Science Speaks: Conversations on Health Podcast – Keeping Pace on Virus Evolution

Science Speaks: Conversations on Health Podcast - Keeping Pace on Virus Evolution

 

Protein engineering is a valuable tool used by molecular biologists to build proteins with specific functions. Scientists have implemented this technique for various applications – from effective treatments for rheumatoid arthritis to cat food that decreases human allergic reactions to cats. In this episode of Science Speaks: Conversations on Health, Vicky Edkins from the Basel Research Centre for Child Health talks to Dr Beichen Gao, Data Scientist at EngImmune Therapeutics, and Lester Fry, PhD Student at ETH Zurich. They discuss the basics of protein engineering, its applications to COVID-19 and beyond, and the emerging role of machine learning in this field.

Listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or YouTube.

 

Download the full episode transcript here or read below.

ETH Zurich Seeks Assistant Professor (Tenure Track) for Biomolecular Engineering for Health

ETH Zurich Seeks Assistant Professor (Tenure Track) for Biomolecular Engineering for Health

 

The Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE) at ETH Zurich invites applications for the above-mentioned position. D-BSSE is located in Basel, the heart of the BioValley area, providing excellent opportunities for collaboration within this strong life science research community at the academic, clinical and pharmaceutical industry levels. The main research focus of D-BSSE is the understanding, modeling, and engineering of biomolecular systems, including applications for medical translation. The Professorship will also be embedded within the newly established Basel Research Center for Child Health (BRCCH), which aims to provide innovative and translational solutions for child and adolescent health. Collaborations within the medical research communities in Basel and Zurich are highly encouraged.

This future Assistant Professor will bring unique multi-disciplinary expertise in engineering biomolecular systems for applications in translational medicine and health. She or he may use integrative and multi-disciplinary approaches involving biosystems engineering of molecular and cellular systems and/or synthetic biology to develop novel therapeutic and diagnostic solutions. While rooted in biomolecular systems engineering, the candidate is also expected to engage with the computational and systems biology groups in the department to advance therapeutic and health technologies. Key areas of interest are state-of-the-art molecular and cell biology and biomolecular systems engineering techniques (eg sequencing technologies, engineering proteins and protein networks), synthetic biology tools (eg RNA aptamers, DNA nanotechnology, CRISPR, synthetic circuits), in vitro-based systems (lab-on-a-chip, sensors, robots) coupled to quantitative biomolecular and cellular measurements, novel microscale or nanoscale technologies for biomolecular analysis (eg paper-based microfluidics, droplet systems, cellular systems), and digital -assisted tools and platforms for measuring biomolecular or physiological parameters (eg smartphone-based diagnostics). The candidate is expected to have a proven track record of publications in biomolecular and cellular systems engineering and/or synthetic biology. She or he should demonstrate a strong interest in clinical application and a clear ambition to pursue research that is directly relevant to childhood health and medicine. At the assistant professor level, commitment to teaching and the ability to lead a research group are expected.

Assistant professorships have been established to promote the careers of younger scientists. ETH Zurich implements a tenure track system equivalent to that of other top international universities.

ETH Zurich is an equal opportunity and family-friendly employer, values ​​diversity, and is responsive to the needs of dual-career couples.

Please apply online

Applications should include a curriculum vitae, a list of publications, a statement of future research and teaching interests, a description of the leadership philosophy, a description of the three most important achievements*, and a certificate of the highest degree. The letter of application should be addressed to the President of ETH Zurich, Prof. Dr. Joel Mesot. The closing date for applications is August 31, 2024.

*ETH Zurich attaches importance to a qualitative assessment of academic achievements. In this sense, you are asked to include a short description of your three most important achievements in your application (maximum half a page each). In addition to research results, these can also include special achievements in teaching and its further development, services for the benefit of the academic community or society, software developments, patents, knowledge and practice transfer, spin-offs and the like.

Launch of a New Global Research Centre in Switzerland

Launch of a New Global Research Centre in Switzerland

 

The Botnar Institute of Immune Engineering (BIIE) is a new independent research institute launching in Basel, Switzerland. Its mission is to develop computational tools and immune-based translational solutions for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease. These shall address gaps in the healthcare of children and adolescents globally.

The Institute has been made possible by a one billion USD endowment over the next 15 years from Fondation Botnar, the main financial supporter of the BRCCH. Fondation Botnar is a Swiss philanthropic foundation working to improve the health and well-being of young people around the world.

With extensive knowledge of Fondation Botnar’s remit and research mission, BRCCH Director Prof Georg Holländer has been selected as the BIIE’s Global Engagement Director while continuing his engagement with the BRCCH. Former BRCCH Co-Director Prof Sai Reddy is the designated Scientific Director of the BIIE.

As a sister research centre, the BRCCH would like to congratulate everyone involved in bringing this vision to life. We look forward to seeing the immune engineering advances that result from this institute and are excited to collaborate with the BIIE in the future.

Read the full announcement from Fondation Botnar here.

The Power of Digital Pathology

The Power of Digital Pathology

Conversation with Prof Dr Daniel Baumhoer

In early 2024, Prof Daniel Baumhoer joined the Basel Research Centre for Child Health (BRCCH) as the first professor as part of the organisation’s transition to a digital health hub in Basel. Prof Dr Baumhoer will lead the Malignant and Bone and Soft Tissue Pathologies capacity-building platform. This resource will complement and support the work of the six appointed professors who will form the core of the new BRCCH. He is currently the Deputy Medical Director of the Institute of Medical Genetics and Pathology and Head of the Bone Tumour Reference Centre (BTRC) and DÖSAK (Swiss Austrian German Working Group on Maxillofacial Tumours) Registry at the University Hospital Basel.

Prof Dr Baumhoer grew up in Germany and attended medical school at the Georg-August University of Göttingen. He moved to Basel in 2004 to train in pathology and passed the pathology board exam in 2009. In 2014, he took over as the lead of the BTRC and DÖSAK registry, both at the University Hospital Basel providing second opinions on difficult-to-classify bone and soft tissue and maxillofacial tumours. Each year, the registries receive between 800 and 1,000 consultation requests from around the world.

“The Bone Tumor Reference Centre is something quite unique, I think, worldwide,” says Prof Dr Baumhoer. “Since it was founded in 1972, we have collected more than 22,000 bone tumours, mostly from children and adolescents, but also from adults.”

Since many of these tumours are rare, this large sample set provides an ideal setting to study these lesions and gain experience in their morphological and genetic spectrum. The team also uses elaborate molecular profiling techniques to analyse tissue samples. Available patient follow-up information makes this repository a powerful tool to drive innovative paediatric health research and informatics.

“I'm really looking forward to meeting the other experts within the BRCCH to foster collaboration and use the unique BTRC dataset to better understand the underlying pathogenesis of bone and soft tissue tumours,” shares Prof Dr Baumhoer.

Expediting Diagnosis Using Digital Pathology

Within the University Hospital Basel, Prof Dr Baumhoer has also been leading the transition to digital pathology. This process involves scanning histologic slides, which can then be assessed digitally. Integrating these digital slides into the hospital’s repository, which also contains radiologic images of patients, enables a more integrated approach as pathology findings can be provided to and assessed by all clinicians. Digital histology slides can also be easily shared and discussed with other experts, even internationally.

“From a scientific point of view, digital pathology makes it possible to share cases more easily, to use new techniques and algorithms to evaluate histologic patterns and to create a more holistic digital diagnostic approach by integrating other modalities, including radiology,” concludes Prof Dr Baumhoer.

