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

October 28, 2010

Research Notes

Foreclosure picture here not all good

Despite claims of Pittsburgh’s relative immunity to the most recent financial and real estate crunch, certain city neighborhoods have racked up foreclosure rates far above the state average, a tally by the University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR) revealed. These properties often languish on the books of financial institutions or are offloaded for less than market value, two circumstances that can speed a neighborhood’s deterioration.

Sabina Deitrick, director of UCSUR’s urban analysis program, and Christopher Briem, a regional economist at UCSUR, matched city foreclosure filings with assessment records from the Allegheny County Department of Real Estate to determine the location of real estate owned (REO) properties — those held by a bank or financial institution. The  results can be found in the current issue of UCSUR’s Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly, available at

During 2008 and 2009, the statewide foreclosure rate was 0.7 percent — the 33rd lowest rate in the nation. In Pittsburgh’s Sheraden neighborhood, on the other hand, 117 foreclosures during those two years put the rate at 2.2 percent, followed by Knoxville with 1.7 percent and Marshall-Shadeland with 1.6 percent. Even some of the city’s more stable neighborhoods such as Crafton Heights and Brighton Heights had a rate of 1.4 percent.

Recent reports of problematic foreclosure processes resulting in wrongful seizures and evictions have highlighted the influence financial institutions can have on real estate markets, Briem said. As an extension of that, large numbers of properties owned by financial institutions can have significant repercussions for an area — foreclosed properties often sell cheap or stand vacant.

The average price of the 628 Pittsburgh homes sold by a financial institution from January 2009 through January 2010 was less than $20,000.

Moreover, 40 percent of those homes were located in just 10 neighborhoods. In Beechview, which had the highest number of REO houses, 26 homes sold for an average of 37 percent less than their assessed value. Those same 10 neighborhoods also contained 40 percent of the 521 Pittsburgh homes owned by a financial institution in January 2010 — Beechview led with 29 properties — meaning several more below-market sales in these areas are likely.

Fifteen banks do the majority of seizing and selling in Pittsburgh. This group held 60 percent of the 717 REO homes in Pittsburgh in May 2010. The leading holders were Fannie Mae (9 percent), the Veterans Affairs Administration (7 percent), U.S. Bank National Association (6 percent), Bank of New York Mellon (6 percent) and Wells Fargo Bank (5 percent).

Which plastic is greenest?

An analysis of plant and petroleum-derived plastics suggests that biopolymers are not necessarily better for the environment than their petroleum-based relatives, according to a report by a team of Pitt researchers published in Environmental Science & Technology. The researchers found that while biopolymers are the more eco-friendly material, traditional plastics can be less taxing environmentally to produce.

Biopolymers trumped the other plastics for biodegradability, low toxicity and use of renewable resources. But the farming and chemical processing needed to produce them can devour energy and dump fertilizers and pesticides into the environment, wrote lead author Michaelangelo Tabone, who conducted the analysis as an undergraduate student in the lab of civil and environmental engineering faculty member Amy Landis. Tabone and Landis worked with undergraduate chemistry student  James Cregg and Eric Beckman, co-director of Pitt’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and the George M. Bevier Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. The project was supported by the National Science Foundation.

The researchers examined 12 plastics — seven petroleum-based polymers, four biopolymers and one hybrid. The team first performed a life-cycle assessment (LCA) on each polymer’s pre-production stage to gauge the environmental and health effects of the energy, raw materials and chemicals used to create one ounce of plastic pellets. They then checked each plastic in its finished form against principles of green design, including biodegradability, energy efficiency, wastefulness and toxicity.

A graph of the LCA results and a chart ranking the polymers by ecofriendliness are available at

Biopolymers were among the more prolific polluters on the path to production, the LCA revealed. The team attributed this to agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, extensive land use for farming and the intense chemical processing needed to convert plants into plastic. All four biopolymers were the largest contributors to ozone depletion. Sugar-derived polymers — standard polylactic acid and the type manufactured by Minnesota-based NatureWorks (PLA-NW), the most common sugar-based plastic in the United States — exhibited the maximum contribution to eutrophication, which occurs when overfertilized bodies of water no longer can support life.

One type of the corn-based polyhydroyalkanoate topped the acidification category. In addition, biopolymers exceeded most of the petroleum-based polymers for ecotoxicity and carcinogen emissions.

Once in use, however, biopolymers bested traditional polymers for ecofriendliness. For example, the sugar-based PLA-NW plastic jumped from the sixth position under the LCA to become the material most in keeping with the standards of green design. On the other hand, the ubiquitous plastic polypropylene widely used in packaging was the cleanest polymer to produce, but sank to ninth place as a sustainable material.

The researchers found that the petroleum-plant hybrid biopolyethylene terephthalate, or B-PET, combines the ills of agriculture with the structural stubbornness of standard plastic to be harmful to produce (12th) and use (8th).

Landis is continuing the project by subjecting the polymers to a full LCA, which also will examine the materials’ environmental impact throughout their use and eventual disposal.

Pharmacist advocate model piloted

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation has approved a $93,500 grant to the School of Pharmacy for a one-year demonstration project titled “Pharmacists as Advocates in Care Transitions.” This project aims to develop, implement and assess a model of care that incorporates a pharmacist advocate in the care transition team. This new model will focus on empowering patients to manage their medications and health effectively once discharged from the hospital. The ultimate goal is to prevent hospital readmissions.

The principal investigators of this project are Dean Patricia Kroboth  and Kim Coley, faculty member in pharmacy and therapeutics.

Other individuals involved in this project are faculty members Rima Mohammad, Amy Donihi, Rafael Saenz, Amy Seybert and Deanne Hall, and Jennifer Kim, a School of Pharmacy resident.

