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Research roundup: Recent grants and publications for Emory faculty and staff

As an academic research institution, Emory’s faculty and staff conduct studies across every discipline, from the sciences to the humanities. Here’s a sample of recent grant awards and the work they will support, plus highlights from some published research findings.

Grants highlighted:

Publications highlighted:


Advancing promising therapies for multiple myeloma

The Winship Cancer Institute multiple myeloma team has been awarded a five-year, $5 million Specialized Center for Research (SCOR) grant from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

This team science award focuses on translational research to improve adoptive cell therapy of myeloma and bring the next generation of promising therapies to the clinic. It is led by principal investigator Madhav Dhodapkar, director of the Winship Center for Cancer Immunology, and project leaders Sagar Lonial, chief medical officer for Winship; Larry Boise, professor of hematology and medical oncology; and Kavita Dhodapkar, director of the Pediatric Immuno-Oncology Program at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

Advanced imaging studies of Parkinson’s disease

Emory neuroscientists led by Yoland Smith and Thomas Wichmann were awarded a five-year, $3.5 million grant to study synaptic changes and imbalanced neural activity in Parkinson’s disease. The grant comes from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The project includes both non-human primate experiments at Yerkes National Primate Research Center and a longitudinal ultra-high-field MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) study of patients with Parkinson’s disease at the University of Minnesota. The studies may lead to new imaging biomarkers or interventions, says Smith, chief of the Division of Neuropharmacology and Neurologic Disease at Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

Beyond dopamine: Neural signaling in Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s disease is well-known for the loss of dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. A grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke supports research on secondary effects on other neuron signaling systems, such as NMDA and AMPA receptor signaling, in the striatum.

Emory neuroscientists led by Stella Papa, associate professor in the School of Medicine, and Stephen Traynelis, professor of pharmacology, were awarded a four-year, $2.5 million grant to study changes in striatal projection neurons in animal models of Parkinson’s disease. The project will use advanced optogenetic techniques, and the ultimate goal is to uncover and validate new therapeutic targets for improving motor function in Parkinson’s

A human-factors approach to strengthening infection prevention and control

Researchers in the School of Medicine have received a three-year, $1.1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify prevention methods for health care-associated infections. The project leverages Emory’s unique experience with the safe care of patients with Ebola virus disease and human factors evaluations of high-level personal protective equipment (PPE) use.

The research will apply experts’ knowledge and methodologies to more commonly encountered clinical situations in the acute care hospital setting. The study and training aim to provide recommendations for the design of PPE and best practices for observing, training and measuring the infection prevention and control practice competency of health care providers, which may inform CDC and the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee HICPAC guidelines.

The lead Emory investigators include Colleen Kraft and Jesse Jacob, associate professors of medicine; Sharon Vanairsdale, nursing instructor and program director for serious communicable diseases, Emory University Hospital; Joel Mumma, adjunct faculty in infectious diseases and nursing; and Erik Brownsword, senior program coordinator in the School of Medicine.

Public health solutions for commercial sexual exploitation

Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health has received a $1 million grant to support systems-based solutions to help end commercial sexual exploitation.

The grant, led by Dabney Evans, director of the Center for Humanitarian Emergencies, will address the immediate needs of those at risk for or experiencing commercial sexual exploitation in Fulton County, Georgia, while transforming systems to prevent it. The grant, from the NoVo Foundation, is for Emory’s work in partnership with youthSpark, Inc. and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights’ LGBTQ Institute and International Human Trafficking Institute.

The collaboration is uniquely situated to provide direct services to survivors and at-risk youth, and to drive the systemic change necessary to end commercial sexual exploitation of children in Atlanta, says Evans, associate professor of public health.

Winship Invest$ pilot grants for innovative cancer research

Winship Invest$, a peer-reviewed program designed to fund novel, innovative cancer research, will award over $750,000 in funding for new cancer research projects to 12 Winship investigators.

Winship Invest$ has two funding cycles every year and is supported by philanthropic contributions and developmental funds from Winship's Cancer Center Support Grant awarded by the National Cancer Institute. Learn more here.

Modeling and mapping dengue fever dynamics

Emory’s School of Medicine and Emory College’s Department of Environmental Sciences received a $250,000 seed grant to define dengue virus transmission dynamics using a framework of ecological immunology, leveraging data on the virus, the vector and the host.

The two-year award is from Emory’s new basic science initiative, From Molecules and Pathogens to Populations and Pandemics (MP3), aimed at taking a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary approach to the threat of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. For information on how to apply, visit the MP3 Funding Opportunities site.

Results will be integrated with existing epidemiologic data to generate a dengue susceptibility map that predicts novel strain introduction. The model will be validated by historical and prospective dengue surveillance, providing an invaluable tool for high priority public health activities.

