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Research Roundup
October 12, 2010, Volume 57, No. 07

Exploring African-American Family Foundations and Philanthropic-Giving Strategies

Marybeth Gasman, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Penn, has completed the first exploratory study into understanding the world of African-American family foundations. The study was published in the Journal of Non-Profit Management and Leadership on October 1.

In “A Growing Tradition? Examining the African-American Family Foundation,” Dr. Gasman reports that most foundations focus their resources in one of three key areas: public need, education and health. African-Americans give nearly 25% of their charitable donations to organizations that serve the public need, like after-school programs; 15% to scholarships and educational institutions, including historically black colleges and universities; and 13% to health-related causes, such as treating sickle cell anemia and social-service programs related to HIV/AIDS and breast cancer, the study found.

After tracing their development, Dr. Gasman reported that these organizations have a long history rooted in cultural traditions of community support.

“African-Americans are more inclined to start their own foundations rather than setting up donor-advised funds with community foundations. They’d much rather control their own assets,” Dr. Gasman said. “This desire to control their assets stems from a sense of mistrust based on their experience with banks, insurance companies and other institutions in the past.”

This comprehensive research study determined that most African-American family foundations were established by one of five groups––professional athletes, musicians, actors and actresses, doctors or business owners––and that these foundations are located in areas with large black populations, including California, New York, Georgia, Illinois, Florida and Texas.

“A Growing Tradition” highlights three main reasons for creating these foundations: a desire to give back, the longing to have significant impact and an obligation to help disadvantaged children, particularly in the areas of education, health, personal development and life-skills training.

“African-Americans who establish family foundations are not unlike their counterparts in the majority population,” Dr. Gasman said. “What sets them apart is the desire to give back and ‘uplift’ those in their communities, to ‘reach back and pull up’ those around them.”

Anticancer Activity in Additives of Ancient Alcoholic Drinks

New biomolecular archaeological evidence backed up by increasingly sophisticated scientific testing techniques are uncovering medicinal remedies discovered, tested, and sometimes lost, throughout millennia of human history—herbs, tree resins, and other organic materials dispensed by ancient fermented beverages like wine and beer. Did those ancient “remedies” work—and if so, is there something we can learn—or re-learn—from our ancestors to help sick people today?

The answer is now a definitive yes, thanks to early positive results from laboratory testing conducted by researchers at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, working in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory run by archaeochemist and ancient alcohol expert Dr. Patrick E. McGovern.

Over the past two years, researchers working on a unique joint project, “Archaeological Oncology: Digging for Drug Discovery,” have been testing compounds found in ancient fermented beverages from China and Egypt for their anticancer properties. Several compounds–specifically luteolin from sage and ursolic acid from thyme and other herbs attested in ancient Egyptian wine jars, ca 3150 BCE, and artemisinin and its synthetic derivative, artesunate, and isoscopolein from wormwood species (Artemisia), which laced an ancient Chinese rice wine, ca 1050 BCE—showed promising and positive test tube activity against lung and colon cancers.

The next stage, testing of these compounds against lung cancer in animal models, is being planned for the future. A review of the research undertaken, and early results obtained, is available in the July 2010 issue of the International Journal of Oncology (“Anticancer activity of botanical compounds in ancient fermented beverages” authored by Dr. McGovern, with M. Christofidou-Solomidou, W. Wang, F. Dukes, T. Davidson, and W.S. El-Deiry), the abstract of which is online at www.spandidos-publications.com/ijo/.

Dr. McGovern is the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and an adjunct professor of anthropology.

How Old Is Too Old for Colic Surgery?

Veterinarians from Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center have made some surprising discoveries concerning older horses and colic surgery.

Just like their human counterparts, horses are living longer. Advances in equine health care and nutrition mean that they are also able to have active, useful lives well into their advanced years. With the increase in longevity comes an increase in the opportunity for colic. Veterinarians at the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine studied the responses of mature and aged patients presented at the hospital with symptoms of colic and treated surgically for the condition. The goal of the research study was to give owners more accurate information on the likelihood of survival and complications that they might encounter with older horses following colic surgery.

For the purposes of the project, survival rates and post-operative complications of colic patients were studied retrospectively. The sample included 300 geriatric horses, defined as 16-20 years of age, and 300 mature horses, four-15 years old, admitted to New Bolton Center’s George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals in Kennett Square, PA.

“Gastrointestinal tract problems and signs of colic are among the most common reasons for admission of geriatric horses to referral hospitals,” said Dr. Louise Southwood, assistant professor of emergency medicine and critical care at New Bolton Center. Dr. Southwood, who is board certified in surgery as well as emergency and critical care, led the study. “Owners are often concerned that performing surgery on their geriatric horses might not be in the best interest of the horse. We wanted to be able to give them the information with which to make an informed decision.”

While the geriatric horses seemed no more critically ill than their mature counterparts, the odds that their colic was caused by a strangulating small intestinal lesion, a condition which requires surgery, were twice that of the mature horses. What surprised the research team was that the difference in the survival rates between geriatric and mature horses that underwent such surgery was negligible, 86% to 83%. Similarly, the short-term survival rates for geriatric and mature horses with large intestinal strangulating lesions such as a twisted colon was 78% and 70%, and large intestinal simple obstruction, such as an impaction or displacement, was 80% and 97% respectively. These figures reflect pre-discharge data only. The numbers didn’t change significantly if the horses classified as geriatric were 16 years or 20 years of age. Researchers did note, however, that the geriatric horses were more likely to have a short period of loss of appetite following surgery.

