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August 28, 2008


Grants fund Magee’s green projects

Magee-Womens Hospital has been awarded grants totaling $1 million from the Heinz Endowments to fund continuing environmental initiatives at the hospital and throughout UPMC.

Current projects include collaborations with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Physicians for Social Responsibility and others, to provide information and materials to providers of obstetrical care so that they can educate patients and their families concerning pregnancy and environmental health risks. Along with Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Magee is producing a basic instructional video on ways to improve health and make better environmental choices. Outreach also will target school-age children.


Media-savvy teens less likely to smoke

Adolescents who are skilled in interpreting media messages about tobacco may be less likely to smoke and less likely to start smoking in the future, according to a new study co-authored by Brian Primack, professor of medicine and pediatrics at the School of Medicine.

The report appears online in the American Journal of Health Behavior.

Building on previous research, the study focused on determining associations between smoking outcomes and particular types of media literacy.

Researchers assessed the media literacy (the ability to understand, analyze and evaluate media messages) of more than 1,200 high school students. Participants answered questionnaires aimed at gauging their knowledge and attitudes toward tobacco advertisements and movie placements.

Nineteen percent were current smokers, while 40 percent of the non-smokers were identified as being likely to smoke in the future — figures that reflect national averages.

Students were asked questions related to media literacy, including some that focused on the portrayal of the tobacco industry as powerful and manipulative, the promotion of tobacco using appealing images and logos to evoke emotional responses, and the ironic difference between positive portrayal of tobacco in the media and the true effects of tobacco use on health.

Most notably, students who demonstrated an understanding of the sharp contrast between the actual effects of smoking and positive media portrayals of smoking were more likely to be non-smokers. Likewise, students who believed that cigarette advertising leaves out important information also were less likely to smoke.

“These findings suggest that those with higher media literacy, especially with regard to certain facets of media literacy, may be less likely to smoke,” said Primack. “Hopefully, these and other results will help educators design anti-smoking programming that is appropriately tailored to its target audience.”

Primack was supported by funding from the National Cancer Institute, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Maurice Falk Foundation.


Nursing projects funded

The School of Nursing announced the following awards to faculty members:

• Susan Albrecht received an award of $80,430 from the Health Resources and Services Administration for her proposal, “Advanced Education Nurse Traineeship,” and a $10,310 award from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Foundation to support Dr. Edna B. McKenzie Scholarships for Disadvantaged Students.

• Helen Burns received an award of nearly $99,000 from the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board for her proposal, “Interactive and Video Conferencing.”

• Margaret Crighton received a $16,000 award from Pitt’s Central Research Development Fund for her proposal, “Symptom Clusters in Neutropenic non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Patients: Self-Monitoring, Decision Making and Communication.”

• Annette DeVito Dabbs received an award of $3.18 million over five years from the National Institute of Nursing Research for her proposal, “Phase III Trial of Pocket PATH: A Computerized Intervention to Promote Self-Care.”

• Julius Kitutu received an award of $59,232 from the Health Resources and Services Administration for scholarships for disadvantaged students.

• Jennifer Lingler received an award of $100,000 from the Alzheimer’s Association for her proposal, “Making Sense of MCI: An Investigation of Patient and Family Perspectives.”

• John O’Donnell of the nurse anesthesia program received a 2008-2009 Health Resources and Services Administration Traineeship Grant Award in the amount of $33,462.

• Margaret Rosenzweig received $3,314 from the Oncology Nursing Society for her proposal, “Promoting Health & Wellness with Advanced Breast Cancer: A Public Education Grant Proposal,” and from the Susan G. Komen Foundation for her proposal, “Advanced Breast Cancer: Living With Health and Wellness.”


Sex-ed program benefits diabetic teens

A pilot study of the READY-Girls (Reproductive Health Education and Awareness of Diabetes in Youth for Girls) sex education program found it can help teen girls with type 1 diabetes better understand the importance of family planning and the risks of pregnancy for diabetic women. The study by School of Nursing researchers Denise Charron-Prochownik, Margaret Ferons-Hannan and Susan Sereika and Dorothy Becker of the Department of Endocrinology, appears in the July issue of the journal Diabetes Care.

The READY-Girls book and CD offer information about how diabetes affects puberty, reproductive health, sexuality and pregnancy.

In addition to finding that many of the girls were having unsafe sex, previous research by Charron-Prochownik and colleagues found adolescent girls with diabetes to be unaware of the special risks the disease poses during pregnancy and that counseling prior to becoming pregnant can be helpful in reducing such risks.

