My work, my life, my innovations: Anne Hansen, MD, MPH

If these walls could talk …

The walls of Anne Hansen’s office tell a story. The main character, medical director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Boston Children’s Hospital, is an innovator, a global citizen and respected neonatologist. Her life and work has benefitted newborns and parents, medical trainees and colleagues around the world.

Read more about her life, work and innovations by hovering over the objects that surround her every day.


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A banquet of tools for health tech innovators

Tools-Shutterstock-donatas1205-croppedWant to hack something in medicine? Vendors are increasingly eager to contribute their tools to problem-solving teams, like those who will gather November 14 for Boston Children’s Hospital’s Hacking Pediatrics. Seeing an array of tools presented at a showcase at Boston Children’s last week, I felt excited about the possibilities ahead.

Here are a few tools that can help innovators improve health care for patients, caregivers and providers.

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DNA diversity in the brain: Somatic mutations reveal a neuron’s history

neurons somatic mutations
Neurons are more like snowflakes–no two alike–than anyone realized.

Walt Whitman’s famous line, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” has gained a new level of biological relevance in neuroscience.

As we grow, our brain cells develop different genomes from one another, according to new research from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. The study, published last week in Science, provides the most definitive evidence yet that somatic (post-conception) mutations exist in significant numbers in the brains of healthy people—about 1,500 in each of the neurons they sampled.

The finding confirms previous suspicions and lays the foundation for exploring the role of these non-inherited mutations in human development and disease. Already, the researchers have found evidence that the mutations occur more often in the genes a neuron uses most. And they been able to trace brain-cell lineages based on mutation patterns.

“This work is a proof of principle that if we had unlimited resources, we could actually decode the whole pattern of development of the human brain,” says co-senior investigator Christopher Walsh, MD, PhD, the HMS Bullard Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology and chief of the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Boston Children’s. “These mutations are durable memory for where a cell came from and what it has been up to. I believe this method will also tell us a lot about healthy and unhealthy aging as well as what makes our brains different from those of other animals.”

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Minimally invasive tool uses light for beating-heart repairs

Last year, cardiologists at Boston Children’s Hospital reported developing a groundbreaking adhesive patch for sealing holes in the heart. The patch guides the heart’s own tissue to grow over it, forming an organic bridge. Once the hole is sealed, the biodegradable patch dissolves, leaving no foreign material in the body.

As revolutionary as this device was, it still had one major drawback: implanting the patch required highly invasive open-heart surgery. But that may be about to change.

Researchers from the Wyss Institute, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Boston Children’s have jointly designed a radically different way to implant the patch without having to stop the heart, place patients on bypass or cut open their chests.

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Surgical 3-D printing: 300 prints, 16 specialties and counting

3-D printing is rapidly becoming a part of surgical planning. Since July 2013, Boston Children’s Hospital’s 3-D printing service, part of the Simulator Program, has received about 200 requests from 16 departments around the hospital. It’s generated a total of about 300 prints, most of them replicating parts of the body to be operated on.

Most prints take between 4 and 28 hours to produce. The largest to date—an entire malformed rib cage—took 105 hours and 35 minutes to create and weighed 8.9 pounds. The smallest—a tiny tangle of blood vessels in the brain—took 4 hours and 21 minutes and weighed 1.34 ounces. Here is sampling of what’s been coming off the production line.

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Rescuing intestinal stem cells from attack in diabetes

diabetic enteropathy and colonic stem cells
Blood levels of the hormone IGFBP3 (enterostaminine), shown here in green, are markedly elevated in people with longstanding type 1 diabetes and launch a lethal attack on intestinal stem cells. Adding a protein that soaks up the excess hormone restores normal stem cell function and could help prevent or treat diabetic enteropathy. (All images by Riseon)

Up to 80 percent of people with long-standing type 1 diabetes develop gastrointestinal symptoms—abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and fecal incontinence—that severely diminish quality of life. Recent evidence suggests that this condition, known as diabetic enteropathy, results from damage to the intestinal lining, but the details beyond that have been unclear.

A study in this week’s Cell Stem Cell, led by Paolo Fiorina, MD, PhD, now provides some answers. It demonstrates how diabetes can lead to destruction of the stem cells that maintain the intestinal lining, and identifies a potential drug that could protect these stem cells and prevent or treat diabetic enteropathy.

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Maternal-infant health research will bring placenta into view

placental health
A pre-1858 schematic of the placental circulation from Gray’s Anatomy (Wikimedia Commons).

The afterbirth has generally been an afterthought, but that’s about to change.

This week, 19 research centers were awarded grants from NIH’s Human Placenta Project, which is seeking to learn more about the intricate organ that sustained us in the womb, the interface between us and our mothers.

A robust placenta is key to a healthy pregnancy and baby, but strangely, not much is actually known about it. “It’s a fascinating but very poorly understood structure,” says P. Ellen Grant, MD, who directs the Fetal-Neonatal Neuroimaging and Developmental Science Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and is leading one of the projects.

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Beth Stevens: A transformative thinker in neuroscience

When 2015 MacArthur “genius” grant winner Beth Stevens, PhD, began studying the role of glia in the brain in the 1990s, these cells—“glue” from the Greek—weren’t given much thought. Traditionally, glia were thought to merely protect and support neurons, the brain’s real players.

But Stevens, from the Department of Neurology and the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, has made the case that glia are key actors in the brain, not just caretakers. Her work—at the interface between the nervous and immune systems—is helping transform how neurologic disorders like autism, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia are viewed.

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3-D printed models may soon guide one-of-a-kind pediatric heart operations

Photo credit: Bryce Vickmark, MIT News
Photo credit: Bryce Vickmark, MIT News

No two hearts are alike. It sounds like poetry, but this adage takes on a special meaning for pediatric cardiac surgeons.

Children born with congenital heart disease have unique cardiac anatomies. To correct them, surgeons need a nuanced understanding of each structure and chamber of the heart, and for decades have relied on (increasingly sophisticated) imaging technology.

Soon, though, they will be able to touch, turn and view replicas of their patients’ hearts up close. Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and MIT have jointly designed a computer program that can convert MRI scans of a patient’s heart into 3-D physical models.

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My work, my life, my innovations: Jean Connor, PhD, RN, CPNP

Stepping into Dr. Jean Connor’s office, the first thing you notice is color. So much color. Bella, Connor’s 9-year-old daughter, has decorated the space with handmade inspirational signs and artwork that explode with vibrant energy. “That’s how I innovate,” says Connor. “I like having all that positive energy around me.”

Connor, who has her PhD in nursing, directs nursing research at the Boston Children’s Heart Center. She was the first nurse to complete her post-doc at the Harvard School of Public Health and received a Champions in Healthcare award from the Boston Business Journal in 2012. Connor’s work translates industry research into actionable lessons and innovations that improve care at the bedside. In 2009, she developed a nursing acuity measurement tool called CAMEO (Complexity Assessment and Monitoring to Ensure Optimal Outcomes) that has since been validated to measure nursing workload across all pediatric and neonatal settings in the United States.

“I absolutely love my job,” Connor says. “I never thought I’d leave the bedside, but I feel like I’m impacting what happens at the bedside. We each have our ability to contribute to make the best possible experience for patients and families.”

Scroll over the items around Dr. Connor’s office to learn more about what inspires her.

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