Fall 2017 Translational Research Pilot Grant Awardees

Lauren Walsh
Post date: 
December 7, 2017


Congratulations to the Fall 2017 CCTS Pilot Grant Awardees:


Portrait of Dr. JungBarbara Jung, MD, Associate Professor, Chief, Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Department of Medicine, UIC College of Medicine
Co-Investigators: Drs. Paul Grippo, Cemal Yazici and Giamila Fantuzzi

Delineating mechanisms of health disparities in acute pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis (AP) results from inflammation of the pancreas and is a major health-care burden with repeated hospitalizations which can result in death. Currently there are no treatments which lead to a cure for this disease.  Although the risk of AP is 2 – 3 times higher among African Americans (AAs) compared to Non-Hispanic Whites (NHW), this has not been studied in depth.  While alcohol use, smoking and pancreatic injury have been linked to disease progression and poor outcomes, these causes appear independent of race and no mechanism has been proposed. Understanding the biology which causes the severe nature of acute pancreatitis and how this can result in death will lead to the development of therapies and will allow an understanding of the causes for racial differences. To identify the causes and mechanisms, in a two pronged approach, Dr. Jung will first measure the expression of an inflammatory protein, activin, in a mouse model of severe AP and block activin with a neutralizing antibody to determine if this could lead to a new treatment. Next, she will identify AP patients from the UIC patient population and collect relevant clinical data already present in their medical records and compare these and other disease defining characteristics in AA and NHW to try to understand why this disease occurs more frequently in African Americans.

Portrait of Dr. Langenecker

Scott Langenecker, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, UIC College of Medicine
Co-Investigators: Drs. Alex Leow, K. Luan Phan, Katie Burkhouse, and Robin Mermelstein

Biopsychosocial markers of Intergenerational Risk for Depression and Substances

Longitudinal studies of children who are at risk for major depressive and substance use disorders (MDD, SUD) are rare, yet they are powerful designs that can tell us a lot about different vulnerability factors in these disorders. Studying children before the disorders emerge, during the process of development can provide critical information for identification, and then prevention.  The study will select 9-10 year-old children based upon risk for illness from the parents - individuals with and without history of MDD, SUD, both, or none of the above.  The whole sample will complete questionnaires online (either or both parents and child). A first subset of 126 will complete in person diagnostic interviews and cognitive testing.  A smaller subset of up to 24 females, 12 with and 12 without a parent with history of MDD will complete functional MRI scans.  These studies can lead to additional funding for a longitudinal study to look at risk factors for these disorders.

Portrait of Dr. Mehta

Tara Mehta, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, UIC College of Medicine
Co-Investigators: Drs. Marc Atkins & Angela Walden with Mr. Andy Neilson

Building multi‐level support for recreational staff members to infuse mental health promotion into everyday practices

Large and persistent disparities in children’s mental health services require a shift from clinic-based services to a public health framework. Thus, alternatives to traditional clinic-based services are a high priority for research and practice. Most prominent are the need for mental health promotion in settings easily accessible to children and families and the need to enhance the capacity of these settings to promote children’s healthy development. Organized physical activities such as organized sports and structured school recess provide physical and emotional benefits to youth and therefore provide a unique opportunity to promote mental health in a widely available natural setting. Recent studies in dissemination and implementation science highlight the importance of workplace-based support to implement and sustain newly learned behaviors and practices. The current project is a collaboration with Urban Initiatives (UI) (a non-profit organization utilizing sports and activity to teach life skills that serves low-income children in Chicago) that will use an iterative collaborative approach to (a) develop a training and support system to increase the capacity of UI staff to promote youth mental health; (b) develop fidelity measures to support quality assurance; and (c) assess the feasibility and acceptability of the training and support system.  

