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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. Here’s a sample of recent grant awards and the work they will support, plus highlights from some published research findings. 

Using AI to develop next-generation disinfectants

The National Science Foundation has awarded $800,000 to a team including Emory researchers William Wuest and Liang Zhiao to use artificial intelligence to develop next-generation disinfectants against resistant bacteria.

The project will draw from machine learning, artificial intelligence and the chemical and biological sciences to address long-standing challenges in molecular biology on a class of molecules called quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs)— small disinfectant antimicrobial compounds, where structural innovation has been lacking and resistant bacteria represent an ongoing threat. Common household antibacterials contain QACs, but these have been losing their effectiveness and strengthening resistance as they spread through groundwater and soil.

Profs. Wuest, GRA Distinguished Investigator in Emory’s Department of Chemistry and Zhao, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, will receive $300,000 over the next three years. The remainder of the grant will be shared by researchers at George Mason and Villanova Universities.

Canadian grant boosts Emory neuroscience technology

The Azrieli Foundation has awarded $3.8 million to researchers including Emory’s Samuel Sober to pursue cutting edge work in how the brain controls body movements. Every interaction humans have with the world, from walking to speaking to playing a musical instrument, requires neurons to fire in the brain in a coordinated manner to drive a precise pattern of muscular activation. Sober, associate professor and director of the Simons-Emory International Consortium on Motor Control, uses a range of different methods including animal studies and computational approaches to investigate the disruptions in motor functions that accompany health problems such as Parkinson’s and ALS as well as neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. The grant, which is being shared with Prof. Andrew Pruszynski at Canada’s Western University, will give both researchers access to next generation biosensors that will give them a new level of detail in understanding how the brain selects which muscles to activate in order to design better therapies and interventions.

Prof. Sober’s team will develop new electrode devices and analytical methods and will supply technology and training to a network of Canadian researchers. The five-year, open-science project will also connect the Canadian labs to a wider, global community of neuroscientists tapping into the technology to explore a range of research questions.

Seed grant to fund superconductor research

Sergei Urazhdin, Emory professor of physics, received a $50,000 grant from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement’s Cottrell Scholars Singular Exceptional Endeavors of Discovery (SEED) Awards for 2023. Prof. Urazhdin will use the award to investigate whether correlated metals may be failed superconductors, materials that do not exhibit superconductivity under the low temperature conditions where superconductivity has traditionally occurred.

The Cottrell Scholar program is designed to honor and support outstanding teacher-scholars who are recognized by their scientific communities for the quality and innovation of their research. The competitive SEED Awards offer the opportunity to start high-risk, high-reward new research or educational activities. 

Goizueta business School

New survey of LGBTQ southerners shows effects of stigmatization

In a new survey conducted by Emory’s Goizueta Business School of LGBTQ+ southerners, all respondents – 100 percent of those surveyed – reported stigmatization in their lives. These included slurs and jokes, poor service in restaurants and hotels, or feeling unwelcome at a place of worship or religious organization. Despite this, respondents also reported high levels of community engagement. Nearly 82 percent attended a rally or march supporting LGBTQ+ rights and nearly 58 percent said they belonged to a state or local LGBTQ+ organization at some point in the past. More than 95 percent were registered to vote and 92 percent voted in the 2020 Presidential election.   

The survey, a collective effort between Goizueta and the LGBTQ Institute at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, collected data from 1,326 individuals across 14 southern states from Texas to Virginia between June 2021 and March 2022. Among its other findings: 

  • Twenty percent of respondents reported having skipped school to avoid discrimination.
  • Sixty-seven percent who identified as bisexual/pansexual and 75 percent transgender respondents said they avoided talking about personal topics with coworkers, supervisors, or bosses in order to avoid discrimination or harassment at work.
  • Nonbinary and transgender respondents were, respectively, more than two and four times as likely than male or female-identified respondents to report avoiding accessing health care over the past year for fear of a negative reaction or unequal treatment.
  • Thirty-one percent of transgender respondents reported avoiding healthcare.

A large majority of respondents were politically active, informed on current events, and contributed financially to candidates.

