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State of the Science Research Conference Serves as Incubator for Collaboration

Shriners Children's staff attending research conference

Shriners Children's staff members attending the conference

Researchers, surgeons and other leaders from across Shriners Children’s gathered in Atlanta in February for the sixth annual State of the Science conference with a special focus on muscle and bone health. For the second year, the meeting took place at Georgia Institute of Technology, highlighting the strong collaboration between Shriners Children’s healthcare innovators and Georgia Tech engineers. One of the main goals of the conference was to build on this synergy and provide an incubator for future projects that advance pediatric research and clinical outcomes.

“We are here to connect clinicians with engineers to solve problems,” said Marc Lalande, Ph.D., vice president of research for Shriners Children's. “Last year was the inaugural year of our joint conference and already we have projects in motion that have the power to transform lives, providing hope and possibilities for children with complex medical conditions.”

The two-day conference featured over 40 presentations by physicians, scientists and engineers on current research projects focused on bone and muscle health. From cerebral palsy and toe-walking to scoliosis and spina bifida, the studies had one prevailing commonality – the goal of advancing pediatric research to better prevent, diagnose and treat complex orthopedic and neuromuscular conditions.

six staff members have a round-table discussion

Shiners Children's staff having a round-table discussion

Some researchers reported on projects in the earlier stages of innovation, and many took the stage to extend an offer to collaborators. Engineers and scientists gathered over coffee, heads together, strategizing on how they could leverage their individual skill sets to drive innovation. Others reported on the payoff of the long game in research – one being a 15-year study resulting in real clinical applications.

Noemi Dahan-Oliel, OT, Ph.D., a clinician scientist at Shriners Hospitals for Children Canada, reported on her work to create a registry for patients with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (AMC). To date, her team has recruited close to 400 children from eight Shriners Children’s sites. Preliminary research supports the value of using technologies to identify genomic markers in order to study patterns and molecular mechanisms of disorders such as AMC. Her three-year grant aims to evaluate outcomes after surgery and establish a valid, reliable classification system or international language for AMC.

Susan Sienko, Ph.D., presented her research on the impact of dosing parameters on motor skill acquisition in children with bilateral cerebral palsy (BCP). Dr. Sienko is a clinical researcher at Shriners Children’s Portland. The team invited 32 children with BCP to attend a summer camp, where physical abilities were measured against medication dosing on a daily basis. Their findings showed a tangible improvement in fine and gross motor skills and posture control. Dr. Sienko also observed the intangible benefits of bringing the children together. They helped and motivated each other, showed empathy and developed friendships, all reminders of the remarkable strength and resilience of Shriners Children’s patients.

Pernendu Gupta, M.D., and Claire Manske, M.D. smiling at conference

Pernendu Gupta, M.D., and Claire Manske, M.D., attending a presentation


Artificial intelligence (AI) as a tool to drive innovation was a common theme throughout the State of the Science meeting. Many attendees arrived in Atlanta early to attend a certificate program on AI in Healthcare taught by Mark Braunstein, M.D., from the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. The course underscored the assertion that artificial intelligence will have a dramatic impact on healthcare, with enormous gains if clinicians become familiar and comfortable with the technology and learn how to use AI effectively and safely.

The conference itself dedicated two entire sessions to AI, including a fireside chat with Chief Information Officer John McFarland and Dr. Lalande, who spoke about Shriners Children’s strategy to embrace this technology. Dr. Lalande highlighted the Research Data Warehouse, a digital repository containing thousands of de-identified clinical records from across Shriners Children’s. “The ability to analyze the data to identify commonalities among patients with like conditions gives us the opportunity to identify sizable research cohorts. These large data sets position Shriners Children’s to be best in class in studies on scoliosis and rare diseases, for example,” he said.

McFarland focused on the system’s objective to curate this data and make it usable. “AI and machine learning ease the burden on clinicians so they can focus on patient care,” he said. The exciting exchange of ideas during this session was palpable, as possibilities for the future state of healthcare seemed to unfold in real time. One attendee remarked that AI could help doctors get to the point of predicting patient outcomes, which will inform clinical decision making. We are not there yet but have opportunities to embrace the technology to make that a reality.

The conference culminated with an evening of poster presentations, which enabled researchers to mingle, share insights and continue plans for future collaboration. The strength of the partnership between Shriners Children's and Georgia Institute of Technology lies in the organizations’ complementary goals. The university’s Pediatric Technology Center brings scientists and engineers to develop technological solutions to problems in the health and care of children. Who better than to connect with than Shriners Children’s clinicians who are driven by a mission to help children with the most challenging medical conditions.

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