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Research Roundup: Recent grants and publications for Emory faculty and staff
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. This compilation of published research findings and the newest grant awards illustrates how Emory researchers are cutting a path toward groundbreaking discoveries.


Emory faculty receive grant to address the non-clinical needs of high-risk patients and improve collaboration amongst future health professionals

Faculty members from the School of Medicine and Rollins School of Public Health have been awarded a Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation President’s grant to increase collaboration among future health professionals and help support the non-clinical needs of patients. The grant will support the "Transforming Interprofessional Education Through Student Hotspotting" project and will be co-led by Sara Turbow, MD, associate professor of medicine and preventative medicine and Jodie Guest, PhD, MPH, professor and senior vice chair in the Department of Epidemiology.

The Atlanta Interprofessional Student Hotspotting (AISH) program addresses the need for more experiential interprofessional education in health professions by pairing high-cost, high-need patients from Grady Health System with teams of 5-7 students from various health disciplines, including medical, nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, public health and social work programs. Nationwide, high-cost, high-need patients make up only 5% of the patient population, but account for 50% of healthcare costs. 

By fostering collaborative, patient-centered care while integrating comprehensive care plans addressing both medical and social determinants of health, the program can help overcome the limitations of traditional interprofessional curricula by encouraging long-term team relationships and real-world learning experiences, ultimately improving patient care and outcomes for both patients and Grady.

Nursing faculty receive BrightFocus Foundation Alzheimer's disease research grant

The BrightFocus Foundation’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Program has awarded funding to School of Nursing assistant professor Brittany Butts and associate professor Whitney Wharton for their research on peripheral markers of Alzheimer’s disease risk and immune function in middle-aged adults with heart failure.

Heart failure affects millions of individuals worldwide, and evidence suggests a potential link between it and an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease later in life. However, the underlying mechanisms connecting these conditions remain poorly understood. Butts and Wharton aim to address this gap by enrolling 80 middle-aged adults with heart failure for a three-year cross-sectional, observational study, collecting measures including cognitive testing, immune cell profiling, inflammatory cytokines, Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers, arterial stiffness measurements and assessments of social determinants of health.

Barandouzi awarded research grant from Rockefeller University Heilbrunn Family Center

School of Nursing assistant professor Zahra A. Barandouzi, RN, PhD, has been awarded a research grant from The Rockefeller University Heilbrunn Family Center to pilot research on the feasibility of online, home-based exercise on psychoneurological symptoms among disadvantaged survivors of gynecologic cancer, those cancers affecting the female reproductive system.

Barandouzi’s pilot study aims to assess the feasibility and acceptability of an individualized online, home-based exercise program designed to reduce the symptom burden in gynecologic cancer survivors with low SES. This innovative approach seeks to use digital platforms to improve access to tailored exercise interventions for this population. 

Two Candler School faculty awarded grants for sabbatical research

Two Candler School of Theology professors have been awarded 2024 Teacher-Scholar Grants through the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to pursue their sabbatical research projects.

Aquinas associate professor of theology and culture Antonio Alonso’s project aims to spark deeper conversations about the significance of the materiality of lived Christian practice through theological reflection on the reception of Vatican II liturgical reforms in Asian, Latine and Black Catholic contexts.

In his project, assistant professor of Latinx communities Jonathan Calvillo will examine how hip-hop can be a resource for building spiritual community among Latinx diaspora by modeling how to integrate experiences of race, social engagement and spiritual support in ministry with youth.

The Calvin Institute’s Teacher-Scholar grants acknowledge the special role teachers and scholars in a variety of disciplines can play in changing and strengthening Christian worship. Alonso and Calvillo are two of 10 recipients this year.

Chemistry professor receives award to study less risky chemical processes

Emory College of Arts and Sciences Chemistry Department faculty Laura K. G. Ackerman-Biegasiewicz has received a $60,000 award for research into more efficient, data-driven ways to predict successful chemical reactions. The award, given by Scialog: Automating Chemical Laboratories and sponsored by the Research Corporation for Science, is for research that accelerates innovation and broadens access in chemistry through advances in automated instrumentation and artificial intelligence.

Ackerman-Biegasiewicz’s work will be conducted with colleague Gabe Gomes of Carnegie Mellon University, who won an equal award of his own.

“It is basically a risk analysis of chemical reactions to predict which reaction conditions will work well and which conditions won't work well,” says Ackerman-Biegasiewicz, an assistant professor of chemistry, “such that when one is choosing a reaction you can choose successful reactions more effectively and avoid the negative ones. Most scientists try to predict successful reactions by looking only at positive results whereas we are trying to catalog and study the deleterious reactions and minimize those to get to a successful reaction. It's a different way of thinking about the problem.”

