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September 13, 2007


Toxemia linked to low levels of vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency early in pregnancy is associated with a five-fold increased risk of preeclampsia, according to a Pitt study reported this month in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

A serious complication of pregnancy marked by soaring blood pressure and swelling of the hands and feet, preeclampsia, also known as toxemia, is the leading cause of premature delivery and maternal and fetal illness and death worldwide, conservatively projected to contribute to 76,000 deaths each year.

Lisa M. Bodnar, professor of epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said: “Women who developed preeclampsia had vitamin D concentrations that were significantly lower early in pregnancy compared to women whose pregnancies were normal. And even though vitamin D deficiency was common in both groups, the deficiency was more prevalent among those who went on to develop preeclampsia.

“Data showed this increased risk persisted even after adjusting for other known risk factors such as race, ethnicity and pre-pregnancy body weight. Also troubling was the fact that many of the women reported taking prenatal vitamins, which typically contain 200 to 400 international units of vitamin D,” she said.

A vitamin closely associated with bone health, vitamin D deficiency early in life is linked to rickets — a disorder thought to have been eradicated in the United States more than 50 years ago — as well as increased risk for type 1 diabetes, asthma and schizophrenia.

Other Pitt researchers involved in the study were senior author James M. Roberts, vice chair of research in obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, professor of epidemiology and founding director of Magee Womens Research Institute (MWRI); and Janet M. Catov, Hyagriv N. Simhan and Robert W. Powers, all of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences and MWRI.


Studies of gene & environment links funded

Several projects led by Pitt researchers are among the first to be funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as part of the Genes, Environment and Health Initiative (GEI), a unique collaboration between geneticists and environmental scientists.

“This is ground-breaking research in understanding the complex factors that contribute to health and disease,” said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary Mike Leavitt. “Researchers have long known that our genes, our environmental exposures and our own behavioral choices all have an influence on our health. This new initiative will use innovative genomic tools as well as new instruments for measuring environmental factors — from diet and physical activity to stress and substance addiction — in order to begin sorting out how these different factors affect a person’s risk for a number of health conditions.”

To identify the genetic risks, researchers will use the rapidly evolving technologies employed in genome-wide association studies to focus on common conditions, such as tooth decay, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. This genetic component of GEI uses a strategy that relies on the newfound ability to swiftly identify genetic differences throughout the genome between people with an illness and those who are healthy, leading to an understanding of the underlying genetic contribution to the disease.

The environmental component will begin by developing technologies that accurately measure personal exposures with small, wearable sensors that can be used to assess environmental agents. The final component of the research strategy is to determine whether the effect of genetic variants that increase disease risk is different in the presence of environmental exposures.

In the first year, NIH will fund eight genome-wide association studies, two genotyping centers, a coordinating center and more than 30 environmental technology projects.

Among the investigators receiving funding for genome-wide association studies is Mary Marazita of the School of Dental Medicine, who has been awarded $492,000 for “Dental Caries (Tooth Decay): Whole Genome Association and Gene x Environment Studies.”

The exposure biology program, which makes up the other component of GEI, will support interdisciplinary teams of basic scientists, bioengineers, physician-scientists and others working to develop environmental sensors for measuring toxins, dietary intake, physical activity, psychosocial stress and addictive substances; identify biomarkers in the human body that indicate activation of disease mechanisms such as oxidative stress, inflammation and DNA damage, and integrate sensor and biomarker technologies so that they can be applied to genome-wide association studies to better understand gene-environment interactions.

Among the 34 investigators receiving funding are Thomas W. Kamarck of psychology, who has been awarded $426,000 for “Computer-assisted Technologies for Tracking Exposure to Psychosocial Stress,” and Mingui Sun of neurological surgery, bioengineering and electrical engineering, who has been awarded $587,000 for “A Unified Sensor System for Ubiquitous Assessment of Diet and Physical Activity.”


Gamma globulin fights pinkeye

Gamma globulin, a type of antibody isolated from blood samples that used to be given routinely to health care workers and international travelers to protect them from infectious diseases, is a highly effective treatment for cojunctivitis with little apparent toxicity, according to a study by School of Medicine researchers.

Conjunctivitis, commonly known as pinkeye, is an inflammation of the clear membrane that covers the white of the eye and the inner surface of the eyelids. Although typically a mild disease in children and adults, newborns are particularly susceptible and can be more prone to serious health complications, including blindness, if it goes untreated.

