2012 Edition: Research and the AP Top 25

For the college football fans among us, today is like a second Christmas: The season begins tonight. South Carolina’s visit to upstart Vanderbilt is the most notable game on the schedule, as South Carolina is the only ranked team in action tonight.

And so, for the third straight year, we’re happy to present our own little mashup of college football and medical research.

It would be pretty easy to get on a roll about who’s overrated and underrated and what players to watch out for — a temptation we’ve had to force ourselves to stay away from for the past two years. We know our audience: researchers and those who care about research. So, just as we’ve done in the links above, we present some of the interesting research going on at schools ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

We acknowledge, of course, that some of these schools may have greater emphasis in areas other than traditional medical research. But where possible, we’ll highlight recent research from that school that improves health. Schools in italics are Research!America members or have one subunit that is a Research!America member.

1. University of Southern California

USC student Sarmad Al-Bassam, PhD, served as the lead author on a paper that explained what was seen using a new method to see how proteins and transmitted to and from neurons in the brain. Previously, it was difficult to isolate one pathway because there were so many other pathways — many of which overlapped. By itself, the pathway that Al-Bassam and his colleagues captured on video shows a steady stream of incoming and outgoing proteins, not unlike a sped-up video of trucks entering and leaving a warehouse. “Your brain is being disassembled and reassembled every day,” said Don Arnold, PhD, associate professor of molecular and computational biology at USC and a co-author of the paper, according to the school’s press release. “One week from today, your brain will be made up of completely different proteins than it is today. This video shows the process. We’ve known that it was happening, but now we can watch it happen.”

2. University of Alabama

The University of Alabama has made gains against chronic pain in traditional and unexpected ways. William “Skip” Pridgen, MD, a surgeon in Tuscaloosa, AL — where the school is located — has teamed with UA professor Carol Duffy, PhD, to form a startup called Innovative Med Concepts. The company has raised sufficient funding to hold a Phase II clinical trial to test a combination of drugs to treat fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition. Meanwhile, Beverly Thorn, PhD, chair of the psychology department at UA, is developing therapies around the “gate control theory of pain,” which states that pain is a multidimensional experience, not just a sensory one.

3. Louisiana State University

Given that LSU is only today starting to reopen after waiting out Hurricane Isaac, it makes sense that the effects of hurricanes would be a key facet of the school’s research. Barry Keim, PhD, a professor in the Geography and Anthropology Department, and “Hurricane” Hal Needham, a grad student, put together “the world’s most comprehensive storm surge map.” After all, it’s storm surge — not wind or rain — that is traditionally the most deadly aspect of hurricanes. “When we started this research in 2008, this approach was completely unique,” Needham said in a story on the school’s website. “Modeling is very useful, but you need to validate it with what’s happened historically. That is what we are trying to do here … SURGEDAT is a snapshot of where the most vulnerability from storm surge is located worldwide.”

4. University of Oklahoma

Paul Branscum, PhD, surveyed fourth- and fifth-grade students from throughout the Midwest to get a sense of their diets over the course of a 24-hour period. The results: Students had the most control when choosing snacks, but unfortunately the highest calorie snacks were also the least expensive. The group averaged 300 calories from high-calorie snacks (17% of their daily caloric intake needs) but just 45 calories from fruits and vegetables — roughly equivalent to half a piece of fruit. The information is important, since snacking has been linked to childhood obesity.

5. University of Oregon

How’s this for applied research? Elliot Berkman, PhD, from UO’s Department of Psychology, got volunteers to undergo an MRI while viewing motivational messages to help quit tobacco habits. Based on what Berkman learns, the more effective messages will be deployed when the campus goes entirely tobacco-free this fall. “Some of the messages that ultimately go out in the fall will be part of a neurally informed prevention effort,” Berkman said, according to a story on the school’s website.

6. University of Georgia

Collaboration between Yiping Zhou, PhD, a physics professor, and Ralph Tripp, PhD, of the College of Veterinary Medicine, has led to new nanomaterials that could increase the efficiency and lower the cost of common DNA tests. The two focused on microRNA — short strands of RNA. “MicroRNA-based therapies are under way for many diseases, but progress is confounded by the inherent difficulties in detecting small RNAs with standard techniques,” Tripp said according to a story on the school’s website. The hope is that the new method could help clinicians improve diagnosis of certain cancers and also detect the presence of viruses in tissue.

7. Florida State University

A medical device for premature babies would hardly seem to be the province for a music professor. But Jayne Standley, PhD, has come up with an ingenious idea: the Pacifier Activated Lullaby, or PAL. Whenever a baby sucks on a PAL, a lullaby begins to play; that encourages the baby to suck more and for longer. That leads to more effective feeding and earlier trips home from the hospital. According to the video on the link above, PAL is now available to hospitals throughout the country.

