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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. This compilation of published research findings and the newest grant awards illustrates how Emory researchers are cutting a path toward groundbreaking discoveries.


Emory School of Medicine researcher awarded grant to study biomarkers for Rett syndrome

Victor Faundez, MD, PhD, professor and Vice Chair in Emory School of Medicine’s Department of Cell Biology, received $1.1 million in funding from the Rett Syndrome Research Trust (RSRT) to identify proteomic alterations that could be used as biomarkers for monitoring disease and potential therapies for Rett syndrome.

Rett syndrome is a rare genetic neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by severe impairments, affecting a person’s ability to speak, walk, eat and breathe normally. There is currently no cure for Rett syndrome and the ability to detect patterns of symptoms and disease progression directly in patients is lacking. By analyzing post-mortem brains, spinal fluid and plasma samples, Faundez seeks to answer key questions about differences in brain proteomes, the entire set of proteins found in the brain, confirm alignment with mouse models, and advance candidates with potential to be reliable biomarkers for Rett syndrome.

The Rett Syndrome Research Trust, a nonprofit founded in 2008, conducts and funds research aimed at finding a cure for Rett Syndrome and related disorders.  

Nursing PhD student receives Kirschstein predoctoral fellowship award

Woodruff School of Nursing PhD student Naziya Noorani has been awarded the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Predoctoral Fellowship from the National Institute of Nursing Research. The award will support Noorani's research on how the difficulties experienced by patients undergoing kidney dialysis influence their use of health care.

Patients receiving dialysis are known to experience multiple ongoing symptoms and diminished functional status along with frequent emergency department visits and hospital admissions. Noorani's project, titled "The Influence of Symptoms, Functional Status, and Social Vulnerability on Healthcare Use Among Patients Receiving Dialysis," will examine how the severity of their symptoms and functional status influence health care use in patients receiving dialysis and whether social vulnerability influences those relationships. Information gained from this study will help identify individuals whose health care use is most affected by symptoms and functional status, which can be used to develop screening interventions to support these individuals while improving health outcomes and reducing burden to the health care system.

The National Institute of Nursing Research, an arm of the NIH, leads and supports nursing research to address urgent health problems and help formulate better practice and policy.

Nursing faculty member to study impact of patient transportation challenges

Jinbing Bai, PhD, assistant professor in the Woodruff School of Nursing, has received the Winship Cancer Institute’s American Cancer Society Institutional Research Grant for his project, "Testing the Feasibility of a Transportation for Cancer Care Navigation Tool (TRACT) in Solid Tumor Patients Receiving Radiotherapy."

Patients undergoing radiotherapy for cancer often encounter transportation challenges that can hinder access to cancer care. Individuals facing racial and ethnic disparities, economic hardships, lack of insurance, or residing in rural areas are particularly vulnerable to travel barriers. This project aims to refine and evaluate the feasibility of a tool (TRACT) to connect solid tumor patients undergoing radiotherapy and facing travel barriers with the transportation they need. Patients with solid tumors undergoing radiotherapy will be screened for travel barriers, and 30 eligible patients will receive the three-month TRACT program.

TRACT is based on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Social and Medical Care Integration Framework, which promotes health equity by working to lessen the impact of nonmedical socioeconomic and geographic disadvantages on cancer treatment outcomes. Bai’s project will establish a Community Advisory Board to refine the TRACT program and develop research methods to assess its feasibility.

Development of new targeted therapies in oral cancer

Oral cancer is a highly aggressive malignancy that lacks effective targeted therapies to treat it, especially at advanced stages of the disease. Yong Teng, PhD, associate professor of Hematology and Medical Oncology and a Winship researcher, recently received two new five-year R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health to deliver new therapeutic options for people with oral cancer.

Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a protein that aids in cell growth, is overexpressed in most head and neck cancers, including oral squamous cell carcinoma. Teng’s first R01 grant will pursue a promising new model for treating this type of EGFR-overexpressing oral cancer. Teng believes an existing anti EGFR therapy can be significantly improved in combination with an orally bioavailable mitochondrial complex I inhibitor. Specifically, the project will investigate how cetuximab, a drug that inhibits oral growth factor receptor, works together with IACS-010759, a drug that works to inhibit tumor cell growth and energy to induce pyroptosis (a form of inflammatory programmed cell death) and reprogram the host immune system to regulate anti-tumor immunity in oral squamous cell carcinoma.

Teng’s second R01 grant will investigate the immunostimulatory mechanisms mediated by a newly developed Arf1-targeting inhibitor. The protein Arf1 is one of the molecular determinants driving oral cancer development and progression. Teng and colleagues propose a novel and more effective therapy targeting Arf1 that can simultaneously inhibit tumor survival and promote antitumor immune response. The project will allow them to gather preclinical evidence for the potential application of Arf1-targeted therapy in patients with oral cancer.

CAR T cell therapy for patients with advanced pancreatic cancer

Researchers at Winship Cancer Institute received a five-year R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute to translate an innovative cell therapy to patients with pancreatic cancer. Their approach makes innovative use of chimeric antigen receptor T cell therapy, which adds an artificially made protein called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) to a patient’s T cells, a form of white blood immune cells, helping them target cancer cells.

The researchers hypothesize that a novel population of T cells expressing a protein on their surface termed “CD26” is an ideal template to modify and use as a cell therapy for pancreatic cancer. Using a series of experimental models, they will study how the unique properties of these cells allow them to work when administered on their own. The team will then conduct a first-in-human clinical trial in patients with pancreatic cancer to define the safety and clinically effective dose of this novel therapy.

Principal investigators are Winship Cancer Institute researchers Gregory B. Lesinski, PhD, MPH, Chrystal M. Paulos, PhD, and Edmund K. Waller, MD, PhD, all faculty members of Emory University School of Medicine.

New grant to fund investigator-initiated clinical trial in prostate cancer

Winship Cancer Institute radiation oncologist Sagar A. Patel, MD, received a $1.1 million grant from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, a nonprofit alliance of 33 cancer centers across the U.S, to support a new investigator-initiated trial in men with high-risk prostate cancer receiving radiation therapy and hormone therapy. The trial, scheduled to open at Winship Cancer Institute, aims to identify and measure cardiovascular and metabolic toxicity, as well as health-related quality of life, in patients receiving either a combination of the prostate cancer drugs abiraterone acetate and leuprolide or abiraterone acetate plus another prostate cancer drug, relugolix. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network’s Oncology Research Program selects projects to advance scientific knowledge of combination therapies that include relugolix in the treatment of patients with advanced prostate cancer. Funding will be provided through support from Pfizer Global Medical Grants and Sumitomo Pharma America, Inc.

Emory computer scientist to investigate ways to mitigate bias in data

An Emory professor of computer science has won a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to develop new thinking tools that may help reduce the hidden biases built into data-driven decision making. Emily Wall, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, will use the grant to apply a theory of metacognition — the process of thinking about your own thought processes — to help data analysts be more reflective about their work.

The growth of artificial intelligence (AI) has made more people aware that using data to make decisions involves making a number of choices about which data to collect and the methods for collecting it and analyzing it, as well as how to interpret the results. Cognitive and cultural biases can shape these processes at every stage.

Wall’s goal is to use metacognitive tools that can help analysts critically assess their thought processes. 
The project will organize theories of metacognition and translate them into an actionable design space of metacognitive interventions in visual analytics, then work alongside non-profit partner organizations to co-design and develop a suite of metacognitive interventions, evaluate them in a series of laboratory experiments and assess their findings in a real-world case study. 


Emory researcher finds new source of data about minority businesses

An Emory economist says her colleagues need to take greater advantage of a mostly untapped data source. That’s the so-called Green Book, a national directory of black-owned and black-friendly businesses published annually from 1936 to 1966, the height of the jim crow era.

