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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:



NIH grant to support COVID-19 testing

Emory is sharing in a $31 million federal grant designed to rapidly transform innovative technologies into widely accessible COVID-19 diagnostic testing. 

The supplemental award from the National Institutes of Health will go to researchers at the Emory University Department of Pediatrics, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The goal of the national initiative, known as the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) program, is to make millions of accurate and easy-to-use tests available by the end of 2020 and in time for flu season.

Funds will be used to lead testing validation. The Atlanta-based group will work closely with partners across the U.S., including relevant technology developers and others in the medical diagnostics industry.


Yerkes awarded NIAID grant to develop COVID-19 vaccine

Researchers at Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center have received a two-year, $582,000 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to develop a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2.

Yerkes researcher Rama Amara, who is also a researcher at the Emory Vaccine Center and a professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory School of Medicine, is leading the research team. He is using his 20 years of experience developing an MVA-based vaccine for HIV/AIDS; that vaccine has successfully completed phase 2 clinical trials in the U.S.




New HIV vaccine shows promise

Emory University researchers have shown a new HIV vaccine is both better at preventing infection and lasts longer, shielding subjects even a year after vaccination. Researchers from the Emory Consortium for Innovative AIDS Research in Nonhuman Primates collaborated with their counterparts in the U.S. and Canada on the study. The findings, recently published online in Nature Medicine, provide important insights for HIV prevention, and could have implications for vaccine development in COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. 

The vaccine, which was given to monkeys, appears to improve protection from HIV infection largely because it targets an area of the immune system that is ignored by most current vaccines.

Identifying attitudinal hallmarks of authoritarianism

The Journal of Research in Personality published work by Emory psychologists on the relationship between authoritarianism-related traits, political ideology, personality and whether a person believes in free will or determinism — the idea that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to an individual’s will. The work was led by graduate student Thomas Costello and Scott Lilienfeld, Emory professor of psychology. Emory graduate student Shauna Bowes is a co-author of the study. 

Over three studies, the researchers collected data from 20,929 people on the online platforms and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Their meta-analyses found that authoritarianism was moderately to largely positively correlated with determinism beliefs. Low levels of openness, conscientiousness, honesty-humility, agreeableness and emotionality also were tied to determinism beliefs. “Given the expansion of authoritarian leaders’ popularity in recent years,” the authors conclude, “the attitudinal hallmarks of authoritarianism merit close attention from psychological science.”

How bacteria in beetles dictates their diets

Current Biology published a study of the symbiotic relationship between a species of tortoise leaf-eating beetles and their gut microbes, led by former Emory post-doctoral fellow Hassan Salem (currently a Max Planck Institute group leader) and Nicole Gerardo, Emory professor of biology. 

In previous work, the biologists sequenced the genome of the bacterium Stammera. They showed how it evolved a specialized symbiotic relationship with the beetle Cassida rubiginosa that allows the insect to break down pectin — part of a plant’s cell wall that is indigestible to most animals. In the current paper, the researchers discovered that various strains of Stammera provide two kinds of pectin-degrading enzymes, and that species of the beetle harboring both of these enzymes can digest a wider range of pectins. The finding shows how the microbes may have helped beetles adapt to the types of plants found in different environments.

Co-authors of the study include Emory post-doctoral fellow Aileen Berasategui and researchers from the National Institute for Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, the Lincoln Research Centre in New Zealand, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.


Developing minimal model for intermittent turbulence

Physical Review Research published research on intermittent dynamical behavior led by Emory graduate student Guram Gogia and Justin Burton, Emory associate professor of physics. Emory graduate student Wentao Yu is co-author of the study.

Complex systems, from the stock market to the Earth’s climate, often experience intermittent dynamical behavior. For example, fluids often experience intermittent “puffs” of turbulent flow at high velocities, and smooth, laminar flow at low velocities. Although fluids can be considered a continuous material, the physicists showed how the same intermittent behavior can arise in a small collection of interacting particles, and they provide a window into its essential ingredients.

The realization, and the minimal model introduced by the researchers to describe turbulence, may help identify the key components in more complex dynamical systems that display intermittent behavior.


A critique of controversial nutrition study

Rollins School of Public Health professors Vijaya Kancherla, Godfrey Oakley and Robert J. Berry  along with Helena Pachón, Rollins School of Public Health professor and senior nutrition scientist for the Food Fortification Initiative, were among nutrition experts who published a commentary that roundly criticized an incorrect and misleading study by scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The UW-Madison study concluded that countries fortifying flour with folic acid do not see significant decreases in the population-wide prevalence of birth defects of the brain and spine. 

The UW-Madison study contradicts decades of rigorous scientific evidence and global practice. Many countries recommend or require that the food industry produce fortified foods meant to add a small amount of vitamins and minerals — micronutrients — into at least one basic staple almost everyone can afford: for example, rice or wheat flour with added folic acid. 

