UConn Health Logo Health

HSPO Newsletters

Will NIH require you to register your basic science research in ClinicalTrials.gov?

The Office of the Vice President for Research would like to share some information regarding ClinicalTrials.gov with researchers who may be affected.

 

NIH has released a Request for Information (RFI), Registration and Results Reporting Standards for Prospective Basic Science Studies Involving Human Participants. This RFI seeks input from the scientific research community and the general public regarding how best to implement the NIH Policy on the Dissemination of NIH-Funded Clinical Trial Information (NOT-OD-16-149) for prospective basic science studies involving human participants. NIH is specifically interested in learning more about studies that meet the NIH definition of a clinical trial (NOT-OD-15-015) but are not defined as applicable clinical trials (42 CFR Part 11), and also meet the definition of fundamental research. You can submit your comments to NIH by November 12, 2018.

 

For questions about ClinicalTrials.gov, please contact Research Compliance Monitor, Ellen Ciesielski at 860.679.6004.

 

Are you liable for ClinicalTrials.gov Civil Money Penalties?

The Office of the Vice President for Research would like to share some information regarding ClinicalTrials.gov with researchers who may be affected.

 

On September 18, 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a draft guidance titled Civil Money Penalties relating to the Clinical Trials.gov Data Bank. The guidance addresses how the FDA Centers (Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, and Center for Devices and Radiological Health, for drug, biological, and device products, respectively) identify whether parties have failed to submit required clinical trial registrations, results, or certifications, or knowingly submitted false or misleading information.

The guidance explains that when a responsible party has potentially failed to comply with its disclosure obligations, the FDA will send a Preliminary Notice of Noncompliance Letter, and allow the responsible party 30 days to make corrections. If the FDA determines that the responsible party has still failed to comply, the FDA may issue a Notice of Noncompliance, assess civil monetary penalties, or seek an injunction and/or criminal prosecution. The statutory maximum for civil penalties is “not more than $10,000 for all violations adjudicated in a single proceeding,” plus “not more than $10,000 for each day that the violation continues” past the 30-day notification period.

The deadline to submit your comments to the FDA on this draft is November 20, 2018.

 

  • To check if your trial meets the criteria for ClinicalTrials.gov registration and results posting set forth by the FDAreview this checklist. Applicable clinical trials include those evaluating at least one drug, biological, or device product regulated by the FDA.

 

  • If your NIH-funded study involves human subjects, review this checklist to see if it meets the NIH’s broad definition of a clinical trial and will require registration and results posting. NIH defines a clinical trial as a research study in which one or more human subjects are prospectively assigned to one or more interventions (which may include placebo or other control) to evaluate the effects of those interventions on health-related biomedical or behavioral outcomes.

 

For questions about ClinicalTrials.gov, please contact Research Compliance Monitor, Ellen Ciesielski at 860.679.6004.

 

HSPP- July-August-September, 2018- Newsletter

AAHRPP Site Visit 2018

 The Association for Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs (AAHRPP) is an independent, non-profit accrediting body that works to protect the rights and welfare of research participants and promotes high-quality research through an accreditation process.

UConn Health’s Human Subjects Protection Program (HSPP) achieved AAHRPP accreditation in 2006.  As an accredited organization, our HSPP must periodically apply for re-accreditation.  This is a two-step process.  Step 1, which has been completed, consisted of AAHRPP reviewing all of our policies and procedures to ensure they meet regulatory and accreditation standards.  Step 2 is an onsite visit by AAHRP representatives to ensure that our policies and procedures are followed.  While specific dates have not yet been determined, the next accreditation site visit will occur in the spring of 2019.

During the site visit, representatives from AAHRPP will conduct interviews and review studies records to ensure that policies and procedures have been implemented effectively.  AAHRPP representatives will interview the Institutional Official (Wesley Byerly), IRB members, HSPP staff, investigators and research study team members, and individuals that represent various research compliance functions, such as radiation safety, research pharmacy, scientific review, and conflicts of interest.  Individuals selected for such interviews will be asked questions about regulatory and ethical issues related to research with human participants and how they interact with the IRB. Investigators and research staff will also be asked about the conduct of their research studies.

In general, topics that may be included during an AAHRPP interview process include:

  1. Familiarity and compliance with HSPP/IRB polices and procedures
  2. Roles and responsibilities of investigators and research staff
  3. Obtaining and documenting informed consent
  4. Conflict of interest disclosures
  5. Minimizations of risks to research participants and protecting human subject’s rights and welfare
  6. Types of training individuals have received in human subject’s protections.

If you are selected for an interview, you will be notified a few weeks prior to the site visit.  An educational handout will be provided to help you to prepare.

In addition, you can request an educational session with the Educational Specialist to learn more about the site visit and possible interview questions.

 

Are you liable for ClinicalTrials.gov Civil Money Penalties?

 On September 18, 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a draft guidance titled Civil Money Penalties relating to the Clinical Trials.gov Data Bank. The guidance addresses how the FDA Centers (Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, and Center for Devices and Radiological Health, for drug, biological, and device products, respectively) identify whether parties have failed to submit required clinical trial registrations, results, or certifications, or knowingly submitted false or misleading information.

The guidance explains that when a responsible party has potentially failed to comply with its disclosure obligations, the FDA will send a Preliminary Notice of Noncompliance Letter, and allow the responsible party 30 days to make corrections. If the FDA determines that the responsible party has still failed to comply, the FDA may issue a Notice of Noncompliance, assess civil monetary penalties, or seek an injunction and/or criminal prosecution. The statutory maximum for civil penalties is “not more than $10,000 for all violations adjudicated in a single proceeding,” plus “not more than $10,000 for each day that the violation continues” past the 30-day notification period.

The deadline to submit your comments on this draft, electronically or by paper, is November 20, 2018.

  • To check if your trial meets the criteria for ClinicalTrials.gov registration and results posting set forth by the FDA, see the checklist found here. Applicable clinical trials include those evaluating at least one drug, biological, or device product regulated by the FDA.

 

  • If your NIH-funded study involves human subjects, check here to see if it meets the NIH’s broad definition of a clinical trial and will require registration and results posting. NIH defines a clinical trial as a research study in which one or more human subjects are prospectively assigned to one or more interventions (which may include placebo or other control) to evaluate the effects of those interventions on health-related biomedical or behavioral outcomes.
  • For questions about ClinicalTrials.gov, please contact Research Compliance Monitor, Ellen Ciesielski at 860-679-6004

 

Does NIH require you to register your basic science research in ClinicalTrials.gov?

 NIH has released a Request for Information (RFI), Registration and Results Reporting Standards for Prospective Basic Science Studies Involving Human Participants. This RFI seeks input from the scientific research community and the general public regarding how best to implement the NIH Policy on the Dissemination of NIH-Funded Clinical Trial Information (NOT-OD-16-149) for prospective basic science studies involving human participants. NIH is specifically interested in learning more about studies that meet the NIH definition of a clinical trial (NOT-OD-15-015) but are not defined as applicable clinical trials (42 CFR Part 11), and also meet the definition of fundamental research. You can submit your comments here by November 12, 2018.

 

Access to Investigational Drugs through  Clinical Trials, the Expanded Access Program, or  the Right-to-Try Law

An investigational drug is one that has been tested in a laboratory and in animals and is being studied in human for efficacy and safety. Investigational drugs are not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the general population.

There are various mechanisms through which patients may obtain access to an investigational drug. These mechanisms include 1) clinical trials 2) the FDA’s expanded access program or 3) the recently passed Federal law known as the Right to Try Law. Each of these mechanisms will be discussed below and then compared in table format.

Clinical Trials: The standard mechanism for obtaining access to an investigational drug is through participation in a clinical research trial. A clinical research trial is conducted in accordance with a formal research protocol and its purpose is to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of an investigational drug. To participate in a clinical trial the patient must have the disease or disorder that is being studied and must also meet any specific inclusion or exclusion criteria defined in the research protocol. Patients can search for clinical trials that are being conducted at https://clinicaltrials.gov/.

Expanded Access Program: If participation in a clinical trial is not possible, access to an investigational drug may be sought through the FDA’s Expanded Access Program (EAP).

Access through the EAP may be appropriate when all of the following criteria are met:

  • The individual must have a serious/immediately life-threatening disease or terminal condition.
  • There must not be a comparable or satisfactory alternative therapy to diagnose, monitor, or treat the disease or condition.
  • The individual is unable to participate in a clinical trial.
  • Potential patient benefit justifies the potential risks of treatment.
  • Providing the drug to the patient will not interfere with the conduct of the clinical trial.

To apply for expanded access, the patient’s physician should first submit a request to the manufacturer of the investigational drug to obtain approval for the use of the product outside of the clinical trial setting. The manufacturer is under no obligation to approve such requests. If the manufacturer will provide the drug, the physician must then submit a request for approval to an Institutional Review Board (IRB) and to the FDA. An IRB is a committee that reviews the plan for the use of the drug to ensure that the rights and welfare of the recipient are protected. If FDA and IRB approval is provided, in the majority of cases the doctor must obtain informed consent from the individual who will receive the drug.  The individual’s consent is documented by signing an informed consent form that, among other things, describes the potential risks associated with the drug. More about the FDA’s Expanded Access Program is available at https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/ExpandedAccessCompassionateUse/default.htm

Right to Try Law: The Right-to-Try Law (RTT) was enacted on May 30, 2018. It is intended to provide terminally ill patients a more streamlined mechanism for access to investigational drugs. The Right to Try Law provides a right to request access to the drug. The manufacturer of the drug is under no obligation to grant such requests.

Like the EAP, the RTT law allows for the use of an investigational drug by a patient who has been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease or condition, who has exhausted approved treatment options, and who is unable to participate in a clinical trial involving the eligible investigational drug. An eligible investigational drug means a drug for which a Phase 1 clinical trial has been completed but the drug has still not been fully approved by the FDA. A Phase 1 clinical trial is done primarily to determine the dose of the drug that may be given safely to humans. Determining whether the drug is actually effective comes in later phases of the trial.

Unlike the EAP, the RTT law eliminates the need for approval from the FDA and Institutional Review Board and it provides the sponsor and physician protection from liability associated with harm caused by use of the investigational drug. While the RTT law does specify that the treating physician must obtain the informed consent of the patient, unlike the EAP, the RTT law does not specify the required elements of that informed consent.

Because the RTT law is fairly new, it is not yet clear whether this mechanism will be accepted by manufacturers of investigational drugs.

The following table describes the major similarities and differences of the three current processes by which seriously ill patients may obtain access to investigational drugs.

 

Clinical Trials Expanded Access Program Right –to Try-Law
Who can participate? Patients with a condition for which a drug is being developed who meet the inclusion criteria for the trial.

 

Patients with a serious/immediately life-threatening disease or terminal condition, unable to participate in a clinical trial. Patients with a serious/immediately life-threatening disease or terminal condition, unable to participate in a clinical trial.

 

Investigational Drug Not FDA Approved Not FDA Approved Not FDA Approved, Phase 1 trial completed

 

FDA Approval Required Required Not Required
IRB Approval Required Required Not Required
Informed Consent Required and must include specific elements required by regulation

 

Required and must include specific elements required by regulation

 

Required, but no specific elements are identified

 

 

Manufacturer Obligated to Provide the Investigational Drug Yes, to those individuals  who provide informed consent to participate in the trial No No
Liability waived for any risk associated with Drug No No Yes

 

How can I learn about research studies that are looking for volunteers?

To find ongoing studies that are currently recruiting participants at UConn, you can explore the following online listings:

To search for trials recruiting nationally, please check out the websites below:

 

New OVPR Website

The Office of the Vice President for Research is pleased to present a new and improved website. The new site is still home to all of the important information you need to take care of the day-to-day of your research projects, just in a prettier package. There is some new information as well, including:

  • Cross Campus Collaboration resource page
  • Training page related to all types of research-related trainings

Please note that the OVPR’s new sites for information pertaining to Storrs, the regional campuses, and UConn Health have new URLs. If you have bookmarked pages, you will need to update to the new URLs.

If you are having trouble locating something you need, please don’t hesitate to contact the relevant service unit. Visit the OVPR Contacts page to find the office or OVPR team you need.

HSPP- April- May-June, 2018 – Newsletter

Clinical Trials – What you need to Know

Did you know the public clinical trials registry, ClinicalTrials.gov, was created in February 2000 in support of a 1997 federal law requiring public registration of clinical trials? It was designed as a web-based catalog of clinical trials to serve as a resource for the patient and research community alike. The law has since expanded to require more types of clinical trials research to be registered, and for some trials, results are also required to be posted.

Did you know there are at least 4 organizations that may require you to register your study on ClinicalTrials.gov? The FDA, National Institutes of Health (NIH), International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) and World Health Organization (WHO) each have rules about registering. For more details on each, please click here.

Did you know the NIH and ICMJE have expanded their definitions of a clinical trial to include behavioral trials? Click here for NIH’s definition. Click here for the ICMJE definition.

Did you know that for studies that require results to be posted per the federal law with completion dates after 1/18/17, a final version of the IRB-approved protocol document and statistical analysis plan must be uploaded to the ClinicalTrials.gov record? Limited information may be redacted. For details, click here.

Should your study be registered with ClinicalTrials.gov?

For more information, see our webpages or contact Ellen Ciesielski (eciesielski@uchc.edu, 860-679-6004) in Research Compliance Services.

 

Inclusion of Children in Research

When a Principal Investigator (PI) proposes a research project that will involve an intervention or interaction with children, the PI must demonstrate to the IRB that the additional protections afforded to children by regulations have been addressed. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have each established regulations governing the inclusion of children in research and the UConn Health IRB has incorporated these regulations into policy.  When proposing a research study that will include children as subjects investigators should review the following material:

  • IRB Policy 2011-006.0, Additional Protections for Certain Populations – General Policy,
  • IRB Policy 2011-006.3, Additional Protections for Certain Populations – Children,
  • Form D, Additional Protections for Children Involved as Subjects in Research

In order for the IRB to approve a research protocol that will enroll children, the IRB must assess the information provided by the PI and be able to determine that the research falls within one or more of the following permissible categories and that the plans for obtaining the assent of the child and permission of the parents are appropriate. The examples provided within each category were taken from the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) Program.

Category 1: Research not involving greater than minimal risk.

Minimal risk means that the probability and magnitude of harm or discomfort anticipated in the research are not greater in and of themselves than those ordinarily encountered in daily life or during the performance of routine physical or psychological examinations or tests.

To be approvable under this category, the IRB must find that the research presents no greater than “minimal risk” to children, and that adequate provisions are made for soliciting the assent of the children and the permission of their parents or guardians. The IRB may determine that permission from one parent is sufficient.

Examples of Research Projects That May Fall Within Category 1

  • A study to determine the relationship between maternal age and head circumference at birth. Measurement of head circumference is part of the normal newborn examination, and is therefore minimal risk.
  • A study to determine the incidence of asymptomatic proteinuria in school age children. The research involves the analysis of a voided urine collection, which is minimal risk.

Category 2: Research involving greater than minimal risk but presenting the prospect of direct benefit to the individual subjects.

This category is inclusive of research in which more than minimal risk to children is presented by an intervention or procedure that holds out the prospect of direct benefit for the individual subject, or by a monitoring procedure that is likely to contribute to the subject’s well-being. The IRB may approve research under this category only if the IRB finds and documents that:

(a) The risk is justified by the anticipated benefit to the subjects;

(b) The relation of the anticipated benefit to the risk is at least as favorable to the subjects as that presented by available alternative approaches; and

(c) Adequate provisions are made for soliciting the assent of the children and permission of their parents or guardians.   The IRB may determine that permission from one parent is sufficient.

Examples of Research Projects That May Fall Within Category 2:

A pilot study of a shorter duration of antibiotic treatment for uncomplicated otitis media. The potential benefit associated with the shorter duration of treatment is increased compliance, and a reduced rate of antibiotic-related diarrhea. The risk associated with the shorter duration of therapy is a higher likelihood of treatment failure.

The risk associated with this research (e.g. treatment failure) appears to be greater than minimal but can be justified by the anticipated benefit (reduce rate of antibiotic diarrhea); and there is the prospect of direct benefit to the child (increased compliance, shorter exposure time, and a reduced rate of antibiotic-related diarrhea). If the risk-benefit relationship is as favorable as the one seen with standard care (e.g. use of the antibiotic for standard time frame), this research would be approvable under this category.

Use of a placebo, or routine monitoring for safety, is not considered to provide direct benefit to subjects.

Category 3: Research involving greater than minimal risk and no prospect of direct benefit to individual subjects, but likely to yield generalizable knowledge about the subjects’ disorder or condition.

 

This category is inclusive of research in which more than minimal risk to children is presented by an intervention or procedure that does not hold out the prospect of direct benefit for the individual subject, or by a monitoring procedure which is not likely to contribute to the well-being of the subject. To be approvable under this category, the children to be enrolled must have the disorder or condition under study (i.e. a healthy control group would not be allowable) and the IRB must find and document that:

(a) The risk represents a minor increase over minimal risk;

(b) The intervention or procedure presents experiences to subjects that are reasonably commensurate with those inherent in their actual or expected medical, dental, psychological, social, or educational situations;

(c) The intervention or procedure is likely to yield generalizable knowledge about the subjects’ disorder or condition which is of vital importance for the understanding or amelioration of the subjects’ disorder or condition; and

(d) Adequate provisions are made for soliciting assent of the children and permission of their parents or guardians. In most cases permission from both parents is required.

Examples of Procedures That May Involve Minor Increase Over Minimal Risk:

  • Catheterized urine collection
  • Skin biopsy or bone marrow biopsy
  • MRI scan with sedation

Example of Research That May Fall Within Category 3:

A study to determine the clinical relevance of a new technique to quantitate minimal residual disease (MRD) during therapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children. The study requires one additional bone marrow aspirate be performed during the course of treatment. Therapy for the subject will not be altered based on the results of the assay. However, if it can be shown that the presence of MRD predicts poor outcome, in the future, patients with MRD can receive more intensive treatment and increase their chance of cure.

It can be argued that the risk of a bone marrow aspirate in a child is only a minor increase over minimal risk. Further, the risk appears commensurate with risks inherent in the subject’s actual medical situation, and the research may yield knowledge of vital importance about the child’s disease (leukemia).

Category 4: Research not otherwise approvable which presents an opportunity to understand, prevent, or alleviate a serious problem affecting the health or welfare of children

 

For research not otherwise approvable that presents an opportunity to understand, prevent, or alleviate a serious problem affecting the health or welfare of children the IRB must find and document:

  1. That the research presents a reasonable opportunity to further the understanding, prevention, or alleviation of a serious problem affecting the health or welfare of children; and
  1. b)   For studies funded or supported by DHHS, the Secretary, or for studies subject to FDA oversight the Commissioner, after consultation with a panel of experts in pertinent   disciplines (for example: science, medicine, education, ethics, law) and following opportunity for public review and comment, has determined either:

(1)       that the research in fact satisfies the conditions of one of the aforementioned categories, as applicable, or

(2)       (i) the research presents a reasonable opportunity to further the understanding, prevention, or alleviation of a serious problem affecting the health or welfare of children; (ii) the research will be conducted in accordance with sound ethical principles; (iii) adequate provisions are made for soliciting the assent of children and the permission of their parents or guardians.

General Requirements for Assent and Permission:  

 Assent means an affirmative agreement to participate in research used with those who are not competent or not of legal age to provide informed consent. Failure to object may not be construed as assent.

 For children to participate in research, the IRB must determine that adequate provisions are made for soliciting the assent of the children when in the judgment of the IRB the children are capable of providing assent. The IRB will take into account the ages, maturity, and psychological state of the children involved. The judgment may be made for all children to be involved in research under a particular protocol, or for each child. When the IRB determines that assent is required, it shall also determine whether and how assent must be documented.

The IRB may determine that assent is not a necessary condition for proceeding with the research if the capability of some or all of the children is so limited that they cannot reasonably be consulted or that the intervention or procedure involved in the research holds out a prospect of direct benefit that is important to the health or well-being of the children and is available only in the context of the research.

Permission is the agreement of parent(s) or guardian to the participation of their child in research. Permission is generally documented by have the parent(s)/guardian sign an informed consent document.

For research studies not involving greater than minimal risk (Category 1 ) and research involving greater than minimal risk but presenting the prospect of direct benefit to the individual subjects (Category 2) the IRB may find that the permission of one parent or guardian is sufficient. For research studies involving greater than minimal risk and no prospect of direct benefit to individual subjects, but likely to yield generalizable knowledge about the subjects’ disorder or condition (Category 3), and for research studies not otherwise approvable which presents an opportunity to understand, prevent, or alleviate a serious problem affecting the health or welfare of children (Category 4), both parents/guardians must give their permission unless one is deceased, unknown, incompetent or not reasonably available, or unless only one parent has legal responsibility for the care and custody of the child.

If the IRB determines that a research protocol is designed for conditions or for a subject population for which parental or guardian permission is not a reasonable requirement to protect the subject (e.g., neglected or abused children) it may waive the consent requirements provided an appropriate mechanism for protecting the children who will participate as subjects in the research is substituted, and provided further that the waiver is not inconsistent with Federal, state or local law.

The choice of an appropriate mechanism would depend upon the nature and purpose of the activities described in the protocol, the risk and anticipated benefit to the research subjects, and their age, maturity status and condition.

 

Inclusion or Wards in Research

 Children who are wards of the state or any other agency, institution, or entity can be included in research involving greater than minimal risk and no prospect of direct benefit to the individual subjects, but likely to yield generalizable knowledge about the subject’s disorder or condition (Category 3) or research that is not approvable under a defined regulatory category but that presents an opportunity to understand, prevent, or alleviate a serious problem affecting the health or welfare of children (Category 4) only if the research is related to their status as wards, or is conducted in schools, camps, hospitals, organizations, or similar settings in which the majority of children involved as subjects are not wards.

Each child must have an advocate appointed who has the background and experience to act in, and agrees to act in, the best interests of the child, and who is not associated in any way with the research, researchers, or guardian organization.

 

ResearchMatch training

ResearchMatch.org is a national online recruitment tool, funded by the National Institutes of Health and maintained at Vanderbilt University. ResearchMatch connects researchers with individuals interested in participating in research studies, through its secure, online matching tool. There is no cost to UConn Health researchers to use ResearchMatch.

To learn more about using ResearchMatch for your studies, register for the free ResearchMatch Researcher Webinar Training/Live Demo on Thursday, July 12, 2018 from 3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. The training is open to all research staff. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email with instructions on joining the training.

The team at ResearchMatch will show you how to register your studies, create a cohort of potential volunteers and send out contact messages and surveys. They will also cover how to send a pre-screening (eligibility) survey, contact the volunteers that replied ‘yes’ to your initial message, and manage your enrollment continuum.

To register for the training, click here:

https://attendee.gototraining.com/r/9112903382698216193

For additional information, contact Ellen Ciesielski (eciesielski@uchc.edu; 860-679-6004).

Additional Information on Newly Published Research Policies

The newly published policies for Animal Use in Research, Teaching and Testing and Research Involving Human Subjects revise the existing UConn Storrs policies to establish a uniform regulatory compliance statement that applies to all campuses under which the programs at UConn Health and Storrs operate.  A single, overarching policy will help in the development of other policies and procedures to help facilitate cross-campus initiatives.

Key revisions:

  • Clarification of who the policies apply to (both policies)
  • Revisions to definitions to make them consistent with the regulatory definition (both policies)
  • Clarification regarding the role of the Institutional Official and committees (IACUC and IRB)
  • Clarification of the authority of the attending veterinarian to be consistent with regulatory requirements (Animal Use policy)
  • Clarification of the authority of the IRB to be consistent with regulatory requirements (Human Subjects Research policy)
  • Revisions to the enforcement section to make the sections consistent with other university policies (both policies)
  • Updated list of authorities (both policies)

 

The Human Stem Cell Research policy clarifies and updates the existing University-wide policy regarding the type and scope of research to which the policy applies.

 

The ClinicalTrials.gov policy establishes a new University-wide policy to address FDA, NIH and CMS requirements that applicable trials are registered.

 

Animal Use in Research, Teaching and Testing: https://policy.uconn.edu/?p=113

Human Stem Cell Research Approval: https://policy.uconn.edu/?p=2453

Human Subjects Research: https://policy.uconn.edu/?p=406

ClinicalTrials.gov: https://policy.uconn.edu/?p=7310

 

For additional information, contact Ellen Ciesielski (eciesielski@uchc.edu, 860-679-6004)

 

Revised & New University-Wide Research Policies

 

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) Research Compliance Services would like to share some important updates regarding university policies for animal use, human subjects, and stem cell research. These policies were revised to be consistent with federal requirements and are now in effect for all campuses, including UConn Health.  A new university-wide policy to address FDA, NIH, and CMS requirements for registration of applicable trials to ClinicalTrials.gov has also been published.

 

Please see links to published policies below.

 

ClinicalTrials.gov: https://policy.uconn.edu/?p=7310

Animal Use in Research, Teaching and Testing: https://policy.uconn.edu/?p=113

Human Stem Cell Research Approval: https://policy.uconn.edu/?p=2453

Human Subjects Research: https://policy.uconn.edu/?p=406

 

For additional information, contact Ellen Ciesielski (eciesielski@uchc.edu, 860-679-6004).

 

Human Subjects Protection Program – January-February- March , 2018 -Newsletter

 

Delay of Revised Common Rule and Revised UConn Health IRB Policies  

Implementation of the revised version of the Federal regulation governing federally funded/supported research (i.e. 45 CFR 46, also known as the Common Rule) has been delayed until July 19, 2018. In spite of this delay, the UConn Health IRB has moved forward with implementing several changes that aim to reduce regulatory burden on investigators while still offering protection to research participants, complying with current regulatory requirements and being prepared to comply with the revised requirements.

Several IRB forms, templates and policies have been revised. Understanding the reasons for these changes, what has been changed and to what type of research these changes apply may aid investigators in complying with IRB polices as well as with federal regulations.

The following table lists the UConn Health IRB polices that have been changed, a description of the change and the IRB forms that have been modified due to the policy revisions.

 
Name of the Revised Policy Description of the Policy Change IRB Forms changed due to this Policy Revision
2011-008.0 -Informed Consent – Forms This policy has been revised to include the additional elements of consent put forth in the revised version of 45 CFR 46.

 

These elements, while currently optional, will become required for Federal Funded /Supported (FFS) research only if the proposed revised regulation is implemented. If implemented these elements will be required for FFS research initially approved after the effective date of the regulation or for FFS research approved prior to the effective date of the revised rule that is still enrolling subjects and that is being transitioned to review under the revised rule.

 

While the applicable regulatory criteria for consent will be used as the general premise for all consent forms, when the research is not federally funded or supported, nor subject to FDA oversight, the IRB may exercise judgement when determining if the elements of consent have been appropriately addressed.

 

New elements of consent:

 

*  The prospective subject or the LAR will be provided with the information that a reasonable person would want to have in order to make an informed decision about whether to participate, and will be given an opportunity to discuss that information.

*  The ICF must begin with a concise and focused presentation of the key information that is most likely to assist a prospective subject or LAR in understanding the reasons why one might or might not want to participate in the research. This part of the informed consent must be organized and presented in a way that facilitates comprehension.

 

*  Informed consent as a whole presents information in sufficient detail relating to the research, and is be organized and presented in a way that does not merely provide lists of isolated facts, but rather facilitates the prospective subject’s or LAR’s understanding of the reasons why one might or might not want to participate.

 

*One of the following statements if the research involves the collection of identifiable private information (IPI) or identifiable biospecimens (IB)

(i) A statement that identifiers might be removed from the IPI or IB and that, after such removal, the information or biospecimens could be used for future research studies or distributed to another investigator for future research studies without additional informed consent from the subject or the LAR, if this might be a possibility;   OR

(ii) A statement that the subject’s information or biospecimens collected as part of the research, even if identifiers are removed, will not be used or distributed for future research studies.

 

*  A statement that the subject’s biospecimens (even if identifiers are removed) may be used for commercial profit and whether the subject will or will not share in this commercial profit.

 

*  A statement regarding whether clinically relevant research results, including individual research results, will be disclosed to subjects, and if so, under what conditions.

 

*  For research involving biospecimens, whether the research will (if known) or might include whole genome sequencing (i.e. sequencing of a human germline or somatic specimen with the intent to generate the genome or exome sequence of that specimen).

 

Consent Form Checklist 

 

Consent Form Template

Policy 2011-008.1 – Informed Consent – Process This policy has been changed so that the IRB may approve a non-federally funded or supported research proposal in which an investigator will obtain information or biospecimens for the purpose of screening, recruitment or determining the eligibility of prospective subjects without the informed consent of the prospective subject (and without the need for waivers or alterations), if either of the following conditions is met:

·    The investigator will obtain information related to screening, recruiting or determining eligibility through oral or written communication with the prospective subject.

·    The investigator will obtain identifiable private information or identifiable biospecimens for the purpose of screening, recruiting or determining eligibility by accessing records or stored identifiable biospecimens.

*  In order to access records or specimens for such purposes, there must be an established relationship between the investigator and the individuals whose records /specimens will be reviewed.

*  The investigator may delegate the review to designated UConn Health research staff.

*  Appropriate measures must be in place to protect the confidentiality of the data being utilized.

 

If the revised regulation is implemented in July this provision will be extended to federally funded/supported research.

 

Electronic Informed Consent (eIC) Process

The investigator should give to the IRB access to the e-consent platform to review the usability of the eIC materials to ensure that they are easy to navigate and that the user may navigate forward or backward within the system, or stop and complete the process at a later time. The investigator must also ensure there is a mechanism in place whereby subjects may ask and obtain answers to questions.

 

When eIC is proposes subjects must still be provided the option of the consent process occurring in person using a paper based consent form.

 

 

Text in the IRB application in the section regarding confidentiality has been revised to make it clear that the provisions for protecting the confidentiality of the data as described in the IRB application extend data collected during screening.

 

Policy 2011-008.2 – Informed Consent – Waivers and Alterations This policy has been changed to incorporate the new requirement for a waiver or alteration of consent. Per the new requirement, if the research involves using identifiable private information (IPI) or identifiable biospecimens (IB), the investigator must explain why the research could not practicably be carried out without using such IPI or IB.   This element is now applicable to all research requesting a waiver or alteration.

 

This policy also now includes new option to grant a waiver of documentation of consent for non-federally funded or supported research. This new option may apply when the subjects are members of a distinct cultural group or community in which signing forms is not the norm, the research presents no more than minimal risk of harm to subjects and there is an appropriate alternative mechanism for documenting that informed consent was obtained. The IRB will evaluate alternative mechanisms on a case-by-case basis based on information put forth by the PI.  If the revised regulation is implemented in July this provision will extend to federally funded / supported non-exempt.

 

 

Request for Full or Partial Waiver Informed Consent

 

Request to Waive Documentation of Consent

Policy 2011-008.5 – Informed Consent – Providing and Obtaining Informed Consent

 

This policy has been modified to allow obtaining consent from a “next of kin” for adults who are not mentally retarded.

 

If the potential participant does not have an appointed legally authorized representative (e.g., individuals designated as having power of attorney for health care, individuals designated as health care representatives) next-of-kin for adults who are not mentally retarded can consent on behalf of a prospective subject as defined in institutional policy 2012-05 titled Legal Representative for Health Care Decisions.

 

None
Policy 2011-023.0 – Educational Requirements. This policy has been changed so that human subjects protection training for all research (exempt, expedited, full board or facilitated review), will be verified for all study personnel at the time of initial approval and on an individual basis at the time a request for modification is received to add a person to the study. In order for training to be considered current it must have been completed within the past three years.

 

 

none
Policy 2011-009.3 –Institutional Review Board – Expedited Reviews This policy has been changed so that continuing review may not be required for non-federally funded/supported, non-FDA regulated research.

When continuing review is not required, the approval period for an expedited study will be from the date of approval through the expected completion date of the project.   If necessary the PI may submit an expedited request for modification to continue the study beyond that date.

none

 

Frequently Asked Questions Related to CITI Training, IRIS System and Facilitated Review

 

I completed my CITI human subject’s protection training recently.  Should I submit my CITI Training Certificate to the IRB?

If an external investigator completed CITI training through another institution, s/he must submit proof of having completed human subject’s protection training to the IRB because the IRB does not get automatically notified of such completions.

If the investigator is affiliated with UConn Health, he/she does not need to submit a certificate of completion. The IRB staff receives the CITI Training certificates one day after individuals have completed the training. Designated IRB staff enter the course completion information into a master training list (Excel) posted in the IRB website and into IRIS. This master training list (Excel) is updated every two weeks. Therefore, investigator should check this list often. In order for the IRB to update the training records in the IRIS system investigators affiliated with UConn Health must have logged into IRIS at least once. Therefore, investigator who have never before log into IRIS should do so right after they have completed the CITI Training. To log into IRIS investigator should click on the following link: https://imedris.uchc.edu , enter their UConn Health network credentials in the ID and PW boxes found in the IRIS logging page, and click on Log in.

 

I am going to submit an application to UConn Health IRB for review and approval.

Do I need to request an account in IRIS?

Every individual who is affiliated with UConn Health can use the UConn Health ID and password to log into IRIS. Therefore, individuals affiliated with UConn Health (faculty, staff, students, residents, and fellows) do not need to request an account in IRIS.

 

On the other hand, individuals external to the UConn Health will need to request an account in IRIS. To do so the external investigator must complete the online request form accessible from the IRIS home page. Investigators must complete all the required fields on the form indicating why the account is necessary and with whom at UConn Health he/she will be working. The IRB designated staff may contact the person in UConn Health to confirm that the creation of this account is necessary. Accounts will be created within 1-2 business days.

 

I have completed an application for IRB review in IRIS. I do not see the sections that allow me to attach documents for review? What should I do?

Unfortunately, the IRIS system currently has a glitch that does not transition the application form to the submission package where you can attach documents.  Follow the steps listed below when you get to the last section of the application for initial review and you see a sign stating: “Study Application Completion. You have completed the Study Application process. Click here to go to the …”

  • click on the “Back Button” ( located in the upper right hand corner)
  • Click on “Study Assistant” menu
  • click on “My Studies” sub-menu,
  • Open the study, and there you will find Section 1- Submission Packet to the Review Board.
  • Click on “Save and Continue to the Next Section” to build the following sections of the forms that will allow you to attach documents.

 

I am affiliated with UCONN Health (e.g. faculty member, student, employee, or resident, fellow) and I will be part of a study conducted at another institution. That institution has reviewed and approved the study. Do I need approval from the UConn Health IRB?

Yes, if you are affiliated with UConn Health and you are acting in that capacity, your involvement in a research study engages UConn Health in the research and therefore the UConn Health IRB must be involved.   However, as opposed to conducting a formal review the UConn Health IRB may elect to rely on the IRB of the other institution. To determine if the UConn Health IRB will do this you, you must submit an application for facilitated review to the UConn Health IRB. By submitting this application you will obtain an official determination from the UConn Health IRB as to whether oversight for the study will be deferred to the external IRB. In order for the UConn Health IRB to defer oversight a written agreement must exist between to the two institutions.  This agreement is referred to as an IRB Reliance Agreement.  Investigators may contact the IRB to determine if such an agreement is in place or needs to be established.

 

 

 

New Research Initiatives Supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research

Dear Colleagues,

In the current climate of declining federal funding and impending reductions in state support, the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) is taking measures to provide faculty with critical additional assistance to guarantee that UConn proposals have the best chances of success. I wanted to share a few new initiatives with you as you prepare to submit new grant proposals.

Reduction of Overhead Costs

In order to provide faculty with more buying power on proposals, reduced overhead costs will be charged to grants of up to $50,000 where total costs are inclusive (i.e., direct and indirect costs capped at $50,000). This policy will be in place at UConn and UConn Health. The effective overhead rate for such grants will be capped at 20% instead of the standard 59%. This reduced rate will apply to future grant proposals, and is not applicable retroactively. Existing grants will continue to be charged the standard 59% rate. In the case where agencies, such as NSF, view a reduced F&A rate as cost share, faculty should apply the full rate and the OVPR will return the F&A back to the PI. Additional guidelines will be forthcoming on how to incorporate this lower rate on new proposals.

Faculty Grant Mentorship Incentive Program

Faculty members with a history of grant success have valuable expertise that can benefit faculty colleagues. Through this program, experienced PIs will be eligible to serve as mentors for three untenured faculty in return for a stipend of $10,000. Faculty mentors will provide untenured faculty with strategic insight and guidance to more successfully navigate the grant submission process. Activities will include introductions to program managers, review of proposals, guidance and support, help to establish individualized goals and professional development plans for each mentee, and insight on how to learn about grant solicitations that may not be announced through standard methods. In the coming weeks, we will announce an open call for senior faculty to nominate their colleagues or themselves to serve as mentors. The selection process will include an evaluation of nominees’ previous experience as a mentor for untenured faculty, as well as a review of their success winning extramural funding. Additional guidelines, mentor/mentee applications, and program requirements will be forthcoming and available on the OVPR website.

SBIR/STTR Funding

Funding through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs encourage domestic small businesses to engage in federal research and development that has the potential for commercialization. Each year, Federal agencies with extramural research and development budgets that exceed $100 million are required to allocate 3.2 percent (FY 2017) of their R&D budget to these programs, and agencies with research budgets over $1 billion are required to set aside a portion of these funds for STTR. SBIR/STTR grants range from $300,000 to $1 million each and can be a valuable source of non-dilutive funding for startups and eligible small companies. Under SBIR, the PI must be primarily employed with the small business at the time of award and for the duration of the project period, but subcontracts often occur with collaborating research institutions. Under the STTR program, primary employment is not stipulated, so the PI may be primarily employed by a collaborating institution.

These programs can be an effective tool for entrepreneurial faculty and the university’s efforts to boost our industry sponsored research portfolio. The OVPR is initiating several support programs to increase the number of successful SBIR/STTR awards submitted with UConn/UConn Health PIs or co-PIs.

First, we will host a series of workshops to expose faculty to the programs and how to successfully apply. The first workshop is sponsored by CTNext and will be held on November 29 & 30 at 400 Farmington Ave on the UConn Health campus. For more information and to register, visit the CTNext site.

The OVPR is also piloting an effort to connect faculty to SBIR/STTR program managers, as well as existing companies seeking R&D partnerships to support SBIR/STTR proposals. In order to do this we are developing a team able to offer assistance directly to faculty, their startups, and outside industry partners that are eligible for SBIR/STTR support. If you are interested in learning more about these support services, please contact ovpr@uconn.edu.

Collaboration with the UConn Foundation

Finally, in partnership with the UConn Foundation, we will continue to seek creative solutions and establish innovative programs and initiatives to increase philanthropic dollars for student and faculty research.

For existing and new initiatives to support research, we will establish metrics and methods to track success to ensure that our investments result in returns for our faculty and the university.

We will be in touch again soon to share additional information and more specific details about these new programs and initiatives as soon as they become available. In the meantime, this message serves to reassure faculty and students that we are dedicated to helping UConn’s world-class researchers succeed despite the fiscal challenges we are currently facing. We are committed to supporting UConn’s vibrant research community, and we thank you for your invaluable contribution to the university, the state of Connecticut, and the global scientific community.

 

Sincerely,

Dr. Radenka Maric
Vice President for Research
UConn/UConn Health

Advanced Genomic Testing for Heart Disease by Joint UConn/JAX faculty

Watch NBC CT’s segment on how Dr. J. Travis Hinson, cardiovascular physician-scientist at UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, is using the power of advanced genomic testing in his laboratory to empower his heart patients and their families. See how Dr. Hinson has helped Peggy Agar and her entire family gain knowledge of their potential genetic risk for cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease which is the most common cause of heart failure.

UConn Researchers Develop New Device for Testing Heart Health

Published by UConn Today on September 5, 2017

Jessica McBride

UConn researchers from the Department of Mechanical Engineering have developed a device that tests an important indicator of heart health that is often ignored – blood viscosity.

Blood can be a window into the health of your heart. Doctors are often on the lookout for some common signs that might point to an issue, like abnormal cholesterl levels or high blood pressure. From heart attacks to strokes, routine blood tests can screen for severaol types of life-threatening cardiac events. But less attention has been paid to blood viscosity.

Viscosity measures a fluid’s resistance to flow. Thick or sticky liquids like honey have high viscosity, while thin, watery liquids have low viscosity. In the case of blood, higher viscosity may signal potential problems, since the heart needs to work harder to pump sticky blood. Thick blood also means organs and tissues receive less oxygen and may cause damage to the lining of blood vessels due to increased friction as blood travels throughout the body.

Studies have shown that increased blood viscosity was significantly more prevalent in patients who experienced heart attacks and strokes compared to patients with lower blood viscosity. In fact, one study found that increased blood viscosity is a more likely sign of a potential cardiac event than high blood pressure, gender, or smoking.

Yet despite this strong correlation, physicians can’t currently evaluate blood viscosity at routine office visits.

“We were very surprised that there is no commercial option to quickly and simply check this critical piece of information,” says associate professor of mechanical engineering and co-inventor, George Lykotrafitis. “The research shows there is a connection between blood viscosity and cardiac events, and the equipment exists to test it, but not in a practical or efficient way. We decided to try to solve the problem.”

So Lykotrafitis and doctoral candidate Kostyantyn Partola developed a small electronic device that can measure blood viscosity at the point of care. The pair recently filed a provisional patent on their invention with the help of UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services.

“Our technology really is plug and play, but the impact is significant,” says Partola. “With this information, doctors can suggest simple life-style changes on the spot to prevent their patients from having a stroke or heart attack.”

Lykotrafitis and Partola’s device may be simple, but the science behind it is specialized and tailored to blood analysis. Blood behaves as a non-Newtonian fluid, which means that its viscosity changes depending on its velocity at any given time. Since the velocity of our blood differs when pumping and at rest, its viscosity also changes. This can be a complication for commercial instruments that are currently used to measure viscosity, but not for the device Lykotrafitis and Partola have developed.

Here’s how it works. A clinician places a droplet of blood onto a small card of transparent plastic containing a microchannel. The blood wicks into the microchannel and flows through a small groove using its own capillary pressure. When the microchannel card is placed on a stage between a  light source and a photodiode detector – a device that converts light into an electrical current – the device Lykotrafitis and Partola have developed measures how long it takes the blood to travel through the microchannel. A few minutes after the sample is placed on the microchannel, a digital screen displays a viscosity reading that indicates whether the patient is at elevated risk for cardiac events.

Once the test is completed, the used microchannel card is discarded and replaced with a new one. Since the device itself never comes in contact with the biological sample, practitioners don’t need to sterilize it in between patients or worry about cross-contamination.

Currently, to measure blood viscosity physicians would typically need to send large samples to an off-site lab for analysis in a rheometer, an instrument that measures viscosity mechanically. Commercial rheometers require large samples, take much longer, cost thousands of dollars, and are also commonly used to measure the viscosity of industrial liquids like oil, paint, or personal care products. The commercial equipment needs to be sterilized in between tests because of this multi-purpose capability. Travel time between the medical office where the blood was originally collected and the commercial facility where it is tested also means that samples are no longer reliable. This is all less than ideal for clinical applications.

In contrast, the device that Lykotrafitis and Partola are developing only requires a finger prick of blood, gives precise readings in just a few minutes, and will cost under a thousand dollars.

To commercialize their technology, the duo looked to Accelerate UConn, a growing entrepreneurial program that serves all UConn campuses. Accelerate UConn was launched in May 2015 and is the University’s National Science Foundation I-Corps site. The program teaches participants how to determine the market opportunity for their technology and who the most likely customers will be.

Helping scientists “get out of the lab” is one of the most important and challenging parts of the Accelerate UConn program, according to UConn vice president for research and former Accelerate UConn participant, Radenka Maric.

“There is a wealth of amazing ideas being developed at UConn and UConn Health every day, but to have an impact they need to reach beyond the lab” says Maric. “The Accelerate UConn program provides our world-class researchers with entrepreneurial tools to move these ideas closer to the market, where they can help our citizens, as well as our state economy.”

Partola served as the group’s entrepreneurial lead, which meant he was responsible for interviewing dozens of potential customers. He used the $3,000 award provided by Accelerate UConn to travel to Los Angeles, California, and speak with nurses, researchers, and pharmacists about his technology at the national conference of the Anticoagulation Forum.

Partola says the opportunity to speak with potential customers and the Accelerate UConn curriculum have had an impact on his outlook on entrepreneurship and being a scientist.

“It’s not just about having a technology that works and that you think meets a need,” he says. “Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come. I learned that you need to find your customers first, and tailor a specific solution for their problem to be successful.”

The pair have formed a startup, Eir Medical Devices. They also recently completed the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CCEI) Summer Fellowship Program, where they received a $15,000 stipend, intensive business support, and one-on-one coaching from industry experts. A panel of external judges were so impressed with the team’s technology and business plan that they have been named finalists in the upcoming Wolff New Venture Competition administered by CCEI.

