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Research roundup: Recent grants and publications for Emory faculty and staff
Lab equipment including microscope and test tubes

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.

To read more about ongoing research at Emory, visit the eScience Commons blog (for natural and social sciences) and the Lab Land blog (for health sciences).

Grants highlighted:

Publications highlighted:


BME researchers aim to stop chemo neuro damage before it starts

Platinum-based compounds have shown real-world success at improving cancer survival rates. But the tradeoff is a range of side effects, particularly neurotoxicity. A team of researchers from the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, led by biomedical engineering postdoctoral researcher Stephen Housley, is trying to prevent the damage to nerve cells before it begins with the support of a $2.5 million National Cancer Institute grant. Their goal is to drill down into the mechanisms of neurotoxicity experienced by cancer patients. Learn more here.

Lilly Endowment grant helps Candler create new pathways to ministry

Candler School of Theology at Emory University is building new routes to ministry with the help of a nearly $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.

The $998,886 grant is part of Lilly Endowment’s Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative, which seeks to help theological schools in the U.S. and Canada broaden educational opportunities that form pastoral leaders for Christian churches. The grant to Emory University will enable Candler to develop new certificate programs and entry points to theological education to make it more accessible, affordable and relevant. Learn more here.

Shanmugam awarded LLS grant to study therapeutic potential of beta blockers in multiple myeloma

Mala Shanmugam, associate professor of hematology and medical oncology and a member of Winship Cancer Institute, has received a three-year, $750,000 Translational Research Program grant from The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to advance an innovative approach to treating multiple myeloma with beta blockers. Previous studies by the Shanmugam team have found that beta blockers — a drug class that is FDA-approved to treat high blood pressure — target the bone marrow niche where multiple myeloma cells develop and replicate. 

$300K grant from Research to Prevent Blindness comes to the Emory Eye Center

Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB) has recognized The Emory Eye Center Research Division with an unrestricted, four-year, $300,000 Challenge grant.

The Eye Center received one of just six Challenge grants that were awarded by RPB in 2022. The funds will allow department chair Allen Beck to strengthen the school's commitment to ground-breaking translational research. The Emory Eye Center will receive $75,000 a year to support its research mission, including research salaries, new equipment, lab supplies, data analysis and the ongoing exploration of new research agendas. Those funds will be matched with an annual $75,000 grant from the Emory School of Medicine.

$200K grant will fund Emory Eye Center's optic nerve regeneration research

A two-year, $200,000 grant from the BrightFocus Foundation is funding Emory Eye Center researcher Jiaxing (Wayne) Wang in his search for genes that are capable of modulating optic nerve regeneration.

Wang's proposal, “Genetic Mutation Enhance Optic Nerve Regeneration in BXD29 Mouse Strain,” outlines his plan to identify the gene mutation that has allowed some test subjects to regenerate damaged or destroyed optic nerves. Damaged optic nerves lead to blindness in many diseases, such as glaucoma. 

Wang joined the Emory Eye Center's research team six years ago, after a successful career as an ophthalmologist in his native China. He currently collaborates as an assistant research scientist in Eldon Geisert's lab.

Continued partnership for pediatric cancer clinical trials 

Geetika Khanna, professor of radiology and imaging sciences and associate director of the Division of Pediatric Imaging, has received funding from the National Cancer Institute to continue research on imaging of pediatric renal tumors. The research is part of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG) renal tumors classification, biology and banking study. Khanna is the lead radiologist for the COG renal tumor study group that has now enrolled more than 6,000 pediatric patients with renal tumors. Central review of imaging helps guide enrollment of children in the appropriate therapeutic study.

This ongoing research effort has yielded publications in peer-reviewed journals including CancerAnnals of Surgical OncologyRadiology and the American Journal of Roentgenology. It has also helped guide the need for pulmonary radiation therapy in patients with pediatric Wilms tumor. 