One of the current challenges for the BTRC is that physical paraffin blocks of tissue must be sent to the registry in Basel by mail, a lengthy process prone to delays, sometimes customs-related. For patients waiting to start treatment, this is valuable time they can’t afford to waste. Digital pathology could help shorten this timeline by allowing clinicians to send histology images digitally. The physical tissue blocks will only be required for molecular testing.

“Using digital pathology would make these interactions more effective,” suggests Prof Dr Baumhoer. “I envision that there will be a lot more consultation cases in the future, but it will be easier and faster to assess and sign them out using digital pathology.”

The team has made great progress in transitioning to digital pathology at the University Hospital Basel over the last three years. All consult bone and soft tissue tumours are currently being digitised. It is expected that this platform will start being integrated into the routine diagnostic workflow in the coming months. Once digital pathology is implemented, it opens opportunities to incorporate automation for diagnostics into pathology workflows, accelerating the diagnostic process and getting information to clinicians and patients faster.

Diagnosing Bone and Soft Tissue Tumours Using Molecular Analysis

Outside of his clinical practice, Prof Dr Baumhoer studies the molecular profiles of bone and soft tissue tumours to better understand their pathogenesis. He started his career by investigating osteosarcoma, a highly aggressive type of bone cancer that is most common in adolescents and young adults. Different subtypes of osteosarcoma can be characterised by genetic pathway alterations, which could have therapeutic implications. With only 30 to 35 cases of this cancer type in Switzerland each year, it was challenging for Prof Dr Baumhoer to collect sufficient amounts of tissue samples needed to perform genetic profiling, a process that took several years. However, the results were worth the wait.

“We did a lot of sequencing on these samples and we found distinct genetic signatures which could be the basis of new and innovative treatment approaches,” illustrates Prof Dr Baumhoer.

His team was the first to define a specific genetic profile in osteosarcoma associated with deficiencies in DNA repair resembling breast and ovarian cancers with BRCA mutations (so-called BRCAness). To study how these tumours genetically evolve over time, Prof Dr Baumhoer sequentially investigated osteosarcoma samples from patients before and after treatment and following recurrence or metastatic spread.

“Most of the studies we conducted in recent years are included in the World Health Organisation (WHO) classification of tumours,” emphasises Prof Dr Baumhoer. “So, the results are diagnostically relevant.”

One example is the most common benign bone tumour called non-ossifying fibroma. This tumour affects 40 per cent of the population during skeletal growth and maturation. Since the vast majority of these lesions are incidental findings that undergo spontaneous regression, they were thought to be developmentally derived disorders and not regarded as true neoplasms. However, Prof Dr Baumhoer’s team was the first to show that, despite being completely benign, non-ossifying fibromas have recurrent mutations in common cancer pathways that can be used to confirm the diagnosis molecularly.

“It is really important to me to understand more about the molecular pathogenesis of bone tumours,” says Prof Dr Baumhoer. “If we identify recurrent driver gene alterations, these can be used to confirm a diagnosis, but potentially also to enable targeted treatment approaches. Understanding the mechanism of how tumours develop is a first and mandatory step to finding new and effective ways to treat patients.”

Prof Dr Baumhoer is now investigating the DNA methylation profiles of bone and soft tissue tumours. DNA methylation is involved in gene regulation and cellular differentiation. As a result, tumour cells often carry specific methylation patterns that differ between tumour subtypes, and also between normal and cancerous cells. By analysing the DNA of bone and soft tissue tumours, Prof Dr Baumhoer hopes to identify specific methylation patterns that could be used to better differentiate between tumour subtypes. Using new and innovative sequencing technologies, tumour classification could be possible in a few hours rather than the several days to weeks that molecular tests currently take.

“Identifying reliable diagnostic methylation signatures would have a huge impact on patient care since the treating clinicians could immediately start therapy without further delay,” proposes Prof Dr Baumhoer.

Welcoming Prof Dr Baumhoer to the BRCCH

As the first professor to join the BRCCH as a digital health hub, Prof Dr Baumhoer is enthusiastic about collaborating with other experts in paediatric digital health, bringing together his experience, data and diagnostic infrastructure.

“There will be experts in genetics and sequencing, in digitisation, and I think it will be very fruitful if different experts from different angles, but with the same aim, come together and join forces,” expresses Prof Dr Baumhoer. “I really hope we can develop innovative new ideas and projects together.”

Prof Daniel Müller Joins the Basel Research Centre for Child Health as Co-Director

Prof Daniel Müller Joins the Basel Research Centre for Child Health as Co-Director

The Basel Research Centre for Child Health (BRCCH) is pleased to share that Prof Daniel Müller is succeeding Prof Sai Reddy as Co-Director effective immediately. With the support of Director Prof Georg Holländer, Prof Müller will help guide the strategic orientation and initiatives of the BRCCH as it transitions to a digital health hub in Basel.

We want to sincerely thank Prof Sai Reddy for the time and expertise he dedicated to supporting the launch of the BRCCH and its initial scientific activities. Prof Reddy is an associate professor at ETH Zurich in the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering and was the first Co-Director of the BRCCH, joining the organisation at its conception in 2018. During his tenure, Prof Reddy shaped the funding activities of the BRCCH while championing its mission to innovate solutions for the health and well-being of children and adolescents worldwide.

“Thank you, Sai, for your dedicated leadership of the BRCCH over the last five years,” says Prof Georg Holländer, BRCCH Director. “During your tenure, the BRCCH launched four funding calls that allowed us to support 80 scientists across 29 research projects. We appreciate your guidance during the initial activities of the BRCCH and in preparing for this next phase.”

As the BRCCH transitions into a digital health hub in Basel, Prof Reddy is passing his post to Prof Daniel Müller, a professor of biophysics at ETH Zurich in Basel. Prof Müller was involved in the initial conception and building of the BRCCH, was also formerly on the BRCCH Board as the previous Head of the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich and actively participated in developing the BRCCH’s new strategic direction. As an expert in engineering biomolecular systems, his skills complement those of BRCCH Director Prof Georg Holländer, a paediatric researcher.

“I am delighted to begin my official role within the BRCCH,” says Prof Daniel Müller, BRCCH Co-Director. “As an organisation, the BRCCH has expanded the innovation potential in paediatric digital health in Switzerland. I look forward to concentrating this expertise in Basel during the BRCCH’s transition to a paediatric digital health hub and through the creation of one of the first institutes worldwide dedicated to this topic.”

Science Speaks: Conversations on Health Podcast – What is Pathology?

Science Speaks: Conversations on Health Podcast - What is Pathology?

 

There are numerous examples of pathologists in books, films and television shows, but how accurate are these portrayals? In the first episode of Science Speaks: Conversations on Health, Vicky Edkins from the Basel Research Centre for Child Health talks to Professor Alexandar Tzankov, a surgical pathologist at the University Hospital Basel. Learn more about the fascinating work of pathologists – from unravelling the impact of COVID-19 on the body to uncovering the cause of death of a mummified lady found in a Swiss church.

Listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or YouTube.

 

Download the full episode transcript here or read below.

Operating theatre at the University Hospital Basel

Comparing the appearance of a lung in a patient who died from COVID-19 to that of a patient without COVID

Microthrombi (brown stain) obstructing the microvessels of the lung in lethal COVID-19

Microvascular perturbation of the alveoli in COVID-19

SARS-CoV-2 on the surface of a villous epithelial cell

    19 April 2024 – Future of Paediatric Health Research Spotlight Day

    19 April 2024 - Future of Paediatric Health Research Spotlight Day

     

    Update: Thank you to all who attended.

