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January 8, 2009


Small local communities lack strong IS capacity

Research conducted by students in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs found that many small local municipalities lack adequate information systems and do not have sufficient staff or computer resources to use data regularly from neighborhood information systems such as the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Community Indicator System (PNCIS).

The project, “Strengthening the Turtle Creek Valley Council of Governments Communities Through Collaborative Data Systems,” was conducted as part of a capstone seminar under the leadership of faculty adviser Sabina Deitrick.

The researchers studied community indicator systems within the National Neighborhood Indicator Partnership, a consortium of neighborhood indicator systems from around the country based at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. From this review, they identified important issues within a community, such as education, housing and economic development, and collected data relevant to those issues. They also analyzed the communities they studied in the Turtle Creek Valley Council of Governments to gauge their ability to use the data and their technological capacity to work with PNCIS.

The researchers used the group as a case study to explore the feasibility of extending PNCIS to the Turtle Creek Valley communities and beyond. The project is intended to provide a framework that can be extended to other levels of government.

In analyzing the ways such systems can be adopted by the technologically savvy and those with less technology know-how, the researchers found that nearly half of the communities studied lacked the capacity to maintain records on computers and would not be able to dedicate enough trained personnel to use a program such as PNCIS on an ongoing basis.

“Neighborhood information systems create practical opportunities for residents and officials to engage in community-building and policymaking that will improve neighborhood conditions,” said Deitrick, professor of public and urban affairs and international development. “Making public data more accessible through web-based applications and mapping tools through geographic information systems, neighborhood information systems can assist those attempting to revitalize distressed communities.

“In the Pittsburgh region, however, many of our municipalities do not have the capacity to establish good information systems. What can communities and officials do to expand existing neighborhood information systems to more users and more municipalities? This project investigates this question through a case study of the PNCIS and the Turtle Creek Valley Council of Governments. The study concludes that many of Allegheny County’s smaller municipalities lack adequate information systems, web-based public information and internal planning capacity. Councils of Government can fill those capacity and technology gaps with financial assistance from the commonwealth through the Department of Community and Economic Development.”


Nano chain reaction reported

Researchers from Pitt and the U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Pittsburgh have demonstrated a nanoscale molecular chain reaction on a metal surface, they report in the Dec. 12 edition of Science.

The team found that a single electron caused a self-perpetuating chain reaction that rearranged the bonds in 10 consecutive molecules positioned on a gold surface. As each molecule’s original bond was broken by the reaction, the molecule rearranged itself to form a new molecule.

Study co-author Kenneth Jordan, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and co-director of the University’s Center for Simulation and Modeling, and his colleagues worked with dimethyldisulfide molecules — two CH(3) methyl groups bonded by two adjoining sulfur atoms. The added electron split the bond between the sulfur atoms of one molecule, creating a highly reactive free radical that attacked the sulfur-sulfur bond of the neighboring molecule. The radical split the bond, resulting in a new molecule and a new radical that proceeded to the sulfur-sulfur bond of the next molecule. The process repeated itself through a series of molecules.

Because the demonstrated reaction involved several molecules on a surface, it reframes researchers’ understanding of surface-based chain reactions. “The conventional wisdom held that a surface reaction would fizzle soon after the electron was introduced,” Jordan said. “Our work, however, shows that reactions on metal surfaces can be sustained over long distances.”

Jordan said that the ability to initiate molecular chain reactions and self-assembly has potential applications in information storage and in nanolithography, a process used in producing microchips and circuit boards.

The research was conducted with Peter Maksymovych, who received his PhD in physical chemistry from Pitt in 2007 and is now at the U.S. Department of Energy Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences; Dan C. Sorescu of NETL, and John T. Yates Jr., a former Pitt Mellon Professor of Chemistry now at the University of Virginia. Maksymovych and Yates carried out the experiments and Jordan and Sorescu performed the supporting theoretical calculations.


Nursing research funded

Four School of Nursing faculty members have received grants from the National Institute of Nursing Research, part of the National Institutes of Health.

• Heidi S. Donovan, Department of Acute and Tertiary Care, was awarded $2.9 million for her research, “Web-based Ovarian Cancer Symptom Control: Nurse-guided Versus Self-directed.”

Donovan and her team have developed Written Representational Intervention to Ease Symptoms (WRITE Symptoms) to help women with recurrent ovarian cancer gain control over their cancer and treatment-related symptoms.

Currently, nurses deliver WRITE to patients via online message boards. The study will compare patients’ quality of life and symptoms when WRITE Symptoms is delivered by nurses versus when self-directed by patients versus care as usual.

Donovan’s research is funded through June 2013.

• Paula Sherwood, Department of Acute and Tertiary Care, received $2.7 million for her research, “Patient and Health Care System Outcomes Following Expanded Endonasal Approach (EEA).”

In EEA, endoscopic procedures are used to remove brain tumors through the nose, instead of having to open the skull and dissect through cerebral tissue, or craniotomy. The study will compare EEA with standard craniotomy on multiple patient and health care system outcomes including functional and neurological status, return to work, resolution of preoperative symptoms, cost, length of stay and mortality and morbidity.

