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Research roundup: Recent grants and publications for Emory faculty and staff
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As an academic research institution, Emory’s faculty and staff conduct studies across every discipline, from the sciences to the humanities. From using artificial intelligence to accurately detect breast cancer to creating new programs to address disparities in mental health services, this compilation of published research findings and the newest grant awards illustrates how Emory researchers are cutting a path toward groundbreaking discoveries.

Biology and Physics

Developing a ‘fly ranch’ to study hidden states of behavior

Most behavioral experiments involve one of two designs: Putting an animal into an artificial laboratory environment to test whether and how it may perform a specific task (such as the classic mouse-in-a-maze paradigm). Or putting an animal into a barren, boring artificial environment, such as a fruit fly in a lab dish, and simply observing what it does. Both of these approaches fail to capture how the animal might behave if placed in the natural environment of its species.

The Research Corporation for Science Advancement awarded a $150,000 Scialog grant to build a prototype for a more naturalistic approach to animal behavioral experiments. Principal investigators include Emory biophysicist Gordon Berman, associate professor of biology; Elizabeth Hong, a biological engineer at CalTech; and Becket Ebitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal. 

Scialog is an abbreviation for “science” and “dialog.” The prestigious award brings together scientists from multiple disciplines to stimulate new conversations leading to high-risk, high-reward research that can accelerate scientific breakthroughs.

The researchers will develop what they have dubbed a “fly ranch” as a platform for uncovering the molecular bases of hidden behavioral state dynamics. Groups of fruit flies will be allowed to roam freely and forage at various food ports and “watering holes” within an enclosure about one meter in diameter. The researchers will be able to track the movements and other behaviors of all the flies and analyze what they are doing within this unrestrained, semi-naturalistic environment.

The investigators hope that this framework for studying fruit fly behavior at the level of single molecules may uncover some general principles of behavior. These principles could help in the development of theories about internal states important to human psychology and behavior.

Advanced microscope to study fast-occurring cellular processes

The National Institutes of Health has awarded $250,000 to Emory physicist Shashank Shekhar to acquire a state-of-the-art, spinning total internal reflection fluorescence (TIRF) microscope. This instrument, which lets investigators observe thin slices of a specimen less than 200 nanometers thick, is the first such instrument at the university, and only the second one in the Southeastern United States. The TIRF microscope is also supported by Emory’s Office of Research Fund Support and the Department of Physics. 

The Shekhar Lab will use the TIRF microscope in combination with methods the lab has pioneered to advance the understanding of the role of the actin cytoskeleton in cell movement, cell division and immune response. The microscope will also be tapped by other researchers from across the university who can gain insights by observing cellular processes in real time at a single-molecule scale and at high time resolution.

Developing a new framework for quantum chiral matter

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences has awarded a $250,000 grant to Luiz Santos, Emory assistant professor of physics, to seek the full potential of fractal Hofstadter bands. Fractals are patterns with strikingly beautiful self-similar behavior across different scales that govern the shapes of galaxies, continents and grains of sand. A visual example is Hofstadter’s butterfly, a graph of the spectral properties of non-interacting, two-dimensional electrons which looks like the outline of a butterfly. Fractal Hofstadter bands have revolutionized the understanding of topology in quantum physics.

The project aims to establish Hofstadter bands as platforms to catalyze new interacting quantum phenomena and to address fundamental questions that could forge new connections among topological phases of matter, unconventional superconductivity and quantum information sciences.

DataWorks! Prize recognizes Emory’s innovation in sharing and reusing data

An annual research challenge led by two Emory researchers has won the “Distinguished Achievement Award for Data Reuse.” The challenge, known as the George B. Moody PhysioNet Challenges, has been led by Professor Gari Clifford of the Emory School of Medicine since 2015 and by Prof. Matthew Reyna of Emory’s Department of Computer Science, since 2019.

Established twenty-four years ago, the Challenge is part of The Research Resource for Complex Physiologic Signals, (PhysioNet) created to stimulate biomedical research by making large collections of physiological and clinical data bases and related software available free to researchers. The distinguished Award is part of the “DataWorks! Prize,” a partnership between the NIH Office of Data Science Strategy and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) to encourage data sharing and reuse in scientific discovery while rewarding researchers who share their own data.

The official announcement on the DataWorks! Prize can be found here.

Rollins School of Public Health

Examining the incidence of obesity across adulthood in the United States

In the United States, the prevalence of obesity among adults has increased 3-fold since the 1980s, but new patterns of obesity are less well understood, including which groups are most at risk as well as where and when.