    The BRCCH cordially invites you to our Future of Paediatric Health Research Spotlight Day on 19 April 2024 in Basel, Switzerland. This one-day seminar and networking event will bring together researchers across disciplines with a common focus on improving child and adolescent health.

    This event will include talks from BRCCH Postdoctoral Excellence Programme researchers about their paediatric health research progress over the last two years. Each of these fellows has also invited an established researcher from their field to deliver a keynote address. During the lunch break, attendees will have the opportunity to attend a workshop about nurturing research teams.

    When: Friday, 19 April 2024, 9:00 - 17:30 CET, to be followed by an apéro

    Where:  Hotel ODELYA, Missionstrasse 21a, 4055 Basel

    Please Note: This event is taking place in person in Basel, Switzerland only and will not be accessible online.

    In Person Registration: HERE

    Schedule:

      • 9.00-9.30 – Arrival and coffee
      • 9.30-9.40 – Welcome by Daniel Müller, Co-Director, BRCCH
      • 9.40-12.15 – Talks by BRCCH Postdoctoral Excellence Programme researchers and their invited speakers on paediatric health
      • 12.15-12.45 – Lunch (Break until 14.00 if not attending the workshop)
      • 12.45-13.45 – Workshop: Nurturing Research Teams
      • 14.00-17.30 – Talks by BRCCH Postdoctoral Excellence Programme researchers and their invited speakers on paediatric health
      • 17:30-17:35 – Closing Remarks by Georg Holländer, Director, BRCCH
      • 17.35-18.00 – Networking & Apéro

    Speakers:

    Dr Sarah Brüningk

    BRCCH Postdoctoral Excellence Programme Researcher

    ETH Zurich, Switzerland

    Talk: "Harnessing Machine Learning and Mechanistic Modelling for Personalised Predictions for Paediatric Brain Tumour Patients"

    Prof Dr Ana Guerreiro Stücklin

    SNF Eccellenza Professor for Pediatric Neurooncology

    Kinderspital Zurich, Switzerland

    Talk: "Dissecting the Role of Oncofusions in Brain Tumours in Infants"

    Dr Kanika Dheman

    BRCCH Postdoctoral Excellence Programme Researcher

    ETH Zurich, Switzerland

    Talk: "Patch-IT: Multi-Sensor Sensor Nodes for Continuous Vital Sign Monitoring to Identify Novel Digital Biomarkers for Sepsis Detection in Neonatal Intensive Care"

    Dr Michele Magno

    Head, Center for Project-Based Learning at the Department of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering

    ETH Zurich, Switzerland

    Talk: "AI-based Wearables and Noncontact Radars: Revolutionizing Neonatal and Infant Monitoring"

    Dr Gillian Levine

    BRCCH Postdoctoral Excellence Programme Researcher

    Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Switzerland

    Talk: "E-Helping Hands: Digital Clinical Decision Support Tools to Improve Care of Sick Young Infants"

    Dr Nigel Rollins

    Medical Officer, Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing

    World Health Organization, Switzerland

    Talk: "Translating the WHO Integrated Management of Childhood Illness into a Digital Tool for Use by Frontline Health Workers in Humanitarian Settings"

    Dr Nicole Zoratto

    BRCCH Postdoctoral Excellence Programme Researcher

    ETH Zurich, Switzerland

    Talk: "Bioinspired, Low-Cost Device for Minimally Invasive Blood Sampling"

    Dr Nicole Stoffel

    Lecturer, Department of Health Sciences and Technology

    ETH Zurich, Switzerland

    Talk: "The Effects of Iron Deficiency on Paediatric Vaccine Response"

    Dr Keith Gunapala

    BRCCH Postdoctoral Excellence Programme Researcher

    University of Basel, Switzerland

    Talk: "Novel Approaches to Treating Fragile X Syndrome"

    Prof Nissim Benvenisty

    Herbert Cohn Chair in Cancer Research

    Hebrew University, Israel

    Talk: "The Essentialome of Human Development and Disease"

    Workshop: Nurturing Research Teams

    Creativity, innovation and collaboration within research teams are prerequisites for knowledge creation and transfer, and for individual and team performance. Positive research leadership that encourages team productivity, motivation and development is crucial in fostering such conditions. But what does leadership mean and entail exactly? What makes a good leader? What leadership styles are there, and what type of leader are you?

    This session offers an opportunity to learn, reflect and exchange perspectives on the skill- and mindset required to optimise dynamics and workflows within research teams, and to enable oneself and colleagues to fully develop and express their individual and collective potential.

    Dr Maddalena Fumagalli

    Seminar 21 March 2024 – Lessons from the Deceased to the Living and Back

    Seminar 21 March 2024 - Lessons from the Deceased to the Living and Back

     

    Update: Thank you to all who attended. For those who could not make it, the presentation videos are available for viewing below.

    The BRCCH cordially invites you to join our seminar about the use of pathology during the COVID-19 pandemic to understand the interaction between the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the human body.

    When: Thursday, 21st March 2024, 16:00 - 17:30 CET, to be followed by an apéro

    Where: Hybrid Zoom / Seminarraum U1.197– Biozentrum, University of Basel, Spitalstrasse 41, 4056 Basel

    Zoom Registration: HERE

    In Person Registration: HERE
    Directions and location information

    Schedule:

        • Welcome by Prof Danny Jonigk (University Medical Center of RWTH Aachen University, Germany)
        • Keynote by Dr Jasmin Haslbauer (University Hospital Basel, Switzerland): "Cardiovascular Manifestations of COVID-19"
        • Keynote by Prof Maximilian Ackermann (RWTH University Clinics & Helios University Clinics, Germany): "COVID-19 – A Systemic Vasculo-inflammatory Disease"
        • Keynote by Prof Alexandar Tzankov (University Hospital Basel, Switzerland): "COVID-19 Insights from Non-Cardio-Pulmonary Organ Pathology"
        • Q&A and Closing
        • Networking Apéro

    Speakers:

    Prof Danny Jonigk

    University Medical Center of RWTH Aachen University, Germany

    Moderator

    Profile

    Prof Danny Jonigk is a surgical and molecular pathologist, the Chair of Pathology and the Head of the Department of the Institute of Pathology at the University Medical Center of RWTH Aachen University in Germany. Prof Jonigk received his doctoral degree from Hannover Medical School in Germany. He is also the Head and Founding Principal Investigator of the National Central Pathology Platform within the German Centre for Lung Research and the Head of the Pathology Platform at the German Centre for Lung Research. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, has received numerous research grants, including the first ERC consolidator grant to a pathologist and authored or co-authored 302 peer-reviewed papers.

    Dr Jasmin Haslbauer

    University Hospital Basel, Switzerland

    Talk: "Cardiovascular Manifestations of COVID-19"

    Profile

    Dr Jasmin Haslbauer is a resident at the Institute of Medical Genetics and Pathology at University Hospital Basel (USB). She executes autopsies and is responsible for tissue collection, and also provides histopathological examinations, immunohistochemical examinations and data consolidation. She received her undergraduate medical degree from Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and an MSc in molecular pathology and genomics from the Barts Cancer Institute at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Her current research deals with COVID-19-associated immunological and cardiovascular pathology.

    Dr Haslbauer is a researcher on the BRCCH project: Lessons From the Deceased to the Living and Back. Read more here.

    Watch the presentation on YouTube here.

