental determinants of public health disparities that disproportionately impact the Black and Latinx communities. 

Dr. Douglas, who has extensive experience connecting social and environmental factors to public health disparities in Los Angeles County as well as Northern California, New York and Jamaica, will use data from the 7,000 survey respondents to analyze neighborhood-level factors that contribute to poor pediatric health.

“The goal is to identify factors that are affecting community health and well-being and inform public policies to improve health in underserved communities,” Dr. Douglas says. “To be able to identify adverse childhood experiences and food and housing security within the clinical context and use that data to garner a better understanding of how social and environmental factors may be exacerbating health disparities will allow us to develop a more holistic understanding of the deleterious impacts of these challenges on children’s lives.”

At UCI, Dr. Victor Cisneros, an emergency medicine clinical instructor and current research fellow in population health and social emergency medicine, will lead a team of investigators who will participate in follow-up phone calls with the CHOC ED survey respondents. The follow-up interviews will be conducted three and six weeks after respondents complete the survey.

“These follow-up interviews are important to assess if interventions given in the ED are effective, and if not, what barriers our patients are facing,” Dr. Cisneros says.

All CHOC ED patients up to 18 years of age and their parents or guardians qualify as potential participants in the survey, which is available in English and Spanish. The survey includes 16 questions that take about 5 to 10 minutes to complete on iPads provided by CHOC.

Patients identified as experiencing food and/or housing insecurity are directed to passive food and housing resource materials in the form of informational pamphlets and flyers.

“We’re going to potentially be able to leverage this data to help cities and the county to make informed policy changes,” Dr. Heyming says. 

“Obtaining this information will not only be great for Orange County,” he adds. “I think we’ll be able to point to the fact that pediatric EDs are a great place to conduct these screenings because there’s a high incidence of either adverse childhood experiences or food or housing insecurity.”

Dr. Heyming says pediatric EDs in the future would be able to provide patients more active resources such as gift and food cards.

Dr. Douglas says the study ideally will serve as a model for pediatric and other emergency departments across the country.

The bottom line, Dr. Cisneros says, is getting people resources they need – for example, food that restaurants now dispose of that can be “recycled.”

The ED, he says, is a perfect microcosm of the community.

“One of the beauties of this study,” Dr. Cisneros says, “is we’ll be able to identify people with housing and food insecurity and be able to refer these people to the appropriate tailored resources. In addition, we will be able to further quantify what obstacles our patients face both at the individual and community level.”

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.

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.”

Study determines that Pain Buddy app may aid in reduction of pain severity

A child, resting in bed, fires up her 7-inch tablet and opens an app.

She selects from a variety of cartoon avatars — such as a panda or penguin — and backgrounds that include a colorful ocean floor with fish and other sea creatures.

Game on.

But this isn’t a typical game. It’s a kid-friendly tool that allows the child, who is being treated for cancer, to report the severity and type of pain she’s experiencing from her home — information her doctor can access in real time.

Playing their way to pain reduction

The app, named Pain Buddy, may aid in the reduction of pain severity in children during cancer treatment, according to results of a pilot study recently published in the online journal Pediatric Blood & Cancer.

The study found that Pain Buddy may be especially beneficial in helping children who have high levels of pain.

Pain Buddy app
Pain Buddy app

Pain Buddy is the brainchild of Dr. Michelle A. Fortier, a CHOC pediatric psychologist who is also a faculty member of the UC Irvine Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing.

Dr. Fortier, who specializes in pain management in children, was principal investigator of the recently published pilot study. that was based on clinical studies of CHOC patients monitored by pediatric oncologist Dr. Lilibeth Torno and pediatric oncology nurse practitioner Christine Yun.

“Pain management is an important part of cancer survivorship, and I think Pain Buddy’s potential for use is very broad,” Dr. Torno says.

Most of the 48 children participating in the eight-week study had been diagnosed with leukemia. All were between the ages of 8 and 18. Results of this particular study come amid ongoing studies on the Pain Buddy app at other sites., Results of the comprehensive research effort, which will track 206 children, are expected in three years, Dr. Fortier says.

