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March 21, 2013

Research Notes

Chemistry prof earns NSF CAREER grant

Jill Millstone, a chemistry faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, has been awarded a five-year, $550,000 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation. The CAREER program supports groundbreaking research by junior faculty who demonstrate outstanding knowledge of their fields.

The CAREER grant will fund Millstone’s research on preparing metal nanoparticle alloys, solutions known for being able to transform the properties of metal. Her work aims to draw out the key relationships between an alloy’s architecture and surface chemistry. Materials generated from such solutions can exhibit a wide range of new behaviors, making them promising for such technologies as fossil fuel conversion and bio-imaging.

High-volume facilities best for cervical cancer

Patients with locally advanced cervical cancer have better treatment outcomes and are more likely to survive the disease if they receive care at a high-volume medical center than patients treated at low-volume facilities, according to research led by Jeff Lin, a graduate medical resident and fellow in the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Magee-Womens Hospital.

The study evaluated the relationship between treatment facility volumes and survival outcomes, using data from the National Cancer Database (NCD), a joint program of the American College of Surgeons and the American Cancer Society. The program has tracked 26 million cancer patients treated at 1,500 hospitals across the United States. Researchers examined the data of women who were cervical cancer patients from Jan. 1, 1998 to Dec. 31, 2010.

Said Lin: “Successful treatment requires that multiple medical professionals, including gynecologic oncologists and radiation oncologists, coordinate internal and external radiation treatments and concurrent chemotherapy. This treatment plan can be very effective for patients with this disease and higher-volume centers are more likely to be able to coordinate the multidisciplinary approach necessary for this kind of care.”

According to Lin, after tallying patient volumes from centers tracked by the NCD, the study found patients were 22 percent more likely to receive brachytherapy, the recommended radiation treatment approach for locally advanced cervical cancer, and 9 percent more likely to receive the recommended chemotherapy if they attended a center that treats a high volume of cervical cancer patients. Overall, patients’ risk of dying from their disease dropped by 4 percent, and they were more likely to receive the standard of care if they attended such a facility.

Said Thomas C. Krivak, Lin’s mentor and a faculty member in obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences: “Thanks to previous research, we’ve known that ovarian cancer patients show improved outcomes if they receive their care from centers that treat a high volume of cases each year. This study indicates the same holds true for patients with cervical cancer. Now we can act on that knowledge.”

While effective screening techniques coupled with the human papillomavirus vaccine prevent many early stage cervical cancers from occurring, approximately 12,000 women will be diagnosed with the disease this year in the United States. When found early, cervical cancer can be highly treatable.

The study, conducted with researchers from the University of California-San Francisco, Creighton University and Drexel University, was presented this month at the Society of Gynecologic Oncology’s annual meeting on women’s cancers.

Social work prof wins schizophrenia grant

Social work faculty member Shaun M. Eack has received a $3.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health to examine Cognitive Enhancement Therapy (CET), a treatment intervention developed and piloted in the mid-1990s at Pitt. Eack will examine how CET may benefit the brains of people with schizophrenia and whether the therapy could help patients recover and return to school or hold down a job.

Researchers have made a great deal of progress in developing antipsychotic drugs that help control the delusions and hallucinations that can torment people with schizophrenia. Nevertheless, combining drug therapy with mental workouts to strengthen and stimulate brain function now is thought to be more successful than drug therapy alone to assist schizophrenia patients in establishing fuller lives.

Said Eack: “This project will be one of the first to study how much a nondrug intervention can help address core brain-based impairments in schizophrenia. If successful, it will open a whole new avenue for the treatment of the disorder.”

For the study, Eack is now accepting patients with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or schizophreniform disorder, ages 18-35, who have been ill for fewer than eight years.

CET was developed by Gerard E. Hogarty, a School of Medicine faculty member until his death in 2006. The treatment requires patients to complete challenging cognitive exercises on computers, coupled with weekly social-cognitive group sessions, for 18 months.

For example, when participating in the cognitive exercises, patients are presented with pictures of many everyday objects on a computer screen. All but a few of the pictures fade away, then the patient is asked to remember them. Gradually, participants have to remember more objects during shorter periods of time to strengthen their working-memory and memory-encoding abilities, two key cognitive functions that are disrupted in schizophrenia and keep patients from being able to succeed in areas like work.

