Life Experiences Shape Surgeon’s Desire to Care for Children

This article was first published in the Hartford Business Journal. Dr. Christine Finck, Surgeon-in-Chief at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and associate professor and principal investigator at UConn Health, was recently named as one of nine Health Care Heroes in Greater Hartford. The title recognizes individuals working in health care who “share a common passion for the services they provide and life-changing impacts they have on the lives of others,” and “[make] a difference in the community every day.” Finck and her fellow award-winners were honored in December at the Connecticut Convention Center in downtown Hartford.

30ccmc160108As a pediatric surgeon, Dr. Christine Finck sees her share of babies born with esophageal atresia, a defect where the tube between the mouth and stomach fails to connect. Finck treats up to a dozen infants born with these long gaps in their esophagus each year.

Typically, treatment involves closing the gap with a piece of the stomach or intestines – which brings the possibility of rejection – or stretching the esophagus by pulling the two ends together. That procedure requires a long hospital stay, Finck said, and can possibly be painful for the babies.

“Here’s this poor kid in the ICU who’s getting their esophagus stretched,” said Finck, who is surgeon-in-chief at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. “It’s kind of a morbid type of procedure. I just felt that there should be a better way.”

As an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UConn Health, Finck and a team of researchers are working hard to find that way, using tissue engineering to develop new methods for treating the condition, which affects one in 4,500 babies.

Finck has partnered with Biostage, a biotech company that has developed a polyurethane tube known as a scaffold that can be seeded with a baby’s own cells. The scaffold is then implanted as a placeholder to bridge the gap in the esophagus. Over time, the esophagus begins to grow around the scaffold, Finck explained.

“After about three weeks, we take out the scaffold and let the rest of the esophagus regenerate,” said Finck. The scaffold is then replaced with a stent to keep the esophagus open. When removed, “a fully regenerated esophagus is left behind,” she said.

Cells for the procedure can be taken from biopsies of the esophagus, from stem cells in amniotic fluid, or from bone marrow. Her team is currently examining which cells produce the best outcome. The procedure can also be used for adults with esophageal cancer or kids whose esophagus is burned after ingesting lye or other caustic substances.

Finck said clinical results in animal models have been successful. “We can do gaps of about 10 centimeters now, which is novel,” said Finck, whose research also focuses on lung disease in premature infants. She expects the procedure will be available for patients in about five years.

A native of Long Island, Finck earned her bachelor’s in biology from Boston University in 1990 and her medical degree from the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse in 1994. She did her fellowship in pediatric surgery at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and spent five years at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia before joining Children’s, where she has high praise for her team.

“Having a team that works and shares your vision is the best,” she said. “That’s when you get things accomplished.”

Growing up, Finck always wanted to be a doctor and loved taking care of children, a trait she inherited from her schoolteacher mom. She said she fell in love with pediatric surgery “the minute I did it,” and enjoys building relationships with patients’ families.

Reflecting on her career, Finck said two unexpected life events profoundly influenced her. “My first husband passed away from a brain tumor when I was in fellowship,” she said. “That gave me a true vision of being on the other side – of being at the mercy of hospital care.”

Years later, while working in Philadelphia and remarried to her current husband, she adopted her daughter Isabelle, one of her tiny patients.

Isabelle, now 11 and healthy, was born with her intestines outside her body, a condition that required multiple surgeries. Her mother, a teenager with no family support, had confided in Finck that she wasn’t able to care for the infant.

“It just came out of my mouth: ‘I’ll take her,’” Finck recalled. “I remember she turned all red and said, ‘That would be wonderful because you know her best.’”

Finck, who also has two biological children, 8 and 5, said her experience parenting an infant with a complex medical condition continues to drive her research, and helps her empathize with her patients’ families.

“She’s one of the most compassionate and dedicated people I’ve ever met,” said Shefali Thaker, a postdoctoral fellow working as a research associate in Finck’s lab. “She will push and strive to see that all of the children she interacts with are comfortable, and that their families are comfortable. She goes above and beyond every single time.”

Post doc and research associate Todd Jensen called Finck a wonderful mentor to new physicians beginning their research. “She’s supportive and helps them find their niche,” he said.

