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May 26, 2016

Research Notes

Decision makers
too optimistic
about critically ill

More than half of the family and friends making decisions for critically ill patients have significantly different estimates for the patient’s survival than does their doctor — but that’s not only because of a misunderstanding, School of Medicine researchers report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The majority of those differences also were due to the decision maker holding fundamentally different and overly optimistic beliefs about the patient’s prognosis. The research team anticipates that this finding will help in training physicians to better communicate with the family and friends of patients so they can make the best decisions for their loved one.

Said lead author Douglas B. White, faculty member in the Department of Critical Care Medicine and director of the department’s program on ethics and decision making: “It isn’t a bad thing for a patient’s family and friends to have hope that they will recover. However, it is problematic when those overly optimistic expectations result in more invasive treatments in dying patients and delayed integration of palliative care that can alleviate suffering.”

Between 2005 and 2009, White and his colleagues surveyed 229 people who had agreed to be the “surrogate decision maker” for hospitalized patients in four intensive care units at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center, where White previously was a faculty member. These surrogates typically were family members or friends of the patient. Researchers also surveyed the physicians caring for the patients for which the surrogates were making decisions.

The researchers asked both the surrogates and the doctors to estimate the chances that the patient would survive hospitalization on a scale of 0 (no chance of survival) to 100 (definite survival). They did not know each other’s answers.

In 53 percent of cases, the answers differed by more than 20 percent. The surrogates usually were more optimistic than the doctors; however, the doctors’ estimates of the patient prognosis ultimately were far more accurate.

The researchers then asked the surrogates to guess what the patient’s doctor answered. Generally, the surrogates would guess somewhere in between their estimate and the doctor’s real estimate. That revealed that the surrogates understood they were being more optimistic than what the doctor had been communicating to them.

The surrogates explained this in many ways, the most common being that they believed if they maintained hope, then the patient would do better than expected, or that they knew the patient better than the doctor and believed the patient had strengths the doctor didn’t know about. They also often had an optimism grounded in religious beliefs.

“As doctors, we want to provide the best possible care for our patients,” said White, who also holds the UPMC Endowed Chair for Ethics in Critical Care Medicine. “In critically ill patients, that means we must do a better job communicating with the people who are making decisions for our patients. Given the results of this study, we’re working to develop and test interventions both to improve the comprehensibility of the prognosis doctors give to surrogates and to better attend to the emotional and psychological factors that may influence the surrogate’s expectations for their loved one’s outcome.”

Additional Pitt researchers on this study were Natalie Ernecoff, Praewpannarai Buddadhumaruk and Seoyeon Hong. Also contributing were colleagues from Statistics Collaborative in Washington, D.C., the University of Washington and the University of California-San Francisco.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Greenwall Foundation.

Coils improve lives of patients with emphysema

The minimally invasive implantation of tiny coils into the lungs improves exercise ability, lung function and quality of life for patients with severe emphysema, according to a large international trial presented by School of Medicine researchers at the American Thoracic Society international meeting and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Said lead author Frank Sciurba, director of the UPMC Pulmonary Function and Exercise Physiology Laboratory and faculty member in the Division of Pulmonology, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine: “Some patients with advanced emphysema have few treatment options, and this trial significantly furthers our understanding of the potential role of minimally invasive lung volume reduction therapy as an option to improve symptoms.”

Patients with emphysema, a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), experience an overinflation of the lungs that limits their ability to breathe deeply, resulting from progressive destruction of the air sacs of their lungs and collapse of the airways. The coils are intended to improve the elastic properties of the lungs to prevent collapse of the airways, allowing patients to exhale more completely.

The study included 315 patients recruited at 26 sites in the U.S. and Europe between December 2012 and November 2015. With over 75 percent of study participants experiencing severe symptoms yet having a pattern of emphysema not allowing them to be candidates for surgery or experimental valve treatment, those patients had few therapeutic options short of lung transplantation.

Participants randomly were assigned to either standard care, which included optimal inhaler medications and pulmonary rehabilitation, or to receive standard care plus bilateral coil insertion placed in the most severely affected lobe of each lung.

