November 29, 2022

Sept. 6, 2022
Research Roundup offers a sample of recent grants and publications for Emory faculty and staff. To suggest items for the next column, please email your submission to researchroundup@emory.edu.
To read more about ongoing research at Emory, visit the eScience Commons blog (for natural and social sciences) and the Lab Land blog (for health sciences).
As an academic research institution, Emory’s faculty and staff conduct studies across every discipline, from the sciences to the humanities. Here’s a sample of recent grant awards and the work they will support, plus highlights from some published research findings.
To read more about ongoing research at Emory, visit the eScience Commons blog (for natural and social sciences) and the Lab Land blog (for health sciences).
Preventing and managing oral HPV infection
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research has awarded a $3.9 million grant to Canhua Xiao, associate professor of nursing, and Lisa Flowers, professor of gynecology and obstetrics, for research seeking to understand the role of the oral microbiome and periodontal diseases in oral HPV infection among people with HIV. The project will take place from 2022 to 2027 and will also examine the immunological underpinnings of oral HPV infection for people with HIV.
The findings may indicate new biomarkers and novel therapeutic targets for preventing and managing oral HPV infection. In addition to principal investigators Xiao and Flowers, co-investigators include David Reznik, Vijayakumar Velu, Deborah Bruner, Sudeshna Paul, Timothy D. Read, Minh Ly T. Nguyen, Terry Hartman, Elizabeth Unger and Gypsyamber D’Souza. 
Georgia Tech-Emory collaboration on cancer disparity in African Americans gets NIH boost
Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma is a fast-growing, aggressive and all-too-common form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. And even though white people in the U.S. are more likely to develop it, people of African descent are diagnosed 10 years earlier, on average, and their five-year survival outcomes are much worse. Researchers Ankur Singh from the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University and Jean Koff of the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University have received a new five-year, $2.76 million R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health to understand the disparity.
Using advanced sequencing and spatial-omics analysis, together with novel patient-derived organoids developed in Singh’s lab, the researchers plan to study the interactions between patient-level factors, tumor genetics and the tumor microenvironment as features that contribute to racial disparities in diagnosis, survival and treatment. Learn more here.
Teng receives NIH grant to study role of FAT1 mutations in aggressiveness of head and neck cancer
Winship Cancer Institute researcher Yong Teng, associate professor of hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine, and collaborators at Northwestern University have received an R03 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how FAT1 mutations contribute to aggressive behaviors of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Preliminary data for the study was supported by a Winship Invest$ pilot grant.
Improving driving safety for individuals with glaucoma
A recently awarded grant from the National Institutes of Health will support a joint Emory Eye Center-Georgia Tech investigation of driver safety for people who have glaucoma. The project was conceived by Emory Eye Center researcher and clinician Deepta Ghate and her colleague Srinivas Peeta, who heads up the Autonomous & Connected Transportation (ACT) Lab at Georgia Tech.
The project, led by Ghate’s Glaucoma and Visual Psychophysics Lab, received a $50,000 award from NIH’s Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA). Ultimately, Ghate and Peeta seek to improve driving safety for individuals with peripheral vision loss — a problem that affects 13% of the population over 65 years of age. 
Drivers with glaucoma are three to five times more likely to be in a motor vehicle accident. Although technology that cues road hazards is designed to assist drivers, it may hamper drivers with glaucoma. Ghate’s previous research found that drivers with glaucoma are less able to deal with distractions while driving compared to elderly people without glaucoma.
The project will evaluate which glaucoma patients may benefit from augmented reality (AR) cues, and also seek to identify which driving tasks may be best communicated using AR cues. Learn more here.
Studying the impacts of racial discrimination on maternity care
The National Institute of Nursing Research recently awarded School of Nursing PhD student Roseline Jean-Louis a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award grant to study the impacts of racial discrimination and disrespectful maternity care on severe maternal morbidity among Black birthing people in the United States.
The purpose of this award is to enable promising predoctoral students to obtain individualized, mentored research training from outstanding faculty sponsors while conducting dissertation research in scientific health-related fields relevant to the missions of the participating NIH Institutes and Centers. Learn more about the F31 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award here.