Margaret Jones, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Economics, says lack of data on trends in the formation of black-friendly businesses in the U.S. limits urban economists who want to study the unique spaces these businesses have occupied. In an upcoming research study in the Journal of Urban Economics, Jones and colleagues from Ohio State, Michigan State and Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada found the number of these businesses increased significantly from 1939 to 1955 with most of the growth in lower socioeconomic and black neighborhoods. “The fortunes of black business districts and their related economic and wealth building capacity were intimately related to the policies and trajectory of the urban core,” Jones and her co-authors conclude. They regard their work as “the start of a project to better analyze black business districts on their own terms.”

The authors say other researchers should be more diligent in “discovering information about racialized businesses in the past, particularly in urban areas.” They point to other often overlooked tools for studying black businesses, including city-level directories, local surveys, black newspapers and travel guides similar to the Green Books.

Economists study how proportion of women on teams increases their influence

Does the proportion of women in a setting matter for their ability to influence deliberation and decision-making? Emory economist Stephen O’Connell and colleagues conclude that the answer is a resounding yes.

After conducting two field experiments, O’Connell, an associate professor in Emory’s Department of Economics and colleagues at Brigham Young University, found that “male-majority teams accord disproportionately less influence to women and are less likely to choose women to represent the team.” They also found that “a female leader substantially increases women’s influence, even in male-majority teams.”

In short, they showed that “either increasing the share of women or assigning a female leader [to teams] reduces the rate at which individual teammates discriminate against women by more than 50%.”

O’Connell and colleagues also stressed that further investigation is needed on how the gender composition of a workplace and its formal leadership structure contribute to persistent gender gaps in participation, pay, and advancement, especially in historically male-dominated sectors.

Details of their findings will be in a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Political Economy.

Gender bias detected in AI-generated letters of recommendation 

A faculty member at the School of Medicine led a recent study that found potential gender bias in AI-language model generated letters of recommendation. Deanna Kaplan, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and director of health technologies for the Department of Spiritual Health, led a study that looked at recommendation letters generated by Chat GPT, a popular large language model. Working on the premise that recommendation letters for jobs and educational opportunities should be fair and unbiased, the researchers created over 1,000 AI-generated letters from ChatGPT for historically popular names typically associated with men or women. They then analyzed these letters for differences in language based on whether the name was male or female.

The findings revealed a difference: Letters for female-sounding names tended to use more social referents, doubt-raising language, personal pronouns and clout language compared to those for male names. Such biases could lead to unfair treatment based on gender.

The study cautions against using AI models like ChatGPT for tasks that impact peoples’ lives (such as writing recommendation letters) without oversight. It also underscores the need to review and correct AI systems to ensure they are inclusive, fair and unbiased.

The study was supported by Emory’s recently established Center for the Advancement of Diagnostics for a Just Society (ADJUST Center).

Guaranteed out-of-pocket health care costs with new patient-centered model

A faculty member at Emory School of Medicine recently proposed a new solution to unpredictable out of pocket health care costs in the U.S. Writing in JAMA Internal Medicine, Michael Horný, assistant professor in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences and two colleagues studied the problem of medical procedures with a known cost before treatment, that then increase unexpectedly because of mid-procedure complications that require urgent and unplanned interventions.

These tend to raise costs in ways that couldn’t be foreseen in advance. Horný, along with David M. Anderson of Duke University and A. Mark Fendrick of University of Michigan Medical School propose a solution that they call episode-based cost sharing, a model in which insurers use their expertise to calculate average costs of a procedure, then require all patients to share the financial risk of unexpected complications mid-procedure.

“Under our proposed model, the few patients who have experienced clinical complications would not be financially penalized,” the authors state. “The trade-off would be that the majority of patients who experience no complications would pay somewhat higher cost-sharing amounts than under the status quo in exchange for the security of not being liable for a substantial out-of-pocket amount if additional care were needed.”

Eliminating unexpected expenses would improve patients’ trust in health care, the authors argue, as well as addressing cost inequities which currently have a disproportionate effect on marginalized groups.

Study shows the effects of socioeconomic conditions on air pollution-related cardiovascular disease

A team of researchers at the Rollins School of Public Health has found new evidence of the negative health effects of fine particulate matter in the air and how some demographic groups are more heavily impacted than others.