The principal investigator is Matthew Collins, assistant professor in the School of Medicine. Co-PIs are Anne Piantadosi, assistant professor in the School of Medicine, and Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, associate professor in Emory College.

The microbiome and immunity against pneumococcal disease

Rollins School of Public Health and the School of Medicine received a $250,000 seed grant to evaluate whether encapsulated Streptococcal bacteria that are part of the human upper respiratory tract microbiome are associated with antibodies that could protect again invasive pneumococcal strains.

The two-year award is from Emory’s new basic science initiative, From Molecules and Pathogens to Populations and Pandemics (MP3), aimed a taking a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary approach to the threat of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. For information on how to apply, visit the MP3 Funding Opportunities site.

Pneumococcal disease is a leading cause of illness and death. If commensal microbiome organisms elicit antibodies, they might potentially boost vaccine-induced or natural immunity in highly vulnerable populations, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, where pneumococcal disease is not well controlled, in spite of immunization programs.

The principal investigator is Cynthia Whitney, professor at Rollins. Co-PIs are Nadine Rouphael, associate professor in the School of Medicine, and Jesse Waggoner, assistant professor in the School of Medicine.



Basic + Translational Research

Model of a sticky situation in pediatric cardiology

Here’s an example of how 3D printing can be applied to pediatric cardiology. It’s also an example of how Georgia Tech, Emory and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta all work together.

Biomedical engineers used a modified form of gelatin to create a model of pulmonary arteries in newborn and adolescent patients with a complex (and serious) congenital heart defect: tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia. The model allowed the researchers to simulate surgical catheter-based intervention in vitro.

The results were recently published in Journal of the American Heart Association. Biomedical engineer Vahid Serpooshan and his lab collaborated with Sibley Heart Center pediatric cardiologist Holly Bauser-Heaton; both are part of the Children’s Heart Research and Outcomes Center. Images here.

Transplant research: Immune control via Fc receptors on T cells

Emory transplant researchers have identified a control mechanism the immune system uses to tamp down chronic inflammation. The findings provide insight into how some people were able to stop taking immunosuppressive drugs after kidney transplant.

In addition, they may be important for a full understanding of how many drugs for cancer and autoimmune disorders (therapeutic antibodies) work. The results were published on Jan. 14 in Immunity.

Mandy Ford, scientific director of Emory Transplant Center, and colleagues probed the functions of Fc receptors on T cells in mice and also looked at markers from a kidney transplant clinical trial. More here.

Microbiome critical for bone hormone action

Intestinal microbes are necessary for the actions of an important hormone regulating bone density, according to two papers from the Emory Microbiome Research Center. The papers represent a collaboration between Roberto Pacifici, director of the Division of Endocrinology, and colleagues in the Department of Medicine and the laboratory of Rheinallt Jones, assistant professor, in the Department of Pediatrics.

Together, the findings show how probiotics or nutritional supplementation could be used to modulate immune cell activity related to bone health. The two papers, published in Nature Communications and Journal of Clinical Investigation, are the first reports of a role for intestinal microbes in the mechanism of action of PTH (parathyroid hormone), Pacifici says. More here.

Elimination of latent TB in animal model

A major goal of tuberculosis research is to find a way to treat people with the latent form of the disease to keep them from developing symptomatic TB. A study using a new non-human primate model developed for this purpose showed that a combination of two classes of antibiotics can wipe out this hidden threat.

The study was published in the American Journal for Respiratory Clinical Care Medicine. The study was conducted at Tulane and Emory. Yerkes National Primate Research Center immunologist Jyothi Rengarajan was co-principal investigator. More here.


More NMDA but less excitotoxicity? Now feasible

Emory pharmacologists have discovered a new class of potential drugs that might allow them to have their cake and eat it too — with reference to NMDA receptors, important control sites in the brain for learning and memory.

Many researchers have wanted to enhance NMDA receptor signals to treat disorders such as schizophrenia. But at the same time, they need to avoid killing neurons with “excitotoxicity,” which comes from excess calcium entering the cell. Excitotoxicity is thought to be a major mechanism of cell death in stroke and traumatic brain injury.

Usually more sensitivity to NMDA activation and excess calcium go hand in hand. In a new Nature Chemical Biology paper, pharmacologist Stephen Traynelis and colleagues have identified a group of compounds that allow them to separate those two aspects of NMDA signaling. More here.


Clinical + Public Health Research

Separating rotavirus vaccine from polio vaccine could improve kids’ outcomes 

A study published in PLoS Medicine has found that when children in low-income countries receive the rotavirus vaccine separately from the polio vaccine, the body’s immune response is stronger, potentially leading to a decrease in rotavirus contraction. 