How species-typical group size may affect brain circuitry

Species that typically live in large group sizes may have evolved novel neural mechanisms associated with rewarding prosocial behaviors that are not tied to reproduction, suggests a new study led by Emory psychologists. iScience, an open access journal of CellPress, published the findings. First author is Jose Gonzalez Abreu, a research specialist in the lab of Aubrey Kelly, who is senior author of the study and an Emory assistant professor of psychology.

The researchers conducted a series of experiments involving two species: Spiny mice, a colonial species that lives in large groups and is prosocial towards unrelated strangers; and Mongolian gerbils, a non-colonial species that lives in small family groups and exhibits more territorial behavior in the wild. Initial experiments showed that spiny mice are more gregarious, more prosocial and less aggressive than gerbils.

Additional experiments examined neural responses of the subjects to interactions with a novel object and a novel, same-sex member of their species. In gerbils, brain-reward circuitry responded similarly to both stimuli. Meanwhile, spiny mouse brain-reward circuitry was more responsive to the novel spiny mouse than to the novel object. Together this suggests that spiny mice find novel social interactions rewarding, whereas gerbils do not. This mirrors how the species live in the wild. Spiny mice often interact with novel strangers, so such interactions may have evolved to be rewarding in order to maintain cohesive, complex large groups.

Co-authors include Emory graduate student Brandon Fricker; Kelly Wallace, an Emory postdoctoral fellow; Emory alum Ashley Rosenberg; and Ashley Seifert, from the University of Kentucky.

Diabetes prevention, care and equity in the U.S.

Mo Ali, vice chair for research in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, served as guest editor and advisor for an issue of Health Affairs which focuses on policies to address stagnating diabetes prevention, care and equity in the U.S. The overview for the series, Diabetes and the Fragmented State of U.S. Health Care, is co-authored by Ali. The issue also includes The Diabetes Prevention Gap and Opportunities to Increase Participation in Effective Intervention, co-authored by Rosette Chakkalakal, faculty member at Grady Memorial Hospital in the Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine, and newly appointed division director of the Division of Preventive Medicine, Department of Family and Preventive Medicine.

Do alerts actually help customers manage their data allowance better?

Has your cell phone data ever inexplicably slowed down? Worse still, perhaps you’ve had a mobile bill come in way higher than you expected. Keeping track of your data usage can be tough, especially when the billing mechanisms routinely deployed by digital service providers are often more complex than they seem. Luckily, many service providers are increasingly sending usage notifications to customers at different points of the billing cycle.

These nudges are designed to help us to act in our own best interest: to take stock and modify our usage accordingly. But do they work? It depends, says Anandhi Bharadwaj, vice-dean for faculty and research at Goizueta Business School. She and her colleagues have published a study that looks at the impact of these nudges, and they’ve found that they do help all customers adjust their behavior to stay within their allowance, irrespective of how attentive or inattentive they might be to their consumption speed in general. However, there are a couple of caveats. First, the efficacy of the notifications depends on the data allowance of the customer. Second, the timing of the notifications matters: a nudge closer to the time of when the bill is due is shown to be more effective in initiating a response.

Companies should take note. Bharadwaj notes this is the first study to unpack the efficacy of nudges in the digital services space and show that who and when are important factors service providers need to take into account to improve customer experiences. Learn more here.

Assessing new ways to predict atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk

A multidisciplinary, multi-institutional research team is assessing the evolving role of calcium density in coronary calcium scoring and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk. Their state-of-the art study published online by the Journal of the American College of Cardiologic Imaging shows calcium density to be promising for assessing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk, in some cases performing better than the currently used methods for predicting cardiovascular disease mortality among patients with limited coronary artery calcium (CAC). 

The study team from Emory Radiology includes Carlo N. De Cecco, professor of radiology and imaging sciences and director of the Translational Laboratory for Cardiothoracic Imaging and Artificial Intelligence; Marly van Assen, the lab’s vice director; Alexander C. Razavi, a first-year resident in Emory’s integrated Internal Medicine and Cardiology Research Track; and Laurence S. Sperling, founder and director of the Heart Disease Prevention Center at Emory.

