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September 26, 2002


Grants awarded to researchers

Steven Belle of epidemiology has been awarded $1.89 million by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases for a study of viral resistance to antiviral therapy of chronic hepatitis C.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has granted $325,720 to Thomas Hart of the School of Dental Medicine for a study, "Genotype and Phenotype of Familial Nephropathy With Gout."

Familial juvenile gouty nephropathy is a rare kidney disorder characterized by reduced fractional excretion of uric acid, precocious and tophaceous gout, and development of chronic renal failure leading to end-stage renal disease.

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded $267,000 to Robert Hayden of the University Center for International Studies to support Pitt's Center for Russian and East European Studies.

Rami Melhem of computer science has received $603,759 from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for a study, "Power Management for Real-Time Systems."

The National Institute on Aging has granted $407,779 to Myrna Silverman of the Graduate School of Public Health for a study that will explore the differing patterns of health care responses to chronic illness of older African Americans and whites in Allegheny County.

Edward Stricker of the neuroscience department has received a National Institute of Mental Health grant of $333,862 to investigate the biological basis of motivated behavior, especially thirst and salt appetite, and the complementary physiological contributions to body fluid homeostasis.


At least one in 100 U.S.-born babies involved in car crashes while in the womb

At least one out of 100 babies born in the United States will have been involved in a police-reported car crash while in the womb, researchers from Pitt's Center for Injury Research and Control (CIRCL) reported Sept. 12 in Injury Prevention, a publication of the British Medical Journal Publishing Group.

The study also found that trimester status has only minor bearing on the risk of being injured in a crash; that pregnant women involved in a crash have similar characteristics as non-pregnant women regarding seatbelt use and seat position, and that pregnant women involved in crashes are more likely to be transported to the hospital for less serious injuries.

The researchers obtained their data from the National Center for Statistics and Analysis of the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. Using figures from police-reported crashes, the researchers found that on average, almost 33,000 pregnant women were involved in a car crash each year between 1995 and 1999.

"These results clearly demonstrate that more research needs to be done in order to protect both pregnant women and their fetuses," said Harold B. Weiss, associate director of CIRCL, assistant professor of neurological surgery at Pitt's School of Medicine and lead author of this study.

"Furthermore, little research has focused on longer-term developmental outcomes of infants and children who had previously been involved in car crashes while in the womb."

Pregnant and non-pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 39 were compared by age, whether or not they were driving at the time of the accident, seat-belt use and treatment received after the crash. Belt use and seating position were examined according to the woman's trimester.

The highest rate of car crashes occurred among younger women, those between the ages of 20 and 29, who are in their peak childbearing years.

The study also references a National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration study that showed between 1975 and 1990 the number of women drivers involved in fatal car crashes has soared by more than 60 percent, primarily because women are driving more. Weiss and co-author Stephen Strotmeyer stress that more needs to be done to track, understand and prevent pregnancy-related car crashes.

CIRCL is an interdisciplinary, comprehensive program involving departments in Pitt's School of Medicine, the Graduate School of Public Health, and the schools of health and rehabilitation sciences, social work and nursing.


Profs awarded NEH grant

Peter Machamer and Sandra Mitchell, professors in Pitt's Department of History and Philosophy of Science, have been awarded a $167,351 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The grant is for organizing a summer institute for college and university teachers on the topic of "Values and Science."

The institute will run June 23-July 25, 2003, and will enroll up to 30 college and university teachers from around the country. The group will study ways in which social values shape the practice of science and vice versa. This will include both general issues and case studies on biotechnology, cognitive science, genetics, psychiatry, archeology and ecology. Affiliated faculty for the course include Pitt's Paul Griffiths.

The institute is open to college and university teachers from any academic field. Each will receive a stipend from the NEH to cover expenses. For more information visit: http://www/pitt./edu/~pkmach/valuesci.htm or e-mail:


Conservation often more economically sensible than development

Converting a swamp into a shrimp farm or a forest into a shopping mall makes economic sense, right? Not always, says a research study coauthored by a Pitt faculty member, especially when you measure economic benefits to the general population, as opposed to private interests.

Protecting the environment frequently makes more economic sense than unbridled land conversion, according to Steven Farber, a Pitt professor who was part of a multinational team of economists and scientists who surveyed recent land use studies and published their findings in Science. The study was published to coincide with last month's World Summit on Sustainable Development, which marked the 10th anniversary of the original United Nations Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Farber, a professor of public and urban affairs in Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and director of environmental policy studies in Pitt's University Center for Urban and Social Research, worked with a team of British researchers from The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the sponsoring organization; the University of Cambridge; the University of East Anglia, and Green College. In addition to Farber, American researchers included faculty from Stanford, the University of Maryland, the University of Washington and the University of Vermont.

