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Countdown to Childx: Previewing the “epicenter of innovation” for expectant moms and children

Mom&babyNext month Stanford Medicine will host the second annual Childx conference, which will attract speakers and guests from across North America. I recently spoke with Hugh O'Brodovich, MD, chair of the medical school's Department of Pediatrics and director of Stanford's Child Health Research Institute, which organizes the conference, to get a preview of the upcoming event. Registration is still open to the public and is free to Stanford faculty and affiliates.

What "big picture" informs the content of this year's Childx event?

This year's Childx conference, with its theme of "Designing Solutions for Maternal and Infant Health," really centers on the whole mission of our Child Health Research Institute: to mobilize Stanford discoveries and expertise to launch healthier lives. Where better to start than with the formation of the embryo, and build this all the way through to the first part of life?

The Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford have a well-established record as world leaders in the fields of developmental biology, reproductive health, obstetrics, and neonatology. We're really excited to showcase the advances that our scientists are making these fields and to engage in conversation with distinguished experts from other institutions.

What are some of the highlights you anticipate from the planned presentations?

Among the conference speakers, we've got a great lineup of world leaders on conception and the fundamental development of the embryo, the first step in development. One individual who will tell us how he's advancing the field is Barry Behr, PhD, whose basic research on assisted reproduction is helping to ensure that all couples who want children can have them. For instance, Behr's team has developed new ways to identify which embryos created during in vitro fertilization are most likely to result in successful pregnancies.

We also have several speakers who will address, in different ways, how premature birth occurs and what happens when you are born too soon. Preterm birth is a huge problem around the world; it recently surpassed infectious disease as the No. 1 killer of kids under age 5 worldwide.

Brice Gaudilliere, MD, PhD, has been conducting studies of women who have had a preterm birth compared with those who have had full-term pregnancies, and has found that their global inflammatory signatures are different. It's very exciting work that we think will help uncover the underlying mechanism of preterm birth. Karl Sylvester, MD, has been doing really great work on a prematurity complication called necrotizing enterocolitis, a devastating bowel disease; he'll tell us about his search for biomarkers that illuminate why some babies develop this problem and others don't. And Alan Flake, MD, from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, will be talking about his work to develop an artificial placenta that might enable more prolonged pregnancies for women who may deliver prematurely, or help support  premature infants after birth. We know that when infants are born preterm, their lungs and brains do not develop the same way as they would in the womb, probably in part because they are used to the equivalent of a 3 percent oxygen environment and suddenly find themselves in a 21 percent oxygen environment in room air. An artificial placenta that better helped us simulate the best incubator - the mother's womb - would be quite a breakthrough.

And, while we're looking forward to the future where we can prevent disease, we also have to live in today, so it's important to address the fact that preterm delivery now causes major morbidity around the world. Heidi Feldman, MD, PhD, will talk about how preterm birth affects children's neurodevelopmental abilities. A significant proportion of babies who weigh less than 1,000 grams at birth have developmental issues, and while many of those fall in the category that doctors refer to as "mild developmental disability," the reality is that those issues may not feel mild to the parents and families affected.

What message do you think is most important to convey to the public about the value of pediatric health research?

There are several very good reasons we should value pediatric health research. One is humanitarian: Children are a vulnerable group. As the Stanford pediatric policy expert Paul Wise, MD, likes to say, "Kids don't vote - but why should they have to?" Second, children are a quarter of our population and the future of our society. Healthier children will help create a better world. And there are pragmatic reasons to improve children's health. When you consider that most children alive today will have a 60- to 80-year lifespan, the cost of not dealing with their health problems stretched over that time span is extremely high.

What would you like to see come from this year's Childx conference?

On a local basis, I hope we'll further engage all seven schools at Stanford to make an increased commitment to health of expectant mothers and children. Within Silicon Valley, we hope to attract the interest of its innovative ecosystem, and increase their focus on obstetric and pediatric medicine. And on a larger scale, we hope this meeting will spark partnerships and bridges that help to spread our science and technology throughout the developed and developing world. I'm hoping there will be tremendous excitement about this meeting as an epicenter of innovation for expectant mothers and children.

Previously: Countdown to Childx: Discussing worldwide progress on children's survival, Registration opens for Stanford's Childx conference and "It's not just science fiction anymore": Childx speakers talk stem cell and gene therapy
Photo by Kaeru Sand

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