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Researcher awarded $2.1 million NIH grant to study fungal infection common in cancer patients

A University of Toledo scientist has been awarded a $2.1 million National Institutes of Health grant to continue her research into one of the most common and debilitating conditions experienced by patients undergoing treatment for head and neck cancers.

Dr. Heather Conti, UT assistant professor of biological sciences, studies a fungal infection called oral candidiasis. The infection is more commonly known as thrush.

Conti

In otherwise healthy individuals, the condition is minor, but for those with compromised immune systems or undergoing radiation or chemotherapy, oral candidiasis can turn into a serious and potentially dangerous illness.

“Unfortunately, many patients who develop this condition choose to forego their cancer treatment,” Conti said. “It can actually have a direct link to cancer prognosis because the symptoms are too hard to deal with.”

The five-year grant, which is distributed through the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, will fund research into the role blood platelets play in the body’s natural defense against oral candidiasis.

“Platelets are commonly thought of for their role in blood clotting. But what we’re finding more and more is that platelets also play a very important role in the immune response,” Conti said. “They can protect against various bacteria — or in our case, fungi — which is a novel thought in the field. Platelets can be a much more complicated cell than just taking part in blood clotting.”

She is collaborating with Dr. Randall Worth, UT associate professor of medical microbiology and immunology, on the project.

The reason oral candidiasis can cause such serious problems in cancer patients is the fact that chemotherapy and radiation often destroy the mucous membrane in the mouth, allowing the fungi to grow unchecked. That, Conti said, can lead to sores on the gums or tongue, difficulty swallowing, bleeding and pain. If the fungal infection reaches the bloodstream and spreads throughout the body, it can become life-threatening.

Patients with HIV are also at greater risk of serious infection from oral candidiasis.

Candidiasis can be successfully treated with antifungal medications, but Conti said there is an emerging trend of strains that have developed resistance to commonly prescribed drugs. That limits clinicians’ options, particularly in individuals who are already in poor health.

The goal of this study, Conti said, is better understanding how the body fights the infection and how researchers might be able to leverage that response to formulate new treatments.

“The immune response to oral candidiasis is quite complicated. If platelets play an important role, we need to understand that response. The hope would be to develop therapeutics that not only kill the fungus directly, but can also bolster the immune response,” she said.

UT engineers create method to save at least $120,000 per mile on road pavement projects

Before orange construction barrels dot pot-holed streets or highways, a vital part of planning a pavement project is determining how thick the next layer of asphalt needs to be, taking into consideration the layers that already lie beneath the surface.

A team of engineers at The University of Toledo created a new procedure and design software to more accurately estimate the structural capacity of existing pavement that could save the Ohio Department of Transportation millions of dollars on road improvement projects and be adopted by states across the country.

Dr. Eddie Chou is leading a team of UT engineers that designed software to estimate the structural capacity of existing pavement that could save the Ohio Department of Transportation millions of dollars on road improvement projects.

The Transportation Research Board, a unit of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, selected UT’s project for developing a revised pavement overlay thickness design procedure as one of 32 High-Value Research projects nationwide to be highlighted at its annual meeting Jan. 13-17 in Washington, D.C. The meeting attracts 13,000 transportation professionals from around the world.

The new method is specifically designed for composite pavement — concrete pavement already topped with a thick layer of asphalt — which accounts for the majority of ODOT’s four-lane and interstate highways. Previously, ODOT used a design method that was originally developed for rigid, concrete pavements that tended to produce designs often deemed too thick and wasteful for today’s roadways, as pavement becomes thicker with each additional overlay.

For an update, ODOT turned to the engineer who crafted the original design 25 years ago: Dr. Eddie Chou, UT professor of civil and environmental engineering, and director of the Transportation Systems Research Lab.

“The previous procedure did not work well with thick composite pavement. With this particular type of road, it tended to underestimate the existing structure’s worth,” said Chou, who worked on the project with Dr. Liango Hu, UT associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Many existing pavement sections we examined now require several inches thinner than previously demanded to withstand traffic for an additional 20 to 25 years.”

The UT research team adopted a three-layer model for back-calculating the properties of the soil subgrade and pavement layers, instead of the old two-layer model that combined cement and asphalt into one.

Chou said the new design reduces on average about five inches of overlay thickness, and the reduction of each additional inch of overlay can save approximately $120,000 per mile.

“In addition to being more environmentally friendly, the potential cost savings can be substantial considering each year ODOT rehabilitates several hundred miles of existing composite pavements by laying additional asphalt on top,” Chou said.

The revised design procedure was implemented into design software that adopts the improved back-calculation model. The software also offers an optional feature that takes into consideration the effects of temperature.

