Neonatologist Timothy Sanders, MD, PhD, is on a quest to discover how early embryonic development is orchestrated through complex cellular and molecular mechanisms that pattern and instruct their environment, particularly in the developing limb and neural tube.
“We don’t yet have an understanding of the cell biology of these novel structures and how they are able to do seemingly miraculous things, or how they can lead to disease states and congenital malformations,” Sanders says.
Our ultimate goal is to understand the fundamental mechanisms of early development.
Timothy Sanders, MD, PhD
Researchers have employed classical embryological study approaches for over a century to get a snapshot of how early embryos form, but Sanders’ research at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital goes a step further. He uses high-resolution imaging to watch live embryos develop moment-to-moment at a cellular and subcellular level.
“Our ultimate goal is to understand the fundamental mechanisms of early development so we can manipulate and interrogate cell behavior to affect adverse cellular processes, such as the non-closure of the neural tube that results in spina bifida,” Sanders says. “Our ability to do this will also lead to therapeutic options, such as pharmaceuticals that can manipulate endogenous stem cell pools or interrupt the signals that allow cancer cells to thrive.”
Sanders partners with the University of Chicago’s Advanced Electron Microscopy Facility to develop and use modern molecular tools and advanced imaging systems. “We are fortunate to have a number of great resources and talented collaborators here at the University of Chicago,” Sanders says.
A new app used to help parents of premature infants communicate and track their babies’ progress in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) has been advanced and tested by researchers at the University of Chicago Medicine in collaboration with PreeMe+You, a social benefit health startup.
Neonatologist Bree Andrews, MD, MPH, at Comer Children’s Hospital and medical anthropologist Yaya Ren, PhD, JD, developed PreeMe+You to help guide NICU families through the overwhelming experience of having a premature infant, or preemie. Their work in the NICU revealed that gaps in patient communication with care teams were stressful to families and difficult to harmonize. This is due to the complex nature of NICU medicine, time pressures, and the rollercoaster emotional journeys of families.
“Some babies are in the NICU for many weeks, yet families' contact with the medical team is often brief,” says Andrews. “That leaves a lot of time in the NICU that could be utilized to better help families understand what’s going on with their babies.”
To use the app, a parent creates an account and answers prompted questions about their baby’s five important body functions, or biomarkers: breathing, feeding, temperature control, sleeping and growth. The app, in turn, communicates how the medical team is caring for the preemie in real time and helps parents track their baby’s NICU journey, giving them a tool to always be on the same page as their medical team. In addition, the app provides curated educational information synchronized to the baby’s specific stage for each biomarker. This tells parents what progress means for their baby’s individual development.
“Our goal is not to replace medical health care with technology,” says Ren, “but we want to guide and reclaim meaningful, empowering, and supportive human communication and interactions between NICU families and medical staff that can be easily lost in a medical crisis.”
Andrews has used the app with more than 75 families at Comer Children’s and says she found it most successful with families who have babies with the biggest challenges and complications. The researchers say one goal of the app is to help families gain a sense of stability amidst a time that, for many, is filled with uncertainties.
“When people are in crisis, they need some scaffolding to help hold them up in a way that feels good for them,” says Ren.
The researchers anticipate that within the year, the app will be available for iPhone and Android phones. They also designed it with the goal of being used in any NICU, anywhere in the world. More information about the app is available at PreeMe+You.
Basharat Buchh, MD
Christine Carlos, MD