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November 6, 2014

Research Notes

New catalytic modeling method uses biomass

A new method to model catalytic reactions and improve production of chemicals and polymers developed by researchers at the Swanson School of Engineering was the cover article in the November issue of Catalysis Science & Technology published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“Structure-activity relationships on metal-oxides: alcohol dehydration” was led by principal investigator Giannis Mpourmpakis, faculty member in chemical and petroleum engineering. Co-authors were a faculty member from the University of Pennsylvania and two student researchers.

Said Mpourmpakis: “Alcohol dehydration catalysts are important in the production of valuable chemicals that are widely used in industry. But even though the dehydration reactions have been researched heavily for more than half a century, the catalytic mechanisms are not well understood. If we can find a better way to model these catalytic reactions on a computer, we can reduce the amount of trial-and-error in the lab and therefore improve the production process.”

Mpourmpakis developed the computer models, then dehydration experiments verified the results. This model will allow researchers to easily test a variety of different alcohols and metal-oxide catalysts according to their dehydration activity. Preparation and operating conditions greatly affect catalytic reactions, and thus understanding and controlling how catalysts behave can improve the overall process and allow for more sustainable production methods. For example, the proposed catalytic modeling would enable the use of alcohol compounds derived from biomass, or plant-based materials, to produce olefins such as ethylene and propylene, which are the building blocks of polymers and plastics.

Public health works with state to create exercise program

The Graduate School of Public Health is collaborating with the Pennsylvania Department of Health to increase physical activity in Pennsylvania.

Public health will receive $1 million to increase active transportation — such as walking, jogging or bicycling — in communities served by several target school districts. The four-year WalkWorks initiative will build on previous efforts and complement school-based activities to address childhood obesity.

Said Linda Duchak, project leader and associate director of Pitt’s Center for Public Health Practice: “There are so many benefits to walking, from improving one’s physical and mental health to reducing traffic congestion and pollution. It’s important that communities consider pedestrian transportation as a critical component of transportation and infrastructure planning.”

The communities to be served in the first year are in the school districts of Purchase Line, Indiana County; Kane Area in McKean County, Altoona Area in Blair County and Albert Gallatin, Fayette County. Additionally, a walking project will be established within the Capitol complex in Harrisburg.

By involving community-based partners from multiple sectors, such as health care providers, social service agencies and local governments, Duchak’s team will identify, map and mark safe and accessible walking routes and establish and promote local walking groups.

As part of WalkWorks, the Center for Sustainable Transportation Infrastructure in the Swanson school will conduct walkability assessments in the target communities to identify strengths, opportunities and solutions related to pedestrian transportation.

Public health and the Swanson school also will provide technical assistance to their community-based partners and transportation planners to promote infrastructure planning, design, implementation and maintenance policies to create roadways that safely accommodate all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and motorists.

“The goal is to influence local and regional planning efforts so that pedestrian facilities are considered and enhancements are made to the existing transportation network,” said Duchak, a behavioral and community health sciences faculty member. “We want to make it easy for people to enjoy walking in their communities. The associated health benefits will follow.”

For more information about WalkWorks, visit

$3.4 million funds training center for public health workforce

The public health school will receive nearly $3.4 million from the federal government over the next four years to establish and operate a training center intended to improve the nation’s public health system.

Margaret Potter, principal investigator and faculty member in health policy and management, will oversee the establishment of the Region 3 Public Health Training Center.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant will create the new center to serve Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. It also will be the U.S. health informatics training center.

It will provide free training sessions to public health professionals on a variety of topics, ranging from behavioral health programming for smoking cessation to computer programs that track an infectious disease spread and simulate interventions to stop it.

The public health school has been the Public Health Training Center for Pennsylvania for the past 14 years. In the new regionalization of the HRSA training centers, public health will oversee local training sites run by Drexel University School of Public Health for eastern Pennsylvania; Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia; the Virginia Department of Health for Virginia, and West Virginia University School of Public Health for West Virginia.

Said Potter: “Monitoring for air and water pollution, inspecting restaurants for food safety, containing infectious disease outbreaks — these are all examples of the crucial work done by people who serve in our public health sector. In order for public health professionals to keep up with the latest technical developments in their fields, they need formal continuing education programs. That’s what the training center provides.”

