UK’s “original Capilouto” on leaving a legacy in research, teaching, and entrepreneurship
Before President Eli Capilouto stepped foot on the University of Kentucky’s campus, the UK College of Health Sciences (CHS) already had a Capilouto of their own. Gilson Capilouto, PhD, CCC-SLP, director of undergraduate research and co-founder/chief clinical officer of NFANT Labs, is known for her tenacity, dedication, and innovation in the fields of speech-language pathology and pediatric feeding.
With more than 40 years of experience with pediatric speech-language and feeding disorders, Capilouto’s impact extends far beyond the Wethington building. She officially retired from academia in June and has certainly imparted her own spirit of discovery and desire for success to each student in her classroom.
“I love both teaching and research equally,” she said. “It’s a joy to teach students who are excited about speech-language pathology and committed to becoming the best practitioner they can be. I also think the marriage of teaching to clinical research is particularly fun because it’s important for students to know that everything they do is built off of someone’s hard work and research. I want them to pay that forward.”
“I think research is critical to advancing knowledge in the rehabilitation sciences field,” Capilouto continued. “Comparatively, rehab sciences is still a very young field—speech- language pathology is still growing—and we need to build a stronger research base for what we do so we can become more effective and efficient in working with individuals, lobbying for change, and impacting policies that fund the services we provide. Research is necessary to do all of these things. It’s our key to advancement.”
It’s this passion to contribute to the collective research enterprise in health care that drove Capilouto to spark change for one of our most vulnerable populations: newborn babies. Much of her time and career has been devoted to these tiny patients—many from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)—who experience or have experienced difficulty transitioning to breast or bottle feeding on their own.
“When I came to UK, I was asked to be the speech-language pathologist on a multidisciplinary team that followed babies after they graduated from the NICU and were at risk for developmental problems,” Capilouto said. “As part of this team, I collaborated with neonatologists, neonatology residents, pediatric residents, a physical therapist, occupational therapist, dietician, nurse practitioner, and a social worker. It has been an extremely rewarding experience and gave me the chance to better understand the complex medical and social needs of preterm and sick term infants and their caregivers.”
Like all good researchers, Capilouto was always asking questions as she built these new relationships and connections. And, it was out of her innate inquisitive nature that the idea for nfant Feeding Solution, an FDA cleared pediatric medical device, and NFANT Labs, LLC, a digital health company dedicated to improving the standard of care in infant feeding, were born.
According to NFANT’s website, up to 70 percent of infants born prematurely and 25 percent of infants born full-term have trouble transitioning to breast or bottle feeding. These issues can often result in significant health problems.
“After spending five years doing clinical work in the NICU, I was at a conference where a speaker talked about the fact that adults who are non-orally fed for an extended period of time can develop atrophy (degeneration) of the tongue muscle,” she said. “The speaker stated further, that is was not clear whether the same thing was happening to preterm and sick term infants who are unable to be fed orally for days, weeks or even months.”
“That question really stuck with me,” she said. “When I returned from the conference, I started talking to Dr. Esther Dupont-Versteegden, a faculty member in the College of Health Sciences who is an expert in muscle atrophy. One conversation led to other connections and we were quickly exploring related research opportunities.”
Soon, Capilouto’s partnership expanded to include CHS faculty member and biomechanist Dr. Timothy Butterfield, and biomedical engineer Dr. Tommy Cunningham (her fellow NFANT co- founder). The team received a grant from the Kentucky Science and Engineering Foundation to pioneer their work.
By 2014, Capilouto, Cunningham and the research team at NFANT Labs successfully developed nfant Feeding Solution, the first non-invasive tool to help clinicians identify and treat an infant’s ability to feed safely and efficiently. In 2015, NFANT received FDA clearance to market their ground-breaking product.
“Today, our product is in 52 hospitals across the United States,” Capilouto said. “We’re also partnering with other scientists and universities across the country to investigate a number of important research questions including the impact of tongue resistance exercise on sucking in infants born with congenital heart disease, neonatal sucking vigor as a predictor for childhood obesity and diabetes, and sucking performance as a predictor of neonatal brain injury. As we collect more data, we will be able to leverage that data to better predict those babies at risk for long-term problems with feeding.”
As both a researcher and educator, Capilouto finds that speech-language pathology is a field that is constantly evolving and changing. “This is what brings the profession alive to us as scientists and clinicians,” she said. “I see these changes all the time. My career as a clinician, clinical researcher and educator has been extremely rewarding. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to work with remarkable colleagues and collaborators and to teach and learn from so many talented and devoted students.”