Connecticut Children’s Medical Center

Old Drug, New Hope for Pediatric Brain Cancer

Dr. Ching C. Lau sees a patient.

Dr. Ching C. Lau sees a patient.


Some drugs for heart disease might also work against brain cancer, according to an analysis by researchers from The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and UConn Health. The researchers used a new approach to identify five heart medicines that might also be effective at fighting the most common type of childhood brain cancer, they report in Science Translational Medicine.

Medulloblastoma is the most common malignant brain tumor in children, accounting for 20 to 25 percent of pediatric brain tumors. Current treatments have significantly increased the survival rate, but many children face difficult side effects that impact their brains, hormones, and fertility for the rest of their lives. There are also a handful of patients who either don’t respond to available treatment options or suffer and die from relapses.

To quicken the long route to developing cancer drugs, the research team used a process called drug repositioning, reanalyzing drugs previously approved by the FDA and looking for crossover among the diseases that a drug is likely to treat. Using computational modeling methods, they compared approved drugs’ effects on gene expression profiles — that is, what genes they work with or against — to the genes active in patients with various diseases.

But medulloblastoma tumors are complex and often very different from patient to patient, and even internally in a single patient. Dr. Ching C. Lau thought drug repositioning could work to find better drugs for medulloblastoma, but suspected the technique could be improved. Lau, who is jointly appointed as a professor at JAX, UConn Health, and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, heads the division of pediatric hematology-oncology at UConn Health and is the medical director of hematology-oncology at Connecticut Children’s.

Lau worked with a team of researchers from those institutions, as well as from Houston Methodist Research Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital, to devise a new integrated drug repositioning method that could work against something as complicated as medulloblastoma.

Their new method has identified eight drugs as possible medulloblastoma-fighting agents, including three already used as chemotherapy against other cancers and five previously used to treat heart failure.

The researchers also showed that one of the heart drugs, digoxin, helped mice with medulloblastomas live longer. The mice survived even longer when digoxin was combined with radiation.

“This is exciting because not only can we potentially improve overall survival of medulloblastoma patients with digoxin, but the results also suggest that we could potentially reduce the dose of radiation necessary when combined with digoxin, and thereby minimize long-term side effects of radiation among the survivors,” says Lau. “Because digoxin has been used for so many years to treat heart failure, its potential side effects are well known, and could potentially help speed up the subsequent clinical trial.”

Together for the Kids

By Lauren Woods

Dr. Emily  Germain-Lee  with a patient at the Albright Center at Connecticut Children's Medical Center.

Dr. Emily Germain-Lee with a patient at the Albright Center at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
Erin Blinn Curran/ Connecticut Children’s Medical Center


National recognition by external sources such as U.S. News & World Report comes as no surprise to the thousands who pass through Connecticut Children’s Medical Center each year.

What may be unexpected to those patients is that such success is the fruit of a more than 50-year legacy of the pediatric department at UConn School of Medicine advancing pediatric medicine, research, and education in Connecticut — and putting the health of the state’s tiniest residents first.

The life-changing work done by UConn’s Department of Pediatrics is made possible by a special partnership: Connecticut Children’s Medical Center is the teaching hospital where medical students, pediatric residents, and fellows are trained, as well as the home of the faculty’s clinical care work.

“UConn’s Department of Pediatrics’ strong relationship with Connecticut Children’s is excellent and seamless. There is no us and them. We are truly one, and we couldn’t excel without each other,” says Dr. Bruce T. Liang, the dean of the UConn School of Medicine since 2015. Liang has helped expand the two institutions’ joint recruitment of world-renowned physician-scientists and has led much of their growth in pediatric research.

For the Greater Good

The seeds of excellence in pediatric care in the Hartford area were planted in 1967 with the founding of UConn’s Department of Pediatrics, shortly before the medical school admitted its first class in 1968. UConn John Dempsey Hospital offered pediatric hospital care when it opened in 1975. Hartford-area hospitals had an informal agreement not to duplicate pediatric specialty services — patients were transferred among the hospitals based on their specialty care needs.