The Ohio Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration sponsored the UT research.

“This UT research developed a revised rehabilitation design procedure for composite pavement structures in Ohio and more accurately characterizes pavement layers for this analysis,” Patrick Bierl, pavement design engineer and pavement rating coordinator in ODOT’s Office of Pavement Engineering, said. “This revised procedure allows ODOT to continue to produce efficient and cost-effective rehabilitation designs to manage our composite pavements.”

Bioengineer to receive international award for work in orthopaedic mechanics

Dr. Vijay K. Goel will be honored by the government of Dubai this month with the Hamdan International Award for Medical Research Excellence for his lifelong work in orthopaedic mechanics.

Goel, Distinguished University Professor and Endowed Chair and McMaster-Gardner Professor of Orthopaedic Bioengineering at The University of Toledo, was nominated for the award by UT President Sharon L. Gaber.

Goel

“This is a noteworthy award. Many of the previous winners are among the world’s top physicians and researchers. They really pick the cream of the cream,” Goel said. “I’m very honored, very excited, and very proud to have been selected. From my perspective, it is the cumulation of all the work I have done that helped me to get this award.”

The Hamdan International Award for Medical Research Excellence was established in 1999 by Sheikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the United Arab Emirates vice president, prime minister and ruler of Dubai, to recognize those behind transformative medical research that serves the interests of humanity.

This year’s conference and awards are focused on musculoskeletal disorders, rheumatology, orthopaedics and orthopaedic mechanics. Goel is set to receive the award at a ceremony Dec. 12.

“I’m helping several institutions in India to establish bioengineering programs, and I hope with this award I may be able to help Gulf countries establish programs as well,” he said.

Goel joined The University of Toledo in 2000 after 18 years at the University of Iowa. He also spent three years as a research associate in the Department of Orthopedics at Yale Medical School.

Goel holds 18 patents and has been involved in establishing several companies, including OsteoNovus Inc. and Spinal Balance Inc. He recently received an Ohio Faculty Council Technology Commercialization Award from the Ohio Department of Higher Education for his work in developing and commercializing the Libra Pedicel Screw System.

UT engineering students to show off senior design projects Dec. 7

From biofuels to a collapsible wind turbine, dozens of senior design projects will be on display Friday, Dec. 7, from noon to 3 p.m. in Nitschke Hall at The University of Toledo.

The CodeWeGo team is, from left, Rita Ablordeppey, Zach Podbielniak, Carla Marzari and Jake Perkins.

A design team made up of students in the UT Department of Engineering Technology has created a multi-lingual web platform that is already in the startup phase due to assistance from UT’s LaunchPad Incubation Program. CodeWeGo is a senior capstone project for Carla Marzari, Jacob Perkins, Zachary Podbielniak and Rita Ablordeppey.

“The team has developed a scalable web application to assist non-English-speaking users to learn how to code using their native languages, including Spanish and Chinese. The project uses front-end framework React and Golang/Node programming languages,” Dr. Weiqing Sun, associate professor in the Department of Engineering Technology, said.

The free, public exposition showcases projects created by more than 250 graduating seniors from the departments of Bioengineering; Civil and Environmental Engineering; Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Engineering Technology; and Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering.

As part of these projects, students form business-consulting units develop a solution for a client’s technical or business challenge. Businesses, industries and federal agencies sponsor the projects required for graduating seniors in the UT College of Engineering.

The expo also will showcase 12 freshman design projects and feature the High School Design Competition for area high school students from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Discovery of single material that produces white light could boost efficiency, appeal of LED bulbs

Physicists at The University of Toledo are part of an international team of scientists who discovered a single material that produces white light, opening the door for a new frontier in lighting, which accounts for one-fifth of global energy consumption.

“Due to its high efficiency, this new material can potentially replace the current phosphors used in LED lights — eliminating the blue-tinged hue — and save energy,” said Dr. Yanfa Yan, UT professor of physics. “More research needs to be done before it can be applied to consumer products, but the ability to reduce the power that bulbs consume and improve the color quality of light that the bulbs emit is a positive step to making the future more environmentally friendly.”

Dr. Xiaoming Wang, left, and Dr. Yanfa Yan are part of an international team that discovered a single material that produces white light.

The renewable energy research was recently published in Nature, the world’s leading multidisciplinary science journal.

The equation to make the inorganic compound combines a lead-free double perovskite with sodium.

“Together, cesium, silver, indium and chloride emit white light, but the efficiency is very low and not usable,” Yan said. “When you incorporate sodium, the efficiency increases dramatically. However, when sodium concentration reaches beyond 40 percent, side effects occur and the white light emission efficiency starts to drop below the peak of 86 percent.”

Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Frontier Research Center in Colorado known as CHOISE, Yan and Dr. Xiaoming Wang, UT postdoctoral researcher, conducted the theoretical calculations that revealed why the new material created through experiments by a team led by Dr. Jiang Tang at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China produces high-efficiency white light.

“It was a wonderful experience working with Dr. Wang and Dr. Yan. Their professional theoretical simulation helps to reveal the emission mechanism of this miracle material,” said Tang, professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology’s Wuhan National Laboratory. “This lead-free all-inorganic perovskite not only emits stable and efficient warm-white light that finds itself useful for solid-state lighting, but also shows as an encouraging example that lead-free perovskites could even show better performance than their lead cousins.”

“Their work is truly impressive,” Dr. Sanjay Khare, professor and chair of the UT Department of Physics and Astronomy, said. “Emission of white light from a single material is likely to open a whole new field in opto-electronics.”

Monash University, Jilin University, University of Toronto, Tsinghua University, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Wuhan University also contributed to the research.

New director named for LaunchPad Incubation

A new director of the LaunchPad Incubation Program has been named to continue The University of Toledo’s support of technology commercialization and regional economic development.

Brian Genide, a UT graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, brings more than 15 years of experience in business development and entrepreneurship to the University’s incubation program.

Genide

He comes to UT most recently from ProMedica Innovations, where he worked as a venture partner for the NextTech Ohio Entrepreneurial Services Provider project assisting scientists and physicians in developing innovations into commercial ventures that are prepared to raise capital for company expansion.

“UT is an important contributor to the region’s growth and development with a strong reputation for its support for Toledo’s economic development,” Genide said. “I am excited to join the University to lead its LaunchPad Incubation Program that assists innovative and high-tech companies in our community.”

“Brian’s experience working with bioscience and medical device companies is a great asset to UT and greater Toledo,” said Dr. Frank Calzonetti, UT vice president for research and chair of the board of NextTech Ohio. “I am excited to bring Brian to UT to join a very successful technology transfer and business commercialization team. UT is committed to supporting technology-based startups in northwest Ohio, and Brian brings the experience and connections to continue our success in this area.”

Genide’s career also includes serving as the CEO of Gottfried Medical, where he oversaw a staff of 40 that had annual revenues in excess of $3 million. He brings additional experience from business development positions at Rocket Ventures, Siemens Medical, Abbot Vascular Devices and SonoSite.

As director of LaunchPad Incubation, Genide will work with existing tenants in UT’s Nitschke Commercialization Center and its Laboratory Incubation Center, as well as recruit new companies, both from UT and the community, into the incubation program.

Genide also will serve as UT’s lead on the NextTech Ohio ESP program. The program, managed by JumpStart of Cleveland, includes collaborators ProMedica Innovations, Mercy Health Toledo and Bowling Green State University.

UT scientist studies cannabis to control parasites

Anthropologists have observed that the members of a tribe in Africa’s Congo Basin who regularly smoke marijuana have far fewer intestinal parasites than tribe members who don’t use cannabis.

It was a curious finding that suggested an interesting, if unintentional, example of medical marijuana.

Komuniecki

Now a University of Toledo researcher believes he knows why — and potentially how to harness that knowledge to develop new treatments that could rid humans and livestock of roundworms without relying on traditional anthelmintic drugs.

“Studying how nematodes reacted to cannabis gave us a window into a potential new mode of action,” said Dr. Richard Komuniecki, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences at The University of Toledo. “Cannabis really limits locomotion in these animals, and they exhibit a dazed and confused behavior. They can’t decide whether to move forward or backward, which is a druggable phenotype.”

Most anti-parasitic drugs currently on the market to treat intestinal parasites work by causing paralysis in the worms, allowing the body to expel them. It is possible the limited locomotion Komuniecki’s work has observed could be enough to release the worm from the host.

While additional animal testing is needed to confirm the theory, the early findings from Komuniecki and his graduate student researchers, Wenjin Law and Mitchell Oakes, are significant because of their potential to add a new treatment in an area that hasn’t seen much recent development.

“In contrast to things like bacteria where we can develop antibiotics, these animals are so closely related to humans that usually compounds that kill nematodes also kill humans,” Komuniecki said. “Anthelmintic drug discovery has been very slow for that reason. Also, resistance is beginning to arise in a lot of the compounds on the market today.”

For his initial research, Komuniecki introduced cannabinoids to a non-parasitic nematode, or roundworm, known as Caenorhabditis elegans. The tiny worms, which have long been used in scientific research, stopped feeding and exhibited erratic motor function once they were exposed to the compounds.

