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September 25, 2014

Research Notes

UPB prof presents McKean County offender study

Gregory Page, psychology faculty member at Pitt-Bradford, presented findings about McKean County offender characteristics to the American Psychological Association’s annual convention last month.

Page examined the court records and judicial files of 258 defendants processed by the McKean County Court of Common Pleas during 2012. While preserving the anonymity of each defendant, he recorded age, sex, prior offenses, drug and alcohol use and/or treatment and other characteristics. He focused on a rural population since previous research has neglected to explore rural court systems. By examining court records, he was able to include defendants who were not incarcerated in addition to those who were incarcerated, thereby giving a more complete picture of the rural defendants.

Among the statistically significant correlations he discovered: Those who committed violent offenses tended not to use a weapon or use illegal substances during the offense. Those who committed a general criminal offense did not tend to have a previous domestic violence allegation or charge. Men were more likely than women to commit theft-related offenses, violent offenses and general criminal offenses.

Page plans to expand the data set to include 10 years of data from McKean County criminal court in order to further examine trends or patterns in this rural population. He plans to share his initial and subsequent findings with McKean County President Judge John Pavlock.

Project aims to turn world from AC to DC

Bopaya Bidanda, John Camillus and Gregory Reed think it might be time to redirect Pittsburgh’s attention to direct current (DC), reversing the late 1880s battle won by Pittsburgh native George Westinghouse over Thomas Edison to base the country’s electric power grid on alternating current (AC).

Using an $800,000 grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, the three faculty members are approaching the promise of DC power from two distinct perspectives.

Reed, interim director of the Center for Energy, director of the Swanson School of Engineering’s Electric Power Initiative and an electrical and computer engineering faculty member, will address DC technology, studying ways to convert the longstanding AC power grid to a DC grid. He believes DC has become a more efficient and logical way of addressing energy delivery needs, especially in the 21st century and beyond.

Noted Reed: “Your laptop runs on a few volts DC, [but] it has to be converted from AC by that box, the converter on the power cord.” The same is the case for high-definition televisions, most appliances, cell phones, and other consumer devices and office equipment. “Very few items today require three-phase alternating current. The use and development of today’s evolving energy mix makes the transition to DC more sensible and viable for future power delivery needs.”

He and members of his lab also are advancing research into high-voltage DC systems, which present the potential of developing a commercially viable high-voltage DC grid. “Both academia and industry have made great strides in DC technology development, which will be a game changer in modernizing and securing the nation’s grid,” he said. “We’d like to develop DC microgrids, community microgrids in residential developments, offices, commercial buildings and industrial facilities. I’ve been working on this for more than a decade, and DC offers a much better match between energy transmission and use.”

Over the next year, Reed’s group will develop new DC concepts, designs and technology. He also hopes to find ways to engage the marketplace, both on industrial and consumer levels, in the project.

Camillus, the Donald R. Beall Professor of Strategic Management in the Katz Graduate School of Business, and Bidanda, the Ernest E. Roth Professor and chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering in the Swanson school, will use the grant to address the potential of DC technology to positively impact the economy, the natural environment and the quality of life, especially for those at the lower end of the income spectrum.

DC technology fits into that project because it offers the promise of highly efficient, renewable, green, distributed power generation that can support economic growth and renewal. They explored this in a major international conference they organized in Prague in October 2013 on “Energizing Low-Income Communities.”

Said Bidanda: “Practically speaking, we’re looking to show people why it’s important, and possible, to use DC power to improve the lives of people who are less fortunate. One of the ways we’re going to do this is to establish DC-powered businesses —some here in Pittsburgh, especially Homewood, and others in India. We expect that both locations will greatly benefit from sharing locally developed technologies and applications.”

Because most of our energy use is DC, it’s much easier and less expensive to develop off-grid DC power storage on a local level, Bidanda said. For example, installing solar panels, storing some of that power in batteries, then using it to power a small village on DC could “really change the life of that village,” he said. “It can be transformative. And even looking at long-distance transmission, it’s beginning to become a more attractive alternative to AC.”

Added Camillus: “DC is green. DC benefits the environment. Local, renewable energy generation is naturally DC, not AC. And DC lighting and motors are vastly more efficient. There is enormous potential for businesses that take advantage of the economies and government incentives offered by DC. And shifting from AC to DC will be a rich source of new jobs that we intend to tap in Pittsburgh.”