World’s Top Researcher on Rare, Genetic Liver Disease Coming to Connecticut

Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and UCONN School of Medicine are excited to announce the appointment of Dr. David Weinstein, who will be bringing his world renowned Glycogen Storage Disease progam to Connecticut in early 2017.


Pediatric endocrinologist Dr. David Weinstein. (Janine Gelineau/UConn Health Photo)

Leading pediatric endocrinologist and scientist, Dr. David A. Weinstein and his world-renowned Glycogen Storage Disease (GSD) Program is moving to Connecticut’s UConn School of Medicine and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in early 2017.

Weinstein’s GSD Program, currently based at the University of Florida, is the largest clinical and research program of its kind in the world. Pediatric and adult patients living with the rare, genetic liver disease travel from across the globe for his team’s expert care, a number which totals more than 500 patients from 49 states and 45 countries.

He will serve as professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UConn School of Medicine and director of the GSD Program, a joint venture of UConn Health and Connecticut Children’s. UConn Health will be home to the GSD program’s research laboratories while the multidisciplinary team will provide comprehensive clinical care at Connecticut Children’s.

“Our team is very excited to be bringing the GSD program to Connecticut at UConn School of Medicine and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center,” said Weinstein. “This is a wonderful opportunity for the GSD community, our program and our institutions.”

Weinstein and his team are on the verge of testing in clinical trial the first gene therapy for GSD, developed in conjunction with Dimension Therapeutics of Cambridge, Mass. Testing of the gene therapy has shown great effectiveness in improving the health and life expectancy of canines born with the disease.

“UConn and Connecticut Children’s is the best place to house our GSD program and launch our clinical trial research,” said Weinstein. “I am very thankful to UConn and Connecticut Children’s for thinking outside the box and their dedication to making this dream a reality. Our team looks forward to working with these outstanding institutions to find better treatments and a cure for the devastating disease of GSD.”

GSD is a rare genetic childhood disorder with various forms (types 0, Ia, Ib, III, VI, IX, and XI) that impact the liver’s storage and release of sugar. It affects one out of every 100,000 people. Healthy livers store excess sugar from food for our body’s future energy needs and release it into our bloodstream when we need it as processed sugar enzymes known as glycogen. However, in GSD, the liver fails to breakdown glycogen into glucose causing the body’s blood sugar levels to drop dangerously low leading to seizure or potentially death, unless there is constant intake of glucose.

The condition was almost always fatal until 1971 when it was discovered that continuous glucose therapy could help these patients. Cornstarch therapy was introduced as a slow release form of glucose in 1982, and it allowed feeds to be spaced to every 3 – 4 hours. Thanks to cornstarch a greater number of patients with GSD are now surviving into adulthood. However, nearly 35 years later cornstarch is the only approved treatment available.

GSD patients are high risk for other health conditions because their bodies try to compensate for the liver’s dysfunction and find alternative energy sources. The harmful complications may include: kidney stones and failure, anemia, cardiovascular disease, elevated triglycerides, high cholesterol, liver tumors (both benign and cancerous), osteoporosis and inflammatory bowel disease.

“Finding a cure as soon as possible for GSD and a way to prevent its complications is critical,” said Dr. Juan C. Salazar, chair and professor of the Department of Pediatrics at UConn School of Medicine and physician-in-chief at Connecticut Children’s. “While the consumption of cornstarch every few hours is a lifesaving treatment for GSD patients, if one dose is missed it can be quite damaging and deadly. This potential burden is too great for any parent to stomach. We look forward to Dr. Weinstein and his team’s steadfast work to further advancing care and research for GSD children and finding a cure.”

“It is simply incredible that Dr. Weinstein and eight other members of his GSD program’s team are moving to Connecticut,” says Bruce T. Liang, dean of UConn School of Medicine. “It symbolizes their true commitment, selflessness and dedication – which mirrors ours– to GSD patients and stopping at nothing to find promising new treatments.”

Members of Weinstein’s prestigious GSD program planning to join him in Connecticut include: Youngmok Lee, Ph.D., the program’s basic science coordinator; Monika Dambska, MD, the clinical-research coordinator; Ana Estrella, MD, the laboratory coordinator; Kathy Ross, RD, LDN, the dietician; and the four registered nurses Gail Butler, Iris Ferrecchia, Betsy Potocik and Emma Labrador.

