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“What we’re really talking about is changing the arc of children’s lives”: Stanford’s Childx kicks off

Childx Guttmacher

Stanford's Childx conference got off to a great start today. Shortly after Lloyd Minor, dean of the medical school, welcomed the attendees, keynote speaker Alan Guttmacher, MD, director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development, took the stage to talk about how scientific research needs to evolve to continue to advance children's health.

Pediatric research has reached an inflection point, Guttmacher said. "I really believe the fundamental questions we need to ask are different," he said. "This isn't about health in a narrowly defined way. What we're really talking about is changing the arc of children's lives, and the medical model is useful but not sufficient."

He mentioned several successes from the history of pediatric medicine, including large reductions in infectious disease, better care for preterm babies, and the "Back to Sleep" public health campaign that cut newborn deaths from SIDS by more than half. But he also highlighted several areas where children's health now needs research that goes beyond a strictly medical approach to integrate social and environmental factors, such as learning how to prevent preterm birth, help children with autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities participate more fully in society, understand how children's lives are changed by cyberbullying, and make medical and ethical decisions about the possible use of newborns' genomic data.

He anticipates that this type of research will bring new strength to pediatricians' interactions with patients and their families. "I would hope that the pediatric practice of the future, in terms of anticipatory guidance, won’t be about the next six weeks, six months or even six years of [the child's] life; it’ll be about the next six decades," he said.

"We need to be a society that values children," Guttmacher concluded, adding that we should view children as a shared societal responsibility and also a shared societal investment. He challenged the audience of pediatric researchers to ask themselves, "What do we need to do to ... change the nature of research that would make real change, not just small blips, in the lives, especially of kids in the United States and globally?"

A fascinating example of research that is changing the arc of children's lives followed this talk in the first conference session, in which the University of Toronto's Don Mabbott, PhD, spoke about his work to help heal the brains of children who suffer long-term effects from brain tumor treatment.

"There has been a revolution in our lifetimes in the care of children," Mabbott said. "The majority of children are cured of their disease or saved from their injury, and go on and live into adulthood. But there are storm clouds behind that great silver lining."

Mabbott described the pediatric brain tumor survivors he sees in his work as a psychologist. The surgery, radiation and chemotherapy that save their lives also damage these children's developing brains. Many of them struggle to complete their education, develop social connections and live independently as adults. When Mabbott started treating these kids 17 years ago, he couldn't provide their worried parents with any concrete advice about how to help their brains heal.

Today, he said, that has changed. He and other scientists have studied different mechanisms for enhancing the brain's plasticity to help restore lost brain function. He presented data from a study that he described as "gym class for kids with brain tumors," which is examining the effects of exercise for brain tumor survivors on measurable brain outcomes, such as increasing the brain's processing speed and repairing white matter damage.

"Now, 17 years later, I still say 'Your child has a significant injury,'" he said at the conclusion of his talk. "But we can make a difference." He tells parents who want to know how to help their children recover from brain tumor treatment to "take them to museums, play games with them, read to them, and ... get them to do exercise, lots of exercise."

The conference, which is sponsored by Stanford's Child Health Research Institute, is now being live-streamed on the Childx website. Conference presentations continue through tomorrow afternoon, and we'll bring you continued coverage here on Scope and on Twitter.

Previously: Join us for two days of live tweeting from Childx, Countdown to Childx: Global health expert Gary Darmstadt on improving newborn survival, Countdown to Childx: Q&A with pediatric health expert Alan Guttmacher and Countdown to Childx: Stanford expert highlights future of stem cell and gene therapies
Photo by Saul Bromberger

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