With over 500 investigators (plus fellows, assistants, and a staff in the thousands) spread across a campus comprising more than 1.5 million square feet of space, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute is a big, sprawling place. Research Institute investigations run the gamut of scientific inquiry, from those focused on injury research to genetic studies to clinical and surgical projects.
Now in its 11th year, the Research Institute Scientific Symposium aims to capture a snapshot of some of the groundbreaking work going on at the Institute every day. This year’s Symposium, held May 8 in the Colket Translational Research Building, featured presentations on the role of the circadian rhythm in lung function, the effects of brain tumors on survivors and their families, and genetic investigation of rare pediatric diseases.
In his opening remarks — which focused on genomics and politics — Chief Scientific Officer and Director of the Research Institute, Philip R. Johnson, MD, noted that when it comes to detailed biological and genetic information, “the more we know the less we know.” For example, a person’s genome can now be sequenced in just a few days for several thousand dollars. But deciphering and managing the abundance of information generated by next-generation sequencing methods remains a challenge, Dr. Johnson noted.
Touching on politics, Dr. Johnson referenced a commentary published in PNAS on the state of biomedical research in the United States, which points out a number of issues in the field — such pressure to publish and “hypercompetition” — could lead to a decline in science and scientific training. Moreover, unpredictable levels of federal support have led to uncertainty throughout the field. We need Congress to ensure a stable level of funding, Dr. Johnson said, because “basic science is where the real discoveries come from.”
“Fundamental, basic biological research is a very important part of what we do here at CHOP,” said one of the day’s presenters, Janis Burkhardt, PhD.
Sleep, Sheep, Green, & Everything in Between
The day began with a series of mentored presentations, with senior and junior researchers presenting jointly on a topic. Phyllis Dennery, MD, and Shaon Sengupta, MDDS, MPH, led off with a talk on the role of the circadian rhythm in the neonatal lung. A key question of their research, Dr. Dennery said, was whether clinical care could be optimized to match circadian rhythms. For example, she pointed out, heart attacks are more likely in the morning than at night.
This talk was followed by a presentation led by fetal surgery pioneer Alan Flake, MD. Along with Emily Partridge, MD, Dr. Flake has been working on a groundbreaking project to develop an extrauterine life support system that could help improve outcomes for severely premature babies. A combined engineering and medical challenge, Drs. Flake and Partridge have been working on a tank-based external uterus, going so far as to raise several (now healthy) premature lambs.
While there is much work to do, in addition to possibly breaking new clinical ground — and giving hope to parents of extremely low birth-weight premature infants — Drs. Flake and Partridge’s project is a powerful research tool, allowing “us to ask a lot of questions about the role of the placenta in fetal development.”
In addition to mentored presentations, the 2014 Scientific Symposium also featured a number of collaborative talks, given by investigators who worked together on projects, often across disciplines. An example is the presentation given by Jonathan Spergel, MD, PhD, and Elia Tait Wojno, PhD, on eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE). A pediatric allergist, Dr. Spergel worked closely with Dr. Tait Wojno, a microbiologist working in the lab of the University of Pennsylvania’s David Artis, PhD, to better understand the root causes of EoE, which is often painful and can cause weight loss, vomiting, heartburn, and swallowing difficulties.
The day’s highlights were its keynote speeches. The internal keynote speaker was Joseph W. St. Geme, III, MD, CHOP’s new physician-in-chief and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, who researches host-pathogen interactions. In particular, Dr. St. Geme’s work has been focused on the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae, a normal member of the bacterial flora that is associated with invasive infections and localized respiratory tract disease. The Symposium’s external keynote speaker, meanwhile, was Eric Green, MD, PhD, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Dr. Green spoke about the history and future of genomic medicine.
“Currently, the revolution happening in medicine is genomics,” said CHOP’s Ian Krantz, MD, during his introduction of Dr. Green. Since the end of the Human Genome Project in 2001, “our knowledge of epigenomics has exponentially grown,” Dr. Green said. “We’ve learned a lot in 11 years, but we really have to be realistic and recognize that we’re probably going to study this for decades.” Our work, Dr. Green noted, is hardly done, as we’ll likely study genomics “for decades … for generations to come.”
“It is a remarkable time we’re living in,” Dr. Green opined.
To learn more about 2014 CHOP Research Scientific Symposium, see the Symposium website.