Connecticut Children’s was born in April 1996 after Newington Children’s Hospital, Hartford Hospital, and John Dempsey voluntarily closed their pediatric services so a comprehensive children’s hospital could open. It was established by state legislation and a 99-year lease of land on Hartford Hospital’s campus for 1 dollar per year. St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center’s pediatric programs were also incorporated. Uniquely, the leadership structure of the new pediatric hospital required that the same individual serve as both UConn’s Department of Pediatrics chair and Connecticut Children’s physician-in-chief.

“I am honored to have seen firsthand the strong evolution in pediatrics since my 1980s UConn pediatric residency training,” says Dr. Juan C. Salazar, who has served in that joint leadership role at UConn and Connecticut Children’s since 2013. “It is amazing that the strengths of four different Hartford hospitals came together for the greater good of our children and continue to offer the best pediatric care. It’s been an incredible success, allowing us to grow pediatrics clinically and educationally, along with our research mission.”

Salazar cites pediatric endocrinologists Dr. David Weinstein and Dr. Emily Germain-Lee as “two of several perfect examples of how the partnership of Connecticut Children’s and UConn really works seamlessly, with clinical services provided at Connecticut Children’s while robust laboratory research and clinical trials are under way at UConn.”

For 2018–19, U.S. News & World Report ranks Connecticut Children’s among the best hospitals in four pediatric specialties: cardiology and heart surgery, diabetes and endocrinology, neonatology, and urology. As one of the state’s largest care providers with 300 faculty members, UConn’s Department of Pediatrics has 31 medical and 13 surgical specialties.


Dr. David Weinstein, head of the Glycogen Storage Disease Program at UConn Health and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, walks with Alyssa Temkin through the new clinic at Connecticut Children’s.

Dr. David Weinstein with a patient
Peter Morenus


For a Brighter Future

In addition to translational research and top clinical care, UConn Health’s mission includes a third focus on teaching the practitioners of tomorrow. UConn is the largest educator for the state’s pediatric medicine workforce, as up to 60 percent of pediatricians in Connecticut have graduated from UConn’s medical school or its pediatric training programs.

Historically, UConn has also provided the largest pipeline of medical students into the state’s pediatric residency programs — each year up to 20 percent of UConn’s graduating medical school class chooses to specialize in pediatrics, entering residency training programs here or around the country.

“Along with research advancements, our significant focus is the education and training of our next generation of pediatricians and pediatric specialists, many of whom stay right here in Connecticut to serve the state,” says Liang.

UConn and Connecticut Children’s continue to strengthen their partnership in all three areas by building relationships with other organizations.

The two institutions in 2016 joined with another collaborator, The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) for Genomic Medicine located on UConn Health’s campus, to recruit Dr. Ching C. Lau, an internationally recognized pediatric brain and bone tumor clinician and researcher.

UConn and Connecticut Children’s look forward to growing their alliance, Liang says, and are planning joint physician-scientist recruitments in the fields of medical genetics and gastroenterology, as well as further collaborations in maternal-fetal medicine.


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World-renowned physician-scientists across specialties bring to life the vision of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and UConn School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics. Read on to learn about three of the groundbreaking physician-scientists who are currently dedicated to improving the lives of children in Connecticut and around the world.


A Vision for the Future of Pediatric Cancer

In 2016, Connecticut Children’s and UConn joined with another collaborator, The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) for Genomic Medicine located on UConn Health’s campus, to recruit Dr. Ching C. Lau, an internationally recognized pediatric brain and bone tumor clinician and researcher, from Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.

As medical director of hematology-oncology at Connecticut Children’s and head of the Division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology in the Department of Pediatrics at UConn, Lau’s JAX-based laboratory aims to leverage new, sophisticated genomic medicine techniques, mouse models, and therapeutic treatments to choose the best therapy for patients and discover new treatments.

