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February 17, 2011

Research Notes

HSLS receives technology grant

The Health Sciences Library System is among the recent recipients of a technology improvement award from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, Middle Atlantic region.

The awards provide grants of up to $7,500 to member libraries for the purchase, installation or upgrade of information technologies that enhance access to health information.

Pitt’s proposal, “Creating Virtual Offices and Classrooms with Apple’s iPad,” by HSLS assistant director for computing services Frances Yarger, will fund the purchase of iPads and related tools that will allow HSLS librarians to create a “virtual library” to enhance off-site consultations and educational or clinical support opportunities.

According to Yarger, technology challenges such as the lack of a wireless connection or suitable mobile computing device or the inability to easily share a screen are common frustrations for the reference librarians who spend large amounts of time consulting with users outside the library.

Genetic links to IBD studied

Researchers from Pitt’s Department of Medicine and the UPMC Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Center have received $75,000 from the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America to further investigate the role the immune system and genetic links play in the development of IBD.

Principal investigator Richard H. Duerr, scientific director of the IBD Center, and collaborator Arthur Barrie, a faculty member in medicine, will use the funds to define the gene expression of immune cells that unnecessarily and uncontrollably injure the intestines. In particular, they will investigate the role of a type of immune cell called the T helper cell, which usually leads the immune system in fighting infections.

They believe this research eventually could lead to new biomarkers and new treatments for IBD.

Barrie said, “Recent studies have shown that a particular type of T helper cell, called a Th17 cell, has evolved to fight infections caused by extracellular bacteria while also causing colitis in mice.

“Patients with IBD have excessive numbers of Th17 cells in their inflamed intestines, and we believe that the presence of these cells perpetuates IBD. Dr. Duerr and his IBD genetics research collaborators have found that genetic variants in several Th17 immune pathway genes are associated with risk for IBD. With this grant money, we will define the gene expression of Th17 cells, and from there we hope to understand how IBD-associated genes alter Th17 gene expression to cause IBD.”

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the two major forms of IBD.

Crohn’s, a chronic, relapsing disorder, can cause inflammation and ulceration of any part of the gastrointestinal tract while ulcerative colitis affects the inner lining of the rectum and large intestine. The most common symptoms of IBD are diarrhea and abdominal pain.

Duerr said, “Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis impact the day-to-day lives of patients. Affected individuals live with debilitating flares of symptoms during the most productive years of their lives. IBD can dramatically affect a patient’s quality of life.”

Research seeks a better grip for paralyzed hands

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research program has awarded $63,072 to Ramana Vinjamuri, a postdoctoral research associate in physical medicine and rehabilitation, for the project, “Synergy-based Brain-Computer Interface to Reanimate Paralyzed Hands.” The project stems from Vinjamuri’s electrical engineering PhD thesis.

More than 259,000 people in the United States are living with a chronic spinal cord injury (SCI) that impairs motor functions and limits their ability to grasp and manipulate objects. While physical therapy and biofeedback aim to augment function in muscles with residual function after SCI, these therapies are not effective for muscles with complete loss of descending drive from the motor cortex.

Functional electrical stimulation (FES) has been used to restore functionally important grasps for some individuals with paralysis, but among the main challenges for FES systems is obtaining multiple independent control signals to allow stimulation of muscles in a coordinated fashion that generates continuous and natural hand movements.

According to Vinjamuri, brain computer interface solves this control problem by accessing and decoding the native motor control signals embedded in the activity of neurons in sensorimotor regions of the brain.

The end goal of the study is to develop a brain-computer interface that can control movement of a virtual hand to demonstrate the ability to provide accurate and reliable control signals for natural hand grasp. The approach could be applied to control FES systems, Vinjamuri said.


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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