8. University of Michigan

We admit it: We couldn’t help but read an article on UM’s website when we saw the term “insect cyborgs.” And it doesn’t disappoint — not even for those looking for a health angle! Researchers at the College of Engineering came up with a cyborg beetle that could serve as a first responder of sorts in exceptionally dangerous or inaccessible areas. But even with miniaturization, much energy would be needed to power a flying insect cyborg and also operate other instruments onboard. But the researchers found a solution. “Through energy scavenging, we could potentially power cameras, microphones and other sensors and communications equipment that an insect could carry aboard a tiny backpack,” said Khalil Najafi, PhD, chair of electrical and computer engineering. “We could then send these ‘bugged’ bugs into dangerous or enclosed environments where we would not want humans to go.” Flapping of the wings, for instance, could generate additional energy.

9. University of South Carolina

X-rays are not new technology by any means, but researchers at South Carolina are exploring whether there are applications in areas few people have looked before. Typical X-rays at the doctor’s office are “hard” X-rays, meaning they have high energy. Professor Krishna Mandal, PhD, is looking at whether “soft” X-rays — those with lower energy — could be more a more effective way to develop imaging. “There’s nothing available on the market that covers this range of X-rays,” Mandal told the school’s website. “Nobody has explored this region, and there will be many innovations that will result from our being able to do so, particularly when it comes to medical imaging.”

10. University of Arkansas

Doctoral student Ellen Brune’s research may lead to a significant shortening of the time from bench to bedside. Her research led to an improved way to develop proteins for pharmaceutical uses. By developing custom strains of bacteria that express minimal amounts of “nuisance” proteins, Brune’s work could help pharmaceutical companies stop “spend[ing] too much time and money getting rid of stuff that doesn’t work to get to the stuff that does,” Brune said, according to the school’s website. “Our work addresses this problem. Our cell lines reduce the garbage, so to speak, before the manufacturing process begins.” She’s already founded a company, Boston Mountain Biotech, for the technology.

11. West Virginia University

An intensive, two-county study identified challenges and opportunities in obesity intervention. The three-pronged study looked at availability of healthy foods, built a map to explore the environment as it relates to physical activity, and talked to community members to get their takes on the obesity epidemic. “Prior to this, the environmental factors were not adequately studied and understood,” Elaine Bowen, a health promotion specialist with WVU Extension, told the school’s website. “It was essential that our study interventions are informed and guided by facts instead of researcher assumptions and opinions.”

12. University of Wisconsin

The university’s Institute on Aging is conducting a national longitudinal study by tracing how we age from early adulthood through later life. The study is called MIDUS, or Midlife in the United States. Of particular interest to the study is resilience in the face of adversity; the study has examined people who buck trends identified by previous studies, such as older individuals who show no signs of cognitive impairment. “This maintenance seems to be facilitated by staying mentally engaged as well as by having good social relationships,” Carol Ryff, PhD, director of the Institute of Aging, told the school’s website.

13. Michigan State University

Our bodies are marvels in any number of ways, but they are far from being perfectly efficient. In that regard, MSU researchers came up with some new ideas in an age-old debate: Why do some organisms build tissue that goes unused? Jeff Clune, PhD, likened it to building a roller coaster and then immediately tearing it down to build a skyscraper. By using new technology called computational evolution, Clune — the lead author who is now at Cornell University — and his team were able to study things impossible to be seen in nature. So what did they find? Clune continues the metaphor. “An engineer would simply skip the roller coaster step, but evolution is more of a tinkerer and less of an engineer,” he said. “It uses whatever parts that are lying around, even if the process that generates those parts is inefficient.”

14. Clemson University

For the avowed aviation geeks, researchers and students at Clemson helped a company modify a mobile drill press so that it could more efficiently drill holes into a runway. Why would you do such a thing? To create an overrun area to aid in arresting aircraft and prevent passenger injuries. According to a story on Clemson’s research blog, students reduced the enormous weight of the machine by working on the undercarriage and wheels, as well as some of the internal components.

15. University of Texas

You may remember Research!America’s event in Houston that looked at neglected tropical diseases in Texas. Flu is hardly neglected, but a pandemic is always a major concern. Lauren Meyers, PhD, an associate professor in the Section of Integrative Biology, came up with a model that simulates how a flu pandemic would spread through the state. “While the forecasts will not be exact, they give a rough idea of how many people will be hospitalized around the state and when an epidemic may peak. Such information can lead to more timely and effective control measures,” Meyers said, according to the school’s website. Officials in the state have already put Meyers’ modeling to use.

