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

April 17, 2008


Dental postdoc receives NIH award

Ariadne Letra, a postdoctoral associate in the lab of Alexandre Vieira, has received a five-year, $586,725 National Institutes of Health Pathway to Independence program award.

The awards are given to support the transition to an independent position. Letra’s project will explore the associations between metalloproteinase gene variants and cleft lip and palate.

Letra is mentored by Vieira and Mary L. Marazita of the School of Dental Medicine.


Group programs can cut risk of diabetes

Participation in a group program focused on weight loss and exercise helped adults in an urban, medically underserved community decrease their risk for Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease, a study by University of Pittsburgh Diabetes Institute (UPDI) researchers found.

Their work appears in this month’s issue of Diabetes Care.

The study was based on the successful national diabetes prevention program (DPP), which found that moderate weight loss and increased physical activity were more successful than medication in preventing diabetes and heart disease in people at risk for these diseases.

Researchers transformed DPP from an individually delivered intervention into a community-based group program.

They studied 88 people with metabolic syndrome in an urban community near Pittsburgh who took part in 12 weekly sessions of the community-based group lifestyle balance intervention program, focused on safe weight loss, healthy food choices and physical activity.

Nearly half of the subjects lost at least 5 percent of their body weight, and approximately one-quarter lost at least 7 percent. Significant improvements also occurred in waist circumference and blood pressure levels and most of the changes were sustained after six months.

“These preliminary results suggest that adults in urban, medically underserved areas can decrease their risk for Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease through participation in community-based group programs,” said Miriam Seidel, diabetes project manager at UPDI.

“As the incidence of obesity and diabetes continues to rise in this country, it is important to have practical and cost-effective programs to address this national crisis.

“We hope that health insurers will begin to cover the cost of this type of intervention and track the clinical outcomes of their members who participate in diabetes prevention programs.”

The researchers will continue to follow the original study participants for up to two years and will report the results later.

Co-authors of the study include Robert O. Powell of UPMC Braddock, Janice C. Zgibor of the Department of Epidemiology and UPDI’s Linda M. Siminerio and Gretchen A. Piatt.


DPW funds startup of autism clinic

UPMC has received $250,000 in funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare Bureau of Autism Services to support the start-up of an Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) site, which will offer comprehensive diagnosis, treatment, care and counseling for children and teens with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

The ATN is a group of 15 hospitals and medical centers in the United States and Canada dedicated to improving and standardizing medical care for children and adolescents with ASD.

The group’s approach includes collaboration among specialists in neurology, developmental pediatrics, child psychiatry, psychology, gastroenterology, genetics, metabolic disorders and sleep disorders, among other disciplines.

The network aims to develop common clinical standards for medical care for individuals with ASD and to increase the pool of autism medical specialists through trainee mentorship and outreach to community-based physicians.

As part of this effort, families receiving care at the sites can participate in a data registry that tracks children and adolescents receiving care. The information in the database is a crucial part of developing the evidence to create and substantiate clinical consensus standards.

“It is important that clinical care for ASD not only reflect the most up-to-date standards for diagnosis and assessment that will guide intervention, but also that practitioners be on the alert for these underlying disorders that have their own specific treatments and inheritance implications,” said Nancy J. Minshew, professor of psychiatry and neurology and director of the NIH Autism Center of Excellence and Collaborative Program of Excellence at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic.

Minshew will lead the Pittsburgh site in partnership with Cynthia Johnson, professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and education who directs a young child ASD clinic at Children’s Hospital; and Benjamin Handen, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, and John McGonigle, professor of psychiatry. Handen and McGonigle direct Pitt’s older child and teen ASD clinic.


Acetylation affects heart muscle

A team of researchers led by bioengineering professor Sanjeev G. Shroff has found a new pathway that regulates the strength of cardiac muscle contractions, results that someday could lead to the development of new drugs for treating weakened cardiac muscle.

The work is featured on the cover of April 11 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Phosphorylation (the addition of a phosphate group to a specific amino acid in a protein) of cardiac proteins is one chemical modulation discovered several decades ago to affect cardiac contraction.

