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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.


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Virtual reality for sickle cell pain management

The National Institute of Nursing Research has awarded an R21 exploratory/developmental research grant to Nadine Matthie, assistant professor of nursing at Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. The two-year $470,000 grant, titled Home-Based Self-Management of Chronic Pain in Adults with Sickle Cell Disease: Applying a Biopsychosocial and Technological Approach, provides funding for a clinical trial to improve self-management of chronic pain among 60 Black young adults with sickle cell disease (SCD).

Adults with SCD experience high levels of chronic pain and often encounter challenges in obtaining comprehensive care including behavioral pain management strategies. As an alternative approach to opioids, Matthie will apply virtual reality through an investigational device from the company AppliedVR as an evidence-based, non-pharmacological option that addresses chronic pain management without decreasing the quality of life of affected individuals. Taking place in a home setting, Matthie’s study will assess the efficacy of EaseVRx on pain and pain-related outcomes and how the device and software can be tailored for a Black target audience. Matthie’s study is anticipated to be one of the first published examinations of VR interventions for chronic pain management in the home setting for adults with SCD.


NEH supporting digital library of sacred vernacular music

The Emory Center for Digital Scholarship’s Sounding Spirit project has received a $344,687 award from the National Endowment for the Humanities to build a digital library featuring sacred vernacular music books. The digital library will be a partnership between the Center for Digital Scholarship, Emory’s Pitts and Rose Libraries, and five other universities and seminaries with leading collections of these works.

The project will involve the digitization of nearly 1,300 significant tunebooks featuring gospel music, spirituals, hymns and shape-note songs. The works will be organized into collections in an open access digital resource built using ECDS’s Readux platform and will feature descriptive entries and downloadable research data, saysproject director Jesse Karlsberg.

Creating the digital library will encourage new research and teaching about these music genres, hampered in the past because of a lack of access to primary sources. A symposium and multiple exhibitions are being planned for when the project launches in 2024. More information about the grant is available here.



Low-cost, protein-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate

Researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center have developed a second COVID-19 vaccine candidate that induces a strong antibody response and provides protection in mice and monkeys. Results from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-funded study were published online in Nature Communications.

This vaccine is based on a protein platform and is designed to be cost-effective and given in low dose. It relies on a trimer model and an immune-stimulating substance, an adjuvant, to induce a long-lasting antibody response. The new vaccine likely won’t require an annual booster, but can be used to increase effectiveness of currently available COVID-19 vaccines. 

Lead researcher Rama Amara and his team developed the two-dose vaccine with a small region of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, the receptor binding domain, to merge three copies of the protein. The team then combined the trimer with the Infectious Disease Research Institute’s aluminum-based adjuvant formulation of 3M’s 3M-052, which has been shown to induce potent and long-lasting antibody response superior to alum alone in monkeys.

Co-lead authors are postdoctoral fellows Nanda Kishore Routhu, Narayanaiah Cheedarla, Venkata Satish Bollimpelli and research associate Sailaja Gangadhara. Amara is a researcher within Yerkes’ Division of Microbiology and Immunology and Emory Vaccine Center, as well as Charles Howard Candler professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory University School of Medicine. The recent vaccine studies were performed in close collaboration with Emory assistant professor of pediatrics Mehul Suthar and his team. 


Curran shapes AAAS report on international science collaborations

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences (AAAS) released a report on large-scale international collaborations as part of its Challenges for International Scientific Partnerships initiative. AAAS member and Rollins School of Public Health Dean James W. Curran contributed to the report, which was issued June 1; more information is available here.

The report, titled Bold Ambition: International Large-Scale Science, describes the essential role of large-scale science initiatives for the U.S. scientific enterprise. It also identifies best practices for building international large-scale scientific collaborations in the future in order to engender discovery, innovation and economic development.

At a June 1 Zoom event, Curran was a panelist and emphasized that responses to immediate emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, must be preceded by long-term international collaboration. The discussion coincided with a special section in the report, “COVID-19 and International Large-Scale Science,” addressing the importance of large-scale science initiatives for addressing the post-pandemic threat of other emerging infectious diseases.