Pain Buddy app
The Pain Buddy app allows users to identify their pain through various games, like sorting balls into baskets.

The gap in children’s pain management

Pain Buddy, Dr. Fortier explained, was developed a few years ago to address a gap in pain management of kids at home compared to kids in the hospital, where it’s easier for doctors and nurses to stay on top of patients’ needs. The 48 children who participated in the pilot study spent a lot of time at home.

Tapping the expertise of professional app developers and researchers at UCI in the California Institute for Telecommunication and Information Technology (Calit2), Dr. Fortier and several other colleagues came up with a way for children to rate their pain as they were feeling it from home.

“Most kids experience pretty moderate to severe pain throughout their cancer treatment, and this pain just wasn’t sufficiently being addressed when the patients were at home,” Dr. Fortier says. “And when we think about pain assessment, we’re really terrible retrospective reporters of our pain experience.”

But with Pain Buddy, users can say how much they’re hurting, and where, as it’s happening.

“Pain can come from the cancer itself, such as a solid tumor, and it can come from treatment procedures,” Dr. Fortier says. “For example, lots of skin-breaking procedures occur during cancer treatment. And treatments like chemotherapy can cause nerve pain, inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and mouth sores.”

Pain Buddy app
The Pain Buddy app allows users to describe their pain with word bubbles, and can alert the care team.

In addition to completing a pain and symptom diary twice daily, the app automatically alerted the participants’ medical teams about such symptoms as nausea, itching, sadness and redness.

With a touch of a finger, the patients could select word bubbles to indicate descriptions — such as bad, annoying, or and terrible — to describe their pain.

Clinicians, in turn, could promptly address any symptoms that warranted intervention.

Learning skills to cope with pain

A key component of the Pain Buddy app, which for now only has been used by the pilot study participants, is the incorporation of coping skills shown to be effective in the management of pain, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery.

During these skills training exercises, patients could accumulate coins and, visiting a virtual store, customize their personal avatar and buy additional background themes.

Pain Buddy app
The Pain Buddy app can help patients learn coping skills.

Pain Buddy represents an effective partnership between parents, young cancer patients and the health care institutions that treat them, Dr. Torno says.

“Our focus on cancer survivorship begins on the day of diagnosis,” Torno says.

CHOC’s After Cancer Treatment Survivorship (ACTS) program features a multidisciplinary team of clinical experts who monitor the late effects of cancer and develop a plan for long-term surveillance to ensure the best possible outcomes. Every child at CHOC who has gone through cancer therapy eventually lands in the ACTS program.

Dr. Fortier said the ultimate goal is to further refine Pain Buddy and license the app to hospitals for widespread use.

“The goal is to have every kid undergoing cancer treatment — from sarcoma patients to those with bone and other cancers — to have the ability to use Pain Buddy.”

2015 CHOC – UC Irvine Child Health Research Awards

We are pleased to announce that we just completed another round of the CHOC – UC Irvine Child Health Research Awards, our annual call for proposals that enhance research collaborations between CHOC and UC Irvine and further the Mission, Vision and strategic aims of the CHOC-UCI Child Health Research Strategic Plan. Intended to support research and collaboration in targeted areas of research excellence that align research strengths for focused growth and maximal translational impact, our call this year specifically solicited applications for two funding mechanisms, Pilot Collaborative Research Awards and Clinician Investigator Awards.

Child Health Research Award - UC Irvine Infographic

Pilot Collaborative Research Awards are intended to provide funds for collaborative projects in need of initial start-up funding to enable procurement of other independent support. These awards are designed to promote novel, translational research efforts that coalesce talented clinicians and researchers from CHOC and UC Irvine. Projects bring investigators from multiple disciplines from CHOC and UC Irvine together to identify targets for improved diagnosis, prevention, or treatment of a pediatric health problem relevant to the goals of the CHOC-UCI Child Health Research Strategic Plan.