In terms of advancing their research, Partola and Lykotrafitis are in early discussions with physicians at UConn Health and Yale University to conduct clinical trials.

To date, approximately 25 teams have successfully completed the Accelerate UConn program.

Applications are currently being accepted for the Fall 2017 cycle, which begins in October. The deadline to apply is Sept. 22, 2017. For more information and to access the application, go to www.accelerate.uconn.edu.

Lykotrafitis had previously conducted research that sparked the idea for this invention through support from the National Science Foundation (NSF-CMMI-1235025) and the American Heart Association (12SDG12050688). No resources from those previous awards were used to fund product development or testing of the current prototype device.

UConn Professor Synthesizing Pure Graphene, a ‘Miracle Material’

Published by UConn Today on August 29, 2017

Jessica McBride

Formed deep within the earth, stronger than steel, and thinner than a human hair. These comparisons aren’t describing a new super hero. They’re describing graphene, a substance that some experts have called “the most amazing and versatile” known to mankind.

UConn chemistry professor Doug Adamson, a member of the Polymer Program in UConn’s Institute of Materials Science, has patented a one-of-a-kind process for exfoliating this wonder material in its pure (unoxidized) form, as well as manufacturing innovative graphene nanocomposites that have potential uses in a variety of applications.

If you think of graphite like a deck of cards, each individual card would be a sheet of graphene. Comprised of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice, graphene is a two-dimensional crystal that is at least 100 times stronger than steel. Aerogels made from graphene are some of the lightest materials known to man, and the graphene sheets are one of the thinnest, at only one atom thick – that is approximately one million times thinner than a human hair. Graphene is also even more thermally and electrically conductive than copper, with minimal electrical charge.

Because of these unique qualities, graphene has been a hot topic for academic researchers and industry leaders since it was first isolated from graphite in 2004. Since then, more than 10,000 scholarly articles have been published about the material. But of these publications, only Adamson’s discusses a proprietary process for manufacturing graphene in its pristine form.

What others are calling “graphene” is often actually graphene oxide that has been chemically or thermally reduced. The oxygen in graphene oxide provides a sort of chemical handle that makes the graphene easier to work with, but adding it to pristine graphene reduces the material’s mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties in comparison to unmodified graphene like the kind Adamson produces.

It also significantly increases the cost to manufacture the material. Oxidizing graphite requires adding expensive hazardous chemicals, such as anhydrous sulfuric acid and potassium peroxide, followed by a lengthy series of manipulations to isolate and purify the products, known as a chemistry workup. Adamson’s process doesn’t require any additional steps or chemicals to produce graphene in its pristine form.

“The innovation and technology behind our material is our ability to use a thermodynamically driven approach to un-stack graphite into its constituent graphene sheets, and then arrange those sheets into a continuous, electrically conductive, three-dimensional structure” says Adamson. “The simplicity of our approach is in stark contrast to current techniques used to exfoliate graphite that rely on aggressive oxidation or high-energy mixing or sonication – the application of sound energy to separate particles – for extended periods of time. As straightforward as our process is, no one else had reported it. We proved it works.”

Soon after the initial experiments by graduate student Steve Woltornist indicated that something special was happening, Adamson was joined by longtime collaborator Andrey Dobrynin from the University of Akron, who has helped to understand the thermodynamics that drive the exfoliation. Their work has been published in the American Chemical Society’s peer-reviewed journal ACS Nano.

A distinctive feature of graphene that seems like an obstacle to many – its insolubility – is at the heart of Adamson’s discovery. Since it doesn’t dissolve in liquids, Adamson and his team place graphite at the interface of water and oil, where the graphene sheets spontaneously spread to cover the interface and lower the energy of the system. The graphene sheets are trapped at the interface as individual, overlapping sheets, and can subsequently be locked in place using a cross-linked polymer or plastic.

Adamson began exploring ways to exfoliate graphene from graphite in 2010 with a grant from the Air Force to synthesize thermally conductive composites. This was followed in 2012 with funding from a National Science Foundation (NSF) Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) award. Since then he has also been awarded a $1.2 million grant from the NSF Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future program and $50,000 from UConn’s SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund program.

“Dr. Adamson’s work speaks not only to the preeminence of UConn’s faculty, but also to the potential real-world applications of their research,” says Radenka Maric, vice president for research at UConn and UConn Health. “The University is committed to programs like SPARK that enable faculty to think about the broader impact of their work and create products or services that will benefit society and the state’s economy.”

Graphene for Water Desalination

While stabilized graphene composite materials have countless potential uses in fields as varied as aircrafts, electronics, and biotechnology, Adamson chose to apply his technology to improving standard methods for the desalination of brackish water. With his SPARK funding, he is developing a device that uses his graphene nanocomposite materials to remove salt from water through a process called capacitive deionization, or CDI.

CDI relies on inexpensive, high surface area, porous electrodes to remove salt from water. There are two cycles in the CDI process: an adsorption phase where the dissolved salt is removed from the water, and a desorption phase where the adsorbed salts are released from the electrodes by either halting or reversing the charge on the electrodes.

Many materials have been used to create the electrodes, but none have proven to be a viable material for large-scale commercialization. Adamson and his industry partners believe that his simple, inexpensive, and robust material could be the technology that finally brings CDI to market in a major way.

“The product we are developing will be an inexpensive graphene material, with optimized performance as an electrode, that will be able to displace more expensive, less efficient materials currently used in CDI,” says Michael Reeve, one of Adamson’s partners and a veteran of various successful startups.

The team formed a startup called 2D Material Technologies, and they have applied for a Small Business Innovation Research grant to continue to commercialize Adamson’s technology. Eventually, they hope to join UConn’s Technology Incubation Program to advance their concept to market.

For more information on the UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, visit the Office of the Vice President for Research website. The deadline to submit a brief letter of intents to the 2017 UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund competition is Sept. 1.

Adamson, together with collaborators Andrey Dobrynin of the University of Akron and Hannes Schniepp of the College of William and Mary, previously conducted research that sparked the idea for this invention through support from the National Science Foundation as part of the Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future initiative: DMR1535412. This NSF program supports the federal government’s Materials Genome Initiative for Global Competitiveness. However, no resources from this previous award were used to fund product development or testing of the current prototype device.  

 

UConn Researchers: Dyes Detect Disease Through Heartbeat Signals

Published on phys.org on August 22, 2017

Jessica McBride

Vibrant tones of yellow, orange, and red move in waves across the screen. Although the display looks like psychedelic art, it’s actually providing highly technical medical information – the electrical activity of a beating heart stained with voltage-sensitive dyes to test for injury or disease.

These voltage-sensitive dyes were developed and patented by UConn Health researchers, who have now embarked on commercializing their product for industry as well as academic use.

Electrical signals or voltages are fundamental in the natural function of brain and heart tissue, and disrupted electrical signaling can be a cause or consequence of injury or disease. Directly measuring electrical activity of the membranes with electrodes isn’t possible for drug screening or diagnostic imaging because of their tiny size. In order to make the electrical potential visible, researchers use fluorescent voltage sensors, also known as voltage-sensitive dyes or VSDs, that make cells, tissues, or whole organs light up and allows them to be measured with microscopes.

Not all dyes respond to voltage changes in the same way, and there is a common trade-off between their sensitivity and speed. Slower dyes can be used for drug screening with high sensitivity, but they can’t measure the characteristics of rapid action potentials in some tissues, like cardiac cells. Fast dyes can be used to image action potentials, but they require expensive, customized instrumentation, and are not sensitive enough for crystal clear results on individual cells.

Professor of cell biology and director of UConn’s Center for Cell Analysis & Modeling, Leslie Loew and his team have developed new fast dyes that are also highly sensitive, eliminating the speed/sensitivity trade-off.

Moving Ideas Beyond the Lab

Loew and research associates Corey Acker and Ping Yan have devoted much of their careers to developing and characterizing fluorescent probes of membrane potential like voltage-sensitive dyes. The team has even been providing their patented fast dyes to fellow researchers for the past 30 years, but they only recently became interested in commercializing their work.

To learn more about the science of entrepreneurship, they took advantage of several of UConn’s homegrown programs. Loew and Acker’s first step into entrepreneurship began in the fall of 2016, when they were accepted into UConn’s National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps site, Accelerate UConn. They credit the program with giving them a solid foundation to evaluate their technology and business strategy.

Launched in 2015, Accelerate UConn aims to successfully advance more university technologies along the commercialization continuum. Under the auspices of the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI), Accelerate UConn provides participants with small seed grants and comprehensive entrepreneurial training.

“Dr. Loew’s experience is a prime example of how UConn can transform high-potential academic discoveries into viable products and services with the right training,” says Radenka Maric, UConn’s vice president for research. “Accelerate UConn helps our preeminent faculty move their ideas beyond the lab so they can join the ranks of other successful Connecticut entrepreneurs and industry leaders, and have an impact in our communities and on the state economy.”

Dyes detect disease through heartbeat signals
Research associate Corey Acker, left, and cell biology professor Les Loew in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building at UConn Health in Farmington. Credit: Peter Morenus/UConn Photo

Acker says the program also helped them identify an exciting new market opportunity targeting pharmaceutical companies. These companies need dyes that are both fast and sensitive for high-throughput screening of potential therapeutic targets. In high-throughput drug screening, scientists create special cell lines, and then use advanced equipment to robotically apply different drugs to rotating dishes of cells. The cells are stained with a voltage-sensitive dye that displays any change in membrane potential or voltage after drug application with changes in fluorescence. Acker estimates that pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations (CROs) spend over $10,000 on these dyes for each week-long study.

The dyes that Loew, Acker, and Yan develop will also allow drug companies to respond to new cardiac safety screening regulations from the Food and Drug Administration called CiPA (the Comprehensive in vitro Proarrythmia Assay).

CiPA regulations aim to establish better ways to detect side effects of new drugs that could cause a cardiac arrhythmia. In a key component of CiPA, screening is completed in cardiac cells with a realistic electrical heartbeat. The Loew team’s fast-sensitive dyes could offer drug companies more effective options than are currently available. Since CiPA applies to any new therapies from weight-loss drugs to allergy medications, Loew and Acker anticipate high demand for their technology.

“We initially joined the Accelerate UConn program to learn how to build a business so we could sell our existing fast dyes to other scientists like us. Instead, we ended up discovering an entirely new customer segment with greater potential and more urgent need,” says Acker. “We feel lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in this elite program based right here at UConn.”

Gaining Outside Input

By following one of Accelerate UConn’s most important tenets to “get out of the building,” Acker conducted dozens of interviews with experts from industry who use VSDs for drug screening. They all expressed a need for dyes with improved sensitivity, faster speed, and fewer unwanted interactions or toxicity with the cells being tested.

Loew and his team were confident they could deliver.

Loew, Acker, and Yan’s new dyes improve on the current sensors used for , which involve a two-component system and energy transfer between the components. The researchers produce dyes that use a novel VSD system where energy transfer is more efficient, resulting in faster, more sensitive, and less toxic dyes.

Loew says that support from UConn’s entrepreneurship programs was pivotal in transforming their initial discovery from project to product.

Dyes detect disease through heartbeat signals
Research associate Ping Yan prepares voltage-sensitive dyes, that cause cells, tissues, or whole organs to light up as a result of electrical impulses and allow this activity to be measured. Credit: Peter Morenus/UConn Photo

“We learned so much from these programs, and we’re still reaping the benefits,” says Loew. “Targeting the right customer helped us gain additional research funding through UConn’s SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, and encouraged us to form a startup, Potentiometric Probes, to advance our product towards the market.

“We’ve been supplying VSDs to hundreds of cardiac and neuroscience research labs for over 30 years,” he adds. “We’re hopeful that Potentiometric Probes will assure that this continues, especially now that the demand is high and new commercial sector applications are emerging.”

The team is currently developing a new website that will be a resource for researchers using these voltage imaging techniques. Once launched it will be accessible at www.potentiometricprobes.com.

Looking to the Future

Through their UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization funding, the team has been able to develop and test two new dyes, and they have conceptualized a few additional possibilities. One of their current prototypes is extremely promising, Loew says.

Loew and Acker are continuing to optimize their dyes and pursue follow-on funding to commercialize their products through the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and BiopipelineCT, which is administered by Connecticut Innovations.

They have also continued to grow as entrepreneurs by participating in the CCEI Summer Fellowship. Potentiometric Probes was named a finalist in this program, and will compete for an additional $15,000 prize in the Wolff New Venture Competition, also administered by CCEI.

The team members hope that one day their dyes will have a major impact for both the pharmaceutical industry and fellow university researchers.

“As academics,” says Loew, “we don’t really think about money. We’re just happy to do our science and hope that it helps people one day. But considering the needs of an end user beyond other scientists will potentially lead to greater adoption of our discoveries, more funding for our projects, and ultimately more scientific breakthroughs. That’s a culture change worth considering.”

UConn Professor: Why (We Think) Atheists are More Likely to be Serial Killers

Published by UConn Today on August 22, 2017

Kim Krieger

UConn anthropologist Dmitris Xygalatas and colleagues this week published research that showed global moral prejudice against atheists. They interviewed Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and secular people from several different societies and found that no matter which culture they came from, they were biased against people who did not believe in a god or gods. The study was published online in the Aug. 7 issue of  Nature Human Behavior

Here, we delve into the reasons for religion, prejudice, and why even atheists are often prejudiced against other unbelievers.

Q. Your research found that people the world over believed a serial killer was more likely to be an atheist than a believer in god(s). Why was this surprising, and what does it mean?

A. Although this result was certainly no surprise to us (it was the original hypothesis of the study), it is certainly puzzling. As an anthropologist, I have often heard people argue that without religion there is no morality. And last year, during the presidential campaign, Ted Cruz argued that people of all faiths have the constitutional right to run for the presidency, but atheists are not fit for the job. However, data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons suggest that atheists are far less likely to commit crimes than religious people, and globally the least religious countries have the lowest crime rates. This is of course correlational evidence: it does not mean that being an atheist leads to committing fewer crimes. But the intuition that our study reveals, i.e. that atheists are immoral, is definitely not supported by reality.

Q. As part of the study, people were told a story about a man who tortured animals as a child and moved on to other violent acts as he matured, culminating in murdering five homeless people. Then the people were asked: is this man more likely to be a teacher? Or a teacher who does not believe in god(s)? Those two answers are logically inconsistent why did you ask that question in that way?

A. This question was designed to exploit the “conjunction fallacy,” a common logical error that people make when asked to estimate the probability of some specific condition versus a more general one. This is also known as the “Linda problem”, and it is typically presented in the following way: “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable? a) Linda is a bank teller, or b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The correct answer is of course a), because the number of feminist bank tellers can never be higher than the number of bank tellers. But most people give the wrong answer to this problem, because the person’s description sounds more representative of option b). Our study simply looked at how often people committed this fallacy when the person in the story was described as atheist versus religious. This allowed us to examine people’s intuitions, rather than more reflective, politically correct answers.

Q. What is atheism? Is it a universally understood concept, or do people in various cultures interpret atheism differently?

A. In a strict sense, an atheist is someone who does not believe in the existence of any deity or supernatural forces. However, there are also many people who describe themselves as “agnostic”, which means that they acknowledge the possibility of a supernatural reality, although that reality might be unknowable to us. In addition, there are many people who describe themselves as being non-religious but spiritual in other ways. Our study described the protagonist of the story as “not believing in god.” I expect that if he had been described specifically as an “atheist,” the bias would have been even more pronounced.

Q. Many people in Europe, and some in the U.S. and other places, define themselves as secular with regard to religion. Is that the same as claiming to be an atheist?

A. If we look at some of the world’s most secular countries, let’s say the Czech Republic or Denmark, we find that there are quite a few atheists, but also a very large percentage of the population who reject organized religion but still describe themselves as “spiritual,” for example they may believe in supernatural forces like karma.

Q. The study showed that even self-avowed atheists believed the serial killer more likely to not believe in god(s). Who were these atheists – which cultures were they from, and did they actually define themselves as atheists?

A. This is what philosopher Daniel Dennett has called “belief in belief.” A lot of the people who are not religious believe that religiosity has positive benefits and should be fostered even if it is fallacious. This is what we see in this study. Non-religious participants in all of the countries we surveyed, even the most secular ones, exhibited the same bias against atheists, although to a lesser degree than religious participants.

Q. How does this change how we understand morality?

A. Scientific evidence suggests that humans (and even their primate cousins) have innate moral predispositions, and religion is a reflection rather than the cause of these predispositions. However, our results show that people around the world still carry deeply-ingrained biases when judging the moral attributes of others.

Q. Does this tell us anything about the purpose of religion in society?

A. Religion has been so successful in the course of human history partly because it functions as a public signal of conformity to group norms, and that is because it involves arbitrary rather than functional rules and behaviors. For example, hunting, fishing, or trading like everyone else is the logical thing to do and offers directly observable benefits (food on the table and money in the bank). But going to church, fasting, or memorizing the Bible are costly signals of commitment to the norms of the community. Reliance on such signals has been crucial for the formation and maintenance of the first large-scale societies, in the absence of reliable secular institutions, and this evolutionary heritage is still with us today.

The research was funded by grants from the John Templeton Foundation (48275) and the John Templeton World Charity Foundation (0077), as well as the Royal Society of New Zealand, the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

Xygalatas collaborated on the study with researchers at the University of Kentucky, led by William M. Gervais, and at several other institutions in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

UConn Researchers: Dyes Detect Disease through Heartbeat Signals

Published by UConn Today on August 21, 2017

Jessica McBride

Vibrant tones of yellow, orange, and red move in waves across the screen. Although the display looks like psychedelic art, it’s actually providing highly technical medical information – the electrical activity of a beating heart stained with voltage-sensitive dyes to test for injury or disease.

These voltage-sensitive dyes were developed and patented by UConn Health researchers, who have now embarked on commercializing their product for industry as well as academic use.

Corey Acker, left, and Les Loew in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building at UConn Health in Farmington on Aug. 4, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Research associate Corey Acker, left, and cell biology professor Les Loew in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building at UConn Health in Farmington. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Electrical signals or voltages are fundamental in the natural function of brain and heart tissue, and disrupted electrical signaling can be a cause or consequence of injury or disease. Directly measuring electrical activity of the membranes with electrodes isn’t possible for drug screening or diagnostic imaging because of their tiny size. In order to make the electrical potential visible, researchers use fluorescent voltage sensors, also known as voltage-sensitive dyes or VSDs, that make cells, tissues, or whole organs light up and allows them to be measured with microscopes.

Not all dyes respond to voltage changes in the same way, and there is a common trade-off between their sensitivity and speed. Slower dyes can be used for drug screening with high sensitivity, but they can’t measure the characteristics of rapid action potentials in some tissues, like cardiac cells. Fast dyes can be used to image action potentials, but they require expensive, customized instrumentation, and are not sensitive enough for crystal clear results on individual cells.

Professor of cell biology and director of UConn’s Center for Cell Analysis & Modeling, Leslie Loew and his team have developed new fast dyes that are also highly sensitive, eliminating the speed/sensitivity trade-off.

Moving Ideas Beyond the Lab

Loew and research associates Corey Acker and Ping Yan have devoted much of their careers to developing and characterizing fluorescent probes of membrane potential like voltage-sensitive dyes. The team has even been providing their patented fast dyes to fellow researchers for the past 30 years, but they only recently became interested in commercializing their work.

To learn more about the science of entrepreneurship, they took advantage of several of UConn’s homegrown programs. Loew and Acker’s first step into entrepreneurship began in the fall of 2016, when they were accepted into UConn’s National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps site, Accelerate UConn. They credit the program with giving them a solid foundation to evaluate their technology and business strategy.

Launched in 2015, Accelerate UConn aims to successfully advance more university technologies along the commercialization continuum. Under the auspices of the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI), Accelerate UConn provides participants with small seed grants and comprehensive entrepreneurial training.

“Dr. Loew’s experience is a prime example of how UConn can transform high-potential academic discoveries into viable products and services with the right training,” says Radenka Maric, UConn’s vice president for research. “Accelerate UConn helps our preeminent faculty move their ideas beyond the lab so they can join the ranks of other successful Connecticut entrepreneurs and industry leaders, and have an impact in our communities and on the state economy.”

Ping Yan prepares voltage-sensitive dyes in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building at UConn Health in Farmington on Aug. 4, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Research associate Ping Yan prepares voltage-sensitive dyes, that cause cells, tissues, or whole organs to light up as a result of electrical impulses and allow this activity to be measured. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Acker says the program also helped them identify an exciting new market opportunity targeting pharmaceutical companies. These companies need dyes that are both fast and sensitive for high-throughput screening of potential therapeutic targets. In high-throughput drug screening, scientists create special cell lines, and then use advanced equipment to robotically apply different drugs to rotating dishes of cells. The cells are stained with a voltage-sensitive dye that displays any change in membrane potential or voltage after drug application with changes in fluorescence. Acker estimates that pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations (CROs) spend over $10,000 on these dyes for each week-long study.

The dyes that Loew, Acker, and Yan develop will also allow drug companies to respond to new cardiac safety screening regulations from the Food and Drug Administration called CiPA (the Comprehensive in vitro Proarrythmia Assay).

CiPA regulations aim to establish better ways to detect side effects of new drugs that could cause a cardiac arrhythmia. In a key component of CiPA, screening is completed in cardiac cells with a realistic electrical heartbeat. The Loew team’s fast-sensitive dyes could offer drug companies more effective options than are currently available. Since CiPA applies to any new therapies from weight-loss drugs to allergy medications, Loew and Acker anticipate high demand for their technology.

“We initially joined the Accelerate UConn program to learn how to build a business so we could sell our existing fast dyes to other scientists like us. Instead, we ended up discovering an entirely new customer segment with greater potential and more urgent need,” says Acker. “We feel lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in this elite program based right here at UConn.”

Gaining Outside Input

By following one of Accelerate UConn’s most important tenets to “get out of the building,” Acker conducted dozens of interviews with experts from industry who use VSDs for drug screening. They all expressed a need for dyes with improved sensitivity, faster speed, and fewer unwanted interactions or toxicity with the cells being tested.

Loew and his team were confident they could deliver.

Loew, Acker, and Yan’s new dyes improve on the current sensors used for drug screening, which involve a two-component system and energy transfer between the components. The researchers produce dyes that use a novel VSD system where energy transfer is more efficient, resulting in faster, more sensitive, and less toxic dyes.

Loew says that support from UConn’s entrepreneurship programs was pivotal in transforming their initial discovery from project to product.

“We learned so much from these programs, and we’re still reaping the benefits,” says Loew. “Targeting the right customer helped us gain additional research funding through UConn’s SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, and encouraged us to form a startup, Potentiometric Probes, to advance our product towards the market.

“We’ve been supplying VSDs to hundreds of cardiac and neuroscience research labs for over 30 years,” he adds. “We’re hopeful that Potentiometric Probes will assure that this continues, especially now that the demand is high and new commercial sector applications are emerging.”

The team is currently developing a new website that will be a resource for researchers using these voltage imaging techniques. Once launched it will be accessible at www.potentiometrics.com.

Looking to the Future

Through their UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization funding, the team has been able to develop and test two new dyes, and they have conceptualized a few additional possibilities. One of their current prototypes is extremely promising, Loew says.

Loew and Acker are continuing to optimize their dyes and pursue follow-on funding to commercialize their products through the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and BiopipelineCT, which is administered by Connecticut Innovations.

They have also continued to grow as entrepreneurs by participating in the CCEI Summer Fellowship. Potentiometric Probes was named a finalist in this program, and will compete for an additional $15,000 prize in the Wolff New Venture Competition, also administered by CCEI.

The team members hope that one day their dyes will have a major impact for both the pharmaceutical industry and fellow university researchers.

“As academics,” says Loew, “we don’t really think about money. We’re just happy to do our science and hope that it helps people one day. But considering the needs of an end user beyond other scientists will potentially lead to greater adoption of our discoveries, more funding for our projects, and ultimately more scientific breakthroughs. That’s a culture change worth considering.”

Loew previously conducted research through an award from the National Institutes of Health (R01 EB001963-32), which was in continuous operation for more than 30 years and provided all prior funding for the development of voltage-sensitive dyes. However, no resources from this previous award were used to fund product development or testing of the current technology.

UConn Names VP for Research

Published by Hartford Business Journal on August 18, 2017

Radenka Maric has been appointed vice president for research at UConn and UConn Health, where she intends to grow the university’s research enterprise by increasing strategic connections within and beyond the university. Maric will focus on linking researchers across schools, departments and campuses to enable cross-disciplinary research that aligns with federal science and health initiatives, such as those for manufacturing technologies, microbiome research, and the National Institutes of Health’s recent BRAIN Initiative.

Prior to her new role, Maric served as executive director of UConn’s Innovation Partnership Building at the UConn Tech Park and leveraged more than $80 million in industry and federal agency projects. As vice president of research, the IPB will remain within the scope of Maric’s responsibilities and extends her ability to connect UConn with startups and industry leaders.

Maric is also the founder of a biotech startup based on her research.

InfoEd for UConn Health Now Available

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), Research IT Services would like to notify UConn Health researchers and administrators that the scheduled upgrade to the InfoEd portal for UConn Health is complete and the system is available for use as of 7:00 AM on Monday, August 21, 2017. If you are still seeing the InfoEd upgrade in progress page, please perform a hard refresh (Windows: hold down Ctrl and press F5; Mac: hold down ⌘ Cmd and ⇧ Shift key and then press R) or clear your browser’s cache.

We appreciate your patience and cooperation during the upgrade. If you are unable to access InfoEd or encounter issues utilizing the system, please contact the OVPR eRA Help Desk at era-support@uconn.edu or 860-486-7944.

Sincerely,
Khamis Abu-Hasaballah, Ph.D.
Assistant Vice President, Research IT Services
Office of the Vice President for Research
University of Connecticut

New Program Pairs Undergraduates with UConn Health Researchers

Published by UConn Today on August 17, 2017

Chris DeFrancesco

Seeking a summer research opportunity to follow his freshman year, honors student Rohit Makol ’20 (ENG) had choices.

He applied for summer positions with – and heard back from – several UConn Health faculty. He chose the lab of David Martinelli, assistant professor of neuroscience, with whose work, as it turns out, Makol has a very personal connection.

Martinelli is studying the auditory system, specifically the outer hair cells in the inner ear.

“I have always wanted to learn more about this because it applies to me directly,” says Makol, a biomedical engineering major. “I have bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, which means that many of my cochlear hair cells are damaged.”

He has been working in the Martinelli lab since early June, spending much of his time working with mouse models as part of a larger effort to create a genetic tool to selectively manipulate outer hair cell afferent synapses, which carry a neuron’s message toward the central nervous system.

The research opportunity with Martinelli is part of the University’s Health Research Program, which debuted this year with the vision of providing health-related research opportunities to UConn undergraduates by pairing them with scientists in Farmington.

“My experience this summer has been a real-life application of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” Makol says. “I’ve seen this happen on numerous occasions this summer with some of the minor setbacks we have encountered in our experiments. I have learned the importance of being persistent, because it pays off in the long run. If it wasn’t for my stubbornness, dedication, and hard work this summer, I don’t think that this experience would have been as rewarding.”

One of those rewards was obtaining publishable results in the space of about 10 weeks.

“Rohit has been the best imaginable student to have in my lab,” Martinelli says. “He did not have the typical undergraduate lab experience, in which the student serves as an assistant to a project already in motion. As a new professor, I am starting projects from the ground up. Rohit literally developed the assays and techniques that my lab will be using for years to come.”

Makol is one of 40 undergraduate students who spent this summer as research assistants to UConn Health faculty. Like most of the others, he will continue that work as part of his fall course load.

“The Health Research Program is a great opportunity to explore different fields of medical research working alongside leading experts,” he says. “Dr. Martinelli’s interactive teaching approach has allowed me to learn a variety of things and skills in such a short amount of time.”

The Health Research Program started as a pilot in January, with 17 students matched with UConn Health faculty and spending six to nine hours a week in the lab in Farmington. When the semester ended, 16 stayed on to work full-time during the summer break (the 17th had another opportunity for the summer and is rejoining the program this fall). Students in the program over the summer receive a $4,000 stipend to cover living and travel expenses.

“We’re looking to create a structure that allows students to work with faculty mentors over an extended period of time, intensively in the summer and extending that into the academic year,” says Caroline McGuire, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research in Storrs, which oversees the program. “This complements other University initiatives and is part of UConn’s research excellence.”

The Health Research Program is jointly funded by the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Vice President for Research, and the UConn Schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine.

“One of the things we’ve been really pleased with is the strong interest we’ve seen from UConn Health faculty across the schools and departments,” McGuire says. “We have a little niche in the overall territory of research programs that are happening up at UConn Health, and it’s been really great to see the collaboration between campuses.”

Students also have shown strong interest, indicated by the hundreds who’ve applied already. McGuire says the program also should serve as a recruitment tool for UConn Health by drawing prospective medical, dental, and graduate school students.

Another undergraduate who had been looking to spend the summer doing research is honors student Alexandra Grimaldi ’18 (CAHNR, CLAS), a dual-degree senior studying English and allied health sciences with a concentration in public health and health promotion. She is passionate about universal access to health care, and driven to improve the infrastructure of the American health care system.

This past spring, she learned of an opportunity in the UConn Health lab of Julie Robison in the UConn Center on Aging. She would assist with studying Money Follows the Person, a Medicaid program designed to help those in a long-term care facility return to the community. It was a full-time commitment with a stipend.

“I knew that this would be a perfect fit for me,” says Grimaldi, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health. “I am very interested in research related to health policy implementation and efficacy, which is exactly the kind of research that Dr. Robison is doing in the Center on Aging. I was really excited to do actual quantitative and qualitative research on exactly how effective this program is.”

When Grimaldi wasn’t interviewing people in the Money Follows the Person program to collect data for the research, she was helping implement and distribute surveys and coding the results.

“This program gave me the opportunity to work with incredible mentors in my field, increased my confidence in my potential for a career in health care research, and allowed me to see what that career would look like,” Grimaldi says. “It allowed me to really know that I’m on the right path to doing what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Like Makol, Grimaldi is returning to the lab in a part-time role this fall to continue her work. She says she hopes to apply what she’s learned to her senior thesis in the spring.

UConn Health InfoEd System Unavailable: 6 PM 8/16 – 8 AM 8/21

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), Research IT Services would like to notify UConn Health researchers and administrators that the InfoEd portal for UConn Health will be offline between 6:00 PM, Wednesday August 16, 2017 and 8:00 AM, Monday August 21, 2017 for a planned upgrade of the system. During the planned maintenance period, access to the UConn Health InfoEd portal will be unavailable. This outage does not affect the submission of proposals to external sponsors, as they are not submitted through InfoEd. Also, InfoEd for Storrs/regional campuses is not affected and will remain operational for those users who utilize both information systems.

We appreciate your understanding and cooperation as we upgrade the system to bring you additional functionality, enable system improvements, and correct defects. Should you have any questions, please contact the eRA Help Desk at era-support@uconn.edu or 860-486-7944.

Sincerely,
Khamis Abu-Hasaballah, Ph.D.
Assistant Vice President, Research IT Services
Office of the Vice President for Research
University of Connecticut

UConn Sports Safety Advocates Urge States to Adopt Lifesaving Measures

Published by UConn Today on August 8, 2017

Colin Poitras

Many states across the country are not fully implementing important safety guidelines intended to protect student-athletes from heat stroke, sudden cardiac arrest, and other potentially life-threatening conditions, researchers with the UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute announced today.

With more than 7.8 million high school students participating in sanctioned sports each year, it is vital that individual states begin taking proper steps to ensure their high school athletes are protected, said Professor Douglas Casa, executive director of the Korey Stringer Institute, a national sports safety research and advocacy organization based at UConn.

The call for action came as UConn researchers announced the results of what is believed to be the first comprehensive state-by-state assessment of high school sports health and safety polices today at NFL Headquarters. The NFL is a sponsor of the Korey Stringer Institute.

Each state received a percentage score based on the extent to which it met a series of evidence-based best practice guidelines addressing the four leading causes of sudden death among secondary school athletes. Those causes are: sudden cardiac arrest, traumatic head injuries, exertional heat stroke, and exertional sickling, a potentially deadly medical emergency occurring in athletes carrying the sickle cell trait.

The guidelines – endorsed by leading sports medicine organizations in the United States – recommend, at bare minimum, that all states implement the following health and safety policies for secondary school athletics:

1. Automatic external defibrillators and certified athletic trainers on site at all athletic events.

2. Phasing in summer practices and taking other steps to protect athletes from heat stroke.

3. Training coaches on concussion symptoms.

4. Detailed emergency action plans for all life-threatening emergencies.

5. Mandated screening of athletes for sickle cell trait.

KEY FINDINGS: North Carolina has the most comprehensive health and safety policies, with a top score of 79 percent. Colorado has the fewest policies, with a score of 23 percent. The median state score was 47 percent. States ranked in the top 10 percent with a score of 60 percent or higher were North Carolina (79%), Kentucky (71%), Massachusetts (67%), New Jersey (67%), and South Dakota (61%). States representing the bottom 10 percent, with a score of 34 percent or lower, were Minnesota (33%), Montana (33%), Iowa (33%), California (26%), and Colorado (23%).

“We know the implementation of these important health and safety policies has dramatically reduced sport-related fatalities at both the collegiate and national level,” Casa said. “We hope these findings will motivate states to take appropriate action to protect the tens of thousands of young athletes in their care.”

Between 1982 and 2015, there were 735 fatalities and 626 catastrophic injuries among high school athletes. Research has shown that nearly 90 percent of all sudden death in sports is caused by four conditions: sudden cardiac arrest, traumatic head injury, exertional heat stroke, and exertional sickling. Adopting evidence-based safety measures significantly reduces these risks. States that have mandatory heat acclimatization guidelines, for example, have completely eliminated exertional heat stroke deaths since the policies were implemented.

ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM: Unlike national organizations such as the NCAA and NFL, the National Federation of State High School Associations has no governing authority over an individual state’s health and safety policies for secondary schools. Each state has the autonomy to develop and implement its own health and safety policies, which are voted upon by a state’s high school athletic association, based on recommendations from a sports medicine advisory committee or via state legislation.

Many state high school athletic associations responsible for adopting health and safety policies lack members with appropriate medical expertise, a situation researchers at the Korey Stringer Institute say needs to change.

“The policies and procedures for minimizing the risk of sudden death in sports need to be managed by the sports medicine advisory committee in each state and not the state high school athletic associations,” says William Adams, the lead researcher on the study and a former vice president of sport safety for the Korey Stringer Institute. Adams is currently an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “Placing oversight responsibility with a medical advisory committee ensures that those with the most knowledge of serious sport injuries are the ones making the final decisions on these potentially life-saving practices.”

Adams points out that the National Federation of State High School Associations oversees rules pertaining to sportsmanship, fair play, equipment requirements, and other areas for 16 different high school sports across the country. While those rules are meant to protect athletes from direct traumatic injuries to the face, skull, neck, and brain, they do not address indirect causes of death such as sudden cardiac arrest and exertional heat stroke.

“It is our hope, indeed our plea, for the state high school athletic associations to adopt these life-saving best practices to protect the health and well-being of the seven million high school athletes participating in sports across the country every year,” said Casa.

The full study and more details regarding each state’s assessment can be found here. The study will appear in the September issue of The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.

UConn Study: Fast-Food Restaurants Not Promoting Healthy Kids’ Meal Options

Published by UConn Today on August 10, 2017

Daniel P. Jones, UConn Rudd Center, and Bret Eckhardt & Elizabeth Caron, University Communications

A new study evaluating major U.S. fast-food restaurant chains’ pledges to offer healthier kids’ meal drinks and sides shows inconsistent implementation at the chains’ individual restaurant locations. In addition, promotion of healthier items varied widely between the chains examined, according to a new report from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

“Since 2013, the fast-food restaurants we examined have made changes to offer and promote healthier drink and side options for kids’ meals,” says Jennifer Harris, associate professor of allied health sciences, director of marketing initiatives for the UConn Rudd Center, and lead author of the report. “Still, about one-third of menu boards inside the restaurants we examined continued to list sugary soda and other soft drinks as an option for kids’ meals. And perhaps more importantly, there was wide variation in whether customers were offered the healthier options when they ordered a kids’ meal.”

“Some personnel at all the chains examined continued to give customers a cup for a soft drink and/or french fries with kids’ meal orders without offering any healthier options – despite the pledges,” she adds.

The new study evaluated implementation of pledges made since 2013 by McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, KFC, and Dairy Queen to remove sugar-sweetened fountain drinks from their menu boards and/or offer healthier drinks and sides with kids’ meals.

Researchers analyzed kids’ meal drink and side items listed on the chains’ websites; kids’ meal drink and side items listed and pictured on menu boards and on signs at a sample of individual restaurants; and drinks and sides offered by individual restaurant personnel when mystery shoppers ordered kids’ meals. To assess changes over time, results were compared to data collected in 2010 and 2013.

Healthier drinks and sides included 100 percent juice, low-fat milk, and water, non-fried fruits and vegetables, and other options. Unhealthy options included sugar-sweetened soda and other fountain drinks, fried potatoes, and desserts.

Key results of the study include:

  • In 2016, none of the restaurant chains examined listed sugary soda and other soft drinks on the kids’ meal menus posted on their websites, a notable improvement from 2013, when all restaurants except Subway listed them. In addition, all chains listed at least one healthier kids’ meal drink, such as low-fat plain milk, 100 percent juice, and/or water.
  • All chains also listed at least one healthier side item on their websites’ kids’ meal menus, including fresh fruit, applesauce, and/or yogurt. However, all restaurants except Subway continued to list unhealthy kids’ meal side items too, such as french fries or desserts, on their websites’ kids’ meal menus.
  • Individual restaurants at all chains consistently listed healthier drink and side options on their kids’ meal menu boards inside restaurants in 2016. However, despite pledges to remove sugary soda and other soft drinks from kids’ meal menus, approximately one-third or more of restaurants visited at each chain also continued to list these drinks for kids’ meals on menu boards.
  • Some personnel at all restaurant chains continued to only offer sugary soda and other soft drink options with kids’ meal orders, ranging from 16 percent to 18 percent of orders at McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway, to 44 percent of orders at KFC and Wendy’s, and 67 percent of Dairy Queen orders.
  • Just 8 percent of restaurant personnel at Burger King and 22 percent at Wendy’s offered the restaurants’ healthier kids’ meal side options, compared with 100 percent of orders at McDonald’s.  However, at all three restaurants, the majority of kids’ meal orders automatically received french fries – ranging from 68 percent at McDonald’s (the chain’s kids’ meals come with two side items) to 90 percent at Burger King.

The evaluation found that restaurants have increased the number of healthier side and drink options available with kids’ meals, but customers often received sugary soda and other soft drinks and/or french fries automatically when they ordered a kids’ meal. When restaurant personnel suggested the healthier options, they typically offered them as one of several choices, often together with unhealthy options.

“Restaurant chains should do more to actively encourage customers to purchase their healthier kids’ meal drinks and sides at the point of sale,” Harris says. “Offering healthy drinks and sides as the default with kids’ meals would make them the easiest choice for parents, and help improve the nutrition quality of fast food consumed by children.”

Support for this research was provided by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

Report co-authors include Maia Hyary, Nicole Seymour, and Yoon-Young Choi of the UConn Rudd Center.

UConn CIRCA Grant to City of Hartford Launches Sustainability Office and City’s First Climate Action Plan

Published by UConn CIRCA on August 9, 2017

Taylor Mayes

“The hundreds of people who have provided input into this Plan should have our sincere thanks. In particular, I wanted to recognize and thank the volunteer members of the Climate Stewardship Council and the staff of Hartford’s Office of Sustainability, created in my office in 2017 thanks to generous funding from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, Partners for Places and UConn’s Connecticut Institute for Climate Resilience and Adaptation.” – Mayor Bronin (Hartford’s Climate Action Plan)

Mayor Bronin made that statement when the City of Hartford released their very first Climate Action Plan on July 25, 2017. This is a big achievement for the City as the plan highlights six action areas essential to its sustainable growth: energy, food, landscape, transportation, waste and water. The goal of the plan is to make “incremental but consistent progress in each of the areas” utilizing the resources that they have, and making decisions that are consistent with their three shared values: public health, economic development, and social equity.

CIRCA’s grant made it possible for the City of Hartford to create the Office of Sustainability, which released the Plan. CIRCA awarded the City of Hartford funds through our Municipal Resilience Grant Program to create a one-year Green Infrastructure Specialist position with the City. The Green Infrastructure Specialist will help Hartford not only respond to threats of flooding, but also strategize proactively for the future by evaluating and advancing green infrastructure projects. The Green Infrastructure Specialist position together with a Sustainability Coordinator makes up the Office of Sustainability, which is entirely funded by external grants.

Upon awarding the CIRCA Municipal Resilience Grant to Hartford, CIRCA Executive Director, Jim O’Donnell said, “There really is no better way to enhance the resilience of a city’s stormwater management system to the effects of climate change than to invest in green infrastructure and reduce the amount of water going into the system in the first place. This approach also improves the environment in the City for its citizens and visitors. I look forward to seeing the results of the Mayor’s initiative replicated in other parts of the state.”

The Climate Stewardship Initiative was already making great success through the Climate Stewardship Council, however, the City realized that what they needed to improve the execution of some of their goals was more specific expertise. The City identified the creation of the Green Infrastructure Specialist and Sustainability Coordinator positions to fulfill this need. These positions would strategize ways to deal with infrastructure risks such as flooding and wastewater management, as well as building on existing grants and partnerships – all the while taking full advantage of the political and institutional interest in sustainable cities. The positions could not be filled within the existing City budget, therefore CIRCA’s funding made it possible for them to move from initiative to implementation. The Climate Action Plan is one of the first steps in that process. The Plan demonstrates how investing in municipal projects and policies can generate even more co-benefits and benchmarking moments for a municipality in the long-term.

The Climate Stewardship Initiative exemplifies the importance of supporting our state’s urban communities as they adapt to climate change and lower their environmental footprint, while also helping make them better places to live. We agree with UConn Law Professor and Chair of the Hartford Climate Stewardship Council Sara Bronin that, “Having a clean environment isn’t just for the New York Cities and San Franciscos of the world. Citizens in smaller, more challenged cities like Hartford also deserve a healthy, clean environment — and the improved quality of life that goes with it.” (Hartford Courant, 2017)

Congratulations to Hartford on their new Climate Action Plan!

Municipal Resilience Grant Program Accepting Applications

Do you want to help your community become more resilient to the impacts of climate change? CIRCA is currently accepting applications for our next round of funding through the Municipal Resilience Grant Program. Applications are due by September 1, 2017.

CIRCA runs several research projects that provide actionable science and engineering for decision-making and solutions in Connecticut. You can find all of our projects here: http://circa.uconn.edu/projects-products/.

UConn Sports Safety Advocates Urge States to Adopt Lifesaving Measures

Published by UConn Today on August 8, 2017

Colin Poitras

Many states across the country are not fully implementing important safety guidelines intended to protect student-athletes from heat stroke, sudden cardiac arrest, and other potentially life-threatening conditions, researchers with the UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute announced today.

With more than 7.8 million high school students participating in sanctioned sports each year, it is vital that individual states begin taking proper steps to ensure their high school athletes are protected, said Professor Douglas Casa, executive director of the Korey Stringer Institute, a national sports safety research and advocacy organization based at UConn.

The call for action came as UConn researchers announced the results of what is believed to be the first comprehensive state-by-state assessment of high school sports health and safety polices today at NFL Headquarters. The NFL is a sponsor of the Korey Stringer Institute.

Each state received a percentage score based on the extent to which it met a series of evidence-based best practice guidelines addressing the four leading causes of sudden death among secondary school athletes. Those causes are: sudden cardiac arrest, traumatic head injuries, exertional heat stroke, and exertional sickling, a potentially deadly medical emergency occurring in athletes carrying the sickle cell trait.

The guidelines – endorsed by leading sports medicine organizations in the United States – recommend, at bare minimum, that all states implement the following health and safety policies for secondary school athletics:

1. Automatic external defibrillators and certified athletic trainers on site at all athletic events.

2. Phasing in summer practices and taking other steps to protect athletes from heat stroke.

3. Training coaches on concussion symptoms.

4. Detailed emergency action plans for all life-threatening emergencies.

5. Mandated screening of athletes for sickle cell trait.

KEY FINDINGS: North Carolina has the most comprehensive health and safety policies, with a top score of 79 percent. Colorado has the fewest policies, with a score of 23 percent. The median state score was 47 percent. States ranked in the top 10 percent with a score of 60 percent or higher were North Carolina (79%), Kentucky (71%), Massachusetts (67%), New Jersey (67%), and South Dakota (61%). States representing the bottom 10 percent, with a score of 34 percent or lower, were Minnesota (33%), Montana (33%), Iowa (33%), California (26%), and Colorado (23%).

