Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

September 26, 2013

Research Notes

Journal issue features emergency preparedness research

Research on computational modeling of public health emergencies and simulations of the potential response, brought together by the Graduate School of Public Health, is featured in a special September/October issue of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and available free online.

The issue contains nearly a dozen studies sparked by collaborations among infectious disease specialists and industrial engineers, epidemiologists and geospatial engineers, political scientists and statisticians at the “Dynamics of Preparedness” conference held at the MIDAS (Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study) National Center of Excellence last October. MIDAS is funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health.

Said Margaret Potter, guest editor of the issue and director of Pitt’s Center for Public Health Practice: “Such interdisciplinary research collaborations can be challenging, but also very rewarding when it comes to protecting public health.”

Added Donald S. Burke, public health dean and UPMC-Jonas Salk Chair of Global Health, who co-authored an article in the special issue: “At Pitt Public Health, we are at the forefront of computer modeling to address a variety of public health questions. Such work will facilitate better planning and preparedness for a variety of threats to public health, including natural and man-made disasters, as well as important societal problems such as crime, obesity and smoking. We intend to make modeling and simulation a regular, day-to-day decision support tool for public health officials.”

Pitt’s Public Health Dynamics Laboratory is developing such tools, including a database for gathering and analyzing public health data, a framework for modeling how the actions and interactions of different groups affect the entire population and a publicly accessible web service that translates epidemiological information onto a map for more intuitive exploration.

Pitt team in $10 million computer image recognition project

Developing a computer that can see the world as the human brain’s complex visual cortex does has been a long-sought goal. Thanks to a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), that goal may be a future reality.

A Pitt research team is part of a seven-university group that will receive an NSF CISE expeditions in computing award, the largest single investment in computer science research that NSF makes.

The Pitt team, which will be funded by $500,000 of the grant, is led by Steven P. Levitan, John A. Jurenko Professor of Computer Engineering at the Swanson School of Engineering, and Donald M. Chiarulli, computer engineering and computer science faculty member in the Department of Computer Science of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

This project envisions a holistic design of a machine vision system that will approach or exceed the capabilities and efficiencies of human vision, enabling computers not only to record images but also to understand visual content at up to a thousand times the efficiency of current technologies.

While several machine vision systems today each can perform one or a few human tasks — such as detecting human faces in point-and-shoot cameras — they still are limited in their ability to perform a wide range of visual tasks, to operate in complex, cluttered environments and to provide reasoning for their decisions. In contrast, the visual cortex in mammals excels in a broad variety of goal-oriented cognitive tasks and is at least three orders of magnitude more energy-efficient than customized state-of-the-art machine vision systems.

In particular, this project aims to understand the fundamental mechanisms used in the visual cortex, with the hope of enabling the design of new vision algorithms and hardware materials that can improve power, speed, flexibility and recognition accuracies relative to existing machine vision systems.

Because of the complexity of the human visual cortex, which processes image data faster than a computer, the teams are applying their expertise across multiple systems. Pitt’s team is investigating the resonance of coupled electro-magnetic oscillators to perform image processing in silicon.

Said Levitan: “The underlying principle is not new; in fact, in 1665, Christiaan Huygens discovered that two pendulum clocks mounted to the same wall would synchronize their swings, no matter how they were started. This self-synchronization property of coupled oscillators can be used as a measure of similarity in large-scale pattern matching problems.”

Electromagnetic spin torque oscillators are an emerging nano-technology that is fabricated as a sandwich of two magnetic films separated by a non-magnetic layer. When an electric current passes through the sandwich the electrons cause the magnetic field to rotate like a spinning top, which creates an oscillating voltage. The oscillators can be coupled so they resonate when they are at the same frequency. Levitan and Chiarulli are exploiting this locking phenomenon to match patterns in visual images.

Said Chiarulli: “Imagine a vast sea of organ pipes, each tuned to one frequency. If you then play a note in the air, the pipe tuned closest to that note will resonate. If we identify the pipe, we know which note it was; that is the basic idea.

“Traditional Boolean logic —the 1s and 0s or true/false values that comprise computer systems — is not capable of the nuanced pattern matching and image analysis that the human brain does many times per second using less than 10 watts of power. This work is focused on new computational models that can work more like a human brain model of computation in solving the problem of visual perception.”

Smart machine vision systems that understand and interact with their environments could have a profound impact on society, including as aids for visually impaired persons, driver assistance capabilities for reducing automotive accidents and augmented reality systems for enhanced shopping, travel and safety.

Student researchers include undergraduates Soyo Awosika-Olumo, Natalie Janosek and Andrew Seel, and graduate students John Carpenter and Yan Fang.

Other collaborating institutions are the University of Southern California, Stanford, York College of Pennsylvania, University of California-San Diego, University of California-Los Angeles and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

NSF grant will fund study of liquid/solid interaction

The interaction of a viscous liquid with a solid body is a common phenomenon in nature that impacts everyday life from arterial blood flow and animal locomotion to structural damage from flooding and the manufacturing of short-fiber composites. To address two fundamental aspects of this interaction — the motion of a rigid body with internal cavities that are completely filled with a viscous liquid, and the vibration-induced motion of a rigid body in a viscous liquid — the NSF Division of Mathematical Sciences has awarded a $183,000 grant to two Swanson school researchers.

The principal investigator is Giovanni P. Galdi,  the Leighton E. and Mary N. Orr Professor of Mechanical Engineering and a faculty member in mathematics; co-PI is Paolo Zunino, faculty member in mechanical engineering and materials science.

