Red Zone at Home: Quality and safety beyond the hospital walls

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In an age where mobile apps, big data and sophisticated technology seem to dominate every conversation about health care innovation, Jamie Harris’s quality improvement project might not seem so revolutionary. But Harris, a nurse in the cardiac electrophysiology program at Boston Children’s Hospital, saw an opportunity to take an existing patient safety initiative and use it in a new way.

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News Notes: Pediatric science roundup

A quick look at recent research Vector finds noteworthy.

Tracking infants’ microbiomes

cute microbes-shutterstock_317080235-croppedMicrobiome studies are blooming as rapidly as bacteria in an immunocompromised host. But few studies have been done in children, whose microbiomes are actively forming and vulnerable to outside influences. Two studies in Science Translational Medicine on June 15 tracked infants’ gut microbiomes prospectively over time. The first, led by researchers at the Broad Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital, analyzed DNA from monthly stool samples from 39 Finnish infants, starting at 2 months of age. Over the next three years, 20 of the children received at least one course of antibiotics. Those who were repeatedly dosed had fewer “good” bacteria, including microbes important in training the immune system. Overall, their microbiomes were less diverse and less stable, and their gut microbes had more antibiotic resistance genes, some of which lingered even after antibiotic treatment. Delivery mode (cesarean vs. vaginal) also affected microbial diversity. A second study at NYU Langone Medical Center tracked 43 U.S. infants for two years and similarly found disturbances in microbiome development associated with antibiotic treatment, delivery by cesarean section and formula feeding versus breastfeeding.

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Faja lab focuses on biomarkers and executive functioning in autism

What makes children with autism tick, and how can we help them function better socially? That’s the focus of research in the lab Susan Faja, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital.

The GAMES project seeks to build social skills in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by building cognitive skills, specifically executive functioning. Through computer games and coaching, Faja hopes strengthen kids’ ability to plan, inhibit behavior, manage complex or conflicting information and shift flexibly between different rules or situations. She believes executive function training will help children with ASD better understand other people’s perspectives and act more appropriately in social situations.

Faja is also interested in biomarkers that indicate whether interventions are working, including brain EEG recordings and eye tracking. She’s using these tools to learn what visual information kids with ASD are attending to and how their brains respond to social information.

“I think the thing that really makes my lab unique is that we are looking at both neuroscience and intervention at the same time,” says Faja. “We take information from the neuroscience literature about how the brain develops, and we look for ways to apply that to developing new treatments.”

Learn more about Faja’s ongoing studies and how children can enroll.

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Wine used to toast CGD gene therapy trial linked to decades-long scientific journey

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Brenden Whittaker (left) and David Williams, MD (photo: Sam Ogden)

When Brenden Whittaker of Columbus, Ohio, the first patient treated with gene therapy for chronic granulomatous disease (CGD), showed successful engraftment last winter, the gene therapy team lifted glasses for a celebratory toast. The wine they sipped was no ordinary wine. The 2012 Bordeaux blend came from an award-winning California vineyard owned and operated by Robert Baehner, MD, a pioneering pediatric hematologist with ties to Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

Decades before, Baehner had done fundamental research in CGD, an inherited immune system disorder that occurs when phagocytes, white blood cells that normally help the body fight infection, cannot kill the germs they ingest and thus cannot protect the body from bacterial and fungal infections.

Children with CGD are often healthy at birth, but develop severe infections in infancy and early childhood from bacteria that would cause mild disease or no illness at all in a healthy child. This was true for Whittaker. Diagnosed with CGD when he was 1, his disease became increasingly severe, forcing him to quit school several years ago.

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An energy boost to the heart: Infant’s own mitochondria save her life

20160606_AveryHeart-12_with MomShe’s small for a six-month-old, but otherwise Avery Gagnon looks perfectly healthy. She smiles, kicks, laughs and grabs her toys and pacifiers. What you’d never know is that Avery has complex congenital heart disease and might not be alive today if it weren’t for an innovative procedure that used mitochondria from her own cells to boost her heart’s energy.

The procedure is the brainchild of James McCully, PhD, a cardiovascular research scientist at the Heart Center at Boston Children’s Hospital who spent most of his career working to solve a common complication of heart surgery: damage to heart muscle cells.

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Tool helps interpret subtle DNA variants from genome-wide association studies

Genome-wide association studies are huge undertakings that compare the genomes of large populations. They can turn up thousands to tens of thousands of genetic variants associated with disease. But which GWAS variants really matter?