The difference between converting and conserving is vast in many cases. The researchers found, for instance, that the overall benefit-to-cost ratio of an effective global program to avoid the conversion of the world's remaining wild ecosystems could be 100 to 1, meaning that, in general, it is 100 times better to conserve than develop. At this rate, the researchers also estimated that the world loses $250 billion annually because of the destruction of natural ecosystems, a figure they deemed conservative based on the methods they used to calculate the private gains and the general population's losses of conversion. The study is illustrative of the magnitude of losses to society from conversion, but because of the small number of cases, it is not definitive.

"The dilemma of conversion is one of survival in many cases. In developing countries, there is pressure to convert forested and other undeveloped lands to agriculture, because the land is valued highly for its potential to feed the population," said Farber. "But it is these countries that can least afford to make the mistake of losing the benefits these vast natural systems provide. Because of the poverty in their lands, the leaders of these countries have more of a short-term vision when they create economic development programs and convert these natural ecosystems."

The researchers studied published literature examining the economic impact on many ecosystems: forests, wetlands, grasslands, freshwater and marine ecosystems, and the services these ecosystems provide in their natural state. These services all have assessable economic value, including, for example, natural flood protection provided by forests.

Despite their findings, the researchers concluded that more empirical evidence needed to be collected, because so few of the studies they looked at explored the subject with enough depth to be included in their research. Chief among the omissions in many studies was the lack of accounting for many "particularly valuable services, such as nutrient cycling, waste treatment and the provision of cultural values," according to the authors.

Tropical forests aid in water supply and regulation, including flood and storm protection, recreation, and maintaining carbon stocks and endangered species in the environment. Wetlands can provide storm protection, help maintain carbon stocks, and protect endangered species. If they are sustained, many natural ecosystems also can provide economic benefits through tourism.

Among Farber's examples of economic losses suffered as a result of natural land conversion is the conversion of a natural hillside to urban settlements in Honduras. When Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998, the lack of substantial ground cover caused mudslides and landslides that wiped out villages and killed thousands of people.

The authors found "three broad, interrelated reasons why the planet is continuing to lose natural ecosystems despite their overall benefits to society":

* The lack of assessed valuations of all the benefits provided by natural ecosystems, and changes to these valuations as human impacts increase;

* Market failures, in which conversion makes narrow economic sense because the external costs have little impact on those standing to gain immediate private benefits from the conversion; and

* The frequent exaggeration of estimates of private benefits.

The authors maintain that while development is essential to human well-being, "our relentless conversion and degradation of remaining natural habitats is eroding overall human welfare for short-term private gain. In these circumstances, retaining as much as possible of what remains of wild nature through a judicious combination of sustainable use, conservation, and, where necessary, compensation for resulting opportunity costs (as called for at the Rio Summit) makes overwhelming economic as well as moral sense."


Investigators awarded $2.7 million

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has awarded $2.7 million to investigators from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) for the development of chemotherapeutic and biologic agents to treat cancer.

UPCI is one of only 15 cancer centers in the country to receive the grant that will fund phase I clinical trials of new and promising anti-cancer therapies over the next five years. Phase I clinical trials refer to studies that typically evaluate the safety and efficacy of a novel therapy that has shown promise in earlier animal and preclinical studies.

"The award of this grant indicates the strength of our clinical and pharmacology programs and the expertise and creativity of our investigators is garnering notice nationally," said Ronald Herberman, director of UPCI and Pitt associate vice chancellor for cancer research. "It represents a major opportunity for patients being treated at UPMC Cancer Centers across the region since they now will be provided access to novel and promising anti-cancer therapies."

"We are extremely pleased to receive this grant because it will give us greater opportunities to design innovative phase I studies with a multitude of anti-cancer agents," said Chandra Belani, principal investigator of the grant, professor in Pitt's School of Medicine and co-director of UPCI's Lung Cancer Program. "By increasing our understanding of these agents, including their pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic effects, we will be better able to utilize them in clinical practice, making them accessible to patients sooner."

The therapies that will be studied include antiangiogenesis agents (agents that stop the formation of blood vessels that feed tumors), apoptosis-inducing agents (agents that destroy cancer cells) and gene-specific therapies as well as many others. According to Belani, designing and performing effective early clinical trials programs ensures that new agents can be evaluated rapidly and the most appropriate doses can be determined for further evaluation of anti-cancer efficacy in subsequent studies.

Belani noted that UPCI's interdisciplinary team of investigators working on the grant has expertise in performing early clinical trials, clinical pharmacology and translational research. The team includes Merrill Egorin, a Pitt professor of medicine and pharmacology and co-director of UPCI's Molecular Medicine and Drug Discovery Program, and Ramesh Ramanathan, a Pitt associate professor of medicine and director of UPCI's Gastrointestinal Cancer Program.

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