The researchers measured how far participants could walk in six minutes, both at baseline and after 12 months of treatment. Patients who received coils showed a modest improvement in walking distance at 12 months, while the usual care group declined in function over the same time period.

After one year, the coil group overall was able to walk 15 meters farther than the usual care group in the allotted six minutes. Forty percent of the coil group was able to walk an additional 25 meters, while only 27 percent of the non-coil group achieved those walking gains.

Forced expiration of air, the most common measure of lung function in emphysema patients, also improved more in those receiving coils than in those who didn’t receive them.

Patients receiving coils reported dramatic improvement in their quality of life, which is measured by the emphysema-specific St. George’s respiratory questionnaire, with 32 percent more patients in the coil group achieving a meaningful level of self-reported improvement over those in the non-coil group.
The benefits of the coils did come at a cost — initially, patients had a significantly higher rate of major complications such as pneumonia and pneumothorax than those in the usual treatment group.

However, the increased risk of serious adverse events appeared to be short lived. By nine months, there was no difference between the two groups. There also was no difference in the death rate measured at 12 months.

The investigators learned over the course of the study that some of the events initially thought to be pneumonia may in fact be changes in the X-ray due to tension from the coils that may in the long run result in a better patient improvement.

Additional findings by the investigators identified patients who may achieve the greatest benefit from coils. Patients with the greatest degree of lung overinflation had the greatest improvements in walk distance and symptoms compared to the least overinflated patients. Also, patients with additional medical issues beyond COPD appeared to improve less.

“Overall, the coils provided a modest improvement in exercise ability and lung function, and a very clinically important improvement in quality of life, but with a higher likelihood of major complications,” Sciurba said. “This provides an evidence-based choice for symptomatic patients with few options.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now will determine whether the coils are ready for widespread use, he added.

The trial was funded by PneumRx Inc. Representatives of the FDA assisted in the design of the trial.

Center for Medicine and the Microbiome debuts

The Schools of the Health Sciences and UPMC are collaborating on a joint venture dedicated to better understanding the trillions of microbes that form an ecosystem inhabiting the human body, called the microbiome.

With the launch of the National Microbiome Initiative, announced by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C., the Center for Medicine and the Microbiome brings together scientists and clinicians to explore how the microbiome affects health and disease — and how it can be harnessed to develop new therapies to help patients. The initiative and its research and clinical partners aim to advance the understanding of microbiome behavior and enable protection and restoration of healthy microbiome function, including investigations of fundamental principles that govern microbiomes across diverse ecosystems and development of new tools to study microbiomes.

The center will be led by Alison Morris, UPMC Chair for Translational Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine in the School of Medicine and faculty member in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine, with a joint appointment in the Department of Immunology. “We expect our Center for Medicine and the Microbiome to usher in a new era of care,” said Morris. “Our bodies are not ours alone. A great variety of microscopic organisms call us home and, in turn, they perform critical functions for us, including digesting our food, modulating inflammation and fighting off bad bugs, with what we learn leading to therapies for diseases and conditions ranging from obesity to cancer.”

The Center for Medicine and the Microbiome is a joint venture, with more than $5 million in funding provided by the Department of Medicine, UPMC and UPMC Enterprises. The School of Dental Medicine and uBiome, Inc., a microbial genomics company based in San Francisco, also have contributed to center activities.

The center will enable several innovative projects. For example, in collaboration with dental medicine, the microbiomes of approximately 3,500 saliva samples previously collected with patient permission can be examined and anonymously linked to patient medical records to yield what is expected to be the largest study of human genetics and microbial communities.

In the near future, the center will launch the Pittsburgh Biome Project to crowd-source a large collection of gut microbiome samples from local community members. Those who participate could get an analysis of their own microbiome and contribute to a research project that would analyze the microbiome in relationship to current and future health. This project will establish a large biorepository of clinical samples that will be linked, with the participants’ consent, to electronic health records. It will be the first of its kind to engage a local community in large-scale microbiome research related not only to current health and disease but also to future disease risk.