    Prof Maximilian Ackermann

    RWTH University Clinics & Helios University Clinics, Germany

    Talk: "COVID-19 – A Systemic Vasculo-inflammatory Disease"

    Profile

    Prof Maximilian Ackermann is a professor and pathologist within the Institute of Pathology at RWTH University Clinics and the Institute of Pathology and Molecular Pathology at Helios University Clinics in Germany. His research focuses on angiogenesis, inflammation and vascular remodelling in disease. PD Dr Ackermann received his medical and doctoral degrees from Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz located in Germany. He has received a number of prestigious awards including the Rudolf-Virchow Award from the German Society of Pathology.

    Watch the presentation on YouTube here.

    Prof Alexandar Tzankov

    University Hospital Basel, Switzerland

    Talk: "COVID-19 Insights from Non-Cardio-Pulmonary Organ Pathology"

    Profile

    Prof Alexandar Tzankov is a surgical pathologist and Head of the Department of Histopathology and Autopsy at the Institute of Medical Genetics and Pathology at University Hospital Basel. He currently chairs the European Bone Marrow Working Group and is a joined expert in the field of pathology for the Swiss Accreditation Authority. His major interests and diagnostic expertise lie within haematopathology and mediastinal pathology. Alongside current intensive tissue-based research activity on the interaction between SARS-CoV-2 and the human body in COVID-19, his research group has long been involved in translational investigations and precision medicine of lymphomas and myeloid neoplasms. He has authored or co-authored more than 460 papers.

    Prof Tzankov co-leads the BRCCH project: Lessons From the Deceased to the Living and Back. Read more here.

    Watch the presentation on YouTube here.

    The BRCCH Becomes the Basel Research Centre for Child Health

    The BRCCH Becomes the Basel Research Centre for Child Health

     

    The new name marks the BRCCH’s transition into a groundbreaking paediatric digital health research hub based in Basel

    Today, the Botnar Research Centre for Child Health announces its new name effective immediately - the Basel Research Centre for Child Health (BRCCH). The Centre was originally named to recognise the generosity of Fondation Botnar, which has donated CHF 150 million to establish and support the paediatric health research activities of the BRCCH. The new name acknowledges the BRCCH’s transition to a paediatric digital health hub in Basel, as well as the city’s importance to the Centre’s past and present achievements.

    The BRCCH was established in 2019 to drive outstanding and innovative paediatric health research that improves the health of children and young people, especially those living in low- and middle-income countries. Over the last four years, almost 80 researchers from the BRCCH’s partner institutions – the University of Basel, ETH Zurich, the University Children’s Hospital Basel (UKBB) and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) – have launched 29 interinstitutional research consortia aligned with this mission. Examples of project research topics include bioengineering bacteria to survey the gut microbiome, implementing digital health tools to enhance early childhood development in low- and middle-income countries and developing digital techniques to improve cleft lip and palate care.

    The BRCCH is now transitioning into one of the first academic research centres in the world dedicated to interdisciplinary paediatric digital health research. At the core of this centre will be six newly appointed professors – three affiliated with the University of Basel and three affiliated with ETH Zurich – with expertise in biomolecular systems engineering, data analytics, systems developmental medicine, disease modelling, computational medical genomics and ethics and policy. These specialists will foster collaborations to address some of the biggest challenges facing paediatric health care today. An early career programme will also support emerging researchers to build global research capacity in this field.

    “We are grateful to Fondation Botnar for their visionary philanthropy and the confidence they have shown in the work of the BRCCH to date,” says Professor Georg Holländer, Director of the BRCCH. “Through this transition and with this new name, we look forward to establishing Basel as an internationally recognised location for exceptional paediatric digital health research.”

    ETH Zurich Seeks Assistant Professor (Tenure Track) of Ethics and Policy in Pediatric Digital Health

    ETH Zurich Seeks Assistant Professor (Tenure Track) of Ethics and Policy in Pediatric Digital Health

     

    The Department of Health Sciences and Technology at ETH Zurich invites applications for the above-​mentioned position at the Institute of Translational Medicine. As a leading international academic institution at the cutting edge of health sciences and technology, the aim of the Department of Health Sciences and Technology (D-​HEST) is to create the foundations for sustaining and improving the quality of life for people across the life span. The professorship will be physically embedded within the newly established Botnar Research Centre for Child Health (BRCCH) in Basel, which aims to provide innovative and translational solutions for child and adolescent health.

    The successful candidate must have a proven track record in several of the following areas: research ethics, digital ethics, health policy, regulatory science, and law, with a focus on pediatric and adolescent health. She or he should demonstrate a strong interest in the application of ethics in clinical or public health-​related settings, expertise in the ethical, legal, and societal implications of translational research and a clear ambition to pursue research that is directly relevant to child and adolescent health. Experience in international organizations and / or global governance initiatives in relation to digital health and child and adolescent health would be an asset. This Assistant Professorship aims to set and pursue a research agenda that investigates ethical and policy challenges in the integration of digital health innovations in low-​ and middle-​income countries. The future Assistant Professor is expected to establish and lead a competitive research team, commit to teaching, interact with global health policy initiatives and contribute to the vibrant biomedical research environments at ETH Zurich and Basel.

    Assistant professorships have been established to promote the careers of younger scientists. ETH Zurich implements a tenure track system equivalent to that of other top international universities.

    ETH Zurich is an equal opportunity and family-​friendly employer, values diversity, and is responsive to the needs of dual-​career couples.

    Please apply online.

    Applications should include a curriculum vitae, a list of publications, a statement of future research and teaching interests, a description of the leadership philosophy, a description of the three most important achievements*, and a certificate of the highest degree. The letter of application should be addressed to the President of ETH Zurich, Prof. Dr. Joël Mesot. The closing date for applications is 15 Feburary 2024.

    * ETH Zurich emphasizes qualitative assessment of academic accomplishments. This is why you are kindly asked to submit a short description of your three most important achievements (maximum a half page each). Besides research findings, these could also be extraordinary achievements in teaching and its further development, services in the benefit of the academic community or society, software development, patents, knowledge transfer and its practical application, spin-​​​​​​off companies or similar.

     

    BRCCH 2023 Image Contest

    BRCCH 2023 Image Contest

     

    The BRCCH warmly invites all BRCCH Early Career Researchers involved in a BRCCH-supported project to participate in the third edition of the BRCCH Image Contest. Submit your images of your scientific work for a chance to win up to CHF 500 to attend a scientific conference or professional development event of your choice. 

    Images should visually reflect the research done in your BRCCH project during 2023. They could, for example, show lab, clinical or field work, depict certain methods, visualise results or data, or show the goals of the project. Winning images will be selected based on aesthetics and alignment with the BRCCH scientific scope.

    Please send us your image(s) by email to contact@brc.ch with a descriptive caption, a credit of the image(s) by Friday, 15 December 2023.

    See the winners of the 2021 and 2022 contests.

    Details and Conditions of 2023 Image Contest

    Conditions of submission are addressed below, but please contact us at contact@brc.ch with any remaining questions.