When he was awarded the inaugural Martin J. Gavin Endowed Chair in Hematology/Oncology at Connecticut Children’s, Lau said he was attracted to the vision and dedication of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

“I dream that one day when I look at a child diagnosed with cancer, I can look him or her in the eye and say, ‘You will be cured without having to come to the hospital for therapy. You just have to go home and take this medicine,’” he said.

Lau is focused on accelerating the pace and success rate of clinical trials in pediatric cancer patients. “Although the incidence of cancer among children is much lower than that in adults,” he says, “it can be just as deadly. And because of the smaller number of patients available, clinical trials of new treatments for pediatric cancers are conducted at a much slower pace. Typically patients are enrolled in clinical trials after their cancers progress or are found not to be responsive to standard therapy.”
As a result, he says, pediatric cancer patients are exposed to side effects of standard therapy without therapeutic benefit. “This is a particularly serious problem for children because they are still undergoing normal growth and are particularly vulnerable to the side effects of anticancer drugs.”

By using the combined approach of genomic medicine and accurate mouse models to choose the best therapy for each patient, Lau hopes to improve the speed and outcome of clinical trials as well as to reduce unnecessary side effects for children with cancer.

One way he’s speeding up the process is through Smash Childhood Cancer, an initiative he’s spearheading for the U.S. alongside international researchers and IBM to find prospective treatments for childhood cancers by conducting millions of virtual experiments to help pinpoint promising drug candidates for further study using IBM’s World Community Grid.

“This kind of research expedites finding new treatments for childhood cancers,” Lau says. “Crowdsourcing computer processing power enables us to perform millions of experiments virtually and will save us years of experiments. It is bringing us that much closer to finding the right drug for each type of cancer.”

 

Administering New Therapy — and Hope

In late July, a patient named Jerrod received a drug infusion that he’s been waiting for his entire life.

Jerrod was the first patient to receive a promising investigational gene therapy to treat glycogen storage disease type Ia, the rare, potentially deadly genetic disorder he was born with. Dr. David Weinstein, a world-renowned pediatric endocrinologist and director of the Glycogen Storage Disease Program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and UConn Health, has been working to develop the treatment for two decades and calls the trial “a big leap forward for GSD.”

Healthy livers store excess sugar from food and release it into our bloodstreams when we need it as processed sugar enzymes called glycogen. However, in the seven forms of GSD, the liver fails to break down glycogen into glucose, causing the body’s blood sugar levels to drop dangerously low, which can lead to seizure or death. Patients stay alive by consuming a cornstarch mixture every few hours to keep their blood sugar up.

The gene therapy undergoing the Phase 1/2 clinical trial, approved by the FDA in April, delivers a new copy of the gene to the patient’s liver to replace deficient sugar enzymes and jumpstart the body’s glucose control. Studies in animal models have already shown the promising gene therapy to be safe, effective, and long-lasting.

The clinical trial is in conjunction with the biopharmaceutical company Ultragenyx and will soon expand from UConn Health in the U.S. to other sites including Canada, Spain, and the Netherlands.

“This gene therapy is hope for all us GSD patients,” says Jerrod, who asked that his last name be withheld. “We are all extremely excited. Dr. Weinstein is a savior and so is the entire GSD program.”

Weinstein moved his GSD program — the largest in the world — to Connecticut Children’s and UConn Health in early 2017. His multidisciplinary team cares for 600 patients from 48 countries.

“The strong synergies and collaborative team science happening at UConn and Connecticut Children’s are world class and the most fertile ground to make a GSD cure reality,” says Weinstein.

 

Writing the Rulebook

Dr. Emily Germain-Lee, a professor of pediatrics and chief of pediatric endocrinology and diabetes, moved her first-of-its-kind Albright Center from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Kennedy Krieger Institute to UConn and Connecticut Children’s in October 2016. She has cared for more patients who have a specific rare set of endocrine diseases than any other doctor in the world.

“She has redefined the field of pediatric endocrinology,” Salazar said when the hire was announced. “Patients and families travel from all over the world seeking Dr. Germain-Lee’s care.”