Robot’s gentle grip can harvest berries and other delicate fruit

Roboticist Yue Chen in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering has been working with colleagues at the University of Arkansas on a three-fingered soft robot that can gently grasp and pick delicate blackberries. The team presented their work at the 2022 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, the largest robotics research gathering in the world. Chen says the engineering problems inherent in picking fruit are not unlike the challenges for soft, flexible surgical robots that might remove tumors — which is how he came to be involved in the project. Learn more here.

Exploring the impact of COVID-19 on ocular health, health care access

A recently published article in NIH's National Library of Medicine gives a clearer picture of how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated disparities in health status and in health care access for many historically underserved groups. The study also points out that large public hospitals like Grady could provide much-needed insight on how these minority communities are impacted by the unique ocular manifestations of COVID-19 infection.

The analysis, “COVID-19 Related Health Disparities in Ophthalmology with a Retrospective Analysis at a Large Academic Public Hospital,” was co-authored by second-year Emory medical student Grace Chung (first author), Grady Hospital optometrist Christie M. Person, and Emory Eye Center clinicians Susan Primo and Jacquelyn O'Banion.

The online article will be published in the August edition of the Advances in Ophthalmology and Optometry Journal.

Architecture in the early Soviet Union

In her first book, Spatial Revolution: Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union, Art History Department faculty Christina E. Crawford offers the first comparative parallel study of Soviet architecture and planning to create a narrative arc across a vast geography. Crawford describes how early Soviet architecture and planning activities were kinetic and negotiated. The book examines how questions about the proper distribution of people and industry under socialism were posed and refined through the construction of brick and mortar, steel and concrete projects, living laboratories that tested alternative spatial models. 

The book is the recipient of funding from the Millard Meiss Publication Fund of the College Art Association, and thanks to a Digital Publishing in the Humanities/TOME subsidy from Emory University, e-book editions are available as Open Access volumes from Cornell Open and other repositories.

All-in-one sequencing key to improving lipid nanoparticle effectiveness

A team of biomedical engineering researchers has taken another step toward improving development of the custom-made lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) critical for delivering powerful mRNA therapies to cells. In new work reported in Nature Nanotechnology, James Dahlman’s lab has developed a multiomics sequencing technique to identify which cells are especially accessible to different kinds of LNPs and the genes associated with those cell subtypes. They also simultaneously can quantify mRNA delivery into cells, subsequent protein production and the cell’s identity in thousands of individual cells. Learn more here.

National study finds screening and removal of precancerous lesions prevents anal cancer

A groundbreaking new study in which researchers from Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University and Emory Center for AIDS Research contributed finds that routinely screening and treating precancerous anal lesions greatly decreases the likelihood of progression to anal cancer. The Anal Cancer/HSIL Outcomes Research (ANCHOR) study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Winship gynecologist Lisa Flowers served as the principal investigator for the study site at Grady Health Systems. Learn more here.

Radiology AI not yet ready for COVID-19 detection

Emory radiology researchers led by assistant professor Judy Wawira Gichoya participated in a prospective observational study across 12 U.S. hospitals to evaluate real-time performance of an interpretable artificial intelligence (AI) model to detect COVID-19 on chest radiographs. The study, published online by Radiology: Artificial Intelligence, determined AI-based tools underperform compared to radiologists reading chest radiographs in real-time. 

The importance of gatekeepers in impacting real change

Luxury fashion houses have long considered their use of fur in runway collections as an expression of “artistic freedom,” aesthetic autonomy and refined craftsmanship. For years, designers dismissed the anti-fur movement and growing ethical backlash, yet around ten years ago, fur sales had plateaued due to the consumption of fur by mass-market fashion brands. 

Anti-fur activism did not single-handedly force high-end producers to quit fur. In a study on the use of contested practices in creative industries conducted by Frédéric Godart, Giacomo Negro and Greta Hsu, findings suggest that it took an influential gatekeeper — in this case, global fashion magazine Vogue — to change its perception and portrayal of fur before designers followed suit. The study utilized Vogue’s in-depth runway reports where fur prevalence and popularity was compared from 2000 to 2018. From around 2009, Negro found an increase in references to moral and social concerns surrounding the use of fur, with a marked increase in 2014. Around the same time, a steady decline was found in the use of fur in runway collections, after a peak in 2011. These findings suggest that Vogue’s evolving view of fur had a direct influence on fashion designers’ decisions.

