This story is featured in the Spring 2018 edition of the HPU Magazine. Discover why the entrepreneurial spirit matters in research in this essay written by Dr. Mary Jayne Kennedy, Chair of the Department of Clinical Sciences in the Fred Wilson School of Pharmacy at HPU.
Four million babies are born every year in the United States, and nearly 400,000 are born prematurely.
These premature infants need special care and medicine to survive, such as antibiotics to treat life-threatening infections they acquire at birth.
However, the most common antibiotics used to treat infections in newborns can damage kidney cells and prevent them from developing normally. As a result, the kidneys might not work as well and the baby may have reduced kidney function that can last a lifetime.
That leaves 400,000 families every year making this heart-wrenching decision: Do I give my child a medication that will save their life but potentially damage their kidneys, causing lifelong complications?
As a pediatric clinical pharmacist, this is something I experienced daily in the neonatal intensive care unit. This motivated me to find a solution so that no parent would ever have to make that decision again.
If I could figure out which babies were susceptible to kidney damage before they were given treatment, I could possibly prevent the injury. Then I could safely treat the baby with the medication needed to save their life.
Seeing Roadblocks as Opportunities
My research team considered all the biomedical advances over the last few decades. Surely there was some sort of technology that could help us. And there was. The only problem was that those technologies required something we didn’t have — blood. The average premature baby only has 100 milliliters of blood circulating throughout their entire body. That’s the amount of a travel size liquid you’re allowed to pack on an airplane.
So, we got creative. We asked ourselves, “Is there something that might give us the same information as a blood sample, but is more accessible and easier to obtain?”
That’s when things got interesting.
The average premature newborn uses about 10 diapers a day, and those diapers contain a lot of urine. To most people, used diapers are simply garbage or waste. But to us, those diapers represented possibility — an opportunity to collect data and answer questions.
Urine is made by the kidney, and the kidney is what we were interested in. On the surface, it made sense. But no one had ever used urine from a premature baby’s diaper for this type of research.
Our research team had to make a decision. Were we willing to challenge the industry standard of using blood samples? Were we willing to take a risk and invest our time, money and energy into a project that might fail?
Were we willing to be true entrepreneurs?
Values-Based Living and Learning
The answers to those questions came easily when we focused on our values. Although it’s nice to receive grant money, to have research published and to be recognized for our work, the real reason we do what we do is the babies and the families who entrust their care to us. If we weren’t willing to take this risk, who would?
So we bought a lot of diapers and got to work.
Then came our next hurdle. Most diapers on the market are really good at keeping urine in with a gel-based substance. For parents, that’s great. For us, not so much. We had to find the right diaper that would allow us to extract a viable sample.
We found a brand of diaper called Tushies. It was small enough to fit premature babies without harming our sample. When the company that made Tushies went out of business, I used the rest of my grant money to buy all of the diapers they had left. And I accepted my position here at HPU with one condition — that the university would move and store the diapers. I’m pretty sure I’m the only faculty member who has made such a request!
Using these diapers and three simple tools — scissors, a syringe and a conical tube, we recovered 85 to 90 percent of the urine. Using something that was going to be thrown away, we analyzed all of the proteins in a baby’s urine sample through gel electrophoresis.
We compared the proteins in urine from babies with and without kidney damage and identified more than 30 proteins that differed between the two groups. These proteins were all potential predictors or biomarkers of kidney damage.
We also isolated DNA from the urine to identify potential genetic markers of kidney damage. This data could
tell us which babies were likely to develop kidney damage and which weren’t — all from a method no one had ever used and a process that had never been described.
More importantly, we removed an existing barrier towards progress in this research area. And our work enabled us and others to find answers to this and other important research questions.
‘Someone Who Makes Things Happen’
This journey taught me why the entrepreneurial spirit matters in research.
There is a common misconception that entrepreneurship is confined to the business world. And that’s simply
not true. As author Tim Ferriss so elegantly stated, “An entrepreneur isn’t someone who owns a business. It’s someone who makes things happen.”
I’ve learned to challenge myself, my colleagues and my students with a simple question: What are we going to make happen today?