“Scialog”, short for “science” and “dialog,” was created in 2010 by the Research Corporation for Science to accelerate creative scientific breakthroughs by giving researchers a forum that lets them cross disciplinary silos and collaborate on new ideas and methods.

Research publications

Monitoring gender and prioritizing gender-specific indicators in global WASH

Experts at the Rollins School of Public Health have partnered with the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) to monitor gender and add gender-specific variables to this well-known set of basic health targets for developing countries.

The authors, including assistant professors of global health Bethany Caruso and Sheela Sinharoy, produced a 60-page report after a multi-year, multi-phase initiative. The report recommends adopting 15 priority gender-specific indicators to existing health monitoring targets. The specific indicators identified in this report will enable national and global monitoring bodies to identify gender and age inequalities related to WASH, track changes over time, and provide national governments with the data needed for taking action to address inequalities.

The equity of PrEP uptake in its first decade

Researchers at Rollins School of Public Health recently published a study in The Lancet Regional Health examining some factors behind the lack of progress in adopting pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV prevention in the U.S. PrEP refers to use of medications to prevent AIDS before it occurs, particularly in higher risk populations. Though PrEP has been approved for HIV prevention in the U.S. for over a decade, adoption has been slow. The researchers, including first author Patrick S. Sullivan, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Epidemiology, used pharmacy data to look at the number of PrEP users across different regions, races, ethnicities and sexes between 2012 and 2021.

Over the study period, PrEP use went up among all racial and ethnic groups, sexes and regions. However, the PrEP-to-need ratio (a measure of PrEP usage relative to a population’s HIV risk) showed that PrEP uptake is not equitable across any of those three measures. To increase equitable uptake of PrEP and decrease new HIV infections, it is important that interventions focus on getting PrEP to the populations that need it the most.

Media and sexual violence among adolescents in Vietnam

Southeast Asia has a high prevalence of sexual violence, and the media through which youth learn about sex can contribute to the issue. In a new article in Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers from Rollins School of Public Health interviewed key informants from schools and youth organizations in Vietnam to learn about sexual violence and gender and sexual norms among youth.

Participants shared that youth in Vietnam recently have increased access to media about sex because of greater access to media technology. Some of what they were exposed to includes incorrect or inappropriate information, and some depicts coercive or violent sexual activity that prompts imitation. The authors, including Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Global Health Kathryn Yount, concluded that comprehensive sexual health curriculum in Vietnam should respond by adapting to this media landscape and focusing on sexual violence prevention.

Research addresses higher mental health care needs in parents caring for children with cancer

A team of researchers, including Emory faculty, recently examined the prevalence of mental health challenges faced by parents caring for children diagnosed with cancer. Their study published by JAMA Network Open provides the first evidence of how parents of children diagnosed with cancer in the United States actually use mental health services.

Team members include Xin Hu, PhD, MSPH, a former doctoral student at Rollins School of Public Health and senior author Xu Ji, PhD, MSPH, assistant professor of pediatrics and a researcher at Winship Cancer Institute and Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Findings show parents caring for children with cancer were more likely to have health care visits related to anxiety and depression compared to parents of children without a cancer history. According to senior author Xu Ji, the findings highlight potential benefits from existing standards of care that recommend routine psychosocial assessment and interventions, which could improve access to mental health care referral and treatment for caregivers.

Novel approach shows promise in enhancing effectiveness of radiotherapy for squamous cell head and neck cancer

A study led by Winship Cancer Institute researcher Yong Teng, PhD, associate professor of hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine, could impact future treatment of squamous cell head and neck cancer.

In the research, published in Science Advances, the team worked to inhibit the effects of heat shock protein 90 (HSP90), one of a class of proteins produced by the body that helps protect it from stressful conditions but also interferes with the ability of the immune system to attack cancer cells. Working through a combination of clinical insights and animal studies, Teng’s team explored what happened when they used a synthetic small-molecule drug called ganetespib to reduce the potential impact of HSP90 on tumor metabolism and immune response.

Findings show that combining ganetespib with radiation therapy resulted in a stronger anti-cancer effect compared to using either treatment alone.

New compound boosts immunotherapy efficacy in immune-suppressive triple-negative breast cancer

Immunotherapies involving the programmed death receptor 1 (PD-1) protein have shown promise in helping some patients with triple-negative breast cancer. The PD-1 protein, found on the type of immune cells called T cells, helps keep the body’s immune responses in check, which limits their ability to attack cancer cells. As a result, immune-based approaches to cancer treatment are limited by the inherently immunosuppressive nature of the tumor microenvironment, which can cause patients to develop resistance to the treatments and render them ineffective.