Testing if Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes reduce dengue in Brazil

A team of scientists has begun releasing Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, to test the efficacy of reducing the incidence of dengue fever. Srilatha Edupuganti, medical director of the Hope Clinic of Emory’s Vaccine Center, serves as the principal investigator on the EVITA Dengue trial in collaboration with the World Mosquito Program.

Called the Wolbachia method, the project takes Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which spread viral infections including dengue, Zika and chikungunya, and modifies them to harbor bacteria called Wolbachia. Mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia are less likely to transmit dengue.

If successful, the project will provide additional evidence that the Wolbachia method reduces dengue and other mosquito-borne infections.

The clinical trial is being conducted by the Emory VTEU, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, part of the National Institutes of Health, under contract HHSN272201300018I. Read more about the project, either in Portuguese or in English translation.


Climate change’s impact on interest rates, via natural disasters

In recent years, there has been scientific consensus that climate change fuels natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires. Christoph Herpfer, assistant professor of finance in Goizueta Business School, and colleagues wanted to know if financial institutions took the amplification of natural disasters into account when pricing short-term loans.

The authors needed to disentangle the effects of a direct hit from a natural disaster from lenders’ overall expectations regarding the frequency and severity of future climate change-related natural disasters. To do so, they focused on firms at risk but not located in the area that suffered a direct hit.

Utilizing data from the Spatial Hazards Environmental Disasters for the United States and National Establishment Time Series, Herpfer and colleagues found that banks charged higher spreads on loans “to indirectly affected borrowers that have large exposure to disasters, while not being directly affected,” after climate-related natural disasters. The effect was 8.6 basis points for hurricanes, 9.7 basis points for wildfires and 9.8 basis points for floods — just under a tenth of a percent for each natural disaster.

Exposure to earthquakes, tornadoes and winter weather did not produce the same effect on interest rates. Herpfer’s co-authors were Ricardo Correa, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System; Ai He, University of South Carolina; and Ugur Lel, University of Georgia. In 2020, their paper received the best paper award at the Boca Corporate Finance and Governance Conference. More information here.


New insights into how the human brain encodes negative emotion  

In rodents, a subcortical neural pathway known as the “low road” processes threat-related sensory information. A new study used a combination of techniques to identify connected neural populations and describe this “low road” with finer detail than previously available in humans. The journal Neuron published the finding, led by Philip Kragel, Emory assistant professor of psychology. Co-authors include scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder, Northeastern University, Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins University and Dartmouth College. 

The researchers combined ultra-high-resolution neuroimaging with pattern resolution — a cognitive process that matches information from a stimulus with data stored in memory. Participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while exposed to stimuli. The stimuli included images and sounds that ranged from pleasant to aversive. They also underwent mild to painful stimuli in the form of heat and mechanical pressure on one of their thumbs. 

The results identified a human pathway connecting neurons within three brain areas — the colliculus, the pulvinar and the amygdala — that encodes the intensity of emotional responses to negative images and sounds, but not pleasant images or painful stimuli. The findings mirror the results found in animal studies. The research provides the clearest picture yet of this human brain pathway and serves as a model for studying other human neural pathways.


More evidence for autoantibodies in severe COVID-19

A recent paper in Cell Reports Medicine from Emory pathologist Cheryl Maier and colleagues provides more evidence for autoantibodies in critically ill COVID-19 patients. Autoantibodies are signs that the immune system attacking the body itself, and are features of diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. They have been proposed as an explanation for the severity of some acute COVID-19 cases, as well as continued symptoms in long COVID.

A major goal of COVID-19 vaccination is to drive the immune system to generate protective antibodies against the coronavirus. With autoantibodies and COVID-19, the idea is that intense inflammation coming from viral infection is causing immune cells to become confused. Not every COVID-19 patient’s immune system goes off the rails, but the train wreck seems to happen more often in COVID-19.

In the current paper, autoantibodies were also found in most control samples from intensive care unit patients with pneumonia or sepsis, who are experiencing a state of systemic inflammation comparable to severe COVID-19. It’s a reminder that autoantibodies are not necessarily unique to COVID-19, and are associated with other severe diseases too, Maier says. Additional information here.


A review of storm-surge risk communications  

People sometimes evaluate hurricane risk by focusing on the 1 to 5 rating of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale (SSHWS). This scale, however, is based only on a hurricane’s maximum sustained wind speed and does not consider other potentially deadly hazards such as storm surge. 

