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Biochemist studies new point of attack against dangerous stomach bacteria with help from astronauts

Research at The University of Toledo could lead to new treatments for a type of bacteria that is in the stomach of half the world’s population, causes ulcers, and is linked to the development of stomach cancer, one of the most common causes of cancer death worldwide.

And astronauts on the International Space Station played a key role in making the experiment possible.

NASA astronomer Reid Wiseman on the International Space Station held Dr. Donald Ronning’s experiment before he activated it. For six months, the protein crystals circled Earth as they grew.

A team of researchers led by Dr. Donald Ronning, professor in the UT Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, discovered a new point of attack for the bacterium called Helicobacter pylori by using neutrons to decipher how an important enzyme works in the bacterium’s metabolism.

“There are no current drugs on the market that target this special enzyme called MTAN found in the bacterium,” Ronning said. “The enzyme synthesizes vitamin K2 and is essential for the bacterium to survive.”

Most of the people who have an H pylori bacterial infection are treated with general antibiotics that are 50 years old, and in some regions of the world 30 percent of the strains are resistant to those drugs.

“It’s likely that inhibitors targeting this enzyme can lead to the development of medication specifically targeted to kill bad bacteria without harming useful bacteria or human cells in the gastrointestinal tract,” Ronning said.

The research, which was supported by a NASA grant and done in collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Technical University of Munich in Germany, was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. UT graduate student Mike Banco also participated in the study.

Dr. Donald Ronning, left, and UT graduate student Mike Banco held NASA patches.

The first six months of Ronning’s stomach bacteria experiment took place on the International Space Station, which orbits Earth approximately 16 times a day.

“We sent samples of the protein we were trying to inhibit on a SpaceX rocket up to the International Space Station’s microgravity environment in 2014,” Ronning said. “Astronauts activated the experiment and helped us grow the large, high-quality crystals of these proteins we needed in order to use a rare methodology called neutron diffraction.”

When the proteins were returned to Earth on a SpaceX rocket, the largest crystals were the size of a grain of rice or the width of a paperclip.

Ronning based his structural determination of the enlarged, crystallized proteins using neutron diffraction, which affords visualization of hydrogen atoms in the protein.

“The usual methods for determining three-dimensional structures of molecules, such as x-ray diffraction, don’t allow us to see hydrogen atoms and their movements that are vital to the function of enzymes synthesizing vitamin K2,” Ronning said. “Instead, we used neutron diffraction for our crystal structure analysis, which allows us to see the hydrogen atoms and shows us how they do their job in the protein. In the history of mankind, there have been 106 molecular structures solved using this technique. It’s an expanding field.”

Based on the findings, it is now possible to develop molecules that are better at blocking the enzyme’s reaction process.

“By seeing what the protein looks like in a 3D model and understanding how it functions, we have a better idea of how to create a drug to prevent that function and would kill the bacteria causing the infection in the gastrointestinal tract,” Ronning said.

Eberly Center for Women slates lunches to spotlight research

The Catharine S. Eberly Center for Women’s Lunch With a Purpose brings together students, faculty and staff to support UT’s women researchers.

All are welcome to bring lunches and hungry minds to find out what researchers are working on and to contribute to interdisciplinary discussions. The lunches are held in Eberly Center, Tucker Hall Room 0152, from 12:10 to 1 p.m. throughout the semester.

The next Lunch With a Purpose will take place Wednesday, March 22, and focus on “Being Mary Willing Byrd: Race, Property and Widowhood in Revolutionary Virginia.” Dr. Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch, associate professor of history, will discuss her research on Byrd, who became a widow in wartime and interacted with the state, the occupying military and the market in ways that were considered out of the ordinary for women of the time.

On Wednesday April 5, Dr. Karie Peralta, assistant professor of sociology, and Dr. Shahna Arps, lecturer of anthropology, will present their research, “Becoming Globally Competent Through a Community-Based Approach.” This research was not only used to develop an international field school to be used in the Dominican Republic this summer, but also demonstrates how community-based principles may guide the development of global competencies for professors and students.

“By encouraging women researchers to participate in Lunch With a Purpose, we are promoting interdisciplinary discussion, showing support, and offering critical feedback that strengthens the work being produced at The University of Toledo,” said Dr. Shanda Gore, associate vice president of the Catharine S. Eberly Center for Women and the Minority Business Development Center.

Doctoral student receives award from Gerontological Society of America

Jennifer Perion, a doctoral student in the Health Education Program in the School of Population Health, received a student award from the Gerontological Society of America at its Annual Scientific Meeting for her thesis topic on “The Effect of Friendship on Malignant Social Psychology in Persons With Dementia.”