    BRCCH Image Contest’s conditions of submission:

    1. Early career researchers involved in BRCCH-funded projects are eligible to submit image entries.
    2. Several images can be submitted as a single entry.
    3. We welcome all types of images (e.g. photography, microscopy, computer-generated images, graphics).
    4. Minimal resolution of 300 dpi is required and any image file format (RAW, EPS, TIF, PNG, etc) can be submitted.
    5. If people are shown in the image and are identifiable, they must have given explicit consent to be photographed.
    6. Images should not show sensitive or confidential information or data.
    7. Images generated from BRCCH-funded photoshoots are not eligible.
    8. Images submitted to the BRCCH may be used for BRCCH communication projects (e.g., BRCCH Annual Report, flyers, website). Images will not be used for any commercial or for-profit purpose.
    9. Images remain the copyright of the researcher. BRCCH will credit the image accordingly.
    10. BRCCH will never share the images with third-parties (e.g., news media) without the explicit consent of the researcher.
    11. * Winners of contest receive support to attend a scientific conference or professional development event of their choice with justifiable costs reimbursable up to a maximum of 500 CHF.

    Seminar 28 November 2023 – Evolving Perspectives in Improving Cleft Lip and Palate Care

    Seminar 28 November 2023 - Evolving Perspectives in Improving Cleft Lip and Palate Care

    Update: Thank you to all who attended. For those who could not make it, the presentation videos are available for viewing below.

    The BRCCH cordially invites you to join our seminar about evolving perspectives in improving cleft lip and palate care. Prof Andreas Mueller (University Hospital Basel, Switzerland) and Dr Baran Gözcü (ETH Zurich, Switzerland) will share their BRCCH consortium’s research progress in developing a digital pipeline to reduce the treatment burden and cost of cleft lip and palate care. Assoc Prof David Chong (Royal Children's Hospital, Australia) will present his work pursuing the best way to treat children who require facial surgery for cleft lip and palate.

    When: Tuesday, 28th November 2023, 16:00 - 17:30 CET, to be followed by an apéro

    Where: Hybrid Zoom / Seminarraum U1.197– Biozentrum, University of Basel, Spitalstrasse 41, 4056 Basel

    Zoom Registration: HERE

    In Person Registration: HERE
    Directions and location information

    Schedule:

        • Welcome by Dr Adelita Sommacal (University Hospital Basel, Switzerland)
        • Keynote by Prof Andreas Mueller (University Hospital Basel, Switzerland): "Reducing the Burden in Cleft Care: The Knife is not Enough"
        • Keynote by Dr Baran Gözcü (ETH Zurich, Switzerland): "Cleft Care in the 21st Century: Can AI Revolutionize?"
        • Keynote by Assoc Prof David Chong (Royal Children's Hospital, Australia): "Global Cleft Care: A Personal Journey"
        • Q&A and Closing
        • Networking Apéro

    Speakers:

    Dr Adelita Sommacal

    University Hospital Basel, Switzerland

    Moderator

    Prof Andreas Mueller

    University Hospital Basel, Switzerland

    Talk: "Reducing the Burden in Cleft Care: The Knife is not Enough"

    Watch on YouTube

    Dr Baran Gözcü

    ETH Zurich, Switzerland

    Talk: "Cleft Care in the 21st Century: Can AI Revolutionize"

    Watch on YouTube

    Assoc Prof David Chong

    Royal Children's Hospital, Australia

    Talk: "Global Cleft Care: A Personal Journey"

    Watch on YouTube

    Seminar 23 October 2023 – The Gut Microbiome as a Tool for Individualised Medicine

    Seminar 23 October 2023 - The Gut Microbiome as a Tool for Individualised Medicine

     

    Update: Thank you to all who attended. For those who could not make it, Dr Zimmermann's presentation is available for viewing below.

    The BRCCH cordially invites you to join our seminar about the gut microbiome and individualised medicine. Prof Randall Platt (ETH Zurich, Switzerland) and Prof Andrew Macpherson (University Hospital Bern, Switzerland) will share their BRCCH consortium’s research progress in using engineered bacteria as a non-invasive diagnostic tool to survey the gastrointestinal tract and support child health worldwide. Dr Michael Zimmermann (EMBL - Heidelberg, Germany) will highlight his work investigating how interpersonal differences in the gut microbiome influence bacterial drug metabolism, activity and toxicity.

    When: Monday, 23rd October 2023, 16:00 - 17:30 CET, to be followed by an apéro

    Where: Hybrid Zoom / Seminarraum U1.197– Biozentrum, University of Basel, Spitalstrasse 41, 4056 Basel

    Zoom Registration: HERE

    In Person Registration: HERE
    Directions and location information

    Schedule:

        • Welcome by Dr Katie Guzzetta (ETH Zurich & BRCCH Postdoctoral Researcher)
        • Keynote by Prof Randall Platt (ETH Zurich & BRCCH Lead Researcher): "Living Microbial Diagnostics to Enable Individualised Child Health Interventions"
        • Keynote by Prof Andrew Macpherson (University Hospital Bern & BRCCH Lead Researcher): "An Update on the University of Zimbabwe Birth Cohort Study"
        • Keynote by Dr Michael Zimmermann (EMBL - Heidelberg): "Identifying Gut Microbiome Contributions to Drug Metabolism and Carcinogen Toxicity"
        • Q&A and Closing
        • Networking Apéro

    Speakers:

    Dr Katie Guzzetta

    ETH Zurich, Switzerland

    Moderator

    Profile

    Dr Katie Guzzetta is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Prof Randy Platt at ETH Zurich. Her research focuses on developing bacteria-based technologies to diagnose nutritional deficiencies and other health disruptions related to the gut microbiome. Prior to this, Katie completed her PhD in Neuroscience and Anatomy at the APC Microbiome Institute in Cork, Ireland, where she studied how the gut microbiota influences neurodevelopment and behavior under the mentorship of Prof John Cryan and Dr Olivia O’Leary. Outside of the lab, Katie enjoys spending time hiking and camping in the mountains, skiing, and exploring diverse countries and cultures.

    Prof Randall Platt

    ETH Zurich, Switzerland

    Talk: "Living Microbial Diagnostics to Enable Individualised Child Health Interventions"

    Profile

    Prof Randall (Randy) Platt holds associate professorships at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE) at ETH Zurich and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Basel. Prof Platt studied biomedical engineering and chemistry at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, USA. In 2011, he obtained an MPhil in material science from Imperial College London, UK, and in 2016 he received a PhD in biological engineering from MIT, USA. After a joint postdoctoral fellowship between MIT, Harvard University, and the Broad Institute, he was appointed as a tenure-track assistant professor at ETH Zurich and the University of Basel in October 2016.

    Prof Platt co-leads the BRCCH project: Living Microbial Diagnostics to Enable Individualised Child Health Interventions. Read more here.

    Prof Andrew Macpherson

    University Hospital Bern, Switzerland

    Talk: "An Update on the University of Zimbabwe Birth Cohort Study"

    Profile

    Prof Andrew Macpherson is a Professor of Medicine at Inselspital Bern. His laboratory has worked on immune and non-immune mechanisms of host-microbial mutualism using animal models and translational work in human subjects. He has set up collaborations with Zimbabwean and Kenyan colleagues in order to address the problem of dysbiosis that triggers intestinal dysfunction and stunting in young children in low- and middle-income countries.

    Prof Macpherson co-leads the BRCCH project: Living Microbial Diagnostics to Enable Individualised Child Health Interventions. Read more here.

    Dr Michael Zimmermann

    European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) Heidelberg, Germany

    Talk: "Identifying Gut Microbiome Contributions to Drug Metabolism and Carcinogen Toxicity"

    Profile

    Michael Zimmermann is a group leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. Michael received his Bachelor’s degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Basel University and his Master’s degree in Biotechnology from the Ecole Supérieure de Biotechnologie (ESBS) in Strasbourg. Michael performed his PhD work at ETH Zurich in metabolomics and Systems Biology and he pursued his postdoctoral training at Yale University to investigate metabolic host-microbiome interactions. His research group at EMBL employs bacterial genetics, metabolomics, gnotobiotic mouse work, and mathematical modeling to systematically map metabolic microbiota-host interactions. Among several honors and scholarships, Michael was awarded the Daimler Benz Scholarship, Agilent’s Steve Berger Award, the 2021 FEBS Anniversary Prize, and an ERC Starting Grant.