  • Seventy percent of respondents donated to campaigns in the previous twelve months or earlier.
  • 71 percent said they donated to candidates who supported LGBTQ+ rights.
  • Respondents confidently exert economic power – 93 percent of respondents refused to purchase products from companies who are unsupportive of LGBTQ+ rights.
  • Nearly 93 percent rewarded companies supportive of LGBTQ+ rights by purchasing their products. 

“From purchasing power to political involvement, the LGBTQ+ community has significant influence on business and society,” says Giacomo Negro, professor of organization and management at Goizueta. “By developing a clearer picture of the members of the LGTBQ+ community and their experiences in critical areas such as healthcare, politics, community engagement, and the workplace, we are able to highlight progress and identify barriers that this group faces.”

The surprising effects of AI-created voices on buying decisions

Would you be more likely to buy a product if it were sold to you in a female voice like Alexa, created by artificial intelligence? How about the AI-created voice of a celebrity you admire? Starting in 2019, when Amazon launched its celebrity voices for Alexa, Rajiv Garg, associate professor in the Goizueta School, wondered if certain kinds of voices would lead to more attention and engagement from consumers. Seeking answers, his team asked consumers to listen to ads for hypothetical products (a shoe and an office chair) in twelve different AI-created voices, both male and female, in six different voice registers: ostentatious, colloquial, friendly, authoritative, seductive, and suave.

For ads that sold the products as simple and utilitarian, the researchers found no significant effect of the different voices. However, ostentatious, seductive and authoritative voices produced significant changes in information seeking and purchasing intent when the products were presented as luxury goods.

During their research, Prof. Garg’s team asked participants if they had heard the advertisement voices before, and about 15 percent of respondents said they had. “These were voices we’d created for the first time,” he says. “If they say they’ve heard the voice before, that means they were thinking of them as human voices.”

Prof. Garg thinks smart device firms should be aware that certain voices will promote more engagement than others. Other industries, such as media, could also use the right voices to increase reader curiosity and engagement.

New survey finds many workers happier in the midst of recession

Everyone knows economic recessions are a bad thing—or are they? New research by Goizueta’s Emily Bianchi suggests business downturns actually cause employees to be more satisfied with their jobs. Bianchi and colleagues from Oglethorpe and Hong Kong Polytechnic Universities found that in times of increased financial uncertainty, people tend to think less about other opportunities or openings and focus more on the jobs they actually have. She says this makes them see their jobs and workplace more favorably.

Prof. Bianchi, the Goizueta Foundation Term Associate Professor of Organization & Management, reached her conclusions through three studies. One used existing survey data on peoples’ attitudes toward the economy and job satisfaction between 1974 and 2016 and found compelling evidence that satisfaction rose during recessions at both the national and state level, falling off again when the economy improved. A second study analyzed comparable data from the United Kingdom between 1991 and 2013. To dig deeper into the psychological processes behind these feelings, Prof. Bianchi ran an experiment in which one group of subjects was shown bad news about the economy while the other group read a report on economic and job growth. When both groups were asked to report on job satisfaction, those who read the article on recession and unemployment actually reported greater satisfaction with their current jobs.

Prof. Bianchi doesn’t think employers should use her surprising findings to demand more of their workers in a downturn. Instead, she thinks they should pay more attention to boosting employee satisfaction when times are favorable and workers are especially likely to be tempted by other opportunities.

Cash aid programs for refugees don't provide long-term financial security, Emory researcher finds

Direct cash payments as a form of humanitarian aid for impoverished populations such as refugees have always been controversial despite the fact that more than a hundred countries currently use them. But a new study from Emory’s Stephen O’Connell found such payments have short term benefits but few lasting effects. Working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World food Program, O’Connell, Associate Professor of Economics and Onur Altındağ of Bentley University, traveled to Lebanon to study whether a pair of two-year long unconditional cash-based assistance programs could help the population of needy refugee families from Syria transition from relying on aid to becoming self-sufficient.

They found short term improvements in consumption, child well-being, food security, school attendance and livelihood coping strategies but no lasting effects. Six months after the programs ended, the assisted families appeared no different from similar non-beneficiary families. In their study, published in the Journal of Development Economics, Profs. O’Connell and Altındağ concluded the recipients rapidly reverted to earlier levels of consumption and well-being within six months after the programs end.