By providing computer-based neurocognitive training, Eack and his colleagues expect to stimulate the areas of the brain that support attention, memory and problem-solving abilities. The social-cognitive training is expected to stimulate the “social” areas of the brain.

“We view those with schizophrenia as having an arrested development in social abilities,” said Eack. “The social-cognitive group activities provide both education and social cognition exercises that are designed to jump-start this social development.”

The team will compare its findings with Enriched Supportive Therapy, an intervention that has an emotional rather than a cognitive focus. Another component of the study will look at CET as an early-intervention strategy to prevent or at least reduce the trajectory of the disease by reaching people earlier in their lives before the disease can take its toll on their brains.

Eack’s Pitt colleagues included social work faculty member Christina Newhill and psychiatry faculty members Konasale Prasad, Mary Phillips, Raymond Cho and Srihari Bangalore, as well as researchers from Harvard University.

Business prof receives marketing study award

Andrew T. Stephen, faculty member in business administration and Katz Fellow in Marketing in the Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration, has been awarded a 2013 international ecch Case Award in marketing for his case study titled “Ford Fiesta Movement: Using Social Media and Viral Marketing to Launch Ford’s Global Car in the United States.” His research analyzed the Ford Motor Company campaign’s use of social media to market its new Fiesta automobile.

The annual awards are given by ecch, formerly known as the European Case Clearing House, an independent international nonprofit educational organization founded in 1973 by the business-school community. Ecch now has more than 800 higher-education institution and corporation members worldwide. The largest single source of management case studies in the world, ecch promotes the case method in management education by raising awareness and increasing usage of the method, as well as developing the skills of case teachers and authors.

Nitrogen leaking from sewers worse than estimated

Aging sewer systems are spilling a considerable amount of nitrogen into urban watersheds, diminishing both the quality of water and ecosystems’ habitats. However, many studies documenting the impact of nitrogen on urban environs have not properly estimated the contribution of leaky sewer systems, according to research led by PhD candidate Marion Divers with coauthors Emily Elliott and Daniel Bain, geology and planetary science faculty.

Using water samples from Nine Mile Run, Divers and colleagues found that an estimated 10-20 tons of reactive nitrogen from sewage flows into the Monongahela River every year from the six-square-mile watershed. That means that up to 12 percent of all sewage produced by residents living in the Nine Mile Run watershed area leaks from the sewers and is transferred to the stream, negatively affecting stream water quality.

Said Divers: “This is a very complicated problem. You build a sewer system once, put it underground, and unless there’s a catastrophic failure, you may not have a reason to dig it up and make sure it’s not leaking. Now sewers across the United States and in Pittsburgh are aging, and as these systems grow older, more sewage is leaking into groundwater and streams.”

While living organisms need nitrogen to build essential proteins, leaky sewer systems, the burning of fossil fuels and overuse of chemical fertilizers have contributed to an overabundance of nitrogen in U.S. rivers and streams. Too much nitrogen can deplete the water of its oxygen, with results as threatening as those seen in the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, where marine life doesn’t have the oxygen necessary to live.

Bain said: “Based on the results from our Nine Mile Run study, this paper forces the wider urban ecology community to more carefully consider this sewage problem.”

In order to measure nitrogen’s impact on Nine Mile Run accurately, the Pitt team had to determine first how much was coming from leaky sewer systems. Over a two-year period, the researchers collected water samples biweekly from the small stream located in the East End during both rainy and dry periods, with intensive sampling during one summer storm. Nitrogen concentrations were measured in the samples, and the researchers used this data to estimate sewage contributions to nitrogen in the stream’s water. Notably, the results highlighted that sewers in this study basin are leaking consistently, even during dry weather. While the apparent volumes of sewage are concerning, the study also reaffirms the substantial ability of urban systems to hold onto this nitrogen, despite the heavily impacted stream channel and the predominance of paved areas.

Said Elliott: “This suggests a pervasive influence of leaking sewers, even during periods without rainfall. This is in addition to the raw sewage contributions during wet weather from combined sewer overflows that are currently the subject of mitigation efforts in Pittsburgh.”

The paper appeared online Feb. 17 in Environmental Science & Technology.

The research was supported by the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, the Pennsylvania Water Resources Research Institute, the Geological Society of America and the U.S. Steel Foundation.

HPS prof honored

The Society for Philosophy and Psychology has recognized Edouard Machery, faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of History and Philosophy of Science, with the 2013 Stanton Award.

