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October 14, 2010

Research Notes

NIDDK grant to fund 3-D fat cultures

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recently awarded a three-year, $993,000 grant to researchers affiliated with the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine for the project “3-D Culture of Adipose Tissue for Screening Obesity-Related Drugs.”

Kacey Marra, a faculty member in the Department of Surgery, co-director of the Adipose Stem Cell Center and director of the plastic surgery laboratory, is the principal investigator.

Other Pitt researchers on the team include surgery faculty member Jörg Gerlach, director of the McGowan Institute bioreactor group; plastic surgery faculty member J. Peter Rubin, co-director of the Adipose Stem Cell Center, and cell biology and physiology faculty member Donna Stolz, associate director of the Center for Biologic Imaging.

This project aims to demonstrate that cell-cell contact in a 3-D culture system mimicking natural adipose tissue represents an improvement over current Petri dish technologies aimed at developing high throughput assays for drug discovery.

The team has developed a 3-D bioreactor technology that permits the long-term culture of adipocytes that is not possible using traditional 2-D cell culture methods.

In this study, they will utilize their technology to rapidly and effectively screen the effects of drugs on human adipose tissue function and will examine the function of adipocytes in both obese and non-obese patients.

Knee arthritis PT research funded

fitzgeraldRNG. Kelley Fitzgerald has been awarded a four-year grant of $1.41 million from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality as primary investigator for a multi-center clinical trial.

The project, “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Physical Therapy for People With Knee Osteoarthritis,” aims to examine the benefit and cost effectiveness of using exercise therapy booster sessions and supplementing exercise therapy with manual therapy techniques in treating people with knee osteoarthritis.

According to Fitzgerald, combining booster sessions and manual therapy techniques with exercise therapy may improve the overall effectiveness of rehabilitation over the current state of practice and also may ensure long-term maintenance of the beneficial effects. The study interventions could lead to prevention or delay in disability, reduce or delay the need for total knee replacement surgery and reduce medication intake.

Fitzgerald is a faculty member in the Department of Physical Therapy at the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and director of the Physical Therapy Clinical and Translational Research Center.

Walking may aid memory

New research shows that walking at least six miles a week may protect brain size and, in turn, preserve memory, according to a Pitt study published in the Oct. 13 online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“Brain size shrinks in late adulthood, which can cause memory problems,” said study author Kirk Erickson, faculty member in psychology.

The study shows in cognitively normal elderly persons that a relatively easy activity like walking may be a way of staving off cognitive impairment — the stage of memory loss that comes before dementia and Alzheimer’s disease — by increasing the volume of the brain’s gray matter, which is associated with fewer memory problems.

“If regular exercise in midlife could improve brain health and improve thinking and memory in later life, it would be one more reason to make regular exercise in people of all ages a public health imperative,” said Erickson.

“Our study results suggest that walking is good for the brain and reduces the risk for future memory decline,” said Cyrus Raji, an MD/PhD candidate in the School of Medicine and co-author of the study.

For the study, 299 dementia-free people recorded the number of blocks they walked in one week. Nine years later, scientists took brain scans of the participants to measure their brain sizes. After four more years, the participants were tested to determine whether they had developed cognitive impairment or dementia.

The study found that people who walked at least 72 blocks per week, or roughly six-nine miles, had greater gray matter volume nine years later than people who didn’t walk as much. Walking more than 72 blocks did not appear to increase gray matter volume any further.

By four years later, 116 of the participants had developed cognitive impairment or dementia. The researchers found that those who walked the most cut their risk of memory problems in half.

The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging.

Rift Valley fever study funded

Long-sought treatments for Rift Valley Fever (RVF) may result from a $1.9 million contract to Pitt’s Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL) from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense.

The contract will enable researchers to explore the biological processes that underlie disease caused by the RVF virus, which poses significant risks to U.S. military and civilian populations as a potential agent of biowarfare.

“RVF is a serious threat because it can spread very quickly through both animal and human populations,” said Amy L. Hartman, principal investigator of the project, RBL research manager and research instructor in the Department of Infectious Disease and Microbiology at the Graduate School of Public Health. “Epidemics have already occurred in Africa and Saudi Arabia, and the virus can potentially spread to the United States.”

Throughout the three-year project, Hartman and her team, including co-investigator and RBL aerobiology manager Doug Reed, will develop animal models of RVF that will mimic the disease seen in humans. “This research should help us understand more about how the virus causes disease in animals after respiratory infection, with the eventual goal of developing drugs or vaccines that can offer wide-reaching protection to populations at risk,” she said.

SHRS education grant awarded

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services has awarded a four-year grant of $1.18 million to the Department of Communication Science and Disorders (CSD) in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences for the project, “REACH for Children: Research and Education to Aid Communication Health in Children.” The goal of REACH for Children is to recruit and train outstanding student scholars to address the specialized needs of high-need children with auditory, speech and language disabilities.

The grant will fund graduate students in audiology and speech language pathology who want to work with children in high-need local education agencies or otherwise at risk due to poverty, homelessness or incarceration. CSD faculty member Debbie Moncrieff is the project director.

