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News Releases

For Immediate Release

Children’s Hospital Surgeon, Pitt Researcher One of Only 12 Scientists in Nation Selected for Prestigious Hartwell Award

David Hackam, MD, PhD, a pediatric surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, has been named one of 12 winners of the prestigious Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Awards for his research into necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a leading killer of premature infants.

NEC is a severe inflammatory disease of the intestine that affects thousands of premature infants in the United States each year. In extreme cases, NEC leads to perforation of the intestine, a condition that can be fatal if not treated with emergency surgery.

“NEC affects up to a third of all preterm infants and is rising in incidence, so we are extremely grateful to the Hartwell Foundation for recognizing the devastation caused by NEC and for enabling us to pursue the development of new treatments and potentially, a cure,” said Dr. Hackam, co-director of the Fetal Diagnostic and Treatment Center at Children’s and Magee-Womens Hospital of  UPMC and  the Roberta Simmons Associate Professor of Pediatric Surgery at Pitt.

Dr. Hackam and his team have identified a genetic “switch” that is turned on in infants who develop NEC. This grant, funded by The Hartwell Foundation, will enable continued work in the laboratory toward developing new medications to turn this switch off.

In the premature infant intestine, a “switch” called toll-like receptor 4 (or TLR4), is “turned on” in premature babies by bacteria and other stressors, leading to NEC. Dr. Hackam and team discovered that turning off the TLR4 switch in mice can reverse the intestinal damage and restore intestinal health. 

To identify new medications that can turn off the TLR4 switch, and thus both prevent and cure NEC, Dr. Hackam and colleagues, including Paul Johnston, PhD, from the University of Pittsburgh Drug Discovery Institute, will use an innovative technique called high-content screening in which a robot and a sophisticated microscope will assess over 200,000 chemicals to determine which can keep the TLR4 switch in the “off” position.

The Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Awards provide each investigator $100,000 per year for three years. The 12 award-winning research proposals represent innovative and cutting-edge technology from disciplines that include molecular biology, diagnostics, imaging, infectious diseases, tissue engineering and neurobiology. For more information about Dr. Hackam and his research, please visit


Marc Lukasiak, 412-692-7919,
Gloria Kreps, 412-586-9764,

Last Update
October 10, 2014
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Last Update
October 10, 2014