In the study, the researchers compared 53 girls ages 16-19 who received either the READY-Girls book or CD or standard care, and assessed their knowledge, beliefs, level of social support and blood glucose control at the outset, immediately after the intervention and three months later.

Both groups improved their knowledge about diabetes and reproductive health and their beliefs about the benefits of preconception counseling and family planning. Girls in the intervention groups also felt they had more social support regarding reproductive health issues than those who didn’t receive the material.

“Programs such as READY-Girl could potentially set new standards of practice and be an integral part of diabetic adolescent education to empower teens in making informed decisions about their reproductive health,” the researchers concluded.


Sleep quality suffers in dialysis patients

Research led by Mark Unruh, assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s Renal-Electrolyte Division, has found kidney dialysis patients more likely to have sleep problems compared with patients without kidney disease. The study, published in the August issue of the American Journal of Kidney Diseases, the journal of the National Kidney Foundation, also found that the differences can’t be explained by advanced age or chronic health conditions.

According to Unruh and colleagues, “Studies of patients on maintenance hemodialysis have found that 50 percent to 80 percent report some sleep complaint or excessive daytime somnolence.” Because advanced age, poor health and obstructive sleep apnea also can affect sleep adversely, Unruh’s group compared sleep quality in a group of 46 patients on hemodialysis with a group of 137 individuals without kidney disease, of similar age, weight, race and percentage of men and women.

All of the subjects underwent overnight sleep studies and completed a sleep habits questionnaire.

The physicians found dialysis patients were three times more likely to sleep less than 5 hours per night, and that more than half reported difficulty getting back to sleep, waking up too early, feeling tired and not getting enough sleep.

It’s possible, the authors suggest, that changing how hemodialysis is delivered and working with patients to improve their sleep habits — such as avoiding napping during the day and avoiding stimulating activity in the evening — may improve their quality of sleep substantially.


HIV treatment may cut heart disease risk

Antiretroviral drugs for HIV do not increase the risk for coronary atherosclerosis, a central risk factor for heart disease, according to a study led by the Graduate School of Public Health published in the Aug. 8 issue of the journal AIDS. The results further suggest that antiretroviral therapy may offer men with HIV some protection against atherosclerosis — hardening of the arteries.

The study, part of the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study initiated in 1983, measured levels of coronary artery calcification (CAC) in nearly 950 HIV-positive and HIV-negative men. Controlling for traditional atherosclerosis risk factors such as age, family history, smoking and blood pressure, the study team found that CAC scores were almost 60 percent lower in HIV-positive men who received highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) for more than eight years compared to HIV-negative men.


Fish diet may impact heart disease

Consuming large quantities of fish loaded with omega-3 fatty acids may explain low levels of heart disease in Japan, according to a study led by the Graduate School of Public Health published in the Aug. 5 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The study also found that third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans had similar or even higher levels of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries — a major risk factor for heart disease — compared to white Americans.

The very low rate of heart disease in Japan among developed countries has been puzzling. Death rates from coronary heart disease in Japan have been less than half of that in the United States. This holds true even among Japanese men born after World War II who adopted a Western lifestyle since childhood, and despite the fact that among these same men, risk factors for coronary heart disease (serum levels of total cholesterol, blood pressure and rates of type 2 diabetes) are very similar among U.S. men. Additionally, the rate of cigarette smoking, another major risk factor, has been high in Japan.

Based on data from 868 men between the ages of 40 and 49, Japanese men had the lowest levels of atherosclerosis and two times higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than white Americans or Japanese Americans in the study conducted at two universities and one research institute in the United States and Japan. The differences in atherosclerosis levels remained after adjusting for other risk factors — serum cholesterol, blood pressure, cigarette smoking, body mass index and diabetes.

Akira Sekikawa, study lead author and assistant professor of epidemiology at GSPH, said: “Our study suggests that very high levels of omega-3 fatty acids have strong properties that may help prevent the buildup of cholesterol in the arteries.”

“The Japanese eat a very high level of fish compared to other developed countries,” said Sekikawa. “While we don’t recommend Americans change their diets to eat fish at these quantities because of concerns about mercury levels in some fish, increasing intake of omega-3 fatty acids in the U.S. could have a very substantial impact on heart disease. Given the similar levels of atherosclerosis in Japanese Americans and white Americans, it also tells us that lower levels of heart disease among Japanese men are much more likely lifestyle-related than a result of genetic differences,” said Sekikawa.