Germain-Lee’s patients suffer from pseudohypoparathyroidism and its related disorders, including Albright hereditary osteodystrophy (AHO), a rare inherited bone disorder caused by a genetic mutation that often leads to short bones and short stature. It is also frequently accompanied by severe multihormonal dysfunction in the body.

This summer, Germain-Lee co-authored the first international guidelines to help doctors around the globe diagnose and manage patients with the diseases. The new guidelines call for human growth hormone treatment for the vast majority of the patients who are at risk for short stature due to growth hormone deficiency. Germain-Lee was the first to discover that part of the reason why AHO patients are short is that two-thirds of them have a growth hormone deficiency.

Her long-term global clinical trial studies have shown the promising benefits of growth hormone treatment, including its ability to drastically increase a patient’s short stature to their original destined height potential while also improving their lipid levels and reducing obesity. With her research in the final stages, Germain-Lee is working toward gaining FDA approval of the therapy, which would be the first new therapy for the disorder in 70 years.

“I am thrilled to be a part of the combined power of UConn School of Medicine and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center for advancing children’s health and discovering new treatments of disease through research,” says Germain-Lee.

Connecticut’s Effective Formula for Cystic Fibrosis Screening

small child held in the arms of mother while doctor (in background) consults


While all states require newborns to be screened for cystic fibrosis, Connecticut does it differently than most.

A unique collaboration — in which UConn Health screens the newborns, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center provides timely clinical intervention, and University of Florida Health (UF Health) offers genetic counseling via telemedicine — leads to early diagnosis and treatment, which can add years to patients’ lives.

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a progressive genetic disease. A thick mucus buildup forms in the lungs, making patients prone to infections, lung damage, and respiratory failure. The pancreas doesn’t release enzymes, inhibiting the body’s ability to digest food and absorb nutrients.

If UConn Health screenings within days of birth show a CF gene mutation, a sweat test — considered the most reliable way to diagnose CF — is recommended to determine whether the baby is a carrier or has the disease.

And it’s at this stage when the process becomes unique.

On the same visit as the sweat test, parents have a no-cost, private, video consultation with a UF Health genetic counselor, made possible by a grant from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, to help them understand the implications of
the mutations.

Three other clinical sites in the U.S. partner with UF Health. UConn Health screens 7 of 10 infants born in the state, accounting for more than half the screenings done under the UF Health partnerships.

Though it wasn’t mandated by state law until 2009, UConn Health has screened newborns for CF since 1993. The collaboration with UF started in 2014.

“With the addition of the genetic counseling piece, our program has significantly decreased the time to sweat test and ultimately CF diagnosis,” says Dr. Melanie Sue Collins, associate director of the Central Connecticut Cystic Fibrosis Center at Connecticut Children’s.

The approach is well received by parents, says Sidney Hopfer, UConn professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

“We have all the pieces: the tests are easily obtainable; the patients don’t have to travel far; there is coordination between the lab, CF Center, and primary care physician regarding testing and genetic counseling,” Hopfer says. “In my opinion, this is something that should be done nationally.”

Free to Be Imperfect

For patients and their families who live with Glycogen Storage Disease, a new gene therapy nearing clinical trial at UConn Health will mean freedom from the constant countdown to the next dose of medication.

By Julie Bartucca
Photography by Peter Morenus

Alyssa Temkin, 11, takes a break during a basketball game

Alyssa Temkin, 11, takes a break during a basketball game to drink Tolerex, the special formula that keeps her blood sugar from crashing to dangerously low levels. Alyssa has Glycogen Storage Disease and must drink the formula every 90 minutes to stay alive. Photo: Peter Morenus


Imagine never being able to hit the snooze button or oversleep, never being able to cheat on your diet or fall asleep in front of the TV because it could mean life or death — for you, or worse, your child.

That’s what the 1 in 100,000 people worldwide with Glycogen Storage Disease (GSD), a genetic liver disorder — and their parents — live with every day.

Dr. David Weinstein, who in January moved his world-renowned GSD program from the University of Florida to UConn Health and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, has dedicated his life to giving these families hope. Although a life-saving treatment was discovered in the 1970s — taking a cornstarch mixture every few hours — research had halted for decades after that. And today, patients are still slaves to the clock; the effects of cornstarch last only a few hours, and even an extended-release form has its pitfalls.