Zachary H. McCann, an environmental health postdoctoral fellow at Rollins and colleagues investigated whether cardiovascular events caused by PM2.5 exposure (a known risk factor for cardiovascular diseases) were affected by the social and economic factors in the census tract where individuals lived. Seeking answers, they looked at data on daily levels of PM2.5 in the air and emergency department visits in Missouri. Across the board, PM2.5 exposure was associated with higher risk of a cardiovascular event, and this association was stronger in census tracts with higher poverty levels in both rural and urban areas. Other factors, like employment and high school graduation rates, had an effect during warmer seasons.

Exposure to PM2.5 has long been known as a cardiovascular risk factor, but previous studies about the role of socioeconomic factors produced only mixed results.

The new study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, clarifies that link and highlights the socioeconomic conditions that could be the most useful for policymakers to address in order to reduce incidents of PM2.5-related cardiovascular disease.

Experiences of violence in people living with HIV in Atlanta

There is a well-established link between experiences of violence and poor health prospects for people living with HIV, but these experiences remain under-studied across gender and sexual orientation. A new study led by Rollins associate professor Jessica M. Sales made progress in closing that gap.

Sales and colleagues surveyed 285 people living with HIV in Atlanta to learn about their experiences with different forms of violence. There were high rates of past adverse childhood experiences, intimate partner violence, non-partner-violence, and hate crimes among the sample, with gay men being more likely than women or straight men to have experienced violence.

In their study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, the researchers say that to increase engagement in HIV care, it is important to train health care providers in trauma-informed approaches and make mental health and social support services available at clinics and hospitals that serve people living with HIV.

Beyond a resume: algorithmic hiring

In the era of digital technology, algorithms — the sets of rules that determine how computers solve problems and make decisions — have infiltrated many aspects of our lives, from choosing the personalized advertisements we see online to selecting tailored music playlists. Now, they’re making their mark in the hiring sector.

Prasanna Parasurama, assistant professor of information systems and operations management at Emory’s Goizueta Business School, researched the impact of AI and other digital technologies on hiring, particularly how these systems may extend or lessen biases related to gender and race.

His research found patterns of gendered language and revealed how these linguistic cues can influence hiring outcomes. For instance, his research shows that certain words and phrases on resumes can inadvertently reveal an applicant's gender, leading to potentially biased hiring.

In a rapidly evolving digital world, Parasurama’s research highlights the importance of ethical considerations and transparency in algorithmic decision-making. As algorithms increasingly shape our access to job opportunities, Parasurama believes it’s important to take proactive measures to mitigate bias and ensure fairness in hiring practices. 

Mandated restrictions on opioid prescriptions have unintended and deadly consequences

In response to the opioid epidemic, Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs) have been widely implemented across the United States to reduce opioid prescriptions and combat misuse. These work by establishing electronic databases of controlled substance prescriptions that can give state authorities information to help them track potential drug abuse and plan an appropriate response.

However, new research led by Diwas KC, foundation term professor of information systems and operations management at the Goizueta Business School, reveals that these programs can have problematic unintended consequences.

While PDMPs successfully decreased opioid prescriptions by 6.1%, the study found they also led to a 50% increase in heroin overdose fatalities. These unexpected findings, published in Production and Operations Management, happen because individuals who formerly used prescription opioids sometimes turn to street drugs when their access to prescription medications is restricted. The study emphasizes the complex nature of policy decisions and the need for policymakers to anticipate and address unintended consequences when crafting interventions, advocating for a holistic approach to public health policies.

For more information, click here.

Unlocking AI’s potential

Artificial intelligence algorithms have attracted a lot of attention for being able to generate art based on textual prompts, but this technological breakthrough raises many questions about intellectual property (IP) rights and fair compensation for human artists as well as the complex interplay between artificial intelligence (AI) and artistic creation.