Pitt co-authors of the study were Aiman El-Saed, Rhobert W. Evans, Lewis H. Kuller, Kim Sutton-Tyrrell and Tomoko Takamiya of epidemiology and Daniel Edmundowicz of the School of Medicine’s Division of Cardiology.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.


Grant fuels Pittsburgh Model growth

The Highmark Foundation has awarded a grant of $175,125 over three years to the School of Pharmacy to expand its Pittsburgh Model educational program to seven counties and across the Internet.

The School of Pharmacy developed the medication therapy management model, which encourages collaboration between physicians and pharmacists, to help optimize patient care.


Pathology research funded

Three pathology department faculty members are among the recipients of National Institutes of Health funding for their research.

* Liver research funding renewed

The NIH has granted Paul Monga a competing renewal of funding for his project on the role of Wnt/b-catenin signaling in liver development.

The research, which has a budget of $2.6 million, aims to understand the critical signaling pathways that dictate the processes of liver growth, regeneration and development in order to identify the molecular basis of liver disease.

Monga’s research seeks to comprehensively examine Wnt signaling in liver biology to eventually improve the prognosis for patients with liver diseases.

* Brain cancer research

Shi-yuan Cheng, associate professor of cellular and molecular pathology, has been awarded $1.55 million over five years by the NIH for the study “ELMO1, Dock180 and Glioma Invasion.”

Diffuse gliomas are the most common malignant tumors in the central nervous system in humans. Among the deadly cancer’s distinguishing features is the ability of single tumor cells to infiltrate the brain, making the mean survival time in patients with late-stage gliomas short — less than a year.

In this project, researchers will investigate the molecular mechanisms by which two genetic mutations that commonly occur in gliomas allow tumor cells to invade the brain in hopes of finding better treatments.

* Head and neck cancer research

Jian Yu has been awarded $1.57 million over five years by the NIH to study the role of the Bcl-2 family protein p53 unregulated modulator of apoptosis (PUMA) in fighting head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC).

Previous study found that PUMA fails to be induced by conventional chemotherapeutic agents, but is induced by epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR)-targeting agents, in most HNSCC cell lines.

This project seeks to understand the mechanisms by which EGFR antagonists exert their anti-tumor effects in HNSCC in order to develop better treatments for these and other cancers.


MWRI to study obesity, preeclampsia

Investigators at Magee-Womens Research Institute have been awarded a five-year, $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study what role obesity may play in preeclampsia, a common complication of pregnancy that can be life-threatening for mother and baby. The grant is a renewal of funds originally awarded 14 years ago to a collaboration of researchers from Magee and the University of California-San Francisco to support studies into the basic mechanisms of preeclampsia. The focus on obesity is a new direction for the research.

Carl A. Hubel, assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the School of Medicine and principal investigator of the project, said: “We know there is a strong relationship between pre-pregnancy obesity and preeclampsia, and at least a third of all pregnant women in the United States are obese. Our work represents the first multidisciplinary evaluation of the possible mechanisms of the disease process as it relates to obesity.”

Researchers will study the interactions of proteins, lipids and other cellular components in an effort to discover important relationships between body weight and preeclampsia, a disorder characterized by dangerously high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine.

“Preeclampsia is complex, with components involving improper vascular growth and functioning in the placenta, inflammation and other factors. Obesity also is related to inflammation, oxidative stress, insulin resistance, abnormal fatty acids and a host of other metabolic concerns,” he said.

Research will revolve around the interactions of specific immune system factors and basic cellular components to discover their relationship to the metabolic stress of pregnancy and placental development.

“These adverse effects of obesity on pregnancy also may be affected by lifestyle, sleep patterns, activity and diet,” said Hubel.

Other MWRI scientists taking part in the study are Robin Gandley, Robert W. Powers, Nina Markovic, James M. Roberts, Augustine Rajakumar, Valerian Kagan, Sanjeev Shroff, Lisa Bodnar, Janet Catov and Arun Jeyabalan.


SIS to lead Kosovo telecom program

The School of Information Sciences (SIS) won a U.S. government-sponsored competition to help launch a telecommunications graduate program at Kosovo’s University of Pristina and provide the recovering Balkan nation with the ideas and experts needed to rebuild its infrastructure following years of war and unrest.