“We know the implementation of these important health and safety policies has dramatically reduced sport-related fatalities at both the collegiate and national level,” Casa said. “We hope these findings will motivate states to take appropriate action to protect the tens of thousands of young athletes in their care.”

Between 1982 and 2015, there were 735 fatalities and 626 catastrophic injuries among high school athletes. Research has shown that nearly 90 percent of all sudden death in sports is caused by four conditions: sudden cardiac arrest, traumatic head injury, exertional heat stroke, and exertional sickling. Adopting evidence-based safety measures significantly reduces these risks. States that have mandatory heat acclimatization guidelines, for example, have completely eliminated exertional heat stroke deaths since the policies were implemented.

ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM: Unlike national organizations such as the NCAA and NFL, the National Federation of State High School Associations has no governing authority over an individual state’s health and safety policies for secondary schools. Each state has the autonomy to develop and implement its own health and safety policies, which are voted upon by a state’s high school athletic association, based on recommendations from a sports medicine advisory committee or via state legislation.

Many state high school athletic associations responsible for adopting health and safety policies lack members with appropriate medical expertise, a situation researchers at the Korey Stringer Institute say needs to change.

“The policies and procedures for minimizing the risk of sudden death in sports need to be managed by the sports medicine advisory committee in each state and not the state high school athletic associations,” says William Adams, the lead researcher on the study and a former vice president of sport safety for the Korey Stringer Institute. Adams is currently an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “Placing oversight responsibility with a medical advisory committee ensures that those with the most knowledge of serious sport injuries are the ones making the final decisions on these potentially life-saving practices.”

Adams points out that the National Federation of State High School Associations oversees rules pertaining to sportsmanship, fair play, equipment requirements, and other areas for 16 different high school sports across the country. While those rules are meant to protect athletes from direct traumatic injuries to the face, skull, neck, and brain, they do not address indirect causes of death such as sudden cardiac arrest and exertional heat stroke.

“It is our hope, indeed our plea, for the state high school athletic associations to adopt these life-saving best practices to protect the health and well-being of the seven million high school athletes participating in sports across the country every year,” said Casa.

The full study and more details regarding each state’s assessment can be found here. The study will appear in the September issue of The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.

UConn Study Says Some Land Conservation Measures Are Unpopular Among Property Owners

Published by UConn Today on August 7, 2017

Judy Benson

While popular with conservation groups, coastal easements that prevent development in order to protect marshland from changes brought about by climate change are not favored by property owners, according to a new study by the University of Connecticut and Virginia Tech.

The findings, based on the results of surveys conducted in 2015 of 1,002 owners of Connecticut coastal properties, suggest that relying on education about rising sea levels and the ecosystem benefits of marshes alone will not protect land from future changes. Since private landowners are critical partners in efforts to save coastal marshes, identifying the best strategies will be essential to success.

The study, conducted by Christopher Field and Chris Elphick of UConn and Ashley Dayer of Virginia Tech, followed two major storms – Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – providing a valid measure of whether experience influences attitudes about taking action to lessen future risks.

Landowners in the study indicated skepticism about granting easements based on concerns as to whether they will be offered a fair price in exchange for keeping land as open space where marshes can migrate as seas rise. They also indicated worry that environmental organizations “might not act fairly or transparently in their efforts to encourage tidal marsh migration,” the researchers write in an article published in the Aug. 7  issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the study area alone – the Connecticut coast – there are an estimated 30,000 landowners in the zone projected to become tidal marsh by 2100, and millions of people globally live near tidal marshes. Whether they decide to leave room for marshes to move inland or instead build seawalls that harden shorelines means the difference between saving tidal wetlands and their many ecological, economic, and recreational benefits, or losing them altogether.

While surveyed landowners whose properties flooded during the hurricane were 1.4 times more likely to say they may be willing to sell their vulnerable land outright, the real world results call those stated intentions into question. Federal buyout programs after both hurricanes acquired fewer than 100 properties in the study area, although many more were eligible, the study states.

If land protection agreements with nonprofits and government agencies aren’t the answer, what offers greater promise for the future of marshes?

Surveyed landowners responded favorably to the idea of restrictive covenants, even though they typically do not include financial incentives. Under restrictive covenants, an entire neighborhood agrees to forgo building seawalls and other shoreline armoring structures. However, note the researchers, these strategies tend to be counterproductive in the long run, because they divert erosion and flooding to adjoining properties.

Coastal landowners also liked the notion of future interest agreements. Under these programs, private landowners agree to accept the fair market value of their property at the time of signing if future flooding reduces the value by more than half. That future flooding would mean dry upland has been allowed to turn into coastal marsh.

The study was funded by Connecticut Sea Grant, UConn, and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Field is a postdoctoral fellow in the UConn Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Elphick is an associate professor of conservation biology in the UConn ecology and evolutionary biology department and the Center of Biological Risk; and Dayer is assistant professor of human dimensions at Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.

The article, “Landowner behavior can determine the success of conservation strategies for ecosystem migration under sea-level rise,” offers broad implications for how to best design programs to mitigate other climate change effects. But further analysis is needed, say the researchers.

UConn Program Gives College Students Real-World Experience

Published by the New Britain Herald on August 6, 2017

Charles Paullin

NEW BRITAIN – Two students from Central Connecticut are getting real-world experience while pursuing careers in their fields of interest.

Ethan Cope of Kensington and George Andrews of Terryville recently participated in the University of Connecticut Technology Incubation Program (TIP), a summer immersion fellowship program.

“It’s not your usual experience; there’s a lot more put onto you,” said Cope, who earned his master’s degree in microsystems analysis in June before beginning dental school at UConn.

“Because it was with a small startup, you were exposed to so many different fields” said Andrews, who is entering his junior year, majoring in biomedical engineering.

The 10-week program, consisting of 18 students sponsored by their respective academic departments and based at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building of the UConn health facility in Farmington, pairs Connecticut startup companies with UConn undergraduates, graduate and recent graduates.

“When you’re in kind of a startup environment and there’s less people in the company, you might be doing a lot more than what you initially expected,” said Cope. “You kind of open your mind and explore opportunities more openly.”

Cope worked with Oral Fluid Dynamics and tested how sterilization affected a membrane flux and salt rejection for a medical device that he wasn’t allowed to go into specifics on because the product is still in early stages of development.

This meant coordinating the effort to procure membranes from Yale University, testing them on the variable sterilization methods and then returning them to Yale for study on the findings.

“I never thought I might go into sales, but now I may,” said Andrews.

Andrews worked with Avitus Orthopedics in the sales department, coordinating its marketing effort and scheduling meetings with doctors to discuss the distribution of a unique bone harvesting device.

This involved taking a trip to Johns Hopkins University in Maryland to test the product and learning the technique of cold-calling doctors to sell the product.

Throughout the program, seminars were held.

The program culminated with a Research Day at the headquarters, where MaryJane Rafii, a leader in the biotech industry, gave a keynote speech.

TIP Companies Help UConn Students “Start Up” Their Careers

Published by UConn Innovation Portal

Jessica McBride

One day after national Start Up Day, 18 UConn students presented their experiences working with startup companies housed in UConn’s own Technology Incubation Program (TIP). The annual Summer Fellowship Research Day took place at the newly expanded TIP facility in Farmington at UConn Health.

For the past six years, academic departments at UConn and UConn Health have provided funding for UConn graduate and undergraduate students to gain research experience and be exposed to entrepreneurship with some of Connecticut’s high-potential technology startups. Students and startups engage in collaborations that offer students invaluable mentorships with experienced technology entrepreneurs and provide companies at UConn’s Technology Incubation Program with introductions to talented would-be employees.

Local entrepreneurs, faculty, university staff, an official from state government, family, and friends of the participants gathered at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building to hear what the students—and their mentors—learned over the course of the 10-week program.

All of the students, who come from both STEM and business fields, underscored the program’s uniqueness and the rare opportunity it provides young scientists and entrepreneurs.

“I had worked in scientific labs in the past, but this is my first experience with a startup,” said Joe Fetta, rising senior from the School of Nursing. “In a startup, you’re not only concerned with developing innovative science, you have to think about how to integrate your product into the market. It’s a whole new perspective.”

The contibutions the students made varied depending on their backgrounds and the companies’ needs. Some students told the crowd important about milestones they helped their companies meet.

“This summer I helped Avitus Orthopaedics gain entry into several new markets. Our technology is now being used by surgeons throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic” said Enuma Ezeife, an MBA candidate from UConn’s School of Business.

Ezeife spent her summer immersed in sales and marketing for Avitus Orthopaedics, a medical device company developing novel instruments for minimally invasive surgery. According to Avitus CEO, Neil Shah, the startups who participate in the program gain as much as the fellows.

“We have been blown away by the quality of the students in the UConn-TIP Summer Immersion Fellowship program. After only a few weeks, we felt comfortable having Enuma meet with potential clients on her own. She really learned to speak their language,” said Neil Shah, Avitus CEO. “We’re still in the process of refining our sales strategy, and it became clear quickly that Enuma and the other UConn students from the program could really add value.”

Since founding director and UConn Health associate professor, Dr. Caroline Dealy, began the program, it has grown from just a few aspiring student scientist/entrepreneurs to a robust class of 18 UConn students in 12 different TIP startup companies. A faculty entrepreneur herself, Dealy is thrilled that the program has been able to grow and provide hands-on career training for STEM and non-STEM students.

“This year we had over 200 applicants for less than two dozen spots. There is clearly an appetite for this type of experiential fellowship,” said Dealy. “Now these students understand that entrepreneurship is how new cures, technologies, and devices are made available as products and services that benefit society. We are thrilled that the collaboration between UConn’s Technology Incubation Program, the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the School of Business, and countless departments is allowing the program to continue to grow and expand.”

According to Dr. Radenka Maric, UConn’s Vice President for Research, the fellowship program is a win-win for both UConn students and UConn-TIP companies.

“Regardless of a chosen career path, entrepreneurial skills and abilities are highly valued and in-demand in today’s economy,” Maric said. “And we know that many of our UConn-TIP companies ultimately hire the student fellows they meet through the program as full-time employees, which helps Connecticut retain the talented young workforce educated in the state.”

State Representative Derek Slap, feels this is a critical part of growing the state’s economy. When speaking to the students, Slap encouraged them to put their new skills to use in Connecticut.

“You are doing amazing things. You represent the growth we need,” said Slap. “Instead of looking outside of Connecticut for your next opportunity, help strengthen our cities, help strengthen our state. We in the state legislature want to know what you need to make that possible.”

According to Dr. Mostafa Analoui, UConn’s executive director of venture development, the UConn-TIP Summer Immersion Fellowship is one of many methods utilized to support the mutual interests of the University, emerging companies like those housed at UConn-TIP, and the state of Connecticut.

“UConn’s Technology Incubation Program is the only university-based technology business incubator in the state and we have a proven record of success. UConn-TIP has helped over 90 companies that have raised $54 million in grants and $135 million in equity and debt since 2004,” Analoui said. “UConn-TIP helps new technology ventures accelerate business and scientific progress while leveraging UConn’s resources. We are committed to helping Connecticut companies grow and training the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs for the state.”

2017 UConn-TIP Summer Immersion Fellowship Participants

  • Jayant Kanchinadham, M.B.A. candidate, School of Business
    TIP Mentor Company: Shoreline Biome
  • Kseniia Poiarkina, M.B.A. candidate, School of Business
    TIP Mentor Company: CaroGen Corporation
  • Enuma Ezeife, M.B.A. candidate, School of Business
    TIP Mentor Company:  Avitus Orthopedics
  • Ethan Cope, M.S., Professional Science Masters’ program, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences; matriculating D.M.D candidate, School of Dental Medicine
    TIP Mentor Company:  Oral Fluid Dynamics
  • Vijay Kodumudi, M.D. candidate, School of Medicine
    TIP Mentor Company: CaroGen Corporation
  •  Alex Gojmerac, M.S., Professional Science Masters’ program, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
    TIP Mentor Company: Azitra
  • Ciera Hunter, B.S. candidate, Physiology/Neurobiology, College Liberal Art Sciences
    TIP Mentor Company: Connecticut Children’s Medical Center Innovation Center
  • Brendan Clark, PharmD candidate, School of Pharmacy
    TIP Mentor Company: Reinesse
  • Joe Fetta, B.S. candidate, School of Nursing
    TIP Mentor Company: Reinesse
  • George Andrews, B.S. candidate, Biomedical Engineering, School of Engineering
    TIP Mentor Company:  Avitus Orthopedics
  • Rosalie Bordett, B.S., Biomedical Engineering, School of Engineering
    TIP Mentor Company:  Connecticut Children’s Medical Center Innovation Center
  • Rachel Crossley, B.S. candidate: Pathobiology, College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources
    TIP Mentor Company: Torigen Pharmaceuticals
  • Meghan Farrell, B.S. candidate, Communications, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
    TIP Mentor Company: Diameter Health
  • Stephanie Gomez, B.S. candidate, Medical Lab Sciences, College of Agriculture, Health & Natural Resources
    TIP Mentor Company: Medisynergics
  • Alyssa Matz, B.S. candidate, Molecular & Cell Biology, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
    TIP Mentor Company: Torigen Pharmaceuticals
  • Orvy Polanco, B.S. candidate, Mechanical Engineering, School of Engineering
    TIP Mentor Company: Innovation Cooperative 3D (IC3D)
  • Taylore Westbrook, B.S. candidate, Computer Science & Engineering, School of Engineering
    TIP Mentor Company: Biorasis
  • Hao Xu, 2nd year Pharmacy candidate, School of Pharmacy
    TIP Mentor Company: Biorasis

UConn Research: Talking Baseball Assists Aging Adults with Dementia

Published by UConn Today on July 31, 2017

Kenneth Best

For many aging adults some of their strongest childhood memories may be linked to playing baseball, talking about games, or going to see their favorite Major League team with their father.

UConn researcher Michael Ego, professor of human development and family studies at the Stamford campus, is studying the effectiveness of using baseball as part of reminiscence therapy for aging adults now affected by dementia, the decline in age-related memory loss including Alzheimer’s Disease that also causes individuals to require assistance from a caregiver.

Earlier this year Ego, who has conducted a variety of research in gerontology and elder care, developed the Baseball Reminiscence Program with the staff of the River House Adult Care Center in Cos Cob, Connecticut. The program is based on similar activities he studied in Austin, Texas, and St. Louis, Missouri, as well as similar programs he observed during a visit to Scotland focused on soccer, golf, and cricket.

The thing that inspires me … is the smiles, laughter, and satisfaction these individuals get from sitting around talking about baseball with their peers.— Michael Ego

“We did have programs that were reminiscence, whether on art, current events, trips, or travel; anything that can jog some memories, get the brain going, and give people an emotional response,” says Donna Spellman, executive director of River House. “What we have found really interesting here is that sometimes there are more women in the room than there are men. They are equally as emotional and connected to baseball as a culture.”

The one-hour sessions earlier this year took place at River House every other week from April through July. A group of six men and six women participated in memory-linked traditions such as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the midway point of the hour, designated as the “Seventh Inning Stretch.” In between, Ego and several peer volunteers led discussions about participants’ experiences with the game, answering questions about baseball trivia, notable players, and the history of the game.

The “Seventh Inning Stretch” at the River House Adult Care Center in Cos Cobb, Connecticut, is when participants in the Baseball Reminiscence Program sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the midway point during their session. (Kenneth Best/UConn Photo)
The ‘Seventh Inning Stretch’ at the River House Adult Care Center is when participants in the Baseball Reminiscence Program sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ during the midway point of their session. (Kenneth Best/UConn Photo)

“I wasn’t surprised how it evolved in Cos Cob because wherever I was previously, there is some trigger that opens people up about what they enjoy,” says Ego. “We just finished the second session. They love it; enjoy it. They’re engaged. With this disease, there is difficulty to get them to engage. The interaction is just very positive.”

During a session in a conference room at River House in late June, Ego conducted what he describes as a “values exercise,” asking everyone around the table for a response to words or phrases often used in baseball or other sports competition. If the person asked struggles for words, or does not answer the question, someone offers a hint or offers the answer.

Ego asked a woman who is a longtime fan of the New York Mets to respond to “Somebody has to win,” and she said, “That’s for sure. Must be the Mets!” and drawing laughter around the table.

Michael Ego, professor of human development and family studies at UConn’s Stamford campus, has developed the Baseball Reminiscence Program for clients with dementia at River House Adult Care Center in Cos Cobb, Connecticut. (Kenneth Best/UConn Photo)
Michael Ego, professor of human development and family studies at UConn’s Stamford campus, has developed the Baseball Reminiscence Program for clients with dementia at River House Adult Care Center in Cos Cobb, Connecticut. (Kenneth Best/UConn Photo)

Later, participants watched video highlights about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which operated during World War II and was depicted in the Penny Marshall film “A League of Their Own.” They also saw highlights of “Pitch,” the television show based on a real-life female pitcher in minor league baseball, that aired briefly earlier this year. One of the cast members in “Pitch” was UConn alum Dan Lauria ’91 MFA, best known for his role in “The Wonder Years.”

Business consultant Frank Schipani became a volunteer for the reminiscence group after auditing Ego’s “Baseball and Society” class in Stamford. He has a collection of baseball memorabilia, and Ego has designated him as the program’s “bench coach,” the in-game advisor and second-in-command to the team manager in professional baseball.

He says that after noticing two men in the group were hesitant to participate in some of the group conversations, he brought in some old photos of players from the New York Yankees.

“I brought out the photos. They leaped up, saying that’s Yogi Berra, he was No. 8, the guy who said, if you come to a fork in the road, take it,” Schipani recalls. “My heart filled up. I showed other pictures of Yankees. I knew there were Red Sox fans in Connecticut. I took out a big photo of Ted Williams. The same guy responded, saying that’s Ted Williams; he was the last guy to bat .400 in the Major Leagues.

“This works, what we’re doing here,” Schipani adds.

On July 20, the most recent session of the program concluded when participants traveled to Citi Field in Queens, New York, to see the New York Mets play the St. Louis Cardinals during a day game, which the home team won in the bottom of the ninth inning. The group had prime seats in a private box, courtesy of the Steven A. and Alexandra M. Cohen Foundation, and enjoyed a ballpark lunch of hot dogs, chicken tenders, and Cracker Jacks.

Augusta Hoffman attended the game with her father, Burton, who participates in the Baseball Reminiscence Program. She says the former businessman looks forward to attending the sessions.

“Anything that gets neurons to connect is good,” she says. “He watches baseball every night at home. I tell him, every single thing they do has a purpose. Nothing is by accident. He’s well aware he’s not functioning at 100 percent. He loves the guys at their table. They look out for him.”

Anna Marie McDermott watched the game with her husband Mike, who is at River House four days a week. She says her husband has responded well to the activities in the program. The couple’s son played baseball in college, and briefly played in the minor leagues before embarking on a career in computer technology. Baseball was a common interest for father and son.

“He’s awakened a little bit more,” she says of the effect the program. “He reads the sports pages cover to cover. Any handout he reads in the session, he puts in an envelope and sends it to Dallas, where my son lives.”

Information about the Baseball Reminiscence Programs in Connecticut, Texas, and Missouri has already started to spread around the nation. In June, Ego traveled to Cooperstown, New York, to the Annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture at the Baseball Hall of Fame, where he delivered a presentation with Jim Kenton of the Austin program that included a video Ego produced about that program. Ego also spoke during the Sport, Dementia, and Mental Health symposium hosted by The Scottish Football Museum in partnership with the University of Endinburgh, a member of Universitas 21 an international network of leading research-intensive universities in 13 nations, including UConn.

Ego and Spellman also will detail the experience of the River House program during the national conference of the Adult Day Services Association of America in late September. An ESPN producer has attended several sessions, including the trip to Citi Field, conducting interviews with patients and caregivers and River House staff for a future broadcast.

Ego is preparing to conduct a formal quality of life study with River House and Austin program participants this fall to gather data from the beginning of the session to the end. The Texas program is part of the Rogers Hornsby Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research.

“The thing that inspires me to do more to spread these programs all over the country,” Ego says, “is the smiles, laughter, and satisfaction these individuals get from sitting around talking about baseball with their peers.”

UConn Study: Free Admissions Tests Help More Poor Students Go to College

Published by UConn Today on July 26, 2017

Loretta Waldman

Closing the college attainment gap among minority and low-income students has been a longstanding challenge for education policy makers. Recently published research out of UConn suggests that a simple, low-cost intervention may offer an effective solution.

The study by Joshua Hyman, an assistant professor of public policy and educational leadership at UConn, looks at a policy in Michigan requiring eleventh grade students to take the ACT and compares the change in the rate of students going to college before and after implementation of the policy. The findings, published in the summer 2017 issue of the journal Education Finance and Policy, show a one percentage point bump in four-year college enrollment among poor students.

The increase may not seem all that dramatic, but relative to other educational interventions, this policy is inexpensive and easy to implement on a large scale, Hyman writes. At the time of the study, 11 states had incorporated the ACT or SAT into their eleventh grade statewide assessment.  All 11 states require students to take the exams and and pay for them at a cost of $32 to $50 per student.

“This is a policy that is not super flashy but sometimes minor, cheap policies can have a small impact, and if you stack enough of them up they can make a big difference,” he says.

Hyman analyzed data on eleventh graders taking the college entrance exam from 2003 to 2008. He looks at demographic data such as sex, race, and date of birth, as well as socioeconomic factors such as free and reduced-price lunch status, limited English proficiency, special education status, and the student’s home address. The data also included eighth and eleventh grade state assessment results and college enrollment information.

By comparing the data before and after 2007, when Michigan implemented the policy, he says he was able to figure out how many students, particularly low-income students, aren’t taking the ACT or SAT, and to predict who  would score well and be eligible to go to a four-year college if they did take it. His findings show that for every 10 poor students who took a college entrance exam before they were mandatory, there were an additional five students who didn’t take the test but who would score well enough to get into college if they did.

“This policy in a sense increased the supply of poor students who are taking these college entrance exams and scoring well by 50 percent,” he says. “I found that to be a pretty surprising result – that there are a lot of disadvantaged students out there who would do well on these tests but just aren’t taking them. “

Hyman further examined the effects of mandating and paying for the ACT by comparing before and after trends among students attending high schools used as test centers to those attending non-test center schools. Just the fact that some students have to drive to another school to take the test may lead to some of them not taking it. Non-test center schools tend to have lower test-taking rates and would show a bigger jump in college enrollment, he reasoned. Indeed, the study findings bore his theory out, showing a 0.6 point increase in college enrollment. The effect was even larger among boys, 0.9 points; poor students, 1.0 point; and students in the poorest high schools, 1.3 points.

The study also found that the students compelled to take the ACT tend to stay in college. Hyman was able to follow all six groups of students through their second year of college and found that the majority of them did not drop out, a key concern with policies such as a mandatory ACT.

“I think the paper has some really uncontroversial, easy, helpful policy implications,” he says. “At $34 a student or so, this policy is quite cheap. It is really hard to move the needle statewide on the rate of students going to college or the rate of low income students going to college. If this policy moves the needle by just a little bit, that’s helpful and that’s important.”

Still, the mandatory ACT is far from a cure-all, he notes. The results suggest that requiring all students to take a college entrance exam increases the supply of poor students scoring at a college-ready level by nearly 50 percent. Yet the policy increases the number of poor students enrolling at a four-year institution by only six percent.

“In spite of the policy, there remains a large supply of disadvantaged students who are high-achieving and not on a path to enrolling at a four-year college,” he writes. “Researchers and policy makers are still faced with the important question of which policies can further stem the tide of rising inequality in educational attainment.”

Study by UConn Researchers Finds Climate Change/Deforestation Amplifying Droughts in Amazon

Published by the Guardian on August 3, 2017

John Abraham

If you are like me, you picture the Amazon region as an ever lush, wet, tropical region filled with numerous plant and animal species. Who would imagine the Amazon experiencing drought? I mean sure, if we think of drought as “less water than usual,” then any place could have a drought. But what I tend to envision with respect to drought is truly dry.

People who work in this field have a more advanced understanding than I do about drought, how and why it occurs, its frequency and severity, and the impact on natural and human worlds. This recognition brings us to a very interesting paper recently published in Scientific Reports, entitled Unprecedented drought over tropical South America in 2016: significantly under-predicted by tropical SST[sea surface temperature]. So, what did this paper show?

Well, the Amazon region does encounter periodic droughts. There was one in 2005, another in 2010, both of which were 100-year events, and the most recent one in 2015-2016. The authors of this study, Amir Erfanian, Guiling Wang, and Lori Fomenko, all from the University of Connecticut, measured drought in three ways. They quantified the precipitation deficits and water storage on the ground. They also used two different vegetation measures of drought. The results showed that the most recent drought was unprecedented in severity. The video below shows a brief visual overview of the findings of this paper:

But the authors really wanted to know why the drought occurred in the first place and why it was so severe. Droughts in the Amazon region are mainly driven by surface water temperatures in the neighboring oceans, particularly in the El Niño/La Niña region. So, the authors looked at the relationship between changes in precipitation and sea surface temperatures in tropical oceans. They found that warmer than usual water in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was the main driver for the reduced rainfall during the three extreme droughts in the past decade.

 The authors also found that the water temperatures alone could not adequately explain the size and severity of the 2015-2016 drought. This suggests that there are other factors involved as well. To be clear, the authors found that the relationship between water temperatures and drought worked well for prior droughts (the 2005 and 2010 droughts as well as 1983 and 1998 droughts, also El Niño years) but fell apart in 2015-2016. That is, using the relationship, the predicted 2015-2016 drought should not have been nearly as severe or as large as it was. The paper also reports that the 2015-2016 drought clearly exceeded that of the 100-year events in 2005 and 2010. So, in approximately one decade, this zone has had three 100-year events. Quite astonishing.

So why was SST unable to explain the 2015-2016 drought, like it had for past events? Part of it has to do with land-use changes. That is, human changes to the land surface such as deforestation. Another part is related to warming from greenhouse gases. It is clear that land-use changes can affect drought. As farmers deforest, for instance, they convert woodlands and forests into agricultural land. This changes not only the darkness (reflectivity) of the land, but it also impacts the transfer of water to and from the atmosphere (evapotranspiration).

One might ask how warming affects droughts. As air temperatures increase, air is able to evaporate water more rapidly and dry out surfaces. At the same time, air can contain more water vapor so that when rain does occur, it is more often in heavy downpours. These two changes underlie what is referred to as an accelerated hydrological cycle. Simply put, man-made warming is accelerating the movement of water through the ecosystem, which can cause drought even if precipitation does not decrease. Warming also causes changes in the large-scale patterns of air motion (atmospheric circulation) that reduces rainfall in this region.

I communicated with the senior author, Dr. Wang, who told me:

Since oceanic forcing could not fully explain the severity of the latest drought, one will have to account for the roles of greenhouse gas warming, land use land cover changes, and/or dynamic ecosystem feedback in order to advance the understanding, attribution and prediction of extreme droughts in this region. The frequent recurrence of severe droughts in the recent decade may be a precursor of what the future might have in store for this regional climate and ecosystem.

So why do we care? Well, for a number of reasons. First of all, droughts in this part of the world create an increased risk for desertification and fire occurrence and hurt the region’s ecosystem, harm trees, and accelerate the release of carbon dioxide. We know that the 2005 drought, which was a 100-year event, led to a record number of wildfires and increased emissions. We also know that similar consequences occurred five years later during the 2010 drought. Similarly, smaller droughts in Brazil in 2007 and 2012 caused widespread water supply problems, particularly in densely populated locations.

To make a long story short, investigating these additional factors may help better explain the most recent Amazon drought. Simply using the past relationship between SST and drought was not a sufficient explanation. This finding, and the recognition that droughts present real consequences for both human societies and natural ecological systems, should motivate us to take actions to reduce harm in the future.

UConn Professor: Light Show Dances To The Beat Of The Music

Published by the Hartford Courant

Rebecca Lurye

EAST HARTFORD — LED strips and twinkle lights flash constantly in the office of University of Connecticut professor Ed Large, just waiting for a beat to latch onto.

They’re controlled by a brain, an intelligent listening system designed by Large, who himself is partial to jazz and funk. He thinks his invention, Synchrony LED, which listens to music and creates real-time light shows, is too.

“If you play a rhythmically boring song. it’ll just go with the beat and it becomes boring really fast,” Large said of Synchrony’s lighting effects. “But if you listen to music that has an interesting rhythm, that’s when it does super interesting things.”

Large teaches psychological science and physics and directs UConn’s music dynamics laboratory. Synchrony, his first commercial product after 25 years of research, will be available for sale to the public this winter.

Synchrony works in the same way that people bounce their knees to a tune; the same way that mangroves full of fireflies in Southeast Asia blink their lights in unison; the same way that pacemaker cells all fire at once to make our hearts beat.

People, organisms and even cells have a natural rate of internal vibrations, or oscillations. This back-and-forth activity tends to sync up with surrounding vibrations. In humans, this is particularly effective with music, which explains how a snappy tune can set people tapping their toes, nodding their heads and harmonizing to the beat.

Synchrony does the same, just with patterns of light.

And the more Large learns about the way the brain perceives sound, the more intricate Synchrony’s effects will become, he said.

“At this stage of programming, we’re not going to compete with a light show that somebody spent two months programming,” he said. “But we will.”

Large began the project in October from the office he rents at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, a nonproft manufacturing innovation hub on Pitkin Street. He launched a Kickstarter campaign in June and, by July 12, raised more than $60,000 to move into final engineering and production.

Large says he’s already seen interest from other companies interested in using his technology in their own sound-capturing products and apps, which is exactly what he was hoping for.

“One goal of this was to show off to them,” Large said.

Unlike other sound-activated light shows on the market — some of which sell for about $25 — Large’s nearly $200 version does not need to be programmed and its visuals go beyond flashing in time with every note.

Using a built-in microphone and an advanced neural network, it synchronizes its rhythms like the human brain does, intelligently translating songs into patterns that mimic the way we process music.

“We’re taking a flashing light and making it feel really good to watch,” said Dylan Reilly, chief technology officer for Large’s company, Oscilloscape.

A starter kit, including a controller box and one LED strip or two LED strings, will sell for $189.

Large says it all started with the desire to understand how the brain predicts and hears the beat of a song.

“It seems like it’s so easy and it’s so obvious. You listen to music, and there it is,” Large said. “But no one knew how it was done.”

In the early 1990s, he decided to go to graduate school to study in the then-novel field of music cognition.

Since then, his experiments have ranged far and wide, including finding a bonobo at the Jacksonville Zoo that was amenable to banging on a drum to a steady beat.

Large wanted to prove that apes could sense oscillations in music the same as humans, and the same as Snowball the dancing cockatoo, whose head-banging and high-kicking moves gained Youtube fame in the mid-2000s. The parrot was deemed the first animal capable of “beat induction,” or perceiving music and synchronizing body movements to it.

Large has moved on to another group of bonobos in Iowa, but his auditory research has also attracted the attention of the U.S. Air Force, which issued him contracts worth $2.5 million.

The technology behind Synchrony was developed with significant grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, Large said.

He went through several iterations of the product itself. The first concept, wearable pins, were bad business — too costly to manufacture for the price people would be willing to pay. A second idea, rave gloves, was a bit too complicated.

Then he hit on LED strips.

“It was really captivating. When you see it happen, you just can’t take your eyes off it,” Large said. “So we decided that’s got to be the thing.” Large says he plans to send the first round of products to his backers in time for them to string up their Christmas trees.

And though holiday lighting was Large’s original concept, and it remains one of his favorites, he says Synchrony works best with songs that have some funk. The more complex the music, the more interesting the visuals.

When he was developing the system, Large played Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” on repeat.

And no, he’s used to saying: That didn’t ruin the music.

“You could play that song for me every moment of the day.”

UConn Pathobiologist, Paulo Verardi, Discusses Continued Efforts to Tackle the Zika Virus on WNPR’s Where We Live

Published by WNPR on July 24, 2017

Jeff Tyson and Lucy Nalpathanchil

It’s mosquito season and the Zika virus still remains a threat in many parts of the world — including here in the U.S.

This hour, we hear the latest on efforts to develop a Zika vaccine and we find out what researchers have learned since last summer about how the virus causes microcephaly in newborns.

Are you concerned about traveling to Zika affected states or countries?

And later, a Norwalk mother facing deportation has sought sanctuary in a New Haven church. What can we learn from a very similar story in Denver?

Plus, it has been 10 years since the horrific murders of a Cheshire mother and her two daughters in their suburban home. Hartford Courant reporter Alaine Griffin will join us to reflect on her experience covering the killer’s criminal trials.

GUESTS:

You can listen to the conversation here

UConn Study: Reduced Oxygen Nanocrystalline Materials Show Improved Performance

Published by Phys.org on July 17, 2017

Researchers at the University of Connecticut have found that reducing oxygen in some nanocrystalline materials may improve their strength and durability at elevated temperatures, a promising enhancement that could lead to better biosensors, faster jet engines, and greater capacity semiconductors.

“Stabilizing nanocrystals at elevated temperatures is a common challenge,” says Peiman Shahbeigi-Roodposhti, a postdoctoral research scholar with UConn’s Institute of Materials Science and the study’s lead author. “In certain alloys, we found that high levels of oxygen can lead to a significant reduction in their efficiency.”

Using a special milling process in an enclosed glove box filled with argon gas, UConn scientists, working in collaboration with researchers from North Carolina State University, were able to synthesize nano-sized crystals of Iron-Chromium and Iron-Chromium-Hafnium with oxygen levels as low as 0.01 percent. These nearly oxygen-free alloy powders appeared to be much more stable than their commercial counterparts with higher oxygen content at elevated temperatures and under high levels of stress.

“In this study, for the first time, optimum oxygen-free nanomaterials were developed,” says Sina Shahbazmohamadi, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at UConn and a co-author on the paper. “Various characterization techniques, including advanced aberration corrected transmission electron microscopy, revealed a significant improvement in grain size stability at elevated temperatures.”

Grain size stability is important for scientists seeking to develop the next generation of advanced materials. Like fine links in an intricately woven mesh, grains are the small solids from which metals are made. Studies have shown that smaller grains are better when it comes to making stronger and tougher metals that are less prone to cracking, better conductors of electricity, and more durable at high temperatures and under extreme stress. Recent advances in technology have allowed materials scientists to develop  at the scale of just 10 nanometers, which is tens of thousands of times smaller than the thickness of a sheet of paper or the width of a human hair. Such nanocrystals can only be viewed under extremely powerful microscopes.

But the process isn’t perfect. When some nanograins are created in bulk for applications such as semiconductors, the stability of their size can fluctuate under higher temperatures and stress. It was during the investigation of this instability that Shahbeigi-Roodposhti and the UConn research team learned the role oxygen played in weakening the nanocrystals’ stability at .

“This is only a first step, but this line of investigation could ultimately lead to developing faster jet engines, more capacity in semiconductors, and more sensitivity in biosensors,” Shahbeigi-Roodposhti says.

Moving forward, the UConn researchers intend to test their theory on other alloys to see whether the presence or absence of oxygen impacts their performance at elevated temperatures.

The study, “Effect of  content on thermal stability of grain size for nanocrystalline Fe10Cr and Fe14Cr4Hf alloy powders,” which was supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, currently appears online in the Journal of Alloys and Compounds.

Growing UConn’s Research Enterprise with an Inclusive Approach

Published by UConn Innovation Portal on 7/27/2017

Jessica McBride

Dr. Radenka Maric, newly appointed Vice President for Research at UConn and UConn Health, intends to grow the university’s research enterprise by increasing strategic connections within and beyond the university’s walls.

“Collaboration is going to become the model of the future for scientists,” Maric explains. “I want to bring more faculty, companies, and foundations together on collaborative projects to grow UConn’s capabilities and increase our chances of receiving substantial funding for cutting-edge research. We cannot do that alone.”

UConn officials say it is Maric’s combination of scientific and industry expertise that sets her apart. Her unique career path has helped her facilitate strategic partnerships with diverse stakeholders, which is important given the highly competitive funding environment and uncertain federal budget for research.

“She has a proven track record as an innovative thought leader and world-class researcher in both corporate and academic environments, and is highly respected by fellow faculty, graduate students, and others within the UConn community” says Jeremy Teitelbaum, interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at UConn. “We are thrilled to have someone with Radenka’s unique background and global perspective to lead UConn’s continued growth in research, scholarship, and creative initiatives.”

Maric began her research career at the Japan Fine Ceramics Center where she managed technology development for fuel cells, electronics, and biomaterials applications. From there she moved across the world to the U.S. to work in the private sector at nGimat Corporation (formerly known as Micro Coating Technologies), a leading manufacturer and innovator of engineered thin films and nanopowder technologies. After five years with nGimat, she took on a leadership role at the National Research Council of Canada’s Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation where she led efforts to develop a breakthrough thin film deposition technology that enables next generation semiconductor and advanced fuel cell materials production at significantly reduced costs and enhanced performance.

In addition to her current responsibilities at UConn, she is also the founder of a biotech startup based on her research.

As Vice President for Research, Maric wants to build on the momentum she has already seen at UConn since coming to the university in 2010 through the Eminent Faculty Initiative in Sustainable Energy program. Increased focus on partnerships with industry leaders in UConn’s areas of strength, additional entrepreneurial training for faculty and students that leads to startup creation, and bigger emphasis on large-scale, multi-institution grants all provide an excellent foundation for improving and promoting UConn’s status as a top public research university, says Maric.

“The amount of talent at UConn and UConn Health is staggering,” says Maric. “During my time here, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of energy put in to making the university better. I want to galvanize our best resources – our people – and leverage our state-of-art research infrastructure to enhance opportunities for collaborations.”

In the first weeks of her tenure as VPR, Maric has already begun to reach into all corners of the state’s flagship university to connect faculty and students with opportunities that can help UConn grow and benefit the state. Specific efforts will focus on linking researchers across schools, departments, and campuses to enable cross-disciplinary research that aligns with federal science and health initiatives, such as those for manufacturing technologies, microbiome research, and the National Institutes of Health’s recent BRAIN Initiative.

She recently met with faculty and students from the School of Dental Medicine at UConn Health to discuss many opportunities that exist at UConn to expose scientific researchers to commercialization and entrepreneurship in order to translate their lab discoveries into products on the market.

Maric has formulated initiatives to carry out her ambitious mission including efforts that:

  • Utilize emerging data on federal funding priorities to align and promote UConn research capacity and increase UConn’s research competiveness based on these trends.
  • Enable and empower faculty to focus on large-scale global research opportunities with corporate and foundation partners.
  • Convene cross disciplinary research teams able to target and cultivate relationships with other academic institutions, national labs, industry, and government partners to build new comprehensive strategic partnerships.
  • Facilitate strong communications, dialogue, and coordination to foster an exciting intellectual environment that encourages new engagement among different schools.
  • Increase external promotions that demonstrate the unique value and capacity of UConn research, with particular emphasis in areas of interest to funding agencies, foundations, and industry.
  • Provide faculty with access to industry mentors, information about market opportunities, and seed funding to align their academic research projects with industry priorities and increase the quantity of UConn inventions.

“We want to grow our faculty; we want to grow our students; and we want to grow an increasingly strong portfolio of companies that are associated with UConn through the future Innovation Partnership Building (IPB) and other initiatives like the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP),” says Maric. “We want partners that will help us build specific research clusters as part of a consortium model to show that we have the critical mass to lead.”

Prior to her role as VPR, Maric served as executive director of UConn’s IPB. Her ability to build fundamental and applied research and technology commercialization capabilities with a keen eye towards government, industry, and academic interests has been instrumental to the $132 million project. Her leadership has already leveraged more than $80 million in industry and federal agency projects.  The IPB is scheduled to open its doors to industry and academic researchers in the fall of 2017. As VPR, the IPB will remain within the scope of Maric’s responsibilities and extends her ability to connect UConn with startups and industry leaders.

In addition to being responsible for managing successful partnerships with General Electric, Comcast, UTC Aerospace, Pratt & Whitney and Eversource that are key to the IPB,  Maric has a history of creating collaborations between UConn and industry, such as sponsored projects with United Technologies Research Center, Sonalysts, Proton OnSite, NGK Spark Plugs, Advent Technologies, Cabot, and Danbury-based FuelCell Energy.

“Dr. Maric is fluent in many languages, but one of the most important languages she speaks is that of industry,” says Dr. Hossein Ghezel-Ayagh, Director of Advanced Technology at FuelCell Energy and one of Maric’s frequent collaborators. “We’re looking forward to continuing our partnership with her, since she understands first-hand the needs of industry and the potential gain for all involved when researchers with diverse backgrounds and complementary strengths, such as industry and academic scientists, innovate together.”

Continuing to consider UConn’s impact throughout the state, Maric is also currently serving on CTNext’s Higher Education Innovation & Entrepreneurship Working Group composed of leaders from in-state public and independent colleges and universities. The group is drafting a master plan that aims to facilitate collaboration and cooperation, identify funding opportunities, establish a state-wide intercollegiate business plan competition, and scale existing or emergent programs at institutions of higher education around the state.

Beyond science and technology, Maric is committed to supporting the arts, social sciences and humanities by facilitating partnerships and sponsorships for creative projects, concerts, and exhibits. She also hopes to encourage interactions between faculty from non-STEM fields like digital media and design with those from scientific disciplines like engineering. She is confident that these connections will lead to positive impacts for faculty, students, and the state.

“Connecticut has made a significant investment in UConn aimed at building infrastructure, improving education, and training the states’ future workforce. UConn’s research enterprise is a critically important part of making sure this happens,” says Maric. “It helps drive Connecticut’s innovation economy by forging important partnerships, commercializing life-saving technologies, supporting entrepreneurship, and preparing talented graduates for high-wage jobs.”

Maric earned her BS in materials science from the University of Belgrade, and her MS and PhD in materials science and energy from the University of Kyoto. Her research interests include nanomaterials and thin films, the effect of structure, defects, and microstructure on transport and electrical properties of surfaces and interfaces. In particular, she is interested in developing novel materials for fuel cells, batteries, and biomaterials. Maric has been invited to give keynote addresses at numerous international conferences, was named the Connecticut Technology Council’s Woman of Innovation in 2016, and was selected to be a Fulbright Scholar at Politecnico Di Milano in Italy in 2016-2017. She has authored over 100 journal publications and holds four patents.

UConn Researchers Develop Fireproof Plastics Thanks to Mother-of-Pearl Mimic

Published by True Viral News on 7/20/2017

It’s a technicolour dreamcoat for your crisp packet – a strong, flame-retardant and airtight new material that mimics mother of pearl.

The natural version, also called nacre, is found on the inner shell of some molluscs, where it is built up of layers of the mineral aragonite separated by organic polymers such as chitin. It is remarkably strong, without being brittle or dense.

We would like to use nacre and similar materials as a protective coating in many situations. However, making them is a slow and delicate process that is difficult to recreate at any useful scale. Artificial nacre-like materials are usually painstakingly built up layer by layer, but Luyi Sun at the University of Connecticut in Storrs and his colleagues found a way to do it all in one go.

With their quick method, they were able to make their thin film coating 60 per cent stronger than stainless steel. A plastic sheet covered in the material was over 13,000 times less permeable to air and other gases than it was on its own. When the team tried to set it on fire, it became scorched where the flame directly touched the coated sheet, but would not ignite.

To form the film, the researchers mixed a type of clay that sheds layers when exposed to ultrasonic pulses with water and a polymer to stick the layers together. They then dipped strips of plastic the size of standard sheets of paper in the mixture to coat them.

When the coated sheets of plastic are hung up like drying laundry, the thin liquid layer flows towards the ground, pulling the nanometre-thick sheets of clay into alignment with one another like neatly laid bricks. This is crucial for keeping the coating strong and airtight.

Finally, the material was placed in an oven, drying the sticky polymer sandwiched between the clay layers. The whole process can be completed in a matter of minutes.

“Traditionally people make this kind of material very tiny, fingernail-sized, and it would take maybe a week to coat a small object like this,” says Sun. “Now we can do it easily on standard-sized paper in minutes.”

Fast and friendly

Because of the method’s speed and environmentally friendly components, it would be easy to apply it to a variety of applications that require an airtight or flame-retardant coating.

“Some biodegradable plastics have a bunch of bad properties – they have a poor barrier and they’re flammable,” says Jaime Grunlan at Texas A&M University in College Station. “With this coating, they could compete with higher-performance polymers.”

The coating could potentially be used in food-related products such as crisp bags, which are now generally coated in aluminium that can leak into the environment and has been linked to a number of health problems.

