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Research partnerships bridge basic science and clinical expertise

Even before the steel was being raised for the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute (VTC), Virginia Tech and Carilion faculty members were collaborating on research projects.

With seed money from VTC, a dozen new partnerships were launched in early and mid 2009. In several instances, collaboration has added the clinical element to well-funded basic science programs at Virginia Tech.

   

Eva Schmelz is associate professor of human nutrition, foods and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech. Eva Schmelz is associate professor of human nutrition, foods and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech.

Detecting and stopping ovarian cancer

Eva Schmelz, associate professor of human nutrition, foods and exercise (HNFE) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, and P. Christopher Roberts, associate professor of virology in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, have spent years developing an animal ovarian cancer model to study the disease with the aim of discovering the initial changes that would signal its presence. With more than $1.6 million in funding from the National Cancer Institute, they have also discovered potential chemopreventive and chemotherapeutic treatments.

Until now, however, the research has been based on mouse models. Now, with the funding of the VTC seed grant program, they will be evaluating their approach on human tissue samples.

Schmelz and Roberts are partnering with Dr, Dennis Scribner Jr., gynecological oncology section chief at Carilion Clinic, to discover early defects in the immune response that allow ovarian cancer progression.

   

Members of Associate Professor Chris Roberts' research lab in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine Members of Associate Professor Chris Roberts' research lab in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine include (fromt left) staff member Lynn Heffron, veterinary medicine graduate student; Greg Swieter of Fairfax, Va.; veterinary medicine Ph.D. candidate Andrew Herbert of Blacksburg, Va.; Roberts; and senior biological sciences honors student Megan Wicks of Colonial Heights, Va.

The three researchers are focused on the interaction of the cancer cells with the immune system to discover early defects in immune response that allow ovarian cancer progression. Roberts explained that the cancer cells are able to suppress the host response. "The immune system does not recognize cancer as a threat. We are trying to dissect out those interactions that lead to this change in the tumor microenvironment," he said.

"This collaborative effort will now let us evaluate how effective this treatment could potentially be in the clinical setting, and it is our hope that we can use our findings to enhance both chemopreventive as well as chemotherapeutic approaches to treating various stages of the disease, including the elusive early stages," Schmelz said.

Delivering effective programs targeting childhood obesity

Virginia Tech and Carilion have developed Smart Choices for Healthy Families, bringing together the resources of Dr. Michael H. Hart, section chief of pediatric gastroenterology at Carlion Clinic; Paul Estabrooks, associate professor of HNFE at Virginia Tech, who directs the Translational Obesity Research Program; and Mary McFerren, Virginia Cooperative Extension family nutrition program leader and principal investigator of the $5.2 million Smart Choices nutrition education program funded by the Virginia Department of Social Services.

   

Paul Estabrooks practices interviewing a subject, his daughter in this case, to prepare for the Smart Choices nutrition education program. Paul Estabrooks (right) practices interviewing a subject, his daughter in this case (center), to prepare for the Smart Choices nutrition education program.

In summer 2009, the partnership completed a small pilot study examining childhood obesity with the aim of treating it in low-income families. HNFE graduate student Courtney Robert of Langley, British Columbia, was a research coordinator with Smart Choices at the time. As part of her dissertation research, she recruited families for the study, conducted measurement sessions with them, and oversaw group sessions and automated telephone counseling calls.

"The partnership identified the need to provide consistent follow-up and to teach families methods to change the home environment to be supportive of regular physical activity and healthful eating," Robert said.

The intervention included brief physician counseling and referral, six bi-weekly group sessions taught by Virginia Cooperative Extension program assistants, and six automated telephone counseling calls on alternate weeks. Twenty-six participants, half boys and half girls about 10-years-old, were recruited and completed baseline and three-month follow-up assessments. The average attendance at face-to-face sessions was 65 percent and of those, 89 percent completed the subsequent automated telephone counseling call.

   

DEXA scan Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) is used to evaluate bone mineral density. DXA scans can also be used to measure total body composition and fat content.

The young people were treated to some high-tech diagnostics in the form of a whole-body scan to determine body composition. The pilot project resulted in a significant reduction in the children’s body mass index (BMI), an increase in lean muscle mass, and an increase in health related quality of life, Estabrooks summarized. "Smart Choices reached a sample that was representative of the larger target population and was effective in reducing BMI, increasing lean muscle mass, and improving the health of low-income obese children," he said.

"This research-practice partnership represents a model that could translate into other communities to increase the efficiency of the treatment of childhood obesity."

Next, Robert said she plans to ask parents to complete a survey on the home environment related to childhood obesity and test the validity and reliability of the measure. This will allow researchers to gain a better understanding of the influences of the home environment, both social and physical aspects, on children’s weight status.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Susan Trulove at (540) 231-5646.

Sensor could detect MRSA

    Ziwei Zuo and Randy Heflin

Virginia Tech and Carilion researchers are developing a nanoscale optical fiber biosensor assays to detect and differentiate Staphylococcus aureus and Methicillin-Resistant S. aureus (MRSA). Ziwei Zuo, a Ph.D. student in physics at Virginia Tech (left), has worked with physics Professor Randy Heflin on the sensor.

    A coated optical fiber can be used as a biosensor.

The optical fiber (above) is coated with self-assembled layers of polymer and affinity coating with a total thickness of ~20 nanometers. The researchers have shown that when the fiber is exposed to solutions containing small amounts of target materials, it can detect concentrations as low as 1 nanogram per milliliter. The oscilloscope traces show the change in the amount of light transmitted through the fiber in a specific wavelength range after exposure to the target material.

Co-investigators are Thomas Inzana, the Tyler J. and Frances F. Young Chair of Bacteriology in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine (VMRCVM); Dr. Tom Kerkering, infectious disease section chief for Carilion Clinic; and A.B. Bandara, research assistant professor of biomedical sciences and pathobiology, VMRCVM.

Protein molecule linked to chronic inflammatory diseases

    Liwu Li, professor of biological sciences, heads the laboratory of innate immunity an inflammation.

Liwu Li (pictured), professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech and coordinator of the Research and Graduate Program in Inflammation, focuses on the molecular and cellular mechanism controlling innate immunity, infection, and inflammation. 

Proper activation of innate immunity helps a host defend against invading pathogens, assists with wounds as they heal after injury and eradicates dead or malignant cancer cells. 

But, excessive immune response can lead to serious inflammatory diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis. 

Li’s group has unraveled the function of several key intracellular proteins essential for mediating the human innate immunity process and is defining potential molecular targets for future intervention of chronic human inflammatory diseases. 

Li has submitted a provisional patent identifying a key protein as a target. 

About VTC

Scheduled to open in August 2010, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute will combine Virginia Tech’s strength in basic sciences, bioinformatics, and engineering with Carilion Clinic’s medical staff and tradition of medical education.

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