March of Dimes names recipient of Richard B. Johnston, Jr., MD Prize in Developmental Biology for research on fetal surgery and therapies to treat birth defects

February 2, 2022

Today, March of Dimes announces a pioneer in fetal surgery as the recipient of the 2021 Richard B. Johnston, Jr., MD Prize in Developmental Biology: Dr. Alan W. Flake, Director, Center for Fetal Research, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Professor of Surgery, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. This annual award honors an outstanding scientist who has advanced the science that underlies our understanding of pregnancy, birth and prenatal development. For more than three decades, Dr. Flake has advanced fetal surgical techniques and therapies to help babies with life-threatening or devastating fetal conditions and those experiencing preterm birth.

The Prize in Developmental Biology was created as a tribute to Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, and is named in honor of Dr. Johnston, Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado and a former Medical Director at March of Dimes. It carries a $150,000 award and is part of March of Dimes’ research strategy to address the multi-faceted nature of the maternal and child health crisis. To date, five recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

“Dr. Flake is the perfect example of a physician-scientist. For decades, he has brought cutting-edge research and transformative surgical innovations from the bench to the bedside, treating babies with life-threatening fetal malformations and congenital diseases,” said Dr. Emre Seli, Chief Scientific Officer at March of Dimes. “Dr. Flake’s lifetime commitment to fetal surgery, considered experimental not long ago, is now the practice standard of care today, correcting devastating fetal conditions and giving babies a chance at healthy, functional lives. Taken with his stem cell research and his breakthrough work to mimic the womb to better sustain premature babies, Dr. Flake is a rare example of a basic scientist and a full-time surgeon who is literally re-writing the realm of possibility in fetal and neonatal therapies today.”

As a fetal and pediatric surgeon, Dr. Flake has developed surgical techniques and therapies to care for babies with diseases ranging from spina bifida, congenital diaphragmatic hernia, tumors and other complex conditions affecting fetuses and neonates. He leads an active research laboratory focused on fetal stem cell and gene therapy. He has been at the forefront of cutting-edge studies aimed at treating genetic disorders before birth and was the first to investigate the therapeutic potential of transplanting stem cells in utero to treat genetic disorders, like sickle cell disease. Dr. Flake’s work has the potential to offer new hope for many other genetic diseases, including immunodeficiency disorders.

His latest research focuses on babies born preterm, which is a leading cause of death of babies in the U.S. and developing countries. His lab developed an extra-uterine environment that encases the fetus in fluid and replicates the functions of the maternal womb, connecting the fetus through its umbilical cord. Starting in animal models, he is studying the benefits of this natural environment for babies born extremely preterm.

“The dream is to prevent these diseases before birth, so that effected children can live healthy lives,” said Dr. Flake. “We’ve made significant progress in the lab and clinically, but there is still more work to be done.”

Dr. Flake earned his MD from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, received postgraduate clinical and research training at the University of California, San Francisco, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and has worked at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia as a Pediatric and Fetal Surgeon and Director of the Center for Fetal Research for the past 25 years.

Find more information about the prize here.