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'NIH in your state': Georgia on our minds

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Holly Korschun

“NIH in Your State,” the National Institutes of Health’s two-month social media campaign, is reminding the public about NIH investment in each state and the impact of federally funded research on the health of its citizens. Georgia was highlighted in a May 31 NIH tweet.  

In fiscal year 2017, Emory University received $320 million in research funding awards from the NIH. Examples of funded research include:

  • Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University earned the prestigious comprehensive cancer center designation from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), reflecting its laboratory research, clinical trials, and population-based science, and placing it in the top one percent of all cancer centers in the United States.

  • The Emory Transplant Center earned a $12.6 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to investigate improved post-transplant drug regimens for organ transplant recipients.

  • Emory geneticists received a $3.1 million from the National Institute of Mental Health for a study of 3q29 deletion syndrome, a genetic mutation associated with a 40-fold increased risk for schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric conditions.

  • The Emory Center for AIDS Research, which has been funded by the NIH since for two decades, received $10 million to continue its work in decreasing HIV incidence, improving the well-being of infected individuals, training the next generation of researchers and clinical leaders, and ultimately finding a vaccine and cure for HIV.

  • A team from the schools of nursing, public health, medicine, and Emory College received $2.5 million from the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities to investigate the effects of early environmental exposures on child health and development.

  • The HERCULES Exposome Research Center in Rollins School of Public Health received $7.5 million from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for renewal of the center’s work to study environmental exposures and associated biological responses on human health over the course of a lifetime.

  • Emory Brain Health Center scientists received $5 million from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in support of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The Emory team is focused on improving the outcome of individuals with medication-resistant epilepsy through new discoveries about optimizing use of neurostimulation therapies.

  • Emory’s Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence in Parkinson's Disease Research, including  investigators at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory School of Medicine, and Emory College, received a $5 million renewal grant from the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke.

  • Emory was selected to join the NIH All of Us Research Program, a momentous effort to advance individualized prevention, treatment and care for people of diverse backgrounds, in collaboration with partner institutions across the country. The Emory team began enrollment in May as part of the NIH goal to enroll one million volunteers nationwide. Emory is part of the Southeast Enrollment Center (SEEC) network.

Examples of recent NIH-funded research discoveries by Emory scientists include:

  • An analysis of health data from almost 100,000 veterans, both with and without HIV infection found that within normal ranges, higher levels of bilirubin in the blood were associated with lower rates of heart failure, heart attack and stroke.

  • Biomedical engineers from Emory and Georgia Tech developed two new miniature research devices, one to allow scientists to study blood clotting disorders, and the other to probe blood interactions in malaria and sickle cell disease.

  • More than 500,000 medical devices, such as prosthetic valves, pacemakers and implantable cardioverter-defibrillators are implanted into cardiac patients every year in the United States. While providing clear benefits, these procedures carry a risk of bacterial infection. To detect such infections, Emory researchers developed a probe using the chemical properties of maltohexaose, a sugar that is taken up by bacteria, but not mammalian cells. The imaging probes could be used to detect infections associated with implanted medical devices at an early stage, while treatment with antibiotics is still possible.

  • An Emory research team is embarking on a multipronged study of 3q29 deletion syndrome, a genetic mutation they discovered is associated with a 40-fold increased risk for schizophrenia and a range of other neuropsychiatric conditions including mild to moderate intellectual disability, autism and anxiety. Although the 3q29 deletion has a low frequency in the population (1 in 30,000), the team has established an international registry of carriers ranging in age from 1.5 to 34 years.

  • Scientists have long known that sooty mangabeys, a monkey species found in West Africa, can be infected by SIV, a relative of HIV, yet avoid developing AIDS-like disease. To learn how they achieve this important health feat, a Yerkes Research Center-led team of scientists has sequenced the sooty mangabey genome. By comparing it with the genome of humans and other nonhuman primates, the team has found clues that could potentially translate into better long-term care of individuals infected with HIV, reduce mother-to-infant transmission and guide the development of a vaccine against HIV.

  • Microbiologists have identified a genetic switch, which they call a potential "Achilles' heel" for a type of bacteria often associated with wounded warriors. The switch makes it possible for Acinetobacter baumannii to change between a virulent, hardy form and an avirulent form. Defining the switch could map out targets for new antibiotics. Acinetobacter baumannii is sometimes called "Iraqibacter," because of its presence in soft tissue infections experienced by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. However, it is an important pathogen is hospitals worldwide. A "trick" of keeping the bacteria at a low density could prevent them from switching to the virulent state.

  • Emory’s Yerkes Research and Brain Health Center received a $12.7 million NIH grant to continue innovative research on oxytocin, a brain chemical known for establishing mother-infant bonds, at the University’s Silvio O. Conte Center for Oxytocin and Social Cognition. The center’s research during the next five years will use cutting-edge technologies, including CRISPR gene editing and optogenetics, in research with rodents and nonhuman primates to understand more precisely the way oxytocin acts in the brain. The findings could translate into treatments that improve social functioning in disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and other psychiatric conditions.

  • The Emory Vaccine Center is participating in an NIH clinical trial testing an experimental vaccine to prevent H7N9 influenza virus infection. The Phase 2 clinical trial will test the experimental H7N9 IIV vaccine developed by Sanofi Pasteur. The vaccine uses an inactivated form of H7N9 influenza virus collected in 2017, and scientists hope it will provide immunity against a newly-evolved strain of H7N9 that is currently circulating.

  • Microbiologists in the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center have detected heteroresistance to colistin, a last-resort antibiotic, in already highly resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae, a bacterium that can cause life-threatening infections. Heteroresistance is caused by a minor subpopulation of resistant bacteria that are genetically identical to the rest of the susceptible bacteria. The researchers believe their findings are a warning sign for clinical laboratories to consider developing alternative methods of testing for last-line antibiotics that can rapidly and accurately develop heteroresistance.

  • Standard drug treatment for Parkinson's disease can over time induce motor complications, known as dyskinesias, that reduce the effectiveness of restoring mobility. Scientists at Yerkes Research Center have successfully tested a tactic for controlling these complications. They showed that striatal projection neurons (SPN), which become hyperactive when nearby dopamine-producing neurons degenerate, could be controlled by certain drugs, reducing the rate of unstable responses to dopamine that cause dyskinesias. The drugs are not ideal for use in humans, but they reveal mechanisms behind dyskinesias that will be valuable to advance research into developing improved treatments.

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