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July 26, 2007


Early autism signs to be studied

Researchers have proven that babies who have an older sibling with autism have an elevated risk of developing an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) themselves.

With a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, Pitt associate professor of psychology Jana Iverson is looking for early identifiers for ASD in babies younger than age 2 who have an older sibling with autism.

Iverson will be looking at patterns of vocal, motor and communicative skills and how they may vary in infants with ASD over a five-year period in hopes of developing a checklist of early warning signs for ASD that could be used at well-baby checkups.

“We currently lack reliable methods for diagnosing autism spectrum disorders in children younger than 2 years of age,” said Iverson. “Our goal is to distinguish prospectively between infants eventually diagnosed with ASD, infants eventually diagnosed with other developmental delays but not ASD, and those with no apparent ASD symptoms.”

Iverson plans to audio- and videotape 150 babies in their homes, studying the infants each month from ages 5-14 months, then again at 18, 24 and 36 months.


Bradford center receives state grant

Pitt-Bradford’s Business Resource Center has received a $100,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to help fund business-related educational workshops, advanced business planning services for both profit and nonprofit clients, training assessments for industry and customized training programs for all types of businesses.

The UPB center serves northwestern and north central Pennsylvania with economic development services including business planning, financial analysis, loan application assistance, marketing assistance and other consulting.


UPB gets RFID lab stations

Pitt-Bradford has been awarded a grant to purchase radio frequency identification (RFID) equipment that students can use to input, store and remotely retrieve data.

A $9,204 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor is one of more than 50 grants awarded statewide to provide state-of-the-art equipment to students to ensure that they have the relevant and advanced skills needed to succeed. The Zippo/Case Technology Challenge is matching UPB’s state grant.

An RFID tag, which is similar to a memory chip, can be attached to or incorporated into a product, animal or even a person for the purpose of identification using radio waves. The technology is valuable for asset tracking and supply chain management.

UPB has purchased two RFID lab stations, which will allow students to experiment with the technology in a hands-on environment and will permit the technology to be demonstrated to local businesses for consideration.

“Students will be able to read and write information to these tags, and they will be able to evaluate its usefulness as well as some of its current pitfalls,” said Don Lewicki, assistant professor of business management.


Grants promote better end-of-life care

The Institute to Enhance Palliative Care at the School of Medicine has received grants to improve the ability of critical care fellows to communicate with their patients about end-of-life issues.

The grants include a two-year $150,000 award from the National Palliative Care Research Center and a separate award of $100,000 from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation in Pittsburgh.

“It is vitally important that fellows learn how to communicate effectively and empathetically when they are dealing with patients who are terminally ill,” said Robert Arnold, professor of medicine and chief of the section of palliative care and medical ethics in the medical school.

“Studies show that good communication allows patients to receive care consistent with their goals and decreases family distress.”

The grants will be used to develop and implement a comprehensive, evidence-based educational intervention for training fellows in palliative care communication skills.

The intervention will use interactive presentations, skills practice with simulated families and reflective exercises to improve communication skills. At the completion of the intervention, an expert panel will review the curriculum to assess how realistic it represented possible scenarios and its educational soundness. In addition, nurses will help evaluate if the fellows’ communication skills improved.

Arnold will use the preliminary data in a larger study on whether an educational communication intervention can improve the experience of patients and their families in critical care situations.


DDI seeks drugs for malaria, leishmania

John Lazo, Allegheny Foundation Professor in Pitt’s Department of Pharmacology and director of the University’s Drug Discovery Institute, has been awarded $1.53 million from the U.S. Army to study the development of new drugs to fight the parasitic diseases malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes, and leishmania, spread by the bite of infected sand flies.

Lazo is collaborating with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research to conduct military-relevant infectious disease research because the emergence of parasite drug resistance and the paucity of drugs for malaria and leishmania pose a threat to the health of soldiers deployed to areas where the diseases exist.

Traditional antimalarial/antileishmanial drug discovery efforts have focused on identifying compounds to fight the whole parasite. New efforts are capitalizing on new technologies, such as structure-based drug design, and focusing on molecular targets. Key to the shift are pathogen genome sequencing projects and the resulting identification of potential therapeutic targets.

Lazo’s project proposes that antimalarial and antileishmanial drug discovery efforts should be balanced between the development of novel chemical entities directed at specific molecular targets/protein classes and the identification and development of effective combination therapies that could be used to treat or prevent the diseases.