But soon, that could change. Weinstein and his team are on the verge of testing in a human clinical trial the first GSD gene therapy, which has worked for canines and mice with the illness.

For the patients and their families who live in a constant countdown to the next feeding, the new therapy would mean freedom. A normal life, where mistakes can be made. Where they no longer have to be perfect.

There was no research going on anywhere in the world in this disease. And if there’s no research, that means there’s no hope.

Fatal Mistakes

Healthy livers store excess sugar from food and release it into our bloodstreams when we need it, as processed sugar enzymes called glycogen. However, in the seven forms of GSD, the liver fails to break down glycogen into glucose, causing the body’s blood sugar levels to drop dangerously low, which can lead to seizure or death.

The discovery of cornstarch therapy was a huge turning point, but it wasn’t enough.

“The problem with this disease is that people need cornstarch every four hours. People have died because their parents overslept,” says Weinstein. One missed alarm and a patient could die. A malfunctioning piece of medical equipment could mean a dangerous seizure.

“One of the parents was giving a talk recently and said, ‘Do you know what it’s like to have to be perfect all the time?’” Weinstein says. “And that’s what these families live with. It’s extreme stress.”

Weinstein and his team have made great strides. GSD was once considered a childhood disease — this generation is the first to survive to adulthood. Now, patients are doctors, athletes, mothers — more than 50 babies have been born to mothers with GSD since the first in 2003. But they still live under constant pressure. The disease is relentless, unforgiving.

For the patients and their families who live in a constant countdown to the next feeding, the new therapy would mean freedom. A normal life, where mistakes can be made. Where they no longer have to be perfect.

The Temkin family of West Hartford knows all too well what can happen.

When Gayle and Steve Temkin brought baby Alyssa home from the hospital at three days old, Gayle knew something was wrong with her daughter. By the time they got to a hospital that night, Alyssa was in full liver and renal failure. Her sugars were undetectable. Without intervention, she wouldn’t survive an hour, doctors said.

It was six months, several hospitals, countless invasive tests, and second and third opinions before Alyssa was diagnosed with GSD at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Alyssa is now 11, a smiling, soft-spoken sixth-grader who enjoys playing sports, acts in plays, and is learning to play guitar and dance. She gets good grades and loves her friends. But every 90 minutes, every single day, she must check her blood sugar and drink Tolerex, a special formula that keeps her sugar up. Alyssa is the only known GSD patient who can’t tolerate cornstarch, and Tolerex doesn’t last as long, so the time between her feedings is even shorter than it is for most GSD patients.

While the Temkins do everything they can to make Alyssa’s life normal, there are constant reminders that it is anything but.

Gayle spends every day at Alyssa’s school. For years, she would go into the classroom to feed Alyssa, first through a feeding tube and, more recently, with a drinkable formula. This year, Alyssa has gained some freedom. An Apple Watch reminds her when it’s time to test her blood and drink, and she reports her sugar level to her mom via a walkie talkie. Gayle, a former social worker, stays close, just in case.

If Alyssa’s sugar gets too low, she doesn’t feel it. Unlike most people, GSD patients don’t feel shaky or get headaches when their sugar drops — at least not until it’s too late. By then, they could be moments from having a seizure.

In 2015, Alyssa suffered a near-fatal seizure after the pump that feeds her dextrose through the night failed. “There is nothing about this disease that’s forgiving,” says Gayle. “It doesn’t matter what regimen you’re on; it could be a bad batch of something — We think we’re doing everything right, and the pump malfunctions.”


Dr. David Weinstein, head of the Glycogen Storage Disease Program at UConn Health and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, walks with Alyssa Temkin through the new clinic at Connecticut Children’s.

