(Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Connell School's Brittney van de Water selected for Hood Foundation grant

Funding will support her research to improve outcomes for children with tuberculosis

Connell School of Nursing Assistant Professor Brittney van de Water is the recipient of a Child Health Research Award from the Charles H. Hood Foundation for a study aimed at improving outcomes for children diagnosed with tuberculosis. She is the first Boston College nurse scientist ever to receive funding from the Hood Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the health and quality of life for children.

The project, "Improving childhood tuberculosis treatment outcomes and post-TB lung functioning and quality of life in rural South Africa,” will be supported by $200,000 from the Hood Foundation. The Foundation’s Child Health Research Awards Program funds groundbreaking and innovative pediatric research and helps young investigators succeed in new, independent roles by giving them opportunities to demonstrate creativity in their field that lead to both career advancement and additional research funding. This kind of support at critical phases of both scientific research and career path development helps the next generation of cutting-edge scientific leaders and propels advancements in pediatric health, according to the Hood Foundation.

Van de Water and her team will follow children who have been diagnosed with TB through treatment and 12 months after treatment initiation. The research will be conducted in Eastern Cape, a rural, underserved province of South Africa, which has a high incidence of TB and HIV.

“I became a nurse and a clinician-researcher to improve the lives of children and that’s why this Hood Foundation award excites me,” said van de Water, a pediatric nurse practitioner. “It’s a project focused on kids and that’s special. It feels really close to my heart.

“My aim is to develop effective strategies to help children successfully complete TB treatment in order to reduce morbidity and improve lung function and quality of life during and after treatment,” she continued.

“Everyone knows about HIV yet no one really talks about tuberculosis, even though daily, nearly 4,400 people die of TB.”

“I’m so proud of Brittney, as funding from Hood is extremely competitive,” said Connell School Dean Katherine Gregory, who noted that van de Water’s project was one of only four proposals chosen for funding for this award cycle. Van de Water’s project is only the third project from Boston College ever funded by Hood Foundation, which was established in 1942.

A graduate of the Connell School, van de Water earned a doctorate from Duke University. Her research is focused on implementation science and global health, particularly in relation to TB/HIV as well as health system strengthening. She has worked around the world, including Malawi, Sierra Leone, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Haiti. She has spent the last 10 years collaborating with TB clinicians and researchers in South Africa. During her post-doctoral studies at Harvard Medical School, she spent up to six months a year for four years conducting research in South Africa.

“TB is the leading cause of death of people living with HIV and more people die of TB than HIV, which I think really surprises people,” she said. “Everyone knows about HIV yet no one really talks about tuberculosis, even though daily, nearly 4,400 people die of TB.”

While van de Water is conducting other research funded by the National Institutes of Health that looks at improving screening and diagnosis of TB on a systemic level across government clinics, the Hood-sponsored project will be focused on children with TB and their treatment and post-disease quality of life. Specifically, van de Water is looking at addressing post-TB lung disease.

Van de Water plans to gather a panel of pediatric lung experts to develop a robust child-specific definition of post-TB lung disease and assess whether factors such as air pollution exposure, malnutrition, and distance from clinics increase the odds of developing post-TB lung disease.

A portion of van de Water’s study is also being funded through a $35,000 SI-RITEA grant from BC’s Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society. “The Schiller Institute’s focus on interdisciplinary collaboration and the cross-cutting themes of energy, health, and the environment have really helped me think about my research in novel ways,” she said. “I have always worked on interdisciplinary teams, but this is the first study I’m working on with two engineers. Although TB, a lung disease, has many possible links to environmental pollutants, this the first time I’m exploring how air pollutants might affect children and the progression of TB. I’m excited to incorporate environmental aspects into this project as the intersection of the environment and human health is present now more than ever.”

According to van de Water, there is scant research on post-TB lung disease in children. Her study will add critical knowledge regarding the pediatric TB care cascade and children’s lung functioning and quality of life.

“We are looking for any kind of correlations between things that might happen during the course of TB that would lead to the development of post-TB lung disease,” said van de Water. “This is exploratory work, but ultimately we hope to develop interventions once we increase our understanding.”