The three-year, $450,000 partnership was announced Aug. 13 by the Washington-based organization Higher Education for Development, which will oversee the $250,000 award Pitt received from the U.S. Agency for International Development and coordinate communication between the universities and USAID. Pitt will provide additional funds.

SIS professor and associate dean Martin Weiss and anthropology professor and director of Pitt’s Center for Russian and East European Studies Robert Hayden co-direct the project.

Weiss said he found modern technology to be deployed inconsistently across the Pristina campus. “There were pockets of relatively up-to-date technology, and Internet access was often available, but outages are not uncommon and bandwidth is somewhat limited. But if they want to be competitive in today’s world, there is no other choice, and they understand that.”

The program begins this semester with SIS faculty members training one Pristina professor each year in Pitt’s SIS telecommunications lab and helping the visiting professors shape the experience into a curriculum for the new program. SIS also will help oversee the construction of a similar lab in Pristina next summer. Plans call for the first Kosovar students to enroll in the two-year program in fall 2009. The third year will be spent evaluating and fine-tuning the program.


Gates gives $10 million for vaccine studies

A $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will fund the creation of computer simulations of epidemics, showing worst- and best-case outbreak scenarios that can be used to evaluate new vaccine technologies and modes of vaccine delivery.

The Vaccine Modeling Initiative, a research partnership among infectious disease modeling teams at Pitt, Penn State and Imperial College London, is headquartered in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health.

The project also involves collaborations with infectious disease experts, computational modelers and public health officials at Johns Hopkins University, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Médecins Sans Frontières Epicentre, University of Georgia, Resources for the Future and the World Health Organization.

The models developed will be designed to fit the prevalence, incidence and geographic spread patterns of past epidemics in developing countries worldwide, and will help prevent future infectious disease epidemics by optimizing vaccine strategies for particular diseases and regions.

“Infectious diseases create an enormous burden on the world’s population, from both a human suffering and an economic development perspective,” said GSPH Dean Donald S. Burke, principal investigator of the grant.

“One of the major challenges we face in stopping infectious disease outbreaks is predicting how control strategies, such as vaccines, will work. By using computer models to conduct ‘epidemiology in silicon,’ we will be able to test the impact of new candidate vaccine technologies and select the most effective strategies.”

Initially, the project will focus on evaluation of new vaccine technologies for influenza, measles and dengue, a mosquito-borne infection — diseases that affect millions of people globally. Later, the project will develop vaccine models of epidemic pertussis, rotavirus, polio, pneumococcus, malaria and tuberculosis.

“Many infectious diseases are preventable by simple vaccination, yet children in poor countries die of these diseases because they lack access to vaccines,” said Burke.

“By providing computer models to aid in decision-making, we will support efforts by the Gates Foundation and other partners to make vaccines safer and easier to administer and ultimately protect more children and adults against deadly infectious diseases.”


Animal tests of flu vaccine funded

Scientists at Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research (CVR) have been awarded $3.6 million from the National Institutes of Health to conduct animal studies of vaccines designed to protect against the most common and deadliest strain of avian flu, H5N1.

Recent outbreaks of H5N1 have prompted health officials to warn of its continued threat to global health and potential to trigger an avian flu pandemic.

Ted M. Ross, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, is principal investigator of the grant. “Worldwide avian flu control efforts have been mostly successful, but like seasonal influenza, avian flu changes year to year, creating new subtypes and strains that could easily and quickly spread among humans,” Ross said.

Unlike other avian flu vaccines, which are developed in part from live viruses, the vaccines Ross and colleagues will test in non-human primates are based on a virus-like particle, or VLP, that is recognized by the immune system as a real virus but lacks genetic information to reproduce, making it a potentially safer alternative for a human vaccine.

Given the evolving nature of H5N1, the vaccines have been engineered to encode genes for many influenza viral proteins to offer enhanced protection against possible new strains of the virus.

“VLPs may be advantageous over other vaccine strategies because they are easy to develop, produce and manufacture,” said Ross. “Using recombinant technologies, within 10 weeks we could generate a vaccine most effective towards the current circulating strain of virus, making it a cost-effective counter-measure to the threat of an avian influenza pandemic.”

Co-investigators include Simon M. Barratt-Boyes of infectious diseases and microbiology, Gerard J. Nau and Jodi K. Craigo of microbiology and molecular genetics, Elodie Ghedin of medicine and Clayton A. Wiley of pathology.


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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