Research Institute Creates Opportunities for Dynamic Connections

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Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute’s commitment to science that translates into innovation and improvement in children’s health is under the new leadership of Susan L. Furth, MD, PhD, who assumed the role of Chief Scientific Officer in June 2021.

“Using research findings to develop and improve interventions promoting the health and well-being of children is at the heart of everything we do at the Research Institute,” Dr. Furth said.

In her CSO role, Dr. Furth brings a distinguished background in research to guide the Research Institute as its investigators tackle the most pressing issues in pediatric research. A tenured professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, Dr. Furth has had continuous National Institute of Health (NIH) funding for more than 25 years. She has authored more than 200 papers in peer-reviewed journals related to the epidemiology and health outcomes for children with kidney disease and has led the design and implementation of pediatric observational studies and clinical trials.

Dr. Furth has been recognized nationally for her work, receiving honors and awards that include election to the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars, the 2020 Maureen Andrew Mentor Award from the Society of Pediatric Research, and the 2020 FOCUS Award for the Advancement of Women in Medicine from Penn Medicine. She is an elected member of the Association of American Physicians and served as President of the Society for Pediatric Research. Dr. Furth is currently a Councilor for the International Pediatric Nephrology Association.

With a passion for mentoring junior researchers, Dr. Furth held a NIH Mid-Career Mentoring Award for 10 years, developed the Carole Marcus Mid-Career Award to Promote Career Development and Mentoring in Pediatric Research at CHOP, and won the Faculty Mentor Award at CHOP in 2016.

“In addition to her impressive scientific achievements, which have been recognized globally, she is also an outstanding mentor who has helped younger researchers develop their careers,” said Madeline Bell, President and CEO of CHOP. “Combined, these skills will be invaluable in supporting the Research Institute fulfill CHOP’s mission of delivering exceptional clinical care, research, and education.”

The Board of Directors for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia approved in March a living strategy and framework to synergize individual strengths and support a community of “omics” experts across laboratories and research programs. The overarching vision is two-fold:

  • Lead in developing new omics-based diagnostics and therapeutics for children.
  • Be the destination of choice for the diagnosis and treatment of complex diseases which result from our collective expertise in “omics” technology.

By leveraging the wealth of data available from our investments in research, CHOP and its Research Institute has the opportunity to use “multiomics” technologies — genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics — and emerging approaches to data science to drive faster, more accurate diagnoses and treatments for children with both rare and complex childhood diseases.

To this end, the Research Institute will accelerate the development of an industry-leading data platform and sharing model so that individuals who collect, manage, or use institutional data have maximal opportunities to make insights that may impact child health. Two committees — the CHOP Data Use Committee led by Marilyn Li, MD, and Ingo Helbig, MD, and the CHOP Data Science Strategy Committee led by Yi Xing, PhD — are meeting frequently with a concerted focus on active institutional data management with uniform governance, policy, sharing, and accountability.

The ’omics and big data strategy promotes the use of Arcus, an informatics platform for CHOP’s research community, to manage genomic data and streamline the generation, archival, and research use of ’omic and other research data. Initial goals include building the CHOP ’Omics Data Warehouse to host genomic data linked to clinical phenotype data. This repository will grow to incorporate other types of ’omic data representing intermediate molecular phenotypes. 

Three more workgroups are ramping up to focus on basic and translational research, external partnerships, and training and career development:

  • The Omics and Big Data Basic and Translational Research Workgroup is charged with engaging stakeholders across the institution to bring back key information to build a complete picture of current omics work and opportunities. This workgroup will envision opportunities to expand and accelerate omics research and CHOP-sponsored clinical trials in the near- and long-term.
  • The Omics and Big Data External Partnerships Workgroup will improve CHOP’s efficiency and effectiveness at pursuing omics and big data-focused strategic partnerships with industry and academic institutions to accelerate clinical and research efforts.
  • The Omics and Big Data Training and Career Development Workgroup will introduce new programs to attract and retain the best talent.

Working collaboratively to implement the strategy, CHOP and the Research Institute will create a faster and more efficient operating model to improve diagnosis and treatment, provide a more coordinated and patient-centered experience, and seamlessly integrate clinical care models and research.

Frontier Programs differentiate Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia because of their unique combination of translational research and exceptional clinical care of children with highly complex conditions. By investing in initiatives like our Frontier Programs, we are accelerating the transformation of high-potential ideas into life-changing advances for patients.

Two new Frontier Programs were selected in 2021:

Center for Rare Lung Diseases 

Historically, achieving a specific pulmonary diagnosis has been challenging, as children with disparate types of lung disease present with overlapping clinical symptoms and nonspecific radiologic findings of diffuse lung disease. The Center for Rare Lung Diseases Frontier Program seeks to change the diagnostic pathway by expanding genetic and pathologic testing for their patient population.

