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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:


Emory and NIH continue public-private partnership advancing Alzheimer’s research

The National Institutes of Health is launching the next version of AMP AD (Accelerating Medicines Partnership Alzheimer’s Disease), a public-private partnership that takes an open science, big data approach to identifying biological targets for therapeutic intervention.

The National Institute on Aging will lead research efforts for AMP AD 2.0 and has pledged to contribute $61.4 million over five years. This includes funding six multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary academic research teams, including the team at Goizueta Alzheimer’s Research Center at Emory University, along with a data coordinating center at Sage Bionetworks.

Emory researchers served as a founding academic team for the first iteration of the AMP AD when the initiative began in 2014. Led by Allan Levey and Nicholas T. Seyfried, Emory investigators will play an integral role in AMP AD 2.0 as it seeks to support new technologies, including cutting-edge, single-cell profiling and computational modeling, to enable a precision medicine approach to therapy development. 

AMP AD 2.0 will expand the molecular characterization of Alzheimer’s by collecting more brain, blood and spinal fluid samples from Black and Latino Americans. These datasets will allow researchers to refine the characterization of new targets, discover new fluid biomarkers, define disease subtypes and increase the understanding of causative factors and steps in disease progression.

Emory receives renewed NIH grant for influenza research and response 

Emory University has received a 7-year grant from the National Institutes of Health as part of the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Response (CEIRR). The CEIRR program is an integrated network of centers that conduct surveillance-based research on immune response, viral pathogenesis and the factors that control the emergence and transmission of influenza viruses. 

Walter Orenstein, associate director of Emory Vaccine Center and professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, will serve as the principal investigator for the grant. Anice Lowen, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory, will serve as the co-principal investigator. 

This is Emory’s third, seven-year contract; the program was previously called CEIRS (Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance). The grant is funded at $1 million for the first year, with further grant options in subsequent years. 

Award will support research into lupus mechanisms

Emory rheumatology division chief Ignacio Sanz has won a $1 million William E. Paul Distinguished Innovator Award from the Lupus Research Alliance (LRA) to investigate mechanisms that induce an autoimmune response among lupus patients.

Sanz plans to use the grant to further probe the genetic pathways that allow certain type of B cells to mature in lupus patients. In earlier research, in collaboration with Jeremy Boss and Christopher Scharer of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, he found that even at a very early phase in their development, B cells that produce autoantibodies have lupus-specific epigenetic changes that allow them to continue growing when they would normally be destroyed. The award will also help Sanz build on prior studies where he showed that a drug that eliminates B cells can be effective in treating lupus.

The LRA's William E. Paul Distinguished Innovator Award in Lupus and Autoimmunity was established in 2012 to encourage exceptional investigators worldwide to pursue innovative research projects. Their work is expected to accelerate the development of novel treatments that prevent, arrest or cure lupus and its complications.


NCI supporting breast cancer disparities research

At Rollins School of Public Health, assistant professor of epidemiology Lauren E. McCullough has received a grant from the National Cancer Institute to examine drivers of breast cancer recurrence and mortality among women in Georgia.

The project aims to identify multi-level contributors to race/ethnic, socioeconomic status and urban/rural disparities in both breast cancer recurrence and mortality among women with early stage disease. The five-year grant provides about $560,000 in total funding in the first year.


Grant for book on American Protestant-Muslim relations

Deanna Ferree Womack, assistant professor of history of religions and multifaith relations, has been awarded a Sabbatical Grant for Researchers from Louisville Institute to support her upcoming book, “Imaging Islam: Gender, Race and American Protestant Encounters With Muslims.”

Geared toward pastors, Christian educators, seminary students and North American congregations, Womack’s book will trace the roots of Anglophone Protestant discourses on women and violence in Islam. She contends that these discourses have prevented American Protestants from interrogating their own racialized views of Muslims, acknowledging the diverse understandings of gender across the Islamic world, and allowing Muslim women and men to represent their own lives and experiences.

Funded by the Religion Division of Lilly Endowment Inc., Louisville Institute awards grants and fellowships to those who lead and study North American religious institutions, practices and movements, advancing scholarship to strengthen church, academy and wider society.





FinTech changing how small businesses obtain loans

FinTech broadly refers to a variety of financial technologies, ranging from mobile phone payment apps to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and GoFundMe and cryptocurrencies. FinTech-facilitated lending to small businesses has grown at an extraordinary rate over the last decade.

Goizueta Business School assistant professor of finance Tetyana Balyuk is co-author on a working paper analyzing small business lending through the FinTech lending platforms Prosper Marketplace and Funding Circle. Her fellow authors were Allen Berger and John Hackney from the University of South Carolina.

