Treatments & Research

The Power of Discovery

How Shriners Children’s fuses compassionate care with groundbreaking research

Parents naturally want the best care they can find when a child has a medical condition or an injury. And now, with technology making it easier than ever before for parents to find information, a new factor has entered the conversation: research.

Michelle Welborn, M.D., has seen it in her own practice and is not alone. The chief of spine surgery at Shriners Children’s Portland, Dr. Welborn is well known for her clinical expertise and ability to connect with her young patients. But she’s also renowned for her research on scoliosis. And families looking for options know it.

Shriners Children’s is committed to enhancing pediatric care through research for better treatments and outcomes.

“It happens increasingly. With the advent of social media, more families have access to papers and publications. More families are talking about care,” said Dr. Welborn. “There is an audience that is informed in new and different ways. They are interested in research and the implications on care for their child.”

Shriners Children’s emphasis on research programs is inherent in its three-part mission. Thus, the healthcare system can provide the combination of care and innovation today’s parents seek.

The draw of research

To help those patient families who are prioritizing research, many medical providers want to treat children in clinical practice and work on finding new knowledge that could lead to new and improved treatments and outcomes.

The opportunity to see patients and conduct research draws innovative thinkers. Having a research program is essential for recruiting clinicians who will move the needle in terms of care, said Shriners Children’s Vice President for Research Programs Marc Lalande, Ph.D. “They are also looking to innovate. Having a strong research program helps you attract that type of physician.”

Every year, Shriners Children’s researchers publish more than 400 articles in various biomedical journals. With university affiliates and industry titans, Shriners Children’s medical teams continue to break new ground in all healthcare system care areas. At the Shriners Children’s Genomics Institute, more than 10,000 genetic samples have been gathered and projects are underway involving the genetic basis of nearly a dozen conditions. Around the healthcare system, clinician-researchers gather data, build registries and work on innovations that will transform pediatric healthcare.

By offering many opportunities for research, including dedicated time to focus on research, Shriners Children’s provides medical care teams the chance to shape a satisfying and engaging career. It’s why many of our providers stay at Shriners Children’s for a long time.

“I want the ability to grow and continue to learn by taking an active role in exploring the science. A healthcare system with a robust commitment to research indicates that it values a growth mindset,” Dr. Welborn said. “It’s not simply about the now – it’s who I want to be and how I want to practice medicine.”

For patients and families looking for innovative care, Shriners Children’s dedication to research can catapult it to the top of the list.

Parents appreciate that drive to learn, Dr. Welborn said. “They want to go where their doctors are happy and engaged.”

Part of something larger

Research is a long game. Going from the germ of an idea to clinical trials to gaining approval for patient treatment can take not just years but decades. But that doesn’t stop families from seeking out clinical researchers today.

Dr. Welborn’s research involves a biological growth marker that has implications for scoliosis treatment. Parents bring their children with scoliosis to Shriners Children’s because they have heard of her research, she said. Moreover, children who meet the criteria, including a minimum age, are often eager to join her effort. Many, she said, even show up on their birthday to enroll in her study.

They know that participating in research studies today can help other children like them someday. Shriners Children’s medical providers and patients are working together for a better future.

A Leap Forward

An innovative stem cell therapy could redefine spina bifida treatment

Liam receives treatment for spina bifida at Shriners Children’s.

With one of the nation’s largest and most renowned spina bifida programs, Shriners Children’s Northern California and UC Davis Children’s Hospital collectively serve the highest number of patients with spina bifida in the United States. Diana Farmer, M.D., is chief of pediatric surgery at Shriners Children’s Northern California and chair of surgery at University of California, Davis. Alongside bioengineer Aijun Wang, Ph.D., she is working on research to change the future for treatment.

The researchers have been granted approximately $15 million for the next phase of a clinical trial on the use of stem cells to improve outcomes for children with spina bifida. The CuRe (Cellular Therapy for In Utero Repair of Myelomeningocele) trials are using placenta-derived stem cells: a stem cell patch delivered directly to the spinal opening of the fetus while still developing in the mother’s womb.

Pioneering future treatment

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved an $8.9 million grant to fund the CuRe trial. Shriners Children’s matched this funding with a $5.9 million grant.

“The CuRe clinical trial represents a leap forward in our quest to redefine what’s possible in spina bifida treatment. Thanks to the collaboration between UC Davis and Shriners Children’s Northern California, we’re exploring the potential of stem cell therapy and charting a course toward a future where children with spina bifida can lead fuller, more independent lives,” said Dr. Farmer.

Shriners Children’s Northern California has been a committed supporter of spina bifida research over the years. These endeavors include developing innovative tissue-engineered bony scaffolds for fetal spina bifida treatment and creating new spina bifida disease models.

A major breakthrough

The combined $14.8 million award provides critical funding for phase two of the clinical trial.

“We are grateful and proud that we now have both CIRM and Shriners Children’s as our partners for the phase two portion of the CuRe trial,” said Dr. Wang, co-inventor of the placental-derived stem cell treatment and co-principal investigator of the study. “It is this important partnership that is making this groundbreaking work possible. It is a testimony to the approach our team has always taken to conduct innovative research and solve unmet medical needs.”

‘It’s the Right Problem to Solve’

Our research on different burn gels will help patients with burn injuries heal faster and with less pain.

Researchers at Shriners Children’s Boston develop a hydrogel that could transform burn wound dressings Every year, Shriners Children’s researchers publish more than 400 articles in various biomedical journals. Less pain and quicker healing could soon be a reality for burn survivors. Aslihan Gokaltun, Ph.D., principal investigator at Shriners Children’s Boston, is leading a hydrogel research study. Working with O. Berk Usta, Ph.D., associate professor of surgery and bioengineering at Harvard Medical School, the pair bioengineered first-of-itskind hydrogel for burn survivors.

Hydrogels, a network of interconnected polymers, are applied onto wounds and covered with gauze or similar dressings. They form a mesh of highly absorbent material. “Hydrogel absorbs water like a sponge and provides a moist environment,” explains Dr. Gokaltun. “It also cools and soothes wounds, which can accelerate healing.”

Current hydrogel dressings can stick to wounds, sometimes requiring surgical intervention to remove them. To overcome this, the goal is to create a rapidly dissolving hydrogel that minimizes the need for medications, extended hospital stays and costs. Robert Sheridan, M.D., chief of staff and director of burn services at Shriners Children’s Boston, is an advisor on this study. When Dr. Gokaltun shared the researchers’ idea, he told her, “It’s the right problem to solve.”

Dr. Usta and Dr. Gokaltun noted their experience with burn survivors in Boston, which made this research possible. “If we weren’t in this building, we wouldn’t be aware of this problem,” said Dr. Usta.