Health Sciences Report Summer 2004

Research in Brief
Selected New Research Projects Funded by Major Grants and Awards

School of Medicine

  • John H. B. Bridge, Ph.D., research professor of cardiology and an investigator at the Nora Eccles Harrison Cardiovascular Research and Training Institute, received a five-year $1.68 million grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, to study the Relationship Between Calcium Sparks and Their Triggers in the Heart. Bridge’s research is designed to determine the mechanisms involved in beat-to-beat elevation of intracellular calcium in heart cells. This rise, which elicits heart cell contraction, is critically important for sustaining normal cardiac output. Results of the study may provide insights into the relationship between calcium movement across heart cell membranes and the release of calcium from internal storage sites.
  • Randall W. Burt, M.D., professor of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition, who also is senior director for Population and Outreach, and co-director of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the University’s Huntsman Cancer Institute, is principal investigator on a $12.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to research the Molecular and Clinical Approaches to Colon Cancer Precursors. The five-year project will investigate the genetic and cellular underpinnings of colon cancer through five separate studies. These include identifying genes that, when mutated, predispose people to develop colon cancer and looking at specific cellular chemicals that may alter cell growth or cancer predisposition in both inherited and non-inherited forms of colon cancer. Results will help lead to a more targeted approach to colon cancer screening, development of drugs to prevent formation of polyps and colon cancer, and improved chemotherapy for existing cancers.
  • Robert M. Silver, M.D., associate professor and chief of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, was awarded a five-year $1.71 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to direct the U of U’s participation in a multi-center study of the Scope and Causes of Stillbirth in the United States. Some 300-400 women in Salt Lake City will participate in the study, from which researchers will develop a modern standard postmortem protocol to determine the causes of stillbirth. They will obtain a geographic population-based determination of the incidence of fetal deaths at 20 weeks or greater. Ultimately, they hope to reduce the rate of stillbirths. Co-investigators at the U are Michael W. Varner, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and John M. Opitz, M.D., professor of pediatric genetics and adjunct professor of human genetics. Other centers in the study are the University of Texas health sciences centers at San Antonio and Galveston, Brown University, and Emory University.
  • Alessandra Angelucci, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences, is studying Cortical Circuits for Classical and Extra-classical Receptive Field Interactions in Visual Cortex with a three-year $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Previously, it was believed that single cells in the visual cerebral cortex respond to the presentation of simple visual stimuli within a localized region of space, called the cell’s classical receptive field (cRF), and that presentation of identical stimuli outside the cRF do not evoke any response from neurons. However, it has been demonstrated that visual cortex neurons respond to the “context” within which stimuli are presented. Specifically, neuronal responses to stimuli within the cells’ cRF can be changed in various ways by the simultaneous presentation of stimuli outside the cells’ cRF. This change is very specific and depends on the relative configuration of visual stimuli inside and outside the cRF. The goal of Angelucci’s research is to identify which brain circuits in the visual cerebral cortex generate neuronal responses outside the cRF and to determine their role in visual perception.
  • Lester J. Layfield, M.D., professor and chief of the Division of Anatomic Pathology in the Department of Pathology, is studying the Determination of N-myc Status in Neuroblastomas by Comparing Fluorescent Insitu Hybridization and Monoplex PCR with Standard Techniques. N-myc amplification status is a major prognostic marker for neuroblastomas. Current assay techniques cannot be performed on intact tissue. Layfield is testing the validity of using FZSH and monoplex PCR, which could be more rapid and inexpensive than standard slot-blotting techniques. His project is funded by the Associated Regional and University Pathologists (ARUP) Institute.
  • Martin Tristani-Firouzi, M.D., assistant professor of pediatric cardiology, received a five-year $1.85 million grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, to study Voltage Sensor Movement in the HERG Potassium Channel. Potassium channels are proteins that allow potassium ions to flow across the cell membrane and down their electrochemical gradient. Voltage-gated potassium channels can “sense” the cell membrane potential and open in response to membrane depolarization. This study investigates the mechanisms whereby an important cardiac potassium channel (HERG) senses the surrounding membrane potential and translates that information into opening the channel pore. Understanding the fundamental mechanisms of voltage-sensing and channel-opening has broad implications for the fields of heart, brain, skeletal muscle, and smooth muscle physiology.
  • Janet E. Lainhart, M.D., and William M. McMahon, M.D., both associate professors of psychiatry, are co-principal investigators on a five-year $5.38 million, multidisciplinary study funded by the National Institute for Child and Human Development to investigate Three Aspects of Autism: Genetics, Immunology, and Brain Development (Neuroimaging). The U is one of 10 medical centers nationwide designated as a Collaborative Program in Excellence in Autism for the study. For neuroimaging, U researchers will follow 72 children and adults with autism, and a control group without the disorder for three years to monitor brain development. They will use the Magnetom 3T Trio System, the U’s new $3 million MRI scanner that provides powerful resolution. Hilary Coon, Ph.D., research associate professor of psychiatry, is principal investigator for the genetics study, which will involve collecting blood samples from 800 Utah families that have an individual with autism. Robert S. Fujinami, Ph.D., professor of neurology and principal investigator of the immunology component, is determining if there are immunological mechanisms involved in autism.
  • David A. Bull, M.D., associate professor of cardiothoracic surgery, is conducting an Examination of the Role of the VEGF Gene and Protein in Restoring Blood Flow to Ischemic Myocardium with a five-year $1.86 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. He is developing an effective lipopolymer carrier for genetic transfection of the myocardium, then will develop a gene construct to allow expression of a gene to promote blood vessel growth within the myocardium. This would offer the possibility of having a clinically viable gene construct that mimics the physiologic process of the blood vessel, but only under conditions of ischemia, not under the normal oxygen tension within the myocardium.