Emory researcher provides new insights into key sports injury therapy

Patients with injured muscles and joints often benefit from platelet-rich plasma therapy, a treatment that works by injecting plasma, the liquid portion of blood, with a concentration of the patient’s own platelets, the blood cells that cause clotting, into the injured areas. In essence, it uses the patient’s own healing system to accelerate recovery from the injury. Recently, Prathap Jayaram, director of regenerative medicine at Emory Sports Medicine, discovered a key aspect of how that treatment works.

Clinicians often use plasma that’s rich in platelets but poor in leukocytes, the white blood cells that protect against infection, but there’s been limited evidence of whether the leukocyte-poor process works better than one that’s rich in leukocytes. Prof. Jayaram and colleagues collected blood samples from twelve patients with knee osteoarthritis, then compared the functioning of cytokines, the small proteins important in cell signaling and tissue damage repair, to assess the inflammation process. Results, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, showed that the leukocyte rich process produced a stronger anti-inflammatory response and may be better at reducing swelling in the knee compared to the leukocyte-poor approach. However, there was no significant difference between the two types of platelet-rich plasma in expressing pain mediators.

While more research is needed to assess the long-term progression of knee osteoarthritis with this therapy, this is the first study of its kind to illustrate that platelet-rich plasma offers a strong anti-inflammatory response and may be beneficial to patients with knee osteoarthritis where chronic inflammation is present. 

Woodruff School of Nursing

Nursing faculty member awarded R56 grant to test tech intervention promoting adherence to physical activity

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has awarded a high-priority R56 grant to Jacob Kariuki, associate professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, to develop ways to help insufficiently active individuals overcome barriers to more physical activity. Currently, only 14 percent of adults with obesity attain the national recommended guidelines for physical activity. The project will to test the efficacy of a technology-based intervention in promoting adherence to physical activity guidelines in a diverse sample of inactive adults with obesity. Prof. Kariuki’s long-term goal is to be able to use this tool as a scalable, standalone program to increase access, reduce time commitment, avoid weight-related stigma, and lessen the impact of unpredictable barriers to physical activities such as inclement weather or pandemics like COVID-19.

The NHLBI’s R56 grant is a pilot grant designed to provide limited interim support for promising research projects for one or two years while a researcher gathers data that would let them qualify for a traditional research grant. 

Nursing R03 grant seeks to discover prognostic biomarkers to target, deintensify chemoradiation

The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences has awarded its R03 grant for validating a prognostic plasma metabolomic biomarker to improve precision medicine in head and neck cancer patients to Ronald Eldridge, assistant professor with the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. Prof. Eldridge is a cancer epidemiologist whose research aims to identify different metabolic pathways of head and neck cancer survival through high-resolution metabolomics. He’ll use the new grant to investigate the differences in metabolism and metabolic compounds within the blood of head and neck cancer patients, with the goal of discovering prognostic biomarkers that can help identify patients who may benefit from targeted, less intense chemoradiotherapy treatments.

The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health, works to move science more quickly and effectively from the lab to actual patients. R03 grants are small awards that support specific, well-defined projects that can be completed in two years and that require limited levels of funding. 

Winship Cancer Institute

Targeting LKB1-null lung cancer with innate immune system

LKB1 is one of the most frequently mutated genes in lung cancer, yet there are no effective targeted therapies for patients with this disease. Supported by a new R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute, Winship Cancer Institute researcher Wei Zhou, professor of hematology and medical oncology, and eight colleagues across Emory will investigate a unique aspect of LKB1-mutant lung cancer with a focus on individuals who are naturally resistant.

Previous work has demonstrated that LKB1 genes mutate in the somatic cells at a significantly lower rate in female patients, suggesting that the immune system in some females may be able to control this disease. The research team will use this grant to investigate the underlying mechanisms behind this sex bias, including why LKB1-mutant lung cancer is susceptible to this innate immunity and which subpopulation of innate immune cells is responsible for controlling the disease in some females. Insights gained through this study could aid in developing new therapeutic strategies for people with this tumor subtype.