“Our goal is to very soon finally find a cure for GSD and its complications,” adds Weinstein. “The strong synergies and collaborative team science happening at UConn and Connecticut Children’s is world class and the most fertile ground to make a GSD cure reality.”

“It is good to be back in Connecticut,” shared Weinstein who attended college in the state and has cared for many patients here, especially in the West Hartford community. “For the last 20 years the Connecticut community has really been supportive of my ongoing GSD clinical research work,” said Weinstein.

Weinstein graduated from Connecticut’s Trinity College and earned his medical degree at Harvard Medical School. At Boston Children’s Hospital he completed his residency, chief residency, and fellowship in pediatric endocrinology and completed his masters in clinical investigation at Harvard and MIT. He became the director of the GSD program at Boston Children’s before moving to Florida in 2005 to pursue gene therapy on dogs with naturally occurring GSD.

Prior to joining UConn Health, Weinstein served as professor of the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology at the University of Florida and director of its GSD Program. As a physician-scientist he has authored over 80 articles and 26 textbook chapters on GSD. He is the recipient of the prestigious international humanitarian award, the Order of the Smile, for helping children around the world with GSD, a recognition shared with Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Pope Francis. Weinstein was named one of the inaugural Goldwater Scholars in 1989. He is a former Jan Albrecht Award winner from the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, and he received the George Sacher Award from the Gerontological Society of America. Weinstein was inducted into the Rare Disease Research Hall of Fame in 2013.

In addition to local GSD community outreach, Weinstein’s team partners internationally with institutions and scientists in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Faroe Islands, Israel, Mexico, and the Netherlands.

“Dr. Weinstein’s recruitment to UConn and Connecticut Children’s is yet another example of the strong ties between the two institutions, and more importantly our commitment to providing state of the art clinical care and promoting innovative research that benefits children and adults,” said Jim Shmerling, president and CEO of Connecticut Children’s.

Hyundai Brings Hope to the Sunflower Kids

In honor of Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Kerry Moss of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders  shares her speech from our Hyundai Hope on Wheels event this past summer. Hyundai awarded Connecticut Children’s a $50,000 IMPACT grant in support of our pediatric cancer research.

Good morning distinguished guests from the Hyundai Hope on Wheels Foundation, Dr. Jim Shmerling and of course Genevieve, her family and all the other children with us today.

IMG_8970I would like to begin by painting a quick picture for each of you…Imagine a place that when you enter its doors there are red ruby slippers and a picture of a yellow brick road.  There is a large aquarium and an interactive wall that allows butterflies to land on you…and on any given day the melodies of “Let it go”…or “Everything is Awesome” bellowing in the halls are only overshadowed by laughter.

On the wall is not only an inspirational quote, but if you will, a mantra for pediatric oncology patients. Well stated by Christopher Robbins to his dear friend Winnie the Pooh, it reads:  “Promise me you will always remember that you’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” If you have not yet guessed, I am describing our Center For Cancer and Blood Disorders on the 5th floor right inside this building.

I am always telling people that I have the best job in the world.  Each day I go to work, I am surrounded by the most amazing children…and furthermore the most dedicated and compassionate staff.  And while I fully acknowledge that the work we do is humbling, I am so proud of the field of medicine that I chose to enter.  Today, we happily boast that over 80% of children diagnosed with cancer will be cured of their disease.

hyundai hope check croppedEven I as I speak, there are dedicated scientists and researchers both at our institution and around the country working to develop new therapeutic agents and targeted treatments with the goal of finding a cure for all children.  Until that number is reached, the care we provide to the children that will not likely beat their illness is quite possibly the most important care we deliver.

The treatment of these children includes not only advanced cancer care therapeutic options, but the management of their pain and alleviation of their symptoms is of paramount importance as well.

It is in no small thanks to your kindness that this work can be done.

The name of our program, the sunflower kids, hails from the simple fact that the sunflower is known to be the most resilient flower. It can grow in the toughest of soil.  Much like sunflowers, our amazing patients and their families flourish in the face of adversity.  Whether our goal is cure or comfort, it is thanks to Hyundai that the work of this program will continue to grow and weather whatever tough soil might be ahead.

