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Research roundup: Recent grants and publications for Emory faculty and staff
Equipment sits on a lab table

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.

To read more about ongoing research at Emory, visit the eScience Commons blog (for natural and social sciences) and the Lab Land blog (for health sciences).

Grants highlighted:

Publications highlighted:


Emory Brain Health selected to participate in hydrocephalus grant 

The Emory Brain Health Center has been selected to participate in the Adult Hydrocephalus Clinical Research Network’s study on the effectiveness of shunt treatment for idiopathic normal pressure hydrocephalus (iNPH). The $14 million, multi-site grant is funded by the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and is the largest grant ever awarded to study adult hydrocephalus.   

iNPH is a complex disorder of the elderly caused by an excess accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. The only treatment is for a neurosurgeon to implant a permanent internal drainage system, called a shunt, into the brain to drain the excess cerebrospinal fluid. 

Emory neurosurgery chair Daniel Barrow and neurologist George “Chip” Wilmot will join colleagues at 18 other health centers across the United States to conduct the first multi-center randomized controlled trial to evaluate the shunt surgery in patients with iNPH. The study aims to test conclusively whether or not shunt surgery for iNPH is beneficial, measuring outcomes such as slowed walking speed, impaired cognition, mood, and bladder control. More information here.

Researchers win J&J innovation challenge to create disparities tool

An inter-disciplinary duo of researchers from Emory University was one of the awardees of the Decoding Disparities QuickFire Challenge organized by Johnson & Johnson Innovation. 

Social epidemiologist Shivani Patel of the Rollins School of Public Health and computer scientist Joyce Ho of Emory College received a $200,000 grant to create a "social determinants of health insight" tool using widely available data linked to patient electronic health records.

The tool, called Sodokhu (short for SOcial Determinants Of Health Knowledge Unlocked), will be used to potentially improve a provider’s ability to tailor clinical recommendations for optimal management of patients with cardiovascular conditions. The project is expected to release a prototype of Sodokhu in December 2022.

Emory historian awarded Fulbright grant for Brazil health research

Jeffrey Lesser, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of History and director of the Halle Institute for Global Research, has been awarded a Fulbright Research Grant to Brazil. His project, “Structural Health: Immigrants, the State, and the Built Environment in São Paulo, 1870-2020,” includes field work as a member of a Brazilian National Health Service medical team and archival research. Lesser’s hosts are Luis Ferla at the Federal University of São Paulo and Fernando Cosentino of the Bom Retiro Public Health Clinic.

Two Candler scholars awarded Calvin grants

Two Candler School of Theology professors have been awarded Teacher-Scholar Grants from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Assistant professor of Catholic studies Susan Reynolds will study public, layperson-led Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) rituals that engage contemporary social injustices in light of the cross, exploring how communities on the margins of church and society use public ritual to practice theological agency.

Associate professor in the practice of worship Khalia J. Williams, who also serves as co-director of Candler’s Baptist Studies Program, will explore the theological significance of liturgical dance in Christian worship and discover and analyze the multiple ways that dance shapes spirituality in worship communities and individuals.

PTSD project leads to FDA Breakthrough Device Designation 

Research from Emory and Georgia Tech on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) using has led to a Breakthrough Device Designation from the Food and Drug Administration for a device that provides transcutaneousvagus nerve stimulation. 

Current PTSD treatments have limitations, such as limited efficacy, possible side effects and the undesirability of reliving traumatic memories. The device, called gammaCore, represents a new class of treatment separate from medication or psychotherapy that is safe, relatively free of side effects, and does not involve costly and invasive procedures for implantation, investigators say. 

The Emory-Georgia Tech team was led by J. Douglas Bremner at Emory and Omer T. Inan at Georgia Tech. Their research shows transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation blocks sympathetic and inflammatory responses to memories of traumatic events, modulates brain responses to traumatic memory and reduces symptoms of PTSD. Read more information about the gammaCore device here


Cell types that may contribute to healing diabetic foot ulcers identified

Diabetic foot ulcerations — open sores or wounds that refuse to heal — affect more than 15% of people with diabetes and result in thousands of lower extremity amputations per year in the United States.

To gain a better understanding of diabetic foot ulcers’ biology, a team of researchers at Emory and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston compared cells taken from patients with ulcers that healed to those taken from patients whose ulcers failed to heal, as well as cells taken from intact forearm skin in patients with and without diabetes.