Balyuk and her co-authors found that for small business borrowers, FinTech tends to replace loans by large, commercial banks — which use traditional information such as credit scores and financial statements — more than small/in-market banks. Additional results suggest that FinTech loans are relatively risky, but become safer after replacing bank loans.


Cell markers may predict venetoclax sensitivity in multiple myeloma

Winship Cancer Institute investigators have shown that a panel of B cell markers can predict whether multiple myeloma cells will be sensitive to the drug venetoclax. The findings were published on March 1 in the journal Blood.

Venetoclax, known commercially as Venclexta and Venclyxto, is a medication that is FDA-approved for some forms of leukemia and lymphoma, and it is currently being investigated for the treatment of multiple myeloma.

Lawrence Boise, vice chair for basic research for the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology, was the senior author. Instructor Vikas Gupta was the first author.

Ventoclax works by inhibiting the protein BCL-2, which can help cancer cells resist apoptosis (programmed cell death). The FDA has been reviewing the safety of venetoclax as a treatment for multiple myeloma, because clinical trials appeared to demonstrate increased mortality with ventoclax for some forms of the disease.


Intellectual humility tied to less political “myside” bias

In today’s politically divided environment, dogmatism is often on display. Some people tend to more readily consider evidence in support of their existing beliefs and more often dismiss or distort evidence that goes against them.

Emory psychologists have found that intellectual humility appears to be a key trait in those who are less prone to political “myside bias.” The study marks a first step toward a larger goal of investigating whether intellectual humility can be increased to reduce political myside bias.

The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin published the findings led by Shauna Bowes and Tom Costello, both graduate students in Emory’s Department of Psychology. The senior author is the late Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory and a leader in exploring psychology and political polarization, who passed away in August 2020.

The researchers recruited more than 900 participants across two separate samples using a crowdsourcing platform. They completed an online battery of self-report measures and partisan bias paradigms. The results showed that those who had lower scores on measures for myside bias had higher scores on measures for intellectual humility — the process of carefully weighing evidence to ensure one is not jumping to conclusions. Even when political beliefs were held with great conviction, intellectual humility was associated with less political myside bias and same-party favoritism.


New antibiotic tactic vs. gonorrhea

A new antibiotic compound can clear infection of multi-drug resistant gonorrhea in mice with a single oral dose, according to a new study led by researchers at Emory and Penn State. Like other antibiotics, this one targets the ribosome, the factories that generate proteins in bacterial (and human) cells. But it does so at a site that is different from other antibiotics.

This one interferes with the process of trans-translation, which bacteria use to rescue their ribosomes out of rough spots. At Emory, biochemist Christine Dunham’s lab used cryo-electron microscopy to produce high-resolution images of the compound as it binds to the bacterial ribosome.

The results were published in Nature Communications, representing a collaboration involving several groups: Dunham’s at Emory and Ken Keiler’s at Penn State, along with others at Florida State, the Uniformed Services University and the Massachusetts-based pharmaceutical company Microbiotix. The compound MBX-4132 is also active against other Gram-positive bacteria, including tuberculosis and Staph aureus, and the company says it will continue to optimize it. More information is available here.


Test of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes vs. dengue in Brazil

A team of scientists led by Emory Vaccine Center’s Srilatha Edupuganti have begun releasing Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes in Brazil as part of the EVITA Dengue trial, which is designed to test the efficacy of these mosquitoes to reduce the incidence of dengue virus.

If successful, the project will provide additional evidence that the Wolbachia method reduces dengue and other mosquito-borne infections. As principal investigator, Edupuganti is collaborating with the World Mosquito Program, a global not-for-profit organization that developed the Wolbachia method. The method takes Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which spread viral infections including dengue, Zika and chikungunya, and modifies them to harbor Wolbachia bacteria.

Mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia possess a crucial characteristic: they are less likely to transmit the dengue virus. The goal is for the proportion of mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia to naturally increase in the environment over time, making the mosquitoes in that area less able to spread dengue.


Regrowing adult heart muscle

In adulthood, our hearts generally can’t grow again in response to injury. Emory cardiology researchers Ahsan Husain and Nawazish Naqvi and their colleagues have been chipping away at this biological edifice in animal models, demonstrating that it is possible to remove constraints that prevent the heart from growing new muscle cells.

Husain and Naqvi’s teams accomplished this by combining the thyroid hormone T3 — already FDA approved — with siRNA-based inhibition of an enzyme called DUSP5. Their latest paper, published in the journal Theranostics, applies the combination in an animal model of heart failure induced by the anticancer drug doxorubicin, a mainstay of treatment for breast cancer. More information here.

