Stories about: Innovation

Six technologies we backed in 2017

Boston Children's Hospital technology

Boston Children’s Hospital’s Technology Development Fund (TDF) to designed to transform early-stage academic technologies into validated, high-impact opportunities for licensees and investors. Since 2009, the hospital has committed $7.6 million to support 76 promising technologies, from therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices and vaccines to regenerative medicine and healthcare IT projects. The TDF also assists with strategic planning, intellectual property protection, regulatory requirements and business models. Investigators can access mentors, product development experts and technical support through a network of contract research organizations, development partners and industry advisors.

Eight startup companies have spun out since TDF’s creation, receiving $82.4 million in seed funding. They include Affinivax, a vaccine company started with $4 million from the Gates Foundation, and Epidemico, a population health-tracking company acquired by Booz Allen Hamilton. TDF has also launched more than 20 partnerships, received $26 million in follow-on government and foundation funding and generated $4.45 million in licensing revenue.

Here are the projects TDF awarded in 2017, with grants totaling $650,000:

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2017 pediatric biomedical advances at Boston Children’s Hospital: Our top 10 picks

New tools and technologies fueled biomedicine to great heights in 2017. Here are just a few of our top picks. All are great examples of research informing better care for children (and adults).

1. Gene therapy arrives

(Katherine C. Cohen)

In 2017, gene therapy solidly shed the stigma of Jesse Gelsinger’s 1999 death with the development of safer protocols and delivery vectors. Though each disease must navigate its own technical and regulatory path to gene therapy, the number of clinical trials is mounting worldwide, with seven gene therapy trials now recruiting at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. In August, the first gene therapy won FDA approval: CAR T-cell therapy for pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

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Giving young organ transplant recipients a mobile reminder that might save their lives

Flow chart showing how the medication adherence app interacts with patients and a near-field-communication-enabled pillboxIn the U.S., more than 1,700 children receive organ transplants each year. Following transplantation, they must take immunosuppressants and steroids to protect their transplanted organ from being attacked by their own immune system.

But transplant teams know that kids are 60 percent more likely than adults to struggle with keeping a strict medication schedule. That puts the longevity of donated organs — and the lives of organ recipients — at unnecessary risk.

This challenge inspired a team of pediatric transplant experts at the Boston Children’s Hospital to develop a mobile application for smartphones that could serve as a portable reminder and a resource to support medication adherence.

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Bypassing a narrowed midaorta with a living, growing graft

Midaortic syndrome is marked by narrowing of the middle section of the aorta.

By the time he arrived at Boston Children’s Hospital, the 6-month-old boy was near death from midaortic syndrome — a rare but life-threatening condition marked by narrowing of the middle section of the aorta, the largest artery in the body. It had left him with severe hypertension, acute kidney injury and heart failure. As cardiologists worked to stabilize him, the surgical team weighed the options.

With diminished blood flow to the chest, abdomen and lower limbs, a significant number of people with untreated midaortic syndrome die from complications by age 40. The condition can be treated surgically, traditionally with a prosthetic graft made from synthetic material to perform an aortic bypass. But synthetic grafts can pose a number of challenges in children.

“Synthetic grafts don’t grow with the patient, which means that multiple surgeries may be necessary through the years to ensure appropriate graft size,” explains nephrologist Michael Ferguson, MD, who was a member of this patient’s care team. “Artificial grafts also carry a higher risk of thrombosis and infection.”

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A “half-hearted” solution to one-sided heart failure

Illustration showing how the system supports a failing right ventricle
Illustration showing sectional view of a heart with the soft robotic system helping to draw blood into (left) and pump blood out (right) of the heart’s right ventricle.

Soft robotic actuators, which are pneumatic artificial muscles designed and programmed to perform lifelike motions, have recently emerged as an attractive alternative to more rigid components that have conventionally been used in biomedical devices. In fact, earlier this year, a Boston Children’s Hospital team revealed a proof-of-concept soft robotic sleeve that could support the function of a failing heart.

Despite this promising innovation, the team recognized that many pediatric heart patients have more one-sided congenital heart conditions. These patients are not experiencing failure of the entire heart — instead, congenital conditions have caused disease in either the heart’s right or left ventricle, but not both.

Read our Vector story on the soft robotic heart sleeve that mimics cardiac muscles.

“We set out to develop new technology that would help one diseased ventricle, when the patient is in isolated left or right heart failure, pull blood into the chamber and then effectively pump it into the circulatory system,” says Nikolay Vasilyev, MD, a researcher in cardiac surgery at Boston Children’s.

Now, Vasilyev and his collaborators — researchers from Boston Children’s, the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University — have revealed their soft robotic solution. They describe their system in a paper published online in Science Robotics today.

