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February 8, 2007


SIS faculty get NSF grant

Associate professor Peter Brusilovsky and assistant professor Vladimir Zadorozhny of the School of Information Sciences have been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to create a “Personalized Exploratorium for Database Courses.” The $143,345 grant will support development of an innovative tool to encourage students to develop practical SQL (structured query language) skills through the use of interactive, automatically evaluated exercises and examples.

The two will build upon a previous NSF-supported project that used interactive exercises for C language programming. The current project will explore the value of interactive exercises in the context of database courses.

Brusilovsky and Zadorozhny will adapt an existing technology for automatic evaluation of SQL exercises (SQL-Tutor) developed by Antonija Mitrovic at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, while also developing a complementary script-based evaluation technology. This two-year project will result in a set of interactive SQL examples for the original SQL-Tutor technology and will enhance it with personalized guidance that is known to increase student engagement and success.


Viral vector shows neurons’ impact on blood pressure

Most people don’t think of blood pressure as something that is under the brain’s control, but researchers in the Department of Neuroscience have reason to believe it is. They are investigating how the brain’s neurons exert their influence over cardiovascular function. If they can untangle how the two interact, better drugs could be developed to treat high blood pressure.

In a recent paper, associate professor J. Patrick Card, professor and department chair Alan Sved and their colleagues report on how they developed a new technique to decipher the connections of a group of neurons in a part of the rat brain stem known to influence cardiovascular function. The researchers developed a virus that causes these neurons, known as C1, to express a protein not ordinarily present in the rodent brain. Thus this protein can be used to define the pathways through which C1 neurons exert their influence.

The research demonstrates that C1 neurons are an important component of the brain circuitry that regulates bodily functions such as blood pressure. This research also can be applied to the study of other functionally defined brain circuits.

Their findings were published in the Dec. 10 issue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology.

Development of this technology was supported by Pitt’s Center for Neuroanatomy with Neurotropic Viruses, funded by the National Institutes of Health. The center is co-directed by Card and Peter Strick, professor of neurobiology and psychiatry in the School of Medicine.


Diabetics want more nursing care, study finds

Linda Siminerio, director of the University of Pittsburgh Diabetes Institute, has led the way in nationwide research demonstrating that physicians, nurses and their patients want nurses to be more involved in providing diabetes care. Siminerio’s findings were reported in the February issue of the journal The Diabetes Educator.

The nationwide Diabetes Attitudes, Wishes and Needs (DAWN) study, conducted in conjunction with researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Michigan and Loyola College, examined the roles nurses and physicians play in caring for patients with diabetes. “Previous studies have shown that a collaborative approach to diabetes management improves a variety of diabetes outcomes in patients, so understanding how nurses factor into the process is important, since they often are the health care provider who is in most contact with the patient,” said Siminerio.

The DAWN study asked nurses and doctors to consider their role in administering diabetes care and rate their experiences. Nurses responded that they, more so than doctors, had a better rapport with patients and developed relationships enabling them to provide better diabetes self-management. The findings also showed that nurses reported a better appreciation for the psychological needs of the patient and the need for better communication with patients. Doctors, nurses and patients agreed that there was a need for nurses to be more involved in diabetes care.

According to the investigators, these results suggest that empowering nurses will allow improved diabetes care, better communication and promotion of self-management, ultimately resulting in better patient outcomes.

“Nurses serve a critical role in diabetes care, they are at the front lines and are better able to provide the kind of information diabetes patients need to better manage their disease,” said Siminerio.


Cleft palate digital archive launched

The University Library System is hosting a new online archive that contains 26 volumes of the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association’s publication, The Cleft Palate Journal (now published as The Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Journal). The archive can be found at

The international interdisciplinary journal reports on clinical research activities in cleft lip/palate and other craniofacial anomalies and in related laboratory sciences.