The three professors envision eventually installing a microgrid — a self-sufficient, geographically contained energy system — perhaps at a new housing development or a university campus. The grid would create electricity via solar panels, small wind turbines, fuel cells and gas-fired generators and store some of the power in batteries. The electricity would be delivered and used as DC, significantly reducing or even eliminating the need for conversion from AC to DC and thereby saving energy typically lost as heat in AC systems.

“We’re not necessarily saying Edison was right,” Reed said. “He wasn’t in his time. But he is now.”

Chemical biologist finds halogenation enzyme

Molecules containing carbon-halogen bonds are produced naturally across all kingdoms of life and constitute a large family of natural products with a broad range of biological activities. The presence of halogen substituents (molecules in which certain atoms have been replaced) in many bioactive compounds has a profound influence on their molecular properties.

One of the Holy Grails in chemical science has been to find the late-stage, site-specific incorporation of a halogen atom into a complex natural product by replacing an sp3 C-H bond (one of the most inert chemical bonds known in an organic compound) with a C-X bond, where X is a halogen. Until work was undertaken in the laboratory of Xinyu Liu, a chemistry faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, there was no reliable synthetic or biological method known to be able to achieve this type of transformation.

In an article published online this month in Nature Chemical Biology, researchers led by Liu reported the discovery of the first enzyme that can accomplish this feat. It could find broad applications in pharmaceutical and agricultural industries, enabling medicinal chemists to tailor synthetic molecules with halogen substituents in order to improve their pharmacological profiles.

Liu and postdoctoral fellow Matthew Hillwig studied bacteria and demonstrated that the WelO5 protein is the first enzyme identified to have the capacity to mediate the regio- and stereospecific replacement of an aliphatic C-H bond to C-Cl bond on a freestanding small molecule. Specifically, they determined this by studying the biogenesis of hapalindole-type alkaloid welwitindolinones in stigonematalean cyanobacteria.

Their work also provided conclusive evidence to answer a longstanding question regarding the enzymatic origin of chlorine substitution in the biogenesis of hapalindole-type alkaloids in accordance with a proposal that was recently formulated by the Liu group.

It is expected that this discovery will present opportunities to evolve new catalysts for selective late-stage halogenations on unactivated carbons in complex molecular scaffolds.

Genetic discovery yields test for aggressive prostate cancer

A genetic discovery out of the School of Medicine is leading to a highly accurate test for aggressive prostate cancer and identifies new avenues for treatment.

The analysis, published in the American Journal of Pathology, found that prostate cancer patients who carry certain genetic mutations have a 91 percent chance of their cancer recurring.

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the American Cancer Society and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI).

Said researcher Jian-Hua Luo of the pathology faculty and UPCI: “Being able to say, with such certainty, that a patient is nearly guaranteed to see a recurrence of his prostate cancer means that doctors and patients can elect to be more aggressive in treating the cancer, knowing that the benefits likely outweigh the risks. Eventually, this could lead to a cure for prostate cancer through genetic therapy. With this discovery, we’re at the tip of the iceberg in terms of possibilities for improving patient outcomes.”

The American Cancer Society estimates that this year in the U.S. about 233,000 new cases of prostate cancer will be diagnosed. Despite the high incidence rate, only a fraction of men diagnosed with prostate cancer develop metastases, and even fewer men — 29,480 — will die of prostate cancer.

“In some cases, this can make the treatment more dangerous than the disease, so doctors need more accurate tests to tell them which patients would most benefit from aggressive therapies, such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy,” said Luo.

Luo and his team sequenced the entire genome of prostate tissue samples from five prostate cancer patients who experienced aggressive recurrence of their cancer and compared them to normal tissue samples from men without cancer.

In the patients with prostate cancer recurrence, they identified 76 genetic fusion transcripts, which are hybrid genes formed from two previously separate genes and often are associated with cancer. After further testing, eight of the genetic fusion transcripts were found to be strongly associated with prostate cancer.

The researchers then screened for the eight fusion transcripts in 127 samples from patients with aggressive prostate cancer recurrence, 106 samples from prostate cancer patients with no recurrence at least five years after surgery, and 46 samples from prostate cancer patients with no recurrence less than five years after surgery. The samples came from UPMC, Stanford University Medical Center and University of Wisconsin Madison Medical Center.

In those samples, 91 percent with aggressive recurrence of their prostate cancer were positive for at least one of the fusion transcripts. Two of the fusion transcripts in particular were strongly associated with poor outcomes; none of the patients whose samples contained them survived to five years.

