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Tiny Treasures

Tiny Treasures

Specialists at The Fetal Center care for babies before birth

Texas is one of the rare states that mandates specific criteria in order establish a center of excellence. Co-directed by KuoJen Tsao, MD, and Anthony Johnson, DO, The Fetal Center is one of only two in Texas to meet this requirement. Specialists at The Fetal Center, a partnership between McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, actively pursue research to improve patient outcomes and establish new benchmarks for patient care.

Unlike many other fetal programs across the nation, the team at The Fetal Center covers the continuum, caring for both babies and mothers. This means that babies are not removed from their mothers. Rather, they receive treatment right next door.

“Our patients don’t need to leave the building,” says Johnson. “We care from conception to end of life. We are about the family unit.”

In addition to providing exceptional care for genetic anomalies and congenital abnormalities, The Fetal Center is an international leader in research to improve outcomes.

“In some programs, there is one person who is at the top of the food chain. Here, we are like the United Nations,” says Johnson. “We work as a continuum. Every discipline is represented, whether it is in discovery science, clinical research, or translational research. Our focus is the patient—that is key to us.”

Johnson is the local principal investigator for the Tracheal Occlusion to Accelerate Lung Growth clinical trial. Serving as the only trial site in the United States for both the severe and moderate arms, the trial enrolls patients with congenital diaphragmatic hernia—a rare, life-threatening genetic condition that limits lung growth. Babies with this condition undergo an in utero procedure that uses a balloon to the windpipe to allow the fluid produced by the lung to come through and expand the lung. Typically, babies with the severe form of this condition have a survival rate of 40% at best. However, preliminary data suggests that this device may double the survival rate.

Taking a bird’s-eye view on health care, Tsao focuses on health services research—how to improve quality and patient care by implementing safety systems. “People are human and make mistakes. We need to create systems to help everyone be safe,” explains Tsao.

Tsao received a grant from the March of Dimes to support the development of the March of Dimes Perinatal Safety Center—the first center of its kind. Working with the Department of Psychological Sciences at Rice University, Tsao’s team is developing ways to improve the culture of safety in hospitals and health care. The grant will support the evidence-based techniques and training to improve patient safety during pregnancy, labor, delivery, postnatal care, and transition to home life. It will also focus on ways to create, teach, and assess safety culture among hospitals.

“They tell you that you need a culture of safety, but no one gives you a blueprint for it,” says Tsao. “Our research is about creating that blueprint.”

While these projects have already begun, researchers at The Fetal Center are assiduously pursuing the next health challenge.

“Every time we close a door, there are three more doors behind it that we need to close, and that requires research and funds. Philanthropy is exceptionally important,” says Johnson. He explains that patients suffering from rare diseases benefit from philanthropy in particular because those diseases rarely receive as much federal funding as common ones.
“Additional funding would allow us to move faster and broader,” adds Tsao. “We could move in parallel with what we are already doing and develop tools like simulations to improve safety.”

Through the help of our philanthropic community, we can keep closing research doors and continue improving the lives of babies before they are born.

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