    3D Printed Plates for Cleft Lip and Palate Care in Less than Five Minutes

    3D Printed Plates for Cleft Lip and Palate Care in Less than Five Minutes

    The treatment of children born with cleft lip and palate typically includes the use of therapeutic intraoral plates before surgical closure of the cleft. The plate passively sits on the roof of the baby’s mouth and helps separate the nasal and oral regions. So far, these plates have mostly been fabricated manually, and the process for their production still leaves room for improvement. Now, computer science researchers from ETH Zurich have teamed up with clinical care researchers at the University Hospital Basel to create a digital pipeline that enables the automatic production of the plates. The research project has promising potential to facilitate wider access to presurgical cleft treatment, especially in low-income countries.

    About 1 in 700 children worldwide are born with cleft lip and palate. Orofacial clefts are the most common craniofacial malformations in newborns, and there are no existing effective preventive measures. While children in high-income countries with this birth condition receive appropriate care, children from low-income countries often lack this opportunity because treatment is expensive and requires high levels of medical and/or technical expertise. In addition, hospitals are often far away or not sufficiently equipped.

    These factors are especially relevant for the fabrication of presurgical orthopaedic plates, which are widely used for treating cleft lip and palate before surgery,” says Till Schnabel from ETH Zurich. Schnabel is a computer science doctoral researcher closely supervised by senior researchers Dr Baran Gözcü and Prof Barbara Solenthaler. They are part of ETH Zurich’s Computer Graphics Lab led by Prof Markus Gross. Schnabel and Gözcü are the first two authors of the research paper "Automated and data-driven plate computation for presurgical cleft lip and palate treatment" recently published in a special issue of the International Journal of Computer Assisted Radiology and Surgery. *

    Within a few days after birth, a presurgical therapeutic plate designed to bridge the cleft space and to keep the baby from putting tongue pressure on the alveolar edges, i.e., the cleft opening is fitted to the baby’s mouth. The plate naturally facilitates the cleft opening becoming smaller after a few months, thus enabling a gentler repair surgery. The plate not only assists the infant in feeding but also fosters the baby’s development of early normal linguistic sounds.**

    Conventionally, such a plate is fabricated using a plaster cast based on an imprint manually taken from the baby’s mouth. This intricate procedure requires highly trained specialists and carries some risk of the impression material entering the baby’s airways. More recently, handheld intraoral scanners have been introduced into practice to replace the imprint-taking, and – theoretically – to allow for fully digital workflows. However, most of these existing workflows and their 3D software are still too complex to be run in a non-specialised setting.

    In contrast, the approach pursued by Schnabel and his colleagues at ETH Zurich, which was developed in collaboration with Andreas Mueller’s team at the University Hospital Basel, is as ambitious in development as it is straightforward in use: “Our aim has been to automate the whole process, which not only saves time but can also be done without an expert’s knowledge on site.

    At its core, the project employs a deep learning model, which was trained on a dataset that Schnabel and Mueller’s team assembled for this specific purpose. “Collecting sufficient data is often the greatest challenge when it comes to machine learning, especially for digital health, because medical data are sensitive and have to be treated confidentially and with the proper data security protocols,” says Till Schnabel. Nevertheless, they were able to gather around 400 scans: about two-thirds of children affected with a one-sided cleft and the other one-third of children with double clefts. “We collected data from old plaster cast imprints, which we digitized via 3D scanning, and we combined it with new data from intraoral scans,” explains Till Schnabel.

    The deep learning model trained on this data can automatically recognise and select the principal structures, so-called landmarks, on the digital 3D model of the palate. In the rest of the pipeline, Schnabel and colleagues implemented established methods, such as surface registration and smoothing algorithms. “With the help of the selected landmarks, one can more accurately register a 3D scan, i.e., determine a close correspondence between the template and the input scan.” This method also provides a 3D segmentation differentiating various areas on the intraoral scan. The final step is automated plate computation, which comprises filling the cleft palate area and volumizing the surface to be 3D-printed. In short, these algorithms ensure that the plate is customised to the individual geometry of the baby’s mouth, and mimics, as best as possible, a healthy closed palatal shape.

    A baby wears the first palatal plate to be created entirely from the digital pipeline in Basel. As shown in the image, the plate is also fabricated with a small tab that nestles outside the mouth and helps to hold the plate in position. (Credit: Andreas Mueller and Benito Benitez). In the computer-generated rendering of the plate in the corner (Credit: Schnabel et al. 2023*), the palatal plate (translucent plastic) is shown overlaid on a baby’s intraoral scan of the unilateral cleft in the roof of the mouth. The plate effectively bridges the gap of the cleft and prevents the baby’s tongue from entering the intranasal region. View perspective is from the front of the baby’s mouth, gazing straight into the mouth towards the roof.

     

    The pipeline has already been successfully implemented in the clinical routine in two hospitals, where 19 children have been treated with palatal plates that were produced with the digital pipeline. At the University Hospital Basel and Saveetha Medical College and Hospital, Chennai, India, digital intraoral scanning has already reduced the time necessary for conventional impression-taking from over 60 minutes to less than 20 minutes.

    The biggest difference, though, became evident in plate fabrication,” says Till Schnabel. “Previously, it would take close to an hour to make a plate – with our pipeline, the plate was done in less than 5 minutes.” Moreover, it didn’t require a plate specialist to operate complex software but only a few clicks on the computer. In other words, the plates are potentially accessible anywhere, regardless of facility resources. “In India, the workflow was made even more accessible. Hospitals did not need to have the printing infrastructure on site, the pipeline can be decentralised and is compatible with remote printing,” recounts Till Schnabel. “It worked perfectly.

    Schnabel is confident that the team’s automated pipeline will make a big difference in the treatment of cleft lip and palate, especially in low-income countries. “It has the potential to reduce the costs of cleft lip and palate care substantially,” he says, “making treatment accessible for those who might have been excluded so far.

    And thus, one has to emphasise the potential impact of the research. It can reduce the burden of this condition and the devastating effects it can have on children and their families; it can enable more children to heal.

    Background

    Till Schnabel is an early career researcher in a BRCCH research project “Burden-Reduced Cleft Lip and Palate Care and Healing", which is co-led by Prof Barbara Solenthaler (ETH Zurich) and Prof Andreas Mueller (University Hospital Basel and University of Basel). His work and the project are part of the overarching programme: Multi-Investigator Programme.