In contrast, 68 percent of patients whose samples did not contain at least one of the transcripts remained cancer-free.

Luo said if continued clinical trials of the test do well, it could be available to all prostate cancer patients in a few years.

In addition, studies are being developed to further investigate the genetic fusion transcripts most strongly associated with aggressive prostate cancer. Drugs and therapies could be developed to correct or stop the mutations, thereby halting the cancer progression.

Additional Pitt researchers on this study were Yan P. Yu, Ying Ding, Zhanghui Chen, Silvia Liu, Amantha Michalopoulos, Riu Chen, Kathleen Cieply, Alyssa Luvison, Bao-Guo Ren, Joel B. Nelson, George Michalopoulos and George C. Tseng.

Researchers from Stanford and the University of Wisconsin also contributed.

New center for research on tech, media, health

Would celebratory music and a thousand “points” per pill encourage a patient with heart disease to take her medication? If social media friends congratulate an overweight person for skipping dessert, will it help him shed pounds?

Do song lyrics glorifying alcohol use inspire binge drinking in teens? Does continuous exposure to images of negative TV news footage influence depression or anxiety?

Brian A. Primack, assistant vice chancellor for health and society in the Schools of the Health Sciences, will direct the new Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health (CRMTH) to tackle questions like these across a broad range of disciplines.

Said Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine: “Technological innovation has proceeded so rapidly that youths ages 8-18 are now exposed to more than eight hours a day of electronic media messages outside of school. While these emerging exposures pose risks to health, they also may be leveraged to improve health.”

Said Primack, a faculty member in medicine, pediatrics and clinical and translational science in the School of Medicine: “Internet, social media, television, films, music and video games are all examples of media and technology that can affect our health and wellness. These exposures may have positive or negative influences, and educational and policy-related interventions may be effective at buffering negative influences and bolstering positive ones.”

CRMTH faculty and staff will collaborate with numerous schools and centers, including nursing, pharmacy, dental medicine, public health, health and rehabilitation sciences, social work and the Health Policy Institute.

In addition to performing research and developing and testing interventions, CRMTH will include an educational component for health sciences students about the impact of media and technology on health.

CRMTH is funded by NIH, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the ABMRF/The Alcohol Research Foundation, UPCI and the Health Policy Institute.

Vaccine proves effective against MERS virus

A vaccine developed by an international team of scientists led by the School of Medicine successfully protects mice against a contagious and deadly virus spreading across the Middle East. The vaccine is a promising candidate for immunizing camels, thought to be the source of human infection.

Details of the new immunization against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) were published online and will appear in an upcoming issue of Vaccine.

Said senior author Andrea Gambotto, a surgery faculty member: “MERS poses an emerging threat worldwide and has infected people in several Middle Eastern countries, with some unwittingly bringing the virus to other countries, including the U.S., through air travel.

However, scientists now believe that by vaccinating camels against MERS, we may be able to reduce transmission to humans and stave off the spread of this deadly virus.”

There have been 837 cases of MERS confirmed to date, including 291 deaths. According to the World Health Organization, symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath, with respiratory failure in severe illnesses. However, some people can be infected and show no symptoms, despite being contagious and spreading the virus to others.

Strains of MERS that match human strains have been isolated from camels in the Middle Eastern countries where MERS is spreading, where the animals are used for transportation and as a food source.

Gambotto and his colleagues created a vaccine that encodes for a characteristic protein found on the surface of the MERS virus. The vaccine primes the immune system to detect the protein and fight the virus.

The team injected mice with the vaccine and gave them boosters through the nose three weeks later. All the immunized mice had antibody responses against the MERS protein.

“Since this vaccine is effective in mice, we believe it warrants testing in camels so we can determine if they have a similar immune response,” said Gambotto. “If we can protect camels against MERS, we may make it so difficult for MERS to infect people that its threat to the human population is significantly diminished.”

Additional Pitt authors on this research were Eun Kim, Kaori Okada and Tom Kenniston. Also contributing were researchers from the Erasmus Medical Center Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the Supreme Council of Health in Qatar and the Ministry of Environment in Qatar.

New concussion test created here

Researchers at the University and UPMC have created a new, 5- to 10-minute test that could be added to a clinician’s concussion evaluation toolkit for a more comprehensive assessment of the injury.

In a recent study published online by the American Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers from the UPMC sports medicine concussion program demonstrated that clinicians could use their novel vestibular/ocular motor screening (VOMS) examination to be 90 percent accurate in identifying patients with concussion.

