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Boy Wonders

A new center focuses on children and medical marvels

The 7-year-old boy races ahead of his family on the narrow dirt paths of the forest. He has things to do: toss sticks, chase rabbits, and dip his toes in a winding creek. For him, the piney woods near his West Virginia home are sacred—a sheltered place for family time. Every evening, he and his mom, dad, and little brother walk into a cathedral of sycamores and oaks. The rest of the world disappears. In the willows, he tells his mom that he wants to be a boy forever. But Branden Weekley soon faces a grown-up challenge.

One August evening, the wind is warm and the paths are cool. The family is out for a walk. Branden’s mom, Jessica, notices that her son’s eyelids look puffy. She thinks that he seems to be bruising a lot lately. As the family walks, Branden huffs along. He seems barely able to catch his breath. Instead of dashing ahead as usual, he trails behind. “I can’t keep up,” he cries. Something’s wrong. The real world intrudes, disrupting the family’s cloister of green peace.

Only days after that walk, Branden was diagnosed with leukemia. He spent the next two years “fighting the monsters in his blood,” which is how his parents initially described to him the ordeal to come. His life began to revolve around hospitals, and blood tests, and rounds of treatments to suppress his immune system. Eventually, a national donor registry produced an exact stem cell match for Branden, and he underwent a bone marrow transplant at Children’s Hospital of UPMC. The treatment worked—the leukemia went into remission and Branden went home.

“It’s so wonderful seeing him be a kid again,” says Branden’s mom. Her son is often back in the woods now, among the welcoming trees, and the family has gained an appreciation for the marvels of modern medicine.

Many other children soon will experience medical marvels, too, thanks to a $23 million gift from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. The gift will support a new pediatric health research center in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital of UPMC. The new Richard King Mellon Foundation Institute for Pediatric Research will explore ways to prevent and treat childhood diseases at the cellular and molecular levels.

When it’s fully established, the institute will be home to many pediatric health experts, including an internationally recognized scientific director as well as distinguished scholars who will pursue innovations in pediatric medicine. The institute’s faculty and programs will be part of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Through this initiative, the Richard King Mellon Foundation aims to ensure a healthier outcome for children, which is also important to the future health and prosperity of the region and the nation.

Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital already have built one of the fastest-growing pediatric research programs in the country in terms of annual competitive research grants attracted from the National Institutes of Health. The institute also will be an economic incubator, creating 60 to 70 jobs in research and allied fields. All together, it will add 400 jobs to the region and could create still more employment when its research sparks commercial spinoffs based on its scientists’ discoveries. “This grant,” says Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, “will strengthen the Western Pennsylvania economy, even as it adds to our understanding of the biology of children’s health. It is hard to imagine a more
worthy pair of objectives.”

Not long after his successful marrow transplant, Branden, his dark hair full of cowlicks, told his family he now has two birthdays: The day he was born and the day the operation gave him the strength to be a kid again. The 9-year-old is back in school, playing basketball, and enjoying drawing, jigsaw puzzles, and games.

Through its research, the institute wants to give more youngsters like Branden a chance to live full and healthy lives. The medical marvel that touched Branden’s life touched his mother’s, too. During his illness, she spent a lot of time seeing children waiting for transplants, and she witnessed the struggles their parents faced. This made her realize that she wanted a career in health care. She has completed training as a certified nurse assistant and will begin studying next summer to become an LPN, licensed practical nurse. “I want to work in pediatrics,” she says. “I want to be there for the kids and their families.”

So, too, does the Richard King Mellon Foundation Institute for Pediatric Research.
—Ervin Dyer

 

Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement Albert J. Novak Jr.

Notes from Novak

Acclaimed inventor, business founder, and University of Pittsburgh engineering alumnus and trustee John A. Swanson was honored in December for the greatest generosity by an individual donor in Pitt’s 221-year history—$41.3 million to the University’s School of Engineering as part of the $2 billion Building Our Future Together campaign. In recognition of this extraordinary generosity, the school has been renamed the John A. Swanson School of Engineering.

A portion of the Swanson gift will be used to support the transformation of Benedum Hall, the academic home of the Swanson School, which will begin a renovation and expansion project this year. The other portion will be used to establish an endowed fund that will provide a dedicated revenue source to be used at the discretion of the school’s dean. The uses of this fund may include faculty support, a student fund that will provide undergraduate scholarships and graduate student fellowships, discretionary funds for the Swanson Institute for Technical Excellence, and unrestricted income to help the school keep ahead of the rapid pace of change in engineering education and research.

In addition to John A. Swanson’s historic gift to Pitt, other alumni and friends—like you—are also making a difference each day with their gifts at all levels. So far, 129,000 alumni and donors have contributed to the University of Pittsburgh’s Building Our Future Together capital campaign. I thank you for your continued and generous support.

Hail to Pitt!

Campaign Watch

Institutional Advancement is committed to reaching the University’s ambitious $2 billion goal. Pitt’s alumni and friends have contributed generously, making our current campaign status $1.21 billion!


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