The Frontier Program will build upon its basic science platform and seek to identify novel genetic targets, develop biomarkers, and model the molecular mechanisms in rare lung diseases to allow for enhanced outcomes for all patients. Its leaders are Lisa Young, MD, and Sharon McGrath-Morrow, MD, MBA.

Center for Precision Diagnosis and Therapy for Pediatric Motility Disorders 

Despite the high prevalence of gastrointestinal motility disorders in the pediatric population, there are only a few centers in the world that can address the complex needs of children with severe motility diseases. This Center for Precision Diagnosis and Therapy for Pediatric Motility Disorders Frontier Program will expand on the outstanding clinical reputation of the Suzi and Scott Lustgarten Motility Center and position CHOP as the top research institution for treating and curing gastrointestinal motility disorders.

 This Frontier Program will seek to expand the clinical pathways, translate precision diagnostics to the clinic by developing novel therapies and treatment strategies, and ultimately improve outcomes. Its leaders are Hayat Mousa, MD, and Robert O. Heuckeroth, MD, PhD.

A new Research Institute Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI Council) formed this year to take accountability for the RI’s Diversity Action Steps, to serve as a guiding body for the working groups engaged in accomplishing the Action Step-related tasks, and to communicate transparently and bidirectionally with the Senior Leadership team, research faculty, and staff.

Co-chairing the Council is Lamia Barakat, PhD, professor of Clinical Psychology in Pediatrics and Psychiatry, Director of Behavioral Oncology, and co-Division Chief for Integrated Psychiatry, Psychology, and Behavioral Health; and Wendy Reed Williams, PhD, senior director, Academic Training and Outreach Programs (ATOP). Paulette McRae, PhD, is the DEI Council's Strategy and Logistics Deputy, and she is assistant director, Specialty Programs and Diversity, in ATOP.

Ensuring different roles and viewpoints are at the table, the Council is a minimum of nine voting members from across Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and its Research Institute. Along with faculty, including Department and Division leaders, and ATOP representation, the Council includes members from the offices of Human Resources, Faculty Development, and Immigration and Visa Services, as well as postdoctoral fellows. Gilbert Davis, MHA, CHOP’s vice president and chief Diversity Officer rounds out the group, ensuring that our DEI Council’s work synergizes with the hospital’s DEI efforts.

The Council is establishing four Working Groups whose members will actively work on our strategic priorities related to DEI across the research community:

  • DEI of research participants in CHOP studies.
  • Assessing and enhancing the RI DEI landscape.
  • Promoting a welcoming and inclusive environment.
  • Building a diverse workforce.

Having strategic priorities and Council members who are working to ensure we follow through with them reinforces our commitment to providing a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment here at the Research Institute.

When information is openly shared between employees and across levels of the organization, it encourages communication and innovation that aligns with the Research Institute’s goals to promote the health and well-being of children, adolescents, and young adults.

With this perspective in mind, two new groups were launched in 2021 to help researchers stay collectively informed and increase the sharing of ideas. The Vice Chairs of Research for Departments represent Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, Biomedical and Health Informatics, Pathology, Psychiatry, Radiology, and Surgery. The Department of Pediatrics Research Council includes directors of research from each of the department’s 18 divisions.

At an early stage of formation this fall, these two groups have begun meeting on a regular basis to share success stories, best practices, problem-solve, and increase awareness of potential multidisciplinary collaboration on research projects. They aim to cascade this information to the principal investigators within their related areas of expertise, as well as upwardly communicate with the Research Institute’s senior leadership.

Inquiries regarding either of these collaborative groups can be directed to Brian Fisher, DO, MPH, MSCE, associate chair of research for the Department of Pediatrics.

Construction plans are underway for the Schuylkill Avenue Research Building (SARB1), anticipated to be completed in November 2024. Research staff and administrators from all levels across the Research Institute are contributing insights to develop dedicated space for wet labs, vivarium floors, core facilities, genome sequencing, mechanical infrastructure, and more.

At 14-stories tall and a variety of outdoor spaces, SARB1 will elevate the Research Institute’s commitment to excellence in research, creativity, innovation, and community engagement. It will be designed for maximum flexibility to incorporate new technologies as they emerge. The dynamic work environment will include collaboration zones and comprehensive breakout spaces that will facilitate interaction among our communities of science.

The new building will help to recruit and retain the best scientists dedicated to improving children’s healthcare and instill a culture of support for personal and professional development within a world-class pediatric research destination.

Conceptual Rendering: Schuylkill Avenue Research Building as of December 2021