Said Galdi: “We’re continuing our research to develop mathematical and numerical analysis to better understand and predict how liquids and solids interact at two critical levels. Mathematics investigates the reliability of the system of equations provided by the engineer to model a particular problem, while numerical simulation analyzes their outcome and compares it to the actual experiment. This would help to advance engineering, biological and medical studies at both macro and micro scales by better predicting outcomes in everything from large-scale infrastructure projects and space exploration to developing robots that can move through fluids without external propulsion.”

The first problem will study how the spontaneous mechanical oscillations of a hollow body can be reduced or totally eliminated by filling the cavity with a viscous liquid, and how this effect is enhanced by an appropriate choice of the liquid characteristics (density, viscosity, physical properties). This research will address macro systems such as geological processes as well as rocket propulsion and avionics.

The second problem addresses small- to medium-scale robotics and how to propel a hollow body in a viscous liquid by a time-periodic displacement of internal masses. This phenomenon is the basis for the design of mobile systems able to move without special propelling devices, which present several advantages over systems based on the conventional principles of motion. “When you want to design a robot that for example needs to move through a medium where a propeller or other external motor would actually hamper its movement, simple is better,” Galdi said. “You can conserve space by eliminating gear trains to transmit motion from the motor to the propellers, and their body can be sealed and smooth. Moreover, they can be driven to a prescribed position with a high degree of accuracy, and thus be used in high-precision positioning systems in microscopes, as well as in micro- and nano-technological equipment.

“This principle of motion is suitable for capsule-type microrobots designed for motion in a strongly restricted space, and in vulnerable media, like inside a human body. In theory you could deliver a drug directly to a cancer tumor or blood clot without having the treatment spread throughout the entire body.”

Odd chemical combo may prevent prostate cancer

Combining a compound from broccoli with an antimalarial drug prevents prostate cancer in mice, University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) researchers discovered.

The National Cancer Institute-funded research will be published in the Oct. 1 issue of the journal Cancer Research. It is the first such study to show the effectiveness of the combined treatment and provides evidence for human clinical trials.

Said senior author Shivendra Singh, faculty in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology: “Men with prostate cancer suffer significant impairments in quality of life, not only from the disease itself, but also from the treatments. Because the predominant risk factors for prostate cancer, such as age, race and genetics, cannot be avoided, there is a great need for preventative treatments for those most at risk.”

Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, watercress and cabbage, are associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer. The phytochemical sulforaphane is believed to be responsible. When scientists tested sulforaphane in the lab, they found it works to prevent early-stage prostate cancer, but not late-stage. Singh and his colleagues hypothesized that this was due to a cellular mechanism called autophagy, which limits the ability of drugs to destroy cancer.

The antimalarial drug chloroquine inhibits autophagy. When chloroquine and sulforaphane were given to mice predisposed to prostate cancer, only 12 percent of the mice developed late-stage prostate cancer, compared to half in the control group.

“These results are very promising, but I do not recommend that men take chloroquine while eating broccoli in an attempt to prevent prostate cancer,” said Singh. “Certainly eating broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables is good for you, but chloroquine can have side effects, and it has not been tested in humans for the purpose of preventing prostate cancer.”

Other Pitt researchers on this study were Avani R. Vyas, Eun-Ryeong Hahm, Simon Watkins and Donna Beer Stolz.

Researchers from the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center also were involved.

Robotic surgery aids neck cancer patients

Using robotic surgery done through the mouth to more accurately identify the cause of lumps in the neck can help physicians to provide more personalized therapies for patients and dramatically improve survival, according to a study led by Umamaheswar Duvvuri, an otolaryngology faculty member in the School of Medicine. The study encompassed the largest series of patients treated with transoral robotic surgery (TORS) in the United States.

Duvvuri, who also is a head and neck and endocrine oncologic surgeon at UPMC, presented the findings at the American Society for Radiation Oncology’s annual meeting.

The number of head and neck cancers, especially those associated with the human papillomavirus, is on the rise. In order to best treat these cancers, doctors need a better mechanism to localize the primary tumor that metastasizes to the neck. Traditionally, these tumors were identified using endoscopy or various scans, but only 30 percent of such cases are accurately found, Duvvuri said.

“Using TORS, we can remove tissue from the back of a patient’s throat and tongue to get a much more accurate result,” Duvvuri said. “Doing so triples the chance of identifying the patient’s tumor and improves survival compared to more traditional identification methods.”

In the study, researchers examined 206 head and neck robotic cases performed at UPMC between December 2009 and December 2012. TORS was performed on 22 patients where there was a lump in the neck with unknown origin, also known as occult primary squamous cell carcinoma. Of these 22 patients, the primary tumor was identified in 19 cases.

To determine the impact of identifying the unknown primary tumor on overall survival, researchers matched 69 patients with unidentified carcinoma (following clinical exam, imaging and surgical evaluation) and 67 patients in which the primary tumor was discovered at the initial surgical evaluation. They found a difference of more than one year in overall survival between undiscovered (8.83 years) and discovered (10.19 years).

Accurately identifying the primary tumor allows otolaryngologists, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists and others to work together in a multidisciplinary effort on treatment, said Dwight D. Heron, faculty member in radiation oncology, otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at the School of Medicine, and director of radiation services, UPMC CancerCenter.

The researchers are working on a prospective clinical trial to further understand how TORS affects treatment and outcomes.


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 detailed submission guidelines, visit “Deadlines” page.

Leave a Reply