A team led by Winship Cancer Institute researcher Yong Wan, PhD, the Emory School of Medicine Endowed Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, recently reported a significant development in the search for ways to help the immune system fight cancer. Wan’s team used multi-omics analyses to find that the unusually high expression of the enzyme CD73 in triple-negative breast cancer correlates with post-translational modifications of proteins and that the upstream protein OTUD4 is a novel target for improving the anti-cancer immune response.

To target the interaction between OTUD4 and CD73, they developed a new type of small molecule drug, ST80, and demonstrated its potential to reinvigorate the activity of CD8+ T cells, the immune cell which targets viruses and enhance tumor sensitivity to PD-L1 treatment. The study sheds light on important biological processes and presents a novel strategy to overcoming immune-suppressive triple-negative breast cancer.

Decoding hierarchies in business: When is having a boss a benefit for an organization?

Most companies traditionally have a top-down, hierarchical command structure, with roles like CEO or president at the top, in contrast to the Agile Workflow Methodology, which emphasizes a more flexible, collaborative approach to work. Despite some businesses adopting flatter structures, the efficacy of such models continues to be debated. Recently, Goizueta Business School’s Özgecan Koçak, PhD, used computational simulations to explore whether hierarchies are beneficial for organizational health.

Koçak, associate professor of organization and management, and her team used a computer to simulate both hierarchical and flat team structures. They found that while both types of teams solved problems, hierarchical teams reached "good enough" solutions faster, an advantage for organizations that need quick results. Conversely, flat teams, where individuals worked independently, often found better long-term solutions, especially in knowledge-based tasks like scientific research.

Koçak’s research, published in the journal Organization Science, also highlights that complete removal of hierarchy isn't practical in real-world organizations, as coordination and communication are crucial, even in flatter structures. Incentives and rewards, absent in the simulation, significantly influence real-life corporate hierarchies. Learn more about Koçak’s research.

Training innovative AI to provide expert guidance on prescription medications

GLP-1 receptor agonists like Ozempic and Wegovy are gaining attention for their effectiveness in treating Type II diabetes and aiding weight loss, but their suitability varies by patient. To address the complexities of prescribing such treatments, Goizueta Business School professor Karl Kuhnert and Caroline Collins, MD, at Emory Healthcare are using an artificial intelligence (AI) model to create what they call a “decision making digital twin” of medical experts. The model, called Tacit Object Modeler (TOM), aims to accurately reproduce the complex, hard-to-communicate thinking processes real-world experts use in their decision making.

Beyond healthcare, TOM's potential applications include fields like law and finance, where expert decision-making is critical. By democratizing expert knowledge, Kuhnert says, TOM’s ability to “peek into the expert’s mind makes it a compelling technology for accessing wisdom” as it enhances decision-making across various industries and supports training the next generation of professionals.

Learn more about AI's ability to provide guidance on perscription medications

Equitable AI in cancer care

Anant Madabhushi, PhD, executive director of Emory AI.Health, and Vidya Sankar Viswanathan, research fellow at Emory’s School of Medicine, recently published a paper emphasizing the need for developing equitable AI tools in oncology. Their work, which appeared as a Perspective Paper in Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, argues that while AI has the potential to revolutionize cancer detection, risk assessment and personalized treatment, its benefits are not evenly distributed. They highlight that some regions and populations are left behind, worsening existing health disparities, especially in underrepresented communities and low- and middle-income countries.

The authors also point out several challenges to achieving equitable AI, including the lack of diverse patient populations in clinical datasets and insufficient validation methods. They call for AI tools that are accessible and effective for all patient groups, ensuring that these technologies don’t reinforce existing biases. By advocating for an inclusive approach to AI development and deployment, Madabhushi and Viswanathan aim to bridge the gap in healthcare equity and improve outcomes for all cancer patients worldwide.

Other research news

Deborah Watkins Bruner contributes to new ASCO guideline on cancer-related fatigue

Deborah Watkins Bruner, senior vice president for research at Emory, played a key role in the recent update of the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO) guideline on the Management of Fatigue in Adult Survivors of Cancer. The guideline aims to provide clinicians with evidence-based recommendations to manage cancer-related fatigue (CRF) effectively and enhance the overall well-being of cancer survivors.

The updated guideline was developed by a multidisciplinary panel including experts in medical oncology, geriatric oncology, internal medicine, psychology, psychiatry, exercise oncology, integrative medicine, behavioral oncology, nursing and advocacy. It emphasizes the importance of exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based programs in reducing cancer related fatigue both during and after cancer treatment.

The panel's systematic review of 113 randomized controlled trials from 2013 to 2023 revealed that interventions such as tai chi, qigong and American ginseng are beneficial during treatment, while yoga, acupressure and moxibustion help manage CRF after treatment. The guideline advises against the use of L-carnitine, antidepressants and psychostimulants due to insufficient evidence of their efficacy.

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