IMG_8959They often say that it is the little things that matter the most. On behalf of all of the little things…and the littlest people…I thank each and every one of you for being here today to support the work that we are doing.

Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

On behalf of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, our advanced cancer care team and the Sunflower Kids Program, I thank the Hyundai Hope on Wheels Foundation for this dubious honor and for your role in changing the world for countless children and adolescents in their arduous fight against cancer.



Setting The Facts Straight When It Comes to Vaccines

Dr. Melissa Held of Connecticut Children’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Immunology, was recently featured in the Town Times for her response to a ‘Letter to the Editor’ titled, “Just Say NO to Vaccines,” written by retired physician and self-described conspiracy theorist, Susan McIntosh. Today, we break down Dr. Held’s response to help separate fact from fiction when it comes to vaccines and the important role they play in your child’s health.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I trained in medicine and pediatrics at Cornell and Yale University and practice as a board-certified pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. I am also an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and the Assistant Dean of Medical Education there. I have dedicated my life and career to the health and well-being of children and in the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases – including vaccine-preventable illnesses. Importantly, I strongly believe in evidence-based and rigorously studied clinical practice.

How did the myth concerning vaccines and any sort of link to autism come about?
The “evidence” behind this proposed association came from a study by Wakefield et al. in 1998 that made a link between the thimerosol-containing Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. However, the study was subsequently discredited and the author found to be guilty of research fraud, unethical treatment of children, and multiple conflicts of interest. The publisher retracted the paper and the author lost his medical license. Dr. McIntosh might consider this evidence of yet another conspiracy theory and she is welcome to her opinion. However, I believe the scientific evidence speaks for itself.

Is there research that suggests there is no connection between the two?
Yes! In fact, multiple high quality research studies have found NO LINK between the MMR vaccine and autism. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Academy of Pediatrics, and multiple other professional societies all substantiate these findings. Additionally, no other vaccine ingredients have been found to be harmful or cause autism. In 2011, an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on eight vaccines given to children and adults found that with very rare exceptions, vaccines are very safe. Vaccine manufacturers and regulatory agencies make sure that vaccines are produced in a way that is both safe and effective or they do not make it to market.

Is it true measles is one of the most contagious infectious diseases; however very much preventable with the use of vaccines?
Yes, Measles is one of the most contagious infectious diseases known; it is actually far more contagious than Ebola. Complications from measles are most common in young children and older adults and can cause significant disability or death even in previously healthy individuals. One of every 1000 people with measles will develop acute encephalitis (swelling of the brain) which can result in permanent brain damage. One or two of every 1000 children infected with measles will die from respiratory or neurologic complications. There are also rare but potential long-term or fatal central nervous system degenerative diseases that can result from measles infection. The WHO estimates there were 145,700 deaths globally from measles in 2013. Thankfully, the efficacy of the measles vaccine in preventing illness is actually 97% after only two doses. Although the protection offered by vaccines is lower than that following natural disease, both serologic (blood) and epidemiologic evidence has shown that most people have long-term and probably lifelong immunity after vaccination.

Any last thoughts concerning vaccines?
I’d just like to reiterate that there is no scientific evidence that multiple vaccines overwhelm a child’s immune system and the recommended vaccine administration schedule is specifically designed for vaccines to be as effective as possible. However, if you do have questions about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, please seek out reputable, evidence-based resources such as those from the CDC, AAP and WHO and discuss those concerns with your child’s pediatrician.

Got Milk?

Eagle Intern Fellowship Program

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My twin and I were born six weeks prematurely, weighing less than seven pounds combined. These special circumstances surrounding my birth have helped to shape my passion for medicine. For as long as I can remember, I have always dreamed of becoming an obstetrician and working with moms and their newborns. My internship with the Connecticut Human Milk Research Center has exposed me the various components of importance in the treatment of premature infants, one being their nutrition.

Premature infant nutrition an elaborate field within it of itself. The complex diet of these sick and tiny babies is imperative to their current and future health. The Connecticut Human Milk Research Center and NICU at CCMC strives to encourage feeding all of its NICU babies breast milk, as it supports healthy growth and development and can protect against a plethora of conditions, such as necrotizing enterocolitis, allergies, asthma, and obesity.


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