Dr. David Weinstein, head of the Glycogen Storage Disease Program at UConn Health and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, walks with Alyssa Temkin through the new clinic at Connecticut Children’s. Weinstein has treated Alyssa since she was diagnosed with GSD at 6 months old. Her family and other Hartford-area philanthropists supported the move of Weinstein’s program from Florida to Connecticut. Photo: Peter Morenus


No Research, No Hope

Weinstein had no intention of dedicating his life to curing GSD. As a young physician at Boston Children’s Hospital specializing in sugar disorders in 1998, Weinstein was caring for just two patients with GSD when he was invited to a national conference of the Association for Glycogen Storage Disease.

“I showed up at this meeting and was shocked by what I saw,” he says. The conference started with a moment of silence and a reading of the names of all the children who had died from GSD that year. The research presented was decades old. And the only treatment option being discussed was liver transplantation to combat complications from the disorder.

“There was no research going on anywhere in the world in this disease,” Weinstein says. “And if there’s no research, that means there’s no hope.”

A conversation with a mother there changed the course of Weinstein’s life. Knowing no one at the conference, he sat down for lunch next to Kathy Dahlberg, who had one-year-old twin sons already on the liver transplant list. She told Weinstein how sick her children were, and that her only hope was that they’d live long enough to get their liver transplants.

“Over lunch at that conference, I decided that somebody had to care about these children. The children shouldn’t have to suffer just because it was a rare disease,” Weinstein says. “The world didn’t need another diabetes doctor. This is where I could make a difference.”


Gayle Temkin talks to her daughter Alyssa in a school stairwell.

Gayle Temkin talks to her daughter Alyssa in a school stairwell. Gayle attends school with Alyssa every day, waiting in a room off the main office for Alyssa to check in via walkie talkie every 90 minutes to report her blood sugar level and that she’s drunk her Tolerex. GSD patients don’t feel the signs of low sugar until they are moments from a seizure, so Gayle stays close around the clock. Photo: Peter Morenus


As soon as he returned to Boston, Weinstein shifted his research focus to GSD and built the program there before moving it to the University of Florida in 2005 in order to work with the veterinary program. He has successfully treated dogs with his gene therapy, turning a fatal disease into one where dogs born with GSD are thriving.

Today, Weinstein sees 500 patients from 49 states and 45 countries. With help from Alyssa’s Angel Fund — started by the Temkins when Alyssa was a baby — and other charities, he has established centers all over the world.

All the Way

In January, the GSD lab moved to UConn Health’s Farmington campus. At the same time, a clinical and research unit supported financially by the Temkins and other local philanthropists opened at Connecticut Children’s. Gayle Temkin, Alan Lazowski, and Barry Stein are the trustees for the Global Center for Glycogen Storage Disease, and through the new organization will continue to raise money to support Weinstein’s program. They are working to set up other forms of assistance for patients and their families, including a closet with free supplies at the clinic, and support programs for families once the clinical trials start.

Because GSD patients are now surviving well into adulthood, the partnership between the two institutions makes great sense. “We’re much stronger working together,” Weinstein says.

Although Weinstein is the only doctor in the world dedicated to curing GSD, he says he’s not doing it alone — far from it.

“I’ve never seen a program like ours. I only do one disease. Everybody on my team does just one disease,” he says. “This is personal. Most people have a connection to the condition, and so they’ll work until everything’s done. It’s just a dedication that I’ve never experienced anyplace else.”

The bulk of Weinstein’s Florida team came to Connecticut with him. His team includes GSD patients and parents, including several who have called him out of the blue to tell him all they want is to work with him. One, who moved to Connecticut from Minnesota to join the new center, is Kathy Dahlberg, the mother who changed Weinstein’s course all those years ago. Her twins are now sophomores in college.

And, after nearly two decades of dedicated research, Weinstein’s next step is the one he’s been working toward all along. Human safety trials of his gene therapy, in conjunction with Dimension Therapeutics out of Cambridge, Mass., are expected to start this year. UConn will coordinate the trials with collaborating centers all over the world. Full-treatment trials should start in 2020.

The ultimate goal for the gene therapy, according to Weinstein,
is to prevent low blood sugars, eliminate the dependence on cornstarch, and give patients normal lives where oversleeping isn’t the worst-case scenario.

