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December 8, 2011

Research Notes

NSF funds solar cell research

Guangyoung Li, a faculty member in electrical and computer engineering, has been awarded $309,685 in grant funding from the National Science Foundation to investigate ways to produce more efficient solar power cells.

Current plastic solar cells have an energy efficiency rate of about 8.6 percent — too low to commercialize easily. Boosting that efficiency rate to 10 percent or more would change all that, Li said.

“In the future, I can imagine this new, efficient material anywhere — on buildings, roofs, you name it. You could charge your laptop, cell phone or iPod simply by having a charger on you and stepping into sunlight.”

Li plans to use Kelvin probe force microscopy (KPFM), which studies the surface potential of cells, in a new way to detect the conditions that plastic solar cells should have for better energy efficiency.

“The problem with traditional force microscopy is that the resolution is not good enough, so we can’t properly study the domains we need to examine,” said Li. “Throughout my research, I will work to develop an instrument that will be better able to detect the domains formed from different materials.”

Li noted that his research will not only help to reduce energy consumption, but also will help train young scientists, including the undergraduate and graduate students from underrepresented areas involved in the project.

Artificial intestine research funded

Pediatric surgeon David Hackam, a faculty member in the School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery, has received a Hartwell Biomedical Research Collaboration Award that will provide funding toward his goal of developing an artificial intestine.

Hackam and John March, a faculty member in biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University, will receive $543,571 in direct costs from The Hartwell Foundation over three years to pursue their proposal for the generation of an artificial intestine for the treatment of short bowel syndrome (SBS) in children.

SBS is a condition in which the body is unable to absorb food after a significant loss of functioning intestine, which can occur from diseases such as necrotizing enterocolitis or Crohn’s disease, or from birth defects where the intestine does not develop normally.

Children with SBS typically must receive intravenous nutrition and often require intestinal transplantation or even liver transplantation if toxicity from the intravenous nutrition is severe.

Transplantation is limited by the lack of donors and complications from immunosuppressive therapy.

To address the complications of SBS, Hackam and March have proposed building an artificial intestine using cultured intestinal stem cells. Their team will produce a bioscaffold to support the growth and differentiation of intestinal stem cells, optimizing cell growth in a three-dimensional “gut tube” reactor or artificial intestine.

In their project, they will implant the tube into mice with surgically created SBS and coat the intestine with a nutritional formula to test if the host can absorb nutrients through the artificial intestine.

They also will look at the safety and effectiveness of implantation of the artificial intestine in a pig model of SBS, which is more akin to the condition seen in humans and more comparable in size.

“Dr. March and I have generated a structure that bears remarkable similarity to the normal intestine, giving us hope that we can overcome any challenges as we work to develop an artificial intestine — a novel translational therapy for children with short bowel syndrome,” said Hackam, who also is co-director of the Fetal Diagnostic and Treatment Center at Children’s Hospital and Magee-Womens Hospital.

Hackam was a 2008 Hartwell investigator for his proposal, “Discovering Novel Immune Modulatory Agents Using High Content Screening in the Treatment of Neonatal Necrotizing Enterocolitis.” He runs a research program at Children’s Hospital focusing on understanding the mechanisms that contribute to the development of necrotizing entercolitis, which is the leading cause of death and disability from gastrointestinal disease in newborn infants.

For more information about Hackam and his research, visit

3-D modeling aids face transplant docs

Researchers in UPMC’s reconstructive transplantation program have combined conventional medical imaging with 3-D modeling techniques used in Hollywood to develop a new fused 3-D model to help plastic surgeons better plan face transplant surgeries.

Their work was presented recently at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago.

Because face transplantation surgery is medically complex, imaging plays a major role in selecting patients, planning donor and recipient surgery and assessing postoperative motor and sensory function.

By combining information from multiple imaging exams and creating a sophisticated 3-D computer model, surgeons will be better able to assess the facial structure and contours, the underlying bone, muscles, nerves and vessels, as well as the full extent of the damage of a face transplant candidate.

Using integrated information from different imaging exams of sample patients, including 3-D CT, CT angiography, MRI and high-definition tractography, the researchers developed a protocol for a 3-D model that shows a patient’s head and neck anatomy. This same type of modeling technology often is used in movies to animate computer-generated characters with detailed three-dimensional human features and facial expressions.

Study leader Darren Smith, a resident in UPMC’s Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, said, “While there have been some fusions of imaging techniques before, this is the first time anyone has combined so many imaging techniques in a user-friendly model that can be manipulated for detailed face transplant planning.

“We are integrating data from multiple imaging sources into a single 3-D representation that allows for real-time user interaction and modification. In assessing eligibility for face transplant surgery, it is critical to understand whether the patient has enough blood vessels and bone structure to support new facial tissue. This 3-D modeling will help us customize the procedure to the patient’s individual anatomy so that the donor tissue will fit like a puzzle piece onto the patient’s face.”