The most common cause of conjunctivitis is adenovirus infection. Unfortunately, current treatments for conjunctivitis are not targeted specifically to the virus, and currently there is no FDA-approved therapy for the treatment of adenoviral-mediated eye infections.

Led by surgery professor Andrea Gambotto and published in the journal Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science, the study has implications for the treatment and prevention of eye diseases caused by adenovirus infections, such as conjunctivitis.

The study found that in cell cultures, less than 10 mg. of gamma globulin neutralized all wild-type adenovirus strains and nearly 90 percent of various adenovirus subtypes isolated from patients with eye infections. In studies of rabbits with conjunctivitis, all of the animals tested tolerated the gamma globulin well with no irritation even at high dosages.

“We use this compound in our laboratory on a regular basis to block the activity of the adenoviruses that we use in gene therapy experiments. So, we were pretty sure it would have some antiviral effects. We were not prepared, however, for it to be effective against so many strains and to demonstrate almost no toxicity,” Gambotto explained.

Because conjunctivitis is so contagious, topical gamma globulin may be of value in many settings, including hospitals, community clinics and in global public health programs. Furthermore, due to its broad spectrum of antimicrobial properties, researchers believe that topical application of gamma globulin may be effective against other viral and bacterial causes of conjunctivitis.

The research was funded by the National Eye Institute, the Eye and Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh and Pitt’s Office of Technology Management.

Others involved in the study were Edward C. Nwanegbo of surgery, and Eric G. Romanowski and Y. Gerold Gordon of ophthalmology.


Pitt gets DOE nuclear grant

Pitt is among 38 universities each receiving $100,000 in U.S. Department of Energy grants to strengthen nuclear research and development under President George Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).

The one-time GNEP university readiness awards will go toward upgrading laboratories, improving reactor facilities, purchasing state-of-the-art equipment, providing increased faculty support and further enhancing nuclear-related curricula.

The funding is part of $15.2 million that DOE has awarded to universities with nuclear energy programs in fiscal year 2007.


African studies gets Title VI grant

Pitt’s African studies program was awarded a Title VI undergraduate international studies and foreign languages grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The $170,000 grant will be used to strengthen and improve undergraduate teaching, research and materials in African studies, establish study abroad programs in Africa and expand outreach to schools in the Pittsburgh area during the next two academic years.


Nursing awards received

Several nursing faculty have been awarded grants recently.

Susan A. Albrecht, associate dean for student and alumni services, development and public relations, and a faculty member in health and community systems, received a $71,476 award from the Health Resources and Services Administration for “Advanced Education Nursing Traineeship,” $100,000 from the Pennsylvania higher education program for “Graduate Nurse Education Grant Program” and $9,615 for scholarships for disadvantaged students.

Lisa Bernardo, director of continuing education, received a $9,536 award from the Oncology Nursing Society Foundation for “Exercise Knowledge and Practice in Oncology Nurses,” and $600 from the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association for “Women’s Experiences With and Preferences for Exercise and Physical Activity During Breast Cancer Treatment.”

Margaret Crighton of acute and tertiary care received a $45,000 award from the Oncology Nursing Society Foundation for “Neutropenia Symptoms: Communication and Self-Monitoring.”

Annette DeVito Dabbs of acute and tertiary care received a $1,000 School of Nursing nursing excellence in teaching and technology award for her proposal to test the Pocket P.A.T.H.: Personal Assistant for Tracking Health. Dabbs led a team of clinicians, computer scientists and researchers in the development of this custom software for pocket PCs to help lung recipients manage their health-related data and perform self-care.

Willa Doswell of health promotion and development received a $10,000 award from the Oncology Nursing Society Foundation for “PDAC: Protecting Daughters Against Cancer: The HPV Vaccine,” and $5,000 from the FISA Foundation for “The NIA Girls’ Group — A Community Based Program in the Greater Pittsburgh Communities.”

Mary Beth Happ of acute and tertiary care received a $338,243 award from the National Institutes of Health for “Symptom Management, Patient-Caregiver Communication and Outcomes in ICU.”

Jennifer Lingler of health and community systems received $100,000 from the Alzheimer’s Association for “Making Sense of Mild Cognitive Impairment: An Investigation of Patient and Family Perspectives.”

Mi-Kyung Song of acute and tertiary care received a $19,477 award from the International Society of Heart and Lung Transplantation for “Utilization of Palliative Care Services for Lung Transplant Recipients.”


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