Research by David Schweidel at the Goizueta Business School and collaborators throws new light on how consumers feel about artist recognition and fair compensation for AI-generated art. Schweidel, the McGreevy Endowed Chair and professor of marketing, explains, "We realized early on that IP is a huge issue when it comes to all forms of generative AI."

In their research, published in Harvard Business Review, the authors wanted to see if three basic conditions were met:

• Are artists’ names frequently used in generative AI prompts?
• Do consumers prefer the results of prompts that cite artists’ names?
• Are consumers willing to pay more for an AI-generated product that was created citing some artists’ names?

Analyzing the data, they found the same answer to all three questions: yes. “In short, the pay-per-use model really resonates with consumers,” Schweidel notes, suggesting that royalties offer a viable approach to reward artists for their contributions to AI training data.

As businesses navigate the ethical implications of AI-generated art, transparency regarding artist recognition and compensation emerges as a key tenet. Schweidel concludes, “Our research indicates that consumers will feel better about that: it’s ethical.”

For more information, click here.

Transforming policing through connections and transparency

Ten simple words in the mouths of police officers as they interact with civilians can make a big difference in establishing police-community trust, according to a researcher at Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

Andrea Dittmann, assistant professor of organization and management, wanted to understand why trust in law enforcement remains low in the U.S. despite billions of dollars spent on the community-oriented model of police work meant to promote positive interactions between officers and civilians. Observing and analyzing more than 500 hours of police interactions, Dittmann and Kyle Dobson of the University of Texas Austin were able to discern unconscious cues about peoples’ emotional states after a police encounter. The vast majority — around 75% — reported being anxious even when police weren’t actively investigating a crime. Adding a 10-word “transparency statement” (“I’m walking around trying to get to know the community”) conveyed a less threatening intent, a conclusion backed up by further online experiments.

Dittmann and Dobson developed this statement after observing a smaller number of officers who seemed to be especially gifted at cultivating a better response from community members. The results show citizens who were greeted with the transparency statement at the beginning were less than half as likely to report a sense of threat. 

For more information, click here.

The price of survival in severe weather events

While severe weather events in a warming world are having increasingly dire effects on entire populations, an Emory researcher says the impact on low income families is even worse.

“We see a spike in the prices paid for households and groceries of up to 5% hitting low-income groups immediately after a major storm hits,” says Goizueta’s William Schmidt, associate professor of information systems and operations management.

Schmidt and Xabier Barriola of the internationally-based INSEAD business school, studied the aftermath of three major hurricanes in the United States over the past two decades: Katrina (2005), Ike (2008) and Sandy (2012). When they looked for associations with grocery store sales data, they found that lower-income communities experienced a significant increase in the prices, lasting months, heightening the economic strain on already vulnerable populations.

Schmidt, whose findings were published in the Academy of Management Proceedings, emphasizes the importance of extending relief programs beyond the immediate aftermath of disasters and prioritizing the provision of essential goods to communities most vulnerable to their effects. By addressing the systemic inequalities worsened due to natural disasters, there is an opportunity to promote greater resilience and equity in the face of climate-related challenges.

For more information, click here.

Historical redlining, persistent mortgage discrimination and race in breast cancer outcomes

Are historical and persistent mortgage discrimination associated with current breast cancer outcomes? A research team led by Lauren E. McCullough, PhD, MSPH, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health and a Winship Cancer Institute researcher, sought to find out.

The team conducted a cohort study of 1,764 women with breast cancer in metropolitan areas of Georgia, building on previous research on redlining that focused on metropolitan Atlanta. Historical redlining is a discriminatory practice that systematically denies mortgages and other services to people in neighborhoods based on race or ethnicity. 

Among the cohort, living in a historically redlined area was associated with increased odds of a diagnosis of estrogen receptor–negative breast cancer in non-Hispanic Black women and increased odds of late-stage diagnosis in non-Hispanic white women. Persistent mortgage discrimination was associated with an increase in breast cancer mortality in non-Hispanic white women. 

Published in JAMA Network Open, the findings suggest that historical and persistent mortgage discrimination have modern-day implications for breast cancer outcomes. 

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