Recently, researchers from the Emory Global Diabetes Research Center and Rollins School of Public Health shed new light on this topic. Examining data on nearly 14,000 adults between 2001 and 2017, Jannie Nielsen, K. M. Venkat Narayan and Solveig A. Cunningham demonstrated how patterns of obesity have changed across the first two decades of the 21 st century.

Their findings, which were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, show that the incidence of obesity was stable over the first several years of the study time period but increased by 18% in 2013–2017. Risk of obesity was highest among all young adults 20-29 and higher in Black populations, particularly among females and young adults. Chances of obesity were significantly higher among those with less than a high school education.

Insights into patterns of health among foreign-born people  

New research by scholars at Emory University found foreign-born people have different patterns of health, and several psychosocial and contextual factors may contribute to these differences. The type of visa with which one resettles is an important consideration because it is linked both with the reason for initially migrating and with experiences after arriving in the U.S.

A study led by Alicia Dunajcik and Solveig Argeseanu Cunningham in Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health examines the association between visa type and health in terms of self-rated health and diagnosed chronic conditions. People forced to leave as refugees from war or disaster and undocumented immigrants and later granted retrospective visas had the highest prevalence of any chronic condition. They were also most likely to rate their health as being fair or poor, even after controlling for other characteristics.

Overall, the type of visa a person holds is associated with health and chronic disease for years after resettlement, suggesting that health is strongly influenced by the experiences that lead to migration. Read more about the study here.

Women’s empowerment in WASH

Measurement of women’s empowerment is difficult because empowerment is not directly observable. Until now, there were no validated scales to measure empowerment in relation to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). Recently, Sheela S, Sinharoy and colleagues from the Rollins School of Public Health developed and validated a new set of scales to measure women’s empowerment in the context of urban sanitation. The scales measured multiple components of empowerment including bodily integrity, health, financial assets, social capital, knowledge and skills and decision-making power, and tested in two cities: Kampala, Uganda and Tiruchirappalli, India.

Because they were tested and found to be valid and reliable, the scales can now be used by others to measure the ways in which women’s empowerment may be impacted by sanitation, and vice-versa. Read more about the study here

School of Nursing

Nursing, Rollins faculty win I3 award to address pathogen monitoring

School of Nursing associate professor Rasheeta Chandler and Rollins School of Public Health faculty members Anne Spaulding and Marlene Wolfe received a grant to explore innovative solutions for monitoring monkeypox (mpox) and other pathogens in two jail populations through wastewater-based surveillance. The School of Medicine and Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University were provided a I3 RAPID-Synergy Award for this work, which provides an opportunity to increase the proportion of incarcerated people with mpox who are aware of their status.

Multidisciplinary team awarded grant to study long COVID psychoneurological symptoms via gut biomarkers

School of Nursing’s assistant professor Jingbing Bai received a pilot grant from the Georgia Clinical & Translational Science Alliance to identify multi-omics (gut microbiome and metabolites) and neuroendocrine biomarkers associated with psychoneurological symptoms (PNS) in patients with long COVID. The grant also allows Bai and his team to examine the associations of the gut microbiome diversity and composition (stool specimens) with PNS in long COVID vary with age, sex, and BMI-matched individuals without long COVID.

The findings of this grant will provide high-impact clinical data to design interventions (e.g., physical activity) to manage long COVID symptoms. The research team includes Kim Dupree Jones (Co-PI), Ronald Eldridge (Co-I) and Wenhui Zhang from the School of Nursing and Zanthia Wiley (Co-I) from the School of Medicine.

Nursing professor receives grant for expanding dementia outreach programs, research

The Arthur N. Rupe Foundation has awarded a grant for the expansion of a nurse-led dementia outreach program for African American faith communities to School of Nursing assistant professor Fayron Epps. The research grant allows Epps and her team to recruit and partner with ten faith communities in underserved and under-resourced African American communities in Arizona, California and Texas over one year. The team will investigate whether it’s feasible to create outreach programs to promote dementia awareness, educate on the high incidence of dementia among African Americans, reduce the stigma of dementia, and advise on how to find trusted medical resources. According to Epps, the project is aimed at reducing inequities that have led to significant health problems in the African American community.

