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University of Missouri

Pediatric Research Receives Funding Boost

MU’s child health department receives $500,000 donation from Sears Trust.

Sears Trust donation

Dr. Timothy Fete (right), medical director of Children’s Hospital, chair of the Department of Child Health and Children’s Miracle Network Professor in Pediatrics at the School of Medicine, presents Lou Leonatti, trustee for the Leda J. Sears Trust, with a statue of T.J., the MU Children’s Hospital mascot. Photo courtesy of University of Missouri Health System.

It takes money to make money, the adage goes. It’s a truism in business, but Charlotte Phillips, associate professor of child health and biochemistry, didn’t realize how applicable it is to science as well. Researchers need grants to get data, but they need data to get grants. Finding seed money to launch projects can make the difference between having a great idea for a pilot study and actually getting it off the ground.

Since 1991, the Leda J. Sears Trust, based in Mexico, Mo., has donated $700,000 to the MU School of Medicine’s Department of Child Health to fund research, including many small‐ and medium‐sized pilot studies. The studies have led to breakthrough work in autism, maple syrup urine disease, and a host of other diseases affecting children.

Those accomplishments are poised to continue after the announcement May 13 that the Sears Trust has donated another $500,000, to be given over eight years, for child health department research.

The donation signals that the school “is worthy of investment” in its roles of educating health care professionals, caring for patients, seeking new discoveries and training new researchers, said Dr. Les Hall, interim dean of the School of Medicine, at the announcement ceremony at Women’s and Children’s Hospital. Through their foundation’s gifts, the late Forrest O. and Leda J. Sears “have created a legacy that will continue to touch the lives of thousands of Missouri children.”

Judith Miles, professor emerita of genetics and pathology, recounted how she and her colleagues were first noticing in the early 1990s the rise in autism diagnoses. With seed money in 1994 from the Sears Trust, she started a multidisciplinary autism clinic at MU and in 1995 launched a long‐term study of which patients with autism improved and why. Her work eventually led to a National Institutes of Health Center of Excellence grant and helped establish Mizzou as a leader in autism research. “The Thompson Center [for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders] would not be here today without the Sears Trust money,” she said.

Putting the business aphorism to work, Phillips has received $196,000 from the Sears Trust, which has funded eight pilot studies that have, in turn, laid the groundwork for $1.8 million in external funding and led directly to 13 peer‐reviewed publications. One of the studies focused on maple syrup urine disease, a genetic disorder in which the body is unable to process certain proteins, which build up and produce a maple syrup‐like odor. Left untreated, the condition can lead to seizures, coma and death. While rare in the general population, it is more prevalent in the Old Order Mennonite community.

I know there are three children with the disease who didn’t die and don’t have neurological damage and have grown up because the Leda J. Sears Trust let us start a diagnostic testing program,” she said. “For that, I will always feel blessed.”