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November 12, 2009

Research Notes

Two new CAREER awardees announced

Faculty members Gurudev Dutt of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Michael Grabe of the Department of Biological Sciences are the most recent Pitt recipients of National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards this year. The five-year awards fund junior faculty members’ emerging careers and include an education component that encourages outreach to women and underrepresented groups. Dutt studies quantum systems, which show potential in next-generation technologies, particularly for transistors as well as information processing and storage devices. With his $550,000 grant, Dutt will explore how to control the quantum coherence (the phase of electron waves) and quantum entanglement (linking of atoms for combined power) of these systems. Coherence and entanglement would allow the atoms in quantum systems to function cooperatively, increasing an electronic device’s power and speed. Dutt will use diamond-based materials and nanostructures to test how coherence and entanglement behave in a solid-state environment similar to that of an electronic device. Graduate and undergraduate students working on the project will learn advanced experimental techniques used in modern physics laboratories to study quantum properties. Dutt and his group also will develop computer simulations and learning games that explain important physics topics and current research, which will be made available to the public to motivate aspiring scientists. Grabe received a $932,252 grant to explore the correlation between cell function and the proteins contained in the cell membrane. Membrane proteins dictate a cell’s ability to sense and respond to its environment. They also regulate essential cell activity, such as the flow of molecules in and out of a cell. Unstable membrane proteins may function incorrectly, be targeted for removal from the membrane or accumulate in the wrong place in the cell. Improperly functioning proteins are linked to a number of nervous system and heart disorders and misplaced or absent proteins can result in cystic fibrosis and related conditions. Grabe seeks to better understand the basic physics and chemistry of how these proteins meld with the membrane and the roots of protein malfunction. He and his group will create computer models that simulate the insertion of these proteins into the membrane and their removal. Grabe plans to make the software associated with his work freely available. For the educational component, Grabe will develop a mathematical biology course and textbook to train undergraduate students in the mathematics needed to understand new technologies in biology. He also has been developing a summer course in basic mathematics for high school students in Pittsburgh’s school-to-career teen program. Dutt and Grabe join four other faculty members whose CAREER awards previously were announced. They are Lillian Chong and Megan Spence of chemistry, Lance Davidson of bioengineering and Jung-Kun Lee of mechanical engineering and materials science. Funds for Grabe, Dutt and Lee’s projects come from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Together, the six faculty members have been awarded more than $3.73 million in CAREER funding. Pitt is among 41 schools to receive six or more of the 694 CAREER awards granted in the 2008-09 award cycle.

Lighter smokes result in fewer quitters

Smokers who switched to a low-tar, light or mild brand of cigarette had about a 50 percent lower chance of giving up smoking, according to a School of Medicine study published in the November issue of Tobacco Control. Hilary Tindle, lead author of the study and faculty member in the Division of Internal Medicine, reported: “Forty-three percent of smokers reported a desire to quit smoking as a reason for switching to lighter cigarettes. While these individuals were the most likely to make an attempt, ironically, they were the least likely to quit smoking.girl smoking “It may be that smokers think that a lighter brand is better for their health and is therefore an acceptable alternative to giving up completely.” The findings are based on more than 31,000 smokers in the United States who participated in the National Cancer Institute- and CDC-sponsored Tobacco Use Supplement. Participants were quizzed in 2003 about whether they had switched to a milder/low-tar brand of cigarette and why. They also were asked if they had attempted to give up smoking altogether during the previous 12 months, and whether they currently identified themselves as non-smokers. The total sample included more than 29,000 people who were current smokers and almost 2,000 who reported having given up the habit for at least 90 days prior to the survey. In all, 12,000 people, or 38 percent, had switched to a lighter brand, with one in four citing flavor as the primary reason. Nearly one in five of those surveyed said they had switched for a combination of better flavor, wanting to smoke a less harmful cigarette and the intention to give up smoking completely. Those who switched brands were 58 percent more likely to have tried to give up smoking between 2002 and 2003 than those who stuck with their brand, but this group was 60 percent less likely to be successful in quitting smoking. In the entire study group — including those who tried to quit and those who did not — the overall odds of giving up smoking were 46 percent lower among those who switched to a lighter cigarette for any reason than among those who stuck with their original brand. Low-tar cigarettes deliver amounts of tar, nicotine and other substances that are comparable with regular cigarettes, yet they make up 84 percent of U.S. market share. “Previous research has shown that smokers interpret the term ‘light’ to mean less toxic, an association that manufacturers have sought to exploit in advertising,” said Tindle. Pitt co-authors were Saul Shiffman of the Department of Psychology and James E. Bost of the Department of Medicine.

