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Upstate creates research, educational program to address global health issues in pregnant women and young children

A special program designed to address the global health issues women face during pregnancy and children face during early childhood, has been established at Upstate Medical University, officials announced today.

Known as the Global Maternal Child and Pediatric Health Program, the initiative will combine research, clinical trials, education and training both here in Syracuse and abroad.

“Emerging health issues of pregnancy and childhood have identified a need for special and immediate attention to develop innovative strategies for disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment,” said Upstate President Danielle Laraque-Arena, MD, FAAP. “Building on the success of our already significant work in global health, this program will focus our efforts on the most vulnerable and vital among us: pregnant women, infants and young children.”

“The Global Maternal Child and Pediatric Health Program will be a leader in solving serious health issues facing women and children around the world,” said SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher. “Upstate Medical’s focus and dedication is to be commended, and with continued and intensifying collaboration with international researchers and clinicians, SUNY will help quicken the rate at which we can protect people from disease and help more people live fuller, healthier lives.”

The Global Maternal Child and Pediatric Health Program will be part of Upstate’s Center for Global Health & Translational Science (CGHATS), which already has done significant work in various global health issues, such as mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue and chikungunya.  It is one of the leading research centers conducting investigations into developing a vaccine for the dengue viruses.

The Global Maternal Child and Pediatric Health Program will be based in Syracuse at the Institute for Human Performance, but carry out much of its work—clinical trials and educational opportunities—through CGHATS collaborations in Ecuador and Thailand.

“This new program with its emphasis on child and maternal health is a logical extension of the outreach efforts and faculty expertise already established by our Center for Global Health & Translational Science,” said David Amberg, PhD, Upstate’s vice president for research. “But with this new program, we will now have a laser-like focus on emerging areas of research during pregnancy and early childhood.”

“The global impact of common infections, such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus and longstanding scourges like malaria, dengue and now Zika virus represent major global public health threats,” said CGHATS director Mark Polhemus, MD. “This program and its focus provide us with the opportunity to reach across our campus and involve the Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology and our program in Public Health and Preventive Medicine.

Director of the new program will be Joseph Domachowske, MD, a highly respected member of the pediatrics faculty at Upstate, and an expert in pediatric infectious disease who has done significant work in clinical trials for childhood diseases and has led medical missions to Latin America for more than a decade.

“What we are doing here is translational science,” Domachowske said. “We are merging basic science with clinical research with an aim at finding answers to treating and preventing common diseases in people all over the world,” he said.

One of Domachowske’s first assignments is to conduct clinical trials for vaccines to protect against influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV, a common and highly contagious virus that infects the respiratory tract of most children before their second birthday.

For most children the symptoms of RSV are that of the common cold, but for others—premature infants, children with weakened immune systems and for infants less than two months—severe infection can be life threatening.  Acute lower respiratory infection that is caused by RSV is known to be a leading cause of global child mortality.

The RSV clinical trial will study whether giving the vaccine to mothers in the last part of pregnancy may keep the newborn safe from the virus during the most vulnerable first several months.

These clinical trials will enroll patients in Syracuse and in Ecuador.

Domachowske said the other diseases that may become a focus of research include Group B streptococcal septicemia, a severe bacterial infection that affects newborns, and CMV or cytomegalovirus, a common infection that can be serious for babies or an unborn child if the mother has the virus. Understanding how Zika virus affects pregnancy and the growing fetus is also an area that clearly needs to be further understood through systematic study.

In addition to hosting clinical trials and medical research, the program will focus on broadening education of global health issues. The educational offerings will be designed for clinicians and researchers seeking global experience related to pregnancy, infancy and young childhood. Existing partnerships of the SUNY Global Health initiative will likely be active participants in this new program.  The program is expected to attract international researchers and clinicians to Upstate and send Upstate experts abroad.

Funding for the new program will come from existing relationships already established with The Center for Global Health & Translational Science, which include partnerships with industry, academic institutions, the Department of Defense and philanthropic organizations that aid in funding research for the testing and development of new diagnostics, drugs and vaccines.

Caption: Professor Joseph Domachowske, MD, who will direct the Global Maternal Child and Pediatric Health Program, has extensive work on medical missions overseas. In the photo above, he provides medical care to a family in El Salvador as part of a medical mission in 2013.

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