UA Steele Children’s Research Center Now 25

By June C. Hussey –

Small But Mighty Jewel in the Desert

Twenty-five years after commencing research, training and treatment, the University of Arizona Steele Children’s Research Center has become a true jewel in the desert. 

The state’s only children’s health research center currently has 70 residents and 82 faculty members. Though its important work may be largely unknown or underappreciated by Tucsonans who are fortunate to have their health, the UA Steele Center is truly a beacon of hope for families with ill children. They come from around the city, state, nation and the world. Scientists also flock here from as far away as Poland, Brazil and other points around the globe to be a part of cutting-edge pediatric research. 

One beneficiary of this center for excellence and its multidisciplinary approach is young PJ Calihan. By the time he was 1 year old, Phoenix-area specialists were unable to determine the cause of his chronic symptoms – vomiting, choking and not eating. 

Finally he was referred to Dr. Fayez K. Ghishan, director of the UA Steele Center within the UA College of Medicine-Tucson since 1995. PJ was diagnosed with hiatal hernia and an aerodigestive disorder known as eosinophilic gastroenteritis, a complex disorder involving the airways, lungs and digestive tracts. It’s caused by food allergies and airborne allergens. 

Treated by a team led by Ghishan, PJ began medications and an elimination diet. Now a thriving 5-year-old, PJ plays soccer and does karate and gymnastics. He is just one of countless examples of patients helped by the UA Steele Center physician-scientists.

Relative to larger, longer-established children’s research centers, such as those at Duke, Harvard and Vanderbilt universities, the UA Steele Center is small but mighty, much like the patients treated by its physician-scientists and its dynamic director. 

Ghishan came to lead the Steele Center and the UA Department of Pediatrics after 16 years at Vanderbilt. He never thought he would ever leave Nashville, Tennessee, but he was not satisfied to be the #2 person as vice chairman of pediatrics there. He wanted to build his own department. So he started looking around and ultimately decided to bring his vision, drive and passion to Tucson to build a world-class program here. 

And build it he did. Now ranked in the top 20 percent of pediatric research institutions in spite of its relatively small size, the UA Steele Center even outranked Vanderbilt one year based on National Institutes of Health grants – a fact that Ghishan was quick to point out, with a wink and a nod, to his friends back in Nashville.

“The Steele Children’s Research Center is an incredible facility and over the past 25 years it has been a source for some of the University of Arizona’s greatest impact in our region and beyond,” said UA President Dr. Robert C. Robbins. “Under Dr. Fayez Ghishan’s leadership, the Steele Center’s dedication to improving children’s health through research has grown stronger than ever. I am so proud the Steele Center has reached this milestone and I can’t wait to see what it will accomplish in the future.”

Ghishan was raised in Jordan, started medical school in Turkey at age 16 and received pediatric training in London. When he arrived in Tucson, Ghishan set out to create centers of excellence, of which there are now many. 

He not only directs the children’s research center. He also serves as physician-in-chief at Diamond Children’s Medical Center and is a member of the College of Medicine faculty as a professor in both pediatrics and physiology. He is the Alan and Janice Levin Family Endowed Professor of Pediatrics and holds the Horace W. Steele Endowed Chair in Pediatric Research. Last year he received the prestigious Eugene G. Sander Endowed Faculty Fundraising Award from the UA Foundation. John-Paul Roczniak, president and CEO of the foundation, said at the time, “Dr. Ghishan is a shining example of a fundraiser, a physician and a university leader.” 

Ghishan recalled, “When I arrived at the UA Steele Center in 1995, I had big dreams – dreams to make the center Arizona’s beacon of science devoted to improving children’s health through research. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, there was no pediatric basic science research being conducted in Arizona. 

“My first tasks were to secure the necessary state-of-the-art research equipment and recruit the best physicians, scientists and physician-scientists to advance our knowledge in pediatric health. As I look back over the last 25 years, I’m simply amazed at what we’ve accomplished.”

One project Ghishan is particularly proud of is the PANDA Children’s Aerodigestive Disorders Center. (PANDA stands for People Acting Now Discover Answers.) Ghishan eagerly explained its significance. 