Radiation oncology research presented

Several studies involving Pitt researchers were among the presentations at the recent annual meeting of the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO). Patient preferences studied Cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment value forthrightness and compassion from their radiation oncologists, according to a study led by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI). The study sought to understand what cancer patients want from relationships with their physicians. “In oncology, a strong physician-patient relationship is essential,” said Ajay Bhatnagar, faculty member in radiation oncology in the School of Medicine and lead author of the study. “A patient’s interaction with his or her doctor can help the patient make important treatment decisions, such as what cancer treatment is best for that individual. Ultimately, we aim to help oncologists improve patient care and provide greater patient satisfaction. “Learning to more effectively communicate with our patients, to understand what makes them comfortable so they are more likely to hear what we have to say, is extremely important,” said Bhatnagar. “Patients make life-and-death decisions under our care, and as physicians it is important to understand, as much as is possible, what influences their thought processes.” The study involved 508 patients who underwent radiation treatment for breast, prostate or lung cancer between June 2006 and March 2008. Patients answered a variety of questions focusing on the patient-doctor relationship at three different intervals: prior to initial consultation, at the midpoint of treatment and at the completion of radiation therapy. The patients were randomized into two groups, based on whether their oncologists reviewed their initial patient preference survey responses (the experimental group) or did not (the control group). At the time of completion, patients also completed a satisfaction survey. The study found that 72 percent of the patients preferred to be called by their first name, even among elderly patients. Females preferred this more often than males (76 percent to 66 percent), and white patients preferred it more often than black patients (74 percent to 56 percent). Additionally, while 95 percent of all patients wanted their oncologists to be forthright with them about their chances of survival, there was a significantly increased preference for forthrightness among prostate cancer patients compared to lung cancer patients. Nearly three-quarters of all patients were neutral about whether their radiation oncologist wore a white coat, and 95 percent of high school graduates showed a greater preference for having their radiation treatment described in everyday language as opposed to complicated medical terminology by their radiation oncologists, compared to 91 percent of college graduates and 84 percent of post-graduate patients. SRS relieves spinal cancer pain Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS), a radiation therapy that precisely delivers a large dose of radiation to tumors, effectively controls pain in patients with cancer that has spread to the spine, according to UPCI researchers. The study, led by Dwight E. Heron, vice chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the School of Medicine, compared the effectiveness of single- and multi-session treatments of SRS in controlling patients’ pain. According to Heron, cancers frequently can spread to the bone and the spine is the site most commonly involved, which can be extremely painful. “Conventional radiation therapy is not always effective in alleviating bone pain resulting from spread of cancer to the spine. In patients who have previously received radiation, few options for effective treatment exist,” he said. The study reviewed the outcomes of 228 patients treated with SRS at UPCI and Georgetown University Medical Center. Patients at UPCI received a single treatment of SRS while patients at Georgetown generally received three treatment sessions. “Both arms of the study successfully proved that SRS is a safe and effective form of treatment for patients with cancer that has spread to their bones, even in patients who had previously received radiation to the spine,” said Heron. “Interestingly, patients who received only one treatment experienced faster onset of pain relief but those who received three treatments experienced relief for longer periods of time. Additionally, patients who received three treatments had less need for re-treatment and greater survival rates,” he said. This study was funded by Accuray. New drug may aid fracture healing A study by Pitt researchers suggests that a drug currently under development in the School of Medicine may help bone fractures heal more quickly after radiation exposure. The drug, JP4-039, is a free-radical scavenger targeted to the mitochondria, the energy generator of all cells. For this study, researchers compared the healing time of fractures in a mouse model system treated immediately after radiation exposure with JP4-039 against a control group of mice that did not receive the drug. The fractured bones in the group treated with JP4-039 healed much more rapidly than the control group. “This study has important implications on two levels,” said study author Abhay S. Gokhale, chief resident in the Department of Radiation Oncology. “From a patient care standpoint, this drug could eventually be beneficial to pediatric cancer patients who are vulnerable to the late effects of radiation treatment on bone growth and development. From an emergency response perspective, if the ideal dosage of the drug is developed and we find a way to have it easily administered, it could potentially help people exposed to radiation in an accident or attack.” The study was carried out in the laboratory of radiation oncology faculty members Joel Greenberger and Michael Epperly, with co-investigator Peter Wipf of chemistry, and overseen by Pitt’s Center for Medical Countermeasures Against Radiation. The center is dedicated to identifying and developing small molecule radiation protectors and mitigators that easily can be accessed and administered in the event of a large-scale radiological or nuclear emergency. Previous research conducted by this team showed that JP4-039 helps protect cells from the damaging effects of radiation.