“If we can accomplish that, we’ve come all the way,” he says.

“The cure is right at our fingertips. He knew he could do this,” says Gayle. “When we first brought Alyssa to him, he said, ‘By her Bat Mitzvah, by the time she’s 12 or 13, we should be able to cure her.’ And she’s 11.

“We’re almost there.”

UConn to Establish Genetic Counseling Master’s Program

illustration of genetic material


UConn has awarded $300,174 to seed a new Professional Science Master’s (PSM) Program in Genetics, Genomics, and Counseling. Graduates of the program will work with doctors and patients to interpret the results of genetic testing, a rapidly growing area in health care that needs more trained personnel. Once accredited, the program will be the first in Connecticut and the only one in New England at a public institution.

“Our students are anxious. They want to do this,” says Judy Brown, director of the diagnostic genetic sciences program in UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources’ allied health sciences department. Brown is spearheading the push for the program along with Institute for Systems Genomics director Marc Lalande and UConn Health genetics counselor Ginger Nichols.

Once accredited, the program will be the first in Connecticut and the only one in New England at a public institution.

New genetics research and techniques have made it easy for the average person to get a read on their genome, or whole genetic code. Celebrities, including Angelina Jolie, who have openly discussed their genetic risk factors for cancer, and companies, such as 23andMe, that will provide a basic genetic report for a fee, have increased demand enormously. But there’s a lack of trained people who can accurately interpret and explain the results of genetic tests, limiting the potential benefits.

Ideally, a doctor who identifies “red flags” within a patient’s family history that indicate increased genetic risk for disease will call in a genetic counselor. The counselor can take a detailed family history, determine the appropriateness of genetic testing, discuss benefits and limitations of testing to help the patient make an informed decision, and advise the patient on who else in their family might be at risk. If testing occurs and results indicate high genetic risk, counselors can help discuss the options to mitigate that risk.

As a result, genetic counseling is the fourth-fastest-growing occupation in Connecticut. Many UConn allied health sciences majors would like to enter the profession, Brown says, but there are only 34 training programs in the U.S., and the acceptance rate is below 8 percent.

Institutions including Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) have expressed support for the program. Kate Reed, director of the Clinical and Continuing Education Program at JAX, says JAX would combine its experience translating genetic discoveries into clinical applications with UConn’s experience in this area to give the PSM graduates a solid understanding of the research behind clinical treatments.

The exact roles of JAX, Connecticut Children’s, and the other institutions who support the new PSM have not yet been defined. The program’s curriculum first needs to be approved and accredited. The first students are expected to start the program in fall 2018.

UConn Health, Partners Pilot Sickle Cell ID

Hand holds sickle cell ID card


UConn Health, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and the American Red Cross have created an identification card for individuals with sickle cell disease, to ensure patients in need are properly treated at any hospital they might visit.

The New England Sickle Cell Institute at UConn Health and the Hemoglobin Disorders Clinic at Connecticut Children’s treat a combined 500-600 patients with sickle cell disease, a group of inherited red blood cell disorders that involve oxygen-carrying hemoglobin turning from a normal round shape to a crescent, or sickle, shape. The sickle-shaped cells cause blockages that prevent the flow of oxygen in blood vessels and can be extremely painful.

According to David Rosinski, Director of Cardiovascular Perfusion at UConn Health, Connecticut Children’s, and the Heart Center of Greater Waterbury, when patients have to be seen at centers other than the ones where they are treated, they are often thought to be simply looking for pain medication.

Many hospitals decide to perform a quick transfusion on these patients, which can make it harder to properly treat the patient through apheresis later.

Sickle cell patients ideally receive blood during apheresis from like donors, Rosinski says. For example, African American sickle cell patients should, if possible, receive blood from African American donors, because there are certain antibodies present in the blood cells that are specific to their genetic profiles.

The card indicates where the patient is being treated and provides contact information for the UConn and Connecticut Children’s programs and blood banks so doctors can confirm proper next steps.