In a comment published in the journal Nutrients, the Emory professors were joined by experts at the Food Fortification Initiative (FFI), London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Nutrition International. They cited numerous errors that led to the UW study’s findings: suboptimal study design, incorrect considerations on the count of birth defects of the brain and spine in a population, average grain availability for a country, number of people who have access to and eat fortified foods in a country and more. The commentary added that the scientific evidence to date is strong and clear: mandatory, large-scale folic acid fortification of staple foods is an inexpensive, safe and effective intervention that saves lives.


Studying high prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in South Asia

K.M. Venkat Narayan, the Ruth and O.C. Hubert Professor of Global Health and Epidemiology, Rollins School of Public Health, was the lead author in a study published in the journal Diabetologia examining the high prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in South Asians, even at lower body mass index. 

The study cited emerging data indicating that South Asians may have a lower ability to secrete insulin, and thus may have less compensatory reserves when challenged with unhealthy lifestyles. The study also pointed to research showing that South Asians may have a higher diabetes risk than other ethnic populations, suggesting that obesity and insulin resistance may not be the primary driver of Type 2 diabetes in this population.

Researchers hypothesized that the evolutionary history of South Asians may have resulted in greater susceptibility to Type 2 diabetes, caused largely by poor metabolic capacity that impaired insulin secretion and lower levels of lean muscle mass, which could be responsible for reduced insulin action. The study said these areas warrant further research and should be considered when formulating a research agenda to solve the problem.


Linking fortification to decreased anemia in Colombia

Scientists at Emory University participated in an international collaboration with the Food Fortification Initiative and Universidad Nacional de Colombia that found Colombian preschool children who ate foods containing fortified wheat flour, such as bread and pasta, were less likely to have anemia than those who ate few fortified wheat flour foods. Helena Pachón, Emory professor and senior nutrition scientist for the Food Fortification Initiative, and Amy Fothergill, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University and former Emory public health associate,  were among the researchers involved in the study.   

The study analyzed data collected from a 2005 national nutrition survey to evaluate the impact of eating fortified foods on Colombians’ health, the first study of its kind since Colombia set standards for mandatory wheat flour fortification in 1996. At that time, Colombia also required millers to fortify wheat flour and food producers to use fortified wheat flour in processed foods. These standards aimed to ensure people received the iron, folic acid, calcium (optional), riboflavin, thiamin and niacin they need to lead healthy, productive lives and prevent conditions such as anemia.


Infant boys more vocal than infant girls

A five-year collaboration between Emory Department of Pediatrics’ Gordon Ramsey and his research group at the Marcus Autism Center and a research group at the University of Memphis led by D. Kimbrough Oller, a world expert on speech and language acquisition in infancy, examined gender differences in early vocal behavior in typical development and autism.

Through the Emory ACE, the researchers assembled an unprecedented corpus of whole-day home audio recordings of infant speech. They tracked hundreds of babies every month from birth to three years of age, comparing infants at risk of autism (having an older sibling with autism spectrum disorder, ASD) with low-risk controls (having no family history of ASD). They found a significant gender difference in the rate at which infants produce protophones, the precursors to speech and language – with boys in the first year producing more speech-like vocalizations than girls.


Examining medications for patients actively seizing

The Emergency Neuroscience Lab + Trial Operations Core in Emory's Department of Emergency Medicine completed a five-year emergency seizure study examining three commonly-used medications in patients who are actively seizing. The trial, funded by a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, aimed to determine which drug is safer and more effective during seizures. 

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, involved more than 700 patients and found that all three medications worked similarly well, stopping seizures about half the time in both children and adults. Each medication was similar in safety. The results provide doctors more flexibility and confidence when treating patients with prolonged seizures. 

The three medications tested were fosphenytoin (also called Cerebyx or Dilantin), levetiracetam (also called Keppra) and valproic acid (also called Depacon or Depakote). The Emory investigators included David Wright, Jonathan Ratcliff, Harold Simon and Tamara Espinoza.


Literature review of BAC as coronavirus disinfectant

The Journal American Chemical Society Infectious Diseases published a literature review of disinfectants and coronaviruses conducted by Emory graduate student Cassandra Zaremba and Bill Wuest, an Emory associate professor of chemistry and a Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator. Wuest’s chemistry collaborator Kevin Minbiole of Villanova University is also an author of the review. 

The Wuest lab is a leader in studies of common disinfectants known as quaternary ammonium compounds, or QACs. One of the most ubiquitous QACs used in hospitals and in household cleaning products is benzalkonium chloride, or BAC. The chemists looked at papers from the past decade that tested the effectiveness of BAC to disinfect coronaviruses. Their review indicates that BAC works against coronaviruses that have similar outer membranes as SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, providing strong supporting evidence that BAC is an effective agent against SARS-CoV-2.

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