How Can you Give Research a Fighting Chance? Q&A with Dr. Simon Conway

Each year, hundreds of people who work at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health prove just how deeply they care about their mission by donating to Riley Children’s Foundation through the Heart of Riley Employee Giving Program.

Many departments achieve the milestone of having 100% of their employees contribute to the campaign, including the Wells Center for Pediatric Research.

Today on the Riley Blog, Wells Center researcher Simon Conway, Ph.D., (right) offers some new examples that illustrate what a dramatic difference those donations, and every donation to Riley, are making.

Q: Tell us about your background, what drew you into pediatric research, and ultimately to the Wells Center for Pediatric Research on the Riley Hospital campus?

A: I’m from England, and I did my Ph.D. at University College London. It’s a major university in London, and it’s located on the top two floors of the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, one of Europe’s major teaching hospitals. The college was designed this way so that people who were interested in doing translational research could be close to a clinical setting. Every morning I would come through the hospital and come to the labs upstairs. That left a big impression on me.

I also noticed that many of my colleagues were focused on the structural defects of our mutant mouse models, but no one was really looking at whether these mice lived or didn’t live. I thought, “If I ever get the chance to have my own lab, I’d like to look at why some live and some die.” To me, that seemed like the bigger picture—the long-term implications of defects on the fetus and neonate. A lot of birth defects are survivable.

Later, when I was looking for positions, I was drawn to the Institute of Molecular Medicine and Genetics in Augusta, Georgia, because it was run by physicians and physician-scientists and focused on translating research findings to patients.

I met some people from Riley Hospital and learned that they were starting a heart development research group in the Wells Center for Pediatric Research. Dr. Loren Fields was the heart program leader working on recruiting faculty. I joined the program in 2003. Riley offered a nice opportunity to go to a place where they were building a group of people with different research backgrounds all working on one common-thread theme.

Q: Your team’s research on heart development and birth defects was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Can you explain in simple terms what that research involved?

A: A lot of people think developmental biology stops when you’re born, but in the heart, a lot of development continues to occur after birth. My research assistant, Paige Snider, Ph.D., who came to Riley with me from Georgia, and others on our team, including student Jackie Lajiness and research associate Jian Wang, worked out some molecular mechanisms involved in a heart defect known as bradycardia, which causes significant slowing of the heartbeat. This was the first time research has revealed how the wiring for the body’s sympathetic nervous system (known as the “fight or flight” system) gets installed into a still-developing newborn heart, and how that can play a role in regulating heart function.

In our work with genetic mouse models, we were able to “knock out” a specific gene to cause the birth defect, and then we were able to reverse the slow heartbeat problem by transgenically restoring production of a key responder protein. This proved how the bradycardia was caused and identified a key downstream therapeutic target that was sufficient to rescue the birth defect.

Q: What would be your long-term “dream result” of this research?

A: Ultimately, our hope would be that this finding could help lead to development of drug therapies to restore normal cardiac function in newborns with this birth defect. We’re trying to put the basic building blocks in place, and hopefully our physician-scientist colleagues can take it from there. That’s how research works—lots of little building blocks are put together by collaborative research.

Q: How important has donor funding through Riley Children’s Foundation been to your work?

A: We couldn’t do it without Riley Children’s Foundation. Paige Snider, who started this work, is with my team because 50% of her salary is being paid by Riley Children’s Foundation. Paige has been my left hand and my right hand, and I am grateful that Riley Children’s Foundation made it possible to hire someone who’s been with me for more than 10 years.

Having independent support from donors is critical. It gives us a fighting chance and allows us to try experiments that we wouldn’t necessarily have tried before. Federal NIH funding for research has dropped dramatically since I arrived at Riley and it’s very tough now to maintain funding.

It’s great that the Simon Family Tower is built, giving Riley a new inpatient facility. Now, the priority focus is shifting back to research. We are definitely concerned about supporting our trainees and the younger generation of investigators who are starting their careers.

This is a pivotal time. To have donors step up and support them through Riley Children’s Foundation is crucial.

If you are an IU Health or IU School of Medicine employee, you can contribute to the Heart of Riley Employee Giving Program via credit card donation or payroll deduction by clicking here.
This year’s Heart of Riley campaign runs from May 5-June 30.

Riley Blogger

The Riley Blog is written and/or edited by members of the Riley Children's Foundation Communications Staff.

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