    Interview article: Irène Dietschi

    *Research paper

    SCHNABEL TN, GÖZCÜ B, GOTARDO P, LINGENS L, DORDA D, Vetterli F, Emhemmed A, NALABOTHU P, LILL Y, BENITEZ BK, MUELLER AA, GROSS M & SOLENTHALER B. 2023. “Automated and Data-Driven Plate Computation for Presurgical Cleft Lip and Palate Treatment.” International Journal of Computer Assisted Radiology and Surgery. https://doi.org/10.1007/S11548-023-02858-6

    **Reference

    NALABOTHU P, BENITEZ BK, Dalstra M, Verna C, MUELLER AA. 2020. “Three-Dimensional Morphological Changes of the True Cleft under Passive Presurgical Orthopaedics in Unilateral Cleft Lip and Palate: A Retrospective Cohort Study”. Journal of Clinical Medicine.  https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm9040962

    Names in all caps indicate research contributions to the BRCCH consortium

    Click here for a video abstract of the research paper

    ETH Zurich Seeks Assistant Professor (Tenure Track) of Computational Medical Genomics

    ETH Zurich Seeks Assistant Professor (Tenure Track) of Computational Medical Genomics

     

    The Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-​BSSE) at ETH Zurich invites applications for the above-​mentioned position. D-​BSSE is located in Basel, providing excellent opportunities for collaboration within this strong life science research community at the academic, clinical and pharmaceutical industry levels. The main research focus of the Department is the understanding, modeling, and engineering of systems for biomedical applications. The professorship will also be embedded within the newly established Botnar Research Centre for Child Health (BRCCH), which aims to provide innovative and translational solutions for child and adolescent health. Collaborations within the medical research communities in Basel and Zurich are highly encouraged.

    The future Assistant Professor is expected to develop a strong and visible research program in the area of methods and tools development in computational biology and bioinformatics for medical applications. A candidate capable of advancing statistical and computational modeling of genomics data and translating models, methods, and findings into clinical applications is sought. Possible research topics include, but are not limited to, computational genomics and multi-​omics data integration, human genomics and rare diseases, medical genomics in clinical trials, and computational genomics for advanced therapies. The candidate should have a Ph.D. degree in Computational Biology, Medical Genomics, Computational Science, Data Science, or related disciplines, and demonstrated evidence of the ability to develop novel statistical and machine learning methods for genomic datasets. Further, a strong publication record reflecting innovative, interdisciplinary, translational, and collaborative approaches to important problems related to medical genomics is expected. She or he should demonstrate a strong interest in clinical applications and a clear ambition to pursue research that is directly relevant to childhood health and medicine. At the assistant professor level, commitment to teaching and the ability to lead a research group are expected.

    Assistant professorships have been established to promote the careers of younger scientists. ETH Zurich implements a tenure track system equivalent to that of other top international universities.

    ETH Zurich is an equal opportunity and family-​friendly employer, values diversity, and is responsive to the needs of dual-​career couples.

    Please apply online

    Applications should include a curriculum vitae, a list of publications, a statement of future research and teaching interests, a description of the leadership philosophy, a description of the three most important achievements*, and a certificate of the highest degree. The letter of application should be addressed to the President of ETH Zurich, Prof. Dr. Joël Mesot. The closing date for applications is 31 October 2023.

    *ETH Zurich emphasizes qualitative assessment of academic accomplishments. This is why you are kindly asked to submit a short description of your three most important achievements (maximum a half page each). Besides research findings, these could also be extraordinary achievements in teaching and its further development, services in the benefit of the academic community or society, software development, patents, knowledge transfer and its practical application, spin-​​​​​​​​off companies or similar.

    An Investment in More Research to Benefit Children and Adolescents

    An Investment in More Research to Benefit Children and Adolescents

    A family in the San Marcos region of Peru photographed by BRCCH researchers. Credit: Prof Günther Fink, BRCCH Researcher, Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute

     

    Fondation Botnar is donating an additional CHF 50 million to the University of Basel and ETH Zurich to expand the activities of the joint Botnar Research Centre for Child Health (BRCCH). This support will allow to create six new professorships with a research focus on paediatric digital health.

    Launched in 2019, the Botnar Research Centre for Child Health (BRCCH) aims to drive innovative health research that benefits children and adolescents globally – especially those living in low- or middle-income countries. Within this centre, the University of Basel and ETH Zurich work in partnership with the University Children’s Hospital Basel (UKBB) and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH).

    Over the past four years, the BRCCH has supported around 80 researchers and 29 research projects worldwide. For example, researchers improved the treatment of cleft lip and palate and developed biotechnology to monitor paediatric gut health or digital tools that support healthy child development. To date, the BRCCH has been supported by Fondation Botnar with a total of 115 million Swiss francs.

    “The BRCCH’s impressive achievements to date would not have been possible without the unique commitment of Fondation Botnar, the universities, their partnering institutions and the dedicated hard work done by the involved research community,” says Professor Georg Holländer, Director of the BRCCH.

    New professorships for new expertise

    Fondation Botnar’s latest funding will support the establishment of six new professorships – three at the University of Basel and three at ETH Zurich. "At 1.8 billion, young people make up a large part of the world's population, but their health and wellbeing are often overlooked in academic research. Since its inception, the BRCCH has driven innovative research in paediatrics and public health, and we hope that our additional investment will further advance this critical research," says Stefan Germann, CEO of Fondation Botnar.

    The research areas of the newly appointed professors range from biomolecular diagnostics to the development, application and integration of state-of-the-art analytical methods and an exploration of ethics and politics in digitalised healthcare.

    “The use of digital technologies in medicine and the public health system has the potential to transform global health care. However, technological progress must be accompanied by answers to central ethical questions,” says Professor Christian Wolfrum, ETH Vice President for Research. The breadth and the focus of the BRCCH’s new direction is in line with Fondation Botnar’s emphasis on the equitable use of artificial intelligence and digital technologies.

    New building for more collaboration

    In the coming years, these professorships and their respective research teams will work at a new, modern BRCCH research facility strategically located in the heart of the University of Basel Life Sciences Campus and adjacent to ETH’s Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering in Basel.The new building will serve as a synergistic digital health research hub and as an ideal location for interdisciplinary collaboration between individual institutions. “At the same time, we wish to emphasize that ETH and the University are determined to support the cutting-edge research at the BRCCH in the long-term,” says Professor Torsten Schwede, Vice President for Research at the University of Basel.

    Contact

    University of Basel: Matthias Geering, Head of Communications,
    matthias.geering@unibas.ch, +41 61 207 35 75

    ETH Zurich: Franziska Schmid, Spokesperson,
    medienstelle@hk.ethz.ch, +41 44 632 41 41

    Fondation Botnar: Kiara Jade Marvuglio, Engagement and Communication Lead, media@fondationbotnar.org, +41 61 201 04 82

    BRCCH: Catherine Crawford-Brown, Communications Manager,
    catherine.crawfordbrown@brc.ch, +41 78 250 48 82

    Botnar Research Centre for Child Health (BRCCH)

    The BRCCH, which works to better the health of young people, was founded in 2019. Since then, its team has grown to more than 400 participating scientists, including international colleagues from 26 countries. Researchers from the four institutions connected to BRCCH have launched some 29 multidisciplinary and interinstitutional projects, ranging from basic research to the implementation of such research in paediatrics and public health. The founding of the BRCCH was made possible by a CHF 100 million contribution from Fondation Botnar in Basel, which was donated to the University of Basel and the ETH Zurich Foundation.

    More information: https://brc.ch/

    Fondation Botnar

    Fondation Botnar is a Swiss philanthropic foundation working to improve the health and wellbeing of young people living in cities around the world. Advocating for the inclusion of youth voices and the equitable use of AI and digital technology, the foundation invests in and supports innovative programs and research and brings together actors from across sectors to create dialogue and partnerships.

    More information: www.fondationbotnar.org

    Reaching and Supporting All Children with Digital Parenting Interventions

    Reaching and Supporting All Children with Digital Parenting Interventions

    Millions of children in low-income settings are at risk of missing their developmental potential in early life. One type of preventive measure is a home visiting programme, in which facilitators support parents with skills and knowledge related to early child development. Now, a collaborative study led by researchers of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, University of Basel, ETH Zurich, Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (UPCH) and Harvard Graduate School of Education has examined whether families, instead of being visited physically, could also be reached digitally via an app. The study was conducted in remote areas in Peru – with promising results.