UPCI to study immune cells’ anti-tumor role

Theresa L. Whiteside of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute has been awarded $1 million from the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute to study the fate of immune cells in the tumor micro-environment.

The project hypothesizes that cancer patients’ immune cells are unable to effectively mediate anti-tumor activities because human tumor cells can escape from the immune response.

The failure of immunotherapy, including anti-tumor vaccines, to control tumor growth probably results from tumor-mediated dysfunction of the immune system or from successful strategies evolved by tumor cells to avoid immune detection.

The multi-part project will study the mechanisms responsible for abnormalities in anti-tumor immune responses in hopes of developing strategies to prevent tumor cell escape and improve the effectiveness of anti-tumor immunotherapies.


SIS partnership continues with Virgin Islands

Susan Alman of the School of Information Sciences has received $687,000 in the second year of a continuing grant for a partnership between Pitt and the University of the Virgin Islands.

The UVI/PittSIS Initiative is a recruitment and educational plan that aims to ensure that the U.S. Virgin Islands has sufficient numbers of educated library professionals.

Students from the Virgin Islands enroll in the FastTrack MLIS distance education degree program offered by SIS and SIS provides a half-tuition scholarship for each student enrolled under this initiative.

SIS instructors supplement the curricular materials delivered asynchronously by conducting the on-campus sessions that are a requisite element of the FastTrack MLIS at UVI each term.


NIH funds memory study

Psychology professor Julie Fiez has received a $480,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Mental Health to continue research into working memory — the processes that hold and manipulate information in a “mental scratchpad” that is integral to complex cognition. The project focuses on the underlying phonological and articulatory representations and processes that support the maintenance of verbal information.


Slavic prof receives grants

Helena Goscilo of Slavic languages and literatures has received grants from the School of Arts and Sciences’ faculty research and scholarship program, the Provost’s office and the European Studies Center for the organization of a two-part conference on women and war.

The first part, “Women and World War II,” will be held here in October.


Anthropology research in Russia funded

Bryan Hanks of anthropology received a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for his research project, “A Bioarchaeological Investigation of Middle Bronze Age Metallurgy and Social Stratification in the Southern Urals, Russia.”

Hanks’s project is being conducted this summer in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in collaboration with anthropology colleagues Margaret Judd and Mary Elizabeth Kovacik and others from the University of Sheffield, UK; Southern Ural State University, Russia, and the Russian Academy of Sciences.


Antibody works against liver cancer

Researchers from the School of Medicine report in the July issue of Molecular Cancer Therapeutics an advance in the quest to treat human liver cancer.

Using a newly available monoclonal antibody, they demonstrated significant reductions in tumor cell proliferation and survival in human and mouse hepatocellular cancer (HCC) cell lines. According to the researchers, this finding has significant implications not only for the treatment of liver cancer but other cancers as well.

Most cases of HCC are secondary to either a viral hepatitis infection or cirrhosis of the liver.

Despite recent advances, it remains a disease of grim prognosis due to the poorly understood mechanism of how the disease originates and spreads. Most patients live only a short time after diagnosis.

Previous studies showed that some pathways that were previously thought to be active only during fetal liver development, particularly the class III receptor tyrosine kinase (RTK) family pathway, became highly active again in the liver of HCC patients.

So researchers led by Satdarshan P. Singh Monga, associate professor in the Division of Cellular and Molecular Pathology, analyzed rat and human liver cancer cells for levels of expression of an RTK protein called platelet-derived growth factor receptor-alpha, or PDGFR. The investigators also analyzed the cells for their level of activation of the PDGFR gene.

The researchers found significantly higher levels of PDGFR in rat and human liver cancer cell lines compared to normal cells.

Monga’s group then treated human and mouse liver cancer cell lines with a monoclonal antibody targeted against PDGFR, resulting in a significant decrease in tumor cell proliferation and a marked increase in tumor cell death while appearing not to affect normal liver cells.

“We are very excited because this is the first targeted therapy for liver cancer. Other therapies have some modest benefits, but no one knows exactly how they work. We now have identified a pathway that appears to be overly active in more than 70 percent of the cancers we examined and, when targeted, leads to significant reduction in tumor cell proliferation and survival,” said Monga.

Furthermore, because high expression of PDGFR has been detected in a variety of tumors, Monga believes these findings could have much broader applications.