“Tucson is a hub for allergies. I started seeing a lot of patients for this. They would tell me ‘I’m going to Cincinnati Children’s because they specialize in aerodigestive diseases.’ So we built an Aerodigestive Disorders Center, a center of excellence for eosinophilic esophagitis, and I stole people from Cincinnati Children’s and brought them here. 

“Drs. Cori Daines and Michael Daines are the best pediatric pulmonologist and the best allergist and immunologist that understand this disease. So now when a patient comes in and says, ‘I’m going to Cincinnati,’ I say, ‘I brought Cincinnati to you.’

“So now I have the best center in the state of Arizona, where we sit together with the patient, a gastroenterologist, allergist, immunologist, pulmonary doctor, nurses and so forth; we all sit together and see the patient and we do testing.”

Ghishan spoke passionately about his work as a scientist, a mentor and a doctor. “We have made major strides in education, research and clinical care. At this stage, my vision is how to provide state-of-the-art care. I developed a multidisciplinary approach to clinical problems. The beauty is this: You do the clinical work and you translate from research to patient and vice versa. Bedside to bench and bench to bedside, that’s our model.” 

“We have made major discoveries throughout the past 25 years,” Ghishan said. His excitement grew when he explained the science behind them. “I have just patented a drug with Eugene A. Mash Jr. of the Chemistry Department for ulcerative colitis. It’s really a beautiful model. We had the idea to remove the fatty acid from the backbone of olestra and replace it with aspirin. This is the only available liquid form of aspirin that opens up in the lower GI tract to reduce the inflammation. We also looked at utilizing curcumin for inflammatory bowel disease. It’s purified from turmeric.

“We have so many projects going on. We raise money and invest the money. I just got a grant to sequence gut DNA and figure out if you are in a dysbiotic state. To have a healthy microbiome is very important to your health. You have 10 to the 12th power of bacteria in your GI tract – 2.2 pounds. We have 23,000 genes, but we have 2.3 million bacterial genes. So we are almost 10 percent human and 90 percent bacteria. You live in harmony with the bacteria. If you have dysbiosis, then you have a disease.”

The UA Steele Center dates back to Oct. 26, 1992 when it opened within the UA College of Medicine – Tucson. Before the emergence of the UA Steele Center, no institution in Arizona had been conducting pediatric scientific research. To fill this void, in 1986, the Arizona Board of Regents approved a children’s research center. 

An advisory board was formed and Louise Thomas, founder of Angel Charity for Children, stepped up as chair to lead a $7 million capital campaign. An initial significant gift from Joan and Donald Diamond kicked things off, followed by a gift from the Steele Foundation, in honor of Phoenix businessman Horace Steele. 

The cavalcade of support for the UA Steele Center that followed has never stopped nor has the need for it. Through generous philanthropic efforts of groups like Angel Charity, the Arizona Elks and the Phoenix Women’s Board of the Steele Children’s Research Center (known as PANDA), along with grassroots fundraising walks, runs, golf and tennis tournaments, $55 million dollars has been raised. 

This sum, along with about $125 million in research grants, has been invested to train more than 100 future researchers, operate 27 research labs, establish clinical services and centers of excellence including type 1 diabetes, aerodigestive disorders and children’s post-infectious autoimmune encephalopathies (CPAE). When the Steele Center and Banner – University Medical Center Tucson (formerly UMC) opened Diamond Children’s Medical Center in 2010, patients benefited from 116 patient rooms, each with a mountain view and three beds, one for the patient and two for overnight visitors. 

“The PANDA supporters in Phoenix are devoted to raising money for Steele Children’s Research Center and the PANDA Children’s Aerodigestve Disorders Center,” Ghishan said. “For 19 years they’ve presented a fundraising fashion show. This year, young kids were the models in the ‘Children Helping Children’ fashion show that set a record, raising $3 million.

“It’s research that moves medicine forward. At the UA Steele Center we ask big questions that lead to bold discoveries. This is how we develop new treatments and cures for our children. This is the only research center dedicated to pediatrics in the state of Arizona. It’s a separate research center where we train scientists and we make discoveries.

“The future is going to be dictated by science.”

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