The annual award honors a young scholar in philosophy or psychology who has begun making significant contributions to interdisciplinary research.

Machery’s research focuses on the methodology of experimental psychology, with a special focus on null hypothesis significance testing, external validity and issues in statistics.

iConference award recognizes prof

Daqing He, faculty member in the School of Information Sciences, has received an honorable mention award at the 2013 iConference. He and his collaborator, Dan Wu from Wuhan University in China, were recognized for their research paper on “A Study on Q & A Services Between Community-based Question Answering and Collaborative Digital Reference in Two Languages.”

This work explores improving library reference services in the Web 2.0 environment, specifically comparing community-based question-answering sites with collaborative digital reference services in both English and Chinese.

The paper evaluates the answer quality and responsiveness of the question-answer sites, the expertise provided by librarians in collaborative digital reference services and when each type of service is most effective. The underlying research was done with sites and services provided in the United States and China to determine if the languages or native cultures would impact the use of the service. The authors recommend that lessons learned from online question-answering sites can benefit those who provide reference services particularly emulating the quick response time and open nature of the online question-answering sites.

Education prof awarded early career grant

Tanner LeBaron Wallace, faculty member in applied developmental psychology in the School of Education, has been awarded an MET Early Career Grant Award by the National Academy of Education.

Her proposal, “Employing Urban Adolescent Interpretations of Instructional Practice to Distinguish Teacher Proficiency From Ceiling Effect in the Classroom Organization Domain,” focuses on refining measures of effective classroom management practice in secondary classrooms to support teachers in building and maintaining positive and productive relationships with adolescent students.

She said: “Adolescent student perceptions of a classroom environment, constituted in adolescent-adult interactions, are the primary mechanism through which adolescents assent-to-learn in high school classrooms. If students do not form a positive connection with their teacher it is within their control to minimally learn core content or refuse to learn anything at all.”

The MET early career research grants program is conducted with the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. The program awarded 10 grants of $25,000 each to conduct research using the extensive Measures of Effective Teaching Longitudinal Database. In conducting the study, grantees receive free technical assistance from members of the National Academy of Education and participate in a series of networking meetings aimed at building a new cadre of scholars interested in research on teaching.

Amino acid imbalance may cause late-onset asthma in obese

Increased respiratory symptoms and asthma-related loss of quality of life in obese people, especially those who develop asthma later in life, may be due to an imbalance in the metabolism of arginine rather than allergy or airway inflammation, according to a study led by pulmonary, allergy and critical care medicine faculty member Fernando Holguin. The findings have prompted a pilot project at the Asthma Institute at UPMC, co-directed by Holguin, and the School of Medicine to see whether patients’ symptoms improve if they supplement their diet with the deficient agent.

The relationship between asthma and obesity is in many ways a conundrum, noted Holguin. A person who has severe asthma may require frequent steroid treatments and limit his or her activity, resulting in weight gain; in others, obesity seems to aggravate or even initiate asthma symptoms.

Said Holguin: “Obese asthma patients tend to have worse symptoms, more frequent episodes of breathing difficulty, and don’t respond as readily to conventional treatments. Our study supports the premise that asthma is a multifactorial condition that can be triggered by a variety of underlying problems.” Interventions to improve clinically meaningful outcomes may need to be personalized to each patient’s asthmatic condition.

Patients who are obese and develop asthma as adults tend to exhale lower levels of nitric oxide (NO), a compound that relaxes blood vessels and is thought to play a similar role in airways.The researchers collected blood samples from 155 adults, nearly half of whom had severe asthma and half of whom were obese. The team found that, compared to early-onset asthma patients, late-onset obese asthma patients had lower plasma levels of the amino acid arginine and higher levels of an arginine metabolite called ADMA, which interferes with NO production.

Arginine is readily available over the counter as a dietary supplement but is rapidly metabolized by the body, which reduces its practicality as a treatment, he said. Another supplement, citrulline, is known to enhance arginine production, and can be taken in high doses without ill effects.

Co-authors of the paper include senior author Sally Wenzel of the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine and the director of the Asthma Institute, and others from the School of Medicine, as well as researchers from the Cleveland Clinic, Wake Forest University, University of Wisconsin, University of Texas, Washington University, Emory University, University of Virginia, Harvard University and Imperial College London.

The project was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Results were published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.


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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