Nursing grant to study link between cardiovascular health and Alzheimer’s disease risk

The National Institute of Aging awarded a K23 grant to School of Nursing assistant professor Brittany Butts. The grant provides funding for five years to examine the relationship between cardiovascular risk factors and Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers and cognitive function in middle-aged adults with heart failure with preserved ejection fraction. Findings from this research project will lead to the identification of pathways that could potentially be modified by interventions to decrease Alzheimer’s disease risk in this high-morbidity population.

Nursing grant to study post-surgical pain across sleep trajectories and inflammatory presentations

The National Institute of Drug Abuse has awarded a K23 grant to School of Nursing assistant professor Nicholas Giordano. The grant provides funding for five years to utilize daily sleep data, collected from wearable devices, and inflammatory markers to examine associations with patient-reported pain outcomes and opioid utilization up to three months after shoulder surgery. The project provides Giordano the opportunity to characterize and classify sleep trajectories before and after shoulder arthroplasty via wearable devices and examine the development of chronic post-surgical pain and real-time opioid utilization, captured using Bluetooth-enabled medication bottle caps, across sleep trajectories.  

Nursing grant examines use of Citicoline to improve Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers, sleep patterns

The National Institute of Aging has awarded School of Nursing assistant professor Vicdtoria Pak an R61 grant to examine whether Citicoline (a dietary choline supplement) may significantly decrease inflammatory and Alzheimer’s disease (AD)-associated biomarkers in persons with a mild form of Alzheimer’s. Up to 45% of individuals with Mild Cognitive Impairment and AD report sleep disturbances, which help reduce their quality of life. If the project has positive outcomes, it will show that Citicoline improves sleep, inflammation and AD biomarkers in persons with prodromal AD and make it possible to do larger studies to confirm these findings.

Radiology and Imaging Sciences

Multi-institutional data harvesting shows promise as a tool for early detection of disease impacts 

A novel approach to number crunching could have detected pulmonary embolism as a life-threatening complication of COVID-19 long before it was documented in the medical literature, potentially uncovering a powerful tool for more quickly guiding clinical decision making when another pandemic hits.

The team from Emory and 13 healthcare systems across the country leveraged multi-institutional data harvesting (MIDH), which used cloud-based algorithms to analyze the systems’ medical imaging data in near real time. As published in npj Digital Medicine, the team specifically examined computed tomography pulmonary angiograms (CTPA).  They found fewer CTPA exams were performed early in the pandemic than during the pre-pandemic period; however, the pulmonary embolism positivity rate was significantly higher in the pandemic.

The findings help affirm MIDH as a valuable exploratory tool, says Aws Hamid MD, assistant professor of radiology and imaging sciences in the Emory School of Medicine, who was responsible for data acquisition, analysis, and interpretation. “MIDH-based real-time longitudinal data monitoring could provide early clinical insight into disease effects and could be useful for clinically meaningful decision making when facing future healthcare challenges with significant uncertainties.” 

Structural brain changes from mild traumatic brain injury with loss of unconsciousness associated with PTSD

A new study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress has found potential neuroimaging biomarkers for identifying which patients who sustain a mild traumatic brain injury, such as a concussion with loss of consciousness, are at increased risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

While the association between brain injury and PTSD has been studied in military populations and for more severe brain injuries, little has been studied in civilian patients.

“This study serves both as a confirmation of several important previously reported associations, as well as shows novel data regarding imaging biomarkers which could be of use in providing prognostic data on which patients might be at high risk for developing long-term PTSD symptoms,” says Siddhartha Kosaraju, MD, a neuroradiology fellow in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences and lead author. “It’s an exciting step forward.”

Co-author Jason Allen, MD, PhD, associate professor and director of the Division of Neuroradiology in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences, agrees. “This study provides a potential biomarker that can be explored in future studies. If confirmed, it would provide an important indicator to guide patient care, potentially allowing early, targeted therapy to these vulnerable patients.”

Emory EMBEDs racial diversity in AI

Investigators looking to develop deep learning or artificial intelligence (AI) applications to quickly and accurately detect breast cancer in imaging studies finally have a robust, ethnically and racially diverse dataset on which to train their models. The EMory BrEast imaging Dataset (EMBED) contains 3.4 million two-dimensional and digital breast tomosynthesis screening and diagnostic mammograms, a 3-D scanning technique used to check for breast cancer, along with demographic data for 116,000 racially diverse patients. With an equal representation of African American and White patients, the dataset also contains 40,000 annotated lesions linked to their associated data and 56 statistically accurate pathologic outcomes grouped into seven severity classes. The dataset specifically addresses the shortcomings of current datasets, which are smaller and lack ethnic diversity, image annotations and pathologic information.

