It takes two: Research synergy links L.A. biomedical pillars

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It takes two: Research synergy links L.A. biomedical pillars

Team science takes on a new dimension with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the Keck School of Medicine of USC
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For the Keck School of Medicine of USC and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, there’s no shortage of common ground.

With robust collaboration, the two L.A. medical mainstays are united by nearly 60 research programs supported by external grants, the lion’s share from the National Institutes of Health and other federal funders. Projects foster therapeutic advances, patient care innovation and community wellness. These include major efforts that tackle some of the most challenging problems in human health — battling cancer, manufacturing the latest cell therapies to fight incurable disease, boosting COVID-19 vaccination rates in underrepresented L.A. communities and preventing obesity in Latino youth.

The institutions share a commitment to conducting leading-edge biomedical investigations, improving health outcomes for underserved populations and speeding new advances from the proverbial lab bench to the patient’s bedside.

The tightly knit alliance benefits health for people of all ages. Connecting CHLA and the Keck School of Medicine opens the way for researchers to find complementary resources and interdisciplinary teammates across both.

“When one investigator at one site has a burning question, they can cross over to seek expertise in how to approach that question,” said Pat Levitt, PhD, chief scientific officer, vice president and director of the Saban Research Institute and Simms/Mann Chair in Developmental Neurogenetics at CHLA, who is also W.M. Keck Provost Professor in Neurogenetics at USC. “It’s a natural bridge, for instance, from CHLA’s disease-focused basic and translational research to the Keck School of Medicine’s fundamental work on understanding disease processes.”

The faculty at CHLA, which ranks among the nation’s top 10 children’s hospitals, all hold appointments at the Keck School of Medicine, which is home to eight departments that rank top 10 in NIH funding in their fields. Together, the two research and academic powerhouses — independent of each other — make a bigger difference than either could make alone.

Both institutions play vital roles serving the diverse L.A. community. CHLA is a safety net pediatric hospital, with 70% of patients on subsidized healthcare or lacking insurance. Faculty from the Keck School of Medicine staff Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center, the largest single provider of health care in the county. As such, both institutions emphasize studies to address the health challenges of communities that are underserved and experience disparities in outcomes.

Several initiatives backed by federal grants exemplify a partnership with impact exceeding the sum of its parts.

Fighting cancer across the lifespan

USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center stands among the original eight such centers to receive the National Cancer Institute’s highest designation in 1971, and remains an innovative leader in the cancer field. The USC Norris $34 million Cancer Center Support Grant from the NCI supports cutting-edge cancer research and collaborations that span USC and CHLA.

Like many other diseases, cancer is understood to find its roots early along in development — as far back as the womb. So fully integrating oncology research between the two institutions has been a priority.

“To really understand cancer and other disorders of humankind, we have to think about developmental biology,” said Alan Wayne, M.D., director of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Cancer & Blood Disease Institute and associate director for pediatric oncology at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. “In that regard, the kind of close collaboration you see between basic, translational, population and clinical scientists across campuses — and across the age span — is going to make a tremendous difference.”

Innovative therapies, innovative infrastructure

Wayne’s own research pushes forward CAR T cell therapy, a groundbreaking strategy that enhances the patients’ own immune cells to target cancer. These investigations — and many others across USC and CHLA — will get a boost from another joint venture: establishing a state-of-the-art facility for manufacturing such cellular treatments.

CHLA and the Keck School of Medicine (in partnership with Keck Medicine of USC and USC Norris cancer center) are on the cusp of opening a current good manufacturing practice facility for cellular treatments, part of the joint USC/CHLA Translational Cell Therapy Program.

“Cells have evolved for a million and a half years,” said Tom Buchanan, M.D., the Keck School of Medicine’s Bernard J. Hanley Chair in Medicine and vice dean of research. “It makes sense to take advantage of that evolution to fix things, so we’re setting up one sophisticated facility where people can use the same basic methodologies and work with each other, while targeting an array of diseases.”

The capacity to make treatments will accelerate translation of research into clinical trials. In addition to CAR T cells, potential products could be engineered tissue to address blindness, bone and cartilage injury, gastrointestinal disorders and even diabetes.

“These therapies have the potential to reverse, and in some cases prevent, conditions that have been considered irreversible,” Wayne said. “The facility is expected to have a massive impact.”

The drive from scientific discovery to health solution

Supporting the sort of studies that would be the testing grounds for cellular therapies are an important aspect of the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute (SC CTSI). Backed by a $50 million NIH grant, the collaboration bands together the Keck School of Medicine, CHLA and the L.A. County Department of Health Services.

“Clinical trials are important across all populations,” said Buchanan, director of SC CTSI. “It’s crucial that we move from findings to real-world impact.”

The institute focuses on turning science into health solutions for the city’s diverse communities by providing researchers with funding, expertise, training and facilities. It provides backing for studies designed to benefit everyone from infants to elders, testing everything from treatment protocols to care delivery improvements to community interventions.

Health equity is often an area of concentration. Take, for example, the CTSI-associated Consortium for Pediatric Cellular Immunotherapy. Through the consortium, a CHLA-Keck School of Medicine contingent led by Wayne joins forces with four other leading biomedical centers. Part of its agenda is to expand access to the newest treatments, and increase clinical trial participation, among children in underserved communities.

Promoting protection in those hardest-hit by the pandemic

SC CTSI also launched a multimedia initiative that brought scientifically sound, culturally grounded messages to people in certain majority Latino and Black neighborhoods. VaccinateLA, a joint project of CHLA and the Keck School of Medicine funded by the W. M. Keck Foundation, made a major impact in East and South L.A.

Respectively, Latino and Black people in zip codes where VaccinateLA was active had immunization rates of 82% and 78%, compared to 66% and 58% in similar populations countywide.

Outreach from CHLA pediatricians was essential in reaching parents worried about their kids, according to VaccinateLA co-leader Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, PhD, MPH, the Keck School of Medicine’s associate dean for community initiatives and the SC CTSI’s associate director for community outreach and engagement.

“CHLA has been a major catalyst, and really important to our credibility in the communities we focus on,” she said.

A vision for healthy adulthood among Latinos, starting in childhood

Baezconde-Garbanati, a tenured professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine, also co-leads a regional initiative dedicated to making a difference in Hispanic health tomorrow, by laying the foundation with today’s youth.

The recently established Southern California Center for Chronic Health Disparities in Latino Families and Children was initiated by co-leader Michael Goran, PhD, program director for diabetes and obesity at CHLA’s Saban Research Institute and professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine.

The community-engaged, obesity-fighting project is funded by a $24.5 million award from the NIH. It has already shown dividends, growing into a wider consortium encompassing all of Southern California.

As with other collaborations between CHLA and the Keck School of Medicine, the power of that teamwork seems to add together one and one to make so much more than two.

“We’ve been able to kind of merge our worlds and bring a lot of different resources,” Baezconde-Garbanati said. “This has created something that just would not have existed with any one of us going it alone.”

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