Perion chose her topic after observing dementia firsthand as her grandmother passed away from it and her mother-in-law lives with the condition.

Jennifer Perion, a doctoral student in the Health Education Program, received one of five poster awards presented to Gerontological Society of America student members. She presented her research on “The Effect of Friendship on Malignant Social Psychology in Persons With Dementia” at the society’s annual scientific meeting.

“I have observed social behaviors directed toward my mother-in-law that place her at a disadvantage and diminish her abilities,” Perion said. “I decided to research these negative behaviors and attempt to understand ways to overcome them. Friendship, which is voluntary in nature, offers opportunities for reciprocal exchanges that might help individuals feel more positive in their social interactions.”

For her research, Perion worked with the local Alzheimer’s Association, where she conducted face-to-face interviews with 10 individuals with dementia.

“I asked them about changes in their social relationships after memory loss. I then asked them about their friends and opportunities for reciprocal exchanges among their friendships,” Perion, a part-time instructor in the School of Population Health, said.

These interviews revealed five themes related to dementia and friendship, Perion said: recognizing the importance of longevity in friendship; helping one another is a normal part of friendship; feeling “alive” through the give and take in friendship; knowing somebody is there for them; and seeking security through friendship.

“A lot of focus is put on the medical and financial aspects of dementia care, but it is equally important to consider the quality of life experienced by these individuals,” Perion said. “These themes suggest that there are opportunities to improve the lives of persons with dementia by encouraging the continuation of existing friendships and providing fulfilling social experiences.”

Only five poster awards were given out by the Emerging Scholar and Professional Organization to Gerontological Society of America student members who had an abstract accepted for presentation at the conference. 

“Receiving an award from an organization that is the driving force behind advancing innovation in aging — both domestically and internationally — is a great honor,” said Dr. Victoria Steiner, associate professor in the School of Population Health and assistant director of the Center for Successful Aging. “Jennifer’s research provides insight into ways to improve the well-being of the growing number of individuals with dementia in our country. It makes me proud as a faculty member to see one of my students excel in an area that she is passionate about.”

The Gerontological Society of America is the nation’s oldest and largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to research, education and practice in the field of aging.

Professor elected president of national organization

Dr. Ishmael Parsai, chief medical physicist in the UT Radiation Oncology Department, and professor and director of the Graduate Medical Physics Program, has been elected president-elect of the Society of Directors of Academic Medical Physics Program.

The Society of Directors of Academic Medical Physics Program is an independent organization that aims to advance the collective mission of enhancing medical physics educational opportunities in the areas of radiation oncology and diagnostic imaging.

Parsai

Parsai served as a founding member of the organization in 2008 and participated on the steering committee. Recently, Parsai was asked to run for the president-elect position, which he won after a national election. He will serve as president next year and as the chairman of the board of directors the following year.

“It is truly an honor to be selected for such a key position in our field,” Parsai said. “This position will allow me the license to survey the progress of graduate students and trainees throughout the United States and Canada. This will have a directly positive impact on our own graduate students and trainees. In our program, we will have the ability to gauge its progress compared to our colleagues nationally, which will, in turn, substantially improve our educational methodology for our students.”

With nearly 30 years as a practicing medical physicist, Parsai is a member of numerous scientific organizations and has fellowships in the American College of Radiation Oncology, the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, and the International Organization of Medical Physics.

He is also highly active in the scientific community, having published 59 peer-reviewed articles and conference proceedings in preferred journals, six book chapters and 143 abstracts. Parsai has given 73 paper and poster presentations at national or international meetings, and has authored or co-authored six patents, three of which are licensed for production by manufacturers. He also has four provisional patents in progress.

“In this new position, I believe through the exchange of information, knowledge and ideas, I will be delighted to share some of my experiences in training medical physics students with other colleagues in hopes of empowering them and the next generation of medical physicists, as well as bringing home some new ideas to further improve our own programs,” Parsai said. “My hope is to continue to significantly develop our programs locally here at The University of Toledo, and to help advance levels of education and training on the national stage.”

The Society of Directors of Academic Medical Physics Program aims to promote better coordination between academic medical physics programs; to foster establishment of best practices; to monitor production of students relative to the job market; to help new programs get started; and to serve as a voice for academic program directors.

UT undergrad discovers elusive companion star to Beta Canis Minoris

Nick Dulaney was determined to solve a galactic mystery. Why is there an unexpected, wavy edge on a disk around a bright, rapidly rotating star located 162 light years away from Earth?