Said Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Medicine: “This initiative will enable studies that could explore the impact of the microbiome on cancer, lung conditions, hypertension, heart disease, malnutrition and myriad other conditions. We may discover that the balance of microbes in the gut can be adjusted to fight obesity, or that our microbiome could help or hinder certain cancers or the response of cancer to therapy. Our discoveries could lead to clinical trials that result in therapies to help people around the world.”

Other key research areas the center intends to tackle include the development and treatment of drug-resistant pathogens and the use of fecal transplantation for various diseases, such as Clostridium difficile colitis. UPMC’s existing fecal transplant program will become an important contributor to the Center for Medicine and the Microbiome.

The center also will provide collaboration opportunities to give Pitt scientists access to microbial analyses previously unavailable to them.

Online therapy
effective for
depression, anxiety

Doctors from the Center for Behavioral Health and Smart Technology have shown that providing an online computerized cognitive behavioral therapy (CCBT) program both alone and in combination with internet support groups (ISG) is a more effective treatment for anxiety and depression than doctors’ usual primary care. The preliminary findings were presented at the Society of General Internal Medicine’s annual meeting.
The National Institutes of Mental Health-funded randomized trial, led by Bruce L. Rollman, medicine faculty and director of the center, enrolled 704 depressed and anxious patients from 26 UPMC-affiliated primary care offices across western Pennsylvania.

Patients 18-75 years old were referred into the trial by their UPMC primary care physicians between August 2012 and September 2014. Eligible and consenting patients then were randomized to one of three groups: care manager-guided access to the eight-session Beating the Blues CCBT program; care manager-guided access to both the CCBT program and a password-protected ISG patients could access 24/7 via smartphone or desktop computer; or the usual behavioral health care from their primary care physician.

Over the six-month intervention, 83 percent of patients randomized to CCBT started the program, and they completed an average of 5.3 sessions. Seventy-seven percent of patients assigned to the ISG logged into the site at least once, and 46 percent provided one or more posts or comments.

Six months later, those patients randomized to CCBT reported significant improvements in their mood and anxiety symptoms and the more CCBT sessions patients completed, the greater the improvement in mood and anxiety symptoms.

Although patients randomized to both CCBT and ISG had similar overall improvements in mood and anxiety symptoms compared to patients randomized to only CCBT, secondary analysis revealed those who engaged more with the ISG tended to experience greater improvements in symptoms.

Several CCBT programs have proven as effective as face-to-face cognitive behavioral therapy at treating mood and anxiety disorders and are used by many patients outside the U.S., but CCBT remains largely unknown and underutilized within the U.S., Rollman said. ISGs that enable individuals with similar conditions to access and exchange self-help information and emotional support have proliferated in recent years, but benefits have yet to be established in randomized trials.

Said Rollman: “Our study findings have important implications for transforming the way mental health care is delivered. Providing depressed and anxious patients with access to these emerging technologies may be an ideal method to deliver effective mental health treatment, especially to those who live in areas with limited access to care resources or who have transportation difficulties or work/home obligations that make in-person counseling difficult to obtain. We hope that these findings will focus further attention on the emerging field of e-mental health by other U.S. investigators.”

Pitt researchers also included Bea Herbeck Belnap, Scott D. Rothenberger, Kaleab Abebe, Armando J. Rotondi, Michael Spring and Jordan F. Karp.

Social media fuels body image concerns

Logging on to social media sites frequently throughout the week or spending hours trolling various social feeds during the day is linked to a greater risk of young adults developing eating and body image concerns, a School of Medicine analysis discovered.

Gender, specific age, race and income did not influence the association; the study found that all demographic groups were affected equally by the link between social media and eating and body image concerns, indicating that preventative messages should target a broad population. The results were reported in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the research was funded by the National Cancer Institute.

Said lead author Jaime E. Sidani, assistant director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health: “We’ve long known that exposure to traditional forms of media, such as fashion magazines and television, is associated with the development of disordered eating and body image concerns, likely due to the positive portrayal of ‘thin’ models and celebrities. Social media combines many of the visual aspects of traditional media with the opportunity for social media users to interact and propagate stereotypes that can lead to eating and body image concerns.”

