the best young researchers. Support them generously. And watch the breakthroughs
happen for kids. That’s the formula behind the Faculty Scholars Program funded
by the Children’s Discovery Institute.
Could a child with scoliosis or muscular dystrophy be treated with genetically targeted
therapy? Does congenital heart disease arise from genetic defects in heart-cell
metabolism? Are there better ways to boost a child’s immune system? The Faculty
Scholars want to know.
The Children’s Discovery Institute funds six Faculty Scholars. Brilliant scientists
at the beginning of their careers, the Scholars’ fresh thinking holds tremendous
promise for children’s health. Thanks to donor-funded grants, these rising
stars can set up laboratories at Washington University School of Medicine and forge
ahead with innovative research.
“The start of a scientist’s career is a crucial time,” said S.
Celeste Morley, MD
, PhD, Instructor in the Division of Pediatric Infectious
Diseases and one of the newest Faculty Scholars. “You’re making the
transition from training, and missteps can happen that might derail new scientific
ideas. Support from the Children’s Discovery Institute helps nurture and protect
these new ideas.”
Powerful pediatric research
Children’s immune response is the focus of the two newest scholars, Dr. Morley
and Megan Cooper, MD, PhD
, Fellow in the Division of Pediatric
Dr. Cooper has already published an article that showed, for the first time, “memory”
in a type of white blood cell called the natural-killer cell, which is involved
in the body’s innate immunity. “Memory in a cell,” said Dr. Cooper,
“is what boosts your immune system after an exposure— it’s why
a vaccine works.” Dr. Cooper will use her funding to study memory-like responses
in natural-killer cells. Her research may suggest ways to strengthen the immune
system in premature infants, children with HIV infection, or children with juvenile
A scientist since the 7th grade, Dr. Morley attended a regional public science high
school, conducting DNA research as a teenager. In medical school, she began her
study of the T- lymphocyte, a white blood cell that moves through the body to fight
bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. As a Faculty Scholar, Dr. Morley will work
to understand how the deficiency of a protein, L-plastin, hampers children’s
T-cellmediated immunity. Ultimately, her work may improve the diagnosis and care
of children with immune deficiencies or cancer, while identifying new targets for
drug therapy to boost T-cell function.
For Faculty Scholar Jennifer Duncan, MD
, Assistant Professor
of Pediatrics and specialist in critical care medicine, understanding the cellular
basis of congenital heart disease is the driving force for her work. “I study
mitochondria,” Dr. Duncan declared, “the powerhouse inside the cytoplasm
of every cell. In heart cells, mitochondria have to work hard to keep the heart
pumping.” Dr. Duncan analyzes the connection between heart failure in children
and developmental events that could disrupt the metabolism of mitochondria.
Robert Baloh, MD, PhD
, Assistant Professor of Neurology, and Christina
Gurnett, MD, PhD
, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Pediatrics, and
Orthopedic Surgery are Faculty Scholars who focus on musculoskeletal and neuromuscular
Dr. Gurnett studies the genetic basis of conditions like clubfoot and scoliosis.
Her funding has enabled her to develop a DNA data bank of musculoskeletal diseases.
“What we’re after,” said Dr. Gurnett, “is genetic information
that might point to gene therapies or to dietary or environmental changes that treat
or prevent skeletal disorders.”
Like Dr. Gurnett, Dr. Baloh has used his funding to generate a DNA data bank, this
one for neuromuscular diseases (NMDs) like muscular dystrophy. He has also begun
work on a project that uses a patient’s skin cells to generate muscle or nerve
cells, which are used to evaluate potential therapies. “It’s a painstaking
process,” Dr. Baloh said, “but we are definitely moving toward treatment
for these currently untreatable diseases. In the meantime, the genetic information
we discover is profoundly reassuring to families, who want to know why their child
has an NMD.”
Finding advanced treatment for malaria—a disease that kills hundreds of thousands
of children annually—is the goal of Faculty Scholar Audrey Odom,
. “Malaria caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum
is not amenable to vaccines,” noted Dr. Odom. “Immunity is short-lived,
and we could conceivably wait 50 to 100 years for a vaccine. So new drug treatment
is vital, especially since the organism is often resistant to the drugs we have.”
Dr. Odom is closing in on the biosynthetic pathways that sustain the parasite’s
life, which could be interrupted by novel drugs.
Funding that fuels careers— and the community
“Being a Faculty Scholar has allowed me to get my lab off the
ground,” said Dr. Baloh. He echoed a sentiment voiced by all the Scholars—gratitude
to the Children’s Discovery Institute for helping launch a productive research
career. “When you leave training, someone has to take a chance on you. It
means a lot to get this support.”
Faculty Scholars use their funding efficiently, and often locally. They buy equipment
ranging from centrifuges to filing systems. They hire research assistants in the
St. Louis community. Scholars report that this funding also enables them to increase
their collaboration with other scientists, locally, nationally, and in some cases,
globally. Such collaboration only bolsters the Institute’s reputation as an
influential center for pediatric research.
Finally, the Faculty Scholars program safeguards the community’s most precious
resource—the health of our children, now and in the future.