Thanks to journals donated from the collections of Pitt faculty members Ellen Cohn, assistant dean of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Betty Jane McWilliams, professor emerita of communication disorders, and M. Leon Skolnick, a radiologist in the School of Medicine, the archive contains issues of the Cleft Palate Journal published from 1964 through 1989. Issues from 1990 to the present, published as The Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Journal, are available from the publisher, Alliance Communications Group.

The archive is an example of a virtual academic public service that will have special value to students in multiple disciplines, including genetics, speech pathology, dentistry, audiology, otolaryngology, plastic surgery and others, and for professionals and students in developing countries who would otherwise not have access to the seminal literature in the field.

The American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association is an international non-profit medical society of health care professionals who treat and/or perform research on birth defects of the head and face.


Anesthesia’s role in amyloid examined

Inhaled anesthetics commonly used in surgery are more likely to cause the aggregation of Alzheimer’s disease-related plaques in the brain than intravenous anesthetics, reported School of Medicine researchers in an article published in the Jan. 23 issue of Biochemistry. This is the first report using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to explain the molecular mechanism behind the aggregation of amyloid beta peptide due to various anesthetics.

Amyloid beta plaques are found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Many scientists believe that the uncontrolled clumping of amyloid beta is the cause of Alzheimer’s disease and that the similar aggregation of peptides and proteins play a role in the development of other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

“Many people know of or have heard of an elderly person who went into surgery where they received anesthesia and when they woke up they had noticeable memory loss or cognitive dysfunction,” said Pravat K. Mandal, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine and lead author of the study. Previous studies by the Pittsburgh researchers found that the inhaled anesthetics halothane and isoflurane and the intravenous anesthetic propofol encouraged the growth and clumping of amyloid beta in a test tube experiment.

“Our prior research had shown in molecular models that anesthetics may play a role by causing amyloid peptides to clump together — something that is thought to signal the advancement of Alzheimer’s disease. In this study, we set out to see why this was happening and to determine if any one form of anesthesia might be a safer option than another,” said Mandal.

The inhaled halothane and isoflurane had the most potent interaction with amyloid beta peptides, causing the highest levels of aggregation. The injected anesthetic propofol interacted and caused aggregation at high concentrations, but not at low ones. The intravenous thiopental did not cause the clustering, even at high concentrations. Additionally, the molecular details for the interaction of these anesthetics with amyloid beta peptide were revealed.

Mandal noted that if the same thing occurs in humans, anesthetics could lead to more amyloid plaques that may lead to earlier memory problems, warranting further study both in laboratory and clinical settings.

The study was partly funded through grants from the American Parkinson Disease Association and American Health Assistance Foundation.


GAP grants awarded

Two $20,000 Global Academic Partnership (GAP) grants have been awarded to fund a conference on the work of history and social science global analysis pioneer Andre Gunder Frank and a workshop on global health and sustainable development.

The grants are intended to strengthen interdisciplinary research and curriculum development on critical global issues, while enhancing international scholarly ties and raising Pitt’s international profile.

One grant was awarded jointly to Pitt faculty members Patrick Manning, professor of history; John Beverly, professor of Hispanic languages and literatures; and Thomas Rawski, professor of economics, as well as partners from the University of Newcastle, England. The project, titled “Andre Gunder Frank’s Legacy of Critical Social Science,” will support an international conference honoring the life and work of Frank, a pioneer in global analysis in history and social science.

The conference, set for March 2008, will focus on the scholarly assessment of Frank’s work and the current status of analysis in the fields in which he worked. The conference will address six topical areas: underdevelopment and dependency in Latin America; world accumulation and world system; the 5,000-year world system; East Asia in the world economy; social movements, and contemporary political and economic analysis.

A second grant was awarded to Pitt faculty members Joseph Alter, professor of anthropology; P. Sudhakar Reddy, professor of cardiology as well as of chemical and petroleum engineering, and partners from the MediCiti Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India.