The junior studying physics at The University of Toledo spent last summer analyzing 15 years of spectroscopic archive data collected at the Ritter Observatory on campus and discovered that Beta Canis Minoris, which is three and a half times larger than the sun and easily visible to the naked eye, is not alone.

Nick Dulaney, a junior majoring in physics, helped discover the star Beta Canis Minoris is actually a binary star, or a double star.

With the help of Dr. Noel Richardson, UT postdoctoral research associate, and Dr. Jon Bjorkman, professor of physics and astronomy, Dulaney found that the highly studied star featuring a disk around its equator is actually a binary star, or a double star.

“A low-mass secondary star orbits around Beta Canis Minoris,” Dulaney said. “While it’s circling the bright star, the smaller star stops the disk on the bigger star from getting too big by creating a wave in the disk.”

Beta Canis Minoris is what is known as a Be star, a hot star that rotates so fast that the material on its equator is ejected into a large gaseous disk surrounding the star.

“Nick discovered that the star was moving back and forth every 170 days,” Richardson said. “This motion is caused by the pull of the companion star and is very difficult to measure.”

Dulaney also found that the companion star tugs extra material from the disk toward it. This causes the observations to change repeatedly every time the star orbits. The student’s findings are leading new efforts by Bjorkman’s international modeling team to determine how the stars interact. 

Dulaney is the lead author on the research paper recently published in the Astrophysical Journal. He worked on the project while participating in UT’s Research Experience for Undergraduates Program sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

“This is a big milestone for me and shows that I am progressing toward building a career,” Dulaney said. “Doing this research has given me valuable experience, and I am very grateful to the National Science Foundation and The University of Toledo for the opportunity.”

“Many students don’t have similar publications until halfway through their graduate programs,” Richardson said. “As an undergraduate, Nick has shown that he is capable of collecting and analyzing data, and then communicating the results with scientists. These skills will serve him well in his future and shows the strengths of our undergraduate program at The University of Toledo.”

Dulaney started using the Ritter Observatory as a freshman and is one of nearly two dozen undergraduates making up a team that uses the observatory every clear night. The students help graduate students in making the measurements and operating the telescope.

“This student observing team is a gem for the University,” said Dr. Karen Bjorkman, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics; Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy; and Helen Luedtke Brooks Endowed Professor of Astronomy. “Nick’s project highlights how our 1-meter telescope on campus is used for both educational and scientific missions.”

Professor becomes Fellow of National Academy of Inventors

Dr. Sarit Bhaduri, professor of mechanical, industrial and manufacturing engineering in the College of Engineering, and director of the Multifunctional Materials Laboratory, has been elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. He is the first faculty member from UT to be inducted into the academy.

Being elected to be a National Academy of Inventors Fellow is a high professional distinction granted to academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a substantial impact on the quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society.

Bhaduri

“This award provides great recognition of Dr. Bhaduri’s success in translating his research into commercial opportunities that can provide great benefit to individuals,” Dr. Frank Calzonetti, vice president of research, said. “His ability to look for applications of his research is impressive, and this award is a signal that UT is a national leader in research and technology commercialization.”

“This recognition has an energizing effect on me for inventing newer processes and products for the benefit of the society,” Bhaduri said.

This is the third fellowship of a national body Bhaduri has been elected to, having been recognized as a Fellow of the American Ceramic Society and the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering.

Bhaduri is listed as an inventor in approximately 35 U.S. and foreign patents, and has 37 applications pending. His inventions include wear resistant metallic alloys, innovative alkaline earth bone cement, antibacterial coatings, and synthesis of nanoparticles. He has strong expertise in the development of a wide array of materials used in structural applications, including orthopaedics and dentistry.

“I am excited and at the same time humbled by the fact that I will be joining a very elite group of people such as Nobel laureates and members of national academies of science, engineering and medicine,” Bhaduri said.

2016 Fellows will in inducted Thursday, April 6, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

UT researchers reducing fertilizer runoff in Lake Erie to help fight harmful algal blooms

Wetlands restored by researchers at The University of Toledo are showing promise as a weapon against phosphorus discharge from the Maumee River into Lake Erie.

Phosphorus, specifically from fertilizer runoff in the spring and summer, is linked to the size of the annual harmful algal bloom.

Researchers at UT are studying a cost-effective way to reduce the amount of phosphorus that reaches Lake Erie by using strategically located restored wetlands on public land in the watershed to soak up the phosphorus, said Dr. Kevin Egan, associate professor in the Department of Economics.