“This dataset will aid in the development and validation of deep learning models for breast cancer screening that perform equally across patient demographic characteristics,” says Brianna L. Vey, MD, a fourth-year diagnostic radiology resident and co-lead author of the group’s first published paper on EMBED. “That diversity is essential for ensuring models are not biased when deployed in real world clinical settings.”

The project is a multi-institutional one based in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences’ Healthcare Innovations and Translational Informatics Lab. To further advance the power of the dataset, twenty percent of the dataset is being made freely available for research through the Amazon Web Services Open Data Program. “We hope researchers from around the world will take advantage of this dataset to train and validate AI models to improve breast cancer screening and risk prediction,” says Hari Trivedi, assistant professor in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences. 

Disparities in emergency department patient wait times include time waiting for imaging studies

Researchers concerned about disparities in emergency medical care have found the race, gender, age, and insurance status of patients all affect the times emergency department patients had to wait for a medical imaging test. Those disparities worsened during peak hours, or when the emergency departments typically experience higher patient volumes, according to new research published in the journal Clinical Imaging.

“Disparities in the decision to obtain imaging are more frequently studied then disparities in wait times after imaging order and we felt this was an understudied area,” says Tarek Hanna, MD, associate professor and vice chair of medical imaging in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences. “More insight into such wait times could help us identify actionable areas in which we could intervene to reduce disparities.”

By developing a methodology for looking at how disparities changed during resource strained periods, particularly busy hours in the emergency department, the team hopes they have provided a template for further study with the goal of identifying ways to ameliorate such disparities.

Winship Cancer Institute

Low-cost AI tools aim to predict Indian population cancer risk and therapeutic benefit

More than 1.7 million people in India have cancer, with some of the most common types including breast and oral cavity cancers. Researchers at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, University Hospitals in Cleveland and the Tata Memorial Centre received a $2.8 million, five-year U01 grant from the National Cancer Institute (U01CA269181) to validate low-cost, AI-based risk stratification tools for breast, oral and prostate cancer in the Indian population. Winship researcher Anant Madabhushi, a professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory and Georgia Tech, is principal investigator for the project.

The availability of effective diagnostic tools that cost pennies on the dollar compared to expensive molecular tests is poised to be a game changer in low- and middle-income countries and can be deployed at scale. Learn more about the grant here.

Improving osteosarcoma therapy by combining drugs

Jason Yustein, professor of pediatrics in the Emory University School of Medicine and a researcher at Winship Cancer Institute, received a $500,000 grant from the Osteosarcoma Institute to study a new treatment approach for osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer mostly seen in children, teens and young adults. Yustein’s project will evaluate a novel combination of immunotherapy and targeted therapy in mouse osteosarcoma tumors, which are believed to closely resemble human osteosarcoma.

If the pre-clinical study shows promise, the next step will be a clinical trial to evaluate the combination therapy in patients. Learn more about the grant here.

Optimizing immune therapy for brain tumors

Edjah K. Nduom, associate professor of neurosurgery in the Emory University School of Medicine and a researcher at Winship Cancer Institute, received a Discovery Grant from the American Brain Tumor Association to support his study of a promising new treatment, OS2966, which is poised to make brain tumor immune therapy more effective. Brain tumors, like glioblastoma, have specific defenses that can block a type of immune therapy called checkpoint inhibition; however, OS2966 targets the macrophages that prevent checkpoint inhibitors from working in patients with glioblastoma.

Data from this pre-clinical work is expected to inform future clinical trials to give patients with brain tumors a new, more effective treatment option. Learn more about the grant here.

Study provides rationale for inhibiting SIRT1 as an adjuvant to DSB-inducing agents for cancer therapy

Research scientists affiliated with Winship Cancer Institute, led by first author Priya Kapoor, instructor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Emory University School of Medicine, and principal investigator David S. Yu, the Jerome Landry, MD, Chair of Cancer Biology in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Emory University School of Medicine, participated in a study reported in Nature Communications showing that the cellular enzyme SAMHD1 is regulated by the SIRT1 sirtuin deacetylase in directing its binding to DNA and promoting the repair of DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) caused by radiation and some types of chemotherapeutic agents.

