GW Researchers Receive $6.2Mil Program Project Grant from the NIH to Research Pediatric Dysphagia

March 16, 2015

WASHINGTON (March 17, 2015) — An interdisciplinary group of researchers from the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) and Children’s National Health System (Children’s National) has been awarded a program project grant (PPG) for $6.2 million from The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to solve pediatric dysphagia — a chronic difficulty with feeding and swallowing in children.

“Our combined expertise in circuit function, cranial and facial development, and genetics, along with our ability to creatively come together, and strong institutional support, makes this team the ideal group to meet this challenge,” said Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, Ph.D., director of the GW Institute for Neurosciences and professor of pharmacology and physiology at SMHS. “Working together over the last several years, we have become incredibly committed to solving this major clinical issue and biological mystery.”

LaMantia will direct the PPG and Sally Moody, Ph.D., professor of anatomy and regenerative biology at SMHS, will serve as associate director.

Dysphagia is found in 35 to 80 percent of newborns with neurodevelopmental disorders. Due to these difficulties, these children suffer from a number of consequences such as failure to gain weight, malnutrition, acute choking, food aspiration and naso-sinus, middle ear, and lung aspiration related infections, including pneumonia. Current treatments focus only on symptom relief, often taking away precious time and resources that could be dedicated to cognitive and social development. There are no cures or preventative strategies for pediatric dysphagia.

"This award is the first Program Project Grant GW has received in over 20 years," said Leo M. Chalupa, Ph.D., vice president for research at GW. “The expertise and innovative thinking of the team assembled by Dr. LaMantia could well be the key to improving the lives of thousands of children and their families."

After developing the first valid model for pediatric dysphagia, this research team will provide fundamental understanding of the disorder by defining the pathology, developmental origins, and approaches for prevention. The PPG will be divided into three projects, led by three project investigators:

  • David Mendelowitz, Ph.D., vice chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology at SMHS, will lead research to determine contributions of disrupted brainstem neural circuits versus oro-pharyngeal mechanics to pediatric dysphagia — he is joined in this effort by GW researchers Norman Lee, Ph.D., Thomas Maynard, Ph.D., and Anastas Popratiloff, M.D., Ph.D.;
  • LaMantia, will lead research on how the pathology of pediatric dysphagia arises during development of the embryonic hindbrain and how these early disruptions establish changes in neural circuits for feeding and swallowing — he is joined in this effort by Moody and Lee; and
  • Irene Zohn, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics at SMHS and researcher at Children’s National, will lead research on how neural circuit or oro-pharyngeal pathology can be prevented by restoring disrupted development to normal status via maternal nutrition — she is joined in this effort by Maynard.

These investigators and others associated with the program will collaborate with researchers at the University of Maryland. The group will also work closely with clinicians at Children’s National to bring their findings directly to the children who need them. Children’s National is one of the 15 Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Centers in the U.S. whose goals are to advance understanding of a variety of conditions and topics related to intellectual and developmental disabilities. These centers are also supported by the NICHD.

“The best research is no longer being done in silos, and we are fully committed to realizing this at SMHS,” said Jeffrey S. Akman, M.D. ’81, RESD ’85, Walter A. Bloedorn Professor of Administrative Medicine, vice president for health affairs at GW, and dean of SMHS. “Our researchers and clinicians have the opportunity to challenge each other to think about new issues, generating fresh ideas and discovery.”

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