A 10-acre treatment wetland at Maumee Bay State Park and a sedimentation basin upstream of the wetland were built in 2014 and 2015 to test the use of wetlands to soak up phosphorus.

Results of the model system showed reductions of 50 percent to 75 percent of dissolved reactive phosphorus in the water prior to reaching Lake Erie.

“Our results are encouraging. We observed reductions in sediment, Escherichia coli, total phosphorus and total dissolved phosphorus for both the sedimentation basin and the treatment wetland,” said Ryan Jackwood, PhD student working on the environmental remediation and restoration project. “These projects serve as a proof of concept to show that these types of treatment systems work and that we can implement similar projects in the Maumee River to achieve water quality improvement.”

Quinton Babcock, an undergraduate researcher in the UT Department of Economics, is conducting a survey on what the public thinks of the proposed plan to use natural ecosystems to end the algal blooms through phosphorus reduction. Respondents have a chance to win prizes up to $150.

Take the survey here.

Researchers create online database to help inform public about harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie

It’s now easier for Toledo area residents and businesses looking for information about water quality and the health of Lake Erie to go directly to the source.

Researchers at The University of Toledo launched a website database containing hundreds of reports and studies discussing Lake Erie harmful algal blooms.

In 2014, the city of Toledo issued a ‘Do Not Drink’ advisory for half a million residents for three days due to the level of the algal toxin microcystin detected in the drinking water.

The Ohio Department of Higher Education, with the assistance of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program, gave UT $66,000 in 2015 to develop the database and support research related to harmful algal blooms.

The Lake Erie algal bloom online database project was a collaborative effort between Dr. Patrick Lawrence, professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, and associate dean of social and behavioral sciences in the College of Arts and Letters; Dr. Kevin Egan, associate professor in the Department of Economics; and researchers from Ohio State University and Kent State University.

The database currently contains more than 300 reports, web links and key contacts, Lawrence said. The team plans to update the database and add more resources before the next algal bloom season.

“The intent is to help educate and inform stakeholders in the Maumee watershed by providing access to the best and most recent research and information so as to drive an open and participatory engagement with discussion about how we can all work collectively on a wide range of solutions to reduce the frequency, size and impacts of Lake Erie harmful algal blooms,” Lawrence said.

The Ohio Department of Higher Education has funded more than 20 projects from several Ohio universities, including cost-benefit analysis for potential options to use wetlands as a form of natural storage and treatment of nutrients from farmland; economic issues associated with improving farm practices to reduce runoff of nutrients; and an assessment of the connections and interactions among stakeholders within the Maumee basin involved or interested in harmful algal blooms and possible measures to address and reduce them.

For more information about Lake Erie harmful algal blooms, the database can be found at lakeeriehabsis.gis.utoledo.edu.

UT selected as one of six partners in U.S. to join first research network on misdemeanor justice

The University of Toledo has been selected to join a new national research network to study trends in low-level crimes to inform smarter criminal justice policies that enhance public safety, increase public trust in police, and save tax dollars.

The Research Network on Misdemeanor Justice is run by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and funded by a $3.25 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

UT is one of six universities in the country to join a national research network to study trends in low-level crimes. The study started in New York City.

The John Jay College of Criminal Justice began focusing on misdemeanors in New York City years ago and is expanding the study’s scope to include six other cities. UT received a three-year, $169,000 grant to analyze local data and work with research institutions throughout the country.

In addition to Toledo, joining the new national alliance with New York City are Los Angeles, Seattle, St. Louis, Durham, N.C., and Prince Georges County in Maryland for a total of seven jurisdictions throughout the country working together.

“The University of Toledo is proud to be a part of this pioneering national project to inform policy discussions and reform because misdemeanors are the bulk of what police officers deal with every day, but there is not much research on it,” said Dr. David Lilley, assistant professor of criminal justice and the research director of the misdemeanor justice project at UT. “The vast majority of arrests are low-level offenses that carry a maximum sentence of up to one year in jail, such as drug possession, petty theft, simple assault and driving on a suspended license.”

Misdemeanors accounted for approximately 90 percent of total arrests by Toledo police officers in 2015 when there were 22,463 misdemeanor arrests and 2,296 felony arrests.