The journal Weather and Climate Extremes published a review of the role of the SSHWS on storm surge risk communication. Senior author of the paper is Talea Mayo, assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Mathematics, who specializes in developing numerical hydrodynamic models to help predict coastal hazards. First author is Jeane Camelo, Mayo’s former student at the University of Central Florida. 

Storm surge is a major cause of death from hurricanes, even for hurricanes that rank low on the wind scale. Their review found that the National Hurricane Center has made strides in recent years by issuing a separate bulletin that focuses on a storm’s surge hazard, but evidence is lacking that the public is properly interpreting the new messaging.  

There is also a pressing need to gain clarity for storm surge exposure and vulnerability, including the factors that influence risk perception and response. They recommend a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach — encompassing the sciences for the physical hazards and the psychological, social and policy aspects — in order to investigate ways to improve storm surge resilience in the era of climate change.     


Insights into Parkinson’s disease balance problems

Loss of balance and falls are big concerns for people living with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers. Researchers at Emory and Georgia Tech recently published a paper in PLOS ONE providing insights into how sensory and motor information are misrouted when people with Parkinson’s are attempting to adjust their balance. When the researchers examined 44 people with Parkinson’s, their history of recent falls correlated with the presence and severity of abnormal muscle reactions. This could help clinicians predict whether someone is at high risk of falling and possibly monitor responses to therapeutic interventions.

People with Parkinson’s tend to lose their balance in situations when they are actively trying to control their center of mass. Physical therapists are sometimes taught that balance reactions in Parkinson’s patients are slower than they should be, but the new paper shows that the reactions are on-time but disorganized, says J. Lucas McKay, who is first author of the paper and assistant professor of neurology and biomedical informatics.

The paper extends groundbreaking work on how muscles maintain balance, conducted by co-author Lena Ting in animals and healthy young humans, to people with Parkinson’s. Co-authors of the PLOS One paper include Ting and Parkinson’s specialists Madeleine Hackney and Stewart Factor, director of Emory’s movement disorders program. More information and a photo of the balance apparatus here.


Natural killer cells can help control virus in model of HIV/AIDS

A combination immunotherapy of IL-21 and IFN-alpha, when added to antiviral therapy, is effective in generating highly functional natural killer cells that can help control and reduce SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) in a non-human primate model of HIV/AIDS. This finding, from Yerkes National Primate Research Center scientists in collaboration with Institut Pasteur, could be key for developing additional treatment options to control HIV/AIDS. The results were published in Nature Communications.

In most nonhuman primates (NHPs), including rhesus macaques, untreated SIV infection progresses to AIDS-like disease and generates natural killer (NK) cells with impaired functionality. In contrast, natural primate hosts of SIV do not progress to AIDS-like disease. Determining why natural hosts do not progress or how to stop the progression is a critical step in halting HIV in humans. The proof-of-concept study in rhesus monkeys demonstrates how NK cell activities contribute to controlling the virus, says senior author Mirko Paiardini, associate professor of pathology and laboratory Medicine at Emory University and a researcher at Yerkes. HIV treatment has historically focused on the role of T cells in immunity, so harnessing NK cells may open up different avenues.

More information including details on co-authors and grant funding are here.


Alternative mouse model for Alzheimer’s neurodegeneration

In recent debate over the FDA’s approval of the Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab, we’ve heard a lot about the “amyloid hypothesis.” In that context, it’s refreshing to learn about a model of Alzheimer’s neurodegeneration that doesn’t start with the pathogenic proteins amyloid or Tau.

Instead, a new paper in Alzheimer’s & Dementia from Emory neuroscientist Shan Ping Yu and colleagues focuses on an unusual member of the family of NMDA receptors, signaling molecules that are critical for learning and memory. Their findings contain leads for additional research on Alzheimer’s, including drugs that are already FDA-approved that could be used preventively, and genes to look at for risk factors.

Yu says the GluN3A mutant mouse is not just another rodent model of Alzheimer’s. Rather, it emphasizes a different set of mechanisms leading to neurodegeneration, including early alterations in calcium and neuronal hyperactivity, rather than standard models that have clumps of amyloid or Tau as the primary drivers. More information here.

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