College of Pharmacy

  • Thomas E. Cheatham III, Ph.D., assistant professor in the departments of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, and adjunct assistant professor in the bioengineering department, is co-principal investigator on an information technology research project to develop a Web-based Grid-computing Environment for Research and Education in Computational Science and Engineering. Funded by a four-year $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the multidisciplinary research team will produce the Computational Science and Engineering On-line ( and Computational Biology and Bioinformatics. The ultimate goal is to develop a Web-based environment that allows researchers to use and link a wide variety of chemistry, computational biology, and bioinformatics tools and databases; to document and disseminate results; and to easily perform large-scale simulations on computational grids. Co-principal investigators include Julio C. Facelli, Ph.D., adjunct professor of medical informatics, and Thanh Truong, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry.
  • Louis R. Barrows, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology, and Chris M. Ireland, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry, are co-principal investigators on a study of Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity in Papua New Guinea. Funded by a $4 million International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups grant, the project is an international effort to search the diverse plant life of the island-nation for drugs to treat tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases. It also aims to encourage the people of Papua New Guinea to conserve the fast-disappearing rainforest and help spur the growth of a cottage industry in which plants are used to make medicinal drugs. Other researchers come from the National Museum of National History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; London, England; Wyeth Research; and the University of Papua New Guinea.

College of Nursing

  • Pamela K. Hardin, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Innovative Models and Systems, recently conducted a one-year study of Tongan Women: Culture, History, and Health. In focus groups of 42 women of Tongan heritage, ages 18-75, she examined health-care practices related to weight, obesity, and associated health consequences. Results from the study, funded by the college’s Nursing Research Committee, indicate that the health-care needs of Tongan women, many who live below the poverty level, include access to culturally sensitive care. They also need providers who are members of the Tongan community, according to Hardin. She plans subsequent studies with Tongan girls to explore the intersections of Tongan and “American-influenced” culture specific to the constructs of body size, image, beauty, and weight-loss techniques.

College of Health

  • Lynda Ransdell, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise and sport science, conducted a Three-generational Physical Activity Promotion Program with funding from Primary Children’s Medical Center Foundation. She compared a group of daughters, mothers, and grandmothers who participated in a six-month program that promoted home-based physical activities to a control group. She found that the home-based program participants increased their aerobic and flexibility activities, the number of steps taken per day, and the number of push-ups completed, while decreasing their mile time and percentage of body fat. Changes in muscular strength, determined by the number of push-ups performed, also were a significant predictor of changes in life satisfaction.
  • David M. Compton, Ed.D., professor, and Jennifer Piatt, R.T.C., C.T.R.S., doctoral student and research assistant, both in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, are conducting a year-long study of Long-term Care Information Resources, funded by a $41,662 grant from the State of Utah. The researchers are surveying more than 200 consumers, families, physicians, discharge planners, educators, and case managers to determine what information is needed to make decisions about long-term care placement options for the elderly and individuals with mental, developmental, and physical disabilities. Following their analysis, the researchers will provide the state with a Multi-Attribute Utility Technology (MAUT) model of the principal components for decision-making. Nominal Group Technique (NGT) focus groups then will be held in rural and urban areas to help construct a Web-site and CD to help with long-term care decisions.
  • Robin L. Marcus, P.T., Ph.D., O.C.S., clinical assistant professor of physical therapy, is studying the Impact of Eccentric Ergometry on Muscle Size and Insulin Sensitivity in Postmenopausal Females with a grant from the Office for Research on Women’s Health, National Institutes of Health. She is one of five U of U faculty members to be awarded funding as a Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) Scholar. In her five-year study, Marcus is drawing upon preliminary studies showing that eccentric bicycle ergometry improved muscle mass and muscle performance in elderly individuals. Since the rate of muscle loss increases rapidly after transition into menopause and muscle loss is associated with decreased insulin sensitivity, she will test whether this intervention has a positive impact on insulin sensitivity in postmenopausal women. Donald A. McClain, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chief of the medical school’s Division of Endrocrinology, Metabolism, and Diabetes, is co-investigator on the study.

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