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February 4, 2016

Research Notes

Engineer receives NSF CAREER Award

Paul W. Leu, industrial engineering faculty member at the Swanson School of Engineering, received the National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award for his work on flexible metals. The CAREER program is the NSF’s most prestigious award for junior faculty who exemplify outstanding research, teaching and their integration.

The five-year, $500,000 award will support research into the manipulation of metals at the micro- and nano-scales to develop thin yet flexible crystalline silicon for high-efficiency, low-cost solar cells. “Although solar cell technology continues to improve, it still relies upon rigid and bulky silicon that limits its range of use,” Leu explained. “Our research is focused on designing new hierarchical metal structures that allow for a thinner, more flexible structure that can adapt to different shapes.”

Some of the research will be performed in the Swanson school’s Nanoscale Fabrication and Characterization Facility, part of the Petersen Institute of NanoScience and Engineering. The grant will help develop a Google Streetview-like virtual tour of the limited-access cleanroom so web visitors from around the world can see and learn about the facility. Additionally, the grant will enable the development of a new graduate course in statistical design of materials and undergraduate research opportunities through the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation.

Said Leu: “As we investigate multiple-length scales within materials and develop new structural models, we see the potential for new metals to pave the way toward lightweight and adaptive transparent conductors and solar cells. These structures may also be utilized for flexible sensors, photodetectors and smart surfaces.”

Additional support for this research is being provided by the Swanson school’s Office of Diversity; Jeremy Levy, distinguished professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Pittsburgh Quantum Institute; the Pitt Mobile Science Lab; and the Penn State Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education.

Pharmacy faculty awarded PPA grant

Olufunmilola Abraham, a faculty member in the School of Pharmacy’s pharmacy and therapeutics department, and her student Rebecca Wytiaz have received a grant from the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association for their project “Children’s Perceptions of Self-Care and Medication Adherence Mobile Applications: Implications for Pharmacist Provided Counseling.”

This project aims to describe pediatric patients’ perceptions about using medication adherence apps and parents’ preferences for children’s involvement in medication adherence and self-care. Findings from this study will identify the most effective ways to engage children with chronic diseases in innovative medication therapy management services in a developmentally appropriate manner. The knowledge gained also will shed light on the value that pharmacists bring to the larger health care team, specifically focusing on the essential educational role pharmacists fulfill with regard to pediatric patient care.

Helping nondaily smokers quit

When you think of smokers, you probably think of someone who smokes at least a few cigarettes every day. However, a growing number of smokers — currently 25-33 percent — smoke nondaily and that number is rising. Nondaily smokers smoke on average only 63 percent of days and 4.4 cigarettes on days that they smoke. While it may seem logical that this subset of smokers would have a much easier time quitting smoking than someone who smokes a pack a day, nondaily smokers have cessation failure rates akin to daily smokers (79 percent compared to 87 percent for daily smokers).

The QUITS study, developed by School of Medicine faculty member Brian Primack and Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences psychology faculty member Saul Shiffman, with former medicine faculty member Hilary Tindle, aims to examine the issue of nondaily smokers who are unable to quit. The primary goal is to help determine whether or not nondaily smokers’ quitting attempts are aided by using nicotine gum.

QUITS study participants will be randomized to receive either 2 mg. of nicotine gum or a placebo gum that contains no nicotine. This form of nicotine replacement therapy, a broad term for any medication supplying nicotine, was chosen over nicotine patches because nondaily smokers, who often smoke when certain triggers arise, can choose to use the gum in those specific situations.

Another goal of the QUITS study is to shed light on the experience of quitting smoking among nondaily smokers, who smoke quite differently than traditional smokers.

Participants in the study will carry an electronic diary at all times for a total of eight weeks to report their smoking, craving and use of other nicotine products while answering questions about these situations.

Ideally, the information provided by this study will lead to recommendations on how to help nondaily smokers make successful attempts to quit. Nondaily smoking presents a serious risk to health, and even though the risk of cancer for such smokers is lower than that for daily smokers, their risk of cardiovascular disease is about the same. Traditional methods of helping daily smokers quit may need to be adapted for nondaily smokers’ quitting attempts.

The study is funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Chemistry grant to investigate organs’ roles in Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease is a thief of memory and life. It has been proven that the disease manifests itself after abnormal deposits of proteins, which cause plaques and amyloid-beta tangles that destroy brain function, build up in the brain.

However, the precise causes of Alzheimer’s haven’t been fully established. More recently, some researchers have focused on peripheral organs, such as the liver, which produce toxic amyloid-beta peptides, because drugs that reduce the liver’s production of these peptides decrease brain amyloid-beta peptide levels in mice, although such results are controversial.

Rena Robinson has received a five-year, $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore novel ways to measure efficiently and powerfully the effects of amyloid-beta protein production in organs outside the central nervous system, the focus of most Alzheimer’s disease research.

Said Robinson, a chemistry faculty member in the Dietrich school: “We’re looking to demonstrate and establish an approach that will allow us to evaluate processes such as energy metabolism and oxidative stress in tissues outside of the brain at various stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”

In essence, Robinson and her colleagues plan to significantly improve and amplify existing methods of measuring differences between normal and diseased protein samples, a field called quantitative proteomics.