The “Confederate discount”: Properties on Confederate-named U.S. streets sell for less

Houses on streets that are named after Confederate figures or themes sell for 3% less than similar properties in neighboring areas, says a new study led by Goizueta Business School’s John W. McIntyre Professor of Finance, Clifton Green.

The “Confederate Discount,” as this phenomenon is called, has been given further evidence by Green and his co-authors. Green reviewed data from home sales across 35 states in the U.S., analyzing nearly 6,000 transactions between 2001 and 2020. Their data set looked at properties located on streets named after Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as the more generic options of “Confederate” and “Dixie.” While most of these properties were located in former Confederate states, properties that met these conditions were found as distant as California. Interestingly, the discount effect is slightly less in states that make up the former Confederacy.

Green points out that the variation in discount for home prices may be due to political stratification across regions: the discount effect is more pronounced in Democratic-voting areas or areas with a higher share of Black or highly educated residents. In these places, sales on streets with Confederate names dipped even further, going for 8% less on average, and this is particularly noticeable after events that have shone a spotlight on race inequity or white supremacy in the U.S. Learn more here.

3D in a snap: Jia Lab develops next generation system for imaging organoids

Biomedical engineering researchers Shu Jia and Shuichi Takayama have created a new high-resolution 3D imaging system for organoids. These lab-grown cell cultures mimic organs, but capturing their complex and dynamic processes is a challenge. In Biosensors and Bioelectronics, the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering team describes how their custom microscope can reconstruct a comprehensive 3D representation with a single camera image. Learn more here.

Evaluating the integration of depression treatment into diabetes care

Emory researchers have authored the first published use of a realist evaluation approach to identify underlying causal mechanisms of a chronic-care treatment model implemented in a low- or middle-income country. This paper, published in the American Journal of Medicine Open, focuses on context as an implementation leverage point that enables the transferability of integrated diabetes and depression care models to alternative care settings in India and other low-resource settings.

Findings from this evaluation highlight the resource and training gaps that hinder the implementation and sustainability of a multi-component, team-based intervention aimed at integrating depression treatment into routine diabetes care.

The study authors include Emory School of Medicine faculty Leslie Johnson, assistant professor in the department of family and preventative medicine, and Mo Ali, vice chair of research for the department of family and preventive medicine, as well as Rollins School of Public Health faculty Nancy J. Thompson and Kirk Elifson.

Revealing bias in faculty assessments of underrepresented residents

A new study led by Robin Klein, associate professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine, found that race and ethnicity are associated with assessment scores to the disadvantage of residents underrepresented in medicine (URiM).

The findings were recently published in Academic Medicine. Data included 3,600 evaluations by 605 faculty of 703 residents, including 94 (13.4%) URiM residents. Resident race/ethnicity was associated with competency scores, with lower scores for URiM residents in medical knowledge, systems-based practice, practice-based learning and improvement, professionalism, and interpersonal and communication skills, to the disadvantage of URiM residents. The interaction with faculty gender was notable in professionalism with men more than women faculty rating URiM residents lower than non-URiM residents. This may reflect bias in faculty assessment, effects of a non-inclusive learning environment or structural inequities in assessment.

Do property rehabs drive up prices in surrounding neighborhoods?

When a house is distressed, the negative impact tends to ricochet around its surrounding neighborhood. Distressed homes (e.g., foreclosures) can significantly bring down the value of other homes in the area, as these properties are often poorly maintained and then typically sold at discounted prices.

Federal and local governments seek to mitigate this negative effect by incentivizing the rehabilitation of distressed properties through programs like the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP). The efficacy of these programs has long been debated in the socio-economic sphere.

