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July 7, 2005


Research office announces grants

The Office of Research recently announced new, renewed and continuing grants to Pitt faculty. Awardees and research projects include:

Jane Cauley, a professor in the Graduate School of Public Health’s epidemiology department, received a continuing grant of $412,957 from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases for her research on osteoporotic fractures in men.

The National Science Foundation awarded Peyman Givi, William Kepler Whiteford Professor in the engineering school’s mechanical engineering department, $506,590 to study algorithms for large-scale simulations of turbulent combustion.

A $3.66 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute will continue the work of Joseph Glorioso, professor and chairman of the molecular genetics and biochemistry department, for the project: Cardiovascular Gene Therapy Center.

Patrick Kochanek, professor in the Department of Critical Care Medicine, received a $934,500 continuing grant from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command for his research on novel resuscitation from lethal hemorrhage.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute awarded $357,745 to Dexi Liu, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences, for research on new polymeric carriers for pulmonary gene delivery.

Vishwajit Nimgaonkar, professor of psychiatry and human genetics, received a $709,839 continuation grant from the National Institute of Mental Health for research on schizophrenia liability genes among African Americans.

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases awarded $1.5 million to Chester Oddis, professor of medicine, for his research on rituximab therapy in refractory adult and juvenile idiopathic inflammatory myopathies.


Researchers examine end-of-life care

The July 1 issue of Academic Medicine featured three studies co-authored by Pitt researchers on end-of-life care and education issues.

*Opportunities lost for teaching medical students about death

In the paper, “This Is Just Too Awful; I Just Can’t Believe I Experienced That…: Medical Students’ Reactions to Their ‘Most Memorable’ Patient Death,” Pitt and Harvard researchers found that medical students experienced patient deaths as emotionally powerful even when they were not close to the patients.

According to the study, many students felt inadequately supported and learned that both emotions and death were not valued by the medical system. Thus, a unique opportunity to teach about death, emotions and coping with stress is often lost, said the authors.

Pitt researchers on the study included Robert Arnold, professor of medicine in the School of Medicine and chief, Section of Palliative Care and Medical Ethics; Deborah Seltzer, director of research development, Center for Research on Health Care, and Ellen Redinbaugh, research associate professor and clinical psychologist, University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

*Physician emotional reaction to patient deaths can affect care

Researchers examined the emotional experiences of physicians who care for dying patients and identified educational opportunities for improving patient care and physician well-being in the paper, “It Was Haunting…: Physicians’ Descriptions of Emotionally Powerful Patient Deaths.”

The research concluded that physicians’ emotional reactions to patient death could affect patient care and the personal lives of physicians. Supervising physicians have an opportunity to improve both the care of dying patients and house staff coping with these deaths by using the “teachable moments” that are present.

Pitt co-authors included Robert Arnold, professor of medicine; Deborah Seltzer, director of research development, Center for Research on Health Care, and Ann M. Mitchell, assistant professor of nursing.

*Researchers want to refine palliative care clinical evaluation exercise

Researchers conducted a pilot test of the “Palliative Care Clinical Evaluation Exercise (CEX),” a new experience-based intervention to teach communication skills in giving bad news and discussing code status for end-of-life care. The intervention allows faculty to observe, evaluate and give feedback to internal medicine house staff in their discussions with patients and families.

According to the authors, the palliative care CEX is feasible and positively valued by residents. The findings from this pilot study support the value of further efforts to refine the intervention, to confirm its feasibility in other settings and to validate its use as an educational and assessment tool.

Pitt researchers involved with the study included Robert Arnold, professor of medicine, and Dianne A. Lescisin, research coordinator, Department of Medicine.


NIH grant awarded

Saleem Khan, professor in the School of Medicine’s molecular genetics and biochemistry department, has been awarded a $1.1 million, four-year grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institutes of Health, to continue his studies on “Plasmid pT181 Replication and PcrA Helicase of S. Aureus.”

This study will investigate the mechanism of replication of drug resistance plasmids in the human pathogen staphylococcus aureus, and the role of PcrA helicase in plasmid replication.

NIH has funded this research continuously since 1982.


International foundation funds research on biochemical sequences of lipid oxidation

Valerian Kagan, professor and vice chairman of environmental and occupational health at the Graduate School of Public Health, is part of an international team of scientists that has been awarded a grant from the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), a life sciences research foundation based in France.

The grant, “Oxidative Lipodomics of Programmed Cell Clearance: From Nematodes to Humans,” has been funded at $450,000 annually for three years.

Kagan, who also is director of the school’s Center for Free Radical and Antioxidant Health, said: “Our grant project focuses on the biochemical sequences of lipid oxidation and appearance on the cell surface to act as signals distinguishing damaged cells from those cells that function normally.”