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Shunt-flushing device for hydrocephalus gets FDA clearance; could help patients avoid extra surgery

A new shunt-flushing device flushes out shunt blockages noninvasively.
Brain shunts frequently clog up, requiring surgical repair or replacement. A new device flushes out the blockages with the press of a button. (Wikimedia/Adobe Images)

Children with hydrocephalus often have shunts implanted to drain the excess cerebrospinal fluid that builds up inside their brain. Unfortunately, shunts have a tendency to plug up. This potentially life-threatening event necessitates emergency surgery to correct or replace the shunt.

“If you have a shunt, you are always worried about what might happen in the future,” says Joseph Madsen, MD, a neurosurgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Close to half of shunts will have a revision within the first year of implantation. About 80 percent will require a revision within 10 years.”

Last week, the FDA cleared a device originally conceived by Madsen that can potentially flush out a clogged shunt noninvasively, avoiding the need for surgery in both children and adults. The neurosurgeon or other trained healthcare professional could simply press a button at the back of the patient’s head, just under the skin, in an office setting, Madsen says.

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Cellphone data reveals Hurricane Maria’s impact on travel in Puerto Rico

Residents evacuate Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria made landfall
A U.S. Naval Aircrewman leads residents of Puerto Rico to a helicopter for evacuation following the landfall of Hurricane Maria. Photo credit: Sean Galbreath/Wiki Commons

Nearly two months after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, the infrastructural damage remains evident — today, FEMA estimates that only 41 percent of the island has had power restored. But the impact on human behavior is just beginning to be understood.

Research collaborators from the Boston Children’s Hospital Computational Epidemiology Group, MIT Media Lab and Google, Inc., have shed light on the particulars of when people chose to move out of the hurricane’s path and how much travel has been hindered since destructive winds and flooding knocked Puerto Rico off the grid.

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Making breastfeeding a breeze: Cleft lip/palate and beyond

Breast Breeze
Breast Breeze developers Olivia Oppel (left) and Janet Conneely (Photos: Katherine C. Cohen)

Janet Conneely, BSN, RN, CPN, was visiting a new mother in the hospital who had just delivered a baby with a cleft palate to let her know about Boston Children’s Hospital’s Cleft Lip and Palate Program. The mother was trying, without success, to breastfeed, but because of cleft palate, her baby didn’t have an intact hard surface on the roof of her mouth, so couldn’t create enough suction to draw milk.

“I was new to seeing these moms,” Conneely recalls. “This mother was in tears, pleading for ‘some way to be able to breastfeed my baby!’” She adamantly did not want to be shown the specialty bottle typically used for babies with cleft palate.

Conneely tapped her colleague, Olivia Oppel, BSN, RN, CPN, CLC, and together, they reviewed existing breastfeeding products. The few that were available — nipple shields, bottle attachments and a sling that holds the bottle against the breast — were either awkward to use or didn’t really allow for skin-to-skin contact.

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Delivered through amniotic fluid, stem cells could treat a range of birth defects

Transamniotic stem cell therapy, or TRASCET, is like amniocentesis is reverse.
Amniotic fluid is routinely withdrawn for prenatal testing. It could also be a delivery route for fetal cell therapy to treat congenital anomalies, with broader applications than once thought.

The amniotic fluid surrounding babies in the womb contains fetal mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) that can differentiate into many cell types and tissues. More than a decade ago, Dario Fauza, MD, PhD, a surgeon and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, proposed using these cells therapeutically. His lab has been exploring these cells’ healing properties ever since.

Replicated in great quantity in the lab and then reinfused into the amniotic fluid in animal models — a reverse amniocentesis if you will — MSCs derived from amniotic fluid have been shown to repair or mitigate congenital defects before birth. In spina bifida, they have induced skin to grow over the exposed spinal cord; in gastroschisis, they have reduced damage to the exposed bowel. Fauza calls this approach Trans-Amniotic Stem Cell Therapy, or TRASCET.

New research findings, reported this month in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery, could expand TRASCET’s therapeutic potential.

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Meeting an unmet need: A surgical implant that grows with a child

Depiction of a growth-accommodating implant expanding in sync with a child's growing heart.
Artist’s rendering showing how a braided, tubular implant could grow in sync with a child’s heart valve. Credit: Randal McKenzie

Medical implants can save lives by correcting structural defects in the heart and other organs. But until now, the use of medical implants in children has been complicated by the fact that fixed-size implants cannot expand in tune with a child’s natural growth.

To address this unmet surgical need, a team of researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital have developed a growth-accommodating implant designed for use in a cardiac surgical procedure called a valve annuloplasty, which repairs leaking mitral and tricuspid valves in the heart. The innovation was reported today in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

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