In 2014, Sidani and her colleagues sampled 1,765 U.S. adults ages 19-32, using questionnaires to determine social media use. The questionnaires asked about the 11 most popular social media platforms at the time: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.

They cross-referenced those results with the results of another questionnaire that used established screening tools to assess eating disorder risk.

Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and other clinical and mental health issues where people have a distorted body image and disordered eating. These issues disproportionately affect adolescents and young adults. However, more general disordered eating, body dissatisfaction and negative or altered body image likely affect a broader group of individuals.

The participants who spent the most time on social media throughout the day had 2.2 times the risk of reporting eating and body image concerns, compared to their peers who spent less time on social media. And participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had 2.6 times the risk, compared with those who checked less frequently.

Senior author Brian A. Primack, assistant vice chancellor for health and society in the Schools of the Health Sciences, noted that the analysis could not determine whether social media use was contributing to eating and body image concerns or vice versa — or both.

Said Primack: “It could be that young adults who use more social media are exposed to more images and messages that encourage development of disordered eating.” Previous research has shown that people tend to post images online that present themselves positively. For example, users are likely to select the scant few that may make them appear thinner from hundreds of more “accurate” photographs of themselves, resulting in others being exposed to unrealistic expectations for their appearance.

“Conversely, people who have eating and body image concerns might then be turning to social media to connect with groups of people who also have these concerns,” he said. “However, connecting with these groups for social support could inhibit recovery because of the desire to continue being a part of the shared identity such social media groups foster.”

In an effort to battle social media-fueled eating disorders, Instagram banned the hashtags “thinspiration” and “thinspo,” but users easily circumvented these barriers by spelling the words slightly differently. YouTube videos about anorexia nervosa that could be classified as “pro-anorexia” received higher viewer ratings than informative videos highlighting the health consequences of the eating disorder.

“More research is needed in order to develop effective interventions to counter social media content that either intentionally or unintentionally increases the risk of eating disorders in users,” said Sidani. “We suggest studies that follow users over time and seek to answer the cause-and-effect questions surrounding social media use and risk for eating and body image concerns.”

Additional Pitt authors on this research were Ariel Shensa, Beth Hoffman and Janel Hanmer.

Patient comfort upped for skin cancer screenings

New research from the School of Medicine suggests two simple ways dermatologists can make patients more comfortable during full-body skin cancer checks: respect patient preferences for the physician’s gender as well as whether, and how, they prefer to have their genitals examined. The findings are published online in JAMA Dermatology.

Said lead author Laura Ferris, dermatology faculty member in the school and member of the melanoma program in the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute: “This study identifies barriers to getting skin checks. Giving patients choices that reduce embarrassment during an exam may make a person more likely to get regular skin checks, leading to higher rates of skin cancer detection.”

Estimates suggest that one in five people will develop skin cancer over the course of a lifetime. Rates of melanoma, which accounts for less than 1 percent of skin cancer cases but the vast majority of skin cancer deaths, have tripled over the last 40 years.

The best way to prevent skin cancer is to use adequate protective measures during sun exposure, perform regular self-examinations and, for those patients at increased risk of developing skin cancer, obtain annual full-body screenings from a dermatologist, said Ferris.

The current study was born out of an observation from Ferris’ own dermatology practice: Many women wanted female physicians and were uncomfortable having male students in the room during their exams. While a strong preference for a same-gender physician has been documented among patients undergoing colonoscopies, there wasn’t much data available about dermatology, Ferris explained.

In the new study, the researchers at three institutions, including UPMC, administered an anonymous survey to 443 adults undergoing a full-body screening for skin cancer.

Overall, people preferred a physician who shared their gender. Breaking the data down by gender, one-third of women and nearly one-fifth of men expressed a gender preference. Among this group, nearly all (99 percent) of the women preferred a female physician, and almost two-thirds of the men preferred a male physician.

The biggest predictor of preferring a female physician among women was being under age 30. Young women have one of the fastest growing rates of melanoma, so taking physician gender preference into account in this group may have an especially large impact, Ferris noted.

Typically, patients are asked to completely disrobe for a skin cancer screening. When asked about clothing preferences, nearly half of women and 40 percent of men preferred to leave their undergarments in place during the exam.