The VOMS, which requires such minimal equipment as a tape measure and a metronome, was shown to be a valid and consistent tool to enhance the current multi-disciplinary approaches to concussion assessment that include clinical examination, symptom evaluation and computerized neurocognitive testing.

Previous research conducted at UPMC identified the vestibular ocular system — responsible for integrating vision, balance and movement — as being the most predictive of longer outcomes from sports-related concussions.

However, the researchers reported, most current evaluation and management tools for vestibular issues focus on balance, potentially missing important pieces of the concussion puzzle. In fact, the sideline assessment of concussion (SAC), sport concussion assessment tool-3 (SCAT-3), balance error scoring system (BESS), and similar tests fail to both comprehensively evaluate the vestibular system and measure ocular-motor dysfunction, researchers found.

Said principal investigator Anne Mucha, adjunct instructor in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and concussion program clinical coordinator for vestibular therapy: “We were afraid that important findings were being missed in many patients following their concussion because we just didn’t have the right tool to measure this part of the injury. Current assessments clearly weren’t sufficient in identifying most of the dizziness and visual problems that we commonly see in our patients.”

The researchers studied 64 concussed patients approximately five days post-injury and 78 healthy control-group patients who were administered VOMS by trained clinicians. The VOMS, which was developed in conjunction with a multi-disciplinary team from UPMC, assesses five areas of the vestibular ocular system: smooth pursuits, saccades (rapid eye movement), horizontal vestibular ocular reflex, visual motion sensitivity and near-point-of-convergence distance.

Said Anthony Kontos, concussion program assistant research director and senior investigator: “The results from the current study indicated that more than 60 percent of patients experienced symptoms following the VOMS, and these are patients whose impairments might have been missed without a tool like it.”

Other co-authors were Joseph Furman of Pitt and researchers from Duquesne University, the University of Arkansas and the UPMC concussion program.

The study was supported in part by a grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

PCPs accepting of model to improve diabetes care

Nurses certified in diabetes education can be integrated successfully into primary care physician offices in an effort to improve the health of people with diabetes, according to a Graduate School of Public Health evaluation funded by the American Diabetes Association.

The determination was made following enrollment and initiation of the REdesigning MEDication Intensification Effectiveness Study for Diabetes (REMEDIES 4D), an ongoing trial to assess the effectiveness of certified diabetes educators in managing diabetes. The research was published in Contemporary Clinical Trials.

Said principal investigator Janice Zgibor, epidemiology faculty member in public health: “The vast majority of people with diabetes are seen by primary care physicians who have increasingly limited time to address the complexities of each patient’s care. A new model of care is necessary to best treat the growing number of people with diabetes.”

The REMEDIES 4D trial included 240 participants from 15 UPMC primary care practices, consisting of 57 physicians and two physician assistants. Eight of the practices were randomly assigned to receive a certified diabetes educator who provided treatment for glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol control, diabetes education and follow-up to patients. The remaining practices served as a control group and proceeded with their usual care.

A certified diabetes educator is a trained nurse who meets with diabetic patients and reviews their test results and medications, as well as their efforts to control diabetes through lifestyle changes. This nurse is certified to make therapeutic adjustments, such as changing medications when needed. She or he also can educate the patient about managing diabetes and help with emotional issues, such as fear of needles or diabetes-related depression.

“The certified diabetes educator’s main focus is staying on top of managing patients’ diabetes,” said Zgibor. “This could help prevent long-term diabetes complications, such as blindness and amputation, because the certified diabetes educator may be able to address care issues faster than the physician.”

Although the clinical trial pays for the cost of the certified diabetes educator provided to participating practices, Zgibor said there are ways to make the cost less of a burden to other practices interested in implementing the model, such as sharing a certified diabetes educator or completing requirements for insurance reimbursement.

The REMEDIES 4D trial will include an economic evaluation to determine the cost-effectiveness of certified diabetes educators, both to primary care providers and society.

“In addition to helping patients, we’re finding that the presence of the certified diabetes educator in primary care practices also is a resource to physicians and office staff with diabetes-related questions,” said Zgibor. “So far, it seems like this model of diabetes care is well-received in primary care physicians’ offices. It will be interesting to see whether it proves to be a cost-effective way to manage the diabetes epidemic that is becoming an increasing burden on the U.S. health system.”