The project, titled “Research and Training: Global Health and Sustainable Development,” will sponsor a workshop in November that will support research, training, curriculum development and collaborative projects among Pitt, the MediCiti Institute of Medical Sciences, the University of Hyderabad and New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The event will assemble faculty to identify mutual interests, additional funding possibilities and interdisciplinary strengths, as well as to establish initial pilot research and training programs.

GAP, launched in fall of 2001, is an initiative of Pitt’s global studies program and the Office of the Provost.

GAP grants support international research conferences and workshops that result in publications and curricular enhancement.

Projects must be related to one of the six global issues targeted by the global studies program: sustainable development; global economy and global governance; changing identities in a global world; conflict and conflict resolution; communication, technology and society, and global health.


WPIC joins clinical trials network

Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC), in partnership with community treatment providers in the tri-state area, will bring the latest research-based treatments to the community as a member of the Clinical Trials Network (CTN) of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institutes of Health.

CTN aims to conduct studies of behavioral, medication and combination therapies through a broad range of community-based treatment programs at multiple sites across the country and to disseminate research findings to caregivers in order to enhance the quality of drug abuse treatment.

Prior to the development of CTN, new and experimental treatments for drug addiction primarily had been available only through specialized research institutions. Researchers hope that through the network they can bring clinical trials to the community setting and better serve more diverse populations of people.

“To this point, most research on addiction was done in the urban setting of academic medical centers,” said Dennis Daley, chief of addiction medicine services at WPIC and principal investigator of the Appalachian tri-state node, part of the CTN. “Studies were very controlled, and patients were carefully selected. By bringing clinical trials of behavioral and pharmacological treatments to the community, we can determine if the therapies work in the real-world setting and bring the latest treatments to a wide range of people who can greatly benefit from receiving these treatments.”

WPIC leads the Appalachian tri-state (ATS) node in partnership with West Virginia University School of Medicine and five community treatment programs in eastern Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania. Community programs include: Addiction Medicine Services at WPIC; Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services, Inc., in Greensburg, Meridian Services Inc. in Youngstown; House of the Crossroads in Pittsburgh, and Chestnut Ridge Hospital in Morgantown.

Other WPIC faculty involved in this research center include Oscar Bukstein, Ihsan Salloum, Jack Cornelius, Antoine Douaihy, Stephen Thomas and Chris Ryan. Dorothy Sandstrom is node administrator and works closely with faculty, community partners and NIDA.

One of 16 nodes nationwide, the ATS node serves more than 15,000 patients annually in both urban and rural settings, focusing on those with co-occurring psychiatric disorders, adolescents, women with children, criminal justice-involved clients and opiate addicts in need of maintenance treatment. The node also serves to train area professionals, developing treatment manuals and as well as recovery materials for clients and their families.

As part of the Clinical Trials Network, the ATS node will receive $1.25 million each year for five years from NIDA to support the infrastructure of the node and additional funds for each protocol in which they participate.

Currently, the ATS node is participating in two studies. One is a study of pharmacological and behavioral therapy for substance abuse and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in adolescents. The second is a study for prescription opioid addiction.

In addition, the ATS node is working with CTN to develop new study ideas including a combined individual and group 12-step-oriented treatment for patients with stimulant (methamphetamine and cocaine) abuse or dependence.

More information is available at


Respironics endows sleep medicine fellowship

The School of Medicine recently received a pledge of $325,000 from the Respironics Foundation to fund a new fellowship program in sleep medicine.

A one-year clinical training experience, the Gerald E. McGinnis Fellowship in Sleep Medicine will be offered in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine.

The fellowship is named after Pitt alumnus Gerald E. McGinnis, who is the founder and chairman of Respironics Inc., a Murrysville-based company that produces devices to assist people with sleep and respiratory disorders. Respironics’ pledge will be paid in equal installments of $65,000 over the next five years.

One of approximately 45 such programs nationwide and accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, the UPMC sleep medicine fellowship program will lead to board eligibility in sleep medicine. The program will include multiple disciplines — pulmonary medicine, psychiatry, neurology, pediatrics and psychology — and will emphasize a comprehensive approach to sleep medicine and patients with sleep disorders.