Less than 1 percent of melanomas are found in the genital region, so with 31 percent of women and 13 percent of men preferring not to have their genitals examined at all, another important message from the study is that physicians need to balance the benefit of occasionally finding a genital melanoma with causing a lot of people discomfort or anxiety, she added.

The researchers now are focused on putting their findings into practice. “When we think about the relative risks and benefits of cancer screening,” Ferris said “if we’re causing people discomfort, then we need to think of that as doing harm. Our study provides some easy ways to reduce that harm. In the age of personalized medicine, taking simple steps, such as offering a choice of physician gender and degree of disrobement during an examination, can allow us to personalize the skin cancer screening examination to minimize discomfort.”

Pitt co-authors of the study were Neil Houston and Westley Mori. Colleagues from the University of Utah and East Carolina University also contributed.

The study was funded by NIH.

Mystery of smell answered

School of Medicine researchers have uncovered the mechanism underlying a phenomenon in how we smell that has puzzled scientists for decades. In an article appearing online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team reports that, surprisingly, the mechanism follows a simple physics principle called cooperativity.

Inhalation of a scent sends a complex mixture of odor molecules swirling toward the back of the nose, where they bind to specialized receptors that are located on millions of olfactory neurons. Activation of these receptors sends signals from the olfactory neurons to the brain, where the smell is deciphered.

Individual neurons have only a single type of receptor and, therefore, recognize only specific odor molecules. However, the hundreds of different types of olfactory receptors are found, or expressed, in approximately equal numbers across the entire population of neurons, which allows a person to detect a wide variety of smells, explained senior investigator Jianhua Xing, faculty member in computational and systems biology in the school.

Said Xing: “Over the past decades, neuroscientists have been trying to uncover how nature accomplishes these two goals: selecting one, and only one, type of olfactory receptor for each neuron, while at the same time ensuring that all receptor types are represented in the whole population of neurons.”

The mysteries of how we smell have generated many experimental observations about how olfactory receptors actually work. In the new study, Xing and colleagues used these existing experimental data to create a computational model of how olfactory receptor expression can be both uniform across a single neuron, yet very diverse across the entire population of neurons. They then used this model to correctly predict several additional findings that have been demonstrated by other research groups, demonstrating that their model is valid.

Surprisingly, the model suggested a three-pronged regulation of olfactory receptor gene expression that follows a basic physics principle called cooperativity, in which elements in a system influence the behavior of one another rather than function independently. Cooperativity can explain many phenomena, such as the transition between liquid and vapor states, why oil and water do not mix and even other biological processes such as how a protein folds.

The findings pave the way for new predictions about how olfactory receptors function that can be tested in future experiments, the results of which will help the team refine their model and make even more predictions.

The research team also included Xiao-Jun Tian of Pitt, former Pitt undergraduate summer research fellow Jens Sannerud and colleagues from Brown University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Drug works on ‘superbug’ biofilms

A potential drug therapy developed at the Center for Vaccine Research (CVR) has proven effective against tough bacterial biofilms and a deadly respiratory virus simultaneously. The drug outperforms traditional therapies in the laboratory setting.

The results, reported in mSphere, build on a recent discovery from the School of Medicine showing that the virus encourages biofilm growth and point to a new way to treat drug-resistant bacteria, including so-called “superbugs” that are resistant to almost all existing antibiotics and have become the focus of worldwide efforts to limit their spread.

Said senior author Jennifer M. Bomberger, faculty member in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics: “To the best of our knowledge, no other antibiotics out there work on both the bacteria and the virus during a co-infection. Antibiotic-resistant chronic infections are an urgent public health threat, and the development of new therapies has been painfully slow. So to see something work on a virus and the incredibly resistant biofilms that bacteria form is very exciting.”

Chronic infections, such as those that kill cystic fibrosis patients, resist the body’s efforts to clear them from the lungs, sinuses or other areas. Often these infections are characterized by biofilms, which are bacteria that stick together forming colonies that are as much as 400 times as resistant to antibiotics as a single bacterium.