Unpacking the innovation process
Have you ever looked at a table or chair, stool or other household item and thought, “I can use this another way?” If you have, you might be an innovative hacker, someone who operates from a product-first search process, which is the opposite of the “classic” problem-solving method. Tian Chan, assistant professor of information systems and operation management at Goizueta Business School, worked with long-time friend and fellow researcher, Shi-Ying Lim, assistant professor of information systems and analytics at the National University of Singapore, to see if starting with a product generates more novelty (or uniqueness). And they used IKEA furniture as the basis for their research. Take a deeper dive into their findings here.
Marker of ongoing COVID-19 infection in immunocompromised patients
While most individuals are expected to clear the virus that causes COVID-19 well within two weeks of developing infection, many individuals with weak immune systems can continue to suffer from active virus infection for much longer. In a new case series led by infectious diseases fellows Greg Damhorst and Eli Wilbur published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases, researchers from the Emory University School of Medicine describe three individuals who had received rituximab — a widely used medicine for certain cancers and autoimmune disorders that weakens the immune system by impairing the ability to make antibodies — prior to developing COVID-19. All three individuals appeared to have ongoing viral infection for weeks to months beyond the expected period in most individuals.
Previous research has shown that nearly everyone with COVID-19 has a viral protein called nucleocapsid present in their blood during acute infection, but it is expected to clear in a short time after the infection has resolved. However, the study authors report a novel observation that this protein is present in blood from these patients long after their initial COVID infection. This supports the impression that the virus was still active in these patients and, by measuring changes in the protein level over time, may provide insight into how and how long to give treatment such as antivirals or convalescent plasma to patients in this situation.
Long-term study of pregnant women finds increasing chemical exposure
A national study that enrolled a highly diverse group of pregnant women over 12 years found rising exposure to chemicals from plastics and pesticides that may be harmful to development. Anne Dunlop, professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine, and Carmen Marsit, distinguished professor and associate dean for research at Rollins School of Public Health, contributed to the study published in Environmental Science & Technology.
Researchers measured 103 chemicals from pesticides, plastics and replacement chemicals for BPA and phthalates using a new method that captured dozens of chemicals or chemical traces from a single urine sample. More than 80 percent of these chemicals were detected in the group of study participants. Some chemicals were present in higher amounts than seen in previous studies. The multi-cohort study was supported by the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program. Learn more here.
Emory Eye Center researcher explores new approach to age-related macular degeneration
The journal Autophagy recently published findings from Emory Eye Center researcher Sayantan Datta on age-related macular degeneration (AMD) that could dramatically impact both AMD and other cell pathologies like cancer and fibrosis.
Datta and his research group present the key findings of a five-year, NIH-funded study of mitophagy — the process by which cells regulate and maintain healthy function by processing and removing dysfunctional mitochondria. Datta’s team focused on the molecular mechanisms that connect mitophagy with AMD, a vision-robbing eye disease common among the elderly. They also identified a new therapeutic approach that may eventually stop and reverse some of the hitherto untreatable damage caused by AMD. Learn more here.
Study examines exposure to racism linked to brain changes that may affect health
A new study led by Emory Healthcare neuropsychologist Negar Fani looked at the brains of Black women who reported having experiences with racial discrimination. The study, which is the first of its kind, identified associations between discrimination, brain white matter integrity and incidence of medical disorders in Black American women.
Through the use of MRI scans, the study found clear evidence a type of racial trauma or racial discrimination increases risk for health problems through its effects on brain pathways that are important for self-regulation. These findings demonstrate how racial discrimination can shape regulatory behaviors such as eating and substance use through damaging effects on brain white matter pathways.
Findings from the study can be especially important for healthcare providers, as well as shaping public policy. Learn more here.
How gene transcription navigates roadblocks
RNA polymerase is an enzyme that catalyzes gene transcription, the first step in the process of turning a DNA sequence into proteins — components of cellular machinery and structure. FEBS Letters published research led by Laura Finzi, Emory professor of physics, showing how RNA polymerase navigates “roadblocks” along template DNA composed of proteins that aggregate on the DNA to create wraps and loops.