Using this approach, the team overlaid the computerized patient model with a polygon mesh of a generic human face and customized it to the recipient’s facial anatomy. Smith said the ability to manipulate this 3-D facial envelope allows the entire surgical team to participate in planning exactly where bone, blood vessels and nerves will be cut and connected, as well as to evaluate the outcomes of reconstructive transplantation, including nerve regeneration within the transplanted tissues.

Co-authors included Vijay Gorantla and Joseph Losee, faculty members in the School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery.

Pitt to develop tests, tasks for Common Core standards

The Institute for Learning’s (IFL) English Language Arts (ELA) team in the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC), along with faculty members and graduate students from the School of Education, have been awarded a $1.5 million contract to develop prototype student assessments and instructional tasks for the Common Core ELA/literacy state standards.

The standards aim to provide a consistent and clear understanding of what students are expected to learn and are designed to reflect the knowledge and skills that young people need for success in college and careers.

Anthony Petrosky, associate dean for academic programs in the School of Education, is the principal investigator for the contract. Co-directing the project are IFL fellows Stephanie McConachie, Vivian Mihalakis and Monica Swift. Lindsay Clare Matsumura, a faculty member in Pitt’s School of Education, will direct field-site testing with the help of IFL senior product developer Pamela Goldman and LRDC research specialist Mary Sartoris.

The contract was awarded by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium of states working together to develop a common set of K-12 assessments in English and math.

PARCC’s mission is to create an assessment system and supporting tools that will help states increase the number of students who graduate from high school ready for college and careers. Its goal is to provide students, parents, teachers and policymakers with the tools they need to help students stay on track to graduate prepared for a college career.

PARCC will use the Pitt team’s prototype assessments in requests for proposals and as part of a national competition to develop ELA/literacy assessments for the 24 states that have joined PARCC. The assessments will be field-tested in classrooms in numerous urban school districts.

Mom was right: Fish is brain food

People who eat baked or broiled fish on a weekly basis may be improving their brain health and reducing their risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a  School of Medicine study presented recently at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

Cyrus Raji, a resident at Mercy Hospital, said, “The results showed that people who consumed baked or broiled fish at least one time per week had better preservation of gray matter volume on MRI in brain areas at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”

For the study, researchers collected fish consumption information from 260 cognitively normal individuals. Of those, 163 consumed fish on a weekly basis, with most eating fish one-four times per week. Their brain matter volumes were measured at baseline and 10 years later to determine if the gray matter volume preservation associated with fish consumption reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The study controlled for age, gender, education, race, obesity, physical activity and the presence or absence of apolipoprotein E4, a gene that increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

The findings showed that consumption of baked or broiled fish on a weekly basis was associated positively with gray matter volumes in several areas of the brain. Greater hippocampal, posterior cingulate and orbital frontal cortex volumes in relation to fish consumption reduced the risk for five-year decline to Alzheimer’s or MCI five-fold. MCI is thought to be a precursor of Alzheimer’s in which memory loss is present but to a lesser extent.

“Consuming baked or broiled fish promotes stronger neurons in the brain’s gray matter by making them larger and healthier,” noted Raji. “This simple lifestyle choice increases the brain’s resistance to Alzheimer’s disease and lowers risk for the disorder.”

The results also showed increased levels of cognition in people who ate fish. “Working memory, which allows people to focus on tasks and commit information to short-term memory, is one of the most important cognitive domains,” Raji said. “Working memory is destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease. We found higher levels of working memory in people who ate baked or broiled fish on a weekly basis, even when accounting for other factors, such as education, age, gender and physical activity.”

The researchers noted that eating fried fish however, did not increase gray matter volume or protect against cognitive decline.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Institute on Aging. Pitt co-authors included faculty members Kirk Erickson of psychology, Oscar Lopez of neurology, Lewis Kuller of epidemiology and James Becker of psychiatry.

Ortho-tag licenses Pitt technology

Pittsburgh-based Ortho-tag  has signed a global licensing agreement with the University to utilize Transcutaneous Near Field Communication (TNFC) technology in smart medical devices for patients with orthopaedic implants. In addition, Ortho-tag and the Swanson School of Engineering have entered into an agreement for ongoing research for future Ortho-tag technologies and products.

TNFC is a critical component of the Ortho-tag stable of products that enables doctors to read information about a patient’s orthopaedic implant. Included in the technology is an Ortho-tag card that enables patients to carry with them pertinent information related to their implant and implant surgery.

Ortho-tag is a 2011 spinoff that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology developed at Pitt as the basis for its non-invasive implant monitoring system. It is a development of the RFID Center of Excellence, led by engineering faculty member Marlin Mickle, Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor.

The system features a wireless chip attached to the implant and a handheld receiver that together let doctors view information about artificial joints and other internal prosthetics, as well as the condition of the surrounding tissue.

Information about the size and model of an implant is crucial for follow-up care, as well as for potential recalls, but patients who have received orthopaedic implants often know little about the type of device they had received, the company that manufactured it or even the surgeon who had performed the procedure.

