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February 2, 2017

Research Notes

PS Yuan_Chang

Yuan Chang

Medicine faculty win international research prize

School of Medicine faculty members Yuan Chang and Patrick S. Moore, whose Chang-Moore Laboratory is credited with discovering two of the seven known human viruses that directly cause cancer, will receive the 2017 Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize. The award is given annually to medical researchers who have made significant contributions in the fields of immunology, cancer research, microbiology and chemotherapy.

Said Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor for the Health Sciences and the John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine, in a release: “Drs. Chang and Moore’s contributions to cancer research have been significant and lasting, touching the lives of people around the world. They are the first Pitt faculty members to ever be honored with the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize. The University community congratulates them and celebrates this well-deserved tribute to the pioneering work that has come to define their careers.”

Patrick Moore

Patrick Moore

Chang and Moore discovered the Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpes virus, or human herpesvirus 8 (KSHV/HHV8) in 1994. The virus causes Kaposi’s sarcoma, the most common AIDS-related malignancy and one of the most frequently occurring cancers in Africa. Prior to this discovery, medical researchers had worked for nearly 15 years to find an infectious agent associated with Kaposi’s sarcoma. The pair also identified Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV) — the cause of Merkel cell carcinoma, one of the world’s most clinically aggressive skin cancers — in 2008.

The two have been widely recognized for their work, which has garnered some of the highest national and international honors in medicine, infectious disease and cancer. Together they have been honored with the 2012 Marjorie Stephenson Prize from the Society of General Microbiology in the United Kingdom, the 2003 Charles S. Mott Award from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, the 1998 Robert Koch Prize and the 1997 Meyenburg Prize. Chang and Moore also were elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Chang’s current research centers on viral oncogenesis with efforts specifically focused on KSHV, MCV and new pathogen discovery. Moore’s research focuses on addressing cancers caused by viruses and how this information can be used to understand molecular causes for noninfectious cancers.


Natural geology may aid new petroleum engineering methods

To explore how naturally occurring dike swarms can lead to improved methods of oil and gas reservoir stimulation, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Earth Sciences gave a $310,000 award to Andrew Bunger, faculty member in civil and environmental engineering and chemical and petroleum engineering at the Swanson School of Engineering.

Dike swarms are the result of molten rock (magma) rising from depth and then driving cracks through the Earth’s crust. The Mackenzie Dike Swarm, an ancient geological feature covering an area more than 300 miles wide and 1,900 miles long beneath Canada, running from the Arctic to the Great Lakes, is the largest dike swarm on Earth. Formed more than a billion years ago, the swarm’s geology discloses insights into major magmatic events and continental breakup.

The Mackenzie Dike Swarm and the roughly 120 other known giant dike swarms located across the planet also may provide useful information about efficient extraction of oil and natural gas in today’s world.

Dike swarms exhibit a self-organizing behavior that allows hundreds of individual dikes to fan out across large distances. Although petroleum engineers try to achieve the same effect when creating hydraulic fractures for stimulation of oil and gas production, the industrial hydraulic fractures appear far more likely to localize to only one or two dominant strands. This localization leaves 30-40 percent of most reservoirs in an unproductive state, representing an inefficient use of resources and leading to unnecessary intensity of oil and gas development.

In his study, Bunger will take a novel approach to understanding the mechanics of fluid-driven cracks, which he refers to as “geosciences-inspired engineering.” Like the growing field of biologically inspired engineering, Bunger will be looking to processes in the natural world to better understand the constructed or engineered world.

Said Bunger: “I would like to challenge myself and the geoscience community to look at naturally occurring morphologies with the eye of an engineer. The first part of the study will involve developing a mechanical model to explain the behavior of the dike swarms. We are borrowing from a theoretical framework developed in biology called ‘swarm theory,’ which explains the self-organizing behavior of groups of animals.”

Swarm theory, or swarm intelligence, refers to naturally and artificially occurring complex systems with no centralized control structure. The individual agents in the system exhibit simple or even random behavior, but collectively the group achieves emergent, or “intelligent,” behavior.

“One of the hallmarks of self-organizing behavior within swarms was recognized by swarm theory’s earliest proponents, who were actually motivated by developing algorithms to simulate flocks and herds in computer animation,” Bunger explained. “They proposed that all swarming behavior can be tied to the presence of three basic forces. One of these leads to alignment of the members with each other — it is what makes a flocking bird fly in the same direction as its neighbors. A second force is associated with repulsion — it keeps birds within a flock from running into each other and knocking each other out of the air. The third force is attraction — an often instinctive desire of certain animals to be near other animals of their own species, typically for protection from predators.”

In addition to a deeper understanding of the geological processes that occur throughout Earth’s history, Bunger also sees his research impacting planetary research concerning Mars and Venus. Both rocky planets contain a large number of giant dike swarms. Understanding how the geometry of dike swarms relates to the conditions in the Earth’s crust at the time of emplacement will lead to a new method for ascertaining the little-known geological structure and history of Mars and Venus though analysis of the geometry of their many giant dike swarms.

“We will use computational models and analogue experiments, which use artificial materials to simulate the Earth’s processes, to develop a new theory of fluid-driven crack swarms,” said Bunger. “Through this advance, we would like to improve the stimulation methods used for oil and gas production. This will be a win-win for both industry and our society that depends upon the energy resources they produce. Industry will benefit from more efficient methods, and society will benefit from lower energy costs and a decreased environmental footprint associated with resource extraction.”


New dental educators program assessed

Chalkboard with Periodontal Disease. 3D Illustration.The School of Dental Medicine has published an initial assessment of its program to train future dental educators.

The Academic Career Track Area of Concentration (ACT ARCO) is a two-year program that aims to provide a solution to the national shortage of dental faculty by equipping students with skills necessary for the three pillars of an academic career: teaching, scholarship and service. It introduces them to clinical and classroom teaching, engaging them in research and developing their leadership skills.

Recognizing that the two-year commitment is not for every student, the ACT ARCO’s director Zsuzsa Horvath and clinical director Christine Wankiiri-Hale offer most of the courses as electives to all upper-level dental students, who can choose their enrollment based on their interest and level of commitment. In addition, an informal lunch hour discussion series is offered to all students who want to learn about academic dentistry as a career option.

Said Horvath: “When we proposed the program, we expected just a couple of students to enroll from each class. The enrollment and interest has exceeded our expectations. Fifteen to 20 students found a niche learning about teaching and other academic skills through the three-tiered program. This is the most robust program at the pre-doctoral level nationwide at the moment.”

The pair of faculty members published the program evaluation in the Journal of Dental Education with co-author Sarah E. Albani, a dental student in the class of 2020. They hope it will be a blueprint for other dental schools.

The analysis revealed success and an overall positive response by all involved (students, faculty and student teachers). Pre- and post-surveys showed increased levels of preparedness in classroom and clinical teaching as well as leadership after completing the courses. Feedback from students who were taught by their peers was overwhelmingly positive about the teaching skills of the upper classmen.

Said Wankiiri-Hale: “Faculty appreciate student teachers. They recognize the value of the student teachers and appreciate the extra help with teaching.”

The article has been selected as one of the 2016 top articles in the journal.

—Compiled by Marty Levine

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