The researchers used atomic force microscopy to show how one type of representative DNA-binding protein wraps DNA into a wheel shape while another forms a loop. They then used the same technique to follow the progress of RNA polymerase through these protein-induced DNA shapes. The results showed how RNA polymerase manages to negotiate the roadblocks formed by these proteins. While there was a gradient of strength to the roadblocks, even proteins with relatively high affinity were still not effective at blocking transcription. 
The insight into how gene transcription works is one more step to understanding the role it may play in diseases like cancer. It may also help in the design of synthetic regulatory circuits to control gene expression.
Co-authors of the study include Yue Lu and Zsuzsanna Voros, post-doctoral fellows in the Finzi lab; former Emory undergraduates Gustavo Borjas and Cristin Hendrickson; Emory senior scientist David Dunlap; and Keith Shearwin from the University of Adelaide, Australia. 
When less may be more for language evolution
Harold Gouzoules, Emory professor of psychology, wrote a Perspective piece for the journal Science, giving context to a new paper on the evolution of language.
A long-standing hypothesis is that humans developed more complicated anatomical features than our close primate relatives, setting the stage for the development of language. The new paper turns that hypothesis on its head. An international team, led by researchers at Kyoto University, argued that a simplification in human anatomy — the loss of a vocal fold membrane — was crucial to differentiating human vocal abilities.
In his commentary, Gouzoules applauds the researchers for providing good evidence for the novel idea, based on existing knowledge, that the loss of these particular tissues in the human larynx may have made it possible for our species to vocalize in a more refined way. However, he adds, at best this idea may represent only a piece of a complex puzzle.
Language, Gouzoules notes, is more than a sum of the anatomical parts of sound production. “Speech and language are critically related but not synonymous,” he writes.
New combination therapy reverses resistance in treating certain non-small cell lung cancers
A pre-clinical study led by Winship Cancer Institute and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta researchers finds that combination therapy of the front-line drug osimertinib and a second drug the group developed (MRX-2843) is effective in reversing osimertinib resistance and superior to using either drug alone when treating non-small cell lung cancer. 
The study was reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation. The study team includes senior author Douglas K. Graham, chief of the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, and first author Dan Yan, an instructor in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine. Learn more here.
Novel drug shows promising efficacy for patients with multiple myeloma
Results of a clinical trial co-led by investigators at Winship Cancer Institute and published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed potential for a novel drug called teclistamab to benefit patients with multiple myeloma whose disease either recurred or was resistant to three or more earlier lines of treatment.
Ajay Nooka, associate professor of hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine, is the study’s principal investigator at Winship and co-author of the paper. Learn more here.
Serpooshan lab creates new 3D-printed tool to study deadly pediatric neuroblastoma
Biomedical engineer Vahid Serpooshan has collaborated with pediatric oncologist Kelly Goldsmith to create a new 3D-printed, dynamic model of pediatric neuroblastoma tumors that could lead to improved, personalized treatments for young patients. Described in Advanced Science, the model uses 3D bioprinting and simulated blood flow to allow researchers to better understand the tumor microenvironment and its influence on tumor growth and response to therapies. Learn more here.
Researchers identify common link between psychiatric conditions and neurodegenerative diseases
A recent study in Nature Communications by researchers at Emory University and Rush University in Chicago points to the intersection between psychiatric conditions and neurodegenerative diseases that may prove why people with mid-life depression have increased risk for dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists identified genetic associations to individual proteins in the brain for many psychiatric conditions and neurodegenerative diseases. These results led the researchers to notice proteins involved in both psychiatric conditions and neurodegenerative diseases. Beyond finding proteins implicated in the development of both kinds of conditions, they also found a striking number of causal proteins interact, which proves some illnesses may predispose to others or why two conditions may have shared symptoms.
The study was led by Emory Healthcare psychiatrist Aliza Wingo and neurologist Thomas Wingo and also included biochemist Nicholas Seyfried, neurologist Allan Levey and neurologist David Bennett from Rush University, among others. Learn more here.
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