That question becomes exponentially harder when the variants lie in the vast stretches of DNA that don’t encode proteins, but instead have regulatory functions.

“It’s hard to know which hits are causal hits, and which are just going along for the ride,” says Vijay Sankaran, MD, PhD, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and an associate member of the Broad Institute.

Reporting in Cell, Sankaran’s team and two other groups at the Broad Institute describe a new tool that can looks at hundreds of thousands of genetic elements at once to pinpoint variants that truly affect gene expression or function. Called the massively parallel reporter assay (MPRA), it could help reveal subtle genetic influences on diseases and traits.

In Sankaran’s case, the MPRA is helping him understand how common variants contribute to blood disorders in children. “Most of the common variation is just tuning genetic function,” he says. “Just slightly, not turning it on or off, but actually just tuning it like a dimmer switch.”

The above video explains how the assay works – via DNA “barcodes.” Read more on the Broad Institute’s blog, Broad Minded.

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Bringing voice technology to healthcare: Hacking with Amazon’s Alexa

voice technology healthcare
Kate Donovan, clinical advisor to IDHA, conducts a simulated inpatient demo of Alexa.

Earlier this spring, Boston Children’s Hospital’s Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA) released KidsMD for Amazon’s Alexa, the voice technology system’s first healthcare “skill.” It offers simple health advice for parents inquiring about their child’s fever and medication doses at home. But fever is just the beginning. Where else in a patient’s journey could voice be leveraged?

In collaboration with Boston Children’s Hospital’s Simulator Program (SIMPeds), IDHA brought Alexa to a two-part mini-hackathon on May 25. Patients and their families, clinicians, developers and researchers were invited to watch and join demonstrations of voice technology across the hospital. In the breakout hack sessions that followed, participants brainstormed future applications for voice at Boston Children’s.

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Detecting shunt failure in hydrocephalus without imaging or surgery: ShuntCheck

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Antonio helped test a device that can tell whether a shunt is still working. (Photos: Katherine Cohen)

Antonio Venus-Reeve, 14, had his first shunt surgery for hydrocephalus when he was 2½ months old. Born at 25 weeks’ gestation, weighing less than two pounds, he had a serious brain bleed seven days later.

As Antonio’s head began to swell with excess fluid, neurologists at Boston Children’s Hospital told his mother, Joanne Venus-Williams, that Antonio probably would not be able to walk, talk or develop major motor skills. “Neurosurgery got involved and the team did daily spinal taps to draw out the fluid in his brain,” says Venus-Williams. “They were hoping he wouldn’t need a shunt, but we got to the point where we knew it was the way to go.”

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Why can’t a walker be more like an all-terrain vehicle?

Child innovator Sadie with Amazing Curb Climber
Photo: Patrick McCallum

Sadie McCallum’s own life led her to become an inventor. She’s 9, has cerebral palsy, for which she’s seen at Boston Children’s Hospital, and relies on a walker to get around. “It would be SO much easier if my walker was more like an all-terrain vehicle and could go over curbs or stairs,” she says.

This year, in third grade, Sadie took part in her school’s annual Invention Convention and designed and built the Amazing Curb Climber. She sketched the design, and her family helped her with the planning, drilling, sawing and assembly. The end product combined two of Sadie’s old walkers and six lawn mower wheels (three on either side) to create an all-terrain design, plus two smaller wheels in back. Her dad helped build a portable curb for testing and demo purposes.

The invention won first place for Best Use of a Wheel and second place for Kids’ Choice. Sadie went on to the regional Invention Convention, where she took the first place for the Special Needs Award as well as the Microsoft Technology Award.

Read Sadie’s post on our sister blog, Thriving.

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Plugging gaps in Zika surveillance with online news reports

Zika surveillance
Zika virus disease reports as of May 31, 2016 (click to enlarge)

As the Zika epidemic continues to unfold, most affected countries are flying blind: they have limited government disease surveillance systems in place to track new cases. That leaves public health officials unable to estimate how fast Zika is spreading, where the hotspots are and when the outbreak will peak — much less contain it and prepare for cases of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, both now presumed to be caused by the Zika virus.

“One of the things we really struggled with in the early days of Zika was a lack of official data sources,” says research fellow Maia Majumder, MPH, of the Computational Epidemiology Group at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Surveillance has been really lagging. When we don’t know how many cases there are day to day, week to week, it’s really hard to characterize how bad an outbreak is.”

A study this week led by Majumder suggests a readily available data source for estimating actual case counts on the ground: online local news reports, adjusted using data from Google search trends.

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