10% That was the grim chance of survival that doctors gave Peter and Cathy Culshaw’s first child, a dark-haired baby girl named Alexa, one day after she was born in 1992.
Alexa was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition called persistent pulmonary hypertension, which wasn’t allowing her lungs to function properly. As a result, her body was being starved of oxygen.
At the time, there was no cure — and no proven treatment — for her condition. Alexa was quickly transferred to Children’s Hospital Colorado, where doctors believed she would have the best chance for survival.
There, the Culshaws faced two excruciating options, each with its own set of risks. The first option, a heart-lung bypass, had inconsistent results and likely long-term side effects. The second was to try a new therapy for her condition — inhaled nitric oxide — which had been recently pioneered by two Children’s Colorado physician-scientists, Dr. John Kinsella and Dr. Steven Abman, both early in their careers.
Alexa would be only the 13th patient ever given this new therapy, but the Culshaws decided to take a chance.
The novel treatment worked.
Alexa was the first baby to stay on a nitric oxide ventilator until she could breathe on her own.
Today, more than two decades later, the experimental therapy that saved Alexa is now the international standard of care for newborns with her pulmonary condition and has saved thousands of infants’ lives around the globe.
“If it wasn’t for Dr. Abman and Dr. Kinsella and the research they did, I’m not sure that my daughter would be alive,” said Peter.
Funding for Early-Career Physician-Scientists
The Culshaws’ passion for supporting the research of early-career medical investigators was ignited the day Alexa’s life was saved. They made a gift to support research, helping to establish the Nitric Oxide Fund, and have been champions of the hospital’s groundbreaking studies and physician-scientists ever since.
Early on, the Culshaws recognized that in an environment where research funding is growing ever more scarce nationwide — especially within pediatrics — it is extremely difficult for junior-level investigators to secure the resources required to pursue pioneering ideas.
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics found that nearly 60 percent of the grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are awarded to senior-level physician-scientists. This gap in financing for early-career researchers means that novel studies go unfunded, cutting-edge treatments might not be discovered and thousands of children might not have the chance for lifesaving care.
“The great, creative ideas for breakthroughs often happen earlier on in our lives, and we want to support that," said Peter.
Another Quest for a Cure
The Culshaws’ desire to help early-stage researchers continued to grow over time, especially after Alexa’s younger sister, Kelly, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 8.
“Your whole world becomes numbers,” said Cathy, of Kelly’s chronic condition. “You go from being parents to nurses overnight. Pharmaceutical companies are doing research into ways to manage the disease, but with the research at Children’s Colorado, we hope to cure the disease, not just manage it."
Inspired by their daughters’ experiences, Peter and Cathy funded the Culshaw Family Young Investigator Award in Juvenile Diabetes in 2012. The first recipient of the award — $50,000 per year for three years — was Dr. Maki Nakayama, whose research focused on preventing and curing Type 1 diabetes. This year’s award was given to Dr. Holger Russ, who is studying how stem cells can be used to treat diabetes by creating new insulin-producing cells — which ultimately, could be part of a cure for the disease.
“We hope to create a runway for young people to pursue new ideas like these incredible innovations,” said Peter.
The Culshaws have raised more than $575,000 as annual participants in the Courage Classic Bicycle Tour, designating most of these funds to the Research Institute. In 2017 and 2018, Peter was the top individual fundraiser for Courage Classic, and the family recently directed their fundraising to establish two new awards for early-career physician-scientists: the Culshaw Family Surgical Innovation Scholarship and the Culshaw Family Heart-Lung Award.
Peter has served on the Children’s Hospital Colorado Board of Directors and currently serves on the Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation Board of Trustees and the Research Institute committee, which he chaired for a decade.
Peter says the goal of his family’s giving and service to Children’s Colorado has been to elevate the importance and perception of the hospital’s commitment to research.
“Why do we support research? One of the many reasons is that it raises the standard of clinical care by cultivating better doctors,” Peter said. “Do you want your child treated by the person who read the book or by the person who wrote the book? My view is that the more people there are at Children’s Colorado who have written the book, the better the care is.”
For the Culshaws, these research discoveries mean one daughter was given a chance at life and another daughter has hope that her condition may one day be cured. And hundreds of thousands of children and families across the country and around the world will benefit from the groundbreaking research being conducted at Children’s Colorado along the way.