Science & Soul: The Transformative Power of Research

Q & A with
RICHARD G. AZIZKHAN, M.D.
CHILDREN’S PRESIDENT & CEO

“It’s all connected science and soul – propelling us toward a brighter, healthier future for children.”

Richard G. Azizkhan, M.D. Children’s President & CEO

Why should people be aware of and engaged with research at Children’s and elsewhere?

The need is all too apparent as I walk through the hospital and outpatient clinics. Too many children are battling serious diseases for which there are often limited therapeutic options or no effective treatments.

Chances are you know someone who is alive today because someone at some place was focused on research to solve a problem or meet an unmet need. We have research to thank for polio and rotavirus vaccines. More than 80 percent of children now survive a cancer diagnosis; that number used to be below 5 percent. The difference between 5 percent survival and 80 percent? Research.

Research impacts all aspects of who we are and what we do at Children’s. This looks like new medicines, treatments and approaches to caring for children. Sometimes it adds years, and sometimes it adds quality of life, but it’s always changing the lives of real people for the better. Research isn’t some cold, abstract concept; ultimately, it’s very direct and personal. It deserves our attention and respect.

Children are 20 percent of our population, but 100 percent of our future. When we invest in pediatric research, we’re investing in them. I can’t think of a better investment.

When did the power of research really become personal for you?

I was taking care of a 6-year-old boy – and he was dying. A vascular tumor was growing rapidly in his chest, closing in on his heart and lungs. All known treatments to stop its growth had failed. The situation was heartbreaking and, to many, it was feeling hopeless.

I met this young patient while I was in training, early on in my medical career. At the time I was caring for him, I was part of a team researching blood vessel growth – what causes it and how to stop it in cases like his. What I was doing at the research bench suddenly had a deep, direct connection to what I was doing at the patient’s bedside.

Research we’d done had shown that a drug called rapamycin worked to block the growth of abnormal lymphatic vascular cells, and we thought it might help this young boy. We didn’t know for sure, but his condition was perilous enough that we decided to try it on an experimental basis.

I can get choked up thinking about what happened next: within two weeks on the drug, the lesions in his chest started to shrink and, within six months, there was absolutely no evidence of the malformation. The boy is now a young man, living a completely normal life. The drug, which we used experimentally at the time, is now the worldwide, preferred treatment for such cases.

If you’re a medical provider or researcher, it only takes one story like this one to help you fully grasp the power of research – the power to unlock mysteries and restore childhoods. If you’re the loved one of a sick child, you, too, likely understand the hope that research can hold for their future.

How does research support the mission and vision of Children’s Hospital & Medical Center?

Children’s mission is “To improve the life of every child – through dedication to exceptional clinical care, research, education and advocacy.” I like to think of those four elements – clinical care, research, education and advocacy – as four foundational pillars that support and strengthen us. They are crucial strands that make up Children’s DNA, and they’re all intertwined.

We can’t live out our mission and achieve our vision – “To be a global leader in children’s health” – without being fully engaged in research and innovation. If we don’t step up our investment in research, we won’t be on the leading edge of delivering care at the bedside. We won’t be as effective in educating the caregivers of tomorrow or advocating for all children. The research of the investigator and the care of the clinician work best when they work hand in hand. It’s true now and it was true in the case of that 6-year-old boy, who I will never forget. It’s all connected – science and soul – propelling us toward a brighter, healthier future for children.

How is research growing at Children’s?

Research is transformative. It transforms people and things. And, in the case of Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, it transforms places. We are evolving into a true pediatric academic medical center enterprise. In addition to growing our clinical programs, this means advancing research and education initiatives.

The Child Health Research Institute (CHRI), a collaboration between Children’s and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, is a major milestone on our journey of transformation. This entity allows us to fund and support research that advances knowledge about childhood health and diseases. It gives us the structure and resources to attract the very best physicians and researchers – people like Dr. Donald Durden (see story on page 16). It is rich soil in which our research endeavors can flourish and bear fruit.

In 2007, Children’s was involved in seven clinical research studies; in 2017, that number was 120. We’re strategically building on the strengths of existing faculty and clinical programs in the areas of cancer, cardiac diseases, infectious diseases and rare diseases. We invest about $9 million every year in pediatric research. Ultimately, I envision us increasing our research funding to $100 million in the next decade. Our current research efforts involve more than 60 faculty members – and we’re still growing.

We’re also committed to educating young researchers. Undergraduates with an interest in medical research can participate in our summer undergraduate research program, and fourth year medical students can develop projects in our pediatric honors program.

What excites you about the research outlook at Children’s?

I want people to understand that research is global by nature. Technology has allowed us to interface with research partnerships across the world in real time. Against that backdrop, we know that what we’re creating here in Omaha can drive the creation of new knowledge, through research and innovation, which will change the paradigm of how we care for children and set a standard that others will follow.

Research is also fundamentally collaborative; it’s a team sport. We embrace collaboration as the key to advancing the work of the CHRI and the field of pediatric medicine, in general. Working together is the most effective and efficient way forward to develop new innovations, treatments and cures.

For some, research is a new lens through which to view Children’s; but far more, in my conversations with board members, health care professionals, community members and patient families, I’m finding that people are ready to embrace research as a critical part of Children’s future. As a society, it’s part of our cultural make-up to hope that research will make a difference for people now and for generations to come. Emotionally, intuitively, we’re willing to say yes to research; we know that future discoveries and breakthroughs are worth the investment today.

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