The Region 3 Public Health Training Center will run sessions in health informatics nationwide. The school’s Public Health Dynamics Laboratory has developed programs including Project Tycho, the Framework for Reconstructing Epidemiological Dynamics and the LEgal Network Analyzer, which can assist public health professionals in making decisions based on real-world data.

“Local public health departments collect a treasure trove of data,” noted Potter. “However, they often don’t have the time, personnel or resources to turn that data into useful information that will inform their work. What we’ll be able to do is give them the tools and the training to do their own analyses quickly and efficiently.”

For example, knowing how to use certain data analysis programs, such as the ones developed by public health, during a disease outbreak could help a public health department make decisions on how to allocate its budget, what expertise it might need to bring in to manage the outbreak and what laws or policies might support or constrain the response.

Air toxics, childhood autism linked

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were more likely to have been exposed to higher levels of certain air toxics during their mothers’ pregnancies and the first two years of life compared to children without the condition, according to the preliminary findings of a public health investigation of children in southwestern Pennsylvania.

This research, funded by The Heinz Endowments, was presented at the American Association for Aerosol Research annual meeting.

Said Evelyn Talbott, principal investigator and epidemiology faculty member: “Autism spectrum disorders are a major public health problem, and their prevalence has increased dramatically. Despite its serious social impact, the causes of autism are poorly understood. Very few studies of autism have included environmental exposures while taking into account other personal and behavioral risk factors. Our analysis is an addition to the small but growing body of research that considers air toxics as one of the risk factors for ASD.”

Talbott and her colleagues performed a population-based study of families with and without ASD living in six southwestern Pennsylvania counties. The researchers found links between increased levels of chromium and styrene and childhood autism spectrum disorder, a condition that affects one in 68 children.

ASDs are a range of conditions characterized by social deficits and communication difficulties that typically become apparent early in childhood. Reported cases of ASD have risen nearly eight-fold in the last two decades. While previous studies have shown the increase to be partially due to changes in diagnostic practices and greater public awareness of autism, this does not fully explain the increased prevalence. Both genetic and environmental factors are believed to be partially responsible.

Talbott and colleagues interviewed 217 families of children with ASD and compared these findings with information from two separate sets of comparison families of children without ASD born within Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties between 2005 and 2009.

One of the strengths of the study was the ability to have “two types of controls, which provided a comparison of representative air toxics in neighborhoods of those children with and without ASD,” said Talbott.

For each family, the team used the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) to estimate the exposure to 30 pollutants known to cause endocrine disruption or neurodevelopmental issues. NATA is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ongoing comprehensive evaluation of air toxics in the U.S., most recently conducted in 2005.

Based on the child’s exposure to concentrations of air toxics during the mother’s pregnancy and the first two years of life, the researchers noted that children who fell into higher exposure groups to styrene and chromium were at a 1.4- to two-fold greater risk of ASD, after accounting for the age of the mother, maternal cigarette smoking, race and education. Other NATA compounds associated with increased risk included cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol and arsenic. As these compounds often are found in combination with each other, further study is needed.

Styrene is used in the production of plastics and paints, but also is one of the products of combustion when burning gasoline in vehicles. Chromium is a heavy metal, and air pollution containing it typically is the result of industrial processes and the hardening of steel, but it also can come from power plants. Cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol and arsenic all are used in a number of industries or can be found in vehicle exhaust.

“Our results add to the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures, such as air pollution, to ASD,” said Talbott. “The next step will be confirming our findings with studies that measure the specific exposure to air pollutants at an individual level to verify these EPA-modeled estimates.”

Additional Pitt investigators on this study were Vincent Arena, Judith Rager, Ravi Sharma and Lynne Marshall.

DOE grant aids nuclear power safety research

Researchers at the Swanson school were awarded a $987,000 grant from the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy University Programs (NEUP) to develop radiation-hard, multi-functional, distributed fiber optical sensor networks to improve safety and operational efficiency in nuclear power reactors and fuel cycle systems. The grant was awarded under NEUP’s nuclear energy enabling technology program.

The principal investigator is Kevin P. Chen, electrical engineering faculty member and Paul E. Lego Faculty Fellow. Project collaborators include Westinghouse Electric Company and Corning.