The findings elucidate a critical upstream regulatory signaling event directing SAMHD1 binding to DNA at damaged sites, provide important insights into how SIRT1 deficiency leads to genomic instability and carcinogenesis, and provide mechanistic rationale for inhibiting SIRT1 as an adjuvant to DSB-inducing agents for cancer therapy.

Study uncovers "mystery" of CD73 protein breakdown in triple negative breast cancer

A new pre-clinical study by researchers at Winship Cancer Institute and published in Science Advances suggests promising new strategies to improve the efficacy of immunotherapy in patients with triple negative breast cancer. In comparison to other types of breast cancer, triple negative breast cancer tends to grow and spread faster, and it has fewer treatment options and worse outcomes. Conducted by the lab of Yong Wan, a professor of pharmacology and chemical biology in the Emory University School of Medicine, the study points to CD73, a protein that plays a key role in tumor growth and metastasis, as a potential therapeutic target for treating triple negative breast cancer.

Learn more about the study here.

Brain Health Center

Prominent researchers call for critical overhaul of psychiatric drug development and new approaches to anti-inflammatory treatments

A recent perspective published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry by Andrew H. Miller, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University and Charles L. Raison at the University of Wisconsin Madison points out drug development in psychiatry has been facing ongoing challenges. Specifically, studies have found that inflammation can contribute to several psychiatric disorders but developing drugs that target inflammation as a treatment for these conditions is proving to be difficult.

The study compares the development of drugs in psychiatry with that of cancer treatment. The authors address how the field of mental health research and drug development has not followed the same path as the field of cancer treatment. Instead of focusing on finding specific causes of mental health conditions, many treatments have been developed to address the symptoms. 

Miller and Raison believe the field of psychiatry can improve its medications if it uses a method similar to that used in cancer treatment. Instead of looking for a single treatment that works for everyone with depression or schizophrenia, they suggest the need to identify and address the many different biological reasons behind these disorders. By developing treatments and clinical trials that target these specific causes, progress can be made in treating mental health issues more effectively.

Read more here.


Goizueta Business School

AI-generated content is a game changer for marketers, but at what cost?

Goizueta’s David Schweidel pitted man against the machine to create SEO web content only to find that providing an editor with bot-generated content trounces the human copywriter every time. Good news for companies looking to boost productivity and save cash, he says. But could there be other hidden costs?

Did the COVID-19 pandemic change perspectives on inequality?

A recently published paper coauthored by Goizueta’s Andrea Dittmann found that experiencing greater personal harm in the early stages of the pandemic was associated with increased advocacy for equality one year later.

The paper, “Personal Harm from the Covid-19 pandemic predicts advocacy for equality,” was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.The team used a three-stage survey inquiring whether people had suffered from COVID-19, lost jobs or suffered psychological distress and compared this with increased levels of belief in equality or advocacy one year later.

“Americans tend to explain people’s life outcomes as free from the constraints of history, other people, and social systems. Instead, life outcomes are seen as a product of individuals’ personal preferences, choices, or enduring characteristics,” Dittmann shares. “Even when we ran the most conservative statistical tests, we are still seeing this meaningful relationship between experiencing personal harm and changing your attitude towards inequality and being more willing to stand up and do something about inequality. It speaks to the importance of having direct experience with something that has a disproportionate effect on your life.”

Goizueta faculty member uncovers impact of remote learning on educational inequality

In 2020, the world went into lockdown. Learning in school became learning from the couch. Rather than listening to teachers in-person behind a desk, high school students had to find a computer to stream their lectures and lessons. What happens to educational inequality in a digital-first, remote-learning environment? Goizueta’s Ruomeng Cui and colleagues found that remote learning significantly improved learning outcomes of students in developing regions. She encourages developing regions with inferior educational resources to explore the potential of remote learning to reduce the knowledge gap and help students improve their learning outcomes.

Price image formation: When is HILO low?

When consumers choose where to shop, they often consider a store’s price image — does the store have a reputation for having lower or higher prices than its competitors? Choosing a pricing strategy is one of the biggest pricing decisions a retailer makes.

Goizueta’s Ram Chellappa and Ryan Hamilton study this practice and propose that when stores’ prices are evaluated one at a time, or in isolation, consumers will rely on the most salient contextual clues available — within-category price information — when forming a price image. For example, rather than research the price of peanut butter across multiple grocery stores, shoppers often evaluate the price of peanut butter by comparing the prices of the brands on the shelf in front of them. As a result of this shift, deep price advantages are easier to evaluate than frequent price advantages and therefore more influential on customers’ formation of price image.

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