16. Virginia Tech

Macrophage cells are “the security guards of the body,” so understanding how they defend the good and root out the bad is critically important — especially when things go awry. Liwu Li, PhD; John Tyson, PhD; and Jianhua Xing, PhD, all collaborated to develop a computational model that shows how macrophage cells respond. Studies like this could lay the groundwork for future study that identifies molecules involved in how the macrophage immune response is altered or reprogrammed.

17. University of Nebraska

Fully in the spirit of this post, Nebraska recently convened faculty and members of the school’s athletics department for a discussion on collaborating research. The most obvious area of overlap is with concussions, and indeed that was part of the retreat: A portion of Memorial Stadium, Nebraska’s football field, will be dedicated to the proposed Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior. That addition, however, will also house the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab, which will examine technology, nutrition, psychology and learning as areas critical to better performance and health, according to the school’s website.

18. Ohio State University

Now there’s empirical evidence why you shouldn’t text and drive: A study, led by researchers from Ohio State, found that multitasking with two different visual activities reduced performance in both tasks — significantly more than trying to do a visual task and an audio task at the same time. The caveat, of course, is that driving and talking on the phone isn’t a completely safe behavior either. “They’re both dangerous, but as both our behavioral performance data and eye-tracking data suggest, texting is more dangerous to do while driving than talking on a phone, which is not a surprise,” Zheng Wang, PhD, an assistant professor in the School of Communication and lead author in the study, told the school’s website.

19. Oklahoma State University

Oklahoma State has been selected to design and test unmanned aircraft for the Department of Homeland Security. While the military uses of unmanned aircraft are well known, there are applications domestically as well. “You have a tornado run through an area, you need to find victims very, very quickly,” Jamey Jacob, PhD, a professor of aerospace engineering, told KFOR-TV. “How can you utilize that technology to really help first responders?”

20. Texas Christian University

As you probably know, Research!America is located in Alexandria, VA. We have some farms some miles away, but one thing we don’t have is ranches. Ranches are the province of the Midwest and West, where vast, open plains stretch as far as one can see. TCU has its own Ranch Management program. And that’s pretty darn cool.

21. Stanford University

How appropriate for Silicon Valley: Researchers at Stanford and Intel infused disease-associated proteins on a silicon chip in much the same way they would build a semiconductor. But because of the nature of these proteins, which constantly interact with each other, understanding the whys of those interactions was challenging. By putting them onto a silicon wafer, to analyze thousands of simultaneous interactions. The hope is that it could lead to patient-specific diagnoses and, eventually, more effective therapies.

22. Kansas State University

Thanks to pigs, researchers at K-State could be on the verge of a major breakthrough in the fight against cancer. Pigs with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) are being used to test cancer and cancer therapies. Though tests with SCID mice have been performed, the results have not always translated to humans. But the researchers — Bob Rowland, PhD, and Deryl Troyer, DVM, PhD — believe there may be better luck in studying the pigs.

23. University of Florida

We mentioned insect cyborgs earlier, and faculty at Florida are researching a topic that’s nearly as interesting: nanorobots. These nanorobots could be targeted to particular disease, shutting down the production of disease-related proteins. An earlier test with hepatitis C was successful. “This is a novel technology that may have broad application because it can target essentially any gene we want. This opens the door to new fields so we can test many other things. We’re excited about it,” said Chen Liu, MD, PhD, according to a school press release. Liu, along with Y. Charles Cao, PhD, conducted the research.

24. Boise State University

Boise State recently opened The Kitchen, a building designed to facilitate cross-disciplinary thinking and problem-solving. Entrepreneurs and inventors from the community come by to discuss ideas with faculty. “It’s a place to convene and have the discussions about the unique and optimal commercialization path for various innovations,” Mary Givens Andrews, director for the Office of University and Industry Ventures, said in a story on the school’s website. “We’re advancing ideas, concepts and patents, developing them and moving them along the path, and to do that you need different perspectives along the way, especially industry’s input.”

25. University of Louisville

Researchers at Louisville have devised guidelines to help nurses identify and aid new mothers who are at risk of postpartum depression. The guidelines were put into place at the University of Louisville Hospital. “The hospital policies and procedures are designed to provide perinatal nurses the tools they need to prepare new mothers so they are able to self-monitor for symptoms of depression and know what steps to take if they experience symptoms,” M. Cynthia Logsdon, PhD, who spearheaded the creation of the guidelines said in a school press release.

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