After studying the worm’s reaction, UT researchers determined they could produce the same reaction by targeting the worms’ serotonin receptors. Komuniecki has worked with Dr. Paul Erhardt, Distinguished University Professor and director of UT’s Center for Drug Design and Development, to identify compounds that could be used as treatment.

“The cannabis work allowed us to identify these receptors as novel drug targets,” Komuniecki said.

More than 2 billion people worldwide are affected by parasites, while the global agricultural industry loses billions of dollars a year to parasitic infections.

Komuniecki’s work on parasitic worms has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health for more than 35 years.

UT research links states’ medical marijuana laws with increased use among college students

A University of Toledo study has found college students in states that have legalized medical marijuana are twice as likely to use the drug than students living in states that broadly prohibit marijuana.

Those students also are more likely to use marijuana on campus and believe their peers would be more accepting of their use of the drug than their peers in states that do not allow medical marijuana.

“Medical marijuana laws have to some extent normalized marijuana use,” said Dr. Tavis Glassman, a professor in the UT School of Population Health and one of the study’s authors. “The presence of permissive laws may lead some people to believe incorrectly that the drug is not harmful.”

Glassman worked with Dr. Amy Thompson, interim associate vice provost of faculty affairs and a professor in the UT School of Population Health, and Dr. Alexis Blavos, who earned her PhD at The University of Toledo and is an assistant professor at the State University of New York, to analyze a 2013 survey of more than 34,000 college students from 37 states about their drug usage.

The UT researchers separated out the approximately 3,100 students who were attending school in states with legalized medical marijuana to compare their experiences against those students who did not reside in states with medical marijuana laws.

They identified a number of correlations between more permissive marijuana laws and increased drug usage.

Among their findings:

• Students attending college in states that allow medical marijuana were twice as likely to have used marijuana in the last 30 days than those in states without medical marijuana laws.

• Students attending college in states that allow medical marijuana were significantly more likely to use tobacco, cocaine, opiates and synthetic designer drugs.

• Students attending college in states that allow medical marijuana reported higher rates of negative consequences associated with their substance use, regretting their actions, and suffering academic challenges.

The study was published recently in the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice.

“There’s this momentum to pass medical marijuana laws throughout the country, and there’s often not enough research being done on what the side effects can be,” Thompson said. “However, there is some related research by others that has found an increase in emergency room visits and mental health issues.”

The researchers said the findings highlight the need for more robust programming on drug and alcohol education and prevention on college campuses, as well as for state legislators to more deeply consider the direct and indirect health outcomes associated with passing medical marijuana laws.

“The take-home message of this is that, in some ways, when people have more access to marijuana, it creates more of a social norm that it’s OK to use it, so we see usage go up as a result,” Thompson said. “Just because something is legalized or considered to be a prescription-type drug doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good or healthy for recreational use. There are health risks associated with its use.”

2018 report for Ohio’s Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative highlights UT water quality research

Ohio Sea Grant released today its 2018 update on the statewide Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative (HABRI) documenting three years of progress seeking solutions for harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie.

The University of Toledo, situated on the western basin of Lake Erie, is one of the lead universities in the initiative, which consists of more than 50 science teams from 10 Ohio universities working on critical knowledge gaps identified by state agencies that include the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio Department of Health and Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).

The initiative is funded by the Ohio Department of Higher Education and matching funds from participating universities. It is led by UT and Ohio State University.

The 38-page report features a variety of important research activity underway by members of the UT Water Task Force to protect the public water supply and public health, including Dr. Tom Bridgeman’s work to understand the vertical movement of algae up and down the water column to help water treatment plant operators better prepare for and reduce the amounts of algae they’re taking into their system over the course of a day, as well as Dr. Jason Huntley’s research using naturally occurring Lake Erie bacteria to develop treatments that can break down microcystin in drinking water.

Bridgeman is professor of ecology and director of the UT Lake Erie Center. Huntley is associate professor in the UT Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology.

The third-year report reveals that the state of Ohio continues to benefit from the initiative:

• Early warning systems and forecasts of bloom size and location are giving water treatment plants a high-resolution picture of what could be affecting the drinking water they draw from Lake Erie.

• Researchers are working directly with water treatment plant operators to provide practical guidance about producing safe drinking water for cities and towns dealing with algal toxins.

• OEPA modified its permit procedure to better safeguard Ohioans when HABRI projects showed that crops might take in microcystins from water treatment residuals used on farm fields. New HABRI research is helping OEPA refine the methods it uses to analyze these byproducts of water treatment and better assess exposure risk.