EMS teamwork survey developed

Pitt researchers have developed a new survey tool that may help to identify poor teamwork and optimize crew pairings to improve safety in emergency medical services (EMS). The survey is described in an article available online in Prehospital Emergency Care and scheduled to be published in the January-March print edition.

Teamwork is critical to safe and effective care in EMS, said lead author P. Daniel Patterson, a faculty member in emergency medicine.

“Teams of EMS providers work in pairs, and each provider annually has 19 new partners on average, with some having more than 50,” he said. “Frequent turnover of partners can affect the team’s ability to develop positive teamwork behaviors. Trust and other components of teamwork are vitally important in the EMS environment where stress, fatigue and unpredictability are common and are known threats to patient and provider safety.”

The study, designed to develop the survey tool and then validate it, involved emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics from 39 EMS agencies across the United States. Referencing their most recent partnership, participants answered questions that addressed team leadership, partner communication, trust, adaptability and conflict.

That information was used to design the EMT-TEAMWORK survey tool, which involved a collaboration among researchers at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University and Eduardo Salas, the University of Central Florida’s expert on teamwork measurement for the military.

Analysis of 687 completed questionnaires determined that the survey tool is a reliable and valid means of measuring nine components of teamwork that, in other settings, have been found to affect safety, quality and performance.

“Despite the importance of teamwork in EMS, very little is known about how well EMS teams work together, what improves or derails teamwork and what the implications are for conflict between EMS partners. EMS teams need to be studied over time to recognize changes in survey scores and to test hypothesized associations between partner teamwork and safety outcomes,” said Patterson.

“Further studies may help to determine which survey scores indicate that threats to patient and provider safety are elevated. We believe that our EMT-TEAMWORK survey will prove to be an effective and easy-to-use tool to assess the impact that teamwork has on safety outcomes in EMS.”

Other Pitt co-authors were Matthew D. Weaver and Donald M. Yealy of emergency medicine, Robert M. Arnold of medicine and Judith R. Lave of the Graduate School of Public Health Department of Health Policy and Management.

The study was supported by the National Center for Research Resources, the North Central EMS Institute and Pittsburgh Emergency Medicine Foundation.

Bold packaging sells, quells use

In a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, a team of business faculty members from Pitt, Johns Hopkins and Brigham Young have found that the same persuasive packaging that can lead consumers to buy a product also can cause them to use less of it once they take it home — thus reducing its long-term sales.

Researchers Meng Zhu of Johns Hopkins and co-authors J. Jeffrey Inman of the Katz Graduate School of Business and Darron M. Billeter of Brigham Young noted that previous studies have established a link between strong marketing cues and consumer choice, but the influence of those cues on post-purchase use previously had gone uninvestigated.

“It’s a topic worth examining, given the fact that personal consumption makes up about 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product,” Zhu said.

“The results made us wonder whether manufacturers are even aware that their success in promoting a product’s effectiveness might be self-defeating. That is, consumers become so convinced of the power of a boldly packaged product that they judge they can use less of it. Conversely, they tend to use more of a product when the packaging lacks strong cues of effectiveness.”

The paper, “The ‘Double-edged Sword’ of Signaling Effectiveness: When Salient Cues Curb Post-Purchase Consumption,” was published online in October and is scheduled for the journal’s February 2012 print edition.

For the study, six experiments were conducted with students from three universities. The aim was to determine how various packaging cues influenced perceptions of effectiveness and the likely use of three products — a teeth-whitening rinse, an insect repellent and a toilet-bowl cleaner.

In an experiment with the teeth whitener, participants were shown two packages — one that depicted a face with a glittering smile and the other with no picture. While a significantly high number of the respondents said they perceived the product with the smiling face as more effective, they indicated that they would use it at a rate 42 percent below that of the product with no picture.

Similarly, a bug repellent packaged with a picture of a dead bug was judged more effective than one with a live bug on the box; yet the participants predicted they would use less of the dead-bug product, compared with the live-bug product they had deemed less powerful.

The same process emerges when brand names are involved, the paper asserts. Participants were asked to consider two fictitious toilet-bowl cleaners — BalanceClean and BalanceGreen. The product with “Clean” in its name was viewed as more effective, but its predicted use was 20 percent below that of the cleaner carrying the “Green” brand.

Altogether, the paper concludes, these results show “the ironic effects” of packaging cues that can quickly move products off store shelves but cause them to sit longer on household shelves.

The researchers suggested solutions including employing packaging cues that stimulate purchase without strongly implying effectiveness or using effectiveness cues in advertisements and outer packaging but removing them from the bottle or tube that contains the product.

Just how susceptible consumers are to marketing cues depends on their level of “cognition,” Zhu said. Shoppers with low cognition generally don’t seek out detailed information about a product and are swayed more easily by cues of effectiveness.

In contrast, high-cognition consumers are naturally more inquisitive and less likely to be influenced by such signals.

“People tend to be lazy,” Zhu said. “When we’re shopping, we don’t generally study the ingredients on the package. We look for the salient cues such as brand names and strong images. Those things are easy to process, and whether they’re presented in a bold fashion or not makes a huge difference in how we judge products.”


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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