Portrait of Dr. Royston

Thomas Royston, PhD, Professor, Department of Bioengineering, UIC College of Medicine
Co-Investigator: Dr. Robert Molokie

Early Warning for the Onset of Acute Chest Syndrome in Sickle Cell Patients

Acute chest syndrome (ACS) is a leading cause of death for those who suffer from sickle cell disease. ACS is currently diagnosed by observing a region of abnormality in the lungs on chest x-ray, combined with fever and other observed breathing changes. In adults it generally is diagnosed several days after admission to the hospital for a severe pain episode, suggesting that the process may have already started while the patient was at home, but before there are symptoms that allow for a diagnosis using current methods. Our goal is to develop a simple point-of-care acoustic method, usable at home, or in health care settings, in low or no-resource settings, as well as high resource settings, to track the wellness of sickle cell patients and to predict the potential development of ACS earlier than currently possible in order to minimize pain, permanent lung damage and death. More broadly, the technological advances under this project, while focused on monitoring and predicting the onset of ACS in sickle cell patients, could help catalyze further advances in mhealth-enabled, computer-based stethoscopic diagnoses for a wide range of heart and lung conditions in both children and adults.

Portrait of Dr. Kitajewski

Laura Sanchez, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy, UIC College of Pharmacy
Co-Investigator: Dr. Joanna Burdette

Utilizing protein signatures from heterogeneous cell populations for disease diagnosis

Detecting diseases early using straightforward tests is critical in reducing deaths related to treatable diseases. In ovarian cancer, only 30-40% of patients survive beyond ten years because the disease is often not caught early. There are currently no routine tests performed in women’s health checkups to screen for ovarian cancer. Dr. Sanchez thinks that we can detect disease states using intact protein signatures against a complex cellular microenvironment using mass spectrometry (MS). Mass spectrometry is an essential tool for proteomic biomarker discovery allows for direct measurement of small proteins from limited amount of samples with little sample preparation. Dr. Sanchez will first adapt her MS platform to detect cell populations from disease states (cancer cells) in the background of healthy cells and develop statistical and visualization tools to interpret the data. Next, she will focus on the collection and analysis of primary vaginal swabs from patients to determine feasibility for clinical detection of ovarian cancer.  Preliminary data will be used to develop statistical workflows while simultaneously testing a model systems developed in the Burdette lab for limits of detection.  The overall goal will be to adapt these systems to human samples taken from routine vaginal swabs as an early detection strategy for ovarian cancers, leading to a potentially dramatic increase in long-term survival rates.

Robert Sargis, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine: Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, UIC College of Medicine
Co-Investigators: Drs. Alan Diamond, Maria Argos and Craig Hanis

Arsenic‐Induced Diabetes Risk and its Modulation by Selenoproteins

Diabetes is the leading cause of adult blindness, kidney failure, and non-traumatic amputations in the United States.  It also contributes significantly to healthcare costs with approximately one-fifth of all healthcare dollars being spent on individuals with diabetes.  This is particularly concerning because diabetes rates have increased dramatically over the last thirty years.  While poor diets and reduced physical activity certainly contribute to diabetes risk, these factors alone fail to account for the magnitude of the epidemic.  As such, attention has turned to the contribution of other factors that promote diabetes development, including environmental pollutants.  Contaminating the drinking water of over 100 million individuals globally, arsenic is a common environmental pollutant that has been linked to diabetes risk in various studies; however, the means by which arsenic promotes diabetes is not well understood.  The purpose of his project is to leverage an existing cohort of Latinos/Hispanics in Starr County, Texas, who have undergone extensive genetic studies to understand whether arsenic may contribute to the markedly elevated rates of diabetes in this community.  This pilot project will provide foundational data for future studies directed at understanding the mechanisms by which arsenic promotes diabetes risk by specifically examining gene x environment interactions.  Importantly, these studies may shed new light on both the factors that promote diabetes development as well as on potential intervention strategies to stem the tide of this devastating disease.  Finally, because diabetes rates are disproportionately elevated in the Latino/Hispanic community, these studies may illuminate novel sources of health disparities, namely disproportionate exposure to diabetes-promoting environmental toxicants.