Applications in electronics generally require barriers against air and moisture that are stronger than what Sun and his colleagues were able to achieve, but in principle their nacre-mimicking coating could be used on cellphone parts to stop them from being ruined or combusting.

Sun says that his team is working with industry partners to commercialise the coating method so that objects can be continuously dipped, hung and baked. He hopes it will be widely used in the next year or so.

UConn Incubator Company’s Cardiovascular Connected Healthcare Provides A Solution for AFIB

Published by Med Device Online on 7/19/2017

Bob Marshall

Atrial fibrillation (also called AFib) is a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related complications. At least 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib, according the American Heart Association (AHA). A worldwide study of AFib epidemiology from 1990 to 2010 estimated its prevalence at 33.5 million males and 12.6 million females in the year 2010.

During AFib, the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) do not beat effectively to move blood into the ventricles, which can result in clotting. If a resulting clot breaks off, enters the bloodstream and lodges in an artery leading to the brain, a stroke results. About 15–20 percent of people who have strokes have this heart arrhythmia, and this clot risk is why patients with AFib are often put on blood thinners.

The AHA provides these examples of how patients have described their experience:

“My heart flip-flops, skips beats, and feels like it’s banging against my chest wall, especially if I’m carrying stuff up my stairs or bending down.”

“I was nauseated, light-headed, and weak. I had a really fast heartbeat and felt like I was gasping for air.”

“I had no symptoms at all. I discovered my AF at a regular check-up.”

This third example is most troubling – due to a lack of symptoms and the intermittent nature of AFib, many people are unaware they have a serious condition that doubles the risk of heart-related death and is associated with a 5X increased risk for stroke. In addition, the prevalence of AFib increased by nearly five percent between 1990 and 2010, and the mortality rate doubled during the same time period, according to the above study.

Historical means of detecting AFib have included traditional electrocardiographs (ECGs) used during stress tests, Holter monitors, and event monitors. Holter monitors are portable ECGs worn to measure and record heart activity, continuously, over a period of 24-48 hours. The recordings then are reviewed by medical professionals to look for occurrences of AFib. Event monitors are used over a longer period of time (up to 30 days), and they are triggered by the patient when that patient experiences an irregularity, or “flutter,” and pushes a button to note the sensation. Recordings from just prior to the trigger are sent to medical professionals, who review the irregularity experienced by the patient and recommend further action, if necessary.

These means of monitoring are able to help identify whether a patient is experiencing AFib in some cases, but given the intermittent nature of the condition, such devices’ use for limited amounts of time can fail to capture proof of the cardiac rhythm problem. The electrodes attached to the skin can cause irritation — especially in the case of an event monitor, where the electrodes have to be removed and replaced every day or two over a period of several weeks. Additionally, it is a nuisance to remove Holter and event monitors for showering and bathing, and subsequently to reconnect them.

Cardiovascular Connected Healthcare Provides A Solution

All of these challenges led Dr. David A. McManus, an electrophysiologist and cardiologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center, to research with his colleagues and develop an alternative device. McManus is clinical director for Mobile Sense Technologies in Farmington, CT, as well as inventor of the company’s SensBand. The SensBand, claims to fill the gap between short duration adhesive monitors and long duration sub-cutaneous implants. It connects with the patient’s smartphone to provide continuous monitoring for AFib, and to enable data sharing with the patient’s doctor. Connected cardiovascular care provides a means to better engage patients in managing their own care, and is aimed at producing value-based outcomes. Detecting and monitoring AFib reduces stroke risk, improves the quality of life for patients, and reduces the overall cost of healthcare.

In 2013, McManus published in HeartRhythm the article A Novel Application for the Detection of an Irregular Pulse using an iPhone 4S in Patients with Atrial Fibrillation. In the piece, he describes a clinical study of 76 adult subjects with persistent AFib. Pulsatile time series recordings were obtained before and after cardioversion using an iPhone 4S camera. A novel smartphone application conducted real-time pulse analysis using 2 different statistical methods. The sensitivity, specificity, and predictive accuracy of both algorithms were examined using the 12-lead electrocardiogram as the gold standard. An algorithm combining the 2 statistical methods demonstrated excellent sensitivity (0.962), specificity (0.975), and accuracy (0.968) for beat-to-beat discrimination of an irregular pulse during AFib from sinus rhythm.

The application was further evaluated in a study of 2000 people in India. McManus has stated that his goal is simple. He wants to keep people with AFib living longer and living well. “If the disease is diagnosed in time, it can go from life-threatening to an inconvenience – something you die with, not from,” he said.

UConn Research: In Frogs, Early Activity of Gut Microbiome Shapes Later Health

Published by UConn Today on 7/20/2017

Biologists at the University of Connecticut and University of South Florida have found that a crucial window in the development of tadpoles may influence a frog’s ability to fight infectious diseases as an adult.

The scientists showed that an early-life disruption of the gut and skin bacterial communities of tadpoles later affects the adult frogs’ ability to fight off parasitic gut worms. Led by Sarah Knutie of UConn, the team published its findings in the July 20 edition of Nature Communications.

“Our study found that a disruption of bacteria in tadpoles has enduring negative effects on how adult frogs deal with their parasites,” Knutie said. “These results suggest that preventing early-life disruptions of bacteria by factors such as nutrition, antibiotics, and pollution, might confer protection against diseases later in life.”

The project is significant not only for the insight it provides in threats to the health of the world’s frogs, but in its potential applicability to understanding the immune systems of mammals and even humans.

The impact of a healthy bacterial community in the gut is an increasing focus of scientists looking to understand a wide range of ailments in many species, including humans. Previous research has found that an early-life disruption of the gut microbiota in mammals can result in a hyper-reactive immune system that may increase the subsequent risk of immune-related health issues, such as allergies and autoimmune diseases.

Testing the effects of early-life disruption of the microbiota on later-life resistance to infections. Photos by Mark Yokoyama)
Testing the effects of early-life disruption of the microbiota on later-life resistance to infections. (Photos by Mark Yokoyama)

In their experiments, the scientific team manipulated the bacterial communities of Cuban tree frog tadpoles and then exposed them to parasites later in life. The tadpoles were either raised in natural pond water or one of three other treatments to manipulate the bacterial communities: sterile pond water, sterile pond water with short-term antibiotics, or sterile pond water with long-term antibiotics.

Adult frogs that had reduced bacterial diversity as tadpoles had three times more parasites than adults that did not have their microbiota disrupted as tadpoles, the study found. Those results suggest that preventing early-life disruptions of host-associated bacterial communities might reduce infection risk later in life.

“We think that the microbiota of juveniles likely played a role in priming the immune system against parasite establishment,” the researchers wrote. “We found that the relative abundance of certain bacteria … in juveniles was positively correlated with parasite resistance in adulthood.”

Knutie began the research as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of South Florida, and recently joined the UConn faculty.

The project was funded by the National Science Foundation, the British Ecological Society, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

To read the article, click here.

UConn Researcher: In Making Decisions, Are You an Ant or a Grasshopper?

 

Published by UConn Today on July 19, 2017

Elaina Hancock

In one of Aesop’s famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, while the dutiful ant toils away preparing for the winter.

Findings in a recent publication by UConn psychology researcher Susan Zhu and colleagues add to a growing body of evidence that, although it may seem less appealing, the ant’s gratification-delaying strategy should not be viewed in a negative light.

“This decision strategy can be harder or more time-consuming in the moment, but it appears to have the best outcome in the long run, even if it isn’t fun,” says Zhu.

The ant is what the researchers would call a maximizer. A maximizer is someone who makes decisions that they expect will impact themselves and others most favorably: they seek to “maximize” the positive and make the best choices imaginable. Yet the ant may consider so many variables that the same tendency to maximize benefit may lead to difficulty in making decisions. Previous research suggested this, with maximizers being less happy overall, having higher stress levels, and possibly regretting decisions they made.

Zhu suggests that maximizing has beneficial consequences.

“Maximizers are forward thinking, conscientious, optimistic, and satisfied,” she says. “Though a lot of work and thought go into those decisions, maximizing has beneficial outcomes.”

Surviving the winter perhaps?

On the other end of the spectrum, the grasshopper is more of what researchers might refer to as a satisficer (satisfy plus suffice = satisfice), or someone who will be happy with things being “good enough,” who tends to opt for instant gratification and tends to live moment to moment.

“A satisficer will make a decision, feel good about making it, and move on,” says Zhu.

The ant and the grasshopper are of course extreme examples of each dispositional type, and most people exhibit both qualities. “There tends to be a bell curve and most people fall towards the middle and exhibit aspects of both tendencies,” Zhu says.

To conduct the study, the researchers used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or MTurk service, where their survey was given to hundreds of participants, generating a pool of data.

Survey takers were asked questions regarding financial decisions, namely savings habits and tendencies. They rated various statements, such as “I never settle for second best,” on a five-point scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The questionnaire was designed to gauge whether participants tended to maximize their decisions, how they felt their decisions would impact the future, and how they viewed smaller immediate rewards or larger future rewards.

The survey also looked at how participants expected their decisions to affect the future. They were asked to rate statements like, “I consider how things might be in the future and try to influence those things with my day to day behavior,” and “I often think about saving money for the future,” and to provide information about lifetime savings amounts and current income.

“What we are measuring are tendencies,” says Zhu. “When we ask what people tend to do, they’re pretty stable and can be pretty good predictors for actual behavior.”

Once data was gathered, researchers crunched the numbers and observed trends. With maximizers, the data suggested a positive relationship with their future-oriented thinking, better money-saving habits, and concern for the future of others.

The main takeaway? Zhu says, “Maximizing can be a good thing. Previous research looked at decision-making difficulty and other negative outcomes, and that added a negative connotation to maximizing tendencies. We’re trying to frame it in light of the high standards and the beneficial outcomes, to help reshape the view of maximizing.”

No matter where you fall on the spectrum, take advice from both the forward thinking ant andthe fun-loving grasshopper. Plan for the future, but also have some fun now.

UConn Researchers: When Less Oxygen Means Better Performance

Published by UConn Today on 7/17/17

Colin Poitras

Researchers at the University of Connecticut have found that reducing oxygen in some nanocrystalline materials may improve their strength and durability at elevated temperatures, a promising enhancement that could lead to better biosensors, faster jet engines, and greater capacity semiconductors.

“Stabilizing nanocrystals at elevated temperatures is a common challenge,” says Peiman Shahbeigi-Roodposhti, a postdoctoral research scholar with UConn’s Institute of Materials Science and the study’s lead author. “In certain alloys, we found that high levels of oxygen can lead to a significant reduction in their efficiency.”

Using a special milling process in an enclosed box filled with argon gas, UConn scientists, working in collaboration with researchers from North Carolina State University, were able to synthesize nano-sized crystals of Iron-Chromium and Iron-Chromium-Hafnium with oxygen levels as low as 0.01 percent. These nearly oxygen-free alloy powders appeared to be much more stable than their commercial counterparts with higher oxygen content at elevated temperatures and under high levels of stress.

“In this study, for the first time, optimum oxygen-free nanomaterials were developed,” says Sina Shahbazmohamadi, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at UConn and a co-author on the paper. “Various characterization techniques, including advanced aberration corrected transmission electron microscopy, revealed a significant improvement in grain size stability at elevated temperatures.”

Postdoctoral researcher Peiman Shahbegi and an undergraduate student in materials science work with a glove box to produce nanomaterials.
Postdoctoral researcher Peiman Shahbegi-Roodposhti and an undergraduate student in materials science work with a glove box to produce nanomaterials.

Grain size stability is important for scientists seeking to develop the next generation of advanced materials. Like fine links in an intricately woven mesh, grains are the small solids from which metals are made. Studies have shown that smaller grains are better when it comes to making stronger and tougher metals that are less prone to cracking, better conductors of electricity, and more durable at high temperatures and under extreme stress. Recent advances in technology have allowed materials scientists to develop grains at the scale of just 10 nanometers, which is tens of thousands of times smaller than the thickness of a sheet of paper or the width of a human hair. Such nanocrystals can only be viewed under extremely powerful microscopes.

But the process isn’t perfect. When some nanograins are created in bulk for applications such as semiconductors, the stability of their size can fluctuate under higher temperatures and stress. It was during the investigation of this instability that Shahbeigi-Roodposhti and the UConn research team learned the role oxygen played in weakening the nanocrystals’ stability at high temperatures.

“This is only a first step, but this line of investigation could ultimately lead to developing faster jet engines, more capacity in semiconductors, and more sensitivity in biosensors,” Shahbeigi-Roodposhti says.

Moving forward, the UConn researchers intend to test their theory on other alloys to see whether the presence or absence of oxygen impacts their performance at elevated temperatures.

The study, “Effect of oxygen content on thermal stability of grain size for nanocrystalline Fe10Cr and Fe14Cr4Hf alloy powders,” which was supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, currently appears online in the Journal of Alloys and Compounds.

Also serving as co-authors on the paper were Mostafa Saber, an assistant professor at Portland State University; and Professors Ronald Scattergood and Carl Koch from North Carolina State University. DOE funding supporting the research was acquired by Scattergood’s lab.

UConn Study: No Chocolate Milk? No Problem, Kids Get Used to Plain Milk

Published by UConn Today on 7/14/2017

Daniel P. Jones

A new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut has found that most students adjust to drinking plain milk after flavored milk is removed from school lunch menus.

Flavored milk served in the National School Lunch Program contains up to 10 grams of added sugar per serving, which is 40 percent of a child’s daily allowance of added sugar. Given the nation’s key public health target of limiting added sugars in children’s diets, flavored milk has come under scrutiny in the context of school nutrition.

The study measured plain milk selection and consumption in the years after flavored milk was removed in two schools. During the first year without flavored milk, 51.5 percent of students selected plain milk. Two years later, 72 percent of students selected plain milk. Both years, student selection and consumption of plain milk dropped significantly on days when 100 percent fruit juice was also available.

“The decision to remove flavored milk has both nutritional benefits and potential costs. It is clearly an effective way to lower student intake of added sugars at lunch, and over time, the majority of students will switch to plain milk,” said Marlene Schwartz, professor of human development and family studies, director of the UConn Rudd Center, and lead author of the study. “However, there will always be some students who don’t like plain milk. The challenge is finding a way to meet their dietary needs by providing other nutrient-rich options at lunch.”

The study, published July 14 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, has implications for school nutrition policy and efforts to reduce added sugars in children’s diets.

The study was conducted in two elementary (K-8) schools in an urban New England school district during the 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 school years. Researchers assessed the selection and consumption of milk immediately after flavored milk was removed in the 2010-2011 school year, and two years later in the 2012-2013 school year.

The selection and consumption of milk were compared on days when 100 percent fruit juice was offered and not offered. The average number of students in the lunch line when data was collected was 369 in one school, and 391 in the other school.

The study’s key findings show:

  • The first school year after flavored milk was removed, 51.5 percent of students selected milk and drank 4 ounces per carton, indicating school-wide per-student consumption of 2.1 ounces.
  • Two years later, 72 percent of students selected milk and drank 3.4 ounces per carton, significantly increasing the school-wide per-student consumption to 2.5 ounces.
  • Older students and boys consumed significantly more milk.
  • The availability of 100 percent fruit juice at lunch was associated with a significant decrease in students selecting milk and lower milk consumption per carton throughout the years of the study.

“On days when schools had 100 percent juice, milk selection dropped considerably,” Schwartz said. “To maximize student nutrition, the best combination may be to offer plain milk and whole fruit every day.”

The study was funded by the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs and the Rudd Foundation.

Study co-authors include Kathryn Henderson of Henderson Consulting, Margaret Read, a research assistant at the UConn Rudd Center, and Talea Cornelius, a UConn graduate student.

UConn Professor: Should We Limit Spending on Lifesaving Drugs?

Published by The Conversation on 7/5/2017

C. Michael White

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is a familiar quote from the opening of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” but the phrase is also applicable to the specialty drug market in the United States today.

Specialty drugs, usually complex biologic products created by genetic alterations of living tissues or organisms, have revolutionized patient care by creating human proteins, enzymes and antibodies that can treat diseases much more specifically than previously. These breakthroughs have come through a collective national choice to let drugmakers set prices and reap the profits with limited oversight – as opposed to many other countries with strict controls.

However, this choice has come at a steep price: Health care costs are soaring at an unsustainable pace, putting the finances of states, the federal government, companies and millions of Americans at risk.

Every American – especially our lawmakers preparing to remold our health care system for the second time in eight years – needs to understand the choice we have made and grapple with where to go from here. In the end, it comes down to one difficult question: What value should we place on a human life?

Prescription drugs have been lifesavers for millions, but are some miracles too expensive? AP Photo

Drug costs are crippling us financially

Between premiums, deductibles and co-pays, a typical family of four will directly pay US$11,000 of the estimated $27,000 it is expected to spend on health care in 2017, up 22 percent since 2013. That’s quite a lot, especially considering the average American workermade only $46,120 in 2015.

But it will be impossible to control these spiraling costs without getting a handle on prescription drug spending, which is growing at a rate at least three times faster than every other major medical category.

What many people don’t know is that spending on traditional drugs such as statins, acid controllers and antibiotics hasn’t changed much. It’s specialty and biologic drugs that are really taking a toll. Such drugs have been responsible for 73 percent of spending growth over the past five years.

A single prescription for one of the top five specialty drugs, for example, cost $6,621 in 2015, compared with $60 for traditional drugs like Nexium and Crestor. The situation for so-called orphan drugs, which are specialty biologic drugs used for rare diseases, is even worse. The average orphan drug cost $111,820 per person per year in 2014.

An expensive new treatment involves genetically modifying chickens to produce a vital enzyme missing in babies suffering from Liposomal Acid Deficiency.Lungkit/Shutterstock.com

Specialty drugs are godsends for patients

So the obvious question is, are the costs worth it? And the answer is – for those whose lives are affected – clearly yes.

Specialty drugs can do amazing things, especially in the realm of rare diseases (those that afflict fewer than 200,000 patients) in which there had been no serious research in the past. The term orphan drug was codified in 1983 to describe medications intended to treat diseases so rare that pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to develop them.

That changed with the passage of the Orphan Drug Act of 1983, which allowed special grants for research, a 50 percent tax credit on trial costs, shorter FDA approval times and a guaranteed seven years of patent exclusivity. Before the act, the FDA approved 34 drugs that would have qualified as orphan drugs from 1967 to 1983. The FDA approved 10 times as many – 347 – over the next 26 years, reflecting how the act helped provide the financial incentive to produce these specialty drugs.

Let’s look at just one rare disease, Liposomal Acid Deficiency. Also known as Wolman’s Disease, it affects only a handful of infants, but without this vital enzyme they accumulate fats in their digestive organs, leading to organ swelling, failure and death within the first year of life.

Before 2015, there were no treatments, but now chickens are genetically modified so that their eggs produce this human enzyme, sold under the name sebelipase alpha. Injecting this enzyme clears up patients’ debilitating symptoms and prolongs their lives, in some cases as long as decades, experts believe.

Make no mistake, this is a miracle for parents of a baby with this terrible infliction. But this miracle is expected to cost about $700,000 a year for the rest of the child’s life.

The British love their National Health Service, which covers health care costs but doesn’t reimburse many specialized drugs. Reuters/Neil Hall

What Europe does

Things work a lot differently in Europe, and it’s worth considering whether we’d be wise to follow its general approach.

Unlike in the U.S., countries in Europe have some form of socialized health care system in which the government covers the costs of drugs that meet certain criteria. That decision is made at the national level, while the European Medicine Agency determines whether to approve the drug for use.

Drugs are generally covered if the cost relative to benefits – known as a quality adjusted life year (QALY) – is under a certain threshold. Simply put, an extra year of life lived in perfect health is worth 1 QALY, while a sliding scale is used to quantify the value of an extra year in poor health (between 0 and 1 QALY).

In Britain, for example, medications are usually covered if each QALY gained costs less than £30,000 ($36,600) – although they do have some exceptions.

That means that few orphan drugs get reimbursed. Of the 116 orphan drugs the FDA approved for use outside of the hospital from 1983 to 2012, the U.K.‘s National Health Service didn’t even review about two-thirds of them for reimbursement, presumably because the cost was too high. Of the rest, it offered conditional reimbursement for a dozen, while 15 were denied.

In an assessment of orphan drugs that cost more than $225,000 per year per patient in the U.S., none of these drugs had been reviewed in Britain.

So what should we do?

The U.S. has created market incentives to study rare diseases, and with the help of human ingenuity we have created some amazing breakthroughs in solving complex problems.

This mentality has been radically different from in Europe, where similar research never would have gotten off the ground because policymakers efficiently target their health care dollars for maximum impact on society – not for creating miracles for unfortunate outliers with rare diseases.

However, the inherent generosity built into the Orphan Drug Act is one factor leading so many Americans to struggle to afford their premiums and move into high-deductible plans that make a simple visit to the doctor effectively unaffordable. And employers as well as state and federal governments are being financially crushed under increasing health care costs.

So what can be done? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, and every potential solution has costly or even life-and-death consequences.

The debate shouldn’t be simply about what we can do to control costs but rather how much are we willing to spend to sustainably encourage new medical breakthroughs. I believe that we will need to apply a cost-effectiveness analysis to new and existing drugs and determine that at some point the costs outweigh the benefits.

Drawing that line – which comes down to defining how much a human life is worth – has been difficult for lawmakers, which is why the legislation underpinning the Affordable Care Act and its possible replacements have not addressed effective ways to control prescription drug spending.

But not choosing simply pushes the burden on those individuals, companies and taxpayers who fund health care. That burden is immense and will only continue to grow.

UConn Professor: We’re Not Ready for the ‘Silver Tsunami’ of Older Adults Living with Cancer

Published by The Conversation on 7/4/2017

Keith Bellizzi

In the next few decades, the number of adults living with cancer is expected to triple in size.

Age is the single greatest risk factor for cancer. By 2030, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the population of Americans over the age of 65 will double.

The good news is that early detection, innovative treatments and supportive care have turned many cancers into chronic illnesses, one disease among other chronic health conditions that older adults may experience. But these coexisting health conditions are likely to complicate the treatment and management of older adults’ cancer.

Our current understanding of appropriate care for older adults with cancer and their unique needs is limited. As an expert in cancer survivorship and aging, I see several specific areas that warrant our attention.

Generational differences

Cancer in older adults is complex. For the elderly, cancer is often one of several coexisting health conditions that they may be managing, such as heart disease, arthritis or diabetes. Eighty percent of older adults with cancer report two or more additional health conditions. One in four cancer survivors between 65 and 74 years old have more than five concurrent health conditions.

Older adults with multiple chronic conditions are more likely to have poorly coordinated care, adverse interactions between medications and worse health outcomes. They also tend to use more health care services and, on average, take six or more prescription medications.

In older adults, the late health effects of cancer can be different or exacerbated by age. For example, cancer-related fatigue, reductions in cognitive function and chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy can pose unique issues. The interplay between these treatment-related effects and common age-related issues presents challenges for care of older adults with cancer.

The psychological and social experience of cancer can also differ markedly for young and older adults. Roles, responsibilities and support systems change as people age. Many young adults with cancer are dealing with competing demands of work or family. Having fewer demands as an older adult might make the disease more manageable in some respects.

But a decrease in social networks and support – such as retirement or living farther away from family – may have negative effects. Many older adults will minimize their distress, so not to burden their families and caregivers. This leads to underdiagnosis of treatable distress.

These effects can be exacerbated by health care providers with competing priorities, short office visits and no organizational support for psychosocial distress screening.

Health care providers

In 2008, the National Academy of Medicine warned of a looming shortage of geriatric oncologists and nurses, as well as a lack of interest among medical professionals in geriatric oncology.

The number of oncology office visits required by older adults with cancer is projected to surpass the available oncologic workforce by 2020. What’s more, older adults may see up to 12 different health care specialists in a given year.

Who should coordinate this care? Oncologists are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, but many older adults have competing health concerns that require more than just an oncologist. Geriatricians are trained in managing multiple health conditions and optimizing functional performance in older adults, but may be less familiar with managing cancer.

We need to make a concerted effort to foster collaborative care partnerships between geriatricians and oncology – including geriatric nurses in both fields, as they are on the front lines interacting with older cancer patients. A team of health professionals could jointly share responsibility for managing the health of older adults with cancer, exchanging patient data and information between the team.

Research shows that this type of collaborative model leads to better cancer follow-up care, health outcomes and effective management of coexisting health conditions.

Focus on the family

Cancer is a disease that reverberates across the family system, leaving no one untouched. In fact, research suggests that caregivers and family members often report higher levels of distress than does the individual with cancer.

With more and more cancer care delivered on an outpatient basis, coupled with the changing nature of cancer as a chronic disease, there is a growing burden on family to help a loved one manage their disease. Moreover, many older family members may themselves be dealing with a chronic illness and other life stressors, adding to the burden.

Research suggests that providing psychological and educational support for cancer caregivers and family members may improve not only the health of patients, but the health of caregivers.

What’s next?

Planning for the health care needs of our aging cancer survivors represents a significant public health challenge.

What we know about caring for cancer survivors is largely based on the experiences of adult survivors of child-onset cancer and proactive groups of middle-aged breast cancer survivors. There is an urgent need for additional research on the needs and care of the burgeoning geriatric population.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report on multiple chronic conditions. It recommended including older adults with multiple chronic conditions in clinical trials, facilitating self-care management and promoting multiple chronic condition curricula in the health care sector. It also suggested educating the federal, private and public sectors about issues related to multiple chronic conditions.

While this national initiative is encouraged, it’s clear that the growing number of older adults with cancer outpaces current efforts. If we want to successfully respond to the demand, we must find ways to quickly conduct meaningful and targeted research on this unique population. This can help us develop best practices and offer high-quality care.

UConn Biologist Takes New Tack Against Herpes Virus

Published by Hartford Business Journal on July 10, 2017

Matt Pilon

Herpes is more common than you might think.

The virus’ various forms affect most people, though they are often unaware. Herpes can remain dormant in healthy people but sometimes lead to serious or fatal conditions in infants or those with weak immune systems.

While there are no cures for the various forms of herpes, antiviral drugs do exist to curb its effects but there is a constant search for new remedies.

Among the researchers searching for answers is UConn Health biologist Sandra Weller, who chairs UConn’s molecular biology and biophysics department. Her lab is researching treatments for a form of herpes called Cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which can cause serious problems in newborns, including developmental disabilities and deafness, as well as infections in organ and marrow transplant patients. It’s estimated that more than half of adults have been infected with CMV by age 40, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An antiviral drug does exist to treat CMV patients — Ganciclovir — but some can build a resistance to it and the drug can also cause kidney problems.

Weller spent decades researching treatments for the more well-known genital herpes virus, but she shifted gears recently at the urging of a fledgling state-backed program called PITCH (Program in Innovative Therapeutics), launched by Yale and UConn to facilitate collaboration among researchers and venture capitalists and to speed promising drug compounds into the commercial pipeline.

“We consider [CMV] as having a larger unmet clinical need,” Weller said in a recent interview.

She and her team are targeting a particular protein that is believed to be essential for CMV to replicate itself. The goal is to find a natural or synthetic compound that can restrain the protein and prevent dormant CMV infections from reactivating.

Weller is working with Yale’s Center for Molecular Discovery because the school has a large library of drug molecules and enough capacity to work on multiple projects.

Last month, researchers at that lab began running a series of tests on Weller’s targeted protein using high-end equipment in a process called “high throughput screening.”

At the conclusion of their work, Yale researchers will tell Weller which compounds reacted with the targeted protein.

The screening services provided by Yale aren’t cheap. Weller would have had to seek funding to pay for them if it weren’t for PITCH, which received $10 million in late 2015 from the Connecticut Bioscience Fund, administered by Connecticut Innovations.

The technology originated at pharmaceutical companies and started becoming more common in higher education 20 years ago.

Market potential

While Yale could vastly narrow down the list of potential promising compounds, their findings won’t be quite ready for prime time.

From there the work will shift back to UConn, where Dennis Wright, a professor of medicinal chemistry and co-founder of PITCH, will assess the compounds and tweak their structures with the aim of making them more potent drug candidates.

“It’s about starting to put together a package of data that would make a compelling case to investors looking for an early stage opportunity,” Wright said.

Weller has already formed a company called Quercus. Her younger brother Brad Weller, an attorney who has worked for public companies, is CEO.

Should her research progress far enough, Quercus would license the intellectual property from UConn. If she gets an antiviral drug to market, Connecticut Innovations would receive royalty payments for its investment. There are several big pharmaceutical companies in phase 3 trials for CMV drugs, though they are targeting different proteins, Weller said.

Because CMV is a more complex strain of the herpes virus, Weller is hoping that whatever she develops might also be effective against other, simpler forms.

She likens members of the virus to cars. They all have the same core parts, but some, like CMV, have added features.

“It’s got a sunroof and a retractable antenna,” she said.

That makes CMV harder to work with, but offers a potentially more promising payoff.

Banned Invasive Plant Returning as Environmentally Safe Thanks to UConn Researcher

Published by Times Union on July 5, 2017

Brian Nearing

For the last two years, customers  have come into Faddegon’s Nursery asking Manager Randy Herrington for Japanese barberry, a popular landscaping shrub with pretty flowers.

And they have left disappointed, as Herrington has had to tell them the plant is an invasive species, banned from sale in the state since the spring of 2015.

Now, the barberry — one of 11 plants on the state’s banned invasives list — will be returning to nurseries, likely next year, thanks to research from the University of Connecticut that renders new variants of the plant sterile. Without seeds, the plant is unable to spread.

“We won’t have them now, but I expect by spring 2018, we will,” said Herrington. “It was a pretty big part of the landscaping market before the ban.”

Known scientifically as berberis thundbergii, barberries are spiny shrubs that are attractive, easy to grow and that deer do not like to eat, making them a popular choice with landscapers and homeowners.

Last month, the state Department of Environmental Conservation approved sales of four sterile versions of barberry, as well as sterile versions of two other regulated invasive plants, Chinese silvergrass and Winter Creeper.

That was welcome news to the New York State Nursery and Landscape Association, said Melissa Daniels, who is chairwoman of the group’s advocacy committee.

Her group had encouraged DEC, when the state adopted its invasive species ban, to leave open an exemption for so-called “sterile cultivars,” which means plants that do not produce seeds and consequently, eliminate the risk of seeds being spread by birds, other animals and water.

Such spread is a problem with barberry, where birds eat the bright red seeds each fall, and then move undigested seeds in droppings to sprout in new areas, such as fields and forests. There, the plants out-compete native species by crowding out sunlight and changing soil chemistry, which establishes new colonies that allow for continued spread.

By crowding out seedlings on the forest floor, barberry also can prevent forests from regrowing normally, according to DEC.  This concern also led to the banning of barberry sales in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

While the new barberry plant would end this aspect of continued expansion, it will not keep the seeds from existing patches of fertile barberry from spreading into new areas.

Daniels said that barberry, which arrived in the U.S. as an ornamental plant in 1875 when seeds were shipped to Boston from St. Petersburg, Russia,  was a “very important commercial species” in New York.

An environmental group that sits on the state’s Invasive Species Advisory Committee also said the new plant should not pose a threat.

“Of course, we still encourage homeowners to plant native, non-invasive species,” said Troy Weldy, director of ecological  management for The Nature Conservancy.

Some alternatives include smokebush, eastern ninebark, weigela, and old fashioned weigela.

Weldy said the return of Japanese barberry will also require “honest labeling” by plant sellers, since the average homeowner cannot distinguish between a fertile and sterile barberry. “Our concern is that some people could again begin selling the non-sterile barberries. That could be a challenge,” he said.

The University of Connecticut recently obtained U.S. patents on four infertile, seedless barberry varieties created by researcher Mark Brand.

The university has an agreement with a Connecticut-based plant grower, Prides Corner Farms, to grow and sell the new varieties.

Prides Corner will be the supplier to Faddegons, said Herrington. “It will take them a while to propagate enough plants,” he said.

Another university researcher is seeking a patent for a sterile version of another popular landscaping plant, the burning bush. With the scientific name of euonymous alatus, this plant is also popular with homeowners for its vivid red autumn foliage.

As a state-regulated plant, it can be sold in New York, but must be labeled as an invasive species that is “harmful to the environment.”

Herrington said that once an infertile burning bush is approved, that plant will also be sold at his nursery.

Barberry has also been linked to increased tick habitat, because the plants provide ground cover to mice, which can carry ticks, and also maintain higher humidity levels that ticks need to avoid drying out, said Weldy.

More ticks increases the risk of transmission of Lyme disease and other tick-born illnesses.

Weldy said barberry needs to be present in dense stands to encourage higher tick populations. A few plants around a typical home likely would not be a risk, although the plants could provide cover for mice, he said.

UConn Alumna and TIP CEO Fights Cancer in Pets

Published by Fox 61 on June 27, 2017

Jenna Deangelis

FARMINGTON – Millions of cats and dogs get diagnosed with cancer each year, and a new treatment is helping to change their prognosis.

The revolutionary veterinary cancer treatment is called VetiVax and it uses the animals tumor cells to create a personalized treatment to help fight the disease.

The treatment helps trigger the immune system of the pet to help it recognize the tumor as foreign. It’s being used to help dogs, cats and horses combat cancer.

The company behind the treatment, Torigen Pharmaceuticals, was founded by UConn alumna Ashley Kalinauskas four years ago.

“This is my passion, this is my drive,” she said. “Were changing how pets are treated and this is a modality that can be considered when a pet is diagnosed with cancer.”

Kalinauskas said her graduate professor at Notre Dame, Mark Suckow began research on tissue vaccines in 2004. When his dog Sadie was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, she said he came up with this method to try and fight the disease.

“She had tumors growing almost all over her body and the veterinarians prognosis was take her home, enjoy her over Christmas and right after the holidays we’re gonna have to put her down,” Kalinauskas said. “He took a portion of Sadie’s tumor, created it into the personalized treatment, gave it back over a series of three weeks and he noticed the tumors started to recede.”

In two and a half years, Kalinauskas said 150 animals have been treated with VetiVax.

“We have unproven safety and unproven efficacy at the moment; however, what we do know is the animals have favorable outcome after being diagnosed,” she said.

One of those animals is a Yorkshire Terrier named Chloe whose owner Linda Levy told FOX61 since she’s been given the treatment, she’s had no signs of cancer.

“Unfortunately, we all know that the terrible thing of having a dog is that you know you’re going to see them go before you,” Levy said. “You just want them to have the best possible life and treatment if they get sick and I feel like I’ve been able to find that for her.”

Kalinauskas works at a dedicated laboratory space in Farmington through the UConn Technology Incubation Program. Her team members are also located in Minnesota and Arkansas.

The company works with veterinarians to treat animals around the country. The cost of VetiVax is $1200.

VetiVax can work for solid tumors including Melanoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, Fibrosarcoma, Soft Tissue Sarcoma, Hemangiosarcoma, Hepatocellular Carcinoma, Nasal Carcinoma, Osteosarcoma, Mast Cell Tumors, Basal Cell Carcinoma and Transitional Cell Carcinoma.

“It’s our belief that 10 years from now us as humans will start as our first line of defense with immunotherapies followed by the heavy hitters if it doesn’t work with chemotherapy and radiation,” she said.

UConn Prof: Republican Health Care Bill Could Lead To “Disaster” For Women

Women’s health care is one of the areas most deeply affected by the changes contained in the Republicans’ recently revealed reform bill. Some experts in the field have described it as damaging and dangerous.

Medicaid currently covers health care needs for 25 million low-income women in the U.S. For those of childbearing age, the Republican reforms would completely remove coverage for maternity and childbirth.

“My concern is we’re going to have more and more women who aren’t going to get prenatal care, and they’re going to show up at labor and delivery with a disaster,” said Dr. Molly Brewer, the chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UConn.

And she said that women covered by private insurance may not be any better off.

The bill gives states the right to allow insurers to opt out of covering maternity care and birth control, something that’s currently required under the Affordable Care Act.

“So if we’re not providing birth control, and we’re not providing maternity care – how are women going to take care of themselves?” Brewer asked.

UConn’s Dr Molly Brewer.
CREDIT UCONN

In addition, the bill removes all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides care for tens of thousands of low income women in Connecticut.

While the organization has become controversial for its provision of abortion, that’s just a tiny fraction of the services it offers.

“They do pap smears; they do breast screening; they do STD screening; they provide pregnancy counseling; they provide birth control,” said Brewer.

Abortion itself is further restricted by this bill. Any plan provided with tax credits on a state exchange would be prohibited from covering abortion.

Sarah Croucher is the state director of NARAL Pro Choice in Connecticut. She believes that’s not a decision about health care, but about politics.

“This is something we should be deeply worried about,” she told WNPR. “This is a way for Repubican senators to roll out an anti-choice agenda across the country. And so this is a way in which federal policy is going to deeply impact the choices available to Connecticut women.”

Croucher said the bill represents a misogynist agenda, crafted without the input of women.

“What this is is a tax cut for the very wealthy at the expense of the health of literally millions of women across the country. What that does is literally place women’s lives in danger, and I think that’s truly disgusting,” she said.

Both Croucher and Brewer stressed that the changes made by this legislation affect not just women, but the health of children.

“I think we’re going to be in a problem. I think it’s going to impact the health of our babies, and that’s going to be the next generation of people in this country,” Brewer said.

Republican supporters say the legislation moves the nation towards a more affordable health care system. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he wants to see a vote on the bill this week.

Mystic Aquarium Chooses UConn as Research Base

Published by UConn Today on July 5, 2017

Connecticut icons Mystic Aquarium and the University of Connecticut have enjoyed a longstanding relationship through education and research. The partnership was solidified further with the announcement of a National Science Foundation Grant for Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) earlier this year. Today, the two organizations share a common vision for marine science and education and real estate. That collaboration was recently solidified with a new agreement that makes UConn Avery Point the official home to the Aquarium’s team of researchers.

The agreement will allow Mystic Aquarium to use laboratory and office space in the Community and Professional Building at the UConn Avery Point campus for the next five years. In that space, research scientists from the Aquarium, including Tracy Romano, Laura Thompson, Paul Anderson, and Maureen Driscoll, will pursue their work to promote healthy oceans, biodiversity, and the sustainable use of aquatic resources for current and future generations.

The collaboration will provide unique teaching and learning opportunities to both institutions, serving not only UConn students, but also Mystic Aquarium interns and volunteers.

“We are excited to have Mystic Aquarium scientists working on campus at Avery Point, alongside our fantastic faculty and students,” says Annemarie Seifert, director of UConn Avery Point. “Our coastal campus is an idyllic location for this cross-disciplinary partnership. Our marine sciences program is known for research around the world, but it is always nice to have strong partnerships in our own back yard.”

The Department of Marine Sciences is located on UConn’s coastal campus at Avery Point, on the shores of Long Island Sound. Within the department, faculty, staff, and students carry out cutting-edge research using observations and numerical models to conduct cross-disciplinary investigations in biological, chemical, physical and geological oceanography, and marine meteorology.

“This move cements a longstanding partnership between two of the state’s great institutions,” says Stephen M. Coan, president and CEO at Mystic Aquarium. “We look forward to many great things emerging from this move. Together we have the very best marine scientists in the world collaborating on projects to better Long Island Sound and the animals within it, as well as global ocean issues.”

As a leader in the aquarium and marine research communities, Mystic Aquarium has produced significant advances in the marine sciences through lab and field work. Aquarium researchers are actively investigating how marine animals are reacting to a changing world. They are developing new techniques to culture marine ornamental fish in order to reduce pressure on wild populations and ecosystems. The research team is also conducting population studies and assessment of species interactions to enable the identification of areas of high biodiversity worthy of protection.

Mystic Aquarium’s research operation was temporarily moved to UConn in late 2016 during the construction of its John T. and Jane A. Weiderhold Foundation Veterinary and Animal Health Center.

According to Mystic’s Romano, it became evident very quickly that the arrangement would enhance collaboration between Mystic Aquarium and UConn and would have a long and lasting impact on conservation, education, and research.

The Aquarium will celebrate UConn Avery Point’s 50th anniversary with special events and promotions throughout the year.

UConn Today: Thinking like an Entrepreneur to Advance Science

Published by UConn Today on June 27, 2017

Jessica McBride

Sandra Weller has devoted most of her career to learning how the ubiquitous herpes simplex virus replicates and infects people. She focused on this common pathogen because of its widespread impact – it infects two-thirds of the world’s population – and because of its painful symptoms, which can range in severity from bothersome to life-threatening.

But in the past year, she has shifted her focus to another member of the herpes virus family, cytomegalovirus, which has a much greater immediate patient need and stronger commercial potential. With support from a drug discovery consortium comprising UConn, UConn Health, and Yale University, Weller is now thinking like an entrepreneur to more quickly advance her scientific discoveries.

The consortium, known as Program in Innovative Therapeutics for Connecticut’s Health or PITCH, was established in 2016 to encourage commercialization of research from the state’s universities through the discovery of novel drug compounds. The initiative is supported by a three-year, $10 million investment managed by Connecticut Innovations.

“Programs like PITCH are critical to advancing academic discoveries that will help patients and grow Connecticut’s economy,” says Radenka Maric, vice president for research at UConn and UConn Health. “It also attests to UConn and Yale’s commitment to support cross-disciplinary collaborative research that addresses significant patient needs.

“Drug discovery is just one of the ways UConn is driving innovation in our state,” Maric adds, “innovation that will lead to new life-saving technologies, new companies, and new high-wage jobs.”

The threat of CMV

When Weller, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor and chair of molecular biology and biophysics at UConn Health, presented her research to the PITCH advisory board, they were impressed with the scientific strategy and encouraged her to expand her project to an additional pathogen in the herpes family – cytomegalovirus (or CMV) – that has even more serious effects than herpes simplex and fewer treatment options.

Like herpes simplex, CMV is common and can infect people of any age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of adults have been infected with CMV by age 40.

Cytomegalovirus usually remains dormant in infected people, and those infected show no signs or symptoms because their immune systems keep the virus in check. Problems arise when the immune system is suppressed and the virus is free to reactivate.

For patients receiving solid organ transplants, for example, CMV is particularly dangerous. It is standard for transplant patients to receive immunosuppressing drugs that allow the body to accept the new organ, but approximately 60 percent will have CMV infection and more than 20 percent will develop symptoms. Once CMV reactivates, transplant patients are more vulnerable to other infections, and it is more likely that the body will reject the new organ. Without effective antiviral drugs like the one Weller hopes to develop, CMV can also destroy organs and cause blindness.

Unlike herpes simplex, cytomegalovirus does not have an effective treatment option. While there are a few existing drugs that can mitigate active infections, they themselves pose a host of serious risks to patients. The first-line treatment, ganciclovir, has been shown to raise liver enzymes, negatively affect fertility, and cause cancer, among other adverse effects. Up to 10 percent of patients who receive ganciclovir for CMV stop treatment because of life-threatening kidney toxicity. Viral resistance to the drug also develops quickly.

Preventing dormant infections from reactivating

Weller and her team hit the ground running when they began their two-year PITCH project this past winter. Thanks to more than 30 years studying herpes simplex, Weller quickly found a homologue target protein that restricts CMV replication when inhibited.

“Think of the different pathogens within the virus family like different types of cars,” Weller explains. “All cars have the same core components, like an engine, seats, and wipers, but some might also have special features like all-wheel drive or a sunroof. Because our therapy is addressing the virus’s core components and not its special features, we expect it to be successful as a broad-spectrum therapy for the whole herpes virus family.”

Like other viruses, CMV has to package its genetic material so that it can infect human cells and proliferate. The protein Weller discovered is a crucial part of the cellular machinery that allows the virus to replicate its genetic material. If she can find a natural or synthetic compound that inhibits this protein, she can stop dormant CMV infections from reactivating.

Since she has identified a target protein, the next step requires synthesizing large quantities of the purified target for testing. Synthesis and initial characterization of the target protein took place at a research core facility in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biophysics at UConn Health.

This is where Yale’s expertise comes in. The Yale Center for Molecular Discovery has a vast library of small molecules that are used for high throughput screening. The PITCH staff are currently using this catalogue to evaluate whether Weller’s target protein responds to any of these natural or synthetic chemical compounds.

Once the Yale team identifies a compound that inhibits the target protein’s enzymatic activity, work will shift back to UConn at the School of Pharmacy, where medicinal chemistry professor Dennis Wright will optimize the compound. This entails striking the right balance between several qualities that make the future treatment the most beneficial for patients, such as efficacy and potency. The goal is to cure the disease with the smallest possible medicinal dose that can remain in the body long enough for once-daily treatments.

Weller and her team are not the only researchers trying to find a better treatment to tackle CMV. She welcomes the interest, and says it confirms the PITCH board’s suggestion to shift her research from herpes simplex towards another pathogen in the virus family.

“The fact that large and small pharmaceutical companies are working on this proves there is a definite need, and validates the market,” Weller says. “And in the case of viruses like CMV or HIV, you really need a cocktail of drugs. Resistance happens quickly, so the combination of treatments gives you a better chance of success.”

