Children’s Discovery Institute funds new research initiatives, scholars

Will brain-powered robots one day restore mobility to children with cerebral palsy? Do circadian rhythms impact the outcome of cancer therapy? Can the root cause of pediatric heart disease be explained by a fruit fly?

Thought-provoking and intriguing questions like these will chart the course for eight new research initiatives funded by the Children’s Discovery Institute (CDI). The CDI is a partnership between the School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital to leverage research, including access to the human genome, and direct patient care to accelerate cures for childhood disease.

The CDI has approved $2.2 million for the new research and appointment of two full-time scholars and one academic fellow. Since its launch in January 2006, the CDI has awarded nearly $7 million toward novel pediatric research programs.

Spanning seven departments within the Schools of Medicine, Engineering and Arts & Sciences, the CDI’s philosophy of interdisciplinary team-building has set the table for breathtaking discoveries, according to Jonathan Gitlin, M.D., scientific director.

“People are interacting in ways we never could have imagined possible,” said Gitlin, the Helene B. Roberson Professor of Pediatrics and professor of genetics. “Diversity makes everything work. You want people in the room who have different ideas.”

One such dream team combines an assistant professor of computer science with researchers in biomedical engineering and pediatric neurosurgery. Headed by William Smart, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science, the project seeks to develop a robot that can be controlled by signals directed from the human brain.

“This is about as far from where I thought I’d be working as I’ve ever imagined,” Smart said. “Of everything I’ve done in my career, I’m most excited about this project because, if it sees its full potential, it will really change the quality of life for children with cerebral palsy and beyond.”

Erik Herzog, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, is investigating circadian rhythms and tumor biology in flies and mice with Josh Rubin, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, of neurology and of neurobiology, to discover new drugs and therapeutic approaches in children with brain cancer.

Jennifer Gries Duncan, M.D., one of two new CDI scholars recruited to the faculty through this round of funding, will join the Congenital Heart Disease Center. Her work will focus on a model of metabolic disease in the heart of the fruit fly to answer questions about the formation of the human heart. The goal is to provide a bridge between the rapid gains in genetic technology and the clinical need to answer biologically relevant questions in children with congenital heart disease.

“I consider myself fortunate to be at an institution with such a robust research environment and to work at a children’s hospital that has capitalized on those resources to support endeavors that will make a difference in the future of child health,” Gries Duncan said.

Other grant recipients in this round of funding are Robert H. Baloh, M.D., Ph.D.; Ali Nekouzadeh, D.Sc.; Barak Cohen, Ph.D.; Thomas Ferkol, M.D.; Anthony French, M.D., Ph.D.; Robert Heuckeroth, M.D., Ph.D.; Patrick Jay, M.D., Ph.D.; and Fanxin Long, Ph.D.