Dr. Skar to study infections in pediatric shunts

by Kalani Simpson, UNMC strategic communications | October 09, 2020

Image with caption: Gwenn Skar, MD

Gwenn Skar, MD

Hydrocephalus is a condition that affects over 1 million Americans. It is a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid within the brain. This typically occurs in young childhood, but is a lifelong condition -- and requires the constant draining of the fluid with a shunt.

In fact, shunt placement is the most common pediatric neurosurgical procedure.

But these shunts can become infected, requiring further surgeries and resulting in additional complications, including neurologic consequences.

Kids with shunt infections are at increased risk of seizures, and having trouble in school. Studies have linked increasing numbers of infections with decreased verbal and performance IQ scores.

"That's why we are working on what we do," said Gwenn Skar, MD, assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases.

Dr. Skar's lab has found preliminary evidence that the body's immune system may be contributing to the problem. The immune system kicks into gear in response to the infection. But it keeps working longer than it should, and its activity goes from helpful to harmful.

"We think very specific immune molecules destroy connections between neural cells," Dr. Skar said. "If that's true, we can take advantage of therapeutics that already exist. And we can work to find other therapeutics, to ultimately stop brain damage during these infections."

She isn't the only one to see potential. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded her $960,660 over five years to study "the role of complement in CSF shunt infection."

The grant is also a K08, or mentored clinical scientist research career development award. "One of the more unique things about this type of grant," Dr. Skar said, "is a large portion of its purpose is to help MDs become better scientists."

That, she said, "has been my goal for many years now. I was inspired by a previous physician-scientist in the peds infectious diseases department here. I worked with her as a resident and fellow."

And while it is her experience with her patients that drives her passion for solving shunt infections, Dr. Skar also is seeing the big picture: "Seeing the connection between patients and the bench was one of the things that drew me to research," she said.

She will work with Anna Dunaevsky, PhD, and Tammy Kielian, PhD, who will serve as mentors on her journey from clinician to clinician-scientist.

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Lisa Runco
October 09, 2020 at 7:02 AM

On behalf of the Child Health Research Institute and all of its members, we congratulate our first CHRI Scholar, Dr. Gwenn Skar, on receipt of the K08 Award! She is a physician-scientist and rising star in pediatric research.