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Jefferson researchers receive $3.9 million in Challenge grants

(PHILADELPHIA) Four researchers from Thomas Jefferson University have received $3.9 million in Challenge grant funds as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The NIH has designated at least $200 million in 2009 - 2010 for this new initiative called the Challenge Grants in Health and Science Research. More than 800 Challenge grants across the country have been funded. This program supports research on "Challenge Topics" which address specific scientific and health research challenges in biomedical and behavioral research that will benefit from significant 2-year jumpstart funds. Challenge Areas, defined by the NIH, focus on specific knowledge gaps, scientific opportunities, new technologies, data generation, or research methods that would benefit from an influx of funds to quickly advance the area in significant ways. The research in these areas should have a high impact in biomedical or behavioral science and/or public health.

Flemming Forsberg, Ph.D., professor of Radiology, will receive $895,000 over two years to study a method of measuring portal venous pressure to aid in the diagnosis and management of portal hypertension, which is defined as elevated internal pressure in the hepatic portal vein.

"Increased pressure in the blood vessels of the liver can lead to significant complications, including internal bleeding and death," Dr. Forsberg said. "An accurate marker for portal hypertension would impact literally millions of Americans with liver disease."

Dr. Forsberg and his study team will study a novel ultrasound technique called subharmonic-aided pressure estimating (SHAPE), which is a noninvasive procedure used in the diagnosis and management of portal hypertension. The SHAPE algorithm will be tested first in canines, and then in 45 human patients that undergo a trans-jugular liver biopsy at Jefferson.

Laura N. Gitlin, Ph.D., director of the Jefferson Center for Applied Research on Aging and Health, will receive $1 million over two years to conduct a cost-effectiveness analysis of an intervention called Beat the Blues, a 10-session home-based intervention to treat depression in older community-dwelling African Americans.

"As the prevalence of late-life depression among older African Americans is high, an economic evaluation of Beat the Blues has great potential for improving the lives of this vulnerable population," Dr. Gitlin said.

Dr. Gitlin and her team will calculate the cost and cost-effectiveness of Beat the Blues, which is being studied in a randomized two-group experimental design. Beat the Blues involves trained social workers who meet with the participants to provide depression education, develop tailored action plans to accomplish behavioral goals and teach stress reduction techniques, among other activities.

Maurizio Pacifici, Ph.D., director of Orthopedic Research, will receive $1 million over two years to study Hereditary Multiple Exostosis Syndrome (HME), a rare autosomal dominant disorder that affects about one in 50,000 children and adolescents. It is associated with bone malignant tumors, and causes growth retardation, continuous pain and limited mobility and fatigue.

"This project will thus provide a renewed sense of hope to patients and families alike that this neglected disease will actively be studied and a cure may one day be found," Dr. Pacifici said.

Dr. Pacifici and his team propose to identify and test mechanisms of HME pathogenesis in animal models. They will then test whether exostosis formation can be prevented by pharmacologic interference with a key growth plate signaling factor called Indian hedgehog. In preliminary studies, this signaling factor was abnormally distributed and its redistribution was followed by exostosis formation.

Scott Waldman, M.D., Ph.D., chairman of the department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, will receive $1 million over two years to study the role of a colorectal cancer marker called GUCY2C in detecting occult metastases in African-American patients with the disease. Currently, there are disparities in the outcomes of African-American vs. Caucasian patients diagnosed with early-stage colon cancer.

"We believe that African-American patients might have a higher rate of occult metastases in the lymph nodes," Dr. Waldman said. "We also believe this can be overcome using molecular analyses compared to routine pathological analyses."

Dr. Waldman and his team will conduct a retrospective analysis comparing the results of African-American patients and Caucasian patients diagnosed with early-stage colorectal cancer. They will look at the utility of using GUCY2C as a variable to identify occult metastases in the lymph nodes, and see how the tumor burden of GUCY2C compares between African-American and Caucasian patients.


Contact: Emily Shafer
Thomas Jefferson University

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