The results are potentially applicable to other situations when doctors would want to regrow or repair cardiac muscle. Husain reports plans for a clinical study in patients with drug-induced or other forms of heart failure, supported by a generous gift from the Atlanta-based ten Broeke Family Foundation.


Component of frog slime kills Zika virus

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.


Successful adaptation of CAR-T cell therapy to multiple myeloma

Sagar Lonial at Winship Cancer Institute was part of an international clinical trial that led to FDA approval of idecabtagene vicleucel (ide-cel), the first CAR-T cell therapy for multiple myeloma. The CAR-T immunotherapy approach was first developed clinically against forms of leukemia and lymphoma, and now has been successfully adapted for relapsed or refractory multiple myeloma.

In the KarMMA trial, ide-cel induced responses were observed in more than 70 percent of 128 patients; minimum residual disease-negative status was confirmed in 26 percent. However, almost all patients experienced toxic effects, most commonly hematologic toxic effects and cytokine release syndrome.

The results of the phase II KarMMa clinical trial were published on Feb. 25 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Lonial is chair of the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology.


Taming brain immune cells in Alzheimer’s — with sea anemone venom?

Researchers interested in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases are focusing their attention on microglia, cells that are part of the immune system in the brain. At Emory, neurologist Srikant Rangaraju’s lab recently published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on a promising drug target on microglia: Kv1.3 potassium channels.

The results strengthen the case for targeting Kv1.3 potassium channels as a tactic against Alzheimer’s. A peptide toxin derived from the venom of the Caribbean sea anemone Stichodactyla helianthus can inhibit Kv1.3 potassium channels, and related peptides are being developed as potential therapeutics.

In the Emory paper, researchers showed that Kv1.3 potassium channels are present on a subset of microglia isolated from Alzheimer’s patients’ brains. They also used bone marrow transplant experiments to show that the immune cells in mouse brains that express Kv1.3 channels are microglia of internal brain origin, not macrophages. Blocking Kv1.3 potassium channels in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s could reduce neuroinflammation and lower the burden of the toxic protein amyloid-beta built up in the mouse brain. More information is here.


New avenue for exploring quantum information building blocks

Emory physicists proposed a new framework for the realization of topological phase transitions in graphene superlattices. Physical Review Letters published the work by assistant professor of physics Luiz Santos and graduate student Jian Wang. The research opens a new avenue for the exploration of entangled electronic states that may serve as quantum information building blocks.

Two-dimensional superlattices, where electrons experience a long length scale periodic potential, have emerged in recent years as versatile platforms to realize exotic forms of quantum matter. An example of such electronic phases is a Hofstadter-Chern insulator, a bulk insulating phase of matter supporting topologically protected electronic edge currents that are immune to disorder and deformations of the sample. Such electronic phases form because of a “competition” between an external magnetic field and the superlattice potential, which gives rise to fractal electronic bands.

Through analytical and numerical methods, Wang and Santos established the existence of a vast number of topological transitions between Hofstadter-Chern insulators. The researchers showed that these transitions are tuned by changes of the superlattice in the presence of a fixed background magnetic field, establishing a connection between geometrical effects of the lattice and the topological response of the electrons.


Factors associated with nurse burnout in the U.S. before COVID-19

Even before the pandemic, over 30 percent of nurses reported leaving their jobs because of burnout, with working in the hospital and more than 40 hours per week increasing the odds. Megha K. Shah, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, led the team with results published February 4 in JAMA Network Open.  

The authors analyzed cross-sectional survey data from more than 50,000 U.S. registered nurses, representing more than 3.9 million nurses nationally. These findings suggest that burnout is a significant problem among U.S. nurses who leave their job or consider leaving their job. Health systems should focus on implementing known strategies to alleviate burnout, including adequate nurse staffing and limiting the number of hours worked per shift.

Co-authors included Nikhila Gandrakota, Neena Ghose and Miranda Moore from the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine; Jeannie P. Cimiotti from the Nell Hodgson School of Nursing; and Mohammed K. Ali from Rollins School of Public Health.


Impact of ad-blockers on online consumer behavior

Ad-blocking technology significantly decreases spending for brands consumers have not experienced before, partially shifting spending toward brands they have experienced in the past.

That’s one of the conclusions of a study to be published in Marketing Science. Goizueta Business School professor Vilma Todri analyzed data from 2015 – 2018 on consumer browsing and purchasing, obtained through a well-established (but undisclosed) American media measurement and analytics company.

Todri’s study was the first to examine the effect of ad-blockers for consumers and brands, focusing on online consumer purchase and search behavior. She estimates that online consumer spending decreases by 1.45 percent due to consumers’ adoption of ad-blockers, revealing that ad-blockers have negative implications for advertisers. As a result, companies may seek less overt strategies to reach consumers.

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