Treatments & Research

Fulfilling Our Research Mission

Researchers from Shriners Children’s and Georgia Institute of Technology come together to share ideas.

To change and improve lives, Shriners Children’s seeks new knowledge

Shriners Children’s medical providers are always striving to provide the most innovative and effective treatments. That’s why we are so committed to our mission to conduct research. 

Today, Shriners Children’s patients benefit from research that began decades ago, and we are confident that the research we do now will drive results far into the future. To benefit our patients most, our main research efforts fall within Shriners Children’s areas of clinical focus – pediatric orthopedics, burns, and cleft lip and palate. That’s in addition to work at the Shriners Children’s Genomics Institute (see page 5). 

To maximize our impact, we work with renowned research institutions and industry partners to promote research collaborations and leverage funding opportunities. Publications and presentations at national and international conferences enhance the visibility of our research findings. Our goal is to position Shriners Children’s as a leader in pediatric research, recognized for our contributions to the advancement of medical knowledge and the improvement of patient care. 

Here are a few research projects underway around Shriners Children’s. 

Farshid Guilak, Ph.D.

Smart stem cells

Farshid Guilak, Ph.D., director of research at Shriners Children’s St. Louis, and his team have discovered a new way to help children and adults who have arthritis: smart stem cells. 

The team rewired the genetic circuits in stem cells, so that the cells can sense when a person is about to have a flare-up of juvenile arthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. The cells then make and release substances similar to medications that are injected for arthritis treatment. These biologic agents can control disease flare-ups before they happen and make it possible for patients to be less dependent on high doses of medication. 

To keep these smart cells in place, Guilak’s team encapsulated the cells within flexible gel rods, made from a seaweed derivative, that are designed to be kept in the body for months at a time. Without the gel rods, the cells only last in the body for 48 hours. 

“Our next steps are to determine which drug, or drugs, can be delivered successfully through the gel rods to control symptoms for different forms of arthritis,” said Guilak. 

Lloyd Halpern, M.D.

Better pain management

Shriners Children’s Spokane collaborates with Washington State University (WSU) Medical School to provide research opportunities for medical students through the Helen Lemieux Scholarship Fund. 

This scholarship, administered through the Shriners Children’s research department, provides financial support for medical students who participate in four- or eight-week research projects with local faculty. In the summer of 2022, WSU medical student Abby Velarde designed and implemented a research project in collaboration with Lloyd Halpern, M.D., a pediatric anesthesiologist at Shriners Children’s Spokane. 

The project studied the use of a new type of epidural catheter for certain patients undergoing spinal fusion surgery. The researchers hypothesized that the new catheter would provide improved pain relief for Shriners Children’s patients. 

The study found the new epidural catheter reduced the incidence of breakthrough pain (pain that erupts while a patient is already medicated). The number of patients who did not require opioids while the epidural catheter was in place increased from 40% to 62%. The Shriners Children’s Spokane medical team continues to use the new epidural catheter. 

Kyle Deane, Ph.D.

Supporting mental health

Mental health is a critical piece of a child’s overall healing and wellness. In addition to providing direct patient support, Shriners Children’s child psychologists conduct research to improve care. The World Health Organization says about 20% of children in the general population experience mental health conditions. Youths with a chronic condition or physical disabilities are up to 10% more likely to experience a mental health condition. 

At Shriners Children’s Chicago, pediatric psychologist Kyle Deane, Ph.D., is leading research to develop the first pediatric measure of appraisals of disability for children with a spinal cord injury. 

As Deane explained, appraisals are “how someone makes sense of a stressful event. They can look at it as a loss, as something they find threatening, or as a challenge that they can meet,” he said. “We think that the way a kid thinks about his or her injury really affects functioning.” 

The research examines how patients understand, or appraise, their spinal cord injury and whether they have psychosocial issues such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress, or other health conditions such as pressure injuries, sleep difficulties or pain after injury. The goal is to create a tool that quantitatively measures how children think about their spinal cord injury, which may help psychologists and clinicians identify patients at higher risk for negative outcomes.