BRIght Futures & Stepping Strong Winners: Where Are They Now?
This story, originally published in April 2016, features past recipients of the BRIght Futures Prize and Stepping Strong Innovator Awards. Voting for the 2018 BRIght Futures Prize will begin in October.
At BWH, clinicians and researchers work tirelessly toward solutions for critical, unmet needs in health care. The annual Stepping Strong Innovator Awards and BRIght Futures Prize competitions support these innovators by funding exciting and promising initiatives. BWH Clinical & Research News checked in with previous award recipients to hear what strides they have made since winning.
Stepping Strong Innovator Awards
Boston Marathon bombing survivor, Gillian Reny, and her family established the Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Center for Trauma Innovation in 2014 to support groundbreaking research in trauma treatment and recovery. Learn more about the awards here.
An Interactive Amputation
Matthew Carty, MD, received the inaugural Stepping Strong Innovator Award by public vote in 2014. Carty proposed a new approach to lower limb amputation, which involves complex reconstructive surgeries that will allow next-generation prostheses to be directly controlled by the patient. Prosthetic technology has rapidly advanced in recent years, but Carty says amputation science has yet to catch up.
After winning the grant to support patient care, Carty and a collaborative team of researchers from MIT have been refining the surgical techniques using cadaveric studies and pre-clinical models. In November 2016, Carty performed the first surgery, now known as the Ewing procedure, named after Jim Ewing. He and his team performed several more surgeries since then and through Stepping Strong funding, continue to enroll additional patients. Through modifications of the technique, they hope to improve the Ewing procedure and eventually offer a similar procedure retroactively to patients who
have already undergone standard amputations, greatly increasing the number of people who can benefit from this innovation.
Based on pilot data generated through Stepping Strong funding, Carty’s team secured a $3 million grant to further develop the Ewing Amputation technique.
In addition, the team is now exploring how this procedure for lower limb amputations could be applied to the upper extremities.
“We wouldn’t be at this point without receiving the Stepping Strong Innovator Award,” said Carty. “It helped us get past the often painstakingly slow research process and bring our vision to reality.”
Carty says his team’s methods will fit in the larger context of a rapidly advancing field. Their surgical approach is well-positioned to help in a much larger effort, since a majority of limbs needing amputations still have some workable and neurologically active tissue. “Ideally, this will become the way amputation is done everywhere,” said Carty.
BRIght Futures Prize Competition
The BRIght Futures Prize supports investigators across the Brigham Research Institute (BRI) working to answer provocative questions and solve pressing problems in medicine. In an effort to increase the visibility of research at BWH and highlight the work of our investigators, the BRI invites the public to vote for one of three finalist projects in an annual competition. First awarded in 2012, the BRIght Futures Prize is funded through the BRIght Futures Fund, which was established with an anonymous gift and a challenge match by the BRI Research Oversight Committee. Learn more about the prize here.
A Rice-Sized Drone
Wilfred Ngwa, PhD, who received the BRIght Futures Prize in 2016, is also working to promote technological health innovation, which can benefit developing countries. Ngwa’s winning project involves powerful drone technology that combines microscopic nanoparticles with medicine designed to kill cancer cells that have spread to other areas of the body. Approximately the size of a grain of rice, the drones amplify local tumor cell kill during radiotherapy with minimal harm to healthy tissue. The drones also fight cancer recurrence and operate like a vaccine by training the immune system to kill cancer cells that have spread.
Since 2016, Ngwa and his team have collected pre-clinical data in preparation for a publication on the effectiveness of this novel approach in pancreatic cancer. The drones will eventually be designed to treat other cancers like lung and prostate; for now, Ngwa is using these preliminary results to apply for grants and license the technology.
Winning the prize has also given Ngwa and his project unforeseen international visibility. “Because so many people voted from around the world, I’ve been receiving lots of invitations to speak about cancer and my work, which is not only helping to create awareness, but also bringing hope to patients. In developing countries, the lack of access to treatment means that a cancer diagnosis is literally a death sentence. I am honored to share a hopeful message and inspire young people to join the field.”
This increased awareness has also facilitated opportunities to establish collaborations, such as Ngwa’s global health conference on April 29-30, 2016. The conference united researchers from many different countries in working toward bridging gaps in global health by cutting costs and finding cures.
A Paper Microchip
Hadi Shafiee, PhD, won the prize in 2014 for his low-cost paper-based microchip that measures viral load to detect and quantify human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) at the point-of-care. Since winning, Shafiee and his team have successfully evaluated a second generation of this technology with a variety of samples (including blood, saliva and plasma samples) and viruses (including different subtypes of HIV, Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpes virus and Epstein–Barr virus). With the support received from the Bright Futures Prize, Shafiee and his team published six manuscripts, presented the work across the globe and received several national and international grants.
“The BRIght Futures Prize was instrumental in our continued success,” said Shafiee. “The prize was critical in giving me the confidence to stand up and support the ideas that we have been developing in the lab.”
Shafiee hopes that by leveraging his own experience as a biomedical engineer, his research will help create a solution for this international clinical need. His team is particularly focused on adapting the technology for use in developing countries. Support and guidance from the BRI and the Innovation Hub have helped to increase the visibility of this project and to facilitate new avenues of research, says Shafiee.
A Newborn’s Genetic Sequence
The inaugural winner of the BRIght Futures prize, Robert Green, MD, MPH, used the award he received in 2012 to explore effective and responsible ways to use DNA sequencing in babies. He conducted a preliminary study of more than 1,000 parents in the BWH newborn unit to assess interest in receiving detailed information about their healthy child’s predisposition to certain diseases. Green found robust interest among new parents, regardless of their demographic background, with the majority of parents surveyed expressing interest in newborn genomic testing.
These preliminary data yielded a successful grant application later on. “The work we accomplished with the BRIght Futures award funding prepared us very well for the NIH grant process,” Green said. “We were able to demonstrate the feasibility of our proposed recruitment methods. The $100,000 has come back to us in the form of a $6 million NIH grant. That’s the very real impact an initial gift can have.”
The grant funded Green’s BabySeq project: a five-year clinical trial that will sequence the genomes of both healthy and sick newborn babies to see if this information is helpful for families and their doctors.
Green advises BRIght Futures hopefuls not to be afraid to fail. “We honestly didn’t know if newborns’ parents would want to have their babies sequenced, or if they would change their minds after a few months. We had to be bold enough to take the risk and ask the question. Don’t give up on your ideas.”