Additional Pitt researchers on this study were Shihchen Kuo, Patricia Gittinger, Debra Tilves and Maura Maloney. Also contributing were researchers from UPMC and the Charles R. Drew University in Los Angeles.

Heart risk from fat shown to vary by race, ethnicity

A man’s likelihood of accumulating fat around his heart — an important indicator of heart disease risk — may be better determined if doctors consider his race and ethnicity, as well as where on his body he’s building up excess fat, reveals an international evaluation led by the Graduate School of Public Health.

The public health analysis could mean tailoring exercise regimens based on a man’s ethnicity.

The findings, published online in the International Journal of Obesity, indicate that it may be useful to take into account racial and ethnic differences when designing programs to reduce obesity because what works for one man might not be as beneficial for another.

Said lead author Samar R. El Khoudary, faculty member in  epidemiology: “If you are an African-American man and carry excess weight mainly around the mid-section, then you have a higher likelihood of more fat around the heart than if you gain weight fairly evenly throughout your body. But the reverse is true for Koreans — their heart disease risk is greater with overall weight gain. Knowing this can help doctors specify the right physical training for each racial ethnic group to reduce their heart disease risk.”

El Khoudary’s analysis relied on data from the “Electron-Beam Tomography, Risk Factor Assessment Among Japanese and U.S. Men in the Post-World War II Birth Cohort Study.” It is a population-based study of men enrolled between 2002 and 2006 who were ages 40-49 and free of cardiovascular disease, type-1 diabetes and other severe diseases at the time of enrollment.

The recent analysis took a closer look at 1,199 men in the study who were white or black from Allegheny County, Japanese-Americans from Hawaii, Japanese and Koreans.

The study looked at the amount of fat around the heart called ectopic cardiovascular fat. Higher volumes of this fat are associated with greater risk of heart disease.

For white men, an increase in body mass index, or BMI, which is a measure of overall body fat, and abdominal fat are equally likely to indicate an increase in fat around the heart.

Black men who carry disproportionally more weight around their mid-section are at similar risk of having more fat around their hearts. Increases in BMI have lower impact.

Japanese and Japanese-American men also are at similar risk of having more fat around their hearts if they have more fat in their abdomens, with BMI having less of an impact.

Korean men with higher BMIs have a higher likelihood of fat around the heart, whereas abdominal fat matters less.

“What we now need to determine is whether concentrating efforts to reduce overall body fat or fat in the abdomen will actually decrease fat around the heart more in people of certain racial or ethnic groups,” said El Khoudary. “Such a long-term evaluation could help in designing race-specific heart disease prevention strategies.”

Other Pitt researchers involved in the study included senior author and principal investigator Akira Sekikawa as well as Emma Berinas-Mitchell, Aiman El-Saed, Rhobert W. Evans and Lewis H. Kuller.

They were joined by colleagues from Korea University, the University of Hawaii, Shiga University of Medical Science in Japan, Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, Temple and Teikyo University School of Medicine in Japan.

This work was supported by NIH, the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture Sports, Science and Technology.

Unusual immune cell targets oral thrush

An unusual kind of immune cell in the tongue appears to play a pivotal role in the prevention of thrush, according to researchers at the School of Medicine, who discovered them.

The research findings, published online in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, might shed light on why people infected with HIV or who have other immune system impairments  are more susceptible to the oral yeast infection.

Oral thrush is caused by an overgrowth of a normally present fungus called Candida albicans, which leads to painful white lesions in the mouth, noted senior investigator Sarah L. Gaffen, faculty member in rheumatology and clinical immunology. The infection is treatable, but is a common complication for people with HIV, transplant recipients who take drugs to suppress the immune system, chemotherapy patients and babies with immature immune systems.

Said Gaffen: “In previous work, we found the cytokine interleukin-17 (IL-17), a protein involved in immune regulation, must be present to prevent the development of thrush.  But until now, we didn’t know where the IL-17 was coming from.”

Typically, IL-17 is produced by immune T-cells that learn to recognize and remove a foreign organism after an initial exposure, known as adaptive immunity. But unlike humans, mice do not normally acquire Candida during birth and are considered immunologically naive to it.

When the researchers exposed the lab animals to Candida, their IL-17 levels rose within 24 hours despite the lack of a T-cell response. This suggested the immune activity was innate, rather than acquired.