The potential drug therapy relies on an engineered cationic antimicrobial peptide, or “eCAP,” which is a synthetic and more efficient version of naturally occurring antimicrobial peptides that form a first line of defense against infections in humans. Developed by co-author Ronald C. Montelaro, departmental faculty colleague of Bomberger and member and co-director of Pitt’s CVR, the eCAP works by “punching into” bacteria and viruses, thereby destroying them.

Bomberger and her team tested the eCAP in the laboratory by growing biofilms of drug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria on the cells that line the airway and then treating them for one hour with the eCAP. The eCAP was 50 times more effective at fighting the biofilm than traditional treatment, but did not harm the airway cells.

The team then did the same test, this time on airway cells first infected with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which causes serious infection in infants and older adults, as well as people with compromised lungs. In February, Bomberger reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that RSV helps Pseudomonas aeruginosa biofilms grow.

“When the body responds to fight the virus, it inadvertently leaves an Achilles heel by fostering an environment rich in the nutrient iron, which aids the bacteria in forming a biofilm,” said Bomberger.
The eCAP was 10 times more effective at fighting the biofilm in a virus-bacteria co-infection compared with traditional therapy. And when the eCAP was used on airway cells infected only with RSV, the number of viable virus particles was reduced by more than 150-fold.

The eCAP also worked against bacterial biofilms grown on plastic, indicating that it could be a good treatment for cleaning medical equipment, such as bronchoscopes, where biofilms sometimes grow.
Additional Pitt researchers on this study were Jeffrey A. Melvin, Lauren P. Lashua, Megan R. Kiedrowski and Berthony Deslouches, with Guanyi Yang of both Pitt and Tsinghua University in China.

This research was funded by NIH and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Pitt, CMU set up
joint regenerative
medicine program

With the goal of advancing regenerative medicine therapies, a partnership between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has received a five-year, $1.4 million grant from NIH to provide training in biomechanical engineering principles and biology to students pursuing a doctoral degree in bioengineering.

“Training in Biomechanics in Regenerative Medicine” (BiRM) is funded through NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering’s T32 grant program. The program director and principal investigator is Savio L-Y. Woo, Distinguished University Professor of Bioengineering in the Swanson School of Engineering and the founder and director of the Musculoskeletal Research Center (MSRC). He is joined by co-investigators David Vorp, associate dean for research and the William Kepler Whiteford Professor of Bioengineering at the Swanson school, and James Antaki at CMU.

Regenerative medicine uses methods including tissue engineering, cellular therapies, biosurgery and artificial and biohybrid organ devices to address tissue/organ insufficiency. Yet despite several early successes, bioengineers have faced challenges in repairing or replacing tissues that serve a predominantly biomechanical function. The Pitt-CMU program aims to bridge that gap by training students in both biomechanical engineering principles and biology.

Said Woo: “Regenerative medicine is at a critical juncture in its evolution … Since the BiRM program is not central to any one department, it provides students with both fundamental knowledge and problem-solving skills as well as interdepartmental didactic and research experiences, and specialized training in areas such as innovation and entrepreneurship.”

To develop these diverse skills, BiRM incorporates faculty from the departments of bioengineering, civil and environmental engineering, and mechanical engineering and materials science in the Swanson school; CMU’s departments of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering; and Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences, including the School of Dental Medicine, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, and Division of Cardiology. BiRM faculty also have appointments in the joint Pitt-CMU Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Woo noted that during BiRM’s first two cohorts, 30 students gained a solid foundation for productive and independent careers in academia, industry and medicine spanning a wide range of physiological systems including orthopaedics, vascular surgery, dentistry and urology. Over the next five years, the Pitt-CMU partnership seeks to sponsor six predoctoral fellowships per year corresponding to approximately 14 additional fellowships over the course of the program, as well as to allow further development of the curriculum and increase the emphasis on clinical translation of biomechanics and regenerative medicine research.

Funds to accelerate research to market

Pitt has dedicated $1 million in gap funding over the next two years to assist innovators seeking to commercialize their research discoveries.

Coordinated through the Innovation Institute, the Chancellor’s Innovation Commercialization Funds will assist faculty and students with Pitt discoveries in identifying unmet needs in the market for their innovations, developing prototypes, identifying potential commercial partners or forming a new enterprise.

