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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:


Rollins receives $6 million grant from Gilead’s HIV initiative

Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health has announced a $6 million grant from Gilead Sciences, Inc. over three years to continue to build the capacity of organizations working on the frontlines of the HIV crisis in communities across the Southern United States.

Emory will serve as one of four Gilead COMPASS coordinating centers alongside the Southern AIDS Coalition, the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and Wake Forest School of Divinity to provide direct support to local community organizations to help mitigate the HIV epidemic in the South. 

This is part of a second wave of funding from Gilead, manufacturer of antiretroviral therapies for HIV/AIDS. Emory’s COMPASS coordinating center has directly distributed more than $4.3 million to 104 community organizations, and is directed by Neena Smith-Bankhead, director of capacity building and community engagement. More information here.

Collaborators receive grant for “Smoke-Free SafeCare” intervention

Investigators from Rollins School of Public Health and Georgia State University have received a National Cancer Institute grant to collaborate on the development of “Smoke-Free SafeCare.” The hybrid type 1 trial will be disseminated to families with young children in the child protection system, a high-risk group for tobacco-related cancer disparities. The first year of the five-year grant provides more than $610,000.  Principal investigators are Michelle Kegler, professor of behavioral sciences and health education at Rollins, and Shannon Self-Brown, professor and chair of health policy and behavioral sciences at Georgia State University.

Winship Cancer Institute team to develop nanoparticle-driven immunotherapy

Lily Yang, professor of surgery and the Nancy Panoz Chair of Surgery in Cancer Research, is principal investigator of a new National Cancer Institute grant to develop a targeted immunotherapy that can treat patients with cancer and comorbid atherosclerosis. The first year of the five-year grant provides more than $540,000. The research is expected to generate preclinical data for a future phase I clinical trial. Co-investigators include Lei Zhu, Charles Staley, Bassel El-Rayes and Hanjoong Jo.


Exploring ecological consciousness in Atlanta and Germany

Jennifer R. Ayres, associate professor of religious education in Candler School of Theology, has been awarded a Collaborative Research Grant from Emory’s Halle Institute for Global Research. Ayres and Bert Roebben, professor of religious education at the University of Bonn in Germany, will share the $30,000 award as they pursue their two-year project “Religion and the Cultivation of Ecological Consciousness: Place, Narrative and Performance.” 

Ayres and Roebben plan to travel to their respective partner institutions to explore the particular landscape of each place and how it’s incorporated into ecological learning in the institution. They’ll also develop a hybrid travel seminar and remote course on place, pilgrimage and environmental consciousness for graduate students from both Emory and Bonn. A key element of the course will entail working with students to develop digital practices such as podcasts and documentary footage to strengthen international collaboration in place-based learning efforts. They expect the collaborative research to have broad impact, contributing to new scholarship in the fields of religious and theological education, as well as interdisciplinary research in religion and ecology. 

The Halle Institute for Global Research at Emory University supports and promotes global research opportunities for faculty, students and visiting scholars. It offers nine different Collaborative Research Grants, open to regular, continuing full-time faculty in all schools and disciplines.


Connecting worship with other study and practice disciplines

Antonio Alonso, assistant professor of theology and culture in Candler School of Theology, has been awarded a $16,275 Vital Worship Grant for 2021 by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, one of 17 to be given this year.

Geared toward teacher-scholars in any field doing integrated research that connects worship with other disciplines of study and practice, the grant funds a research project that shows promise to serve worshiping communities by strengthening Christian public worship spaces. 

Alonso’s project aims to explore the theological significance of the Second Vatican Council through the prism of the ordinary material objects of Christian worship such as communion hosts, new editions of hymnals or devotional materials like home altars and holy cards. Alonso, who is also Candler’s inaugural director of Catholic Studies, will be on leave from teaching for one year to focus on the project and ultimately plans to publish a book on his findings. 

Since it began in 2000, the Vital Worship Grants Program has now awarded over 900 grants to churches, schools and organizations across North America for projects that generate thoughtfulness and energy for public worship and faith formation at the local, grass-roots level. 

Simpler, more portable ECGs: Emory experts hosting computing challenge

Emory biomedical informatics specialists are hosting an international computing contest aimed at reducing the number of leads on a conventional ECG (electrocardiogram), from 12 down to two or three. The goal is to make future ECG devices smaller, more convenient and lower in cost, so they can aid in diagnosing common conditions such as atrial fibrillation or supraventricular tachycardia.

Gari Clifford, chair of biomedical informatics, and Matthew Reyna, assistant professor of biomedical informatics and pharmacology and chemical biology, are co-organizers. The contest is part of PhysioNet, an archive of biomedical computing resources supported by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. It is being co-sponsored by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Google and MathWorks. More information here.




Analyzing occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2 among Emory health care workers

Among 353 health care workers at four Emory hospitals, spending most of a typical shift at bedside and Black race were associated with the presence of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, indicating exposure to the virus, according to a communication published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology.

The Emory staff were part of the COPE (COVID-19 Prevention in Emory Healthcare Personnel) study, designed to assess occupational risk factors contributing to coronavirus exposure. Researchers did not observe an association between seropositivity (the presence of antiviral antibodies in the blood) and other occupational factors such as job title, working in COVID-19 units or performing aerosol generating procedures in COVID-19 units. 

In the COPE study, a group of Emory health care workers is being followed with monthly surveys on occupational activities and quarterly antibody tests over a full year. The first author of the ICHE paper was infectious disease fellow Jessica Howard-Anderson, with senior author Scott Fridkin, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Emory University School of Medicine and director of antimicrobial stewardship research at Emory Healthcare.