The research was funded by grants from the American Cancer Society and the National Institutes of Health as well as the Cleveland Foundation and the Rangos Fund for Enhancement of Pathology Research.

Other Pitt researchers involved in the study were Peggy Stock, Xinping Tan and Amanda Micsenyi, all of the pathology department.


Better exercise for arthritic knees studied

G. Kelley Fitzgerald of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences has received a continuing grant of $458,000 from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases for the study of knee stability training in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee.

It is believed that in addition to strength and joint mobility exercises, incorporating balance and agility training techniques (knee stability training) may improve the effectiveness of exercise therapy by inducing favorable changes in lower extremity biomechanics and allowing for greater improvements in functional status than what can be achieved by strength and joint mobility exercise alone.

The project will test the effectiveness of supplementing traditional exercise therapy with knee stability training techniques for improving pain, physical function and lower extremity function by comparing those who receive standard exercise therapy with those whose program is supplemented with knee stability training.

The study aims to refine rehabilitation and prevention programs to improve the quality of life for individuals with this age-related progressive disorder.


Postdoc receives award

Jill M. Hagenkord, a postdoctoral associate in biomedical informatics, has received a 2007 Sass Research Fellowship for “Genome-Wide Detection of Copy Number Changes and Loss-of Heterozygosity in Myelodysplastic Syndromes Using High Resolution Oligonucleotide SNP Arrays.”

The $40,000 grant can be competitively renewed for a second year.

The Sass Foundation for Medical Research offers two research grants annually to young post-doctoral fellows.


Treatments for depressed heart patients to be studied

The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) has awarded researchers at the Pitt School of Medicine a three-year, $500,000 grant to develop an intervention strategy for simultaneously treating congestive heart failure and major depression. The study will obtain feasibility and clinical data needed to plan a large-scale trial comparing the impact of “blended” depression/heart failure care management programs with a traditional heart failure care management program. The study will compare cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, health-related quality of life, mood symptoms, health care costs and other outcomes.

Between 20 and 50 percent of heart failure patients also have depression, which is linked to increased morbidity and mortality and reduced quality of life. Still, while health care systems may have outpatient care management programs for heart failure, none routinely screen for and treat depression.

The study of the connections between mental health and cardiovascular disease is not new to the study’s principal investigator, Bruce L. Rollman, associate professor of medicine and psychiatry in the School of Medicine. Since 2004, he and his co-principal study investigator, Charles F. Reynolds III, UPMC Professor of Geriatric Psychiatry in the medical school, and their research team have been recruiting patients from several Pittsburgh-area hospitals, including UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Passavant, into the first NIH-funded clinical trial titled, “Bypassing the Blues.” The trial is designed to examine the impact of treating depressive symptoms following coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery.

In this latest study, Rollman and Reynolds, with the help of co-investigators Dennis McNamara, professor of medicine and director of UPMC Heart Failure Transplantation, and Rene Alvarez, associate professor of medicine and director of UPMC Heart Failure/Pulmonary Hypertension Network, will modify their “Bypassing the Blues” protocol for treating post-CABG depression. They will employ the UPMC outpatient guidelines for treating heart failure and then pilot their “blended” treatment strategy for treating depressed heart failure patients.

McNamara said, “Cardiologists can help their patients if they are provided with the knowledge of depression’s devastating effects on heart disease. Early studies have demonstrated that if patients are treated for depression after heart surgery or any invasive heart procedure, they are more likely to stick to their scheduled treatments and have a better, more positive outlook toward recovery.”

Other co-investigators include Bea Herbeck Belnap and Wishwa N. Kapoor of the Department of Medicine.


Melanoma research funded

Hussein Tawbi, a fellow in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, has received the Paul Carbone M.D. Fellowship Award from the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group Research and Education Foundation.

The $25,000 grant is given to develop excellence in clinical trials leading to improvements in cancer care, especially in cancer prevention and the treatment of cancer in the elderly. Tawbi’s research focuses on DNA repair and chemotherapy resistance in melanoma patients, exploring the combination of decitabine and temozolomide in the treatment of metastatic melanoma.

He is joining UPCI as an assistant professor in the melanoma and skin cancer program this month and will focus his efforts on establishing a program focused on sarcoma, a class of rare cancers that arise from connective tissue.


The University Times Research Notes column aims to inform readers about funding awarded to Pitt researchers and to report briefly on findings arising from University research. We welcome submissions from all areas of the University, not only health sciences areas.

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