No long-term benefit to iNO therapy for preemies

Inhaled nitric oxide (iNO), a therapy used in the treatment of premature newborns with respiratory failure that had shown promising results in short-term studies, does not improve long-term outcomes significantly, according to a national study led by critical care researchers at the School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital. Previous studies of iNO in premature babies with respiratory failure suggested improvements in early outcomes, but this study of nearly 800 infants found no significant improvement in survival rates at 1 year of age and no change in longer term respiratory or neurological function. Researchers conducted long-term follow-up of premature newborns enrolled in a 16-center study testing whether iNO could prevent chronic lung disease. The babies were born at 34 weeks or earlier and weighed between 500 and 1,250 grams. They received five parts per million of iNO or a placebo within the first two days of birth and continuing for 21 days (or until the patient was taken off a ventilator). Of the 590 babies with complete survival data, 77 percent survived to one year of age (79 percent of those receiving iNO and 75 percent of those receiving placebo). At one year, less than 6 percent of study participants still were receiving supplemental oxygen, but most had continued neurologic impairment. Less than 38 percent of survivors were unimpaired and nearly 35 percent had severe neurologic impairment. In all, nearly 45 percent of patients from the study had died, were on oxygen or had neurologic impairment, and there were no significant differences between those who had received iNO and those who had received a placebo. “We were surprised by these findings, because previous studies had suggested short-term benefits of iNO in the treatment of respiratory failure,” said first author R. Scott Watson, who is a faculty member in critical care medicine and pediatrics and an intensivist in the Division of Critical Care Medicine at Children’s Hospital. “Further study will determine if a different dose, longer duration of therapy and/or use in a different subgroup of premature babies would be effective,” said Watson, who also is a researcher in the clinical research, investigation and systems modeling of acute illness laboratory in the Department of Critical Care Medicine. “This was an important study because iNO has been proven an effective therapy for the treatment of respiratory failure in late-term and term infants,” Watson said. “However, it may not be effective for smaller babies born at 34 weeks or younger. In addition, the discrepancy between the short-term and longer-term findings suggests that the conventional way of studying treatment for clinically ill infants and children, by looking at outcomes that develop in the hospital, is not enough to understand whether the treatments really work. We need to routinely study longer-term outcomes that are important to how children grow and develop over time.” Results of the study are published in the November issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Surprising find may pit Antabuse against tropical infection

