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Jennifer Li, M.D.

Photo of Jennifer Li, M.D.
Jennifer Li, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Comparative Effectiveness of Medications Used in Congenital Heart Surgery

Administered by the NHLBI Division of Cardiovascular Sciences, Heart Development and Structural Diseases Branch
FY 2009 Recovery Act Funding: $450,815

As a pediatric cardiologist, Jennifer S. Li, M.D., helps children with heart problems. She is especially interested to learn how medicines may work differently in children than they do in adults, in an effort to be sure they get the safest and best care and can live happy and healthy lives.

Research Focus: Along with other doctors in the Duke Children's Heart Program, Dr. Li takes care of children who need heart surgery. Her patients range from critically ill newborns to teens and young adults with heart disease. Many of these children are born with heart defects - and most of the surgeries are done soon after birth. Dr. Li keeps tabs on the health of her young patients as they grow up. This helps researchers like her understand which therapies work, and it also helps to identify potential long-term consequences of heart conditions and procedures on a child's physical and social development.

One of the challenges of treating congenital heart defects, Dr. Li explains, is that most medications given to children who have surgery have not been tested in randomized clinical trials: carefully regulated studies that are the "gold standard" that clinical researchers use to find out what works. In such studies, scientists compare treatments and procedures to each other or to placebos ("dummy" pills). They typically require a large number of people to be tested so the results are believable, or "statistically significant," in the parlance of science. The fact that randomized clinical trials in children aren't routine - mainly because scientists can't enroll enough young patients in their studies - means that many current treatments for children are "downsized" versions based on studies done with adults.

Grant Close-Up: Dr. Li received Recovery Act funds to get to the heart of this dilemma. She and her team will conduct a two-year study to compare the effectiveness of medications used in children undergoing heart surgery. The study won't require any new experiments, since the researchers will search for information within two existing databases that contain health data on over 45,000 young patients cared for at 29 pediatric health centers across the nation.

Dr. Li and her team plan to focus their attention on three different groups of medications that children frequently receive in the hospital when having surgery for congenital heart defects.

Economic Impact: Congenital heart defects are the most common birth defects and cause a significant health burden, resulting in more than 100,000 years of life lost annually and an estimated $6 billion in acute health care costs alone. Since Dr. Li runs one of the eight main clinical centers in the NHLBI Pediatric Heart Network, she is in an ideal spot to translate Recovery Act findings quickly into clinical practice.

Personalizing care for young heart surgery patients will likely have long-term implications. In the meantime, Dr. Li has already created three new jobs, hiring a data programmer, a statistician, and a project manager assistant, to help her conduct the Recovery Act-funded study.

Why I Come to Work Every Day: Although she was the daughter of a doctor who also did medical research, Dr. Li chose English over science in college. After graduation, though, she changed course and went to medical school at Duke University, which has a strong emphasis on research. There, Dr. Li's fate was sealed as she developed a passion for finding scientific answers that make people's lives better.

"I was drawn to pediatrics because I really love children and helping families," said Dr. Li, who has three children of her own.

Dr. Li acknowledges that it's harder to conduct research in children because of ethical concerns and the relative rarity of childhood diseases. But for her, this makes the problem "a fascinating challenge."

"I really hope my work will have a big impact."

By Alison Davis, Ph.D.

Last Updated:August 10, 2010

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