The team identified a subpopulation of fibroblasts enriched in the foot ulcers that healed, pointing to potential interventions. The results were published in Nature Communications.

Clinical work with the diabetes patients was conducted in Boston, while researchers led by Manoj Bhasin, associate professor of pediatrics and biomedical informatics at Emory University School of Medicine, performed single-cell RNA-sequencing analysis. A leading edge technology, single-cell RNA-sequencing provides insight into cell function by revealing gene expression in individual cells, rather than in the aggregate.

Funded by NIDDK. Read more information here.

Advancing on a unified kinetic theory for granular materials

Granular materials are ubiquitous in both everyday life and industry, but understanding the dynamics of these non -equilibrium systems (from sand, rice and gravel to granules compacted into pellets to make pills) remains a largely unresolved problem in physics. While the phases of water, for example, can easily be described as either a liquid, solid or gas, the thermodynamics of granular materials are not well-defined.

Science Advances published research that moves the understanding of granular materials a major step forward, authored by Stefan Boettcher, an Emory professor of theoretical physics, and Paula Gago, an expert in modeling the statistical mechanics of granular matter at the Imperial College of London.

The researchers use computer simulations to achieve a grain-level understanding of the compaction dynamics of a granular pile. The simulations concerned a pile of 60,000 spheres, from 1 to 1.02 micrometers in diameter, contained in a vertical cylinder. Its static configurations were rearranged via “taps” of precisely tuned intensity. The simulation allowed the motion of the grains to be tracked as energy was transferred and dissipated before the next static configuration was attained.

Defining an effective kinetic energy that characterizes the dynamic process for each layer separately, they found a distinct, critical value at which a layer underwent that transition, irrespective of its height in the pile or the overall tap intensity. By connecting the kinetic properties of grains with the resulting ensemble of static configurations, this study opens the prospect for a general kinetic theory of grains, especially at the transition into an increasingly dense, “glassy” state.

PFAS exposures can affect birth outcomes in African American women

A new study published in Environment International looks at the adverse birth outcomes that exposures to PFAS (a group of industrial compounds with stain, grease and water-repellant properties) can have on African American women. Recent alumna Che-Jung Chang was lead author on the paper. Donghai Liang, assistant professor of epidemiology, was senior and corresponding author.

Exposures to PFAS have been associated with numerous adverse pregnancy and birth outcomes, such as lower birth weight. This first-ever study of its kind examined a cohort of 313 pregnant African American in Atlanta in the eighth to fourteenth weeks of pregnancy to investigate this complex relationship. Increased PFAS levels in serum in African American women were linked to higher odds of lower birth weight, and high-resolution metabolomics was used to identify biological pathways and metabolites associated with serum PFAS and fetal growth.

Additional authors include Dana Boyd Barr, P. Barry Ryan, Parinya Panuwet, Melissa M. Smarr,  Volha Yakimavets, Youran Tan  and Carmen J. Marsit from Rollins School of Public Health, and Ken Liu,  ViLinh Ly Dean P. Jones and Anne L. Dunlop from Emory University School of Medicine. This project was funded by the National Institutes of Health Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes Opportunities and Infrastructure Fund. More information is here.

Advantages of preannouncing gaming platform changes isn’t straightforward

New research by Ramnath K. Chellappa, associate dean and professor of information systems and operations management at Goizueta Business School, and Rajiv Mukherjee at Texas A&M University Mays Business School, shows that gaming companies may want to carefully time announcements about consoles.

Chellappa and Mukherjee write that the value of preannouncing the latest and greatest features of a gaming console isn’t nearly as straightforward as the value gained by alerting customers to a new version of a pickup truck. As the authors explain in their recent paper in Management Science, sometimes the best way to announce new features in a platform-based world is by saying nothing at all.

The pair’s paper is the first to study the use of preannouncements as a strategic lever for platforms rather than products. The authors used game theory to analyze three preannouncement strategies: formal, informal and no announcement at all. Learn more here.

American sports fan-based business may face decline, marketing report says

Businesses based on enthusiasm for sports — professional as well as university-level — may be facing an uncertain future, according to a national survey commissioned by the Emory Marketing and Analytics Center’s Fandom Analytics Initiative.