Clinician Investigator Awards are intended to provide funds for clinician-investigator initiated projects in need of funding to advance study into a clinically relevant and important topic that has a high likelihood of impacting clinical practice and the positive experience of pediatric/ adolescent patients and their families. Priorities are given to proposals that are closely aligned with the research themes identified in the CHOC – UCI Child Health Research Strategic Plan. Projects identify targets for improved diagnosis, prevention, or treatment of a pediatric health problem relevant to the goals of the CHOC-UCI Child Health Research Strategic Plan. Collaborations between CHOC and UCI faculty are strongly encouraged, but not required.

This year we received 18 proposals, an increase of 13% over last year, covering a wide range of topics and specialties. After external academic peer reviews and committee discussions, we decided to fund 6 projects, 3 Pilot Collaborative Research Awards and 3 Clinician Investigator Awards.

Congratulations to the well-deserving recipients of the 2015 awards! They are listed below, in order of award type and Principle Investigator’s last name.

Pilot Collaborative Research Awards.

Principal Investigator: Dr. Gurpreet Ahuja

Collaborators: Drs. Nguyen PhamKevin Huoh, Naveen Bhandarkar, Carolyn Coughlan, Joon You

Project Title: NIR Imaging of Pediatric Sinuses

Principal Investigator: Dr. Tami John

Collaborators: Drs. Lilibeth Torno, Daniela Bota, Grace Mucci, Mary Zupanc, Jack Lin

Project Title: Cognitive Training to Promote Neuroplasticity and Neural Re-circuitry in Chemotherapy

Associated Cognitive Impairment

Principal Investigator: Dr. Calvin Li

Collaborators: Drs. John Weiss, Hong Yin, William Loudon

Project Title: A Tunable Engineered Tissue Graft Model for Repair of Traumatic Brain Injury

 

Clinician Investigator Awards

Principal Investigator: Dr. Antonio Arrieta

Collaborators: Drs. Katrine Whiteson, David Michalik

Project Title: Addressing the Fear Factor in Neonatal Serious Bacterial Infections: Distinguishing E Coli From Bacteremia, Urinary Tract Infection, and Bacteremic Urinary Tract Infection in Infants <28 Days vs. >28 Days to 90 Days Old by Pairing E. Coli Genome Analysis with Clinical Data

 

Principal Investigator: Dr. Joanne Starr

Collaborators: Drs. Richard Gates, Sharief Taraman, Mary Zupanc, Paul Yost, Michele Domico, Juliette Hunt, Tammy Yoon, Kimberley Lakes

Project Title: Seizures and Neurodevelopmental Outcomes in Mild Hypothermic Cardiopulmonary Bypass

 

Principal Investigators: Dr. Sharief Taraman and Ruth McCarty

Collaborators: Drs. William Loudon, Frank Hsu

Project Title: The Use of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a Complementary Treatment of Pediatric and Young Adults with Post-Concussive Syndrome

Dr. Maria Minon Selected as UC Irvine Pediatric Residency Alumna of the Year

Maria Minon, MD, FAAP

We are pleased to announce that Dr. Maria Minon, CHOC vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer, has been selected by the UC Irvine Champions of Child Health as the UC Irvine Pediatric Residency Alumna of the Year. The award recognizes an alumnus who has made unique contributions to pediatrics in teaching, mentoring, scholarship, community service or clinical activity.

The award will be presented at the pediatric residency graduation on June 6.

A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dr. Minon has served in her current role at CHOC since 1998. She is responsible for medical quality and patient safety, risk management and accreditation for the pediatric healthcare system, in addition to overseeing and facilitating the activities of the medical staff, psychology training program, graduate and continuing medical education programs, mental health and pediatric psychology services and operations for the CHOC Research Institute.

In addition, Dr. Minon currently chairs the Children & Families Commission of Orange County as well as the Board of Trustees for the Orange County Ronald McDonald House.

Dr. Minon received her medical degree at the University of California, Irvine. She conducted her post-graduate training at UC Irvine Medical Center and CHOC, where she was appointed chief resident. UC Irvine School of Medicine appointed her to a faculty position as associate clinical professor of pediatrics. Dr. Minon worked in private practice for general pediatrics and adolescent medicine from 1979 to 1998.

Congratulations, Dr. Minon, on your stellar contributions and dedication to CHOC and the children and families in our community!