Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

October 9, 2003

Research Notes

New RFID tags resolve privacy problems

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are expected to replace bar codes, have been subject to scrutiny by consumer privacy groups who argue that products can be tracked after their purchase.
Pitt electrical engineer Marlin Mickle has a commercially ready RFID tag — the PENI Tag — which can be deactivated permanently, solving privacy problems for both manufacturers and consumers.

“There would be a command to kill the tags at the point of sale,” said Mickle, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering. “It is the same principle as a fuse in your electrical system. Once a fuse ‘blows,’ it must be replaced. In the PENI Tag, the fuse is an integral part of the tag, and when it ‘blows,’ there is no way to reactivate it. The tag can commit suicide on command.”

The PENI Tag (Product Emitting Numbering Identification Tag) works by converting an incoming radio frequency signal — picked up by an embedded antenna — into direct current, which powers the silicon tag and transmits a signal back at a different frequency. Tags currently being considered for commercial use do not convert energy into direct current, and none are as small as Mickle’s 2.2 millimeter-square silicon chip. The internal antenna, developed at Pitt, recently was patented.

Other RFID tags being prepared for commercial use can be shut off by placing the products in a kiosk, one at a time. The PENI Tag, however, does not require additional hardware because it operates by a different mechanism than other tags, allowing it to deactivate automatically. If tags embedded in products are not shut down, products — including expensive items — can continue to be tracked by handheld “hacking” scanners even after the product leaves the store.

“There are people who are very concerned about privacy, and those people should be accommodated and protected,” said Mickle. “That’s why I think the ability to turn these tags off is one of the things that would satisfy both the commercial manufacturer and the consumer.”

When manufactured in large quantities, Mickle says, PENI Tags should be cost-effective, especially because inventory, invoicing and checking out will require less manpower. PENI Tags will cost substantially less than other RFID tags because they require no assembly.

Mickle estimates that RFID technology could be applied to between 350 billion and 500 billion products annually.

“More than 50 companies have expressed interest in the PENI Tag,” said Harold Swift, technology license manager for Pitt’s Office of Technology Management. “We have been moving forward with some large and small companies to determine the commercial viability of the technology through prototype testing.”


Pre-Incan silver mining revealed in Bolivian Andes

Applying a technique never before used in South America, assistant professor of geology Mark Abbott has found evidence that a major pre-Incan silver industry began in 11th century Bolivia, 400 years earlier and on a much larger scale than previously thought.
Geologists Abbott and co-investigator Alexander Wolfe of the University of Alberta, Canada, who study lake sediments, reported their findings Sept. 26 in Science.

“Because the goal of the project was to study the paleoclimate history of the area, the mining history was not part of the research design,” said Abbott, whose work was funded by the National Science Foundation. “Sometimes you get lucky and find the perfect site to investigate more than one issue.”

According to legend, the Inca discovered silver at Cerro Rico de Potosi, the largest silver deposit in the Bolivian tin belt, in the mid-15th century. Few known artifacts remain near Cerro Rico, because looting has been pervasive. It is believed that the silver was recycled and transported elsewhere in the Americas or exported by the Spanish.

Abbott and Wolfe analyzed layers of sediment from Laguna Lobato, a lake six kilometers upslope and downwind from Cerro Rico. They dated the samples from the last 10,000 years based on radiocarbon and lead-210, and analyzed the metal content of the mud.

Higher than normal concentrations of metal in Bolivian lake sediments indicate smelting, which separates pure silver from ore at high temperatures in a furnace. During smelting, some metal was volatized, or turned into aerosols, and carried by wind into the lake bed, where it settled to the bottom.

Abbott and Wolfe found that concentrations of silver began to rise in 1100 C.E., coinciding with the late stages of the Tiwanaku civilization, prior to the rise of the Incan empire. Before 1000 C.E., the metal concentration levels in the lake sediments of Laguna Lobato were low and stable, similar to levels found in samples from 2000 B.C.E. to 600 C.E.

Known events, such as tin mining at Cerra Rico during World War I, corresponded with increased levels of tin in sediment from that time. A peak in silver after the Spanish arrived in 1542 further supports Abbott’s research.

Until Abbott’s work in Bolivia, using lake sediment composition for archeological work rarely had been attempted, and had never been applied in South America. In Europe, researchers have attempted to look at levels of lead in pre-Roman time, with limited success. Accurate results depend heavily on proximity to the source, and the signal must be very strong to show a difference.

“It was obvious to do,” Abbott said, “but we didn’t think of it until we were standing over it, looking at the lake, and I was kind of surprised that it worked as well as it did. It opens a door for new research because now we can do this in lakes close to ancient mine sites, and there are a lot of these in South America.”


Grant funds new electron microscope

The National Science Foundation has awarded Pitt’s Susan Sesack a $256,000 grant to acquire a biological electron microscope with a digital photography system. Faculty in three departments — neuroscience, biology and chemistry — will use the equipment.

Sesack, an associate professor in the neuroscience department, said: “This grant came about because of the large number of investigators conducting high-impact, well-funded and well-published research that addresses biological issues.”

Sesack will use the microscope to study brain structure, synaptic connections and the locations of proteins important for neurotransmission. Sesack studies the pathways of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is important for emotion, movement and cognition. Her work has disputed and refined current thinking about neural pathways for dopamine, which at the cellular level demonstrate a surprising degree of organizational specificity.

“I am especially pleased to introduce digital photography into our electron microscopy capabilities. We realized that this technology is necessary to keep up with the current speed of research,” Sesack said. “Another huge advantage to the technology is the external display on a screen separate from the viewer. More than one person can see at one time, so this will increase the speed at which we can train undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students.”