New research by Goizueta Foundation Term associate professor of finance Gonzalo Maturana and Goizueta’s assistant professor of finance Rohan Ganduri might change the narrative definitively. They have analyzed new data showing that rehabilitation projects not only help to stabilize housing prices in affected neighborhoods, but can also increase the value of neighboring properties by as much as four percentage points. Using highly robust, non-parametric statistical analysis methods, Maturana and Ganduri found the effect of renovating dilapidated or derelict houses in these areas pushes prices up between 2.3 and four percentage points in their surrounding blocks. Additionally, while the average amount spent by authorities on these renovations comes in at roughly $36,000, their study estimates a societal welfare gain of $134,000 per rehabilitated property — almost four times the cost of the rehabilitation.

The insights from this study should provide interesting food for thought for U.S. Congress and local governments and may suggest instituting changes in fund allocation for the betterment of the real estate market. Learn more here.

Beyond the spike: New antibody analysis predicts severe COVID-19 outcomes

In the most comprehensive analysis to date of COVID-19 antibodies, researchers have found that antibody profiles of internal viral proteins predicted which patients survived or died just as well as corresponding profiles for surface proteins. Their analysis included internal — or non-canonical — proteins that are conserved across coronaviruses, suggesting that targeting other parts of the virus beyond the spike protein could be important for enhancing COVID-19 vaccines and therapies. The Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering’s Aniruddh Sarkar and collaborators from the University of Pittsburgh published their findings in Cell Reports. Learn more here.

Unattainably perfect: Idealized images of influencers negatively affect users’ mental health 

Filters, Adobe Photoshop and other digital tools are commonly used by social media “influencers.” These celebrities or individuals have a large follower base and influence or hold sway over online audiences. Many social media outlets have come under growing scrutiny by the media in recent years for promoting and popularizing unattainably perfect or unrealistic representations of their influencers.

Recently David Schweidel and Morgan Ward investigated the underlying effects of influencers’ use of digital enhancement and how idealized images affect people’s feelings of self-worth and mental well-being. Across a series of five studies with a broad sample of participants and using AI-powered deep learning data analysis to parse individuals’ responses, Schweidel and Ward have unearthed a series of insights around the lure of these kinds of idealized images, and the negative downstream consequences that they have on other users’ self-esteem.

Schweidel and Ward found that micro-influencers who digitally manipulate their images, offering unrealistic versions of themselves, were more successful at engaging with other users — getting more follows, likes and comments from them. They also discovered that when users are exposed to these kinds of images, they make comparisons between themselves and the enhanced influencers; comparisons that leave them feeling lacking, envious and often inadequate in some way.

Despite the overwhelmingly negative effect on users’ mental health when engaging with some influencers, limiting the damaging effect may be difficult due to the incentive for large media companies to keep users engaged and addicted — the tradeoff between engagement and mental health will always be difficult to navigate. Learn more here.

Special pathogens readiness in the United States: From Ebola to COVID-19 and beyond

More than two dozen healthcare experts and researchers from the National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center (NETEC) and 10 Regional Special Pathogen Treatment Centers (RESPTCs) have demonstrated the inextricable link between infectious disease preparedness and health security in Special Pathogens Readiness in the United States: From Ebola to COVID-19 and Beyond, a special supplement of the peer-reviewed journal Health Security.

Leveraging their experiences serving on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic and their expertise in infectious disease management, the authors address the necessity of special pathogen preparedness on a global scale: from the critical contributions of U.S. regional special pathogens programs in COVID-19 response, to ameliorating crisis conditions in pandemic-strained healthcare infrastructure, the importance of international collaboration in biocontainment and beyond.

As global cases of special pathogens like monkeypox are on the rise and the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Special Pathogens Readiness in the United States: From Ebola to COVID-19 and Beyond provides sustained, in-depth analysis of the special pathogens ecosystem in the U.S. and abroad, moving infectious disease preparedness forward in a time when healthcare agencies must prepare for both known, and heretofore unknown, pathogenic threats.

NETEC comprises faculty and staff from Emory University, the University of Nebraska Medical Center/Nebraska Medicine and NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue, working together to increase the capability of the U.S. health care system to safely and effectively manage special pathogens.

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