Reasons for melanoma screening vary

Women are more likely to seek skin cancer screenings because of a worrisome skin lesion, a family history of skin cancer or concern about sun exposure, whereas men age 50 and older — a group at highest risk for melanoma — may seek screenings only after a previous skin cancer diagnosis, according to researchers at the School of Medicine, whose findings appear in the October edition of Archives of Dermatology, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Dermatology faculty member Laura Korb Ferris, corresponding author on the study, said, “Interestingly, the patients seeking skin cancer screenings are not necessarily the patients who are at the highest risk for developing or dying from melanoma.”

Researchers surveyed patients over the age of 18 who were seen at a dermatologist’s office for skin cancer screenings between May and October 2009. Participants completed a 12-question survey with information about demographic factors, risk factors for melanoma and reasons for seeking skin cancer screenings.

Of the 487 patients surveyed, more than 80 percent made an appointment for screening without a particular skin lesion that concerned them. In addition, patients younger than 50 were more likely to seek screening because of a family history of melanoma, and men 50 years or older were more likely than other groups to seek screening because they had a previous skin cancer diagnosis.

The most common reason for seeking skin cancer screening was a personal history of skin cancer, followed by concern about sun exposure and a family history of non-melanoma skin cancer.

“A large percentage of patients, more than 72 percent of them, believe that skin cancer screenings have been shown to prevent skin cancer, a belief that is inaccurate and without scientific basis,” said Ferris. “Also, almost 90 percent of these same respondents correctly believe that skin cancer screenings can reduce the risk of death from skin cancer, and they viewed skin cancer screenings as equally valuable as colonoscopy, mammography and Pap smears in preventing cancer-related death.”

In the United States, melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, was diagnosed in more than 62,000 people in 2008, and almost 8,500 died of the disease that same year. Other skin cancers, such as basal and squamous cell carcinomas, are more prevalent, but rarely fatal.

“While patients show great interest in skin cancer screenings, there currently are no universally accepted guidelines for when people should have their first screening and how often they should be screened,” said Ferris. “We believe that there needs to be better communication with the public in the form of specific guidelines with an emphasis on encouraging screening of older men, which could allow us to reach those patients who would most benefit from skin cancer screening.”

Study tests anal safety of anti-HIV gel

School of Medicine researchers are testing tenofovir gel, a vaginal microbicide that has shown promise for preventing HIV through vaginal sex, to determine its safety and acceptability when used rectally.

The multi-center trial study, led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Microbicide Trials Network (MTN), will help determine if the gel should be evaluated further for its potential to prevent HIV among men and women who engage in receptive anal intercourse.

While condoms generally are effective for protecting against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, most acts of anal sex go unprotected. Moreover, the risk of acquiring HIV through unprotected anal sex is at least 20 times greater than unprotected vaginal sex and increases if other infections are present in the rectal lining.

Ross Cranston, a faculty member in the medical school’s Division of Infectious Diseases and leader of the Pitt study site, said: “Although the field is excited about the promise of tenofovir gel as a vaginal microbicide, there is a series of steps that must be taken before we can even consider whether the gel is equally promising for preventing HIV transmitted through receptive anal intercourse. First, we must determine that it’s safe to use rectally, which is why we are conducting this trial.”

The study will enroll 60 men and women across three MTN-affiliated U.S. sites: Pitt; the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and Fenway Health in Boston.

It aims to determine if rectal use of tenofovir gel is safe and, in particular, does not cause cells in the rectum to become more vulnerable to HIV than they already are. The study also will help to determine whether men and women would be willing to use a rectal microbicide.

In addition, researchers are hoping to identify biological markers — specific proteins or biochemical activity — that can be used to better assess the potential safety of different candidate microbicides before they are tested in humans.

The site co-leader is Ian McGowan, faculty member in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition and co-principal investigator of the MTN, which is based at Pitt and the Magee-Womens Research Institute.

DNA exchange regulator found

A team led by a scientist at the School of Medicine has discovered a regulatory protein that influences where genetic material gets swapped between maternal and paternal chromosomes during the process of creating eggs and sperm.

The findings, which shed light on the roots of chromosomal errors and gene diversity, were published in Nature.

Most cells contain 46 chromosomes, half coming from each parent. But eggs and sperm, known as germ cells, have half as many so that when they combine to form an embryo, the correct chromosome number is maintained, explained senior author Judith Yanowitz, a faculty member in obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences and a member of the Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI).

“When germ cells form, segments of DNA are exchanged, or recombined, between maternal and paternal chromosomes, leading to greater diversity in the daughter cells,” she said. “Our research reveals a protein that plays a key role in choosing where those crossovers occur.”

Crossing over is essential for the correct movement, or segregation, of chromosomes into the germ cells. Failure to exchange DNA properly can lead to offspring with the wrong number of chromosomes. In humans, defects in this process are a leading cause of infertility, Yanowitz noted.

The team studied the genome of the tiny roundworm C. elegans, in which gene recombination typically occurs toward the ends of the chromosomes, which contain fewer genes. But crossovers instead occurred in the gene-rich central areas of the chromosomes in worms that had a mutation in a protein called X non-disjunction factor (xnd-1). In addition, crossovers on the X chromosome often did not occur in these worms.

“This is the first gene in any system that is specifically required for the segregation of single chromosomes,” she said. “The fact that this is the X chromosome is interesting because the sex chromosomes play a unique role both in germ line and general development.”

These observations led the researchers to suggest that xnd-1 affects the way chromosomes are packaged into the nucleus of the cell as a DNA protein complex known as chromatin.

They further showed xnd-1 alters a component of chromatin that has been maintained through species evolution and that this packaging is directly responsible for the effects on crossover formation.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, MWRI and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.


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

Leave a Reply