Fellows will be selected based on achievement and the potential for making a significant contribution to the field.

Pharmacy research funded

Randall Smith, senior associate dean; Melissa Somma, assistant professor of pharmacy and therapeutics and director of the Rite Aid/University of Pittsburgh patient care initiative, and Margie Snyder, a community practice resident in the School of Pharmacy’s doctoral program, received a $1,000 American Pharmacists Association Foundation Incentive Grant for Practitioner Innovation in Pharmaceutical Care along with collaborator Alan Zillich of Purdue.

The funded project is “Development of Collaborative Patient Care Relationships: A Qualitative Thematic Analysis.”


Buildup of uric acid increases risk of hypertension

Men with hyperuricemia, a condition involving the buildup of uric acid in the blood, are at high risk of developing hypertension, according to a Pitt School of Medicine study published in the February edition of Hypertension, a journal of the American Heart Association.

The article is available at

This study suggests that high uric acid levels in the blood can independently increase the risk of developing hypertension by approximately 80 percent. Thus, this evidence may help doctors discover new methods of preventing or postponing the onset of hypertension by reducing uric acid levels in the blood, which could lead to groundbreaking achievements in cardiovascular health.

“Our study confirms that the hyperuricemia-hypertension risk relationship is present among middle-aged men without diabetes or metabolic syndrome,” said Eswar Krishnan, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology, and principal author of the study.

“These results hold the promise that we may ultimately prevent future cases of hypertension, thereby minimizing the risk of heart attack.”


Preterm birth rises with conception in spring

Women who become pregnant in spring are more vulnerable to preterm birth than those who conceive in other seasons, according to Pitt researchers who recently presented the results of their study at the annual meeting of the Society of Maternal-Fetal Medicine.

“Preterm birth is a complex condition, and risk factors can change with the seasons,” said Lisa Bodnar, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health and a co-author of the study. Researchers analyzed data from 75,399 deliveries over a 10-year period at Magee-Womens Hospital, grouping each by season of “last menstrual period,” a date physicians historically have used to estimate conception. Women conceiving in summer had the lowest rate of preterm birth at 8.4 percent, with increased rates for the fall (8.8 percent), winter (9.1 percent) and spring (9.2 percent).

Preterm birth prior to 32 weeks gestation, when complications can be more severe for mother and baby, also took place less often with conceptions in summer and fall than for those in winter or spring, the researchers noted. In fact, those conceiving in summer or fall had a 25 percent reduction in risk over those who conceived in winter or spring.

Tracking such disparities is a valuable way to target specific variables for further study, such as environmental allergens, dietary changes, sunlight exposure, viral infections and exercise habits, noted Hyagriv Simhan, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the Pitt School of Medicine and study co-author.

“Everyone has heard that we ‘put on an extra layer’ in winter, and micronutrient intake shifts with the seasons,” said Simhan. “We also know that inflammation plays a role. It could be that becoming pregnant when the immune system is primed by viral and bacterial exposures may be a factor weeks down the road.

“There have been studies in Africa of preterm birth in famine or non-famine seasons, but this is perhaps the most rigorous look at preterm birth rates by season in such a large population in an industrialized country,” said Simhan.

Preterm birth affects some 12 percent of pregnancies in the United States, costing an estimated $26 billion, or $52,000 per infant, in medical care and lost productivity in 2005, according to the Institute of Medicine. And a recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that preterm birth contributed to more than a third of infant deaths — twice as many as previously thought and making it the leading cause of infant deaths — yet the underlying causes of premature birth remain poorly understood.

More than 500,000 babies are born too soon each year nationwide, and the preterm birth rate has increased more than 30 percent since 1981.

Babies who do survive face the risk of cerebral palsy, mental retardation, chronic lung disease and vision and hearing loss, as well as other developmental problems.

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