The Chancellor’s Innovation Commercialization Funds will be distributed in the following ways:
• Pitt Ventures: This is the Innovation Institute’s program that aids in moving innovations through multiple stages of development toward commercialization. The new funding will provide $400,000 in additional support for this initiative over the next two years targeted at innovators participating in the Pitt Ventures gear commercialization program. This includes the upcoming Michael G. Wells Student Healthcare Entrepreneurship Competition and the Kuzneski Innovation Cup, which is focused on non-health care innovations.

The first Chancellor’s Innovation Commercialization Funds have been distributed to the four teams that participated in Pitt Ventures’ latest “1st Gear” stage in April:

—Manual Wheelchair Virtual Seating Coach (Rory Cooper and S. Andrea Sundaram,Human Engineering Research Laboratories/HERL): Pressure sores result from individuals sitting in wheelchairs and not performing frequent-enough weight shifts due to reduced or absent nerve sensation. The resulting ulcers are a significant health concern with negative effects on quality of life and expensive treatments. While the HERL team previously developed a tool to assist those in motorized wheelchairs, until now a solution for those in manual wheelchairs was not available.

—VIP Wheelchair (Dan Ding and Hyun Ka, HERL): The VIP Wheelchair is a control system to improve power wheelchair driving accessibility, independence and safety for people with vision and mobility impairment. The wheelchair incorporates a number of feedback and control mechanisms to help visually impaired users avoid obstacles and drop-offs.

—Emotion Prosthetics (Greg Siegle, Program in Cognitive Affective Neuroscience): Stress can negatively impact quality of life. The Emoto wearable device includes a mobile application interface that empowers users by alerting them to stress-level changes. The Emoto can be used to stimulate nerves in the head and neck shown to relax the body or improve alertness.

—Working for Kids: Building Skills (Judy Cameron and Alexandra Miragaia, Clinical and Translational Science Institute): This is an educational platform to boost cognitive and social-emotional skills in children in their first five years of life through a neuroscience-based approach.

• Accelerated Licensing: For innovations that lend themselves to licensing to an industry partner or entrepreneur, funding will be available to strategically de-risk projects based on industry/investor feedback.

Up to $150,000 will be available per year in increments of up to $50,000. Two times per academic year, the Innovation Institute will solicit proposals from Pitt faculty and students for innovations in key technology areas based on a demonstrated need by a potential commercialization partner. Each year, $75,000 will be available in increments of $25,000 and $12,500.

• Collaborative Innovation Grants: To encourage collaborations between Pitt innovators and other regional institutions and local economic-development groups, $75,000 per year will be awarded in increments of $25,000 or $12,500 for projects with commercial potential, provided the partner institution matches the Pitt funds dollar for dollar.

For more information on how to apply for Chancellor’s Innovation Commercialization Funds or to register for one of the Pitt Ventures Student Challenge competitions, contact Jennifer Ireland (

For more information on the accelerated licensing program, contact Alex Ducruet (

Industry partners and entrepreneurs interested in exploring a partnership or licensing Pitt discoveries should email Ducruet.

Beckman Scholars chosen

A new cohort of Beckman scholars will begin their research this summer under a three-year, $150,000 Beckman Scholars Program Award granted to the University in 2015 by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.

The program, overseen by the University Honors College, is designed to help prepare undergraduates for graduate-level study and careers in the life sciences.

Beckman scholars conduct research during two successive summers and the intervening academic school year, guided by one of 15 approved faculty mentors from the departments of bioengineering, biological sciences, chemistry or neuroscience.

Erika Gotway, a rising junior majoring in neuroscience, will work in the lab of Peter Wipf of chemistry in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, and Uma Balakrishnan, a rising senior majoring in bioengineering, will work in the lab of Lance Davidson of the Swanson school.

Each scholar receives an $18,200 stipend and $2,800 in supply and travel money. Faculty mentors receive $5,000 to undertake work associated with the scholar’s research experience.

The students’ capstone experience is presenting at scientific meetings, including the Beckman Scholars Symposium.

—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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