Said Chen: “An important lesson of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 is the lack of situation awareness of nuclear power systems, especially under stressed or severe situations. When the plant was evacuated following the earthquake and tsunami, we lost the ability to know what was happening in key systems. This information blackout prevented the implementation of proper control mechanisms, which then triggered a disastrous chain of events.”

According to Chen, the fiber optical sensor networks will enable nuclear engineers to better monitor a number of parameters critical to the safety of nuclear power systems. The sensor networks will have high sensitivity, high accuracy and high spatial resolutions, with up to 100 sensors per meter in critical locations. This high-resolution sensing data will provide operators with information to quickly isolate problems and implement solutions at minimal cost. Scientists at Corning will help to develop radiation-hard, application-specific air-hole microstructural fibers for multi-parameter measurements of temperature, pressure and hydrogen concentration. Novel fiber structure designs and the integration of nano-composite coating will enhance functionalities of distributed fiber sensing schemes beyond traditional uses for temperature and strain measurements. Swanson researchers also will work with engineers at Westinghouse Electric Company to academically evaluate performance in both normal and post-accident scenarios and to assess practical applications for sensor implementation in nuclear power systems.

“This is a challenging project because we will be designing new radiation-robust sensors from the ground up,” Chen said. “However, the success of this project will enable us to improve the reliability and safety of future nuclear systems, as well as existing nuclear power plants through retrofitting.”

Magee-Womens to offer new surgery to treat lymphedema

Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC is the only hospital in the region to offer new surgical techniques to cancer patients who develop lymphedema, an often debilitating and painful condition in which excess fluid collects in tissues and causes swelling.

Nearly 30 percent of cancer patients who undergo surgery or radiation will develop lymphedema, which occurs in the arm or leg when lymph nodes have been surgically removed, or from damage to the lymphatic system caused by radiation therapy. Conventional treatments include massage, physical therapy or a therapeutic compression sleeve, but for many patients these options don’t provide significant relief.

Said Carolyn De La Cruz, faculty member in surgery in the School of Medicine and plastic surgeon at Magee: “Those who develop lymphedema as a complication are left with a chronic, life-long debilitating disease that has no cure and has a significant impact on their quality of life.”

Magee surgeons have started performing lymphaticovenular bypass, a microscopic surgery that involves several tiny incisions in the arm or leg. Using specialized microscopic tools, surgeons redirect the lymphatic fluid to drain through small veins, alleviating a significant amount of swelling.

“Those of us who treat lymphedema like to compare it to a traffic jam in the body,” said De La Cruz. “This surgery allows us to redirect fluid by taking an alternate route, bypassing the backup.”

Depending on the severity of the lymphedema, Magee surgeons also may offer another new approach, lymph-node transfer, which involves removing lymph nodes from elsewhere in the body and transferring them to the area of the body damaged by cancer treatment. After the procedure, the transferred lymph nodes start to drain.

Said Atilla Soran, surgery faculty member and director of Magee’s lymphedema program: “Until recently, surgical options for lymphedema haven’t been effective. While traditional treatment options work for a while, eventually a patient’s insurance runs out and they begin developing complications, like cellulitis, which need to be managed. The opportunity to offer surgical techniques to significantly improve the complications from lymphedema can greatly improve patients’ quality of life.”

With both procedures, the reduction is gradual, taking place over a period of about one year. Both the bypass procedure and the lymph-node transfer are most successful in patients who are cancer-free, with early-stage lymphedema.

For patients with advanced lymphedema, a surgical debulking procedure in which doctors remove excess fluid from the fatty tissue of the affected limb can be a successful alternative treatment, although patients may still require compression garments and physical therapy post-surgery.

V Foundation gives $800,000 for study of head/neck cancer

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), partner with UPMC CancerCenter, have been awarded a grant from the V Foundation for Cancer Research to study gene mutations in patients whose head and neck cancer was caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) in hopes of finding a more effective, less toxic therapy for this often painful, disfiguring disease.

The three-year, $600,000 grant was awarded to principal investigator Julie Bauman, faculty member in medicine and director of the Head and Neck Cancer Section in the Division of Hematology-Oncology at the School of Medicine. Bauman is also co-director of the UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Center of Excellence.