Pitt drug discovery researchers and their collaborators at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research have identified compounds that hold promise for treating leishmaniasis, a parasitic infection transmitted by sandfly bites that many consider one of the world’s most overlooked diseases. The findings are available online in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. These drug candidates, which can disrupt the life cycle of the Leishmania parasite, were found by screening nearly 200,000 chemical compounds. One of the most potent compounds was further tested in mice to confirm it could be effective against the infection. Drug Discovery Institute (DDI) director John S. Lazo, who also is Allegheny Foundation Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, said, “We are making real progress in our effort to find new drugs to treat what I’d call the most neglected of the neglected diseases. And the method we’ve developed could be applied to find treatments for other parasitic infections, which are an enormous global health burden.” For the new study, lead investigator Elizabeth R. Sharlow, of the Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, targeted the Leishmania life cycle stage that infects the sandfly, to measure the drug candidates’ ability to inhibit the parasite’s growth. Compounds were screened at relatively high concentration to make them more likely to inhibit the growth. Sharlow said, “The aim was to maximize the diversity of the active compounds, which we then clustered into similar chemotypes with powerful computational methods to make further testing more manageable.” The process is known as “HILCES,” for high throughput, low-stringency, computationally enhanced small molecule screening. (Low stringency is the drug discovery term for high concentration.) One promising anti-leishmanial compound turned out to be disulfiram, or Antabuse, a drug that causes an acute sensitivity to alcohol and that is sometimes prescribed to discourage drinking among patients with chronic alcoholism. Lazo noted, “In a million years, we wouldn’t have thought about using a compound such as disulfiram for leishmaniasis. It has appeal because it has already been widely used and is inexpensive, but in its current form, it might not be the best option to treat the infection. We plan to develop it further with our colleagues at Walter Reed toimprove the compound’s potency and efficacy.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates worldwide each year there are about 1.5 million new cases of leishmaniasis skin infections, which lead to ulcers, and about a half-million visceral infections, which lead to fever, weight loss and enlargement of the spleen and liver. There is no vaccine or preventive treatment for the parasitic infection. Interest in developing new treatments for leishmaniasis has grown because of the military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the infection is common, said co-investigator Col. Alan Magill, director of the Division of Experimental Therapeutics at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. “Our soldiers are at risk for becoming infected with the Leishmania parasite, but the treatments we have can produce serious side effects,” he said. “Also, the organism is becoming resistant to those agents, which haven’t changed in 50 years.” Other Pitt co-authors of the paper were David Close, Tong Ying Shun, Stephanie Leimgruber and Robyn Reed of Pitt’s DDI and the Pittsburgh Molecular Library and Screening Center; Peter Wipf of the Department of Chemistry, and Gabriela Mustata of the Department of Computational Biology. The research was funded by grants from the U.S. Army and the National Institutes of Health.

Nanoparticle de-icer developed

A nanoparticle-based coating developed in the lab of chemical and petroleum engineering faculty member Di Gao of the Swanson School of Engineering thwarts the buildup of ice on solid surfaces and can be applied easily. A paper in the Nov. 3 edition of Langmuir by Pitt doctoral student Liangliang Cao presents the first evidence of anti-icing properties for a class of water repellants — including the Pitt coating — known as superhydrophobic coatings. These thin films create microscopic ridges that reduce the surface area to which water can adhere. But, the authors note, because ice behaves differently than water, the ability to repulse water cannot be readily applied to ice inhibition, so superhydrophobic coatings must be formulated specifically to ward off ice buildup. Gao and his team created different batches made of a silicone resin-solution combined with nanoparticles of silica ranging in size from 20 nanometers to 20 micrometers. They applied each variant to aluminum plates then exposed the plates to supercooled water (-20 degrees Celsius) to simulate freezing rain. Cao writes in Langmuir that while each compound containing silica bits of 10-or-fewer micrometers deflected water, only those with silica pieces less than 50 nanometers in size completely prevented icing. The minute surface area of the smaller fragments means they make minimal contact with the water. Instead, the water mostly touches the air pockets between the particles and falls away without freezing. Though not all superhydrophobic coatings follow the Pitt recipe, the researchers conclude that every type will have a different particle-scale for repelling ice than for repelling water. Gao tested the coating with 50-nanometer particles outdoors in freezing rain to determine its real-world potential. He painted one side of an aluminum plate and left the other side untreated. The treated side had very little ice, while the untreated side was covered completely. He produced similar results on a commercial satellite dish where the glossed half of the dish had no ice while the other half was encrusted. The findings could have real-world applications in preventing freezing rain from collecting on roads, power lines and aircraft. A video demonstration of the coating can be seen at; the Langmuir paper is available at


Journalism history grant awarded

Pitt communication faculty member Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray, a visiting scholar in communication, have been awarded a $1,250 research grant by the American Journalism Historians Association. The Zborays plan to study southern newspaper readers during the Civil War. The American Journalism Historians Association, founded in 1981, fosters research and teaching of journalism history.

