Neonatologist to lead clinical trial for early diagnosis of lung disease in newborns

By Juanita Alvarez-Hernandez

Alvaro Moreira, MD, MSc, neonatologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UT Health San Antonio’s Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine, received a $652,000 mentored career development grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Dr. Moreira will investigate a novel approach to diagnosing bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD). This chronic and costly lung condition affects upwards of 15,000 newborns in the U.S. every year, impairing the lifelong quality of children born preterm.

Inspiration meets an innovative approach to diagnosis and treatment

Alvaro Moreira, MD, MSc, neonatologist and assistant professor of pediatrics

Building on the research data compiled by two preeminent neonatologists, Dr. Moreira aims to test his hypothesis of developing a blood biomarker, or a set of blood biomarkers, that can accurately predict early in the hospital course of preterm newborns, who will develop this debilitating condition and its degree of severity. The goal is to develop a bedside test that will provide an accurate diagnosis within 24 hours to target the correct population in future clinical trials. Currently, the diagnosis of BPD is made at one month of life and the severity of the disease is characterized at ages two to three months.

“Everyone has approximately 20,000 genes,” said Dr. Moreira. “From those, we have identified 20 genes that can accurately predict (>90%) which babies will get the disease in the first week of life. More impressively, ten of the genes align to a signaling pathway that is currently modifiable, which means that there are already established therapies that we may be able to repurpose to treat BPD,” he added.

Mentors unleash his research passion  

A native of Nicaragua who was raised in El Paso, Texas, Dr. Moreira confessed that research was not an interest when pursuing his undergraduate degree at The University of Texas at El Paso, nor his medical degree at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. However, he credits the pivot in his career trajectory to Cara Geary, MD, PhD, a neonatologist who fueled his passion for research during his residency at UTMB.

At UT Health San Antonio, Dr. Moreira has continued to advance his research and grantsmanship skills guided by several mentors. They include Sunil Ahuja, MD, professor and director of the GrantSeekers 2.0 program; Steven Seidner, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics; Jay Peters, MD, professor and pulmonologist, as well as chief of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, and Peter Hornsby, PhD, professor and co-director of the San Antonio Nathan Shock Center and co-leader of the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center.

“The institution’s community of scholars has provided a research infrastructure to build exciting and innovative approaches that may change how neonatal medicine is practiced around the world,” Dr. Moreira shared.

Dr. Moreira has been the recipient of several grants, including as a KL2 Scholar in 2016, supported by the Clinical and Translational Science Award, the Parker B. Francis Fellowship award for the advancement of pulmonary and respiratory diseases and a pilot grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Bringing hope to children and families

When asked why he chose the field of neonatology, Dr. Moreira quickly responded, “When it came time for me to choose a patient population that I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to serving, I knew I wanted to focus on an innocent population, and that’s children. If we can optimize their medical care when they are young, we can set them up to have a long, healthy and prosperous life.”

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