The V Foundation, formed by ESPN and former college basketball coach Jim Valvano, also recognized Pitt’s Kara Bernstein with a V Scholar award, worth $200,000 over two years.

The grant will help researchers build on existing scientific knowledge and pioneer new treatments for head and neck cancer, which affects more than 50,000 people in the U.S. and 600,000 people worldwide each year.

Oral infection with HPV is becoming the primary cause of head and neck cancer in North America and Europe. Although HPV-related cancer responds well to intensive treatment, combinations of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy can result in permanent changes to uniquely human functions: facial expression, speech and swallowing.

Said Bauman: “We’ve already learned that half of HPV-related head and neck cancers demonstrate abnormalities in a gene known as PIK3CA. We’re now learning how alterations in this gene cooperate with the virus to transform benign HPV infections into cancer. In addition, we are conducting a clinical trial to see whether a new drug that targets PIK3CA improves response in patients with HPV-related cancer. Ultimately, we aim to identify more effective and less toxic treatments and even to prevent the transformation of HPV infection into cancer.”

Bauman is collaborating on the study with Jennifer Grandis, vice chair for research, otolaryngology and pharmacology faculty member and program leader for UPCI’s head and neck cancer program; Simion Chiosea of pathology; Uma Duvvuri of otolaryngology, and faculty from the University of New Mexico.

Pitt researchers get early-career Komen breast cancer awards

Among the Susan G. Komen organization’s more than 50 early-career breast cancer research awards announced last month were three awards to Pitt researchers to investigate breast cancer biology, screening, risk reduction and treatment.

• $450,000 in funding went to Rachel Jankowitz, a clinical faculty member in medicine’s Division of Hematology/Oncology, to conduct clinical trials to determine the efficacy of using tamoxifen, anastrozole (an aromatase inhibitor) and fulvestrant in the tumor tissue of women newly diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma, a type of breast cancer about which little is known and which is often treated in the same manner as invasive ductal carcinoma, rather than as a unique subtype.

• $180,000 in Komen funds went to Sreeja Sreekumar, a postdoctoral associate in the Oesterreich Lab of medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, to better understand the action of the estrogen receptor in invasive lobular carcinoma in order to provide better targeted therapies in this little understood type of breast cancer.

• $200,000 in continued funding was awarded to Adrian Lee, faculty member in the molecular genetics and developmental biology program, to investigate the therapeutic potential of combining drugs that target the insulin-like growth factor 1 receptor (IGF-1R) with chemotherapy to treat triple negative breast cancer.

$4.2 million grant from NIH continues cancer studies among Chinese

Cancer epidemiologist Jian-Min Yuan, Arnold Palmer Endowed Chair in Cancer Prevention, has been awarded a five-year grant of more than $4.2 million from NCI to continue two studies examining how environmental and lifestyle exposures and genetics have affected the incidence, mortality and age-related outcomes of cancer in more than 81,000 Chinese men and women.

Yuan, associate director for cancer control and population sciences at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), partner with the UPMC CancerCenter, and co-leader of UPCI’s cancer epidemiology and prevention program, is the principal investigator of the Shanghai Cohort Study and the Singapore Chinese Health Study. For the two population-based prospective studies, researchers examine cancer and other major health outcomes by evaluating blood, urine and other samples collected from participants for more than 25 years. These studies already have yielded important findings about the causes and prevention of cancer and have led to chemoprevention trials underway in the U.S.

Said Yuan: “We anticipate that the two Asian study groups will become even more scientifically valuable over the next five years as the younger members of these groups get older and have a greater risk of developing cancer, thereby increasing the number of pre-disease, biomarker-based research opportunities.”

With the new award, Yuan and his collaborators hope to add 2,700 new cancer cases over the next five years. They also hope to:

  • Gather data to maintain and enhance the two Asian study databases, including follow-up for cancer, non-cancer and death outcomes; maintenance of the biorepositories, and management of the databases.
  • Conduct in-person and telephone interviews among participants to update exposure and medical information.
  • Collect blood and urine samples from participants with cancer diagnoses.
  • Engage in collaborative research projects of the NCI and the Asia Cohort Consortium.

—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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