Only 23% of Generation Z defined themselves as avid sports fans, while 42% of Millennials did, along with 33% of Gen Xers and 31% of Baby Boomers. More than a quarter of Generation Z considered themselves “anti-sports.” Nearly 1,400 people participated in the survey.

Mike Lewis, professor of marketing at Goizuieta Business School, along with Yanwen Wang at University of British Columbia, created the Fandom Analytics Initiative. Read more information here.

COVID-19 vaccines effective at preventing hospitalization among veterans

Emory infectious disease specialist Vincent Marconi was co-author on a Dec. 10 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report article evaluating COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness at five Veterans Affairs Medical Centers in Georgia, Texas, California and New York.

Evaluated from February through September 2021, mRNA-based vaccines were overall highly effective at preventing COVID-19–associated hospitalizations among U.S. veterans. The effectiveness figures were 86% for Moderna and 75% for Pfizer-BioNTech. Antibody responses to both vaccines decreased over time. Moderna vaccine recipients had higher antibody levels than did Pfizer-BioNTech recipients.

The findings from a cohort of older, hospitalized veterans, often with underlying conditions, suggest the importance of booster doses to maintain long-term protection against severe COVID-19, the authors say.

Climate action can have positive impact on equity and poverty

Emory's Rollins School of Public Health environmental science researcher Noah Scovronick is co-lead author on a Nature Climate Change commentary which makes the case that communities can implement strong climate action without compromising goals for equity and development. 

In their policy brief, the researchers stressed that the revenues from a meaningful carbon tax would be large enough to fund policies that can promote equity and protect vulnerable populations, and an equal per capita redistribution of carbon tax revenues within countries can increase well-being, reduce inequality and alleviate poverty.

The authors say their research shows that if all countries adopt the necessary uniform global carbon tax and then return the revenues to their citizens on an equal per capita basis, it would be possible to limit global warming to below 2 °C, the goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, while also reducing inequality.

Infection control strategies lower COVID-19 risk for food workers in enclosed facilities

COVID-19 infection control strategies can prevent disease spread in enclosed food manufacturing facilities, according to a modeling study led by researchers at Rollins School of Public Health. Julia S. Sobolik, doctoral candidate in Environmental Health Sciences, was lead author on the article in Food Control.

When bundled together in modeling calculations, strategies such as masking, physical distancing, ventilation, handwashing and surface disinfection provided significant protection, resulting in a less than 1% risk of contracting COVID-19 during an eight-hour shift.

The researchers note that COVID-19 vaccination alone is not sufficient to protect food workers in such close proximity to one another and needs to be combined with additional strategies such as masking for optimal worker protection against person-to-person transmission. Partners for the study included the American Frozen Food Institute and the Produce Marketing Association.

Routine HIV testing in Fulton jail saves millions compared to targeted testing

In the U.S., incarcerated populations are disproportionately affected by HIV, with an estimated 3 to 10 times higher case rate than the general population. Emory researchers, in collaboration with the CDC and Georgia Department of Public Health, have demonstrated that routine, point-of-care HIV screening in the Fulton County Jail was cost saving, as well as able to uncover more HIV cases, compared to targeted testing and sending tests to a laboratory. Until 2018, Fulton County jails offered opt-out rapid screening at entry.

The results of the study were recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Anne Spaulding, associate professor of epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health, is senior author of the paper.

Lipid study emphasizes need for diversity of genetic research participants

A December 2021 paper in Nature presents evidence that the field of human genetics should improve the diversity of research participants to avoid worsening health inequities among different racial and ethnic groups, particularly where heart disease is concerned. Diversity helps determine the degree to which findings can be generalized to other health traits and diseases, says co-senior author Yan Sun, associate professor of epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health.

The Nature paper was a collaboration with hundreds of coauthors from more than 200 studies in 44 countries. They looked at blood cholesterol levels of around 350,000 participants with Hispanic, African, East Asian or South Asian ancestry, in addition to 1.3 million participants with European ancestry.

Most genetic variations that influence lipid levels were observed across all populations, but at least some variants are uniquely observed in one population, particularly among individuals with African ancestry or Hispanics. The ability to pinpoint the genetic variants most likely responsible for biological effects and to predict lifelong LDL (“bad cholesterol”) levels using genetic risk scores improved significantly when the initial genetic study included diverse ancestries, the authors found. 

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