Lipids are among the primary structural components necessary for living cells to thrive.

The researchers will investigate the machinery of phagocytes, immune system cells whose primary role is to remove cells that have been irrevocably damaged by toxic chemicals. Cells damaged beyond repair trigger a genetically predetermined program of self-elimination or death, also called apoptosis. The Kagan team plans to study the way that various oxidized lipids are formed and act upon the cell membrane.

“The overall aim for our team is to characterize the evolutionary conserved ways that oxidized phospholipids on the surface of dying cells interact with their molecular receptors on phagocytes and signaling partners in different species from worms known as C. Elegans to animal and human cells,” explained Kagan. “We hope that this multidisciplinary approach will help us to decipher the complex blueprint of the way that unwanted cells are eliminated from living organisms.”


Young athletes with migraine characteristics post concussion may have more neurocognitive impairment

High school and college athletes with migraine headache characteristics after a concussion may have increased neurocognitive impairment, according to researchers in Pitt’s School of Medicine in the May issue of the Journal of Neurosurgery.

In the study, athletes who had characteristics of post-traumatic migraine (PTM) headache following a concussion also showed increased neurocognitive function impairment and related symptoms compared to concussed athletes with no post-injury headache or non-migraine headache.

“The findings strongly support the need for clinicians to exercise increased vigilance in making decisions about managing a concussed athlete with PTM and extreme caution as to when that athlete should be allowed to return to play,” said the study’s lead author, Jason Mihalik, now a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“As many as 86 percent of these injuries are accompanied by some type of headache,” commented study co-author Joseph Maroon, professor of neurological surgery at Pitt’s School of Medicine.

“We are concerned because even though headache may be noted as a symptom in the young athlete with a concussion, he or she may be allowed to return to play before the headache resolves and later may suffer from second-impact syndrome, which, although rare, may be catastrophic,” Maroon stressed.

“Our ongoing research with younger athletes has increasingly suggested that kids are particularly at risk for neurocognitive decline following concussion, and this group also appears to be particularly vulnerable to post-traumatic migraine,” said co-author Mark Lovell, a neuropsychologist and director of the Center for Sports Medicine concussion program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).

“The injury is still not well understood, the symptoms are not always straightforward and there is not one standard concussion severity grading scale or return-to-play protocol that has been scientifically validated as the best one to use,” added co-author Michael Collins, a neuropsychologist and assistant director of the concussion program.

Concussion is any change in mental status caused by a violent rocking back and forth of the brain due to a blow to the head or upper body. Symptoms can include headache, amnesia, dizziness, confusion, lack of hand-eye coordination and loss of consciousness. Generally, an athlete can recover from an initial concussion as long as the brain has had time to heal. Returning an athlete to play before the brain has had time to heal places that athlete at risk for a second concussion and further, more serious injury.

The International Headache Society defines migraine as an episodic disorder characterized by acute attacks of pain with associated symptoms that often result in disability. Symptoms may include headache, nausea and hypersensitivity to light and sound.

Also contributing to the study were Jamie Pardini, a fellow at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine concussion program, and Melvin Field, now of the Florida Sports Concussion Program and the Orlando Neurosurgery and Florida Hospital Neuroscience Institute.


Researchers send “heavy photons” over record distance

Scientists from the University and Bell Labs, the R&D arm of Lucent Technologies, report in the June 10 issue of the journal Physical Review Letters that they have designed and demonstrated a two-dimensional semiconductor structure in which excitons exist longer and travel farther than previously recorded.

When light hits a semiconductor material and is absorbed, its photons can become “excitons,” sometimes referred to as “heavy photons” because they carry energy, like photons, but have mass, like electrons. Excitons typically exist for only a short time — trillionths of a second — and travel only a few microns before turning back into photons, which are then emitted from the material.

David Snoke, senior author and associate professor of physics and astronomy at Pitt, and his colleagues report a system in which excitons move freely over distances of hundreds of microns. Their findings open up the possibility of new applications, such as excitonic circuits.

The researchers “stretched out” the excitons by pulling them apart with an electrical field. This extended the excitons’ lifetimes by a million (up to 30 microseconds) and expanded the distances the excitons traveled (up to a millimeter). Researchers were able to “see” the excitons by observing the emitted photons. The semiconductor structures designed in the experiment are of “world-record quality,” said Snoke.

The ability to control excitons over long distances could lead to excitonic circuits in which photons are converted directly into excitons, which are then steered around a chip and converted back into photons again at a different location, such as an optical memory device, said Snoke.

“We’re doing this with semiconductor circuits now designed for moving electrons,” he added. “It’s a completely new type of control over the system,” he said.

Other Pitt authors of the paper are Zoltan Voros and Ryan Balili, graduate students in Pitt’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Funding for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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