The Future of Drug Discovery

According to PITCH director, Janie Merkel, Weller’s project and programs like PITCH demonstrate the important role academic research plays in the pharmaceutical industry.

“The way we develop new drugs is undergoing a major transformation,” Merkel says. “Between the high cost of conducting internal research and development for pharma companies and federal dollars being harder and harder to come by for academic researchers, we see an increasing focus placed on commercial potential for academic science. Commercialization programs like PITCH are beneficial for academics and industry.”

Weller hopes more academic researchers will take advantage of programs like PITCH as an innovative way to support their scientific activities.

“Every scientist dreams of making a discovery in the lab that will positively impact people’s lives,” she says. “We want to find cures that help patients; and programs like PITCH teach us how to take the next step.”

Weller recently took the next step and formed a startup, Quercus Molecular Design (QMD), with colleague and fellow PITCH leader Dennis Wright. Through QMD, the two plan to take new antiviral therapies that they develop to human clinical trials, when the time comes. They are also committed to growing their company in Connecticut. The company’s name reflects this – “quercus” is the Latin word for “oak,” the state tree of Connecticut.

The next deadline to apply for PITCH is July 15, 2017. For more information, visit pitch.yale.edu.

June is CMV Awareness Month.

UConn Professors: Genes Predict Cancer Patient’s Pain – or Lack of It

Published by UConn Today on 6/19/2017

Kim Krieger

Sickness and pain go together. We think of them as a matched pair. Pain signals sickness, sickness causes pain. But this is not always the case. Especially in early stage cancer, often there is no pain – until the patient is treated. Now, UConn researchers report in the June issue of Biological Research for Nursing genetic clues that may reveal which individuals are likely to be vulnerable to post-treatment pain.

“We’ll hear women say ‘If I knew the pain would be this bad, I’d rather have died of breast cancer,’” says Erin Young, a pain geneticist in the School of Nursing.

The researchers ask whether such treatment can really be called a ‘cure.’ It would be better, they say, if we could know in advance which patients might suffer from which treatments.

Young, along with nurse-scientist and director of UConn’s Center for Advancement in Managing Pain Angela Starkweather and neuroscientist Kyle Baumbauer, and with colleagues at the University of Florida Gainesville and Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea, found that common variants in two genes contribute to certain symptoms during and after chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Their results could one day help patients, and their nurses and doctors, make informed treatment decisions and prepare for, or avoid, damage to their quality of life.

The researchers looked at the genetics of 51 women with early-stage breast cancer who had had no previous chemotherapy and no history of depression. The women rated their well-being both before and after treatment for cancer, reporting on their pain, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and sleep quality. Young and her colleagues then looked for connections between genes and symptoms.

They looked at three genes in particular: NTRK1, NTRK2, and COMT. These genes are already associated with pain from other research. NTRK1 is connected to rapid-eye-movement sleep (dream sleep), and a specific variant is linked to pain insensitivity. NTRK2 is associated with the nervous system’s role in pain, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. And some common versions of COMT are linked to risks of developing certain painful conditions. The researchers also chose these genes because the variants associated with pain, fatigue, and other symptoms are fairly common, making it possible to get meaningful results from a sample size of just 51 people.

After the analysis, a couple of results jumped out at them. Two of the genes, COMT and NTRK2, had significant correlations with pain, anxiety, fatigue, and sleep disturbance. The other gene didn’t.

“I always like having a yes/no answer – if we get some ‘no’s’, then we know our analysis wasn’t just confirming what we wanted to see,” says Young.

Such a quick look at a small sample of cancer patients can’t give all the answers as to who is going to develop post-operative and post-chemotherapy pain. But what they did find is very suggestive. Some of the genes were associated with symptoms before surgery. For example, women with two copies of the A variant of COMT reported more anxiety than other women did. COMT was also linked with pain, both during and after cancer treatment: women with one variant of COMT reported more pain, while women with a different variant reported less.

Fatigue also seemed to have a genetic component. Women with one copy of the T variant of NTRK2 reported more post-treatment fatigue than others, and women with two copies reported much more.

Surprisingly, the genes linked to various symptoms worked independently, and didn’t work together to increase overall pain and discomfort. In other words, they weren’t synergistic; they didn’t make each other worse.

“We are focusing on how we can identify women who are at risk of experiencing persistent pain and fatigue, as these symptoms have the highest impact on reducing quality of life after treatment,” says Starkweather. “It’s a great example of how we can make progress toward the goal of personalized healthcare. The next piece of the puzzle is to identify the most effective symptom management interventions, based on the patient’s preferences and genetic information.”

Young, Starkweather, and their colleagues say further research – ideally looking at a person’s whole genome – is needed to refine the connections between genetic profiles and the risk of pain. With that knowledge, patients could work together with their care team to develop individualized symptom management plans. Properly prepared patients would feel more control and less suffering. And perhaps the cure would no longer hurt worse than the disease.

UConn Today Op-ed: UK’s Plan to Deny Terrorists ‘Safe Spaces’ Online Would Make us Less Safe

Published by UConn Today on 6/15/2017

Molly Land

In the wake of the recent attacks in Manchester and London, British Prime Minister Theresa May has called on social media companies to eliminate “safe spaces” online for extremist ideology. Despite losing the majority in the recent election, she is moving forward with plans to regulate online communications, including in cooperation with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron.

May’s statement is just one of several initiatives aimed at “cleaning up” the internet. Others include Germany’s proposal to fine social media companies that fail to remove illegal content and the Australian attorney general’s call for laws requiring internet companies to decrypt communications upon request.

It is understandable to want to do something – anything – to help restore a lost sense of security. But as a human rights lawyer who has studied the intersection of human rights and technology for the last 10 years, I think May’s proposal and others like it are extremely concerning. They wrongly assume that eliminating online hate and extremism would reduce real-world violence. At the same time, these efforts would endanger rather than protect the public by curtailing civil liberties online for everyone. What’s more, they could involve handing key government functions over to private companies.

Weakening security for all

Some politicians have suggested tech companies should build “back doors” into encrypted communications, to allow police access. But determined attackers will simply turn to apps without back doors.

And back doors would inevitably reduce everyone’s online safety. Undermining encryption would leave us all more vulnerable to hacking, identity theft and fraud. As technology activist Cory Doctorow has explained: “There’s no back door that only lets good guys go through it.”

The harms of speech?

May’s statement also reflects a broader desire to prevent so-called “online radicalization,” in which individuals are believed to connect online with ideas that cause them to develop extreme views and then, ultimately, take action.

The concept is misleading. We are only beginning to understand more about the conditions under which speech in general, and particularly online speech, can incite violence. But the evidence we have indicates that online speech plays a limited role. People are radicalized through face-to-face encounters and relationships. Social media might be used to identify individuals open to persuasion, or to reinforce people’s preexisting beliefs. But viewing propaganda does not turn us into terrorists.

If it isn’t clear that removing extreme or hateful speech from the internet will help combat offline violence, why are so many governments around the world pushing for it? In large part, it is because we are more aware of this content than ever before. It’s on the same platforms that we use to exchange pictures of our children and our cats, which puts pressure on politicians and policy makers to look like they are “doing something” against terrorism.

Overbroad censorship

Even if online propaganda plays only a minimal role in inciting violence, there is an argument that governments should take every measure possible to keep us safe. Here again, it is important to consider the costs. Any effort to remove only “extremist” content is destined to affect a lot of protected speech as well. This is in part because what some view as extremism could be viewed by others as legitimate political dissent.

Further, the exact same material might mean different things in different contexts – footage used to provoke hate could also be used to discuss the effects of those hateful messages. This is also why we are not likely to have a technological solution to this problem any time soon. Although work is underway to try to develop algorithms that will help social media companies identify dangerous speech, these efforts are in early stages, and it is not clear that a filter could make these distinctions.

The risks of private censorship

Trying to eliminate extremist content online may also involve broad delegation of public authority to private companies. If companies face legal consequences for failing to remove offending content, they’re likely to err on the side of censorship. That’s counter to the public interest of limited censorship of free speech.

Further, giving private companies the power to regulate public discourse reduces our ability to hold censors accountable for their decisions – or even to know that these choices are being made and why. Protecting national security is a state responsibility – not a task for private companies.

If governments want to order companies to take down content, that’s a public policy decision. But May’s idea of delegating this work to Facebook or Google means shifting responsibility for the regulation of speech to entities that are not accountable to the people they are attempting to protect. This is a risk to the rule of law that should worry us all.

The way forward

There is, of course, online material that causes real-world problems. Workers tasked with reviewing flagged content risk harm to their mental health from viewing violent, obscene and otherwise disturbing content every day. And hate crimes online can have extraordinary impacts on people’s real-world lives. We need to develop better responses to these threats, but we must do so thoughtfully and carefully, to preserve freedom of expression and other human rights.

One thing is certain – a new international treaty is not the answer. In her June 4 statement, May also called on countries to create a new treaty on countering the spread of extremism online. That is simply an invitation to censor online speech, even more than some nations already do. Nations need no additional incentives, nor international support, for cracking down on dissidents.

Human rights treaties – such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – already provide a strong foundation for balancing freedom of expression, privacy and the regulation of harmful content online. These treaties acknowledge legitimate state interests in protecting individuals from harmful speech, as long as those efforts are lawful and proportional.

Rather than focusing on the straw man of “online radicalization,” we need an honest discussion about the harms of online speech, the limits of state censorship and the role of private companies. Simply shifting the responsibility to internet companies to figure this out would be the worst of all possible worlds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

UConn TIP Company Uses Microbiome For Innovative Skin Treatments

Published by Chemical & Engineering News on 5/8/2017

Marc S . Reisch

“Love your bacteria.” That’s the tagline for Yun Probiotherapy’s line of skin cosmetics directed at those who have acne or athlete’s foot or who just want to keep their skin looking healthy. Yun’s product line, now entering the personal care market, incorporates “friendly” bacteria to help correct skin microbe imbalances.

Scientists have known for some time that the skin, like the human gut, is teeming with bacteria, fungi, yeast, and viruses, all actors in what is known as the microbiome. Some are beneficial, others are not, and some considered “good” may become harmful under the right conditions.

There’s also long-standing evidence of a connection between a healthy gut and the consumption of Lactobacillus-containing supplements and foods such as yogurt. Research firm Global Market Insights estimates that the food market for the beneficial microorganisms known as probiotics exceeded $36 billion in 2015.

However, little was known about the diversity of the “bugs” among us or their impact on human health until the Human Microbiome Project, a five-year, $157 million endeavor launched in 2008 and overseen by the National Institutes of Health. The effort teased out tantalizing details on the astounding variety of microbial communities living in our guts and on our bodies.

Now, cosmetic formulators are taking tentative first steps toward applying some of the lessons learned from the project to develop their own microbiome franchises. They are designing health-enhancing skin care products that contain live bacteria, bacteria extracts, or ingredients meant to enhance skin microbe activity.

Skeptics say not enough evidence exists to verify the benefits of creams and butters meant to farm the bugs living on human skin. They especially question the benefit of placing live microorganisms on the body without thorough testing, and they wonder how formulations containing live actors can even exist when regulations generally forbid the sale of “contaminated” products.

Personal care product formulators like Yun aren’t put off by such questions about the skin microbiome. They see many opportunities emerging from research that suggests a strong connection between a balanced microbiome and healthy skin.

Others targeting consumers with skin-microbiome-enhancing formulas include start-up firms such as AOBiome, maker of skin care products containing the ammonia-oxidizing bacteria Nitrosomonas eutropha, and Gallinée, a supplier of products containing probiotics as well as so-called prebiotics that feed skin microorganisms.

And the small innovators are not alone. Some of the big personal care firms are staking out a claim to the microbiome. Johnson & Johnson, for instance, is helping the biotech firm S-Biomedic develop a bacterial treatment for both therapeutic and cosmetic applications. The firm is now a resident of J&J’s JLINX start-up incubator in Beerse, Belgium.

Procter & Gamble has taken an interest in the skin microbiome, applying for a patent on a prebiotic composition to “improve the health of the skin microbiome.” L’Oréal, meanwhile, has patented the bacteria-derived ingredient vitreoscilla ferment, intended to “balance” the microbiome of dry skin. The firm has incorporated it into cosmetics sold under its La Roche-Posay label.

Forward-looking personal care ingredient makers are also looking into what could be the next big thing in cosmetics. For instance, prominent ingredient suppliers such as BASF and Givaudan have introduced products to enhance the microbiome and, along with it, skin health. Smaller firms such as Azitra, Greenaltech, and Vantage Specialty Ingredients are also looking to provide microbiome-focused ingredients.

Microbiome skeptics

Not surprisingly, the concept of microbiome-enhancing cosmetics has its doubters. Wilfried Petersen, managing director of the German preservatives specialist Dr. Straetmans, wonders if the developing fascination with the skin microbiome will amount to more than a hill of beans. “The story of the microbiome sounds nice, but the proof of benefit is lacking,” he says.

European Union regulations, Petersen points out, don’t allow for the intentional addition of bacteria to cosmetics. In addition, he asks, if beneficial bacteria are added, how do you preserve the formula and how can you be sure it won’t become unstable and spoil?

Dermatologist Patricia K. Farris points out that skin microbiome imbalances, such as the overgrowth of Propionibacterium acnes, are prevalent in many skin diseases. Correcting those conditions, perhaps with lactic acid or other bacterial derivatives, can provide relief for people with those conditions.

“But can we make people look 20 years younger by putting probiotics on their face? I’m not sure we’re there yet,” says Farris, who is on the board of the American Academy of Dermatology. More study is needed to determine if pre- and probiotics are worthy of the hype they are getting, she says.

Studies carried out as part of the Human Microbiome Project suggest that a person isn’t so much an individual as a complex organism composed of both human and microbial cells. Trillions of microorganisms inhabit the body, outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1. In all, those microorganisms make up 1 to 3% of the body’s mass, or anywhere from 1 to 3 kg on the body of a 100-kg adult.

But the challenge is to translate that general knowledge into health and disease conditions and then to specific treatments. Mapping out and sequencing the genetic identity of microbes at various locations on the skin is a complex undertaking, notes Nava Dayan, a skin research consultant to pharmaceutical and personal care firms. Even with the work undertaken to date, “we don’t fully understand the baseline of what a healthy skin microbiome is because it varies from person to person and even differs depending on a person’s age and environment,” she says.

Without a full understanding of what the baseline is, developing a personal care product to influence the skin microbiome “is like shooting a moving target,” Dayan says. Even if scientists learn how the skin microbiome changes and shifts over time, they are still missing a lot of information about how microbes influence human cells.

Testing personal care formulations for their effects on the skin poses another problem, Dayan says. Cultured human cell models now used in labs “are inherently sterile.” It will be some time before scientists can develop a human cell model that also incorporates skin microbes.

Probiotic possibilities

Still, cosmetic firms such as Yun, the company that exhorts customers to love their bacteria, see value in harnessing what is now known about the microbiome. The firm has worked with scientists at the University of Antwerp to develop its product line, which incorporates live Lactobacillus. It promises to make its research public soon.

At a microbiome workshop last month at the In-Cosmetics personal care ingredients show in London, Yun cofounder Tom Verlinden said the company avoids contaminating other ingredients in its formula by housing the dormant Lactobacillus inside a protective microcapsule.

When the cream is rubbed on the skin, the capsule breaks open and the bacteria are activated, according to Verlinden, who is trained as a pharmacist. The firm uses a “natural” pH-activated preservative system that turns off when it hits the skin’s pH, he added.

Asked if he thinks the market is ready for skin care products that contain bacteria, Verlinden said he would not have thought so two years ago on the basis of surveys his firm conducted. “Now, given the fear of chemicals,” he said, consumers are ready for a more “natural” product.

Some consumers have already given Yun a vote of confidence. The firm raised more than $20,000 on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website, earlier this year.

Regulators are ready for live probiotics too, Verlinden claimed. The regulators Yun has spoken with gave the firm the go-ahead after they saw data indicating its products “can’t hurt,” he says.

Also adding live bacteria to its formulas is Cambridge, Mass.-based AOBiome, maker of a product called Mother Dirt. Speaking at the London workshop, Elsa Jungman, a product manager for the firm, explained that company founder David Whitlock uncovered the ammonia-oxidizing bacteria after being challenged to explain why horses roll in the dirt.

Whitlock, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained chemical engineer, took a look at the dirt and eventually isolated Nitrosomonas. While studying the bacteria, he found they consume the ammonia in sweat and produce nitric oxide and anti-infective compounds that have a role in regulating inflammation, Jungman explained. Whitlock concluded that horses roll in the dirt for its skin-soothing benefits.

Nitrosomonas were once common on human skin, AOBiome theorizes, but with the widespread use of surfactants to clean skin, they have all but disappeared. Reestablishing them on the body promotes skin health and reduces the occurrence of skin pathologies such as acne, Jungman claimed.

Mother Dirt drew attention the year before it was launched when a 2014 New York Times Magazine article detailed reporter Julia Scott’s experience testing a spray mist containing AOBiome’s active ingredient. After a month of using the mist instead of showering, Scott said, she didn’t smell and her skin changed for the better.

The mist and other preparations containing the bacteria contain no preservatives and must be refrigerated, Jungman said. “Our customers tend to be afraid of chemicals,” she said, and they tend to have very sensitive and problematic skin. To date, she noted, “we have had no adverse event reports involving our product.”

The biotech firm Azitra, a 2014 spin-off from Yale University, has developed a skin-soothing recombinant microbe based on Staphylococcus epidermidis, a normal part of the skin microbiome.

Azitra’s bacteria express filaggrin, a structural protein often missing or underexpressed in people who have skin problems such as eczema, explains Travis Whitfill, a Yale School of Medicine research scientist and Azitra’s chief science officer. The protein binds to keratin fibers in the skin’s epithelial cells, regulating skin lipids and helping the skin retain moisture, he says.

Whitfill says filaggrin production is designed to be short-lived. After a day or two, the bacteria “kick out” the designer DNA Azitra inserted as they reproduce on the skin. The bacteria are still there, but the altered DNA decays in the environment, he says.

Azitra is struggling with how to keep the bacteria viable until the consumer uses a product containing them. Whitfill says the firm is considering drying the bacteria so they go dormant and delivering them in a waterless emollient to the consumer. Moisture on the skin would revive them.

So far, Azitra has raised nearly $4 million from the venture capital firm Bios Partners, in which Whitfill is also a partner. Azitra aims to qualify a consumer product for sale by 2019, hopefully with another firm, Whitfill says. Longer term, it wants to develop its recombinant bacteria to treat skin conditions such as eczema and rare genetic skin diseases, he says.

Gallinée distributes a cream in France and the U.K. that contains what the company describes as “deactivated bacteria from the Lactobacillus family” along with prebiotic fibers and sugars to support the growth of good bacteria, and lactic acid to optimize skin pH. The combination of ingredients is intended to repair the skin barrier and support the microbiome.

The firm’s founder, Marie Drago, who like Verlinden is a pharmacist, also spoke at the London conference. Changing her diet to include prebiotic and probiotic ingredients alleviated the gluten intolerance she had for years, she claimed. That led her to reason that “if such a treatment worked inside, it could work outside too.”

“We’re cleaner than we used to be, and that’s why you see so much disease,” Drago said.

Active ingredient approaches

Some personal care ingredient suppliers are leery of diving into materials that contain bacteria, either alive or “deactivated.” But they are interested in developing active ingredients that work to benefit the skin microbiome.

“We considered developing live bacteria strains with skin benefits,” says Boris Vogelgesang, a technical manager at BASF, the world’s largest chemical company. But the firm was concerned about regulations on microbial “contamination” of personal care products and the complications inherent in preserving creams and lotions while keeping good bacteria viable.

“Maybe we can learn from food regulations,” which do allow active microorganisms in products such as yogurt and cheese, Vogelgesang suggests. “Preservative regulations need to evolve to distinguish good from harmful bacteria.” That may happen with time, but for now “it’s a brand new topic,” he says, and BASF is taking a conservative approach.

That approach includes establishing a research group that is exploring how microbes are involved in a healthy skin barrier and how active ingredients affect them. “We want to better understand the role of each microorganism in skin beauty and build new skin models to study effects of active ingredients,” says David Herault, BASF’s head of global R&D for bioactives.

Together with the International Center for Infectiology Research in Lyon, France, BASF has been developing skin models embedded with bacteria. The firm hopes the models will help it launch active ingredients to treat aging skin, skin with pigment disorders, and skin exposed to pollution as well as to work with different skin types.

BASF’s work in skin modeling also involves Poietis, a French firm with which it is developing a three-dimensional printed model of human skin as an alternative to animal testing of cosmetics, which is banned in Europe. Vogelgesang says 3-D printing can layer cells and precisely seed growth factors and cell types.

The technique might be adapted to reproduce the cells and bacteria found in wrinkles, Vogelgesang suggests. Such a model could lead to microbiome-inspired techniques to reduce skin wrinkling. “There is a lot to discover about the skin microbiome,” he says.

As BASF sees it, exploring the microbiome for personal care opens up a brave new world. “For years we’ve tried to eliminate problematic bacteria by using antibiotics. But killing the bad bacteria could also damage beneficial bacteria,” Vogelgesang says. “We need an approach that recognizes the community of flora on the skin and that preserves beneficial bacteria.”

For now the firm is using in vivo methods to look at the effect of active ingredients on skin microbes. In doing so it has come up with an ingredient, called Relipidium, that rebalances the skin microbiome. Vogelgesang says Relipidium works by encouraging growth of the beneficial bacterial S. epidermidis and discouraging growth of Staphylococcus aureus, which is associated with dermatitis and dry skin.

Launched late last year, Relipidium is made by feeding a yeast extract to Lactobacillus plantarum, a type of lactic acid bacteria. After filtering out any microbes, what are left behind are beneficial proteins, amino acids, and short-chain fatty acids.

BASF expects to develop products that complement Relipidium in the future, Vogelgesang says, adding that the firm’s likely next microbiome-inspired targets are ingredients that address oily and sensitive skin.

The fragrance ingredient specialist Givaudan is also developing actives to enhance the skin microbiome. Its 2015 acquisition of the active ingredients maker Induchem brought with it an R&D center in Toulouse, France, with expertise in genetic analysis and the microbiome, explains Fabrice Lefèvre, marketing and innovation director.

Givaudan initially developed Revivyl, one of its newest ingredients, to “revive” the skin by stimulating cellular differentiation and exfoliation of older skin cells. But then “we also asked how this ingredient would affect the microbiome,” Lefèvre says.

Isolated about 10 years ago, Revivyl is an extract from Orobanche rapum, a chlorophyll-free parasitic plant that grows in Europe. Besides its skin-reviving characteristic, Revivyl “protects skin by balancing the skin microbiota” and prevents microbial imbalances. According to the firm’s literature, Revivyl also inhibits the Finegoldia genus of opportunistic skin pathogens.

In a concept it calls [Yu] for “you are unique,” Givaudan is promoting the incorporation of Revivyl into fragrances. Such a use would combine a sensory experience with microbiome protection to make users “feel and look beautiful,” Lefèvre says.

Beyond ingredients that maintain the skin microbiome, Lefèvre says, Givaudan is developing ingredients that the microbiome turns on. One is Brightenyl, a skin-lightening agent that is activated by the skin’s resident bacteria.

Developed two years ago, Brightenyl contains an α-glucoside derivative of trihydroxybenzoic acid that Givaudan calls THBG. When applied to the skin, THBG is converted by certain microbes into trihydroxybenzoic acid, a molecule that evens out and lightens the skin.

Practical prebiotics

Other ingredient makers aren’t yet ready to go as far as introducing microbes to the skin or even developing ingredients that depend on microbiome activity. Many are betting that getting the skin microbiome into better balance with prebiotics is the first course of action.

“We stay strictly with prebiotics and address the skin holistically,” says Michael Anthonavage, technical director of Vantage Specialty Ingredients.

The firm’s PreBio Defense is a blend of polysaccharides that “acts as a fertilizer bed” for good skin bacteria, Anthonavage says. Prebiotics in the formula include inulin and β-glucan, which are packed into cellulose microcapsules to make it easy for formulators to blend into their skin care products, he says.

Greenaltech, a Barcelona-based biotech firm, is offering Algaktiv BioSKN, a prebiotic derived from microalgae. Joan Tarraga, who heads business development for the firm, describes BioSKN as a carbohydrate derived from microalgae cell membranes.

The skin is subject to a variety of assaults, including “sun radiation, urban pollution, weather, and chemicals in the environment,” Tarraga argues. As a result, the epidermis thins “and our microbiome is altered, leading to inflammation,” he says. Incorporated into a cosmetic formulation, BioSKN helps beneficial bacteria grow and reduces the proliferation of harmful bacteria that can cause inflammation, he claims.

Skin research consultant Dayan says she expects that scientists and cosmetic ingredient formulators will over time look more deeply into the “cross talk between the microbiome and human cells.” Understanding the complex community of microbes resident on the skin—and comprehending how those microbes can vary from individual to individual—can lead to the next steps in skin product development, she suggests.

It’s uncharted territory for the personal care business. For years people have been taught to fear bacteria and knew of only the infections and illnesses they could cause. Time will tell whether the public is now ready to accept skin care products full of bacteria and turn microbiome-inspired cosmetics into the next big thing.

UConn Study: E-cigarettes ‘Potentially as Harmful as Tobacco Cigarettes’

Published by UConn Today on 6/12/2017

Colin Poitras

A study by chemists at the University of Connecticut offers new evidence that electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are potentially as harmful as tobacco cigarettes.

Using a new low-cost, 3-D printed testing device, UConn researchers found that e-cigarettes loaded with a nicotine-based liquid are potentially as harmful as unfiltered cigarettes when it comes to causing DNA damage.

The researchers also found that vapor from non-nicotine e-cigarettes caused as much DNA damage as filtered cigarettes, possibly due to the many chemical additives present in e-cigarette vapors. Cellular mutations caused by DNA damage can lead to cancer.

The findings appear in the journal ACS Sensors.

How much DNA damage e-cigarettes cause depends on the amount of vapor the user inhales, the other additives present, whether nicotine or non-nicotine liquid is used, and other factors, says Karteek Kadimisetty, a postdoctoral researcher in UConn’s chemistry department and the study’s lead author.

But one finding was clear.

“From the results of our study, we can conclude that e-cigarettes have as much potential to cause DNA damage as unfiltered regular cigarettes,” Kadimisetty says.

Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat up liquid and turn it into an aerosol vapor that can be inhaled. Using e-cigarettes is also called ‘vaping.’ The contents of e-cigarettes, called e-liquid or e-juice, are usually made up of propylene glycol, glycerine, nicotine, and flavorings such as menthol, cherry, vanilla, or mint. Non-nicotine e-cigarettes are also available.

Frequently viewed as a less toxic alternative for people looking to break their habit of smoking tobacco cigarettes, modern e-cigarettes have steadily risen in popularity since they first appeared on the commercial market in 2004. How much e-cigarettes contribute to serious health problems and whether they serve as a gateway for future tobacco smokers remains the subject of much debate. Growing concerns about the potential health impact of electronic cigarettes however, prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to tighten its regulation of e-cigarettes in 2016.

UConn’s scientists decided to look into whether the chemicals in e-cigarettes could cause damage to human DNA while testing a new electro-optical screening device they developed in their lab. The small 3-D printed device is believed to be the first of its kind capable of quickly detecting DNA damage, or genotoxicity, in environmental samples in the field, the researchers say.

The device uses micropumps to push liquid samples across multiple ‘microwells’ embedded in a small carbon chip. The wells are pre-loaded with reactive human metabolic enzymes and DNA. As the samples drop into the wells, new metabolites that have the potential to cause DNA damage are formed. Reactions between the metabolites and the DNA generate light that is captured by a camera. Within five minutes, users can see how much relative DNA damage a sample produces by the intensity of the light detected in each well. The device is unique in that it converts chemicals into their metabolites during testing, which replicates what happens in the human body, Kadimisetty says.

Bioassays currently used to determine the genotoxicity of environmental samples may be more comprehensive, but they are also time-consuming and costly. The lab equipment alone can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The array developed at UConn provides an important initial screening tool for genotoxicity in just minutes. The chip central to the device is disposable and costs only a dollar to make, thanks to recent advances in 3-D printing.

“What we developed is very cheap to make, efficient, and can be used by almost anyone,” says UConn chemistry professor James Rusling, the senior researcher on the study.

Affordable and efficient “labs on a chip” is a specialty of Rusling’s lab, which has previously created miniature arrays that can detect antibodies to food allergens and cancer biomarker proteins. Rusling says similar arrays could potentially be used for quick genotoxic screening during drug development, for monitoring or testing fresh water supplies, and for the early detection of aggressive forms of cancer.

In the current study, the researchers extracted vapor samples from e-cigarettes and smoke from tobacco cigarettes using an artificial inhalation technique. Cigarettes were connected to a tube that contained a cotton plug. The researchers then used a syringe at the other end of the tube to replicate inhalation. Samples came from the chemicals captured in the cotton.

The team set their test so that 20 puffs of an e-cigarette was roughly equivalent to smoking one tobacco cigarette, a ratio supported by other research. The team gathered samples at 20, 60, and 100 puffs. The potential DNA damage from e-cigarettes increased with the number of puffs, Kadimisetty says.

“Some people use e-cigarettes heavily because they think there is no harm,” he says. “We wanted to see exactly what might be happening to DNA, and we had the resources in our lab to do that.”

There are potentially hundreds of chemicals in e-cigarettes that could be contributing to DNA damage, Kadimisetty says. Rather than test for all of them, the UConn team targeted three known carcinogenic chemicals found in tobacco cigarettes. They then loaded their device’s microwells with specific enzymes that would convert those chemicals into metabolites. If these chemicals were in the sample, the test gave them a reading for genotoxicity. If the chemicals were not present, there would be no reaction.

The results caught him by surprise.

“I never expected the DNA damage from e-cigarettes to be equal to tobacco cigarettes,” says Kadimisetty. “I was shocked the first time I saw the result, so I ran the controls again. I even diluted the samples. But the trend was still there – something in the e-cigarettes was definitely causing damage to the DNA.”

Kadimisetty says he got interested in early cancer diagnosis and point-of-care sensors for genotoxicity after losing an aunt to cancer several years ago. His aunt, he said, might have lived longer had her cancer been detected sooner.

Joining Kadimisetty and Rusling on the study was former UConn Ph.D. student Spundana Malla, now a scientist at Alliance Pharma in Pennsylvania. The study was supported by funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

UConn Professor on Why Amazon Shouldn’t Sell Prescription Drugs

Published by CNBC on 6/9/2017

C. Michael White

Amazon hit a milestone last month after the price of one share hit US $1,000 for the first time, giving it a total value of close to $500 billion. That makes it the fourth-biggest company in the U.S. in terms of market capitalization and twice the size of brick-and-mortar rival Walmart.

The online retailer’s incredible growth has come from expanding into more and more areas of the economy, providing its customers with speedy delivery of everything from socks and books to lawn chairs and computers. One category it has yet to enter, however, is prescription drugs.

Amazon wants to change that and dispense drugs alongside its hundreds of millions of other wares. Would this be a good thing for consumers and the health care system?

The biggest online retailer’s entry into this market may lead to efficiency gains, but the cost would be dear in terms of further severing the link between patients and actual pharmacists. Research, including my own, shows that patients need more face-to-face time with pharmacists, not less.

Brief history of pharmacies

Pharmacies (or apothecaries, as they were once known) have existed since antiquity. The first retail pharmacy began in Philadelphia in 1729. Back then, pharmacists not only dispensed medications to patients (without a prescription) but diagnosed diseases and handcrafted drugs. In 1951, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which prohibited pharmacists from dispensing FDA-approved drugs without a valid prescription.

Mail-order pharmacies harnessing the raw efficiency of mass-filling prescriptions began to boom in the 1980s. In 2013, about 39 percent of customers said they refilled their prescription by mail order, up from an estimated 6 percent in 1990.

Clearly it costs less per unit of labor for prescriptions to be filled in a centralized facility with industrial pill counting technology and with auto-refills of medication than when prescriptions are filled manually in the store by a local pharmacist triggered by a patient calling the pharmacy.

Consumers say they like the convenience of mail-order pharmacies, which is likely one of the reasons Amazon is getting serious about entering the $450 billion market for prescription drugs.

Amazon might be able to enhance the user experience, as well as make the process even more efficient, but there’s a cost.

Drugs aren’t socks

What is missing from the discussion is that prescription drugs are not socks or refrigerators. When consumers take drugs, they become patients, not just customers.

While prescription drugs hold the promise of preventing disease and treating symptoms, they can maim or even kill if not used correctly.

In 1993, for example, medication-related errors led to about 7,400 deaths, more than double the number of fatalities in 1983, according to a review of death certifications. Unfortunately, they’re the latest data available, but most likely the number is higher today.

A key reason for these errors seems to be a lack of communication. A 2003 report noted that better communication among physicians, pharmacists and nurses could prevent 86 percent of the most serious medication errors, which suggests shifting more drug dispensation to a centralized facility from local pharmacies would worsen the problem.

Too many people aren’t taking their meds

Another thing that makes prescription drugs very different than Amazon’s typical offerings is that in many cases it’s essential that patients actually take their meds as prescribed. That’s not happening.

Taking drugs in the right dosage for the right amount of time is critical to effectively cure a disease, prevent the formation of antimicrobial resistance and keep a malady from progressing.

Yet on average, only about 50 percent of American patients typically take their medicines as prescribed, costing hundreds of billions of dollars in adverse outcomes and unnecessary hospitalizations each year.

Furthermore, in my own research involving patients with cardiovascular diseases, I have found that people are simply not receiving the medications they need – and when they are, they aren’t following through on the required dosage, leading to worse outcomes. I’ve found that greater interaction between patients and pharmacists can help solve this problem.

Other studies have shown that more active face-to-face engagement with a pharmacist improves a patient’s level of adherence to a prescription, which can lead to better outcomes. A study involving Walgreens pharmacists, for example, suggested direct drug counseling reduced health care costs by $266 on average, mostly due to fewer hospitalizations.

The environmental costs

Finally, another key aspect of prescription drugs is that their waste is a big and growing problem.

Unlike the clothes or appliances you order, medications can’t simply be returned to the merchant, restocked and resold to another customer. There’s no way of ensuring they weren’t adulterated or improperly stored, and the risks are too great. That means every pill that goes unused must be disposed of, which is a huge waste of money but also is a major source of pollution.

In a 2015 assessment of medications turned in for disposal, more than half of the prescriptions purchased from mail-order pharmacies still contained 80 percent of more of the original pills. Even more troubling, 39 percent had every single pill originally dispensed. That compares with much-lower rates of 37 percent and 17 percent for community pharmacies.

Many of the unused drugs, however, aren’t properly disposed of and instead end up in a landfill or flushed down a toilet.

A nationwide study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1999 and 2000 found low levels of pharmaceuticals – including antibiotics, hormones, contraceptives and steroids – in 80 percent of the rivers and streams sampled, contaminating 40 million Americans’ drinking water.

Studies have shown that aquatic animals are adversely affected by these hormones, with some male fish developing female sex organs, and there are concerns that long-term exposure to a tainted water supply can lead to more superbugs.

Small gains for many pains

Amazon is a revolutionary company that has reshaped how we shop and has helped drastically increase the efficiency of shipping small packages. This could even allow it to reduce some of the negative side effects, noted above, of remote pharmacies, such as by making it more cost-effective to ship small quantities of pills to reduce waste.

But to my mind, any modest gains in efficiencies or cost savings are paid for dearly by the negative outcomes that result from medication-related errors and patients not following through on their prescriptions, while the waste of unused drugs will continue. And while this problem has been with us for a while, Amazon, due to its size and ability to quickly dominate markets, would make the situation a lot worse.

Delivering a product more efficiently cannot be the only metric of success. With prescription drugs, saving lives must be considered as well.

UConn Study: MicroRNAs Identify Melanoma Molecular Signature

Published by MedPage Today on 6/8/2017

Mark L Fuerst

Since a biopsy may not always reveal which melanomas are the most dangerous, the discovery of a molecular signal that can distinguish which melanomas need more aggressive treatment could lead to the development of a new type of melanoma therapy. It may also explain the reason exposure to ultraviolet light increases the odds of skin cancer.

The big question in skin cancer is why some melanomas spread aggressively, and others don’t. Two patients with melanomas of the same depth can have very different outcomes. “Depth is not necessarily a reliable marker,” Soheil Dadras, MD, PhD of the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, said in an interview. “A molecular approach would be better to judge how to treat melanoma.”

He and his colleagues set out to define a molecular signature of aggressive melanoma. They began measuring microribonucleic acid (miRNA) levels in melanomas — RNA acts as a messenger that translates the instructions in a cell’s DNA into actual proteins. “MiRNAs are potent gene regulators that control which messenger RNA becomes active,” Dadras said.

The type of miRNAs can significantly change the kinds of proteins available to a cell, and in turn, can change a cell’s behavior. For example, a cell might have genes that prevent it from turning cancerous, but if miRNAs suppress the anti-cancer proteins those genes make, the cell can go rogue anyway, he explained.

“We used next-generation sequencing to focus on not just what the genome shows, but also on isolated small RNAs from specimens. We were able to find a handful of miRNAs that define thick from thin melanomas.”

The researchers sampled miRNAs from 28 small RNAs isolated from an annotated series of invasive melanomas (average invasive depth of 2 mm), common melanocytic nevi, and matched normal skin, and defined a list of the top 40 miRNAs that clearly segregated melanomas into thin (0.75 mm) and thick (2.7 mm) groups.

Then in a validation cohort the team took 167 different melanoma samples and analyzed those 40 miRNAs and found a striking molecular signature: Aggressively invasive melanomas had higher levels of miRNA21 and lower levels of the miRNA precursor let-7b than less advanced melanomas did.

“The surprise was a correlation to tumor mitotic index, a parameter used to determine prognosis, and lymphovascular invasion, which notes the presence of tumor cells in lymphatic vessels.” In previous research, the investigators had found that detection of lymphovascular invasion in the primary tumor may aid in identifying melanoma patients with the propensity to develop sentinel lymph node metastasis.

Increased miRNA21 levels were significantly associated with invasive depth, tumor mitotic index, lymphovascular invasion, and American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) stage. In contrast, let-7b levels were significantly decreased in invasive and in situ melanomas compared with common and dysplastic nevi. Decreased let-7b levels were significantly associated with invasive depth, Clark’s level, ulceration, and AJCC stage.

These results “define a distinct set of miRNAs associated with invasive and aggressive melanoma phenotype,” said Dadras. This molecular signature could potentially aid oncologists in identifying which patients should opt for more aggressive cancer treatments. “Once oncologists receive a report of a melanoma diagnosis, they could consider prognostication. Measuring miRNA in clinical samples with PCR, which we are setting up now, could lead to useful information to determine whether the patient is at high or low risk of metastases, how vigilant to monitor the tumor, or whether to do imaging or not,” said Dadras.

The next step is to develop meaningful clinical assays to be able to detect the expression of miRNA from tumor specimens. “We could look at miRNA21 and let-7b to measure expression levels by PCR or FISH,” and such an assay would be low cost. The plan now is to perform a large clinical validation set to offer as a clinical test of the study results, he said.

Information from miRNAs may also help provide information about the diagnosis of an atypical melanoma: “This would be important information to accurately define a tumor as melanoma or nevus. For example, in pediatric melanoma, Spitz tumors may appear to be atypical and behave in a benign fashion, but we can’t use morphology alone to make a diagnosis.”

The research also provides an intriguing lead into the epidemiological connection between sun damage and melanoma development. It is well established that exposure to ultraviolet light is a risk factor for skin cancer, but not because exposure directly damages DNA: “There are no studies linking DNA damage from UV light to melanoma.”

Other researchers have demonstrated that miRNA21 is a target of PTEN, a powerful tumor suppressor. “UV exposure can increase miRNA21, so perhaps extensive sun exposure downregulates PTEN, decreasing the capacity of the cell to protect itself from UV damage,” said Dadras, who noted that he plans to histologically correlate increased miRNA21 to UV damage.

The ability of miRNAs to control diverse gene expression in cancer makes them ideal candidates for therapeutic applications. Already, tests are underway to selectively modulate miRNAs through antisense inhibition or replacement through local or parenteral injection routes. Dadras said he foresees the development of anti-miRNA21 therapy in melanoma that would increase let-7b.

“We used to think that DNA was everything, but now research shows that non-coding RNA should not be ignored. The great majority of the genome is not expressed. MiRNAs, although non-coding, could have significant impact in melanoma genesis.”

UConn Professor Finds That Ancient Grains Reveal Roots of Early Social Inequality

Published by UConn Today on June 7, 2017

Loretta Waldman

study published recently in Nature Plants sheds new light on the agricultural and political economy that underpinned the growth of some of the world’s oldest cities in Mesopotamia, in present-day northern Syria.

An international team that included researchers from UConn and the University of Oxford used stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of charred ancient grains to reconstruct the conditions under which crops grew, building up a picture of how farming practice changed over time.

Alexia Smith in the lab.
Alexia Smith, associate professor of archaeology, in the lab.

UConn’s Alexia Smith, associate professor of archaeology, had gathered the plant samples from two sites – Tell Leilan in 2006 and Tell Zeidan in 2009.

The ancient grains indicated that as populations in these early cities swelled, increasing demand for more food, farmers strove to cultivate larger areas of land, rather than plow more resources – such as manure – into existing, more intensively managed fields.

“Plant remains can be preserved on archaeological sites for thousands of years providing a record of the range of plants used for food, construction, or fuel,” says Smith, an archaeobotanist. “They document when crops were first domesticated, and give us information on the ways that people used plants to both respond to and create environmental and social change through time.”

Smith looked at the seeds in an archaeological context, asking questions about where the seed might be coming from, such as a hearth or a storage facility, and from an ethno-political perspective, to reconstruct the plants’ significance.

Extensive, land-hungry agriculture relies heavily on the ability to access more arable land and to exploit specialized plow animals, both of which could be monopolized by powerful families and institutions.

“This is a study very much rooted in ancient plant remains,” Smith says. “They really give us insight into social change, and here we have an insight into how people were responding to social change.”

The findings reveal how the growing importance of arable land, which could be controlled by the ruling few, led to increasing social inequality as urban populations grew.

Project leader and professor Amy Bogaard from Oxford’s School of Archaeology, notes, “each cereal grain found buried in an archaeological site holds within it a record of the environmental conditions under which it was grown.

“We found that the rise of early cities in northern Mesopotamia depended on radical expansion of the scale of farming. As a result, cereals were grown under increasingly poor soil conditions: for example, with less manuring and replenishment of nutrients. It was a solution that enabled enormous urban agglomerations to develop, but was risky when environmental or political conditions changed.”

The team involved in the study included researchers from Leiden University, National Museum of Denmark, University of Cambridge, Harvard University, Lawrence University, University of Warsaw, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University.

Smith’s work on the study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

UConn Professor Discusses the Science Behind Successful Weight Loss

Published on WNPR on June 6, 2017

Lydia Brown & Lucy Nalpathanchil

“Eat less, exercise more” is a familiar mantra, especially to anyone who has ever tried shedding a few pounds. But do those four words, in fact, hold the key to successful weight loss and management?

This hour, we find out what researchers at Tufts University have learned about the relationship between diet, exercise, and the numbers on your bathroom scale.

Are you struggling with your weight? What approaches have you taken in your quest to “get fit”? As always, we want to hear from you.

And later: a look at Connecticut’s summer meals for kids. We find out what local communities are doing to help children access free food.

GUESTS:

  • Dr. Sai Krupa Das – Scientist at the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA-Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and faculty member at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University
  • Dr. Marlene Schwartz – Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at UConn
  • Dr. David Baer – Research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Shannon Yearwood – Chief Strategy Officer with End Hunger Connecticut!

You can listen to their discussion here: Gain Some, Lose Some: The Science Behind Successful Weight Loss

 

Science to Startup: A Connecticut Company Plays the Startup Game in the Land of Innovation

Published in UConn Magazine in the Summer ’17 Issue

Colin Poitras

Biochemist Mark Driscoll is trying to crack open a stubborn microbe in his lab at UConn’s technology commercialization incubator in Farmington, Connecticut.

He needs to get past the microorganism’s tough outer shell to grab a sample of its DNA. Once he has the sample, Driscoll can capture the bacterium’s genetic ‘fingerprint,’ an important piece of evidence for doctors treating bacterial infections and scientists studying bacteria in the human microbiome. It’s a critical element in the new lab technology Driscoll and his business partner, Thomas Jarvie, are developing.