Emory Healthcare workers were also part of a broader study of several health care systems, which found that exposure to COVID-19 outside the workplace, as well as Black race, were the strongest predictors of seropositivity. That study was published in Annals of Internal Medicine.


First, massive whole-genome study of IBD in African Americans

In African Americans, the genetic risk landscape for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is very different from that of people with European ancestry, according to results of the first whole-genome study of IBD in African Americans.

Findings of the multi-center study, which analyzed the whole genomes of more than 1,700 affected individuals with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis and more than 1,600 controls, were published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

The lead author was Subra Kugathasan, scientific director of the pediatric IBD program and director of the Children’s Center for Transplantation and Immune-mediated Disorders at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, as well as Marcus professor of pediatrics and human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine. The co-senior authors and co-organizers of the study were Steven Brantfrom Rutgers and Dermot McGovern from Cedars-Sinai.

The authors say that future clinical research on IBD needs to take ancestry into account. As part of their analysis, the researchers developed an algorithm that corrects for ancestry when calculating polygenic risk scores, which are tools for calculating gene-based risk for a disease and used for IBD as well as other complex conditions such as coronary artery disease. More here.


Multi-species analyses accelerate research into genes linked to tobacco use

Animal models can provide valuable information about the human predisposition to tobacco use, finds a meta-analysis led by Rohan Palmer, who directs the Behavioral Genetics of Addiction Laboratory in Emory’s Department of Psychology. Translational Psychiatry published the work, which used an integrative framework to explore how genes associated with nicotine exposure in model organisms contribute to the genetic architecture of human tobacco consumption. 

The Emory team examined whether insights into humans could be gained by integrating data across species. Using a mixed-methods analytical approach, the researchers first identified a set of about 700 genes whose levels are altered in the brains of animals following nicotine exposure. They then showed that these 700 genes accounted for up to one third of the genetic effects on the average amount of cigarettes smoked daily by human participants in other studies. 

The study provides proof-of-principle that integrating genetic and transcriptomic data across species can speed up the identification and interpretation of genes associated with tobacco addiction in humans. The researchers are now working to further develop and refine their analytical model to see how it may enhance the ability to uncover the biological mechanisms of addiction and promising gene targets for potential treatments.


Political hedging versus financial risk

As a business term, “hedging” can mean both trading to insure against future price swings in key goods, or lobbying to influence policy makers’ decisions. Goizuieta Business School faculty member Suhas Sridharan recently had a paper accepted for publication in Management Science analyzing political hedging as a business strategy, using the energy/utility industry and President Obama’s Clean Power Plan as a case study.

Political hedging is associated with reduced financial volatility and can be an effective risk management tool, the authors find. The authors include colleagues from University of Oregon, University of Utah and Penn State.


The impact of enrollment: lung cancer patients in study reduce smoking rate

Winship Cancer Institute investigators Conor Steuer, Suresh Ramalingam and colleagues reported the first comprehensive, prospective study on smoking habits in patients with non-small cell lung cancer in a phase III early-stage trial. 

Their study, which took advantage of a multicenter trial of bevacizumab conducted by ECOG-ACRIN (Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group – American College of Radiology Imaging Network), was published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology. Steuer is assistant professor of hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine.

The researchers found a high rate of smoking reduction and cessation after patients enrolled in the trial. Out of more than 1,500 patients enrolled, 90% reported a current or previous history of cigarette smoking. Most of those who did not smoke at their enrollment in the study still reported smoking immediately after diagnosis, but only one percent were smoking after one year.


Social connectedness key to war veterans’ mental health

The mental health of war veterans is significantly impacted by feelings of social connectedness, as well as sleep quality and anxiety disorders, found a joint study by Clark Atlanta University and Emory.  The journal Psychoneuroendocrinology published the work.

Second author of the study is Edward Valentin, a graduate student of social work at Clark Atlanta. His advisor, Corinne Warrener, is first author. A veteran himself, Valentin did a rotation at Emory with James Rilling, senior author of the study and a professor of anthropology, to investigate the potential role of oxytocin in veterans’ mental health. The Rilling Lab is a leader in studies of oxytocin, a hormone known to influence human bonding and other behaviors.

Nearly 90 male veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars participated in the study, which included biological sampling for oxytocin levels, as well as a series of mental health questionnaires and interviews. The results showed that while social connectedness was strongly associated with less depression and fewer suicidal symptoms, increased oxytocin did not appear to mediate this relationship. Additionally, sleep quality and anxiety levels were significantly associated with mental health symptoms. The findings suggest that efforts to support the mental health of returning veterans should focus on re-integrating them into society, as well as treating anxiety disorders and sleep problems.

Emory co-authors include Lynnet Richey (formerly with the Department of Anthropology) and Adriana Lori, Joseph Cubells and Sheila Rauch (School of Medicine).


Emory researchers SNARE new Alzheimer’s targets

Diving deep into Alzheimer’s data sets, a recent Emory Brain Health Center paper in Nature Genetics spotted several new potential therapeutic targets, only one of which had been previously linked to Alzheimer’s.

The list of 11 genes/proteins named as “consistent with being causal” may be contributing to Alzheimer’s pathogenesis through various mechanisms: vesicular trafficking, inflammation, lipid metabolism and hypertension. The researchers identified the targets by tracing connections between proteins that are altered in abundance in patients’ brains and risk genes identified through genome-wide association studies, which they describe as a new approach.

The spousal team of Aliza Wingo, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Thomas Wingo, associate professor of neurology and human genetics, are first and senior author. Among the new genes identified, they highlighted STX4 and STX6, genes involved in the SNARE complex, which drives vesicular trafficking in neurons. For more, see Lab Land.

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