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Science in the Shadow of COVID-19

Despite shutting down much of their research activity during the early days of COVID-19, scientists at Cincinnati Children’s published an impressive array of discoveries during fiscal year 2021 – even as the medical center shifted gears to respond to the pandemic and helped lead crucial clinical trials that led to life-saving vaccines for millions of adults and children.

Figures lined up in front of a COVID-19 vaccine vial

The COVID vaccine research conducted here has been covered by hundreds of news organizations worldwide and shared by tens of thousands of social media users with tens of millions of followers. Yet within the shadow cast by the pandemic, groundbreaking discoveries continued here in the fields of genetics, developmental biology, ophthalmology, cancer biology, immunobiology and more. These advances illuminated new pathways that eventually will lead to better treatments for mental illness, heart conditions, cancer, lupus, asthma, diabetes, and many other diseases.

The most significant of these innovations can be found in our 2021 Research Annual Report, published on behalf of the Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation. The report summarizes discoveries from more than 50 research areas, breaks down more than $271 million in federal, state and other sources of grant funding, and recounts efforts from across the institution to respond to COVID-19.

“The collaborative spirit of Cincinnati Children’s shined above the pandemic discord as our colleagues shared COVID-related learnings at every level,” says Tina Cheng, MD, MPH, who oversees the extensive research enterprise at Cincinnati Children’s. “Experts here analyzed the mechanisms of the virus’ effect on organ systems, delved into the complexities of protecting children with rare and chronic diseases, advised local schools and state health officials during fast-changing times, and focused on ways to manage immense mental health concerns stemming from the crisis.”

Along the way, scientists here published more than 2,000 peer-reviewed research papers across the spectrum of conditions that never stopped affecting child health, pandemic or not.

“We are grateful to our staff, families, donors and partners for making these achievements possible,” says Steve Davis, MD, MMM, MSL, president and CEO at Cincinnati Children’s. “As one of the world’s leading pediatric academic medical and research centers, we are uniquely positioned to set a bold course for the future of children. We look forward to sharing that journey, together.”

Senior leaders at Cincinnati Children’s noted these discoveries as especially outstanding in FY21. Click headlines for research summaries:

Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine Safe and Effective for Adolescents

This report on the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine helped launch the wave of emergency approvals that made COVID-19 vaccines available to younger groups of children. “Safety, Immunogenicity, and Efficacy of the BNT162b2 Covid-19 Vaccine in Adolescents.” Published online May 27, 2021, in the New England Journal of Medicine

‘Massively Parallel’ Gene Screening Tool Can Accelerate Research for Nearly Any Disease

This hunt for deeper understanding of the causes of lupus, a chronically painful disease that can cause severe organ damage, led to an innovative gene screening tool that can accelerate research for nearly any disease. “Global discovery of lupus genetic risk variant allelic enhancer activity.” Published March 12, 2021, in Nature Communications.

How Clock Genes Drive Healthy Spinal Formation

A study exploring spine development in zebrafish reveals the crucial role that well-synced internal clocks play in early development, with long-range implications for understanding and preventing human birth malformations. “Pairing of segmentation clock genes drives robust pattern formation.” Published Dec. 23, 2020, in Nature.

Bone Marrow ‘Map’ Opens Path to Organoid-like Blood Stem Cell Production

An unprecedented “map” that details the mechanisms at work in bone marrow formation may someday help clinicians replace cancerous bone marrow cells with healthy, patient-specific marrow cells grown in the laboratory. “In situ mapping identifies distinct vascular niches for myelopoiesis.” Published Feb. 10, 2021, in Nature.

Sunlight Reaches Deep into Brain to Play Key Role in Metabolism

This discovery—that specific wavelengths of natural sunlight actually pierce the skull to reach light-sensing cells deep inside the brain—has numerous implications for how to manage metabolism-related disorder like Type 2 diabetes and other conditions. “Violet-light suppression of thermogenesis by opsin 5 hypothalamic neurons.” Published Sept. 2, 2020, in Nature.

Gene Variants Increase Risk for Dysfunctional Skin Barrier, Asthma, and Food Allergies

Discovering two gene variants among children who develop severe allergies after developing atopic dermatitis (eczema) adds evidence to a rising theory that skin health is more closely connected to lung and gut health than many have suspected. “Disease-associated KIF3A variants alter gene methylation and expression impacting skin barrier and atopic dermatitis.” Published Aug. 14, 2020, in Nature Communications.

Tissue Healing in the Gut Depends on Help from Friendly Bacteria

Meanwhile, another study conducted here further illustrates how much human health can depend upon the “good” bacteria living inside us. Damaged intestines need help from bacteria to heal.  “Microbiota-derived metabolite promotes HDAC3 activity in the gut.” Published July 30, 2020, in Nature.

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Scientists at Cincinnati Children’s went above and beyond to carry on their research missions while responding in numerous ways to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Explore the full 2021 Research Annual Report

View a Breakdown of $271M in Research Funding in By-the-Numbers

Explore 50+ Significant Discoveries (Enter Research Area, click on “Featured Research”)

Previous Research Annual Reports

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