Weight, risky teen sex linked

A School of Medicine study sheds new light on the relationship between race, body weight and sexual behavior among adolescent girls. The results suggest that a girl’s ethnicity and her actual weight or perception of her weight may play a role in her participation in risky sexual behaviors. The study results are published in the November issue of Pediatrics. The study, conducted by Aletha Akers, faculty member in gynecology and reproductive sciences, and her colleagues further links girls at weight extremes with an increased risk for engaging in sexual risk-taking behaviors. “This study will contribute to sexual health education prevention efforts, which can be tailored to address how cultural norms regarding body size may influence adolescent sexual decision-making. Knowing how a girl perceives her weight may be just as important as knowing her actual weight,” noted Akers. Of the nearly 7,200 high school girls asked about their sexual activity and risky sexual behavior as part of the 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey, half reported ever having sex. Those girls who were both sexually active and overweight, or who thought they were overweight, were less likely to use condoms than normal-weight sexually active girls. Underweight girls also were less likely to use condoms. The findings also suggested variability in the girls’ sexual activity and sexual risk-taking behavior based on their ethnicity and actual or perceived weight. Caucasian girls who believed that they were underweight, whether accurate or not, were more likely to have had sex and to have had four or more sexual partners. Overweight Caucasian girls were less likely to use condoms. Underweight African-American girls also were less likely to use condoms while overweight African-American girls reported four or more sexual partners. Latina girls of all weights were more likely to engage in a variety of sexual risk behaviors — lack of condom or oral contraception use, sex before age 13, greater than four sexual partners and use of alcohol. Akers also is an obstetrician/gynecologist at Magee-Womens Hospital and an investigator at the Magee-Womens Research Institute. Other Pitt researchers were Melanie Gold of Student Health Service, Willa Doswell of health promotion and management in the School of Nursing, James Bost of the Division of General Internal Medicine; Judy Chang and Harold Wiesenfeld of the departments of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences and medicine, and Wentao Feng, a former graduate student in biostatistics.

LRDC tutoring research funded

Learning Research and Development Center researchers Diane Litman and co-principal investigator Katherine Forbes-Riley have been awarded $452,745 in National Science Foundation robust intelligence and human-centered computing program funding over three years for their project, “An Affect-Adaptive Spoken Dialogue System That Responds Based on User Model and Multiple Affective States.” Research has shown that not all users interact with a system in the same way and that users display a range of affective states and attitudes while interacting with a system. The proposed research hypothesizes that employing different affect adaptations for users with different aptitude levels and adapting to multiple-user states will result in further performance improvement in affective spoken dialogue systems. Researchers will test their hypotheses in the context of an existing spoken dialogue physics tutoring system that adapts to the user’s state of uncertainty. According to Litman of computer science, the goal of the research is to improve affective spoken dialogue systems, leading to more natural and effective systems for computer-based tutoring as well as for more traditional information-seeking domains.

PTSD, cannabis use linked

Teens and young adults with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at higher risk for cannabis use disorders (CUD) including cannabis dependence and abuse, according to a study by School of Medicine researchers published in a recent issue of Addictive Behaviors.RN marijuana While previous research shows that adults with PTSD were three times more likely to have cannabis dependence compared to those without PTSD, little was known about how teens and young adults were affected until now. “These findings demonstrate that major adverse life events, such as those seen in persons with PTSD, can contribute to the development of CUD among teenagers and young adults,” said Jack R. Cornelius, faculty member in psychiatry and pharmaceutical sciences. Researchers examined 693 people over a period of 10 years, 31 of whom were diagnosed with PTSD and 161 (136 males and 25 females) diagnosed with CUD. The average age of onset of the CUD was 16.7 years. Further analyses showed that PTSD is associated directly with the presence of CUD and with having deviant friends, such as those involved in illegal activities. “These findings suggest PTSD contributes to the development of CUD among teenagers, and therefore it is important to adequately assess for PTSD among young people at risk for CUD,” added Cornelius. Pitt co-authors included Duncan B. Clark of psychiatry; Levent Kirisc, Maureen Reynolds, Ralph E. Tarter of pharmaceutical sciences, and study coordinator Jeanine Hayes. ### The University Times Research Notes column reports on funding awarded to Pitt researchers as well as findings arising from University research. We welcome submissions from all areas of the University. Submit information via email to:, by fax to 412/624-4579 or by campus mail to 308 Bellefield Hall. For submission guidelines, visit

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