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Clinical and Translational Science Center

Clinical and Translational Science Center

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TRANSLATIONAL PROFILES

Neonatal vascular expert Robin Steinhorn makes time for translational research

When neonatologist Robin Steinhorn began her career as a pediatrician, she had no intention of becoming a research scientist. But her encounters with persistent pulmonary hypertension in newborns (PPHN), a potentially deadly condition that exacerbates newborn respiratory failure, and her frustration with the ineffectiveness of existing treatments, deeply troubled her. After completing her residency and a fellowship in neonatal/perinatal medicine at the University of Minnesota, she underwent additional fellowship training in the use of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a system that provides heart-lung bypass support. That was 26 years ago.Now chair of the UC Davis Department of Pediatrics and medical director of UC Davis Children’s Hospital, Steinhorn is an internationally recognized expert on fetal pulmonary vascular development and neonatal pulmonary hypertension. Her research findings during the past two decades have contributed substantially to an understanding of and treatment for PPHN.


Robin Steinhorn

 

“The majority of babies with PPHN are in every other way perfectly healthy. They fail, though, to make the transition in the delivery room from blue to pink. As a clinician during the early years of my career, I knew that if I could just get that little baby through a couple of days, the recovery process would begin,” Steinhorn said. “This condition haunted me enough that I became involved with ECMO therapy, the first life-saving treatment available for the condition.”

But that wasn’t sufficiently satisfying for her. She wanted to understand the nature of the underlying abnormalities in vascular signaling in order to reverse the condition sooner and eventually to prevent it altogether. She first gained that opportunity at the State University of New York in Buffalo in 1991, where she joined colleagues studying pulmonary vascular biology and entered the realm of translational medicine.

“I didn’t even pick up a pipette until I was three years out of my training. That’s when I discovered that research was a surprisingly good fit for me,” said Steinhorn. “I was a translational scientist to my core before we even had coined that term. I’ve always been in that zone between the bench and the bedside. My interest in the laboratory is rooted in wanting to learn more about clinical problems and how to solve them.”

Born and raised in Akron, Ohio, Steinhorn spent the first 24 years of her medical career east of the Mississippi before joining the UC Davis faculty in the autumn of 2012.

“I was attracted to come here because I saw UC Davis as a place of amazing opportunity,” said Steinhorn, whose decision was heavily influenced by the cadre of “phenomenal scientists” who were working in her area of interest and the presence of a well-established CTSC. “I recognized UC Davis as a place where you have a chance to write history, to be a part of shaping the evolution of medicine and translational science at a very interesting time in our country as we wrestle with some of the thorniest problems we’ve ever faced in science and in clinical care.

“My decision has turned out to be even better than I expected, as I’ve realized that as a new faculty member, you don’t just join UC Davis. You’re joining all of the University of California,” she said, adding that UC BRAID (www.ucbraid.org) tightens her connection with fellow pediatric scientists at other UC medical schools. Steinhorn serves as a member of the UC BRAID Child Health working group.

“Involvement of patient populations and the tremendous intellectual expertise at all five UCs vastly increases the potential impact of a research project,” Steinhorn said. “BRAID will progress into a very powerful model.”

Steinhorn was also impressed by the longevity of the UC Davis CTSC and the breadth of its resources.

“UC Davis was among the first sites that received funding through the Clinical and Translational Science Award to establish the CTSC, and it provides crucial training to my younger faculty members. Thanks to the CTSC, I inherited several talented investigators who have rapidly progressed through those early years and are now successfully competing for external funding. As chair of a department with more than 100 pediatricians, I have a deep passion about developing their careers,” Steinhorn said. “The CTSC’s experience with clinical trials is a huge asset here, and the CTSC is invaluable for my own research portfolio as well.”

There is one challenge that the move to UC Davis has not changed for Steinhorn. As a clinician-investigator, medical director and department chair with many duties and passions competing for her time, Steinhorn has not found a way to extract more than 24 hours out of any given day.

“Time won’t stop for me, but I keep doing what I love, and it’s just never led me wrong,” Steinhorn mused.