Shroff and his fellow researchers have found another pathway that appears to be equally powerful in regulating cardiac muscle contraction — acetylation (the addition of an acetyl group to a specific amino acid in a protein) of cardiac proteins.

“Although protein acetylation has been studied for a long time, the focus so far has been on its action inside of nucleus (related to gene transcriptional control). Nobody had reported its actions on cardiac muscle contraction,” Shroff said. “If the story we report in this article holds up under more realistic (physiological) conditions, then I am confident that this will open up a whole new area of research, including new therapeutic drugs for treating weakened cardiac muscle.”

Stephen H. Smith, a research assistant in Shroff’s lab, and colleagues from the University of Chicago co-authored the work.


ACS research award granted

The American Cancer Society, Inc. has granted the University a $400,000, five-year clinical research professor award to support Jennifer R. Grandis, vice chair of research in the School of Medicine’s Department of Otolaryngology.

Grandis will be known as the American Cancer Society-Genentech BioOncology Clinical Research Professor in Translational Research. The award will begin July 1.


Pitt shares in defense dept.’s MURI funding

Researchers Jeremy Levy and Michael Lewis will share in a combined $2.7 million in research funds from the U.S. Department of Defense Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) program. MURI, which supports basic research of interest to the defense department, will devote $200 million over the next five years (including $19.7 million in fiscal year 2008) to 34 projects involving 64 universities. Three projects involve Pitt.

Levy, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, was awarded $1.1 million as part of a five-year, $6.5 million project to investigate future applications of electron spin, which may allow for faster and less power-consuming information technology. He will collaborate with researchers from four other universities to apply electron spin to organic semiconductors and other materials in an attempt to create devices that can store and transfer information with more density but by using less power.

Levy will use state-of-the-art optical and scanning probe techniques to investigate the properties of materials fabricated by his colleagues at the University of Iowa, the University of California-Berkeley and New York University. Theoretical support will come from researchers at Iowa and the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Lewis, a professor in the School of Information Sciences who specializes in human interaction with and through computers and machines, will receive a total of nearly $1.5 million for two MURI projects totaling $13.75 million.

One will evaluate the feasibility of a decentralized military communication system; another is meant to help military negotiators better cooperate with people of different cultures.

Lewis will receive almost $600,000 to create methods for observing how cultural differences influence negotiation as part of a $6.25 million project to understand the dynamics of cooperation and negotiation and the factors that lead to success or disaster. The project results will be used for training military negotiators.

He will work with researchers from Carnegie Mellon, the University of Michigan, Georgetown and the University of Southern California.

Because geographic and language barriers render cultural differences particularly difficult to observe, Lewis and his team at Pitt will develop a browser-based negotiation environment to offset distance and language.

For example, language differences would be overcome by having subjects compose offers and arguments using lists and menus in their native tongue. Also, webcams, microphones and translators can help make interaction more personal. Once the negotiations are recorded, Lewis will provide them to the partner institutions to identify aspects of negotiation that are universal and unique to a particular culture and those that become significant in cross-cultural interaction.

Lewis also will receive nearly $1 million as part of a $7.5 million project involving researchers from CMU, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell and George Mason University to study the benefits and pitfalls of a decentralized military information network.

They will develop and evaluate a military communication system that shifts information processing and decision making to a peer-to-peer network outside the chain of command. This could allow soldiers and robots to better communicate and react in fast-changing situations on the ground, but the lack of a central command to filter information could lead to confusion among soldiers.

Lewis will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed network as it relates to how teams of soldiers interact with the communication system itself.

Information on the awards is available online at


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.

Submit your information via email to:, by fax at 412/624-4579 or by campus mail to 308 Bellefield Hall. We regret we are unable to accept verbal submissions. For guidelines on what information to include in your submission, please click on the DEADLINES tab on the University Times home page.

In all cases, please be sure to include your name and phone number (not for publication) in case we need additional information.

Leave a Reply