To find the cell responsible for IL-17 secretion, the investigators devised a way of applying a scientific technique called flow cytometry to sort for the first time cells gathered from the oral tissues. In the tongue, they identified unusual cells known as natural TH17 cells that looked very much like T-cells but didn’t behave like them. Subsequent tests showed that the novel cells did, indeed, make IL-17 when exposed to Candida.

“These cells are part of a natural host defense system that is present at birth and does not require a first exposure to be activated,” said Gaffen. “This study demonstrates for the first time that natural TH17 cells protect against infection.”

The researchers speculate that the similarities natural TH17 cells share with T-cells make them vulnerable to HIV, chemotherapy and other agents as well, which could explain why certain people are more susceptible to oral thrush. Also, new drugs that block IL-17 soon will be on the market for treatment of rheumatologic conditions, so it’s possible that thrush could be a side effect.

The team plans to examine the factors that influence thrush development within the high-risk groups.

Co-authors of the paper included other researchers from the School of Medicine, Children’s Hospital, the University of Pennsylvania, Genentech and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

The project was funded by NIH, Children’s Hospital, the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society, the Edmond J. Safra Foundation/Cancer Research Institute and the NIAID.

Chemo + radiation not effective for vulvar cancer

The addition of chemotherapy to post-surgical radiation treatment is not effective in treating vulvar cancer, according to research presented at the 56th annual meeting of the American Society for Radiation Oncology.

Vulvar cancer is extremely rare, accounting for just 4 percent of gynecologic cancers and 0.6 percent of cancers women face in the United States each year.

Led by Sushil Beriwal, faculty member in the School of Medicine’s Department of Radiation Oncology and a radiation oncologist at Magee, this study identified patients diagnosed with vulvar cancer between 1998 and 2011 who had undergone surgery to remove the cancer and required adjuvant radiation therapy because the disease had spread to their lymph nodes.

The study utilized the National Cancer Database, a nationwide oncology outcomes database, to identify 1,087 patients who underwent chemotherapy treatment in addition to radiation therapy after their initial surgery to remove the cancer. The study took into account factors including age, race, insurance coverage, tumor size and spread of the disease.

“Our study found that overall, the addition of chemotherapy to adjuvant radiation therapy did not improve patient survival,” said Beriwal.

“While retrospective studies do impose some limits on our conclusion, we found that, at the very least, use of concurrent chemotherapy should be carefully evaluated on an individual basis.”

While the study didn’t confirm a benefit of the addition of adjuvant chemotherapy to treatment, Beriwal said it is important to share the findings because they move researchers one step closer to understanding how to treat vulvar cancer most effectively.

Technology created here headed to Mars

In 1979, Sanford Asher interviewed to join the chemistry department faculty. As is the practice, he gave a presentation regarding a particular bit of research he’d do if hired.

He was hired. And in 2020, the fruit of that presentation will be on its way to Mars.

Asher, now a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, has seen his job-application idea, UV Raman spectroscopy — the use of ultraviolet light as a means to excite molecules in order to determine the basic components of a piece of matter — grow and become integral to science.

The technology will be a prime component of SHERLOC, an instrument that will be aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover when it lifts off.

“I’ve been working in this area for a long time,” he says. “Most of the uses to this point have been biological; it’s important to the detection of protein folding. I’ve been involved in all aspects of the science from laser development to theory development to building the first instrument.”

Asher is a co-investigator on the SHERLOC instrument being built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which also is leading the Mars 2020 Rover project. Luther Beegle, research scientist and deputy manager of the planetary science section at JPL, is the principal investigator on the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) project.

“Quite frankly, SHERLOC owes a very large amount of its selection [to be aboard the rover] to Dr. Asher’s work,” Beegle says. “He’s the world’s leading expert in the field and many of the technical and scientific questions we are going to address during the Mars 2020 operations come directly from his work.”

SHERLOC, Beegle says, will shine a tiny dot of ultraviolet laser light at a target. This causes two different spectral phenomena to occur, which the instrument captures for analysis.

The first is a distinctive fluorescence, or glow, from molecules that contain rings of carbon atoms. Such molecules may be clues to whether evidence of past life has been preserved.

The second is an effect called Raman scattering, which can identify certain minerals, including ones formed from evaporation of salty water, and organic compounds. This dual use enables powerful analysis of many different compounds on the identical spot.

Beegle adds that Asher will play a valuable role in finetuning SHERLOC.

“And when we land, Dr. Asher will work with the entire 2020 science team to identify the types of minerals and organics we have detected so that we can better understand Martian history.”

—Compiled by Marty Levine


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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