    What if each parent, irrespective of income or location, had their own virtual tutor to help them take care of their little ones? A tutor that makes suggestions on how to stimulate the development of a young child with age-tailored activities? That’s the idea behind the start-up founded by Andreana Castellanos, Afinidata, a platform that uses artificial intelligence to support parents with care practices and knowledge about child development.

    Afinidata uses channels like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and a mobile App to interact with parents of children aged 0-6 years. “Similar to facilitators that make home visits to parents, the virtual Afinidata tutor asks parents about the child’s well-being through messages and push notifications, and it suggests development-promoting activities that parents can do with their children,” explains Dr Lena Jäggi, a developmental psychologist of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) at the University of Basel and a researcher deeply involved in the pilot study. According to UNICEF there is “a large gap for effective, easy-to-access educational tools that are inclusive with lower-income families.” Digital tools such as Afinidata have the potential to close that gap. However: “There has been limited evidence on how feasible digital parenting interventions are in practice,” says Lena Jäggi, “especially in rural settings in low- and middle-income countries.

    That’s where the study* published by the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood and first-authored by Lena Jäggi steps in. Lena Jäggi: “We wanted to find out whether Afinidata would work in a very remote area in Latin America, and if changes had to be made to adapt the platform to the local context.” The “local context” was the Cajamarca region in the north of Peru, in three provinces located in the Andes where the Swiss – Peruvian Health Research Platform of Swiss TPH and UPCH maintains a research station.

    Milagros Alvarado Ilatance is also a developmental psychologist and one of the two study coordinators in Peru who together co-lead the training of local research team members and the collection of the field data. She explains how Afinidata had to be adapted to the context of Andean Peru: “For example, in order to facilitate ease and understandability for the parents, we had to rephrase some of the questions or change the vocabulary of the chatbot to a certain extent since we were working with a version that was originally intended for families in Guatemala.

    In this mountainous region, stretching from 1900 to 3900 metres above sea level, the research team recruited families for their study. “The communities are small and thus representative of many rural settings in Andean South America, with a large share of low-income and remote households engaged in farming,” says Lena Jäggi.

    Even so, almost 90 % of these households have access to at least one cell phone and the internet. For the pilot study, the research team enrolled 180 mothers with children aged between 2 and 24 months who either owned or had regular access to a smartphone. The field work was done by the Peruvian part of project team, consisting of the two study coordinators, Milagros Alvarado Ilatance and Maria Luisa Huaylinos Bustamante, from the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia and about a dozen local facilitators who visited the mothers at their homes from February to July 2021.

    Study coordinator Maria Luisa Huaylinos Bustamante discusses the digital parental intervention and the study with a mother and her children. Credit: Swiss-Peruvian Health Research Platform/Digital Support Systems to Improve Child Health and Development

     

    During their first visit, the research team introduced the mothers to Afinidata, installed it on their smartphone and showed them how to navigate the app. After two months, the facilitators visited them again, interviewing and collecting detailed feedback. During their final visit five months from the start, the mothers were asked about their overall experience, satisfaction and use of the platform.

    A mother participating in the study said that with the app, she was “jugar con mi niña, cantar…,a traves de la aplicación tenemos la actividad y nos dedicacabamos a ellos un momento, a veces hasta hacerla dormir”  "playing with my daughter, singing..., through the application we have the activity and we dedicate ourselves to them for a moment, sometimes until it puts her to sleep." From Jäggi et al. 2023, Supplemental Data 2 .

    Another challenge was the availability of material for the parent-child activities. “Sometimes the mothers didn’t have the craft material at hand which the chatbot suggested,” adds fellow study coordinator Maria Luisa Huaylinos Bustamante. “With no supermarket nearby where they could have bought these things, the mothers would simply switch to alternatives they had in their house or created the toys themselves. They were amazingly flexible and creative,” says Huaylinos Bustamante.

    The biggest challenge though was familiarizing the mothers with Afinidata so that they would feel confident and motivated to engage with the platform on a regular basis. “That’s one point we had clearly underestimated in the beginning,” says Milagros Alvarado Llatance. Through this pilot study, they found that the initial orientation to Afinidata during the first visit was not sufficient. “So to meet this need, we had to adapt. We created for them a physical, laminated booklet which detailed the app step by step that we will use in the main trial.

    This point was one of the principal learnings of the pilot study for Lena Jäggi as well: “Just because people have access to a smartphone and the internet doesn’t mean they are automatically proficient in using digital health tools,” she says. The booklet, which will be implemented when the main trial begins, also includes general information on child development, sample activities and detailed instructions on how to self-enroll in case a phone got lost. “So we learned also to be flexible and creative and that this additional effort is important because ultimately, our goal is for the mothers to get the full benefit of the intervention,” says Lena Jäggi.

    Even before adding this booklet, the results of the pilot study are very promising. After five months, 42 % of mothers were still active on the platform. One might argue that an adherence of less than half of the original participants is not very successful, but those 42 % have to be viewed within the larger frame, says Lena Jäggi: “Compliance is a big challenge in any kind of parental intervention, i.e. in home-visiting programmes too,” she says. “And as far as digital programmes resembling Afinidata are concerned, other studies have reported completion rates as low as 15 and 7 %.” Meaning that compared to similar interventions, a 42 % engagement with Afinidata at five months post-introduction was relatively high, “but more data on continued use over longer periods are needed.

    Digital health tools like Afinidata stand not only to broaden the accessibility of interventions to families in remote regions but also to mitigate the consequences of sudden upheavals in the public healthcare system. This case in point: the field testing fell squarely in the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit Peru quite severely. In non-pandemic times, the Peruvian government offers families in areas of poverty and with children under 36 months a national visiting programme (Programa Nacional Cuna Más; PNCM) for early childhood and parental support. The PNCM, although only able to support the most vulnerable, is one of the largest of its kind in the world. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, those services were shut down completely. So, digital parenting interventions actually filled a gap that was unforeseen.

    These pilot study results are promising, but what the pilot study hasn’t assessed is the impact of the intervention on the mother’s or child’s outcome. Nor has cost-effectiveness been studied. These are follow-up research steps yet to be taken: A randomized-control study is already underway to address these aspects. Milagros Alvarado Ilatance: “I think this is a very important opportunity for the families in Cajamarca to have access to new strategies to improve their children’s development.

    Background

    Dr Lena Jäggi, Milagros Alvarado Llatance and Maria-Luisa Huaylinos Bustamante are researchers in a BRCCH research project "Digital Support Systems to Improve Child Health and Development in Low-Income Settings" and one of the activities of the Swiss – Peruvian Health Research Platform of Swiss TPH and UPCH. The research project is one of BRCCH’s cornerstone projects, within the overarching Multi-Investigator Programme.

    Interview article: Irène Dietschi

    *Research article

    JÄGGI L, AGUILAR L, LLANTANCE ALVARADO M, CASTELLANOS A, FINK G, HINCKLEY K, BUSTAMANTE HUAYLINOS M-L, MCCOY DC, VERASTEGUI H, MÄUSEZAHL D & HARTINGER PENA SM. 2023. “Digital Tools to Improve Parenting Behaviour in Low-Income Settings: A Mixed-Methods Feasibility Study.” Archives of Disease in Childhood.  https://doi.org/10.1136/ARCHDISCHILD-2022-324964