As part of the effort to eradicate polio, the oral poliovirus vaccine is being withdrawn globally and replaced with inactivated polio vaccine delivered through a series of shots, says lead author Julia Baker, a postdoctoral fellow at Rollins School of Public Health. That withdrawal may result in improved rotavirus vaccine performance, especially in low-income settings where deaths from rotavirus infection are greatest.


Setting the goalposts for ALS clinical trials

Emory neurologists, with advice from other experts, have created a new disability rating scale for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). This is a set of questions patients or their caregivers answer to gauge how much ALS is eroding someone’s ability to manage daily life.

ALS’s attack on motor neurons makes it progressively more difficult to accomplish tasks such as household chores, daily hygiene and, eventually, speaking and eating.

Lead author Christina Fournier, co-director of Emory’s ALS Center, and her team think the rating scale can become a resource for testing new treatments for ALS in clinical trials. The research used to develop the new rating scale was published on Dec. 30 in JAMA Neurology. More here.


Race and Alzheimer’s/MCI protein biomarkers

A study on underlying racial differences in clinical biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease suggests that race is an important factor when interpreting those biomarkers, especially in early stages of diagnosis. The results were published in JAMA Network Open.

Scientists at Emory Brain Health Center, led by lead author Ihab Hajjar, investigated levels of widely studied Alheimer's proteins (amyloid and tau) in cerebrospinal fluid in a case-control study of 362 adults 50 years of age or older.

African American participants with mild cognitive impairment had lower levels of tau-based biomarkers compared with white participants with mild cognitive impairment, after adjusting for demographic characteristics. Those differences were not seen in study participants with normal cognition.

Using the ratio of amyloid and tau was less affected by race and could result in better diagnostic accuracy and increase inclusion of African Americans in important clinical trials, says first author Stephanie Garrett. Garrett is an assistant professor of medicine and geriatrics and Hajjar is an associate professor of neurology and medicine.

How conventional therapy impacts pancreatic tumor microenvironment

Winship researchers led by Gregory Lesinski, co-director of Winship’s Translational GI Malignancy Program, looked at whether pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma tumors exposed to conventional therapies may preferentially modulate immune biomarkers in the tumor microenvironment. The study was published – with striking images showing the “nests” created within pancreatic tumors – in JCI Insight .

New option for multiple myeloma treatment

For patients with multiple myeloma resistant to available therapies, an experimental drug displayed a 31 percent overall response rate and is thus a significant new option, leading oncologists report.

The investigational agent, belantamab mafodotin, was tested in a phase II study, led by Winship Cancer Institute’s Sagar Lonial, and conducted at 58 cancer centers in eight countries. The results of the DREAMM-2 study (DRiving Excellence in Approaches to Multiple Myeloma) were published in Lancet Oncology. More here.

Diabetes diagnostic mismatches possible

Relying only on hemoglobin A1c, a common test for diabetes, could lead to mismatches in diagnosis, meaning both false positives and false negatives, an Emory team warns. Their analysis was published in Diabetic Medicine.

Researchers led by Mary Rhee, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Lipids, analyzed test results from more than 3,000 people without known diabetes. They combined results from two previousdiabetes screening studies.

Participants likely to be overdiagnosed were more likely to be black, male, older and to have higher BMI. Glucose tolerance tests and/or fasting glucose testing should be performed in most individuals, the authors recommend. 

Mapping the Hepatitis C epidemic 

HepVu, an online platform that visualizes data on the U.S. Hepatitis C epidemic, has launched new interactive maps illustrating the prevalence of Hepatitis C between 2013-2016. The maps, stratified by age, sex and race, are published in Hepatology Communications.

The data demonstrates that the epidemic continues to disproportionately impact males, the Baby Boomer population (those born between 1945 and 1969), Black Americans and, increasingly, young persons in states highly affected by the opioid epidemic – a result of injection drug use. 

The data highlight health disparities among certain populations and areas of the country and underscore the continuing need for consistent, well-grounded data that can help public health decision makers develop tailored strategies to address Hepatitis C, according to Patrick Sullivan, professor of epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health and principal scientist for HepVu.


Asthma treatment to protect patients with multiple food allergies

A nationwide clinical trial is testing whether omalizumab, an FDA-approved treatment for asthma, could be effective at protecting patients with multiple food allergies.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, in partnership with Emory University, was selected as one of 10 OUtMATCH clinical trial sites nationwide. Brian Vickery, associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, is serving as the site principal investigator.

The study will be the largest trial to tackle the major unmet medical need associated with multiple food allergies, which affect 30 to 40 percent of food allergy patients, Vickery notes. More information about the study is available from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

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