A Beacon for Pediatric Care

UArizona Steele Children’s Research Center Celebrates 30 Years

By Loni Nannini

Vision and passion converge with scientific innovation at the University of Arizona Steele Children’s Research Center as it celebrates three decades of groundbreaking pediatric research and health care in the region.

“I have been a doctor every day for 56 years. I have a vision to improve the lives of kids, but at the end of the day, it takes vision coupled with passion to save children’s lives,” said Dr. Fayez K. Ghishan, PANDA endowed director of the Steele Children’s Research Center. 

Ghishan, also a UArizona College of Medicine-Tucson professor of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition and Physician-in-Chief of Banner Children’s-Diamond Children’s Medical Center, holds two other endowed positions: The Horace W. Steele Endowed Chair in Pediatric Research and the Alan and Janice Levin Family Endowed Professor of Pediatrics. He is also medical director of UArizona Clinical and Translational Sciences Research Center.

Ghishan has manifested his vision for exceptional research, education and treatment when he took the helm of a burgeoning Steele Center that was seeded with $2 million by the late Daniel Cracchiolo and the Steele Foundation. A renowned expert in pediatric gastrointestinal diseases, Ghishan has grown the center into a world-class institution dedicated to advancements in research and therapies for more than 60 childhood diseases.

“When I came to Steele 28 years ago, I promised to make it successful,” Ghishan said. “Now we are ranked by the National Institutes of Health as a Center of Excellence and are in the top 20% of all pediatric research institutes at colleges of medicine.”

That ranking has attracted more than 80 faculty members and grant support in excess of $150 million from the NIH and other federal institutions. 

Steele has expanded to 28 labs with 32,000 square feet dedicated to bench-to-bedside pediatric research and treatment that impacts 35,000 children and their families annually. Steele-affiliated laboratories have published 600 peer-reviewed scientific journals, many of which have earned global recognition.  

“The Steele Center is the only Center of Excellence dedicated to basic and translational research for pediatrics for 7.5 million people in the state of Arizona,” said Ghishan.

Integral to this role is the partnership with Banner Children’s-Diamond Children’s Medical Center, which serves as the clinical arm of Steele Center. Spearheaded by Joan and Don Diamond, the facility boasts 80 private rooms, a 36-bed NICU, state-of-the-art inpatient and outpatient pediatric cancer clinics, two dedicated pediatric neurosurgeons, a fetal medicine surgeon, and the only haploidentical bone transplant program in Southern Arizona. 

Steele’s affiliation with UArizona offers another major advantage, according to Ghishan. Collaborations between the medical school and professors and researchers within numerous university departments and colleges propel research in cardiology, critical care, endocrinology, gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition, genetics and developmental pediatrics, hematology/oncology/HCTT, neonatology; pulmonology, and allergy and immunology. 

“The Steele Children’s Research Center is a vital part of the University of Arizona’s service to our great state. It has 30 years of incredible impact in the lives of the children and families of Arizona. Our expert faculty and researchers are world-renowned leaders in pediatric care, and I am very proud of the work they are doing to tackle the biggest challenges in treating and understanding childhood diseases. I know the Steele Center will build on its 30-year foundation of excellence and I am excited for its future,” said UArizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins.

“At this university, we emphasize pediatric research as part of the university’s research mission because our mission as a land grant university is to serve our community,” he said. “We want patients to get the best start in life. We want all children with cancer and other diseases to be able to stay in Southern Arizona for treatment and clinical trials. In fact, our survival rate is among the highest in the nation, which we should all be proud of.” 

Partnerships Promote Teaching, Healing and Discovery

Another key component of Steele’s success is the private and public partnerships that Ghishan and his colleagues have nurtured regionally, statewide and nationally with academic institutions, businesses, corporations, individuals, nonprofits and other organizations. 

Strong local and regional connections and guidance from volunteer advisory boards in Tucson and Phoenix form an invaluable community network. 

That support is complemented by $5 million to $10 million in funding annually from philanthropic groups such as Arizona Elks Major Projects, Kids of Steele, Courtney’s Courage, Father’s Day Council Tucson, and PANDA. (People Acting Now Discover Answers)

“These are the engine that drives the Steele Center,” Ghishan said. “Without them, our work would not be possible. My colleagues and I use the money they raise to help generate solid preliminary data we need to submit grants to the NIH and other institutions.”

Steele puts those grants to work treating sick children and providing pediatric well-checks, training future clinicians and stocking labs with top equipment.

“Our task is to teach medical students and residents, to heal by seeing clinical patients and to make new discoveries,” he said. “Every day, science is moving and changing and the Steele Center is at the forefront of all major advances in children’s health.”

Emerging Disciplines for Future Success

Steele seeks to stay on the leading edge with a three-fold emphasis on the emerging fields of pediatric autoimmune diseases, genomic medicine and developmental behavioral pediatrics.  

This focus on autoimmunity was fueled by a recent $10 million private donation to establish the Daniel Cracchiolo Institute for Pediatric Autoimmune Disease Research at Steele Center. The gift will provide financial support for graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty members to study autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, juvenile arthritis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease. The new endeavor will be affiliated with the planned UArizona Health Sciences Center for Advanced Molecular and Immunological Therapies.

The implications are far-reaching: Autoimmune diseases afflict 40 million Americans and new cases are increasing disproportionately among women and children. 

“More than 100 autoimmune diseases are currently known and every day a new autoimmune disease is being discovered. If you have one autoimmune disease, your risk of having others is exceedingly high. That is why we are concentrating on understanding them,” said Ghishan.

Autoimmune research dovetails with the study of genomic medicine and Steele is on the front lines with state-of-the art equipment and tools such as the NovaSeq 6000–a gift from PANDA that sequences the human genome in less that 40 hours. The tool has numerous applications. 

“When we don’t know the cause of a patient’s illness, we can do whole genome sequencing and discover the answers in more than 55% of cases so we can treat patients right away,” said Ghishan.

Genomic medicine is also integral to the development of precision nutrition and precision medicine, which are revolutionizing the field of developmental behavioral pediatrics

“Precision nutrition and precision medicine is data-driven based on our genomes. We can check your genome and tell you what foods you need to eat or what medications you need to take. This is the medicine of the future,” said Ghishan.

Data also drives Steele’s designation as a Children’s Postinfectious Autoimmune Encephalopathy Center of Excellence and establishment of a new Pediatric Developmental Behavioral Fellowship to address the nationwide shortage of such pediatricians. 

These endeavors are synonymous with the cutting-edge fusion of basic and clinical medicine and research for which Steele Center has become renowned in Arizona and beyond.

“The goal of medicine is to save people’s lives. If I see a patient in the clinic, I might treat him and make him better and that is great. And if I spend the day in the lab, I may discover something that will save 1,000 kids. That is what I hope for,” Ghishan said.

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