But at the moment, his microbe isn’t cooperating. Driscoll tries breaking into it chemically. He boils it. He pokes and pushes against the outer wall. Nothing happens. This drug-resistant pathogen is a particularly bad character that has evolved and strengthened its shell over generations. It isn’t giving up its secrets easily.

Stymied, Driscoll picks up the phone and calls Professor Peter Setlow at UConn Health. A noted expert in molecular biology and biophysics, Setlow has been cracking open microbes since 1968.

A few hours later, Driscoll jumps on a shuttle and takes a quarter-mile trip up the road to meet with Setlow in person. He explains his predicament. Setlow nods and says, “Here’s what I would do.”

And it works.

Breakthrough

That brief encounter, that collaboration between a talented young scientist and a prominent UConn researcher working in Connecticut’s bioscience corridor, not only results in an important breakthrough for Driscoll’s and Jarvie’s new business — called Shoreline Biome — but also leads to a proposal for more research, a new finding, and at least one patent application.

In a broader sense, it also exemplifies the collaborative relationships that UConn and state officials hope will flourish under the University’s Technology Incubation Program or TIP, which provides laboratory space, business mentoring, scientific support, and other services to entrepreneurs in Connecticut’s growing bioscience sector. At incubators in Storrs and Farmington, TIP currently supports 35 companies that specialize in things like health care software, small molecule therapies, vaccine development, diagnostics, bio-agriculture, and water purification.

The program has assisted more than 85 startup companies since it was established in 2003. Those companies have had a significant impact on Connecticut’s economy, raising more than $50 million in grant funding, $80 million in debt and pay equity, and more than $45 million in revenue.

“This is not a coincidence,” says Driscoll as he recounts his microbe- cracking story in a small office across the hall from his lab. “This is what government is supposed to do. It’s supposed to set up an environment where these kinds of things can happen.”

Bold Moves

Driscoll and Jarvie, a physical chemist and genomics expert, arrived at UConn’s Farmington incubator in June 2015 with a bold business concept but virtually no idea of how to get it off the ground. Both had worked in the labs at 454 Life Sciences in Branford, Connecticut, one of the state’s early bioscience success stories that ended up moving to the San Francisco area.

Driscoll and Jarvie decided to stay in Connecticut. They had talked about starting a business based on new technology that would more quickly and precisely identify different strains of bacteria in the human microbiome, the trillions of good and bad microorganisms living in our bodies that scientists believe play an important role in our health and well-being. The study of the microbiome is a rapidly growing area of biomedical research. There are currently more than 300 clinical trials of microbiome-based treatments in progress, according to the National Institutes of Health, and the global market for microbiome products is estimated to exceed $600 million a year by 2023.

“It’s the most frightening thing I have ever done,” says Driscoll with a chuckle. “As scientists, we know that nine out of 10 new companies fail. That sound you constantly hear in the back of your head is the ‘hiss’ of money being burned. The pressure is intense. You have to reach the next level before your money goes to zero because when the money’s gone, you’re done.”

Fortunately, Driscoll and Jarvie’s decision to launch a bioscience company came at a time when Connecticut and UConn were committing resources to strengthen the state’s bioscience research sector.

As part of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Bioscience Connecticut initiative approved in 2011, Connecticut’s legislature allocated $864 million to efforts that would position the state as a leader in bioscience research and innovation. That initiative included the expansion of UConn’s technology incubator site in Farmington, the opening of The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine (JAX), and major upgrades at UConn Health to boost its research capacity.

Those resources were tailor made for a fledgling bioscience company like Shoreline Biome. Driscoll and Jarvie remember the early days when company ‘meetings’ took place at a local Starbucks, their official address and warehouse was Driscoll’s garage, and they didn’t even have a lab.

But they did have a vision of what Shoreline Biome could be. They knew that George Weinstock, one of the world’s foremost experts in microbial genomics and one of their customers at 454 Life Sciences, had just arrived at Jax. They reached out to him with an offer to collaborate. Weinstock not only agreed, he became their principal scientific advisor.

About the same time, Driscoll and Jarvie began exploring the possibility of renting space at TIP in Farmington because of its proximity to people like Weinstock and Setlow. “If you’re looking to start a bioscience company, in some parts of the state the cost for commercial space is going to be more than your will to live,” says Driscoll. “But here, the rent is graduated. So we were able stay here in the beginning for just a few hundred bucks a month.”

The pair also obtained $150,000 in pre-seed funding from Connecticut Innovations, the state’s quasi-public investment authority supporting innovative, growing companies; and a $500,000 equity investment from the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF).

Along with the pre-seed investment funds, CBIF’s staff helped guide Driscoll and Jarvie through the early stages of business development and introduced them to the investment community. AndCBIF member Patrick O’Neill took a seat on Shoreline Biome’s board. O’Neill’s business savvy has been crucial to the company’s early success, says Driscoll.

Tracking the Bad Guys

The lab kit Driscoll and Jarvie are currently testing is a low-cost, off-the-shelf tool that replaces hours of painstaking hands-on processing of patient samples for bacteria DNA testing. It’s about getting DNA out of the bacteria from a complicated environmental sample and doing that in a fast, cheap, and comprehensive way, explains Jarvie.

Researchers and medical professionals have previously relied on targeted testing and laboratory cultures to identify different bacteria strains. But many bacteria species are hard to grow in the lab, making identification and confirmation difficult. Even when scientists can confirm the presence of a bacteria such as salmonella in a patient sample, the findings are often limited, which can impact diagnosis and treatment.

“The DNA fingerprint region in a bacteria is about 1,500 bases long,” says Jarvie. “Most of the sequencing technologies out there are only getting a fraction of that, like 150 bases or 10 percent. It’s like relying on a small segment of a fingerprint as opposed to getting the entire fingerprint. You can’t really identify the organisms that well.”

Jarvie describes the difference this way. Say you are running tests for mammals on three different samples. Current sequencing technology would identify the samples as a primate, a canine, and a feline. With Shoreline Biome’s technology, the results are more definitive. They would say, ‘you have a howler monkey, a timber wolf, and a mountain lion.’

That level of specificity is important to researchers and medical professionals studying or tracking a bacteria strain or disease. Driscoll says the kit is not limited to identifying harmful bacteria like salmonella, listeria, or MRSA. It also can assist researchers investigating the microbiome’s role in maintaining the so-called ‘good’ bacteria that keeps us healthy as well as its role in other ailments such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and even mental health disorders like schizophrenia.

For example, the kit easily lets a researcher compare 50 bacteria samples from individuals with multiple sclerosis and 50 samples from individuals who don’t have the disease to see whether the presence or absence of a particular bacteria in the microbiome plays a role in impacting the body’s nervous system.

“If you don’t make it cost effective, if you don’t make it practical, people won’t do it,” says Driscoll. “It’s like going to the moon. Sure, we can go to the moon. But it takes a lot of time and money to build a rocket and get it ready. With our kit, all that stuff for the moon shot is already pre-made. We provide the whole system right off the shelf. You don’t need to know how to extract DNA fingerprints, or use a DNA sequencer, or analyze DNA. All you have to do is buy our kit and turn the crank.”

As part of their product testing, Shoreline Biome is working with researchers at UConn Health and JAX to learn more about a particularly toxic and potentially fatal intestinal bacterium, Clostridium difficile, otherwise known as C.diff.

“People who track this disease, especially in hospitals where it is a problem, want to know how it gets in there,” says Driscoll. “Does it come from visitors? Does it come from doctors? You have all these spores floating around. You can answer that by looking at the bacteria’s genetics. But if you can’t get to the bacteria’s DNA, you can’t identify it.

“Our tool cracks open the microbes so you can get at their DNA and fingerprint the bugs to see what you have,” says Driscoll. “It lets people see everything. And we’ve simplified the software so you don’t have to be a skilled microbiologist to do it. A person in the lab can sit down and with just a few clicks, all of this stuff comes up and tells you these are the bad guys, the infectious organisms that are present, and these are the good guys.”

Deer In the Headlights

While their focus is certainly on growing Shoreline Biome, Driscoll and Jarvie also have come to appreciate Connecticut’s broader effort in building a strong bioscience research core to help drive the state’s economy. Providing scientist entrepreneurs with an affordable base of operations, working labs, access to high-end lab equipment, and a cadre of science peers ready to help, takes some of the pressure off when launching a new company.

“This is all part of a plan the governor and the legislature have put together to have this stuff here,” Driscoll says. “You can sit around and hope that companies form or you can try to make your own luck. You set up a situation where you are likely to succeed by bringing in JAX, opening up a UConn TIP incubator across the street, and setting up funding. Is that going to start a company? Who knows? But then you have Tom and I, two scientists kicked loose from a company, and we notice there are all these things happening here. We could have left for California or gone to the Boston-Cambridge research corridor, but instead, we decided to stay in Connecticut.”

Mostafa Analoui, UConn’s executive director of venture development, including TIP, says the fact that two top scientists like Driscoll and Jarvie decided to stay in Connecticut speaks to the state’s highly skilled talent pool and growing innovation ecosystem.

“Instead of going to Boston or New York, they chose to stay in Connecticut, taking advantage of UConn’s TIP and other innovation programs provided by the state to grow their company, create jobs, and benefit society with their cutting-edge advances in microbiome research,” says Analoui.

UConn provides critical support to ventures at all stages of development, but it is especially important for startups, says Jeff Seemann, vice president for research at UConn and UConn Health.

When asked if they still have those moments of abject fear that they aren’t going to make it, Driscoll and Jarvie laugh.

“Every day is a deer-in-the-headlights moment,” says Driscoll. “Even when things are going well, it’s still a huge risk.”

“It never goes away,” agrees Jarvie. But during a recent visit to the Shoreline Biome lab, both men are in good spirits.

The company met the 12-month goals set in their CBIF funding agreement in just six months. For that effort, Driscoll and Jarvie received another $250,000 check, the second of their two CBIF payments.

In the world of business startups, however, there is little time for extended celebration. The two scientists mark the milestone with smiles and a fist bump, then turn around and get back to work.

UConn Today: The Lack of Black Men in Medicine

Published in UConn Today on June 5, 2017

Kristen Cole

In the dozen years it has been on television, the fictional medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” has garnered numerous awards. But the show’s biggest accomplishment may be the diversity of the actors, cast as doctors using a color-blind technique.

Unfortunately, racial diversity in the field is not reality.

In fact, medical school matriculation rates for black males have failed to surpass those from 35 years ago, according to a recent analysis of data from the Association of American Medical Colleges and information from a paper by Marc Nivet, presented by two UConn Health researchers.

African-American men make up just 2.8 percent of the applicants to medical school. Out of all African-American applicants, only 38 percent are men, and black males who are unsuccessful in their first application are less likely to reapply than their white counterparts, they write.

Their findings are set against a backdrop in which there have been overall increases in the rate of black male college graduates and a prodigious expansion of medical schools in the U.S.

“The absence of Black males in medical school represents an American crisis that threatens efforts to effectively address health disparities and excellence in clinical care,” according to their paper in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities.

The article was authored by Cato T. Laurencin, the Albert and Wilda Van Dusen Distinguished Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science (CICATS); and Marsha Murray, research assistant in community medicine and healthcare. It was funded by CICATS and the National Institutes for Health.

To reverse the trend, they say, it is necessary to ascertain the societal factors that support growth and success of black males in medicine.

Laurencin and Murray outline challenges influencing black males, including financial cost, bias and stereotypes, career attractiveness, and underperforming schools. The high probability of black males attending underperforming schools that lack pre-medical resources influences the number of students in the “pipeline.”

“The trends demonstrate our inability to attract and sustain a diverse physician workforce,” they write, adding, “The creation of a diverse medical workforce is crucial to quality healthcare.”

Research has shown that racial and ethnic diversity in medical education improves the learning and cross-cultural competencies of all doctors. And minority medical students are more likely to work in underserved communities and, therefore, positively influence access to care.

“You cannot have a great medical center without the presence of black and other diverse doctors,” says Laurencin. “That’s what the great places recognize.”

It doesn’t just make for great television.

Words of Wisdom from UConn’s Michael Lynch

Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on June 5, 2017

Michael Patrick Lynch

“Humility” isn’t a word that most academics — or Americans — identify with. Indeed, if there is a single attitude most closely associated with our culture, it’s the opposite of humility. The defining trait of the age seems to be arrogance — in particular, the kind of arrogance personified by our tweeter in chief; the arrogance of thinking that you know it all and that you don’t need to improve because you are just so great already.

But our culture’s infatuation with this kind of arrogance doesn’t come out of the blue. Trump is a symptom and not the cause of a larger trend, one that rewards dogmatic certainty and punishes those who acknowledge the possible limitations of their own point of view. Liberal white male professors like myself are hardly immune. And part of the academic culture we’ve helped to create — including the rise of aggressive “no platforming” tactics to prevent conservatives from speaking on some campuses — has only fed into the perception that academics are no more willing to engage in dialogue and debate than Trump supporters.

Fueling this trend of know-it-all arrogance is the oft-cited polarization of the American people, encouraged by our use of technology. The internet didn’t create this polarization, but it does speed it up. That’s partly because the analytics that drive the internet don’t just get us more information; they get us more of the information we want.

Everything from the ads we read to the political news in our Facebook feed is tailored to our preferences. That’s incredibly useful for buying shoes and finding good restaurants. It is easier than ever to get and share information, but the information we get often reflects ourselves as much as it does anything else. Less noticed is that this has an effect not only on how we regard others, but on how we regard ourselves.

One way the internet distorts our picture of ourselves is by feeding the human tendency to overestimate our knowledge of how the world works. Most of us know what it’s like to think we remember more from high-school physics or history than we actually do. As the cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach have detailed recently, such overestimation extends farther than you might think: Ask yourself whether you can really explain how a toilet or a zipper works, and you may find yourself surprisingly stumped. You assume you know how things work when you often don’t know at all.

This sort of ignorance is partly due to the fact that human beings aren’t isolated knowing machines. We live in an economy of knowledge that distributes cognitive and epistemic labor among specialists. That’s a good thing — no one person can know everything, or even very much. But put all the doctors, scientists, mechanics, and plumbers together, and we collectively know quite a bit.

Yet this often means we blur the line between what’s inside our heads and what’s not. Some philosophers have argued that this blurring is actually justified because knowing itself is often an extended process, distributed in space. When I know something because of your expert testimony — say, that my car’s alternator is broken — what I know is partly in your head and partly in mine. If that’s right, then living in a knowledge economy literally increases my knowledge because knowing is not just an individual phenomenon.

Suppose this extended, distributed picture of knowledge is right. Add the personalized internet, with its carefully curated social-media feeds and individualized search results, and you get not one knowledge economy, but many different ones, each bounded by different assumptions of which sources you can trust and what counts as evidence and what doesn’t. The result is not only an explosion of overconfidence in what you individually understand but an active encouragement of epistemic arrogance. The Internet of Us becomes one big reinforcement mechanism, getting us all the information we are already biased to believe, and encouraging us to regard those in other bubbles as misinformed miscreants. We know it all — the internet tells us so.

Ideology plays a significant role here. We know people disagree with us on a range of issues, from climate change to taxes to vaccines. Indeed, we disagree on so much that it can seem, as one political commentator recently put it, that there are no facts anymore. That’s a way of expressing a seductive line of thought: There just is no way of escaping your perspective or biases. Every time you try to get outside of your own perspective, you just get more information filtered through your own perspective. As a consequence, objective truth is just irrelevant — either we’ll never know it or it doesn’t exist in the first place.

This is an old philosophical idea. The Greek philosopher Protagoras expressed it by saying “man is the measure of all things.” That can seem liberating — we all get to invent our own truth! And it has certainly had its fair share of contemporary supporters. Academe, in particular, has been complicit in devaluing objective truth and in the subsequent rise of intellectual arrogance. The postmodernist generation of humanists (and I am one of them) grew up in the 80s and 90s distrusting metanarratives and the very idea of objectivity. But while these movements rightly made us aware of how the implicit lines of institutional, gendered, and racial power affect what passes for truth in a society, they were sometimes taken further to encourage a complete — and often incoherent — rejection of the idea that anything is true (except that rejection itself apparently).

Skepticism about truth is really more self-rationalization than good philosophy. It protects our biases and discourages us from trying to see ourselves as who we really are. More than that, a rejection of objective truth invites despotism simply because it collapses truth into whatever those in power allow to pass for truth in your bubble. And once that is accepted, then the very idea of speaking truth to power becomes moot. You can’t speak truth to power when power speaks truth by definition.

Our cultural embrace of epistemic or intellectual arrogance is the result of a toxic mix of technology, psychology, and ideology. To combat it, we have to reconnect with some basic values, including ones that philosophers have long thought were essential both to serious intellectual endeavors and to politics.

One of those ideas, as I just noted, is belief in objective truth. But another, less-noted concept is intellectual humility. By intellectual humility, I refer to a cluster of attitudes that we can take toward ourselves — recognizing your own fallibility, realizing that you don’t really know as much as you think, and owning your limitations and biases.

But being intellectually humble also means taking an active stance. It means seeing your worldview as open to improvement by the evidence and experience of other people. Being open to improvement is more than just being open to change. And it isn’t just a matter of self-improvement — using your genius to know even more. It is a matter of seeing your view as capable of improvement because of what others contribute.

Intellectual humility is not the same as skepticism. Improving your knowledge must start from a basis of rational conviction. That conviction allows you to know when to stop inquiring, when to realize that you know enough — that the earth really is round, the climate is warming, the Holocaust happened, and so on. That, of course, is tricky, and many a mistake in science and politics have been made because someone stopped inquiring before they should have. Hence the emphasis on evidence; being intellectually humble requires being responsive to the actual evidence, not to flights of fancy or conspiracy theories.

In a democracy, intellectual humility as I’ve defined it is most important for those in power, be it political power or a more diffuse but wide-ranging cultural power. That’s partly what makes institutions that encourage and protect rational dissent — like a free press and academic freedom — of such crucial importance. It is not just, as John Stuart Mill argued, that free inquiry is apt to see truth win out in the end — an overly optimistic view, I’ve always thought — but the fact that researchers can pursue lines of inquiry even if they make those in power uncomfortable. Such institutions, at their best, encourage the pursuit of truth via evidence — and as such, they have the potential to remind us that power, and our own bubbles, are not the measure of all things.

Yet institutional protections themselves are not quite enough. We need to incorporate intellectual humility — what John Dewey called the “scientific attitude” — as a cultural norm. “Merely legal guarantees of the civil liberties of free belief, free expression, free assembly are of little avail,” Dewey noted, “if in daily life freedom of communication, the give and take of ideas, facts, experiences, is choked by mutual suspicion, by abuse, by fear and hatred.”

Dewey knew that democracies can’t function if their citizens don’t have conviction — an apathetic electorate is no electorate at all. But our democracy also can’t function if we don’t seek, at least some of the time, to inhabit a common space where we can listen to each other and trade reasons back and forth. And that’s one reason that teaching our students the value of empathy, of reasons and dialogue, and the value and nature of evidence itself, is crucial — in fact, now more than ever. Encouraging evidential epistemologies helps combat intellectual arrogance.

Overcoming toxic arrogance is not easy, and our present political moment is not making it any easier. But if we want to live in a tolerant society where we are not only open-minded but willing to learn from others, we need to balance humility and conviction. We can start by looking past ourselves — and admitting that we don’t know it all.

TED Talk from Director of UConn’s Humanities Institute

Published on Ted.com, Filmed April, 2017

Michael Patrick Lynch

The more we read and watch online, the harder it becomes to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake. It’s as if we know more but understand less, says philosopher Michael Patrick Lynch. In this talk, he dares us to take active steps to burst our filter bubbles and participate in the common reality that actually underpins everything.

A transcript of this speech can be found here: Michael Patrick Lynch: How to see past your own perspective and find truth

Dr. Jeffrey Fisher Retirement Announcement

Dear Colleagues

I am writing to let you know that Dr. Jeffrey Fisher has recently informed me that he plans to retire from his position as Director of UConn’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) next summer (August 22, 2018). This comes after almost 43 years of dedicated service as an esteemed faculty member at the University of Connecticut and as a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Psychological Sciences.

As a researcher, Dr. Fisher has published extensively in many areas in the field of health behavior change, including theory development and intervention design, implementation, evaluation and dissemination. He is one of the pioneers who helped define the field of HIV prevention intervention science and practice. He is the lead-author of the Information-Motivation-Behavioral Skills (IMB) model, which has been widely adopted around the world for conceptual and intervention work on health behavior change.  The interventions Dr. Fisher and his team developed have proven to be efficacious in multiple populations around the world, and in multiple health domains, with an emphasis on HIV prevention.  His work has also focused on increasing adherence to medications, an area in which he has published conceptual and intervention research. Dr. Fisher has been PI of over $25 million in NIH grants at UConn over a period of 25 years.

Along with his illustrious research career, Dr. Fisher is the founding Director of UConn’s Institute for Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP). InCHIP research has had a global impact in a variety of health domains, including HIV/AIDS, obesity, cancer, autism, and others. Thanks in large part to Dr. Fisher’s leadership, InCHIP has grown significantly over the last 16 years, from $1.4M in annual research spending in 2003 to $12M today. As the nexus of a vast network of researchers, InCHIP’s reach spans several UConn campuses and UConn Health and draws from more than 50 other research institutions both nationally and internationally. In FY17 alone, InCHIP had $55.5 million in active grants and total membership of 419 faculty/researcher affiliates. Since its inception, InCHIP researchers have brought over $140 million in new grants to UConn.

The university will conduct a national search for a new director of InCHIP. Additional information regarding the search will be forthcoming.

Please join me in thanking Dr. Fisher for his extraordinary service to the University of Connecticut, his outstanding contributions to the field of health behavior change and intervention research, and his dedicated mentorship of many graduate students and faculty, as well as his engagement with community leaders and policy makers to advance health promotion and intervention initiatives globally. We wish him well in his retirement.

Sincerely,

Jeff Seemann
Vice President for Research
UConn/UConn Health

OVPR Quarterly Reports

May 11, 2017

Dear Colleagues,

I am pleased to provide you with several reports relating to sponsored program activity—both research and education/service—managed by Sponsored Program Services within the Office of the Vice President for Research at UConn and UConn Health. These reports include:

In the reports, data is presented in two ways: by the PI’s Academic Home Department and by the Managing Department or Center/Institute. Please refer to the first pages of the reports for definitions and information regarding the data.

Should you have any questions regarding these quarterly reports, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,


Dr. Jeff Seemann
Vice President for Research
UConn/UConn Health

Mystic Aquarium Gets Federal Grant To Help Train UConn Marine Biologists

Published in the Hartford Courant / May 3, 2017

Gregory B. Hladky

The Mystic Aquarium is receiving a $241,030 federal grant to help train University of Connecticut students in critical marine biology issues that include climate change, ocean acidification and other aquatic ecosystem issues.

The grant is coming from the National Science Foundation and will be used in a partnership program between the Mystic Aquarium and the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2, said the grant will enable the educational partnership to give eight UConn students “a hands-on, immersive experience in preserving our oceans.”

“The fight against climate change and other environmental damage to our oceans is a critical effort,” Courtney said in praising the program for helping to train “the next generation of marine biologists and conservationists.”

UConn Innovation Fund Provides First Round Funding to Three Biotech Startups

Storrs, Conn. – April 20, 2017The University of Connecticut, in partnership with Connecticut Innovations (CI) and Webster Bank, today announced first round funding to three startups through the UConn Innovation Fund. The $1.5 million UConn Innovation Fund was established to provide early-stage financial support to new business startups affiliated with UConn.

The UConn Innovation Fund provides investments of up to $100,000 to companies founded by students, faculty members, and alumni of the university with an in-state business startup tied to research, advanced technologies, or innovations developed at UConn.

The companies receiving first-round funding are:

  • Torigen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. is a startup housed in UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) that is focused on providing veterinary cancer care solutions for companion animals using the animals’ existing tumor cells to fight the disease.
  • Bioarray Genetics, Inc. is a molecular diagnostics company focused on changing the way that cancer patients are evaluated and treated with tests that predict patient response to cancer treatments. Bioarray is housed at UConn’s Technology Incubation Program facility at UConn Health in Farmington.
  • Shoreline Biome, LLC. is another UConn TIP company that is focused on understanding how the human microbiome functions across the entire landscape of human health and disease.

“In the first round of funding, we identified three exceptional companies that all have ties to the university,” said Jeff Seemann, vice president for research at UConn. “UConn continues to be a center of innovation, and we look forward to supporting and catalyzing more promising startups in the future to continue to create new companies, new jobs, and economic growth in the state.”

The UConn Innovation Fund serves as a critical early-stage revenue stream for in-state business startups that will allow them to stay in Connecticut and grow. The fund’s investors review a company’s strength and existing resources, innovative technology, potential for commercialization, and likelihood of obtaining additional external funding among other factors. All investment decisions are made by a unanimous vote from UConn, CI, and Webster Bank.

“We look forward to supporting these startups with the resources to help them bring their products closer to commercialization,” said Matt McCooe, CEO of Connecticut Innovations. “We know how difficult it can be to grow a company at the earliest stages of development and this funding can help companies overcome some of those first hurdles.”

The fund is managed by the UConn Evaluation Board, fund managers, and an investment committee comprised of representatives from UConn, CI, and Webster Bank. The fund permits Connecticut Innovations—the leading source of financing and ongoing support for Connecticut’s innovative, growing companies—to continue its support of new business startups established through UConn. Webster Bank provides the key financial and banking expertise needed to help new companies grow.

“We are pleased to support Connecticut-based entrepreneurs in their efforts to bring exciting biotech innovations to market,” said Peter Hicks, senior vice president of the emerging growth banking group at Webster Bank.

The next deadline for applications is July 14, 2017.  Businesses interested in learning more about the fund should go to: innovationfund.uconn.edu.

About the University of Connecticut
The University of Connecticut is one of the top 25 public research universities in the nation and is a research leader in the fields of advanced materials, additive manufacturing, biomedical devices, cybersecurity, energy, life sciences, sensors, and nanotechnology.  As Connecticut’s flagship institution of higher education, UConn serves as an important resource for Connecticut economic development and is dedicated to building collaborations with industry and entrepreneurs. To learn more, visit innovation.uconn.edu.

About Connecticut Innovations
Connecticut Innovations (CI) is the leading source of financing and ongoing support for Connecticut’s innovative, growing companies. CI provides venture capital and strategic support for early-stage technology companies; grants that support innovation and collaboration; and connections to its well-established network of partners and professionals. For more information, please visit www.ctinnovations.com.

About Webster Bank
Webster Financial Corporation is the holding company for Webster Bank, National Association. With $26.1 billion in assets, Webster provides business and consumer banking, mortgage, financial planning, trust, and investment services through 168 banking centers and 349 ATMs. Webster also provides mobile and Internet banking. Webster Bank owns the asset-based lending firm Webster Business Credit Corporation; the equipment finance firm Webster Capital Finance Corporation; and HSA Bank, a division of Webster Bank, which provides health savings account trustee and administrative services. Webster Bank is a member of the FDIC and an equal housing lender. For more information about Webster, including past press releases and the latest annual report, visit the Webster website at www.websterbank.com.

UConn Incubator Companies Raise $39.9 Million in 2016

Farmington, Conn. – April 17, 2017 – The University of Connecticut, today announced record growth in 2016 for the University’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP). TIP was established in 2004 to accelerate the growth of technology-based startups with a strong connection to the University of Connecticut.

TIP companies raised record investments in 2016. Last year TIP startups attracted a record $39.9 million in debt and equity to accelerate the growth of their operations. This is $15.5 million more than the previous record set in 2014.

TIP facility in Farmington, CT at UConn Health
TIP facility in Farmington, CT at UConn Health (UConn Photo/J. Gelineau)

Under the umbrella of UConn’s Office of the Vice President for Research, TIP supports UConn startups as well as innovative external technology ventures. Outside startups conduct R&D activities in Connecticut and benefit from UConn’s research infrastructure, specialized equipment, customized business support services and talent pool.

“The unprecedented state support from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for the Bioscience CT initiative is bearing fruit in the University of Connecticut Technology Incubation Program,” said Jeff Seemann, Ph.D., UConn/UConn Health vice president for research. “Instead of going to Boston or New York, these companies choose to stay in Connecticut to grow their companies, create jobs, and benefit society with their cutting-edge advances.”

Several TIP companies raised significant investments from debt and equity in 2016, contributing to the program’s record setting total.

Agrivida, an agritech company focused on animal nutrition, had the most substantial raise with $21 million in Series E funding. The funds will be used to advance the commercialization of Agrivida’s patented GRAINZYME® feed additive enzymes for use with poultry and swine, and to support product development for dairy and beef cattle.

“Being a part of UConn’s incubator has helped us meet significant milestones for our company,” said Dan Meagher, CEO of Agrivida. “We are looking forward to delivering on our promise to improve the production efficiency of meat, milk, and eggs to help address the growing global demand for food.”

Frequency Therapeutics successfully raised $9.1 million in 2016, and recently announced a $32 million Series A financing, to continue developing a drug-based therapy to restore hearing in individuals with hearing loss caused by continuous exposure to loud noises. Frequency is applying its proprietary platform, called Progenitor Cell Activation (PCA™), to regenerate inner ear sensory hair cells, which detect sound and transmit signals to the brain. Per the World Health Organization (WHO), 360 million people worldwide have moderate or worse hearing loss, with an additional 1.1 billion people at risk for hearing loss from recreational noise alone.

“Frequency’s scientific team, based at TIP at UConn Health, played an important role in supporting the development of the company’s PCA platform to restore healthy tissue in the body,” said Bob Langer, Ph.D., the David H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of Frequency Therapeutics. “We greatly appreciate the ongoing support from TIP as Frequency advances its program for chronic noise-induced hearing loss and looks to expand into additional therapeutic indications.”

Diameter Health, a healthcare software company that helps providers analyze data from their electronic health records more effectively, raised $2.3 million; and CaroGen Corporation, an emerging vaccine immunotherapy company, raised $2 million.

UConn researchers working in the lab
Kepeng Wang, assistant professor of immunology, right, with Kasandra Rodriguez, a research associate at CaroGen Corporation’s technology incubation lab in Farmington onDec. 12, 2016. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

According to Bijan Almassian, CEO of CaroGen Corporation, the TIP location provides a beneficial vantage point to meet and acquire the talent and expertise needed to conduct R&D operations to grow his company. “The powerful combination of faculty expertise, student and graduate hires, and seasoned industry scientists from across the state give us access to the full array of capabilities that are enabling our progress,” Almassian said.

UConn’s Technology Incubation Program continues to outperform other technology incubators, both in Connecticut and nationally. According to the latest National Business Incubation Association survey data, in 2016 UConn’s incubator was 12,000 square feet larger and housed 62% more startups than that national average. TIP companies raised $39.5 million dollars more in capital investments than the Connecticut average, as reported in the latest Connecticut Business Incubator Network survey.

“TIP is an established program in Connecticut that is known to improve the likelihood of startup success,” said Mostafa Analoui, Ph.D., executive director of venture development and TIP at UConn. “We are pleased with the growth we experienced in 2016, and hope to keep up this momentum.”

Analoui was hired in last year to lead UConn’s efforts to identify disruptive technologies that are ripe for venture development, recruit entrepreneurs and talent to lead these startups, and raise early-stage and follow-on funding to grow these companies.

In January 2016, a $19 million expansion at the TIP facility in Farmington at UConn Health was completed. Paid for through the state of Connecticut’s landmark Bioscience CT initiative, the addition increased total square footage by 20,000 square feet. The program now boasts over 32,000 square feet of high-tech wet labs and office space at its two major locations in Storrs and Farmington.

The extra space has allowed TIP to accept more technology startups into the program. In 2016, TIP was home to 33 companies – the most in the program’s history.

TIP companies contributed to economic development in the state through increased job creation. At the end of 2016, TIP companies employed 71 full-time and 30 part-time employees. This compares with the state average of 27 full- and part-time employees at other incubators in Connecticut.

More than 85 startup companies have been supported through TIP since it was established in 2004. These companies have raised more than $50 million in grant funding, $80 million in debt and equity, and more than $45 million in revenue during that time.

For more information about the UConn Technology Incubation Program, call 860-679-3992 or visit innovation.uconn.edu.

 

MEDIA CONTACT:

Jessica McBride
Office of the Vice President for Research
860-486-5813
jessica.mcbride@uconn.edu

Topaz Elements Upgrade – System Unavailable

May 4, 2017 5:00 PM – May 8, 2017 8:00 AM

Updated: April 26, 2017

System Upgrade Planned:
The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), Research IT Services will be working with Topaz Technologies to upgrade the Topaz Elements Animal Protocol and Animal Ordering system to version 3.3 beginning Thursday, May 4, 2017 at 5:00 PM and continuing over the weekend. Service is expected to be restored by Monday, May 8, 2017 at 8:00 AM. The planned upgrade is to improve performance, correct bugs encountered in prior versions of the software, and roll out new features and functionality that have become available since the release of our current version.

Effect on Services:
During the planned outage, users will not be able to login to the system to view, edit, submit, or review animal protocols and orders.

User Required Actions:
Users should save all work and log out of the system prior to the above maintenance window. Users will be able to resume normal use of Topaz Elements upon resumption of service once the maintenance period ends.

If you have questions, please contact the Office of the Vice President for Research eRA Help Desk at era-support@uconn.edu or 860-486-7944.

Sincerely,

eRA Help Desk
Office of the Vice President for Research
Research IT Services
University of Connecticut

UConn Health InfoEd System Unavailable: 5/5 – 5/7/17

May 4, 2017 7:00 PM – May 8, 2017 8:00 AM

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), Research IT Services would like to notify researchers and administrators that the UConn Health InfoEd portal serving sponsored proposals for the Farmington campus and technology transfer cases will be offline for maintenance between 7:00 PM, Thursday May 4, 2017 and 8:00 AM, Monday May 8, 2017. The database that services the UConn Health system will be moving from the OVPR’s server to be hosted by University IT Services (UITS). The move is necessary to replace database hardware that is approaching its end of life. It is also an interim step for a planned upgrade of the UConn Health InfoEd system later this summer.

During the planned outage period, access to the UConn Health InfoEd portal will be unavailable. Users will not be able to login, create, modify, or view proposals and technology transfer disclosures, cases, protection filings, or agreements. Once service is restored, users will be able to login and interact with the system normally.

We appreciate your understanding and cooperation as we conduct this necessary move. Should you have any questions, please contact the eRA Help Desk at era-support@uconn.edu or 860-486-7944.

Elimination of Graduate Research Assistant Tuition on Grants

April 4, 2017

 

Dear Colleagues:

In our continuing effort to reduce the costs of research at UConn and UConn Health, we are eliminating the requirement to charge any portion of graduate research assistant tuition to research grants, effective Spring 2017.

From 2009 to 2016, University policy required that 60% of full-time in-state tuition per graduate assistant be charged to external grants funding faculty members’ research projects. In Fiscal Year 2016, we reduced the impact of this policy on grant funds by returning an amount equal to half of the tuition collected from grants to faculty investigators’ indirect cost return accounts.

Beginning with charges for the Spring 2017 semester, faculty will no longer be required to charge any portion of graduate research assistant tuition to their grants. Faculty will also no longer be required to include [tuition] charges for graduate research assistants on future grant applications, thus increasing their competitiveness with funding agencies. Savings from graduate research assistant tuition charges can now be applied toward other direct cost needs for faculty research projects. This applies to all sponsored projects, including those being conducted at UConn Health.

Researchers with existing grants or grant applications that include graduate research assistant tuition for Spring 2017 and beyond should rebudget those dollars into other direct cost items, at their discretion within sponsor specific rules. For questions or to request assistance with the rebudgeting process, please reach out to your department grant administrator or your regular contact person in Sponsored Program Services within the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Although this is another positive step towards increasing the buying power of grants for our faculty, we recognize that it does not directly address a major concern contributing to the high cost of doing research at UConn and UConn Health: very high fringe rates relative to our peers and aspirants. While these rates are controlled by the state, we will continue to seek solutions for this important issue.

Despite significant financial constraints, we will continue to pursue creative solutions to decrease the cost of doing research at UConn and UConn Health. Some of the recent initiatives to accomplish this include: providing financial support to PIs impacted by large increases in fringe rates in 2016, establishing direct IDC returns to PIs for the first time at UConn Health, non-research IDC returns for the first time in Storrs, and supporting the NIH-driven increase in minimum salaries for postdoctoral fellows.

Thank you for your continued contributions to UConn/UConn Health’s success as a leading research institution. We look forward to supporting you in your future research activities.

Sincerely,

Dr. Jeff Seemann
Vice President for Research UConn/UConn Health
Dr. Jeremy Teitelbaum
Interim Provost & Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs
Scott Jordan
Executive Vice President for Administration &
Chief Financial Officer

Crossing the River to Find Healthcare Solutions

Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

Kourosh Parham, MD, Ph.D. has come up with a blood test that can detect hearing loss far sooner than existing tests.  Early detection can potentially prevent further hearing loss, Parham told a group of medical practitioners, faculty and students from engineering, business, medicine and other UConn graduate programs at Healthcare Solutions Night, held recently at UConn Health.

Many people suffer from hearing loss, but hearing tests are limited and fail to capture the full range of hearing, he said. Researchers are working on medications to prevent further hearing damage – once it has been detected. But, at this point, he can’t give patients their test results until he has 90 blood samples to test at once. He was seeking someone to help him find a way to test blood samples individually.

As soon as he finished his presentation, people in the audience suggested ideas and offered to collaborate.

A biodegradable force sensor developed by Dr. Thanh Duc Nguyen from the Department of Mechanical Engineering
A biodegradable force sensor developed by Dr. Thanh Duc Nguyen from the Department of Mechanical Engineering

Parham was one of five clinicians and researchers at the recent cross-pollination event aimed at developing solutions to pressing health-care problems. He and the other presenters had devised a potential solution to a problem and came hoping others with different skills could help bring the ideas to market. In addition, Thanh Duc Nguyen, Ph.D., a member of the department of mechanical engineering who invented an implantable, dissolvable sensor, was looking to partner with clinicians who could apply his biodegradable sensor to their practice. He knew he had a great idea, but needed to demonstrate its ability to positively impact medical conditions.

Teams that formed during the team-building portion of the event will compete for two $1,500 Healthcare Solutions Seed Grants offered through the Accelerate UConn program. Accelerate UConn is a joint operation of the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. Accelerate UConn’s goal is to build and support cross-disciplinary teams that improve the likelihood of commercial success of UConn technologies. The funds are intended to help the winning teams begin working together and prepare for future competitions where they can win additional funding and business development support.

“Sometimes you get unexpected solutions when you mix the crowd together,” said Mostafa Analoui, Ph.D. executive director of Venture Development, Office of the Vice President for Research and the evening’s host.  Anne Diamond, CEO of UConn John Dempsey Hospital and Dr. Bruce Liang, dean of the School of Medicine, welcomed and encouraged the attendees, a mixture of medical students, graduate students, faculty and clinicians.  “This is a great way to spur an accelerated effort to commercialize academic research,” Liang said.

The other presenters were Dr. Santhanam Lakshminarayanan, Division of Rheumatology; Dr. Joel Levine, Colon Cancer Prevention Program; Dr. Courtney Townsel, Department of Maternal-Fetal Medicine; and Heather Spear, M.S.N., A.P.R.N., Department of Psychiatry.

Dr. Courtney Townsel is a Maternal Fetal MedicineFellow at UConn. She is developing a non-invasive treatment for cervical cerclage. (Janine Gelineau/UConn Photo).
Dr. Courtney Townsel is a Maternal Fetal MedicineFellow at UConn. She is developing a non-invasive treatment for cervical cerclage. (Janine Gelineau/UConn Photo).

After Parham and other presenters explained their concepts, attendees from the various disciplines were invited to approach whichever presenter they felt they could help, given their various disciplinary expertise or interest. Evan R. Jellison, Ph.D., assistant professor, immunology, who runs the Flow Cytometry lab at UConn Health, met with Parham to discuss ideas for an alternate, more efficient and individualized blood test method.

“We are planning to apply for the Healthcare Solutions Seed Grant to fund our collaboration,” Parham said following the meeting.

Another presenter, psychiatric nurse Heather Spear, held her son’s teddy bear while explaining her idea for a device that could be imbedded into a stuffed animal to help sooth delirious patients. She outlined the problem faced in hospitals nationwide, pointing out that as Baby Boomers age, the challenge will snowball.

More than 40 percent of the patients admitted to UConn John Dempsey Hospital are over 65, and nationally, about 35 percent of admitted patients are at least age 65.  About 10 to 31 percent of patients 65 and older come to hospitals in a state of delirium, said Spear, a leader in the NICHE (Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders) program at UConn Health. Once they arrive, another 11 to 42 percent develop delirium.

As a result, these patients’ hospital stays are prolonged, increasing their risk of infection, decline, continued confusion and death. These factors lead to increased costs and decreased quality of life.

Spear hopes to create a hospital-acceptable bear that has a four-quadrant, digital panel imbedded in its belly. When patients touch the bear, whether intentionally or accidently, they would see and hear either a video of a loved one, the date and time, video clips of TV shows from their younger years or music from their youth. The bear has to withstand being thrown, since delirious patients can become agitated, anxious or disoriented.

During the team-building portion of the event, electrical engineer Insoo Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of medicine at the UConn Health, offered Spear new ideas to advance her product’s development. “The solution to your idea is a software design rather than a device,” he said with confidence. “We can program the tablet. A student can write an app.”

“To me, it was rocket science,” she said later. “I was thinking, ‘This is exactly why I came to this event.’ ”

She’s had this idea for a few years, but jumped on the chance to present it to colleagues with different skills, she said.

“I was somewhat nervous, but I knew that I only had to present what I know,” Spear said. “It was a very welcoming audience. They’re there because they want to be there. They’re hoping to hear something they can jump in on and invent and make.”

It was comforting to see a few other nurses in the audience, she said. She wasn’t sure her idea would gain any traction and was thrilled at the response. Other nurses who work with dementia patients felt it would help their patients who experience memory loss.

Kim invited Spear to attend the Senior Design Pitch Day on March 27, where third-year biomedical engineering students hear about different ideas that they could work on for their senior design projects. Energized, she’s working on her application for the Healthcare Solutions Seed Grant offered through the Accelerate UConn program.

Accelerate UConn is the University’s National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Site. Its mission is to bring scientific discoveries and capabilities from the lab to the marketplace.  Participating teams receive $3,000 in seed funding for their new ventures and an introduction to the most critical elements of the I-Corps Curriculum and Lean Launchpad methodology. Over seven weeks, teams learn how to assess the market opportunity for their product or technology.

Each workshop provides hands-on training in the basics of business planning and is delivered by entrepreneurs and faculty members. These coaches provide personalized guidance and feedback to help teams construct an evidence-based business model and market-entry strategy.  Participating teams also receive $3,000 in seed funding for their ventures. Accelerate UConn is open to all university faculty and students.  For more information, visit www.accelerate.uconn.edu.

OVPR Research Compliance News

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) Research Compliance Services group would like to share some important updates with the research community at UConn Health.

Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC):
A new IACUC policy (effective 2/23/17) requires documentation of veterinary consultation prior to submission of animal care and use protocols if painful/distressful procedures (pain categories D and or E) will be used.  The IACUC also recently updated its policy on expiration dates for drug mixtures used in laboratory animals.  Click here to view the updated policy.

 

Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC):
The IBC is in the process of implementing new IBC training for researchers through the CITI training program. Researchers will be notified by the IBC in the next few months to take this online training. Please stay tuned.

 

Institutional Review Board (IRB):
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and fifteen other Federal Departments and Agencies have issued final revisions to the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects (the Common Rule). The Final Rule was published in the Federal Register on January 19, 2017.  Some of the changes encompassed within the revised Rule include 1) an expansion of categories of research that may be exempt, 2) elimination of the need for continuing review for research that qualifies for expedited review and for research that has reached the stage of long-term follow-up or data analysis, 3) a broad-consent provision relating to the storage and use of data and specimens in secondary research and 4) additional requirements regarding the consent form.  The compliance date for most of the revisions within the Rule is January 18, 2018.  The compliance date for use of a single IRB for cooperative research is January 18, 2020.  Staff within the Human Research Protections Programs (HSPP) at UConn Health will be revising policies and procedures and offering educational sessions related to these changes.  The research community should continue to follow current policies and procedures until the HSPP publishes revised documents.

 

 ClinicalTrials.gov:
The new NIH Policy on the Dissemination of NIH-Funded Clinical Trial Information covers all applications for funding (including grants, contracts, and other transactions) submitted on or after January 18, 2017 that request support for the conduct of any clinical trial. Studies that are wholly or in part funded by NIH grants submitted on or after this date must be registered and results must be reported on ClinicalTrials.gov.