The grant also provides funding for Elaine Mormer, project evaluation director, who will extend the department’s use of the Typhon software system for clinical evaluation to include advanced metrics for tracking students funded under the grant. Mormer also will develop the program for use in tracking students after graduation to measure outcomes in children who received services made possible by the grant.

Another portion of the funds will provide for a graduate student assistant to work with Bambang Parmanto in the health information management program to explore and develop utilization of the VISYTER system in clinical training throughout the CSD programs of study, including the possibility of expanding opportunities through telehealth into remote regions surrounding Pittsburgh.

Black seniors at high risk for abuse, scams

Pitt researchers, in a population-based survey, have found indications of racial disparity in the psychological abuse of senior citizens. In a survey published in The Gerontologist, Pitt researchers found that African-American seniors could be twice as likely to be mistreated as elders of other races. The survey also revealed that African-American elders could be up to five times more susceptible to being swindled.

Lead author Scott Beach, assistant director of the University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR) and director of the center’s survey research program, said the study is important to the developing field of elderly abuse research.

He worked with co-authors Richard Schulz, director both of UCSUR and the center’s  gerontology program; Nicholas Castle, a faculty member in health policy and management in the Graduate School of Public Health, and Jules Rosen, a faculty member in psychiatry in the School of Medicine.

The team interviewed 903 adults 60 and older living in Allegheny County about instances of psychological abuse and financial exploitation occurring within the past six months and since they had turned 60. The sample contained 210 African Americans, or 23.2 percent of respondents, which is nearly twice the proportion of African Americans living in Allegheny County, Beach said.

Psychological mistreatment included being yelled at or insulted; having personal property destroyed, and receiving threats of injury, stoppage of care or being sent to a nursing home.

Among African Americans, 24.4 percent reported being abused since turning 60 and 16.1 percent reported psychological mistreatment within the past six months.

Around half as many non-black seniors reported abuse, with 13.2 percent claiming psychological abuse since turning 60 and 7.2 percent saying it happened within the previous half-year. Interestingly, African Americans usually were less upset by aggressive behavior, yet more African Americans reported being “extremely upset” when deliberately insulted or when their belongings were destroyed.

African Americans reported even higher instances of financial exploitation, which was defined as having checks stolen, having money tampered with and being made to sign documents they did not understand. Only 8.4 percent of non-African-American elders reported being cheated since turning 60 and 2.4 percent said it happened within the past six months. On the other hand, 23 percent of African Americans claimed that someone meddled with their money since they turned 60 and 12.9 percent said it occurred recently.

Most striking about the team’s findings was that the racial disparity in mental abuse or financial exploitation was not explained by additional factors such as education, health, age or socioeconomic status, Beach said.

Beach plans to follow up on the survey by including seniors from other parts of the country, interviewing the perpetrators and developing more standardized definitions of the various types of psychological mistreatment and financial exploitation.

Group effort tracks moves of exoplanet

Pitt planet hunters based at Allegheny Observatory were among nine teams around the world that tracked a planet 190 light-years from Earth making its rare 12-hour passage in front of its star. The project resulted in the first ground-based observation of the entire transit and established a practical technique for recording the movement of other exoplanets, or planets outside of Earth’s solar system, the teams reported in The Astrophysical Journal.

The Pitt team, led by Melanie Good, a graduate student of physics and astronomy, observed the planet HD 80606b for more than 11 hours on Jan. 10 as it passed in front of its star, HD 80606, located more than 1.14 quadrillion miles from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major.

The planet is among the strangest of the 500 exoplanets yet discovered, Good said. Approximately four times the size of Jupiter, the gaseous planet is scorchingly close to its star and follows an oblong orbit similar to that of Halley’s comet. At its farthest, the planet is almost as far from its star as the Earth is from the Sun, while at its closest, it is just 3 percent of that distance so that the planet’s temperature jumps thousands of degrees as it nears its star.

And while most exoplanets complete their transit within a few hours, HD 80606b takes nearly 12 hours, making the trip only once every 16 weeks.

Both characteristics of HD 80606b’s transit make it difficult for a single observatory to observe all of it. Coordinated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California-Santa Barbara, the nine-team project demonstrated that multiple observatories working together can capture such long transits in their entirety.

As the planet moved, the teams recorded the transit from their respective vantage points. The data then were combined to reveal unknown information about the planet, such as its mid-transit point and the precise transit duration.

The Pitt group included Michael Wood-Vasey, a faculty member in physics and astronomy; Louis Coban of Allegheny Observatory, and physics and astronomy undergraduate students Shane Cerutti, Korena Costello, Maya Hunt, Gary Lander Jr., Eric Roebuck, Chelsea Vincent and Gwendolyn Weaver, all part of Good’s research group, Survey of Transiting Extrasolar Planets at the University of Pittsburgh, or STEPUP.

Other teams worked from Wise Observatory in Israel; Gran Telescopio Canarias in the Canary Islands; Observatoire de Haute Provence in France; Rosemary Hill Observatory in Florida; Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona; Table Mountain Observatory in California; George R. Wallace Jr. Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts, and Faulkes Telescope North in Hawaii.


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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