“Misdemeanors are the lion’s share of the charges that we usually bring against suspects,” Toledo Police Chief George Kral said. “I’m hoping this study gives us more ideas on what works and what doesn’t work. That valuable intelligence will help me change policy, if necessary, to make the whole process more efficient, keep the community safe, and give defendants the help they need. If we could nip it in the bud at the misdemeanor level, we could stop someone from escalating to felonies in the future.”

Toledo was chosen as part of the misdemeanor study out of 39 that applied, in part, because of the collaborations UT researchers already have with local law enforcement and the ongoing criminal justice reform efforts underway in Lucas County.

“We are one of the smallest cities on the list, but one of the factors that puts us ahead of the curve is that we have been doing this type of data analysis at UT for years by working with the Toledo Police Department,” said Dr. Kasey Tucker-Gail, associate professor of criminal justice, director of the Urban Policing and Crime Analysis Initiative, and principal investigator for the misdemeanor justice research project at UT. “TPD’s advanced data system is one of the best. Being chosen for John Jay College’s misdemeanor project is an honor that rewards our teamwork.”

UT researchers say many police agencies across the country do not know how many misdemeanor arrests result in incarceration.

“Part of what we’re doing is taking a close look at the outcomes and conduct cross-site analyses to figure out how to increase efficiency and effectiveness,” Lilley said. “Are people ending up in jail? Fined? Are charges dropped because the system is overburdened or there is not enough evidence? Are suspects going through a diversion program, such as drug court? Our research alliance will examine trends and outcomes of misdemeanor arrests, summonses, pedestrian stops and pre-trial detention at the local level.”

The University of Toledo will work with the Toledo Police Department, Northern Ohio Regional Information Systems and the Toledo-Lucas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council as part of the project.

“Hopefully, this research will help guide new alternatives for individuals that may need help instead of punishment,” said Holly Matthews, attorney and executive director of the Toledo-Lucas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. “We’re working on reducing our jail population by 18 percent. This misdemeanor project is going to help show the trends over the last three or four years — especially with the opioid epidemic — that we’re seeing locally. We have already been working proactively with the Lucas County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board to address other options besides incarceration for individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues.”

Research partners for the Misdemeanor Justice Project also include the University of California in Los Angeles, North Carolina Central University, Seattle University, the University of Maryland and the University of Missouri in St. Louis.

“To see the work of the Misdemeanor Justice Project expand from New York City to six other jurisdictions is very exciting,” said Dr. Preeti Chauhan, assistant professor of psychology at John Jay College and principal investigator of the research network. “We are looking forward to replicating the New York model to these sites and believe the results will guide smarter criminal justice reform.”

“The network has generated an outpouring of academic and government interest in pioneering a national conversation around enforcement of lower-level crimes — something that leads a large number of individuals to enter our justice system,” said Matt Alsdorf, vice president of criminal justice for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. “We are proud of the diverse U.S. cities leading this conversation, and we look forward to learning how the research partnerships inform local and national justice policies for the long term.”

Researchers across region can apply for federal innovation grant funding at UT

A new grant program called The University of Toledo Rocket Fuel Fund is accepting applications from researchers throughout northwest Ohio in need of resources to help develop new technology and gain the edge they need to succeed.

Applications will be accepted three times a year through 2019. The first deadline is Monday, May 1.

Faculty researchers at UT, other academic institutions and nonprofit research organizations in the 18-county region are eligible to apply for federal innovation grant money awarded to the University last year.

The U.S. Department of Commerce awarded UT $500,000 to help researchers in the region launch startup companies, move ideas to market, and spur job creation. UT matched the three-year grant with an additional $767,903 for the Rocket Fuel Fund.

“The UT Rocket Fuel Fund is an unusual and exciting program because grant funding will be available for any researcher at institutions throughout northwest Ohio, not only UT,” said Anne Izzi, licensing associate at UT’s Office of Technology Transfer. “It’s only done in a handful of areas across the country. This was a very competitive grant process.”

UT is one of 27 out of 215 applicants in the U.S. that received a portion of the $15 million i6 Challenge grant through the Economic Development Administration’s Regional Innovation Strategies program.

The selected recipients of UT Rocket Fuel Fund grants will be awarded up to $50,000 each to enhance the scope or patentability of inventions, and improve market potential through targeted research, customer discovery, and development of a prototype and business model.

“This is an incredible opportunity for UT faculty and academic researchers throughout the northwest Ohio region to apply for this funding for further development of their cutting-edge innovation and help move their new technologies toward commercialization, including women and minorities who are typically underrepresented in innovation and entrepreneurship,” Izzi said.

To apply, go to utoledo.edu/rocketinnovations/rocketfuelfund.html.