NIH defines a clinical trial as a research study in which one or more human subjects are prospectively assigned to one or more interventions (which may include placebo or other control) to evaluate the effects of those interventions on health-related biomedical or behavioral outcomes. Health-related biomedical or behavioral outcome is defined as the pre-specified goal(s) or condition(s) that reflect the effect of one or more interventions on human subjects’ biomedical or behavioral status or quality of life.

Click here for assistance with ClinicalTrials.gov registration.

 

Financial Conflict of Interest in Research Committee (FCOI):
The 2017 Individual Financial Disclosure in Research reporting period started February 8, 2017. In order to remain in compliance with university policy and federal regulations, UConn Health employees who are involved in research are required to complete an annual questionnaire in the UConn Health COI-SMART electronic disclosure system. The deadline to complete is April 30, 2017. We recommend, however, that you submit your disclosure well before the deadline because this process must be completed prior to the institution submitting any grant applications to DHHS agencies on your behalf.  The setup of new and continuation awards will also be delayed until you are in compliance.

If you did not receive an automated e-mail invitation to complete the questionnaire and believe you need to complete the form, or if you have any questions regarding the form or the disclosure requirements, please contact Dr. Gus Fernandez-Wolff in the Office of the Vice President for Research, Research Compliance Services at x8125 or gfernandez@uchc.edu.

 

 

Research IT System Maintenance on March 5, 2017

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), Research IT Services will be performing network maintenance in our data center on Sunday, March 5, 2017, from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM.

Effect on Services:

During the planned outage, users will not be able to login or interact with the following information systems:

  • InfoEd for UConn Health – All modules including Proposals and Technology Transfer
  • InfoEd for Storrs/Regional Campuses – All modules including Proposals, Human Subjects/IRB, Lab Animal Protocols/IACUC, and Financial Conflict of Interest
  • Effort Reporting and Commitments (ERC) System for UConn Storrs/Regional Campuses
  • Web applications on secure.vprge.uconn.edu including Faculty Travel Funding Request Form, SPS Pre- and Post-Award Dashboards, Current & Pending Support, FFATA and RCR Reporting
  • Internal Funding System
  • eRA Help Desk Self Service Portal and Request Tracker System
  • FileMaker server and associated applications including the UConn-Storrs Environmental Health & Safety Lab Inspection System
  • OVPR Departmental File Share
  • Other OVPR hosted applications

User Required Actions:

Users should save all work and log out of the affected systems listed above prior to the maintenance window.

Users will be able to resume their usage of the system upon resumption of service.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. If you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact the Office of the Vice President for Research eRA Help Desk at era-support@uconn.edu or 860-486-7944.

Sincerely,

eRA Help Desk
Office of the Vice President for Research
Research IT Services

Accelerate UConn Spring 2017 Winners Announced

Accelerate UConn, an NSF I-Corps Site to move technologies more quickly and successfully from the lab to the market
Accelerate UConn, an NSF I-Corps Site to move technologies more quickly and successfully from the lab to the market

Dr. Jeff Seemann, UConn/UConn Health Vice President for Research, and Dr. Timothy B. Folta, Professor of Management and Faculty Director of the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, are pleased to announce the teams selected to participate in the Spring cohort of Accelerate UConn, the University’s National Science Foundation I-Corps site. The following teams will receive special training and a $3,000 seed grant to help understand whether and how their technology might create customer value:

  • Dr. Abhishek Dutta, Ashwini Srishyla & Alexei Sondergeld (Faculty & Graduate Students), Drought Water Generator, School of Engineering, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Dr. Sandra Weller, Dr. Dennis Wright & Dr. Lorry Grady (Faculty & Postdoctoral Fellow), Small Molecule Inhibitors, Schools of Medicine & Pharmacy, Departments of Molecular Biology & Biophysics and Pharmaceutical Sciences
  • Dong Yu & Susan Jacob (Graduate Students), High Rate BioGas Conditioning, School of Business, MBA Program
  • Katie Boyle (Faculty), Novel Underarm Scrub, Center for Public Health & Health Policy
  • Caseem Ward (Undergraduate Student), Project Mobo, School of Business
  • Dr. David Han, Dr. Poornima Hegde & Veneta Qendro (Faculty & Graduate Student), Therapeutic Antibodies for Triple Negative Breast Cancer, School of Medicine, Departments of Cell Biology and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
  • Dr. George Lykotrafitis & Kostyantyn Partola (Faculty & Graduate Student) WBV Rheometer Project, School of Engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering
  • Dr. Rampi Ramprasad, Dr. Huan Tran, Chiho Kim & Arun Mannodi Kanakkithodi (Faculty, Postdoctoral Fellows & Graduate Student), Polymer Genome Project, Institute of Materials Science
  • Faizan Khan, Ishita Banerjee & Natalie Miccile (Undergraduate & Graduate Students), Dermatat, Schools of Medicine & Business, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Departments of Mathematics, Physics, Immunology and MBA Program

The program includes seven weeks of intensive training to evaluate their business ideas and conduct customer discovery activities.

In cases where a single faculty member or student was accepted into the program, the AU staff helped identify appropriate Academic or Entrepreneurial Leads or Industry Mentors to round out the team.

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI) jointly operate Accelerate UConn (AU).  As an NSF I-Corps Site program, AU was formed to foster entrepreneurship resulting in technology commercialization.  I-Corps Sites are academic institutions that catalyze the engagement of multiple, local teams in technology transition and strengthen local innovation.

For more information about Accelerate UConn, visit www.accelerate.uconn.edu or email accelerateuconn@uconn.edu

Annual Individual Financial Disclosure in Research

The Office of the Vice President for Research would like to announce that the 2017 Individual Financial Disclosure in Research reporting period has started today. In order to remain in compliance with university policy and federal regulations, UConn Health employees who are involved in research are required to complete an annual questionnaire in the UConn Health COI-SMART electronic disclosure system.

An automated e-mail inviting applicable employees to complete the questionnaire should be in your inbox. The sender name on the e-mail is UConn Health Financial Disclosure in Research.

If you did not receive an automated e-mail invitation and believe you need to complete the form, or if you have any questions regarding the form or the disclosure requirements, please contact Gus Fernandez-Wolff in the Office of the Vice President for Research, Research Compliance Services at x8125 or gfernandez@uchc.edu.

Thank you for your cooperation.

For more information, contact: Gus Fernandez-Wolff at x8125 or gfernandez@uchc.edu

OVPR Quarterly Reports

February 2, 2017

Dear Colleagues,

I am pleased to provide you with several reports relating to sponsored program activity—both research and education/service—managed by Sponsored Program Services within the Office of the Vice President for Research at UConn and UConn Health. These reports include:

In the reports, data is presented in two ways: by the PI’s Academic Home Department and by the Managing Department or Center/Institute. Please refer to the first pages of the reports for definitions and information regarding the data.

Should you have any questions regarding these quarterly reports, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

js_signature

Dr. Jeff Seemann
Vice President for Research
UConn/UConn Health

UConn_research unleashed

Q&A: Bioscience exec aims to boost UConn’s startup backlog

In Hartford Business Journal, February 6, 2017

Mostafa Analoui
Dr. Mostafa Analoui

Q&A talks with Dr. Mostafa Analoui, a life sciences entrepreneur and investment banker, who recently became executive director of venture development at UConn.

Q: You recently joined UConn to help lead efforts to increase venture development activity at the university. What is involved in your new role?

A: The primary goal is to help faculty and student entrepreneurs launch and grow new technology ventures based on the innovative research they conduct at UConn and UConn Health. This includes working with academic and research leaders across all UConn campuses to develop mentoring/educational tools and recruiting outside industry experts, investors and business leaders to participate in new and existing UConn ventures.

This entails collaborating with various entrepreneurship initiatives at the university, leading the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP), and collaborating closely with our technology commercialization team.

Q: What is the Technology Incubation Program?

A: UConn’s Technology Incubation Program, also known as TIP, is the only university-based technology incubator in the state. The program provides high-value technology startups with a suite of business services, state-of-the-art labs, fully-equipped office space, and UConn’s research infrastructure to grow their businesses.

A unique and highly valued aspect of TIP is the access it affords our companies to the extensive R&D capacity at UConn, such as core research facilities and faculty expertise, that is often unattainable for a fledgling startup.

Q: How many companies have come through the TIP program?

A: Since it was established in 2003, TIP has accelerated the growth of over 85 technology startups led by UConn faculty, students, and external entrepreneurs who collaborate with the expert researchers at UConn and UConn Health. These companies have raised more than $50 million in grant funding, $80 million in debt and equity, more than $45 million in revenue, and have created over 100 full- and part-time jobs in the last year alone.

Q: How do you determine which technologies have commercial potential? How do you turn a technology into a successful product or company?

A: The key ingredients for the success of any innovation-based venture are: accurately identifying the market demand; establishing a clear and realistic business plan that covers technology development, finances, strategic partnerships, etc.; and recruiting an experienced team to execute the plan.

As a standard of practice, we rigorously evaluate each innovative concept developed by our faculty to identify potential opportunities, and more importantly, to assist and support them throughout the commercialization process, either through new company formation or licensing. To do this, we depend on internal experts like our licensing directors and industry liaisons, and we also reach out to external contacts from the investment community, other technology-based startups, and successful entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in your new position?

A: What makes venture development at a university unique may also be its greatest challenge. By definition, research institutions are places where discovery and innovation happen daily. There is a constant flux of fresh ideas from great minds. This provides a unique environment where some of the greatest challenges facing our society are being tackled. The mandate for faculty is to educate, explore new ideas, and to further knowledge. They are not expected to know how to start a company or market a technology.

Also, academic research requires a different type of capital to adequately support venture development from university technologies. Ideally, investors want to work with ventures that are close in proximity. This can be challenging for Connecticut-based startups, since there is a limited presence of venture capitalists in the state.

Yet even before this stage, we need to tackle the funding gap that exists between the federally funded research projects and applied R&D activities. To make a technology attractive to investors and partners, it is critical to have data to prove a concept. While there are a few federal programs for applied R&D, they are highly competitive and can take quite some time to access.

Our challenge is to move at a pace that keeps us ahead through easily accessible funding at this very early stage — sometimes even prior to company formation — that will allow us to attract investors and partners.

Q: There are currently 35 companies located at TIP’s two major locations in Storrs and at UConn Health in Farmington. What are the prospects for growth in these sites?

A: Currently our TIP facility at Storrs is fully booked, but we expect some companies to graduate and make room for one or two new companies in the spring of 2017. The number of clients in Farmington has increased quickly since the state invested $19 million through Bioscience Connecticut to expand the facility in Jan. 2016, and we anticipate high-quality companies from UConn, Connecticut, and beyond will fill the remaining space soon.

New Licensing Director for Life Sciences

February 1, 2017

Dear Colleagues,

I am pleased to announce that after an extensive national search, we have selected Dr. Vaibhav Saini to serve as Licensing Director for Life Sciences at UConn and UConn Health, effective immediately.

In this role, Vaibhav will be responsible for managing the evaluation, patenting, and licensing of a portfolio of University inventions in the life sciences. This will include providing support to startup companies affiliated with UConn.

Vaibhav earned his PhD in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. There he developed methods to couple gold nanoparticles to gene therapeutic adenoviruses targeted to tumors. As a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, he identified markers and small molecule inhibitors of osteosarcoma stem cells. Recently, as an Instructor in Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, he demonstrated that vitamin D signaling suppresses lipid pathways in keratinocyte stem cells to prevent alopecia.

Vaibhav also has extensive experience and a keen interest in commercializing life sciences technologies. He has participated in several technology commercialization programs, such as Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School INNoVATETM and a Harvard Innovation and Commercialization course. He interned for a year at Partners HealthCare Innovation in Boston.

Please join me in congratulating Vaibhav on this new appointment and in welcoming him to the University of Connecticut.

Sincerely,

Dr. Gregory Gallo
Director, Technology Transfer
gregory.gallo@uconn.edu

Leading Life Sciences Entrepreneur and Business Leader to Head Technology Incubator, New Venture Development Efforts at UConn

The University of Connecticut today announced that leading life sciences entrepreneur and investment banker, Dr. Mostafa Analoui, will head UConn’s newly launched effort to increase development of new ventures, including UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP), effective immediately.

Mostafa Analoui
Dr. Mostafa Analoui to head UConn’s Technology Incubation Program and new venture development. (UConn Photo/Peter Morenus)

“We are thrilled that a seasoned entrepreneur and business leader like Dr. Analoui is at the helm of UConn’s growing venture development efforts, including the Technology Incubation Program,” said Dr. Jeff Seemann, Vice President for Research at UConn/UConn Health. “UConn’s research and innovation pipeline is a critically important part of economic development in the state. It helps drive Connecticut’s innovation economy by commercializing life-saving technologies, supporting new companies, and creating high-wage jobs.”

In addition to his work with TIP, Dr. Analoui will continue to serve as Executive Director of Venture Development at UConn. He assumed this newly created position in October 2016 and plays a vital role in advancing the University’s efforts to successfully commercialize more of the promising technologies coming out of UConn’s labs. He is also Professor in Residence in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UConn Health.

Dr. Analoui is a respected thought leader for innovation and entrepreneurship. He has extensive experience identifying disruptive technologies, recruiting entrepreneurs to lead startups, and raising early stage and follow-on funding to grow these companies.

Prior to joining UConn, Dr. Analoui served as head of healthcare and life sciences at Livingston Securities, a New York City-based investment bank. He also previously worked at Pfizer Global Research for seven years as global and site head. Dr. Analoui earned a Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Purdue University.

“As a result of his wealth of knowledge and experience, Dr. Analoui understands the challenges of translating research findings into viable commercial opportunities,” said Andrew Zehner, Associate Vice President for Technology Commercialization at UConn/UConn Health. “Dr. Analoui brings a wide range of investment experience and scientific credibility. His ability to execute partnerships that create value for the University and regional stakeholders will strengthen UConn’s existing efforts to catalyze and support promising ventures.”

There are currently 35 companies located at the program’s two major locations in Storrs and at UConn Health in Farmington. TIP companies are commercializing technologies in a variety of fields, such as healthcare software, medical devices, small molecule therapies, vaccine development, diagnostics using the human microbiome, bio-agriculture, and water purification, to name a few.

TIP supports UConn startups as well as innovative external technology ventures. These outside startups conduct R&D activities in Connecticut and benefit from UConn’s research infrastructure, specialized equipment, customized business support services and talent pool.

More than 85 startup companies have been supported through TIP since it was established in 2003. These companies have raised more than $50 million in grant funding, $80 million in debt and equity, and more than $45 million in revenue.

In addition to venture development and incubator space, UConn provides faculty at all campuses with critical technology transfer services, such as securing patent protection for their inventions, licensing their technologies, making industry connections, and business and legal support. Many companies have been formed around UConn technology, but the University also facilitates research collaborations between industry, including new entrepreneurial ventures with internationally recognized faculty experts.

For more information about the UConn Technology Incubation Program or UConn technologies, call 860-679-3992.

UConn startup wins CI funding, opens HQ

Published on The Hartford Business Journal / December 20, 2016

Patricia Daddona

A UConn professor’s startup, which is developing a new type of heart monitor, has opened headquarters in the UConn Technology Incubation Program in Farmington.

Biomedical engineering professor Ki Chon is developing the device so that it can be worn throughout the day as it monitors early signs for an irregular heartbeat. His company, Mobile Sense Technologies, recently received $500,000 in startup funding from Connecticut Innovations, UConn announced Tuesday.

“Atrial fibrillation affects millions of people and leads to thousands of preventable deaths each year,” says Chon. “With the device we’re working to bring to market, we’re hoping to make it much easier to identify early stage atrial fibrillation, which could save a lot of lives and hundreds of millions in health care costs.”

There are currently 6 million people in the United States diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, with many more going undiagnosed. Those people are five times more likely to suffer a stroke than patients without atrial fibrillation, and 33 percent will suffer a life-threatening stroke at some point in their lives.

Most of the strategies currently available to monitor for an irregular heartbeat have drawbacks that make them difficult to use for early detection, Chon said.

“My team has already done much of the work,” he says. “What we’re doing now is bringing everything together into a coherent package.”

Sugar Pine Genome, Transcriptome Offer Glimpse into Evolution of Oversized Genomes

Published on GenomeWeb / December 8, 2016

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – A University of Connecticut and University of California, Davis-led team of researchers has sequenced both the genome and transcriptome of the sugar pine.

In a pair of studies appearing in Genetics and G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics, the researchers report on the 31-billion-basepair genome of Pinus lambertiana Douglas and the transcriptomes of about a dozen of its tissues. With this data, the researchers explored the region harboring a pathogen resistance gene as well as lineage-specific Dicer-like proteins within the sugar pine that may give insight into its oversized genome.

“The recent availability of a draft P. lambertiana genome sequence, coupled with transcriptomics, offers opportunities to study basic questions about the biology of conifers as it relates to genome evolution and gene expression,” UConn’s Jill Wegrzyn and her colleagues wrote in the G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics paper.

The UC Davis researchers first announced last year that they’d sequenced the California sugar pine. It’s one of the world’s tallest trees, reaching 76 meters in height, and may have a lifespan of more than 500 years. In recent decades, though, it has suffered damage from white pine rust, caused by the fungus Cronartium ribicola.

In their Genetics paper, UC Davis’ Charles Langley and his colleagues wrote that to sequence P. lambertiana, they adapted the approach they’d used to sequence the loblolly pine genome. In particular, they used haploid DNA from a single sugar pine megagametophyte to serve as the basis for their assembly, which they then filled in using mate-pair library reads from diploid needle tissue. From this, they generated some 1.9 trillion basepairs, reflecting 62X coverage of the P. lambertiana, which they estimated to be 31 gigabasepairs in size.

Much of the sugar pine genome, though, is repeats. Transposable elements make up 79 percent of the P. lambertiana genome, slightly higher than the 74 percent found in loblolly pine, the researchers reported. Of those transposable elements, two thirds are long terminal repeat retrotransposons. The researchers estimated the median LTR insertion time for P. lambertiana to be 16 million years ago, more recent than that of loblolly.

This high number of repeats and their age gives credence, the researchers said, to the hypothesis that the sugar pine genome, like that of other conifers, got to its massive state by undergoing transposable element expansions.

While sugar pines in general have suffered from C. ribicola damage, some trees have resistance to the fungus. Previous work has mapped a biallelic locus, Cr1R/Cr1r, that confers resistance, and Langley and his colleagues used their newly generated genome sequence to uncover SNPs in association with Cr1R. They uncovered 14 genes annotated on the scaffolds genetically linked to Cr1R, one of which — PILA_lg017786 — stood out to the researchers as a candidate gene as it contains domains typically found in disease-resistance genes.

The researchers noted that being able to use SNP genotyping to uncover resistant trees would speed up reforestation efforts.

Meanwhile, in G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics, UConn’s Wegrzyn and her colleagues reported that they conducted deep sequencing of RNA from tissues representing the tree’s embryo state, female cones nearing pollination, stems, and roots, among others, to generate the sugar pine transcriptome.

The researchers used a combination of Illumina MiSeq, HiSeq, and Pacific Biosciences sequencing to pull together the transcriptome. Overall, they uncovered 278,812 transcripts, 30,839 of which could be functionally annotated.

Because of their role in transposable element proliferation and how that might have influenced the hefty size of conifer genomes, Wegrzyn and her colleagues focused part of their analysis on Dicer-like (DCL) proteins.

Within the P. lambertiana transcriptome, the researchers uncovered 12 transcripts that exhibited similarity to DCLs, six of which were supported by gene models. Through a phylogenetic analysis drawing on conifers, monocots, dicots, and an outgroup, the researchers identified DCLs that the sugar pine shared with other trees as well as DCLs it shared only with other conifers.

In sugar pine, conventional DCL1 transcripts and one DCL4 transcript were found across all samples the researchers analyzed, while the other DCL4 transcripts were found in cones and DCL3 expression was restricted to reproductive tissues. The profiles of conifer-specific DCL1 transcripts, they added, varied: one was barely expressed, one was ubiquitously expressed, and one had a differential profile in reproductive tissues.

“Expression analysis derived from sequencing data further supports a biological role of these variants,” the researchers said in their paper. “The results presented here highlight the peculiarities of this pathway in conifers and identifies similarities with ancient land plants.”

UConn students win tech council’s hackathon

Published on The Hartford Business Journal / December 20, 2016

Patricia Daddona

PHOTO | Contributed
From left, Tyler Dresselhouse, Brandon Loehle, Anthony Dell¹Agli, Matt Fishman and Alexander Thimineur finished in first place at the Connecticut Technology Council’s hackathon competition on Dec. 3. Dresselhouse, Loehle, Fishman and Thimineur are Quinnipiac University students. Dell’Agli is a UConn student.

A team of four Quinnipiac University students and one UConn student placed first at the Connecticut Technology Council’s hackathon competition.

Quinnipiac students Tyler Dresselhouse of East Greenwich, R.I.; Matt Fishman, of Manalapan, N.J.; Brandon Loehle of Farmington; and Alexander Thimineur of Orange joined UConn’s Anthony Dell’Agli to win the competition and earn $5,000 for first prize.

The competition was held Dec. 3 at the Yale School of Management in New Haven. The CTC hosted the top 50 collegiate computer programming students from local colleges and universities for a team competition.

Each team was required to use a public Application Programming Interface (API) to make a piece of useful software. The winning group made a mobile app for Android and IOS that allowed users to search movies and receive easy-to-read review scales.

The hackathon was part of CTC’s ongoing Connecticut Skills Challenge Program, made possible through funding provided by CTNext. This was the second hackathon for the CT Skills Challenge in the past eight months, attracting talented programmers from across the state.

The hackathon included teams from 15 colleges and universities throughout Connecticut. The CTC held qualifying competitions on several campuses, including Quinnipiac’s, and the top 50 students were invited to the hackathon.

Feeling the Heat: The Urban Response to Climate Change

Hartford skyline on a sunny afternoon. (Ultima_Gaina/Getty Images)
Hartford skyline on a sunny afternoon. (Ultima_Gaina/Getty Images)

The inner city neighborhoods of Hartford, Conn. are probably not the first place people think of when they consider the impact of global warming and climate change.

But that doesn’t mean the area is immune.

Climate change is the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century. It is not just about polar bears and melting ice caps. — World Health Organization

Heat tends to get trapped among the closely packed skyscrapers and multistory buildings dotting Hartford’s urban landscape, creating what climatologists refer to as ‘urban heat islands.’ These regions can maintain warmer temperatures two to five degrees higher than rural environments, putting stress on individuals and resources.

The impact can be particularly burdensome on those already struggling with other issues such as poverty, pre-existing health conditions, lack of access to health care, age, pregnancy, or lack of resources.

In response to these concerns, UConn anthropology professor Merrill Singer partnered with Family Life Education, a Hartford-based community service organization, in order to survey low-income residents living in one downtown Hartford neighborhood to gauge their awareness and understanding of climate change.

In a study recently published in the journal Medical Anthropology, Singer concludes that while the primarily Latino residents have a general awareness of climate change, they don’t know sufficient details about the phenomenon, and they have a strong desire to learn more in order to protect and prepare themselves and their families.

“The World Health Organization says climate change is the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century,” says Singer, a medical anthropologist whose research interests include the elimination of health disparities among different populations. “It is not just about polar bears and melting ice caps.”

Because of the heat island effect, cities tend to not only absorb more heat during the day but also retain heat during the night, so city dwellers don’t get a respite from the high temperatures like they might in more rural surroundings. “This can really contribute to health problems,” Singer says. Health concerns can include heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat stroke, and respiratory and cardiac distress.

As temperatures rise, Hartford can expect to encounter hotter days and more frequent heatwaves. In fact, Singer says, it’s already happening. Extended heat waves in Hartford in the summers of 2014 and 2015 prompted city officials to open more than a dozen cooling stations to help residents struggling in the hot weather.

“Climate change is not an issue of the future. It’s started already,” says Singer, who has been working with Hartford’s inner-city Latino community for more than 35 years. “Yet unfortunately, this is not one of the issues that gets communicated.”

There’s a perception that poor people are not going to focus on climate change … But one of our key findings was just to the contrary. — Merrill Singer

In the survey, Hartford residents expressed anxiety and confusion about climate change, and were uncertain about the direct impact it might have on their lives. The residents also expressed a sense of helplessness, believing that climate change was something they could not manage or control.  When asked, they said they would like to learn more about climate change and what is being done locally, so they could protect themselves and their families.

As one resident said, “I would really like it if you could make some pamphlets … some information [available] in Spanish, something that could help us all, not just me … what it is and how it is affecting us. I would be very grateful for that for my daughters, and for the generations that are coming behind us.”

Singer says there’s a widespread misconception that people living in poverty are not interested in climate change: “There’s a perception that poor people are not going to focus on climate change, that it is too obtuse, too vague, and perhaps too much to handle with everything else happening in their lives. But one of our key findings was just to the contrary.

“The people we surveyed were very much aware of it and quite concerned about it,” he continues. “They were particularly concerned with how it might affect their children and, as they are getting older, how it might affect themselves.”

Singer conducted the survey with the help of UConn anthropology graduate student Jose Hasemann and UConn senior Abigail Raynor, an honors student and member of the University’s pre-med program. As a second phase of the project, the team is working on ways to raise community awareness about climate change in Hartford, and increase local residents’ participation in discussions about mitigating the problem. The goal, Singer says, is to develop a workable model that other cities can emulate.

“We have found that the best way to reach people about the adverse effects of climate change is through health concerns,” Singer says. “Health is relevant to everybody and, given the threat to health posed by climate change, it is a real concern.”

This holiday season, think twice before gifting video games

Published on Knowridge / December 19, 2016

Giving a child a video game may not be the best idea, according to addiction expert Nancy Petry at UConn Health.

More than 90 percent of children ages 2 to 17 play video games. For most children, it’s just one of their many activities; but for some video gaming can become a problematic, time-consuming, addictive behavior.

“If a child has a problem playing too much video games, parents and family members should really think twice before buying video games,” says Nancy Petry, professor of medicine at UConn School of Medicine who serves as editor of the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. “The last thing you want to do is feed a child’s addiction with more games.”

This holiday season the video game industry is expected to make $13.1 billion in product sales and an additional $35.91 billion in sales of mobile apps and other digital video game downloads and content, according to SuperData Research Inc.

However, Petry says giving one video game as a gift may be okay if your child doesn’t have an issue with too much gaming and participates in a wide variety of social and physical activities with others. But she says parents need to closely monitor their child’s video game use.

More than 36 percent of children play video games every day. The average child plays 1.5 hours a day on the weekend and 30 minutes on a weekday. But some children can develop an addiction when they begin to play for very long hours. Problems start to arise when video game hours start increasing to 12 hours or more per week.

Children with a video game addiction play 3 to 8 hours daily, or even more. In fact, more than 1.5 percent of adolescents develop a full-blown addiction to gaming, while others can develop less severe problems. Boys are at much greater risk than girls because they play electronic games more, especially the types of games that more often lead to problems. Also, children who are more socially isolated, or have depression or attention deficit disorder (ADD) are at greater risk of developing a gaming addiction.

The warning signs parents should be aware of include: new problems at school, such as poor grades, trouble or a decline in social interactions with family and friends, and a reduction in other hobbies they once enjoyed. Covering up how much they are gaming is another sign that things may be going wrong.

To prevent a child’s video gaming or digital screen addiction, Petry urges parents to limit their child’s exposure from the beginning, and to heed the latest advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

This fall the AAP updated their guidelines calling for a limit to digital media exposure for children of all ages. For infants up to 18 months, they recommend no digital media exposure for healthy brain development and connections with their parents. The AAP reduced its prior recommendation of no more than two hours in front of the TV or screen for kids ages 2 to 5 to now just one hour per day or less. For those 6 and older, they leave it up to parents to determine and monitor screen time.

Petry urges parents of older children and adolescents to carefully consider appropriate screen time, because kids with clearly defined limits are less likely to develop problems than those without. Parents should also make sure their child, regardless of age, is involved in other activities beyond the screen.

“It’s easier to prevent screen and video game addiction than to break the bad habit once it’s developed,” she says. “It may seem okay to let kids play games, and many parents think gaming is not as bad as drinking or using drugs. While that may be true in many cases, parents really need to be cautious and take action to intervene if gaming becomes all encompassing. For some kids, it can lead to severe problems.”

Petry has launched the first study of its kind nationally at UConn Health to help parents deal with their child’s video game addiction. Compared to standard referrals, the study is testing the benefits of one-on-one counseling with one or both parents, and the child if he or she is willing to participate. The treatment coaches them on how to better understand what gaming addiction is, why their child derives pleasure from the activity, and the best ways to monitor and intervene to reduce their child’s gaming.

“A lot of parents see and worry about their child playing video games too much, but most don’t seek help,” says Petry. But so far the parents in her study have been finding the intervention very helpful, she says, and are learning how to better communicate with their child about video gaming and ways to limit it.

She notes that there are only a few studies in Europe and Southeast Asia actually testing interventions for children with video game addiction. In the U.S., treatment for gaming addiction is not covered by insurance, and in large part that is because the condition is not yet recognized as an official disorder. Petry led efforts to include it as a condition requiring greater research in the latest version of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual on mental disorders. This study will help with classification, and eventually access to treatment.

Petry reminds parents to be a good role model for their child by not overusing digital media or video games themselves.

“Children learn more from their parents than anyone else,” she says. “Parents should aim to limit their own screen time if they don’t want their kids to think it’s okay to always be in front of a screen.”

If you are a parent and worried about how much your child plays video games, you can find out more about participating in the study at 860-989-7105 or by email: anovotny@uchc.edu.

New Monitor Can Detect Early Signs of Heart Disease

A heart monitoring device that detects irregular heart beat algorithms, using sensors attached to an armband and a phone app. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
A heart monitoring device that detects irregular heart beat algorithms, using sensors attached to an armband and a phone app. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Biomedical engineering professor Ki Chon is developing a new heart monitor to identify the early signs of irregular heartbeat that can be worn throughout the day.

At left Ki Chon, department chair of biomedical engineering, and graduate assistant Yeon Noh, have developed a device that can monitor for an irregular heartbeat for months. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
At left Ki Chon, department chair of biomedical engineering, and graduate assistant Yeon Noh, are developing a device for early detection of an irregular heartbeat. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Chon and his research team are working to create a small armband that can be worn all day, without any wired connection, to monitor for atrial fibrillation over an extended period of time without disrupting a person’s everyday activities. They are also creating a smartphone app that will receive data from the sensors using Bluetooth connections.

An irregular heartbeat can be a warning sign for heart attack, heart failure, and stroke, and early detection can save lives. Atrial fibrillation, the most common type of irregular heartbeat, often begins occurring in sudden, short-lived episodes that don’t have revealing symptoms. The detection technology currently in use makes discovering these early indicator occurrences of atrial fibrillation difficult for a number of reasons, but a company started by the UConn researchers recently received funding to combine different technologies they’d created into a cohesive early detection device.

Mobile Sense Technologies was created by department head of biomedical engineering and Krenicki Endowed Chair professor Ki Chon and his postdocs and graduate students to develop new heart monitors to identify the early signs of atrial fibrillation and other types of irregular heartbeat that can be worn throughout the day. The company recently received $500,000 in startup funding from Connecticut Innovations, and has opened its headquarters in the UConn Technology Incubation Program in Farmington.

“Atrial fibrillation affects millions of people and leads to thousands of preventable deaths each year,” says Chon. “With the device we’re working to bring to market, we’re hoping to make it much easier to identify early stage atrial fibrillation, which could save a lot of lives and hundreds of millions in health care costs.”

There are currently 6 million people in the United States diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, with many more going undiagnosed. Those people are five times more likely to suffer a stroke than patients without atrial fibrillation, and 33 percent will suffer a life-threatening stroke at some point in their lives. There were an estimated 88,000 deaths in 2015 from atrial fibrillation-related strokes, and 80 percent of those deaths are considered to have been preventable.

The armband developed by UConn researchers and sensors that can operate when wet or dry. Used in conjunction with a phone app, the device can monitor for an irregular heartbeat over an extended period. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
The armband developed by UConn researchers, with sensors that can operate when wet or dry. Used in conjunction with a phone app, the device can monitor for an irregular heartbeat over an extended period. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Chon and his team have already developed much of the technology needed to craft their heart monitors. They’ve recently created reusable electrocardiography sensors that can operate when wet or dry, including when fully submerged in water, and don’t cause skin irritation. These sensors can monitor a person’s heartbeat very accurately, and are the key to the armband they’re designing.

The researchers have also created a pair of algorithms that can accurately detect atrial fibrillation and can remove false positives caused by physical activity or other background noise. Chon says the team intends to create a mobile app to implement the detection algorithms from the sensor armband. The combination of the App and sensor armband would allow a person to monitor for an irregular heartbeat for a period of months.

Most of the strategies currently available to monitor for an irregular heartbeat have drawbacks that make them difficult to use for early detection. Electrocardiography machines are sensitive enough to monitor for an irregular heartbeat, but the equipment is bulky and stationary, requiring patients to actually be experiencing an irregular heartbeat at the time they see a doctor. Some of the portable heart monitors that are often used now and are usually designed for around two weeks of monitoring – called Holter monitors – require a wired connection to a monitoring device and use hydrogel-based electrodes, which can irritate the skin. Other devices are implanted under a person’s skin, making for a more invasive and expensive approach that is often used after an irregular heartbeat has been identified.

Chon says he’s optimistic about being able to create a coherent package to monitor for atrial fibrillation at the early stages.

“My team has already done much of the work,” he says. “What we’re doing now is bringing everything together into a coherent package.”

Mobile Sense Technologies Joins UConn Incubator

400 Farmington TIP facility
UConn Technology Incubation Program facility at UConn Health in Farmington. (Photo J. Gelineau)

The University of Connecticut today announced that biomedical device startup Mobile Sense Technologies, Inc. has joined the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP). The company will locate its headquarters in the TIP facility at UConn Health in Farmington.

Mobile Sense Technologies is commercializing the first “off-the-chest” heart monitor developed by Dr. Ki Chon, Professor and Department Head of Biomedical Engineering at UConn. The company already has eight issued patents and 12 more are pending.

The SensBand™ is a totally wireless ECG monitor armband that does not require adhesives or surgery like current diagnostic options. The device provides 24/7 continuous monitoring and detects arrhythmias and the most common form of irregular heartbeat, atrial fibrillation.

There are over 6 million people suffering from atrial fibrillation in the United States alone. Atrial fibrillation goes undiagnosed in 66% of patients, since most have no symptoms until they experience a stroke or cardiac event. With adequate monitoring, the condition is easily treatable.

“We are thrilled to be joining TIP and to have access to all of the support services the program provides,” said Dr. Chon. “This close collaboration with UConn means we not only gain a physical space for our operations, but we also have access to the University’s top-notch research infrastructure, talented students, knowledgeable business advisors, and a clinical population to test our product.”

Dr. Chon and his team also created a mobile app. The combination of the app and sensor armband allows a person to monitor for an irregular heartbeat, generate real time alerts, and notify the patient’s physician with both current and historical data.

“UConn researchers are tackling some of the most urgent, unmet medical needs of our time,” said Dr. Jeff Seemann, Vice President for Research at UConn and UConn Health. “The technologies that result from their innovative research can have a real impact, both for the health of our citizens and for economic growth in our state.”

Mobile Sense Technologies has assembled a team of scientific experts and a leading medical device entrepreneur to move the product to market. Dr. David McManus, MD, ScM of UMass Medical School serves as Clinical Director and a co-Inventor, and CEO Justin Chickles, a med tech entrepreneur with 17 years of industry experience, round out the team.

“TIP is an exciting place for us to locate Mobile Sense,” said Mr. Chickles. “The med tech entrepreneur community is very strong and there is a sense of energy and collaborative spirit. We are rapidly advancing our technology towards a commercial prototype and TIP offers the capability of testing and prototyping and gives us access to some incredibly talented people that can help us build the company.”

Mobile Sense Technologies recently received $500,000 through the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund managed by Connecticut Innovations.

“We’re excited to support the advances being made by Mobile Sense Technologies within UConn’s TIP facility,” said Patrick O’Neill, Director of Investments at Connecticut Innovations. “This type of investment through the bioscience fund has the ability to help an early-stage company commercialize their product and become competitive in the marketplace.”

Mobile Sense Technologies joins 27 other startups currently housed at the UConn Technology Incubation Program facility at UConn Health in Farmington. Additional companies are located in Storrs and at Avery Point.  TIP assists UConn startups as well as outside technology ventures from a variety of sectors that have a desire to build relationships at UConn.

Innovative Device Could Offer New Hope for Heart Patients

Chemistry Ph.D. student Islam Mosa holds an ultrathin implantable bioelectronic device he developed that is powered by a novel supercapacitor capable of generating enough power to sustain a cardiac pacemaker. It is more biocompatible and lasts much longer than existing pacemaker batteries. (Photo courtesy Islam Mosa)
Chemistry Ph.D. student Islam Mosa holds an ultrathin implantable bioelectronic device he developed that is powered by a novel supercapacitor capable of generating enough power to sustain a cardiac pacemaker. It is more biocompatible and lasts much longer than existing pacemaker batteries. (Photo courtesy Islam Mosa)

A UConn graduate student is developing a new micro-scale power source that is significantly smaller and more efficient than the batteries currently used in most cardiac pacemakers today.

Working under the tutelage of chemistry professors James Rusling and Challa Kumar, Ph.D. student Islam Mosa is developing an implantable electronic device that draws its power from an ultra-small, ultra-thin supercapacitor.

“Our supercapacitors are thinner than a human hair,” says Mosa, who is pursuing his doctorate in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “They are also very stable. They could be designed to power a cardiac pacemaker for the life of the patient.”

Implantable cardiac pacemakers have extended the lives of millions of people since they were first introduced in the late 1950s. But current models are not without their drawbacks. They are powered by bulky batteries that require surgery when their charge weakens, and they need to be replaced. This poses a risk for infection. The batteries’ internal electronic components also can be toxic to the body should they ever leak.

About the size of a postage stamp, Mosa’s power source is bendable and looks like a thin piece of film. In lab tests, the device has also been shown to be non-toxic to living cells. This feature is possible, Mosa says, because the device uses the patient’s own blood serum as an electrolyte rather than draw its power from a potentially toxic lithium-ion battery, which is the preferred power source for most cardiac pacemakers today.

“We charged and discharged the device in a petri dish to see what happened to cell cultures, and surprisingly it had no effect at all,” Mosa says. “Because the supercapacitor components are compatible with the biological environment, even if it leaks, it would have no detrimental effect on the patient.”

The power system’s efficiency allows it to maintain a charge for a long period of time, a feature that could make it suitable for other bioelectronic devices such as implantable neurostimulators, which are used to treat some patients with Parkinson’s disease.

“The loss of capacity over time is very small, which makes these supercapacitors very promising to power biomedical devices over the long term,” says Mosa, who has been working on the device for the past three years.

Exactly how the power system works and how a patient’s biofluids serve as an electrolyte is still proprietary. Mosa and the research team expect more details to be released soon once their research paper is accepted for publication.

Professor Rusling is an expert in bioanalytical chemistry, protein-based cancer diagnostic sensors, and toxicity screening sensors. Professor Kumar is an expert in biological materials. Also participating in the research were UConn chemistry professor Ashis Basu, an expert in molecular biology; Professor Richard Kaner, a distinguished biochemist and polymer expert from UCLA; and Maher El-Kady, a postdoc in the Kaner lab.

While working on his doctoral dissertation, Mosa recently received a top honor for succinctly conveying the core concepts of his supercapacitor research in an international competition sponsored by Universitas 21 (U21), a network of research universities around the globe.

Mosa won the People’s Choice Award for a three-minute video presentation of his doctoral thesis, capturing a record number of online votes. More than 1,000 graduate students from universities as far away as Australia, New Zealand, China, Singapore, South Africa, and the UK competed in the so-called 3MT event this year.

Mosa represented UConn in the U21 international competition after placing first in a contest sponsored by the Department of Chemistry and then winning a campus-wide event in September.

“Islam is a very accomplished young scientist and a powerful communicator,” says Kent Holsinger, UConn’s dean of graduate students and vice provost for graduate education.“His work may improve the lives of thousands who depend on cardiac pacemakers. The 3MT competition helped him develop the skills to describe complex, technical details of his work in language we can all understand, and we are very proud to have him represent UConn in the 2016 U21 competition.”

Mosa says his award-winning presentation wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Rusling, Kumar, and others on the research team.

“180 seconds to tell the story of my thesis research to a broad audience while making each word count was undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges I have had in my graduate career,” he says. “I’m thrilled for all of the skills I have gained through this amazing experience. I encourage all graduate students to participate. It’s a great learning opportunity.”

Economist seeks to determine the contribution of food and agriculture industries to US economy

By Jason M Sheldon
December 6, 2016

Richard Dunn

Richard Dunn, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, is recognized as one of the leading scholars in the economics of obesity; in 2015 he was a plenary speaker on the topic at the International Health Economics Association Biennial World Congress in Milan, Italy. Prior to arriving at UConn in 2014, he established an extensive research portfolio focused on how the economic environment influences risky health behaviors. For example, he recently published an article that connected declines in the stock market to increases in smoking, alcohol abuse and poor mental health. Another project demonstrated that the Great Recession caused alcohol purchases and drunk driving fatalities to increase.

Dunn is now embarking on an ambitious long-term project to compile and analyze federal administrative and survey data to document the contribution of food and agriculture industries (FAI) to the US economy. Statutory reporting requirements generate a wealth of information about the economic activity at US businesses. This data is a valuable resource that can inform policy decisions, improve production efficiency, increase the competitiveness of US firms and better guide economic development in rural America.

Although the United States Department of Agriculture collects extensive information about on-farm activity, they do not compile data on other segments of the food and fiber supply chain. Rather, these sectors are the responsibility of the Census Bureau. Without a mandate to systematically coordinate reporting across all the economic sectors that constitute the supply chain (on-farm production, manufacturing, warehousing, wholesaling, professional and business services, transportation, retailing and food services), the contribution of food and agriculture to the US economy will be underappreciated.

Dunn explains that when the United States Department of Agriculture was founded in 1862—President Abraham Lincoln declared it “the people’s department”—agricultural production was far more localized. “At the time, the vast majority of farms were small family operations. It would not have been uncommon for a farmer to use his own seed and fertilizer. Your family worked the farm, although maybe you hired a few farmhands to help with the planting, growing and harvesting. You might take your grain to a gristmill or maybe you had one on your property. You would can and preserve fruits and vegetables yourself. You would butcher your own animals or take them to someone in town, but you’d take the meat home to salt it and dry it. While there was an active trade in crops and livestock, a significant share of activity that transformed raw agricultural output to food for consumption was contained on the farm, so our mindset has historically linked all of agriculture to what happens on the farm.”

After 150 years of technological innovation, increased global trade and steady migration from rural to urban areas, the food and agriculture supply chain looks radically different. Dunn explains, “From the growth of railroads and refrigerated trucking to the advent of fast-food restaurants and prepared meals, the number of exchanges that take place between the farmer and the consumer has increased dramatically. The organization of data collection to properly measure and study the businesses engaged in this process has failed to keep pace.”

This lack of a coordinated data collection structure has far-reaching implications. Dunn points out, “If we think of agriculture only as the value of things that come off the farm, then we know that the contribution of agriculture to gross domestic product has been falling for more than the past hundred years. But much of what used to be that contained activity has branched off further and further out to more specialized parts of this gigantic supply chain.”

“How important is food and agriculture and all of the things that make our food consumption possible? I know it is not 1 or 2 percent of the US economy, but no one knows precisely what percent of the US economy it is. Is it 10 percent? Is it 15 percent? No one knows.” He continues, “We don’t know the answers to incredibly basic questions, like how many establishments are engaged in the supply chain? How many workers do they employ and what kind of wages do these workers receive? Where are these businesses and firms located? What type of geographic concentrations exist? How important are these various sectors to the economic health of rural America? How are these things changing over time? What kind of innovation is happening? How is innovation in one sector impacting other parts of the supply chain? We cannot begin to answer these basic questions when we do not even know which firms are part of the supply chain.”

Dunn is working with colleagues at federal agencies and research universities to use existing administrative and survey data to overcome these data challenges. He acknowledges, “Given current budgetary pressures, creating new federal infrastructure to study FAI in a holistic manner is simply not feasible. Nevertheless, there is an amazing amount of valuable new knowledge we can generate using data that already exists across different federal statistical agencies, but has yet to be combined and analyzed for this purpose.”

Along with collaborators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Dunn received his PhD in the Department of Economics, he has secured funding from numerous sources to support this project, including a cooperative agreement with the USDA Economic Research Service, a USDA Hatch grant and a $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture under the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. Part of this funding allows Dunn to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, several times a week to access data at the Federal Statistical Research Data Center housed at the National Bureau of Economic Research. It has also allowed him to present early results at several conferences, including the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics workshop on linking federal agricultural data; an invited paper at the Agriculture and Applied Economics Association annual meeting; and the Federal Statistical Research Data Center annual research conference.