The transmission electron microscope, a Phillips Morgani 268, will be operational by November.


Alzheimer’s caregivers less stressed with active intervention
Interventions for family caregivers of persons with Alzheimer’s disease reduce stress and ameliorate depression, according to a multi-site research study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute on Nursing Research.

Results of the study were detailed in five articles in the September edition of Psychology and Aging, published by the American Psychological Association.
“REACH (Resources for Enhancing Alzheimer’s Caregiver Health) is one of the most ambitious caregiver intervention trials ever conducted,” said Richard Schulz, one of the principal investigators and director of the University Center for Social and Urban Research at Pitt.

“Because the caregiving experience in race and ethnic minority families is particularly neglected as a research focus in the field, there was a strong emphasis placed on the inclusion of African-American and Hispanic caregivers,” said Schulz.

The results showed that among all caregivers combined, active treatments were superior to control conditions, in which participants didn’t receive treatments, in reducing a caregiver’s burden. Women and those with less education reported a significantly lower burden with active treatments than similar individuals who did not receive active treatments.
Caregivers in active interventions who were Hispanic, those who were non-spouses and those who had less than high school education reported lower depression scores than those with the same characteristics in the control group.

Interventions that emphasized active participation of the caregiver in acquiring new skills had the greatest impact in reducing caregiver depression.

Among the active interventions explored were changing the nature of the specific stressors and the caregivers’ assessments of these stressors, as well as the caregivers’ responses to the stressors.


Racial, socioeconomic disparities in cardiovascular risk studied
Cardiologists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Cardiovascular Institute (CVI) are trying to determine factors that may explain established racial and socioeconomic disparities in cardiovascular risk.

The study also will evaluate the effectiveness of a community-based intervention program in the reduction of racial and socioeconomic disparities in cardiovascular risk among intermediate- and high-risk populations.

The four-year research study is funded by a $4.3 million grant from Pennsylvania’s Department of Health as part of the state’s share of the national tobacco settlement.

It is being conducted in conjunction with the epidemiology department at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH), the Center for Minority Health at GSPH, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the Urban League of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Mind-Body Center (a collaboration of Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University).

“This research study will examine mechanisms for differences in the occurrence of heart disease among various groups of people based on race, social factors and neighborhoods,” said Steven Reis, associate professor of medicine at Pitt’s School of Medicine, director of clinical research at the CVI and principal investigator of the study.
“This study will also help determine whether these racial, social and geographic factors can be reduced by a community-based program that uses counselors to help people change their diet, exercise habits and other behaviors such as cigarette smoking,” he said.

“Studies have shown that disparities in cardiovascular risk exist among minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged populations in the region,” said Daniel Edmundowicz, a Pitt associate professor of medicine, director of Preventive Cardiology and the Comprehensive Heart Center and a co-investigator in the study.

“Our goal is to identify, determine mechanisms for and evaluate a multidisciplinary community-based approach to substantially reduce disparities related to cardiovascular risk.”

Other Pitt/UPMC participants include Lewis Kuller, professor of epidemiology, GSPH; Stephen Thomas, director of GSPH’s Center for Minority Health; Oscar Marroquin, UPMC cardiologist, and Karen Matthews, co-director of the Pittsburgh Mind-Body Center.

Gastric bypass resolves or improves diabetes in most patients
A Pitt medical school study of obese people with type 2 diabetes who underwent laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery (LGBP) found that 83 percent of them experienced a resolution of their disease.

Study results were published in the October issue of the journal Annals of Surgery.

The study also found that clinical resolution or improvement in diabetes occurred in all patients, but patients with the shortest duration and mildest form of type 2 diabetes had a higher rate of resolution after the surgery. During the study there were no new occurrences or recurrences of type 2 diabetes in 310 patient years of follow-up. Nearly one-third of patients permanently discontinued anti-diabetic medications after discharge from the hospital — even before significant weight loss could occur.

According to Philip Schauer, who is director of bariatric surgery at Pitt, principal investigator in the study and co-director of the Minimally Invasive Surgery Center at UPMC, the study suggests that early surgical intervention is warranted to increase the likelihood of rendering these patients euglycemic.

“Most patients in the study with type 2 diabetes who underwent bypass surgery achieved excellent biochemical glycemic control and were able to reap the clinical benefits of withdrawing from most, if not all, anti-diabetes medications, including insulin,” Schauer said. “Younger diabetes patients with less severe disease stand to gain more from the surgery.”

The study included 1,160 patients who underwent Roux-en Y gastric bypass surgery. Of those patients, 240 had impaired fasting glucose and type 2 diabetes.

“Prior to surgery, the disease severity for these patients was quite significant overall,” said Schauer, “with 65 percent of them requiring oral agents and 27 percent of them requiring insulin as well.”

Post surgery, patients had a mean excess weight loss of 60 percent and a body mass index of 34 after 20 months. Fasting plasma glucose and glycoslated hemoglobin concentrations returned to normal levels in 83 percent of patients, while 17 percent of patients markedly improved.
Following surgery, 80 percent of patients had a significant reduction in the use of oral anti-diabetic agents and 79 percent had a reduction in their use of insulin.

The LGBP procedure involves constructing a small stomach pouch of approximately the size of a plastic medicine cup and bypassing a small segment of intestines by constructing a Y-shaped limb of small bowel. Patients lose weight because there is a decrease in caloric intake resulting from the reduced reservoir capacity of the small stomach pouch.


Leave a Reply