The National Cancer Institute’s R01 grants are highly competitive awards supporting specific and focused health-related research that advances the National Institutes of Health goals of searching for fundamental knowledge about living things to enhance health and reduce illness and disability.

Reducing health care disparities among childhood cancer survivors in the Medicaid system

Survivors of childhood cancer need life-long healthcare to improve their quality of life and health outcomes. Yet there are still crucial gaps in our understanding of the things that create and perpetuate disparities in health care among childhood cancer survivors in the Medicaid system.

To address these challenges, Emory Professor Xu Ji is leading a study supported by a five-year, $650,000 K01 grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. Prof. Ji is an assistant professor of pediatrics and a researcher at Winship Cancer Institute and the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The study will use surveys and interviews with adult survivors, as well as care providers, to systematically assess their experience in the Medicaid system and determine sources of disparities, including race, socioeconomic status, sex and rural-urban, that might have impacted their experience. Prof. Ji hopes the research will inform future policies and interventions concerning the modifiable factors that can improve equity in health care for adult Medicaid beneficiaries with a history of childhood cancer.

The NIH’s K01 award is intended to provide three to five years of intensive, supervised, research and career development experience for nonclinical researchers as they transition to independent research careers. Data gained from this study will form the foundation for a larger project to survey state-specific cancer survivor cohorts, with the goal of shaping interventions that promote equitable, high-quality care based on state Medicaid program rules.

St. Baldrick’s Foundation awards Aumann funding for pediatric leukemia research

Winship Cancer Institute researcher Waitman Aumann, assistant professor of pediatrics and physician at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, was awarded a St. Baldrick's Scholar grant to study pediatric leukemia, one of the most common cancers in children. St. Baldrick’s Scholars receive funding for three years to help early career professionals pursue important research that otherwise would not be possible without this additional funding.

While many pediatric leukemias are treatable today, some types of leukemia remain challenging to treat and present a poor prognosis. Prof. Aumann and his team study fusion protein CALM-AF10, one of a class of proteins created through the joining of two or more genes, which is present in some difficult-to-treat pediatric leukemias. Leukemias with this protein increase the expression of a protein called SIX1. Prof. Aumann is researching how the SIX1 protein causes blood cells to turn into leukemia cells. His research will use two small molecule inhibitors, tiny compounds barely larger than atoms that can target individual proteins in cancer cells, along with other chemotherapy. The hope is that these studies could help to clarify the role of SIX1 proteins in the development of these leukemias.

Study examines later cardiac complications from pediatric radiation therapy

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncologydemonstrates for the first time that applying the same radiation therapy dose to the heart’s substructures as a uniform dose to the whole heart in children with cancer puts them at higher risk for future heart complications. The study’s lead author is James E. Bates, assistant professor of radiation oncology and Winship Cancer Institute researcher.

Nearly 16,000 children under the age of 20 are diagnosed with cancer yearly in the U.S., with approximately 85 percent becoming five-year survivors. Although the cure rates of childhood cancer have significantly improved over the past several decades, nearly every childhood cancer survivor develops a severe, life-threatening or fatal late complication from their treatment course. Cardiac disease is the most common of these late complications, and radiation therapy is a primary risk factor for late cardiac disease.

Current scientific knowledge about radiation dosage only considers the heart as a single organ and ignores substructures such as the ventricles, atria, coronary arteries and valves. There is no established guidance for safe, effective radiation dosage for heart substructures. Prof. Bates’s study, which assessed more than 25,000 survivors of childhood cancer, represents the largest analysis ever of this kind, adult or pediatric, analyzing the impact of radiation doses to cardiac substructures across multiple primary cancer diagnoses. Its findings suggest that there may be a threshold dose below which radiation to the whole heart does not meaningfully increase the risk of coronary artery disease, arrhythmia, or valvular disease. The picture may be different though, for the many cardiac substructures, where there appears to be no “safe” threshold radiation dose. The study also underscores the need to consider cardiac substructure doses in radiation treatment planning and in survivorship care.

Prof. Bates hopes these findings will help radiation oncologists to better leverage modern radiation techniques, such as proton therapy and intensity-modulated radiation therapy, to reduce the risk of cardiac disease in children with cancer who need radiation.

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