Dunn concludes, “In all of my classes, I highlight the famous quote from Sherlock Holmes: ‘Data! data! data!’ he cried impatiently. ’I can’t make bricks without clay.’ Before we can answer really complicated questions, we need to create good data. We are creating those data in this project. I hope and expect the outputs of this project will provide farmers, producers, policy makers and consumers the facts they need to make informed decisions.”

Universities expand cybersecurity offerings as job prospects grow

Published on Newstimes / December 4, 2016

Keila Torres Ocasio

For more than 15 years, scholars at the University of Bridgeport have been conducting research on facial recognition algorithms. And for the last five, the Central Forensics Lab and FaceChecks.com have been investigating issues related to cybersecurity as part of UB’s incubator program.

So it seemed like just a matter of time before the university created a concentration focused on cybersecurity issues. That time came this fall, when the UB School of Engineering began offering a master’s degree concentration in Information and Cyber Security Management.

“We’re taking it step by step,” said Tarek Sobh, a senior vice president and dean of the school of engineering at UB. “This is a very much in-demand area. There is a demand and need for professionals in this area and the need is only going to increase.”

UB’s offering is one of several at universities in the state focused on issues related to cybersecurity, including the University of New Haven, University of Connecticut and Sacred Heart University. Sobh said it’s a response to the number of job opportunities in that field.

An analysis by Peninsula of March 2015 Bureau of Labor statistics found there were about 209,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs in the U.S. Technology company Cisco estimates globally there are more than 1 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs.

Another report published by Burning Glass Technologies cited professional services, finance and manufacturing or defense as the sectors with the highest demand for cybersecurity jobs, with the greatest demand in jobs that deal with consumer data — finance, health care and retail trade.

Sobh said this explains why UB sees cybersecurity as an interdisciplinary concentration that requires students to learn about a variety of topics before graduation.

Gad Selig, dean for industry research at UB, said a local FBI agent has said the agency is actively seeking professionals in this area. “The FBI can’t get enough people who can be a cyber research analyst,” he said. “It’s a huge hole and it’s projected to get much larger.”

UB has started out its offerings in two areas — a technical concentration in computer science called Systems, Applications and Data Security and a technology management concentration called Information and Cyber Security Management. Selig said roughly two dozen students signed up for courses within these concentrations this year, adding that the program would likely take some time to grow.

“We have a lot of international students who are not quite as familiar with security issues,” said Selig.

Sobh said interest in the courses will determine whether the university expands its offerings into a full-time master’s degree program.

Sacred Heart University began offering a 36-credit cybersecurity program on a full- or part-time basis in 2013.

“It’s filling a need,” said Domenick Pinto, associate professor and chair of SHU’s Department of Computer Science and Information Technology, at the time. “The job market in this discipline is phenomenal, but there are not a lot of cybersecurity specialists.”

The university’s courses include cryptography, systems security, digital forensics, securing the cloud and ethical hacking.

SHU lists several job opportunities on its website, accompanied by salary ranges. A data security analyst’s salary can range from $89,000 to $122,000, a network security administrator can earn between $85,000 and $118,000 and a network architect salary can be between $95,000 and $137,000, according to the SHU site.

UConn also has the Connecticut Cybersecurity Center and recently launched a partnership with consumer financial-services firm Synchrony Financial for the launch of a Center of Excellence in Cybersecurity at the university, funded by Synchrony.

Alexander Schwarzmann, head of the UConn Department of Computer Science and Engineering, said he expects within the next few years a quarter of the students in that department will be part of the cybersecurity concentration.

He said hands-on learning is the only way to ensure students graduate with the knowledge necessary to excel in the field. “You really need to get your hands dirty in cybersecurity to learn it,” Schwarzmann said.

Al Dressler, who runs the Central Forensics Lab and FaceChecks.com at the University of Bridgeport incubator program and will be teaching courses in the new concentration, said it’s also important to incorporate what the “real world is doing.”

Schwarzmann said UConn is currently hiring cybersecurity professionals to keep up with the demand for course offerings and expects to hire nearly a dozen staff members in that field. “We have to respond to the demand,” he said.

UB’s Sobh said there are many fields that now require expertise or knowledge of cybersecurity, but there is also a projection for new jobs to be created in this industry. “We’re preparing them for jobs that might not even exist now,” he said.

Alexion, UConn Launch Rare Disease Innovation Fund to Support Translational Research in the Development of New Therapies for Rare and Devastating Diseases

Local Partnership Harnesses Expertise and Shared Values of Connecticut Research and Biotech Leaders

New Haven, Conn. – December 7, 2016 – Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and the University of Connecticut today announced the creation of a fund dedicated to supporting translational research in the development of novel treatments for rare and devastating diseases. The collaboration brings together Alexion’s deep expertise in the development and delivery of highly innovative therapies for patients with rare diseases, and UConn’s unique research capabilities and commitment to translating research breakthroughs into advancements in patient care and cures. The establishment of the fund follows previous research projects sponsored by Alexion and led by expert UConn faculty to explore new approaches for treating rare diseases.

“We are very pleased to be partnering with UConn to drive academic exploration that will enable the development of much-needed therapies for patients with rare and devastating diseases that are often overlooked,” said Martin Mackay, Ph.D., Executive Vice President and Global Head of R&D at Alexion. “Importantly, the creation of the fund reflects our commitment to working with local partners and builds upon our successful, ongoing collaborations with UConn, a recognized leader in translational research.”

Under the terms of the agreement for the new rare disease innovation fund, Alexion and UConn will provide funding for up to four UConn research projects in rare diseases for a period of up to two years per project.

“We are thrilled about expanding our existing relationship with a global leader like Alexion,” said Jeff Seemann, Ph.D., Vice President for Research at UConn and UConn Health. “Leveraging the expertise of the world leader in rare diseases which makes its home in Connecticut and the unique research capabilities of the state’s flagship public research institution will lead to innovative discoveries that support the state’s economic growth and have the potential to benefit patients around the world.”

Joshua R. Newton, President & CEO of the UConn Foundation, stated that “We are grateful to Alexion for its commitment to UConn researchers and to the future biotech workforce here in Connecticut. Most importantly, we commend the company for its dedication to patients who are battling rare diseases.”

About Alexion
Alexion is a global biopharmaceutical company focused on developing and delivering life-transforming therapies for patients with devastating and rare disorders. Alexion is the global leader in complement inhibition and has developed and commercializes the first and only approved complement inhibitor to treat patients with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH) and atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome (aHUS), two life-threatening ultra-rare disorders. In addition, Alexion’s metabolic franchise includes two highly innovative enzyme replacement therapies for patients with life-threatening and ultra-rare disorders, hypophosphatasia (HPP) and lysosomal acid lipase deficiency (LAL-D). Alexion is advancing the most robust rare disease pipeline in the biotech industry with highly innovative product candidates in multiple therapeutic areas. Further information about Alexion can be found at: www.alexion.com.

About the University of Connecticut
The University of Connecticut is one of the top 25 public research universities in the nation and is a research leader in the fields of genomics, advanced materials, cell biology, cardiovascular research, additive manufacturing, biomedical devices, cybersecurity, and nanotechnology. As Connecticut’s flagship institution of higher education, UConn serves as an important resource for Connecticut economic development and is dedicated to building collaborations with industry and entrepreneurs. With more than $3.6B in investment from the state of Connecticut and industry partners, UConn will continue to train outstanding students, perform breakthrough research and develop innovative solutions for the marketplace.

About the UConn Foundation
The UConn Foundation, Inc. is an independent, not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization which operates exclusively to promote the educational, scientific, cultural, research and recreational objectives of the University of Connecticut. The Foundation does this by providing quality programs and services for its alumni and supporters, and by serving as the primary fundraising vehicle for the University. The Foundation solicits, administers and invests private funds for the sole benefit of the University and its mission of pursuing excellence in teaching, research and public service.

UConn researcher helps find lost world of shipwrecks in Black Sea

Published in The New York Times / November 11, 2016

William J. Broad

The medieval ship lay more than a half-mile down at the bottom of the Black Sea, its masts, timbers and planking undisturbed in the darkness for seven or eight centuries. Lack of oxygen in the icy depths had ruled out the usual riot of creatures that feast on sunken wood.

This fall, a team of explorers lowered a robot on a long tether, lit up the wreck with bright lights and took thousands of high-resolution photos. A computer then merged the images into a detailed portrait.

Archaeologists date the discovery to the 13th or 14th century, opening a new window on forerunners of the 15th- and 16th-century sailing vessels that discovered the New World, including those of Columbus. This medieval ship probably served the Venetian empire, which had Black Sea outposts.

Never before had this type of ship been found in such complete form. The breakthrough was the quarterdeck, from which the captain would have directed a crew of perhaps 20 sailors.

“That’s never been seen archaeologically,” said Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz, an expedition member at the Center for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton, in Britain. “We couldn’t believe our eyes.”

Photo

A photogrammetric image of a ship from the Ottoman era that most likely went down between the 17th and 19th centuries. The discoverers nicknamed it the Flower of the Black Sea because of its ornate carvings, including two large posts topped with petals. Credit Expedition and Education Foundation/Black Sea MAP

Remarkably, the find is but one of more than 40 shipwrecks that the international team recently discovered and photographed off the Bulgarian coast in one of archaeology’s greatest coups.

In age, the vessels span a millennium, from the Byzantine to the Ottoman empires, from the ninth to the 19th centuries. Generally, the ships are in such good repair that the images reveal intact coils of rope, rudders and elaborately carved decorations.

“They’re astonishingly preserved,” said Jon Adams, the leader of the Black Sea project and founding director of the maritime archaeology center at the University of Southampton.

Kroum Batchvarov, a team member at the University of Connecticut who grew up in Bulgaria and has conducted other studies in its waters, said the recent discoveries “far surpassed my wildest expectations.”

Independent experts said the annals of deepwater archaeology hold few, if any, comparable sweeps of discovery in which shipwrecks have proved to be so plentiful, diverse and well preserved.

“It’s a great story,” said Shelley Wachsmann of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University. “We can expect some real contributions to our understanding of ancient trade routes.”

Goods traded on the Black Sea included grains, furs, horses, oils, cloth, wine and people. The Tatars turned Christians into slaves who were shipped to places like Cairo. For Europeans, the sea provided access to a northern branch of the Silk Road and imports of silk, satin, musk, perfumes, spices and jewels.

Marco Polo reportedly visited the Black Sea, and Italian merchant colonies dotted its shores. The profits were so enormous that, in the 13th and 14th centuries, Venice and Genoa fought a series of wars for control of the trade routes, including those of the Black Sea.

Brendan P. Foley, an archaeologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Mass., said the good condition of the shipwrecks implied that many objects inside their hulls might also be intact.

“You might find books, parchment, written documents,” he said in an interview. “Who knows how much of this stuff was being transported? But now we have the possibility of finding out. It’s amazing.”

Experts said the success in Bulgarian waters might inspire other nations that control portions of the Black Sea to join the archaeological hunt. They are Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Dr. Foley, who has explored a number of Black Sea wrecks, said the sea’s overall expanse undoubtedly held tens of thousands of lost ships. “Everything that sinks out there is going to be preserved,” he added. “They’re not going away.”

For ages, the Black Sea was a busy waterway that served the Balkans, the Eurasian steppes, the Caucasus, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Greece. It long beckoned to archaeologists because they knew its deep waters lacked oxygen, a rarity for large bodies of water.

The great rivers of Eastern Europe — the Don, the Danube, the Dnieper — pour so much fresh water into the sea that a permanent layer forms over denser, salty water from the Mediterranean. As a result, oxygen from the atmosphere that mixes readily with fresh water never penetrates the inky depths.

In 1976, Willard Bascom, a pioneer of oceanography, in his book “Deep Water, Ancient Ships,” called the Black Sea unique among the world’s seas and a top candidate for exploration and discovery.

“One is tempted,” he wrote, “to begin searching there in spite of the huge expanse of bottom that would have to be inspected.”

In 2002, Robert D. Ballard, a discoverer of the sunken Titanic, led a Black Sea expedition that found a 2,400-year-old wreck laden with the clay storage jars of antiquity. One held remnants of a large fish that had been dried and cut into steaks, a popular food in ancient Greece.

The new team said it received exploratory permits from the Bulgarian ministries of culture and foreign affairs and limited its Black Sea hunts to parts of that nation’s exclusive economic zone, which covers thousands of square miles and runs up to roughly a mile deep.

Although the team’s official name is the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project, or Black Sea MAP, it also hauls up sediments to hunt for clues to how the sea’s rising waters engulfed former land surfaces and human settlements.

Team members listed on its website include the Bulgarian National Institute of Archaeology, the Bulgarian Center for Underwater Archaeology, Sodertorn University in Sweden, and the Hellenic Center for Marine Research in Greece.

The project’s financial backer is the Expedition and Education Foundation, a charity registered in Britain whose benefactors want to remain anonymous, team members said. Dr. Adams of the University of Southampton, the team’s scientific leader, described it as catalyzing an academic-industry partnership on the largest project “of its type ever undertaken.”

Nothing is known publicly about the cost, presumably vast, of the Black Sea explorations, which are to run for three years. The endeavor began last year with a large Greek ship doing a preliminary survey. This year, the main vessel was the Stril Explorer, a British-flagged ship bearing a helicopter landing pad that usually services the undersea pipes and structures of the offshore oil industry.

Instead, archaeologists on the ship lowered its sophisticated robots to hunt for ancient shipwrecks and lost history.

In an interview, Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz of the University of Southampton said he was watching the monitors late one night in September when the undersea robot lit up a large wreck in a high state of preservation.

“I was speechless,” he recalled. “When I saw the ropes, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I still can’t.”

Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz said the vessel hailed from the Ottoman Empire, whose capital was Constantinople (today Istanbul), and most likely went down sometime between the 17th and 19th centuries. He said the team nicknamed it “Flower of the Black Sea” because its deck bears ornate carvings, including two large posts with tops that form petals.

In an interview, Dr. Batchvarov of the University of Connecticut said most of the discoveries date to the Ottoman era. So it was that, late one night, during his shift, he assumed that a new wreck coming into view would be more of the same.

“Then I saw a quarter rudder,” he recalled, referring to a kind of large steering oar on a ship’s side. It implied the wreck was much older. Then another appeared. Quickly, he had the expedition’s leader, Dr. Adams, awakened.

“He came immediately,” Dr. Batchvarov recalled. “We looked at each other like two little boys in a candy shop.”

Dr. Batchvarov said the wreck — the medieval one found more than a half-mile down — was part of a class known by several names, including cocha and “round ship.” The latter name arose from how its ample girth let it carry more cargo and passengers than a warship.

Dr. Adams said the remarkable color images of the lost ships derived from a process known as photogrammetry. It combines photography with the careful measurement of distances between objects, letting a computer turn flat images into renderings that seem three-dimensional.

He said tethered robots shot the photographic images with video and still cameras. The distance information, he added, came from advanced sonars, which emit high-pitched sounds that echo through seawater. Their measurements, he said, can range down to less than a millimeter.

A news release from the University of Southampton refers to the images as “digital models.” Their creation, it said, “takes days even with the fastest computers.”

Filmmakers are profiling the Black Sea hunt in a documentary, according to the team’s website.

Another part of the project seeks to share the thrill of discovery with schools and educators. Students are to study on the Black Sea, the website says, or join university scientists in analyzing field samples “to uncover the mysteries of the past.”

The team has said little publicly on whether it plans to excavate the ships — a topic on which nations, academics and treasure hunters have long clashed. Bulgaria is a signatory to the 2001 United Nations convention that outlaws commercial trade in underwater cultural heritage and sets out guidelines on such things as artifact recovery and public display.

Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz said the team had so far discovered and photographed 44 shipwrecks, and that more beckoned.

Which was the most important? Dr. Adams said that for him, a student of early European shipbuilding, the centerpiece was the medieval round ship. He said it evoked Marco Polo and city states like Venice. The ship, he added, incorporated a number of innovations that let it do more than its predecessors had and paved the way for bigger things to come.

“It’s not too much,” he said, “to say that medieval Europe became modern with the help of ships like these.”

Coping Through Holiday Season Anxiety

November 23, 2016

Lauren Woods

With the holiday season upon us, UConn Health’s Dr. Michael Kisicki, assistant professor of psychiatry, shares his best advice to help you and your family get through any potential stressful and anxiety-provoking holiday activities, including family get-togethers and post-election debates.

Q. What is it about the holiday season that leads to higher levels of anxiety and stress?

A. We all want that perfect Hollywood holiday, where everyone is happy and gets along with each other. We have so many high expectations about the holidays that just keep on rising until the big day comes. But inevitably we may be disappointed once the day actually arrives. Being with family can trigger hidden or past personality traits. For example, adult children can become childlike when they return to their childhood home, leaving their spouse wondering who the adolescent-like knucklehead dressed like a grown-up is sitting next to them. I know firsthand about holiday stress. For myself, I change from a middle-aged man to the devious spoiled younger brother who gets away with taunting his brother, expecting my mother to take care of everything. Lastly, holidays can bring stresses about finances to the surface. Not being able to afford the presents that you eagerly want to give to your loved ones can be devastating.

Q. How much do interfamily relationships add to holiday anxiety?

A. Love and commitment to family can bring together a motley grouping of socially mismatched individuals who have little in common aside from a last name. During the holidays we have to be around family members who wouldn’t necessarily be our first choice for dinner companions. There may be the judgmental mother-in-law, the disrespectful daughter-in-law, the uncle who drinks too much and insists on talking about politics. Also, old history can be dug up and old conflicts can be rejuvenated when extended family gets together. Humans love drama and gossip and will look for it if there is nothing else to talk about. As we get together and see people we have not seen for a while, the holidays can be a time when people compare themselves to siblings, cousins, and in-laws, thinking about how we measure up in terms of career, family, and happiness.

Q. How can we limit our holiday stress or anxiety, especially when interacting with a spouse or family member?

A. Despite all of these conflicts, struggles, and hang-ups, it’s still possible to have a good time and treasure our time with family. The most important thing is to focus on enjoying what you have, even the dry turkey or the hideous sweater. Our high expectations can hurt us, so try to minimize what you are expecting. A sense of humor, humility, and a grateful mindset can deliver you safely through the holidays into January. It’s easy to focus on material things and on yourself during the holidays, but try to match every selfish thought with two thoughts about others. To manage stress, also make sure you are taking care of yourself. During the holidays, besides being stressed, we tend to eat more and drink more. Minimizing your alcohol intake and getting some exercise will be good for stress relief. Get an early start on that New Year’s resolution of walking or going to the gym more. Try learning to meditate. This is a great way to manage stress, and there are great free ways to learn with free online videos or apps. There is something about making a commitment to putting time aside to take care of yourself that can do wonders for your spirit.

Q. How do you advise parents to prevent translating their own anxiety to their children?

A. For those families that really have a hard time communicating or have nothing in common, try a destination holiday (like a camping or ski trip). If getting away is not possible, try home activities (baking a cake together or playing a board game), or small outings nearby (miniature golf or a movie). Group activities give the family something benign to talk about, create a fun backdrop, and make for good memories. It’s a great time of year to volunteer; try taking the whole family to work at a soup kitchen or shelter. This can be a particularly good idea if you have to be alone or away from family this time of year.

Q. After this stressful election season what is the best way to talk with family members who may have a different political view?

A. There is definitely going to be a lot of arguing over the egg nog about this past election. In my own practice, I have seen how this election – more than I have ever seen before – has drawn blue and red battle lines down the middle of the dinner table. For the inevitable political or religious arguments, focus on the subject rather than the person. As absurd as you may believe someone’s beliefs to be, they must have a personal reason for having them. Try to find out what that is, figure out where they are coming from rather than trying to show you are right. No one is keeping score, and winning an argument over a holiday meal is ultimately a loss for the family. You are more likely to get the silent treatment from your wife on the car ride home than respect for your genius debate skills.

Q. What should people do if their anxiety lingers after the holidays – or their child’s anxiety does?

Besides the stress of the holidays, some people can be very sensitive to the shorter days and colder weather of winter. I see patients who routinely have depressive episodes or worsening of anxiety this time of year. If you find that you or a loved one have become persistently anxious without reason, or are feeling uncharacteristically sad or irritable, you may need professional help. There are effective therapies to help with anxiety and depression. There is no shame in getting help so that you can be more resilient for your family.

Parents seeking assessment for children and teens can contact Kisicki’s West Hartford clinic at 860-523-3745. The practice also assesses and treats parents of the children.

Tackling the Science of Disaster

November 28, 2016

Amanda Falcone

UConn professors on the beach near Sendai. Note the recently raised sea wall and trees with healthy branches indicating the height of the 2011 tsunami wave. (Photo courtesy of William Ouimet)
UConn professors on the beach near Sendai, in northeastern Japan, surveying the damage left by the tsunami of 2011. Note the recently raised sea wall, and trees with healthy branches indicating the height of the 2011 tsunami wave. (Photo courtesy of William Ouimet)

An earthquake off the coast of Japan on Nov. 22 struck the same area that the UConn group recently visited, and hit close to the area that was devastated in 2011. Although it caused far less destruction than the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, this year’s earthquake was another reminder of the importance of understanding and being prepared for disaster.

In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, destroying buildings and claiming and changing lives. That natural disaster and its aftermath can be studied from many different perspectives, and has attracted the attention of three UConn professors in different fields of study who want to explore interdisciplinary opportunities.

Eleanor Ouimet is an anthropology professor; William Ouimet teaches geography; and Richard Christenson is a civil engineering professor. They represent three fields that don’t traditionally work together, but they have at least two things in common: an interest in disaster science and a desire to learn from one another.

“Interdisciplinary is a big buzz word right now, but how you do it is unclear,” Eleanor Ouimet says. “We can all benefit from learning each other’s language.”

In an effort to encourage collaboration and bring together their fields of study, the three professors teamed up to apply for a 2016 Research Excellence grant from UConn’s Office of the Vice President for Research. The goal: to create new opportunities for international research in disaster science.

The professors were awarded a $50,000 grant, and began planning an October trip to Japan to see firsthand how the 2011 earthquake and tsunami affected the country – its buildings, culture, and landscape. Japan is a good model, says Eleanor Ouimet, because it experiences intense disasters, but also has a sophisticated system in place for preparing for, and reporting, those disasters.

The faculty members selected three undergraduate students to accompany them to Japan: Samuel Turek ’16 (ENG), who is majoring in civil engineering; Akhil Choudhary ’19 (CLAS), an anthropology major; and Cheyenne Haverfield ’18 (CLAS), a geoscience major. The students will earn academic credit for their work through independent study, and each has made a year-long commitment to the project.

At the start of the fall semester, the students researched Japan and the 2011 disaster. They also each learned a little about the others’ areas of study, before leaving on Oct. 7 for their five-day trip. Immersing the students in such an intense experience over such a short time frame was an experience Eleanor Ouimet calls “baptism by fire.”

While in Japan, the UConn delegation started out in Tokyo to get a sense of the country’s culture, before heading north to Sendai to see a part of Japan that was devastated by the tsunami. The group went on bus and boat tours of the area, observing the damage the tsunami left behind, and witnessed how those affected by the tragedy are moving forward. It was, they say, an intense experience.

In each city, the Japanese are rebuilding, but leaving one building as is, to remind everyone of the tsunami  and the devastation it caused, says Turek, the civil engineering student. In more natural environments, such as parks, placards remind tourists of the tragedy. Japan has moved on from the disaster, but at the same time they are remembering and rebuilding.

Choudhary says he was surprised by the extent of the damage. “I don’t think we understood how prevalent it was,” he says. “This one affected such a big area.”

On their trip, the group also visited Arahama, a coastal area destroyed by the tsunami. Here buildings were flattened, with only foundations and random household items remaining. The area is not being rebuilt, and has been left largely untouched.

“There were children’s toys cast over the ground,” notes Eleanor Ouimet.

An important part of the trip was a visit to the International Research Institute of Disaster Science at Tohoku University, to share ideas and research. The institute recently completed a global study of tsunami hazards over the past 400 years. The UConn group was interested in learning about the tsunami and Japan, and the Tohoku University faculty and students were studying Hurricane Sandy, a powerful storm that hit the United States – including Connecticut – in 2012.

Eleanor Ouimet says the visit to the institute is the start of an ongoing relationship between the universities: one goal of the trip was to see if UConn could establish a similar disaster science center. Turek, Choudhary, and Haverfield will now help decide where the University goes from here. They will articulate why it is significant to understand disaster science, and help determine what would be needed for UConn to establish a disaster science center.

She says the three students were enthusiastic and open-minded, and it has been interesting to see how they each benefited from the trip: “It was a great experience to see the students working together.”

For Choudhary, the trip underscored the importance of interdisciplinary studies, and he believes UConn may ultimately be able to launch a disaster science center. To do so, he says, the University would need representatives from more fields of study to be interested in working together to further research in disaster science.

“You can’t stay in your discipline and analyze these things,” Choudhary  says. “You might miss something important.”

Black Sea Project Discovers Unseen Medieval Ship

November 29, 2016

Kenneth Best

Shipwreck from the medieval period. (Courtesy of Kroum Batchvarov)
A shipwreck from the medieval period, of a type known from literature but never previously seen, was discovered during an underwater survey of the Black Sea this past summer. UConn researcher Kroum Batchvarov says seeing it for the first time was ‘a truly thrilling moment.’ (Courtesy of Kroum Batchvarov)

A UConn researcher is part of an international team of scientists mapping ancient underwater landscapes in the Black Sea that has made dramatic discoveries of multiple shipwrecks, including a never-before-seen medieval seafaring vessel.

Kroum Batchvarov, an assistant professor of anthropology whose specialty is nautical archaeology, is a co-director of the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP), which is described as one of the largest maritime archaeological expeditions ever undertaken.

‘A truly thrilling moment’

While conducting their mapping in late summer using the most advanced underwater survey equipment in the world, Batchvarov and his colleagues discovered a total of 43 shipwrecks. The team had expected to see sunken ships, but were surprised at just what they found.

Batchvarov first spotted the well preserved medieval shipwreck on a screen in the control room of the expedition ship after nearly 48 hours of monitoring images from the high remote survey vehicle moving along the floor of the Black Sea.

“That was a truly thrilling moment. We spent the next six hours looking at the wreck. No one had ever seen anything like it,” he says. “We had known of it. There have been descriptions in Venetian manuscripts that survived from the 15th century describing earlier vessels. But this was the first time that we were seeing it.”

The ship was complete, according to Batchvarov: “The masts were still standing. You could see the spars [wooden poles], the yards on deck. Everything was there.”

The discovery of the shipwrecks was aided by unique conditions beneath the surface of the Black Sea known as anoxic waters, which have low salt content and dissolved oxygen, and do not support the wood-eating sea creature known as Teredo navalis, or the naval shipworm. As a result, the shipwrecks are largely intact, their wood not deteriorated as it would be in oceans in other parts of the world.

The vessels the Black Sea MAP team discovered date over the course of a millennium, from the 9th to the 19th centuries. Many were merchant ships from the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries, mostly from the 18th century. But the medieval ship – dating from the 13th to the mid-14th century and probably of Mediterranean origin – provides the first view of a ship type known from historical sources but never before seen.

We spent the next six hours looking at the wreck. No one had ever seen anything like it. — Kroum Batchvarov

“This is the type of ship that created the trading empires of Venice and Genoa; the type of ship used by the Crusaders,” Batchvarov says. “This is the ship type that really ushered in the modern age. What is particularly interesting is that this is the last period before the mixing of the northern shipbuilding tradition and the Mediterranean shipbuilding tradition, which happened from the end of the 14th and early 15th century.”

During the post-medieval period, when trading ships from northern Europe and the Mediterranean docked in common ports, shipwrights from each region began to adopt features from each other’s designs. The rudder, affixed to the stern of a ship for steering, was originally developed in Scandinavia; it eventually began to be used in Mediterranean vessels, which previously used only steering oars or quarter rudders for directing a ship.

Batchvarov says studying the shipwrecks can help to better understand seafaring in the Middle Ages and the post-medieval period in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas, and by extrapolation, in earlier times. The Black Sea was a major route for transporting goods during that time period throughout the region from Greece and Turkey to the Balkans and Russia through the Bosporus Strait, the waterway that is the boundary between Europe and Asia.

Most significantly, he says, the medieval Mediterranean-type vessel is an example of the type of ship that led to the development of larger ocean-going vessels used by Christopher Columbus and other European explorers who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.

“The shipwrecks are a source of information because they do inform us about the further past,” he says. “It is a symbol of the interconnectivity of the region.”

The impact of climate change in history

While analysis of the shipwrecks is ongoing, the team continues with its intended purpose, investigating the area for evidence of how humans reacted to changes in the environment in previous eras.

“We are answering an archaeological question:  At what stage did the level of the Black Sea change and what once would have been marshy coastal land become inhabitable and then become inundated?”  Batchvarov says, noting that the team’s findings could add to previous studies on catastrophic flooding in the Black Sea region.

There is no question there is dramatic climate change at the moment. The question is: how rapid were such changes in the past? — Kroum Batchvarov

He says there is evidence from inundated settlements from both Neolithic and early Bronze Age settlements. At least 20 are known along the Bulgarian coast. Although none has been completely excavated, extensive tests have been conducted on a number of the sites.

The research team will study layered samples of sand, mud, rock, and organic material retrieved from various locations under the Black Sea to try and determine when periods of flooding occurred. The changes in the layers of material can be used to date changes underwater similar to how rings inside a tree can date the age of the tree.

“We see about five meters of mud overburdened before we hit a layer of sand, shells, etc., that appears to be the old coastal line,” Batchvarov says. “Not only can we date it, it can tell us quite a lot about the climate change in this period, which of course is a hotly debated issue. There is no question there is dramatic climate change at the moment. The question is: how rapid were such changes in the past? This is one of the things we are going to be able to determine.”

The Black Sea MAP project is a partnership involving major archaeological institutions in Bulgaria, Britain, and Sweden, as well as UConn.

Batchvarov, a native of Bulgaria, joined the team at the invitation of Jonathan Adams, the leader of the scientific team, who is director of the University of Southampton’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology and a leading maritime archaeologist. The two researchers had previously both worked on the excavation of the 17th-century vessel, the Warwick, in Bermuda; and Adams consulted with Batchvarov on working through Bulgarian authorities for the Black Sea MAP project.

“When Jon Adams asks you to co-direct a project with him,” says Batchvarov, “it’s like Luciano Pavarotti asking you to sing. You don’t say no.”

The partner institutions include the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton – the lead institution; Bulgarian Institute of Archaeology with Museum, directed by Lyudmil Vagalinski; Bulgarian Centre for Underwater Archaeology, directed by the late Hristina Angelova and now by Kalin Dimitrov; and the Maritime Archaeological Research Institute at Södertörn University, Sweden, directed by Johann Rönnby.

The international team is funded by the British Expedition and Education Foundation, and operates under permits and in full compliance with the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria, and in strict observance of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

Four UConn Professors Named AAAS Fellows

November 22, 2016

Christine Buckley and Lauren Woods

Four UConn professors have been named Fellows of the AAAS. Clockwise from top left: Mike Willig, Jonathan Bobaljik, David Benson, and Arthur Hand.
Four UConn professors have been named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, based on their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. Clockwise from top left: Mike Willig, Jonathan Bobaljik, David Benson, and Arthur Hand.

Four UConn professors, including three from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and one from UConn Health, were named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week.

The AAAS grants Fellow status based on scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. The world’s largest general scientific society, AAAS publishes the journal Science and several other scientific publications, and aims to advance science and serve society through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, and public engagement.

David Benson, professor of molecular and cell biology, at the Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of Experts in Geneva. At the meeting, he and colleagues presented a 'mini-university' on basic science concepts to international diplomats. (Photo by Eric Bridiers)
David Benson, professor of molecular and cell biology, at the Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of Experts in Geneva. At the meeting, he and others presented a ‘mini-university’ on basic science concepts to international diplomats. (Photo by Eric Bridiers)

David Benson is a professor of molecular and cell biology in CLAS whose research and teaching expertise are in the broad areas of bacterial molecular genetics, and microbial physiology and ecology. He is particularly interested in genomic and biochemical characteristics that align with the distribution of microorganisms in environments.

Much of his work focuses on nitrogen-fixing plant symbioses, cheese ripening microbiology, and tick-borne diseases. His recent work has used genetic and protein sequence analysis to study microbe-plant interactions. His work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Benson is being honored for highly regarded leadership in understanding actinomyete-induced symbiotic nitrogen fixation and for disseminating his scientific discoveries in a manner that was well received.

Benson is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, and served as a Jefferson Science Fellow at the U.S. Department of State from 2012-2013, advising on issues related to microbiology, including biological warfare.

Jonathan Bobaljik, department head of linguistics at his office in Oak Hall on April 12, 2016. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Jonathan Bobaljik, department head of linguistics. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Jonathan Bobaljik, professor of linguistics in CLAS, works on the syntax of critically endangered languages, including research to understand and document Itelmen, a Siberian language with only five remaining native speakers. Bobaljik’s 2012 book, Universals in Comparative Morphology, used data from more than 300 languages to create a formal generative typology, or map, of the different types of languages, and postulates several rules about their structure that seem to be universal.

His current work involves continuing his search for these universals by looking at agreement systems, or how the different words in a sentence agree with one another. He and other linguists are now attempting to expand the realm of the scientific study of language past the field’s previous focus on mostly Indo-European languages and other widely spoken ones, such as Chinese and Japanese.

Bobaljik is honored for distinguished contributions to our understanding of word structure and sentence structure, and the inter-relations between them.

He is also a Fellow of the Linguistics Society of America, and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow.

Arthur Hand, professor emeritus of dental medicine, UConn Health. (Courtesy of Arthur Hand)
Arthur Hand, professor emeritus of dental medicine, UConn Health. (Courtesy of Arthur Hand)

Arthur Hand is emeritus professor of dental medicine at UConn Health. Until his retirement in 2015, he held a joint appointment in the Department of Craniofacial Sciences in the School of Dental Medicine and the Department of Cell Biology in the School of Medicine, and was assistant dean for medical and graduate education in the School of Dental Medicine. He continues to serve as an editorial board member for two academic journals, Acta Histochemica et Cytochemica and Journal of Oral Science.

His research focuses on salivary glands – morphology, development, and the effects of various experimental conditions, and the composition of saliva. His most recent work examined the effects of microgravity on protein and gene expression in salivary glands of mice flown on the U.S. space shuttles and a Russian biosatellite. He has received funding from the National Institutes of Health, and from the Connecticut Space Grant College Consortium. In 2007, he received the Distinguished Scientist Award–Salivary Research Award from the International Association for Dental Research.

Hand is recognized for his distinguished contributions to the field of salivary gland research, particularly for ultrastructural characterization during development, and the effects of stimulation and microgravity on function.

Mike Willig, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and director of the Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering, on April 4, 2016. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)
Mike Willig, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and director of the Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Michael Willig, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in CLAS, is the director of UConn’s Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering. He has worked on environmental science in Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, and the U.S., with an emphasis on applying quantitative and statistical techniques to understand the ecology and conservation of biodiversity. His work has clarified how keystone groups of species, such as bats, birds, insects, and gastropods, respond to disturbances, such as storms, droughts, logging, and agricultural practices.

His recently edited book, Long-Term Ecological Research: Changing the Nature of Scientists, explores how long-term, collaborative environmental research has altered scientists’ approach to science itself, to teaching, and to outreach. Among other awards, he has been continuously funded by NSF’s Long-Term Ecological Research Program since 1987.

Willig is being recognized for his distinguished contributions to biodiversity science and conservation biology, particularly in the development and application of sophisticated statistical models to enhance understanding and practice.

He has served on the Board of Directors for the American Society of Mammalogists, and for Conservation International’s Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Program.

The recipients will receive their awards at the February 2017 AAAS Meeting in Boston.

CAHNR Prof Wins New Innovator in Food & Agriculture Research Award

Published on Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research

Meet the inaugural winners of the New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research Award.

Mary Anne Roshni Amalaradjou, Ph.D.

University of Connecticut

New Innovator in Nutrition and Healthy Food Choices

Dr. Amalaradjou will investigate the effect of dairy foods on gut health using a mouse model. This research will provide a comprehensive and deeper understanding of the molecular interactions that promote the health benefits associated with dairy consumption. Advancing this nutritional knowledge will empower consumers to make science-based healthful food choices.

Voda: UConn alumni grows company from university roots

By Diler Haji
November 15, 2016

UConn alumni, Matt Cremins, started a company building and selling Voda, an automated drink-dispensing machine made to give people easy access and convenience.  (Lara604/FLICKR Creative Commons) 
UConn alumni, Matt Cremins, started a company building and selling Voda, an automated drink-dispensing machine made to give people easy access and convenience. (Lara604/FLICKR Creative Commons)

Matt Cremins never thought he’d be starting a company building and selling Voda, an automated drink-dispensing machine made to give people easy access and convenience. He said his parents thought he was crazy for giving up a job offer from General Electric upon graduating to focus on Voda, a company he began building as a student at the University of Connecticut. His parents eventually came around and Cremins now hopes to inspire future entrepreneurs at UConn to pursue their ideas and passions. He received both an M.A. and M.S. in mechanical engineering from UConn.

Cremins came from a small suburban town in New York state, where he said he had a great childhood, but not enough exposure to different people and ideas.

“I wanted a school with a lot more opportunities, more diversification,” he said. “Just different types of people with different ideas.”

UConn was his choice university not only because of the diversity he craved, but also because of the price and the shear energy of the student body (By energy, he meant school spirit, he said). At UConn, he said, there are so many activities, clubs and sports on campus that he was really drawn to the university.

As an undergraduate, Cremins joined Beta Theta Pi, a social fraternity on campus that emphasizes academic success and philanthropic outreach, and Engineering Without Borders, an organization that develops projects to better third-world countries. He was in the Honors program and lived in Buckley his freshman year.

Basketball was a huge part of Cremins’ student life.

“I was a regular ticket holder,” Cremins said.

For Cremins, work-life balance continues to be important. He said education is vital, but students need people and teamwork skills as well. Cremins learned a lot while at UConn, he said, especially in regard to diversity and understanding different people’s viewpoints.

“I learned to be a lot more accepting in college of different people and their views,” he said. “It wasn’t that I came into school that way, I developed that.”

Cremins admits that he messed up many times along the way, but has learned that the world is a lot smaller than anyone could have imagined, especially in an age of email and phones. He encourages students to be their genuine self and accept all people.

While he has learned to be a people-person through college, Cremins said he always loved tinker toys as a kid. As soon as he got to UConn, he resolved to pursue mechanical engineering. It wasn’t until he stayed at UConn an extra year for a master’s degree that he got interested in business and developing new products.

Voda started in a graduate entrepreneurship class. The idea came to Cremins when he tried to get a drink after class, but could only find unkept water fountains and sugary beverages at the Student Union. He wasn’t happy about the lack of access and healthy or sanitary options, he said.

“I went to class the next day and said there’s got to be a better solution. I saw the trends of people wanting to have choice in what they want to drink, be healthier and be eco-freindly,” he said. “I’ve always been proud of UConn being a top university in terms of being green. We don’t advertise that enough.”

Cremins called the journey of building prototypes of Voda an iterative process. He got into contact with others at UConn to help him with parts of the project in which he did not have the needed expertise. He said the graduate entrepreneurship class and other programs on campus gave him some money to get the project going. Once they had a good enough prototype, Cremins and his team began placing Voda in different places in Hartford, including gyms and special events. They’ve been able to get Voda into UConn Hillel, but are unable to get it into on-campus buildings because of UConn’s partnership with Coca Cola.

Despite the obstacles, Voda has since gotten increasingly successful and Cremins said he is focusing on fine-tuning the product and increasing sales this year.

“Finding more customers and actually selling the product,” he said. “One of my goals for this whole process has been to get it back to UConn, where it started.”

For Cremins, bringing Voda to UConn is a way for him to share it with the community in which he began his career. He hopes a portion of the proceeds will go back to philanthropy to give back to other communities in the spirit of encouraging diversity and outreach. He wants to inspire future engineers and entrepreneurs as well, especially students at UConn who may have never thought about being entrepreneurs.

“It’s more about the university seeing the journey of a student building and starting a company,” he said. “It’s something to believe in.

Rates of Ventilator-associated Pneumonia in Critically Ill Patients Haven’t Dropped Since 2005

Published on Pneumonia Research News / November 15, 2016

Daniela Semedo

The number of critically ill patients who develop ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP) has not declined significantly since 2005, a University of Connecticut (UConn) School of Medicine study reports.

This finding is not in agreement with data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s National Healthcare Safety Network, which reported declining rates between 2006 and 2012 in both medical and surgical intensive care units.

The study, “Trend in Ventilator-Associated Pneumonia Rates Between 2005 and 2013,” was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

VAP is a type of lung infection that develops in people who are on ventilators in hospitals. VAP typically affects critically ill patients who are in an intensive care unit (ICU), with studies indicating that up to 15 percent of patients who develop VAP may die from the infection.

“VAP is not going away; it still affects approximately one in 10 ventilated patients,” Dr. Mark L. Metersky of UConn Health’s Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, and the study’s lead author, said in a news release. “Our findings are in stark contrast to the CDC’s report of a marked decline in VAP rates that had some believing it may no longer be an important problem.”

Using medical record data from the Medicare Patient Safety Monitoring System, Metersky and his colleagues analyzed VAP rates from 1,856 critically ill Medicare patients ages 65 and older, hospitalized in the United States from 2006 to 2012. All patients included in the analysis were placed on mechanical ventilation due to acute myocardial infarction (heart attack), heart failure, pneumonia, or surgical care.

Researchers found that the VAP rates in those seven years remained stable and substantial, affecting about 10 percent of critically ill ventilated patients. When researchers compared their results to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network rates, there was no correlation; the CDC reported a decline in VAP rates during this period.

This study shows that VAP remains an important clinical problem and demonstrates the need for additional research on how to prevent and treat VAP.

“We have not beat this,” Metersky said. “Current hospital interventions that are used in an attempt to prevent VAP are not working. VAP is still a significant issue, and needs more examination into how we survey its occurrence and report it, along with more research into how best to prevent this type of pneumonia in vulnerable patient populations.”

The potential impact of VAP rates that are higher than expected may be leading patients to experience lung complications or even death, as well as spending more time on a ventilator or in the ICU. VAP slows patient recovery, increasing the use of antibiotics which may lead to potential resistance, and increases healthcare costs due to longer hospital stays.

2016 SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund Awards

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) is pleased to announce the recipients of the Fall 2016 UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund Program. The SPARK program provides critical early-stage funding to help investigators from UConn-Storrs and UConn Health (UCH) advance promising ideas along the innovation continuum toward commercialization.

“While UConn’s research pipeline remains strong, accessing critical proof-of-concept funding for early-stage projects is very difficult,” said Dr. Jeff Seemann, UConn/UConn Health Vice President for Research. “The SPARK program aims to fill that gap so that innovative discoveries made in UConn labs can eventually make it to market where they can benefit the citizens of Connecticut and have a positive impact on the state’s economic growth and development.”

The selection committee included UConn/UConn Health faculty and staff leaders, entrepreneurs and senior executives from top pharmaceutical, biotech and venture capital firms. Through this valuable proof-of-concept funding program, participating UConn researchers not only advance their promising technologies toward the market, they also connect with and learn from the committee members representing various industries. As was the case last year, the committee members were truly impressed by the science and innovation conveyed in all 16 presentations.

The committee selected the following seven proposals from a highly competitive pool of finalists:

Dr. Ki Chon, UConn, Department of Biomedical Engineering
Waterproof Leadless Armband for Continuous Wireless Monitoring for Atrial Fibrillation

Dr. Charles Giardina, UConn, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology
Development of Compounds Synthetically Lethal to APC-Mutant Cancer Cells

Dr. Marc Lalande, UConn Health, Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences
Blocking DNA Binding as Therapy for Prader-Willi Syndrome

Dr. Les Loew & Dr. Corey Acker, UConn Health, Department of Cell Biology, Center for Cell Analysis and Modeling
Voltage Sensitive Dyes for Cell-Based High Throughput Drug and Toxicological Screening

Dr. Syam Nukavarapu, UConn Health, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery
Biodegradable Osteochondral Graft

Dr. Fotios Papadimitrakopoulos & Dr. Nicole Wagner, UConn, Institute of Materials Science/Department of Chemistry
Characterization of Diffusion and Stability of a Novel Protein-Based Retinal Implant

Dr. Ted Rasmussen, UConn, Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology
Proprietary Nucleic Acid Pharmaceuticals that Target Noncoding RNA for Cardioprotection

Congratulations, SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund Recipients!

The UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund Program is managed by the Office of the Vice President for Research.