“It is currently not possible to multiplex to the degree necessary for answering questions about the role of peripheral organs in Alzheimer’s disease,” Robinson said. “Examining five different organs from an Alzheimer’s mouse model and controls from three age cohorts generates 30 samples that would each require separate analyses. Performing this study in more than one animal for each condition, for better statistics, requires an even greater number of experiments.”

Robinson and her team have demonstrated a method that can multiplex up to 20 samples in a single analysis. She thinks that number can be increased. “We propose to develop innovative quantitative proteomics methods to measure proteins in higher numbers of samples from different tissues and conditions simultaneously,” she said. “These methods will help us get to information faster about the role of peripheral tissue changes and how they relate to changes in the brain using an Alzheimer’s disease mouse model.”

At the end of the grant period, Robinson said, she hopes to provide a tool that not only will further the understanding of how energy metabolism and oxidative stress in peripheral organs contribute to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, but also will provide therapeutic targets outside the brain for this devastating disease.

Solution for natural gas vehicles studied

Although compressed natural gas represents a cleaner and more efficient fuel for vehicles, its volatile nature requires a reinforced, heavy tank that limits vehicle design. Researchers at the Swanson school are using metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) to develop a new type of storage system that would adsorb the gas like a sponge and allow for more energy-efficient storage and use.

The research was published in Physical Review Letters by Christopher E. Wilmer, faculty member in chemical and petroleum engineering, and postdoctoral fellow Hasan Babaei.

Traditional CNG tanks require the gas to be stored at high pressure, which affects the design and weight of the vehicle. Wilmer and his lab instead are focused on porous crystal/gas systems, specifically MOFs, that possess structures with extremely high surface areas.

Said Wilmer: “One of the biggest challenges in developing an adsorbed natural gas storage system is that the process generates significant heat that limits how quickly the tank can be filled. Unfortunately, not a lot is known about how to make adsorbents dissipate heat quickly. This study illuminates some of the fundamental mechanisms involved.”

While gases have a $500 billion impact on the global economy, storing, separating and transporting gas requires energy-intensive compression. Wilmer’s research into MOFs is an extension of his startup company, NuMat Technologies, which develops MOF-based solutions for the gas storage industry.

“By gaining a better understanding of heat transfer mechanisms at the atomic scale in porous materials, we could develop a more efficient material that would be thermally conductive rather than thermally insulating,” he explained.

“Beyond natural gas, these insights could help us design better hydrogen gas storage systems as well. Any industrial process where a gas interacts with a porous material, where heat is an important factor, could potentially benefit from this research.”

Exercise can’t counter sedentary behavior in severely obese adults

Sedentary behavior is associated with poor cardiovascular health and diabetes in adults with severe obesity, independent of how much exercise they perform, a Graduate School of Public Health-led study has shown.

The finding, published in Preventive Medicine, could be used to design and test programs for adults with severe obesity that emphasize reducing time spent sitting, rather than immediately working toward increased moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity or exercise, such as brisk walking. In the U.S., 15 percent of adults have severe obesity, placing them at high risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease, and premature mortality.

Said lead author Wendy C. King, epidemiology faculty member: “Adults with severe obesity often have difficulty following national guidelines to participate in at least 30 minutes per day of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity for health benefits. Our findings suggest that replacing sedentary behavior, like watching television or sitting at the computer, with low-intensity physical activities, such as light housework or going for a casual stroll, may improve cardiometabolic health in this population.”

In addition, King and her colleagues determined that defining “sedentary time” as 10 minutes or more without walking yielded stronger associations between sedentary behavior and cardiometabolic health compared to allowing sedentary time to be as short as one minute, which has been the norm in the field.

“This is important because accurate assessment of sedentary behavior is crucial to being able to evaluate if and how this behavior is related to health outcomes,” said King.
She and her colleagues followed 927 patients participating in the Longitudinal Assessment of Bariatric Surgery-2, a prospective study of patients undergoing weight-loss surgery at 10 hospitals. For a one-week period before surgery, the research team measured the participants’ activity — or lack of activity — using monitors that tracked the number of steps taken each minute.

For every hour per day participants spent in sedentary bouts of at least 10 minutes, their odds of having diabetes increased by 15 percent, metabolic syndrome by 12 percent and elevated blood pressure by 14 percent, and their waist circumference was a half-inch larger, after adjusting for their sex, age, household income, smoking status, alcohol use, depressive symptoms, body mass index and time spent in moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity.

“These findings indicate the importance of investigating sedentary behavior as a distinct health risk behavior, not simply lack of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity, among adults with severe obesity,” said King.

Research is needed to determine whether replacing sedentary behavior with low-intensity physical activity is an effective approach to preventing and managing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in adults with severe obesity, and evaluate strategies to help this population make such lifestyle changes.

Other Pitt investigators were Jia-Yuh Chen, Anita P. Courcoulas and Steven H. Belle.

Also contributing were colleagues from the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute, Oregon Health & Science University, Legacy Good Samaritan Weight Management Institute, Mount Sinai Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical College and the University of Washington.

Funding was provided by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, Columbia, Cornell University Medical Center, the University of Washington, the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute, East Carolina University and Oregon Health & Science University. n
—Compiled by Marty Levine


The University Times Research Notes column reports on funding awarded to Pitt researchers as well as findings arising from University research.

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