Sherwood’s research is funded through November 2013.

• Karen Courtney, Department of Health and Community Systems, received $402,555 for her research, “After-hours Communication Support for Hospice Family Caregivers and Patients.”

Caregivers rate communication as essential to the support they receive from hospice providers and perceive the telephone as an emergency back-up tool in pain and symptom management. The study will compare the use of videophones to telephones in after-hours hospice calls to measure patient-reported pain and quality of life for hospice patients and family caregivers.

Courtney’s research is funded through July 2010.

• Sheila Alexander, Department of Acute and Tertiary Care, was awarded $151,500 for her research, “Long-term Outcomes in ICU Patients: Delirium and Apolipoprotein E.”

Delirium is a disturbance in consciousness with inattentiveness accompanied by a change in cognition or perceptual disturbances. Apolipoprotein E is a transport substance that delivers lipids to the liver or cells that need more lipids. The study will explore the relationship between apolipoprotein E and the development and duration of delirium in patients in intensive care units.

Alexander’s research is funded through July 2010.


Horseradish good for nano-cleanup

Pitt researchers have developed a natural, nontoxic method for biodegrading carbon nanotubes, a finding that could help diminish the environmental and health concerns surrounding the materials.

The researchers found that carbon nanotubes deteriorate when exposed to the natural enzyme horseradish peroxidase (HRP), according to a report published recently in Nano Letters co-authored by Alexander Star, chemistry professor, and Valerian Kagan, professor and vice chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in the Graduate School of Public Health.

These results open the door to further development of safe and natural methods — with HRP or other enzymes — of cleaning up carbon nanotube spills in the environment and the industrial or laboratory setting.

Both Kagan and Star are associated with a three-year-old Pitt initiative to investigate nanotoxicology.

Star said, “The many applications of nanotubes have resulted in greater production of them, but their toxicity remains controversial. Accidental spills of nanotubes are inevitable during their production, and the massive use of nanotube-based materials could lead to increased environmental pollution. We have demonstrated a nontoxic approach to successfully degrade carbon nanotubes in environmentally relevant conditions.”

The team’s work focused on nanotubes in their raw form as a fine, graphite-like powder, Kagan said. In this form, nanotubes have caused severe lung inflammation in lab tests. Although small, nanotubes contain thousands of atoms on their surface that could react with the human body in unknown ways, Kagan said.

“Nanomaterials aren’t completely understood. Industries use nanotubes because they’re unique — they are strong, they can be used as semiconductors. But do these features present unknown health risks? The field of nanotoxicology is developing to find out,” Kagan said.

“Studies have shown that they can be dangerous. We wanted to develop a method for safely neutralizing these very small materials should they contaminate the natural or working environment.”


Genetic markers for colitis found

An international team led by School of Medicine researchers has identified genetic markers associated with risk for ulcerative colitis.

The findings, which appear online in the journal Nature Genetics, bring researchers closer to understanding the biological pathways involved in the disease and may lead to the development of new treatments that specifically target them.

Ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), causes inflammation and ulceration in the inner lining of the rectum and large intestine.

Senior author of the study Richard H. Duerr, professor of medicine and human genetics at the School of Medicine and Graduate School of Public Health, said: “Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are chronic conditions that impact the day-to-day lives of patients. IBD is most often diagnosed in the teenage years or early adulthood. While patients usually don’t die from IBD, affected individuals live with its debilitating symptoms during the most productive years of their lives.”

Because IBD tends to run in families, researchers have long thought that genetic factors play a role. The researchers performed a genome-wide association study of hundreds of thousands of genetic markers using DNA samples from 1,052 individuals with ulcerative colitis and pre-existing data from 2,571 controls, all of European ancestry and residing in North America.

Several genetic markers on chromosomes 1p36 and 12q15 showed highly significant associations with ulcerative colitis, and the association evidence was replicated in independent European ancestry samples from North America and southern Italy. Several nearby genes also were implicated as possibly playing a role in ulcerative colitis.

The study also found highly suggestive associations between ulcerative colitis and genetic markers on a chromosome in the gene family known to play a role in intestinal health and disease. The study confirmed previously identified associations between ulcerative colitis and genetic variants in the interleukin 23 receptor (IL23R) gene on chromosome 1p31 and the major histocompatibility complex on chromosome 6p21.

Duerr said the next steps are to research the functional significance of the genetic variants and develop new treatments that target the biological pathways implicated by the genetic discoveries.  

The study’s authors represent the IBD Genetics Consortium, which is funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health.

Other member institutions in the consortium are Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, Université de Montréal and the Montreal Heart Institute, Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and Yale University.

Other study authors who collaborated with the consortium include researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, Massachusetts General Hospital, CHUM-Hôpital Saint-Luc in Montreal, The Hospital for Sick Children and Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, CHAUQ-Hôpital du St-Sacrement in Quebec and the IRCCS-CSS Hospital in S. Giovanni Rotondo, Italy.


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