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Hartwell Foundation Backs Cutting-Edge Pediatric Research at U.Va.

Two University of Virginia doctors, Jennifer Charlton and Peter M. Kasson, have each received Hartwell Awards for their research to improve health care for children.

This is the second year in a row that U.Va.’s School of Medicine has received two awards from the Hartwell Foundation, a Memphis-based philanthropic group that funds cutting-edge pediatric biomedical research.

Dr. Charlton, a pediatric nephrologist in U.Va.’s Department of Pediatrics, received a Hartwell award for her work to identify children at risk for chronic kidney disease. Children born prematurely and children with conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart and sickle-cell disease are especially vulnerable to kidney disease. Presently there is no test to determine significant risk for early chronic kidney disease, and the condition goes unrecognized and untreated until significant, permanent kidney damage has occurred. Charlton is developing a method to use magnetic-resonance imaging to count nephrons, the individual units that filter blood in the kidneys. Low nephron counts are thought to determine a child’s risk for chronic kidney disease; early detection would identify children at risk and pave the way for new treatments. “The ultimate success of this project – counting nephrons in children – will revolutionize and individualize how we identify and treat children with or at risk for chronic kidney disease, leading to an improved quality of life for these children for years to come,” Charlton said.

Dr. Kasson, who holds joint appointments in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics and the Department of Biomedical Engineering, was selected for his work to improve the treatment of infections in children with cancer. Because chemotherapy and bone-marrow transplantation suppress the immune system, children with cancer often develop life-threatening infections. As a Google Scholar with access to Google’s extensive computing infrastructure, Kasson is developing new computational approaches to overcome the problem of antibiotic resistance. He also is developing a method to identify the best antibiotic in real time in clinical settings. He will use genetic modeling and an online database of test results to recognize drug resistance in bacteria quickly, with the goal of producing a diagnostic test that will help doctors save immune-compromised children from these deadly infections. “We are in a race against time,” Kasson said. “Infections move quickly in these children, and we are seeing more infections where we are running out of antibiotics that work. With this project, we are trying to outrun the bacteria on both those fronts.”

Charlton and Kasson each will receive $100,000 in financial support annually for three years.

According to Thomas C. Skalak, U.Va. vice president for research, the Hartwell Foundation relationship is transforming the University by directing expertise from many science and engineering departments to children’s health solutions.

“Our Hartwell relationship is accelerating and expanding our institutional capacity for improving children’s health,” he said. “This year’s awards enable a pediatric clinician to undertake innovative scientific research and a basic scientist to apply his computationally intensive basic work to an important class of clinical problems. Our 2012 awards enabled a biomedical engineer to partner with a pediatric surgeon and a bioscientist to explore novel solutions to childhood obesity. These awards, coupled with the opportunity for collaboration within the Hartwell Top Ten network, make for a relationship that catalyzes radical innovation.”

As one of the Hartwell Foundation’s Top 10 Centers of Biomedical Research, U.Va. researchers each year nominate four proposals for consideration. The projects must be in their early stages, have no outside funding and demonstrate a clear path to clinical application. In short, they must represent promising ideas that could soon improve the lives of children.

Since 2008, the foundation has provided U.Va. with $3 million in support for pediatric biomedical research. It will hold its sixth annual biomedical research meeting in Charlottesville on Oct. 6-9.

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