• OEPA sought out HABRI researchers to help develop a Lake Erie open water impairment listing policy, and HABRI projects have helped collect data critical for refinement of this indicator. Ohio EPA listed the open waters of the western Lake Erie basin as impaired based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data and have plans to update it based on HABRI researchers’ recommendations.

• ODNR has changed the way that information is collected on algal toxin concentrations in sportfish fillets, sampling more frequently during the harmful algal bloom season and from a wider range of Lake Erie locations to better understand how harmful algal blooms affect sportfish.

• HABRI has driven information sharing and priority setting between universities and agencies, positioning Ohio to better prevent and manage future crises through ongoing collaborations.

“Having the collaboration with our sister agencies to coordinate research priorities and funding is critically important,” said Craig Butler, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “Likewise, having through HABRI a consortium of university experts to take our priorities and quickly do critical, practical research with conclusions that we can immediately use to inform policy and the public is invaluable.”

The Ohio Department of Higher Education made $7.5 million available for four rounds of research funding (before matching funds by participating universities) since 2015. Ohio Sea Grant manages the projects, which also include a $500,000 match from OEPA in 2018. Results from the most recent 21 funded projects are expected in 2020.

“Colleges and universities around Ohio are making positive contributions to our state each and every day,” said Ohio Department of Higher Education Chancellor John Carey. “The Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative is a model of collaborative problem-solving that we should strive to replicate wherever possible. I am so encouraged to see how our higher education assets are being used, alongside other state and local partners, to address real issues that are facing Ohioans.”

Information about HABRI projects, as well as partner organizations and background on the initiative, is also available on the Ohio Sea Grant website. The report can be downloaded directly at ohioseagrant.osu.edu/p/qjpof/view.

The Ohio Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sea Grant, a network of 33 Sea Grant programs dedicated to the protection and sustainable use of marine and Great Lakes resources. For more information, visit the Ohio Sea Grant College Program website.

UT researcher links public health of communities to likelihood of mass shootings

The overall public health of a community appears to correspond with the likelihood of mass shooting events, while many gun control laws do not, according to preliminary research out of The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences.

Dr. Stephen Markowiak, a general surgery research fellow at UT, found mass shootings tend to happen more in communities that have issues with overcrowding, higher rates of income inequality, lower rates of socialization, and a disconnect between mental health needs and mental health providers.

Markowiak

“The communities that have suffered through mass shootings tend to be much less healthy than the national average, both from a standpoint of physical health and mental health,” Markowiak said. “We need to think about this problem through the lens of public health and encourage more objective research.”

He presented his research findings Oct. 23 at the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress 2018.

Markowiak used data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, U.S. Census, Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and Giffords Law Center for Gun Violence to develop a slate of common characteristics of communities where 186 mass shootings have occurred.

For the purpose of the study, a mass shooting was defined as a single incident in which four or more people are killed, not including the gunman. Researchers excluded shootings that had a clear motive.

One of the intriguing findings of the research is that six of the 11 common state gun control measures Markowiak examined did not correspond with a lowered occurrence of mass shooting events. In fact, some pointed to a higher incidence.

“While the data show stricter gun control laws are associated with lower levels of overall violent crime, mass shootings appear to be the exception to the rule,” Markowiak said. “That sort of supports our notion that these are a different phenomenon than your average everyday crime.”

Five gun control measures, however, did correlate with a lower incidence of mass shootings — mandatory reporting of mental health records to the National Incident Criminal Background Check System, bans on open carrying of firearms, laws preventing child access, laws disarming dangerous persons, and mandatory waiting periods.

Markowiak and research collaborators did not seek to promote any political position on gun violence, but rather show it is possible to study mass shootings in a way that’s objective and apolitical.

The researchers did, however, say they believe Congress needs to take more action to ensure there is solid data available to researchers looking at the issue and to clarify that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) can investigate gun violence as a public health issue.

Although the last congressional spending bill specified the 1996 Dickey Amendment was not an outright ban on the CDC researching gun violence as it had widely been understood, the amendment remains on the books. There’s also the so-called Tiahrt Amendment that restricts the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from releasing much of its data to researchers.

“From a public health study standpoint, those amendments need to be revised if we’re going to ever address this issue in a more comprehensive way than we’ve done,” Markowiak said.

Co-authors include Dr. Philip Welch, assistant professor in Bowling Green State University’s Department of Public and Allied Health, and Dr. David Heidt, a trauma surgeon formerly of The University of Toledo Medical Center who now works at St. Joseph Mercy Health System in Ann Arbor, Mich.