Improving Access to Pediatric Clinical Trials in Vermont

April 18, 2022 by Janet L. Essman Franz

Infants and children living in rural states are less likely than those living in other states to have a chance to enroll in clinical research, especially clinical trials. Underserved and minority children are particularly underrepresented. The University of Vermont is one of 18 sites in a state-of-the-art pediatric clinical research network to improve access to clinical trials for children in rural and underserved areas. Together, the sites constitute the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) States Pediatric Clinical Trials Network (ISPCTN).

An infant in an incubator grasps the hand of a healthcare worker. (Adobe Stock Image)

Infants and children living in rural states are less likely than those living in other states to have a chance to enroll in clinical research, especially clinical trials. Underserved and minority children are particularly underrepresented. The University of Vermont is one of 18 sites in a state-of-the-art pediatric clinical research network to improve access to clinical trials for children in rural and underserved areas. Together, the sites constitute the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) States Pediatric Clinical Trials Network (ISPCTN).

Supported by funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the project aims to address disparities in pediatric research and build pediatric research capacity in states where success rates for research grant applications is historically low. ISPCTN research focuses on ECHO’s five areas of child health: airways, obesity, neurodevelopment, pre-, peri- and post-natal outcomes and overall child health.

Pediatric pulmonologist Kelly Cowan, M.D., and neonatologist Leslie Young, M.D., lead the project at UVM. Both Drs. Cowan and Young are UVM Class of 2007 medical alumnae, and both completed their residencies at UVM Children's Hospital.

Dr. Young is a lead investigator for the Advancing Clinical Trials in Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome (ACT NOW) Collaborative, a collaboration between the ISPCTN and the neonatal research network (NRN). As part of the ACT NOW Collaborative, Dr. Young is principal investigator for a recently completed network study examining current practices in caring for infants who have neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS). The study, ACT NOW- Current Experience (ACT NOW-CE), included more than 1300 infants at 30 sites across the U.S. The analysis generated an enormous data set that describes how the care of these children varies across sites and how this knowledge can inform clinical trials to improve outcomes for these infants.

The findings from ACT NOW-CE informed the design of two new clinical trials to improve the care and outcomes for infants with NOWS. Young leads one of these trials: Eating, Sleeping, Consoling for Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal (ESC-NOW). This project compares the new ESC care approach, used by an increasing number of hospital nurseries to care for infants with NOWS, to the usual care for these infants. With ESC care, parents hold, swaddle, and rock their babies in quiet, low-light rooms. This approach can reduce the need for medications including morphine and methadone, which clinicians often prescribe to calm babies with NOWS. In this trial, infants receive non-pharmacologic ESC care as the initial treatment and care teams assess the infant’s withdrawal based on the infant’s ability to eat, sleep and be consoled. The trial will include up to 1500 infants and their primary caregivers from 26 nurseries across 18 states.

In another completed network study, Lauren (L.E.) Faricy, M.D., and Cowan were investigators looking at vitamin D supplementation for children with asthma and elevated body mass index. This study assessed the pharmacokinetics of Vitamin D supplementation in children who have asthma and are overweight or obese.

Cowan is preparing new research to investigate recovery of infants hospitalized with bronchiolitis. This is one of several new pediatric clinical trials that will commence in 2022. "We have a good pipeline of studies coming through, at various stages, preparing for launch," she said.

To expand local expertise and capacity to conduct pediatric clinical trials, UVM offers professional development resources, trainings and mentoring opportunities.

"Our curriculum helps new and experienced investigators learn clinical trial skills and allows experienced people to provide mentoring," said Cowan. "It provides opportunities for pediatricians and faculty investigators to be well-supported to become primary investigators, under the umbrella of working on these trials."