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Drexel Research Awarded for Potential to Improve Heart and Ear Health in Children

Physician with patient

Two Drexel researchers received prestigious Individual Biomedical Research Awards from The Hartwell Foundation to support their work aimed at benefitting the health of children of the United States. Each award includes $100,000 in research funding per year for three years. Joshua C. Mell, PhD, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine, was honored for research in “Detecting and Disrupting Biofilms in Recurrent Ear Infections,” and Christopher B. Rodell, PhD, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems received an award for work in "Development of a Geometrically Tunable Blood Shunt for Heart Reconstruction Surgery.”

The Hartwell Foundation’s 2020 competition supports individual, early-career researchers conducting early-stage, innovative medical and biomedical research. Along with the two individual awards, Drexel will receive two Hartwell Fellowships to fund postdoctoral positions for two years at $50,000 annually to selected candidates who will aid in conducting the research.

Rodell proposes to address an unmet need in life-saving reconstructive heart surgery to repair a relatively rare and complex heart defect. In these cases, children are born with only half of their heart properly developed and require immediate intervention by surgical reconfiguration of the blood flow to allow for proper blood oxygenation by the lungs and blood delivery to the rest of the body. To establish a new and viable blood flow path through the heart, a portion of the blood flow must be diverted to the lungs for oxygenation by a surgically implanted fixed-diameter tube, called a blood shunt. However, balancing blood flow between the body and lungs is extremely challenging and depends upon the shunt inner diameter: a shunt that is too narrow may limit flow to the lungs and damage blood cells, whereas a shunt that is too wide may draw too much blood and limit oxygen delivery to the rest of the body. To meet this critical need, Rodell proposes a novel, geometrically tunable blood shunt that can increase blood flow on demand to accommodate rapid infant growth in the months after surgery.

“Currently, adjustments in the shunt diameter require major surgery for replacement,” said Rodell. “My goal is to develop a shunt that can grow with the child to prevent the need for additional surgeries in these fragile patients. I propose a new type of shunt in which modification of the shunt internal diameter can be achieved by minimally invasive insertion of a light-emitting catheter.”

Mell proposed to improve the diagnosis and treatment of bacterial middle ear infection (otitis media) before it becomes chronic or recurrent, which is a serious health problem because otitis media is the most common childhood respiratory infection and the most common reason children receive antibiotics. Seven out of ten children suffer from a bacterial middle ear infection by the time they turn two years old, putting them at higher risk for delayed speech and language development and eardrum damage resulting in permanent hearing loss, as well as increased risk of antibiotic resistant infections.

“The condition is among the most common reasons why children visit doctors, are prescribed antibiotics, and undergo surgery in the United States,” said Mell. “Although many such ear infections can heal on their own or through antibiotics, more than a million children in the United States have recurring or chronic cases in spite of antibiotic treatment.” 

While utilizing a unique clinical repository of medical data and specimens from more than 1,200 children over the first 3 years of life in over 5,000 clinical visits, Mell believes he has discovered that biofilm formation and pH homeostasis plays a significant role in the course of the disease. Bacterial biofilms form when instead of living and growing as unattached single cells, the bacteria that cause the infection attach to tissue surfaces and each other to form a dense 3D matrix, making it difficult to clear the infection.

Mell proposes to examine whether certain strains of the bacteria responsible for the infection are prone to persist as recurrent ear infections and can diagnostically predict the likelihood of a recurring acute infection. He seeks to understand whether the responsible bacteria are likely to form biofilms in the unusual alkaline environment of the infected middle ear and more specifically, whether designer drugs can improve the effectiveness of antibiotic therapy against a bacterial biofilm.

“The award-winning research proposals of Rodell and Mell were recognized for their cutting-edge technology in medicine and biomedical engineering that addresses a specific unmet need to improve health outcomes in children,” said Fred Dombrose, President of The Hartwell Foundation.

This year, the Hartwell Foundation will fund work from twelve researchers nationwide from ten institutions. With 16 institutions participating in the competition, Drexel was only one of two universities to receive two individual awards this year.  Previous Drexel awardees include Alison J. Carey, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the College of Medicine and Amy Throckmorton, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems.

“The Foundation takes into account the compelling and transformative nature of the proposed innovation, the extent to which a strategic or translational approach might accelerate the clinical application of research results to benefit children of the United States, the extent of collaboration in the proposed research, the institutional commitment to provide encouragement and technical support to the investigator, and the extent to which funding the investigator will make a difference,” according to the Hartwell Foundation news release. For more information is available at