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Students Perform Leading Edge Medical Research at Penn Through American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
October 6, 2009, Volume 56, No. 06

The University of Pennsylvania received more than $650,000 in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to fund 30 summer research experiences for high school teachers and high school and college students. This program is designed to speed the pace of scientific achievement, encourage and prepare the next generation of students to participate in the health-related sciences and promote job creation and economic development.

The funding created not only jobs but provided 10 high school students, 45 college students and four faculty from non-research-intensive institutions with short-term research experiences. Penn studies included research on the improvement of asthma interventions, gene therapy, the care of those suffering with postpartum depression, sleep regulation, public education, cardiovascular disease, tobacco’s effect on health and more.
The National Institutes of Health Summer Research Experience used funding from the ARRA of 2009 to pair more than 3,000 students and teachers nationwide for hands-on experiences in laboratories where breakthrough research is taking place.

All funded studies focus on patient care and evaluate different medical treatment options currently available to patients, such as comparing competing drugs or analyzing different approaches such as surgery over drug therapy. The projects must also include an aspect of electronic health-data collection, considered a significant step towards the improvement of health care and the reduction of its cost.

Penn studies include:

• Undergraduate biochemistry student Louise Wang conducted research on the functions of the Lin28b gene, which is linked to pleuripotental stem cells, the flexible cells able to morph into any cell or tissue type. She worked with cancer researcher Anil K. Rustgi, a professor of medicine and genetics and chief of gastroenterology at the Penn School of Medicine. The study was funded by the Center for Digestive and Liver Diseases.

• Undergraduates Alyssa Yeager and Christian Hinderer worked in the laboratory of Jim Wilson, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, and Daniel Rader, an expert in preventive cardiovascular medicine, both at Penn Medicine. Their work, funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, focused on the development of gene therapies, in particular therapies to treat two severe genetic disorders of the liver that prevent absorption of dietary fats, cholesterol and fat-soluble vitamins, causing a host of ailments.

• Penn Medicine’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology expanded two popular summer mentorship programs with funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Both programs, organized by Jennifer Pinto-Martin of Penn Med and the School of Nursing, expose undergraduate and high school students to the field of environmental health science with the goal of increasing the pipeline of tomorrow’s researchers. The Short-Term Educational Experiences for Research (STEER) program provided undergraduate students with the opportunity to research ozone-exposure-induced changes to the immune system.

• The Teen Research and Education in Environmental Science (TREES) program gives high school students the opportunity to train in basic laboratory techniques and then work one on one with graduate-student mentors on self-designed projects that address issues in environmental science. This year, Victor Fiore, a high school senior, sought an effective heat treatment to eradicate antibiotics from water. Rebecca Saionz, a high school junior, studied the carcinogenic effects of radiation.

• Undergraduate Kent Amoo-Achampong joined Daniel Polsky, a professor of medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine with a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, to find ways to reduce costs by improving the quality of health-care delivery in Medicare. Dr. Polsky looks at ways that home health care can be better used to reduce expensive health-care events such as hospitalizations.

• Nancy E. Cooke, professor of medicine and genetics at Penn Medicine, received two stimulus awards for summer students. The first explored the inner workings of the human growth hormone chromatin, which is critically important to the expression of gestational hormones during the second and third trimester of pregnancy. The second award explores the role of non-coding RNA transcripts in directing pituitary somatotrope differentiation and growth hormone gene expression. Both of these studies involve the creation and analysis of specially engineered transgenic mice. They were funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

• James Coyne, professor of psychiatry at Penn Medicine, was joined by students to continue a study on the detection and care of women suffering from perinatal period depression, which has negative implications for women; for fetal, infant, and child development; and for the larger family. The overarching goal is to identify factors that prevent access to care, including institutional, financial, provider and practical issues as well as often overlooked factors such as personal and cultural attitudes about depression, engagement with the medical system, competing priorities and difficulties maintaining a focus on personal mental health during pregnancy and early motherhood, particularly for disadvantaged women. The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

• Joseph Cappella, professor in Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, has enlisted the help of three undergraduate students to better understand how the public views ethical and policy issues related to genetics and genetics research. The National Human Genome Research Institute funded the study.

• John Francis Golder, a researcher with the School of Veterinary Medicine at Penn, received funding from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to research pharmacological strategies to improve patient breathing after cervical spine injury. Respiratory failure is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in people with acute and chronic cervical spinal-cord injury, and therapeutic approaches that restore respiratory function can significantly improve quality of life.

• Madeleine Joullie, a researcher in the department of chemistry in SAS received funding from the National Cancer Institute to further the education of Nikolai Tolstoy, a former Penn undergraduate student. Dr. Joullie and Mr. Tolstoy work on the total synthesis of natural products, both plant and marine-based, that may serve as novel therapeutic agents.

• Samuel K. Chacko, professor of pathology in the School of Veterinary Medicine and director of basic urologic research at Penn Medicine, received funding from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The study is a translational research program that focuses on the cellular/molecular mechanisms for lower-urinary-tract symptoms which are common in men with benign prostatic hyperplasia, in menopausal women and in some children.

“The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has provided Penn’s next generation of scientific researchers with immediate, hands-on laboratory experiences that encourage their passion and empower them to be productive members of the University’s research community, even at the undergraduate level,” Steven J. Fluharty, vice provost for research, said.

Penn  has received more than 141 awards and allocated funding totaling more than $50 million from the ARRA. Thus far, Penn faculty have submitted more than 1,175 research proposals totaling $857,655,998 in requested funding to institutions like the NIH and NSF, with the bulk of research awards yet to be announced.

ARRA has delivered the largest increase in basic funding in the history of federally funded scientific research: $21.5 billion.


Almanac - October 6, 2009, Volume 56, No. 06