May 21, 2019

Researcher develops algorithm to identify causes of vomiting and diarrhea in kids

Gillian Tarr receives Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship

University of Calgary postdoctoral scholar Gillian Tarr has earned a prestigious Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship to fund research that could lead to a new smartphone app to help identify children with important gastrointestinal pathogens.

Dr. Tarr, PhD, is one of three UCalgary postdoctoral scholars to receive a Banting fellowship this year. By the end of her two-year Banting fellowship, Tarr hopes to develop an algorithm that can help doctors better determine which children to test for bacterial illnesses such as E. coli, salmonella, and shigella, along with potentially some viruses such as norovirus.

“The goal is to have an algorithm that we can put into a smartphone app or into an electronic medical record system that physicians can use when they see one of these kids with vomiting or diarrhea,” says Tarr. “It will give them a recommendation of whether the child likely has a high priority pathogen or not, from which they can decide whether to test the child.”

This will provide for more targeted testing of the ailment, leading to appropriate diagnosis, treatment and public health notification.

Originally from Washington state, Tarr arrived at UCalgary in October 2017 as an Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholar. She is working with the Alberta Provincial Pediatric EnTeric Infection TEam (APPETITE) on a groundbreaking study of more than 5,000 children from across Alberta who’ve had three or more episodes of vomiting or diarrhea in a 24-hour period. The study is led by Tarr’s supervisor, Dr. Stephen Freedman, MD, an associate professor in pediatrics, who is also the Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation Professor in Child Health and Wellness at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute with the Cumming School of Medicine. 

“Gillian has been an amazing addition to my research program. She has brought a unique epidemiological skill set that has enabled the conduct of studies that answer crucial questions in the field of pediatric gastroenteritis,” says Dr. Freedman. “With her assistance, our team has become one of the leading centres for pediatric enteric translational research in the world."

Using the APPETITE data, Tarr has already completed a paper showing that current testing guidelines for gastroenteritis illnesses affecting children are inadequate for effectively diagnosing and treating many harmful pathogens.

Her Banting fellowship leads directly from this paper. Tarr will establish a clinical prediction rule that will identify the pathogen likely infecting the child and causing their symptoms. This will then allow the clinician to determine the need to send further diagnostic tests which ultimately will improve patient outcomes. This precision medicine approach to a common diagnostic dilemma will reduce the number of health-care interventions for children, enabling more patients to get the right treatment at the right time.

“Being able to create something that front line providers can use is a potentially more direct way of having impact,” says Tarr. “You don’t have to hope that people read your paper and then figure out how to implement the recommendations on their own. We can offer a tool that is readily available on their smartphones and embedded into electronic medical record systems.”

Gillian Tarr’s project is also funded by the Alberta Innovates Postgraduate Fellowship.

The Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships are administered jointly by the Canadian Institutes of Heath Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. They offer a two-year stipend for successful applicants to conduct specific research outlined in their application.