Health: Creating Solutions that Reduce Infant Mortality

Jessica Salerno
Dr. Christopher Breuer and his team at NCH were the first to bring vascular tissue engineering clinics into the United States.

Whether it’s correcting a congenital heart defect or healing infected intestines that threaten a baby’s life, physicians at Nationwide Children’s Hospital continue to participate in groundbreaking, tissue engineering research that saves lives.

Dr. Gail Besner, Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s chief of pediatric surgery, says she would like to put herself out of business in one specific area where she has focused on research for two decades. “If I never have to operate on one of these patients with necrotizing enterocolitis again, it would be all too soon,” she says.

Affecting mostly premature infants, necrotizing enterocolitis, known as NEC, is when an intestine becomes infected and damages the tissue. The survival rate is only 50 percent for those who have been diagnosed, and that figure hasn’t improved in 30 years.

Today Besner collaborates with Dr. Steven Goodman, an expert in probiotics, and Dr. Michael Bailey, an expert in the microbiome, both of whom are also based at NCH. They work with probiotics in a biofilm state to fight NEC. The research means, essentially, that infants are given a dose of probiotics through the mouth to protect them from NEC, without having to undergo a risky surgery or suffer side effects.

Probiotics are inexpensive, making this an accessible and affordable course of treatment. The team at NCH has received two sizable grants from the National Institutes of Health to continue their research.

In another area of tissue engineering at NCH, Dr. Christopher Breuer, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine, is working to help patients with cardiovascular anomalies.

Congenital heart disease is one of the most common birth defects in babies, affecting approximately 1 percent of all live births. About one-third of patients born with congenital heart defects or congenital coronary anomalies have severe defects that require major reconstructive operation. Breuer and his team were the first to bring vascular tissue engineering to clinics in the United States.

The benefit of creating tissue out of a patient’s own cells means that the cells grow as the patient grows, without the need for additional surgeries.