Research Story Tip: Johns Hopkins Children’s Center Receives NIH Award to Study Dangerous Pediatric Disease

06/09/2021

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences, one of the agencies within the federal government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH), has announced that David Hackam, M.D., Ph.D., surgeon-in-chief and co-director of Johns Hopkins Children’s Center (JHCC), has received a multiyear grant of more than $2 million to investigate, better understand and perhaps, solve, the problem of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a potentially lethal inflammatory condition that destroys a premature infant’s intestinal lining.

The funding, provided under the Maximizing Investigators Research Award (MIRA), will be $409,375 annually for five years.

“NEC is the leading cause of death from gastrointestinal disease in premature infants and disproportionately affects children of color, yet we still know little about its underlying causes,” says Hackam. “The generous funding from the NIH will greatly enhance our ability to develop novel treatments for this devastating disease, which currently has no specific therapy.”

Seen in as many as 12% of newborn babies weighing less than 3.5 pounds at birth, NEC is a rapidly progressing gastrointestinal emergency in which normally harmless gut bacteria invade the underdeveloped wall of the premature infant’s colon, causing inflammation that can ultimately destroy healthy tissue at the site. If enough cells become necrotic (die) so that a hole is created in the intestinal wall, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream and cause life-threatening sepsis.

For more than two decades of research, Hackam and his JHCC colleagues have provided much of the world’s insight into NEC, including how it may lead to lung damage and brain injury, how a mother’s diet may boost a premature infant’s immune system against the disease, and how its destruction might be remedied with an artificial intestine.

“With the MIRA funding,” says Hackam, “we hope to extend our studies to answer the four key unanswered questions about NEC: What causes it? How can we prevent it? Can we predict it earlier? and What causes the long-term complications on the lung, brain and gut?”

Hackam is available for interviews.