“The results of this study are important for horse owners,” said Dr. Southwood, “because they can help owners make a decision regarding whether or not to undergo surgery.” The same team of researchers plans to look at the long-term survival of horses in the 20-25 year old category in the future. The research study has just been published online by the Equine Veterinary Journal.

Catastrophic Flooding May Be More Predictable After Penn Researchers Build a Mini River Delta

An interdisciplinary team of physicists and geologists led by the University of Pennsylvania has made a major step toward predicting where and how large floods occur on river deltas and alluvial fans.

In a laboratory, researchers created a miniature river delta that replicates flooding patterns seen in natural rivers, resulting in a mathematical model capable of aiding in the prediction of the next catastrophic flood.

The results appear in an issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

Slow deposition of sediment within rivers eventually fills channels, forcing water to spill into surrounding areas and find a new, steeper path. The process is called avulsion. The result, with the proper conditions, is catastrophic flooding and permanent relocation of the river channel.

The goal of the Penn research was to improve prediction of why and where such flooding will occur and to determine how this avulsion process builds deltas and fans over geologic time.

Research was motivated by the August 18, 2008, flooding of the Kosi River fan in northern India, where an artificial embankment was breached and the resulting floodwaters displaced more than a million people. Looking at satellite pictures, scientists from Penn and the University of Minnesota, Duluth, noticed that floodwaters principally filled abandoned channel paths.

Meredith Reitz, lead author of the study and a graduate student in the department of physics and astronomy in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, conducted a set of four laboratory experiments to study the avulsion process in detail. Ms. Reitz injected a mixture of water and sediment into a bathtub-sized tank and documented the formation and avulsion of river channels as they built a meter-sized delta.

“Reducing the scale of the system allows us to speed up time,” Ms, Reiz said. “We can observe processes in the lab that we could never see in nature.”

The laboratory experiments showed flooding patterns that were remarkably similar to the Kosi fan and revealed that flooding and channel relocation followed a repetitive cycle.

One major finding was that the formation of a river channel on a delta followed a random path; however, once a network of channels was formed, avulsion consistently returned flow to these same channels, rather than creating new ones. An additional important finding was that the average frequency of flooding was determined by how long it took to fill a channel with sediment. Researchers constructed a mathematical model incorporating these two ideas, which was able to reproduce the statistical behavior of flooding.

“Avulsions on river deltas and fans are like earthquakes,” said Douglas Jerolmack, director of the Sediment Dynamics Laboratory in the department of earth and environmental science at Penn and a co-author of the study. “It is impossible to predict exactly where and when they will occur, but we might be able to predict approximately how often they will occur and which areas are most vulnerable. Just as earthquakes occur along pre-existing faults, flooding occurs along pre-existing channel paths. If you want to know where floodwaters will go, find the old channels.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and was conducted by Ms. Reitz and Dr. Jerolmack at Penn and John Swenson at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

A Rapid Blood Test to Quickly Rule Out Appendicitis?

A new a rapid blood test to rule out appendicitis among the eight million patients who come to emergency rooms in the United States with abdominal pain each year may save patients from unnecessary radiation from a diagnostic CT scan, eliminate extra tests and hours of hospital observation and cut costs in the process. The test, which is currently being studied at two Penn Medicine hospitals and 11 other sites, screens for a novel biomarker of inflammation and is designed to be used along with other common blood tests used to detect appendicitis. Young women and children are expected to benefit most from the test, since their reproductive organs are especially sensitive to radiation from imaging studies.

 “Abdominal pain is the number-one reason people come to the emergency department, and appendicitis is one of the most commonly performed emergency surgeries in the United States,” says Dr. Angela Mills, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “People wind up getting a lot of tests, and waiting a long time, in order for us to be sure they don’t have this condition. This test may help us limit unnecessary radiation to patients, and cut the costs and emergency room crowding associated with waiting for answers from standard tests.”

Dr. Mills is leading the study at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, which will enroll about 110 of the study’s 800 patients. The test, which was developed by AspenBio Pharma, is a simple blood draw which is taken along with other labs ordered by physicians to evaluate a patient’s condition, including those that check for signs of infection like elevated white blood cell counts. Eventually, Dr. Mills said, the test is expected to be administered as a standalone test at the bedside, saving even more time by eliminating the need to send the blood to a hospital lab for analysis—similar to how chest pain patients’ cardiac enzymes can be rapidly tested to determine if they may have had a heart attack.

Women of childbearing age will likely benefit most from the new test, Dr. Mills said, since it’s important to limit exposure of their reproductive organs to radiation from CT scans that are typically used to detect appendicitis. This age group comprises a large percentage of patients who come to the emergency room with abdominal pain, but their symptoms can have many other causes, from ovarian cysts and ectopic pregnancies to pelvic inflammatory disease. Radiation exposure is also a concern for small children, who may not be able to explain the type of pain they’re having and are likely to undergo extensive testing.

Dr. Mills and her co-investigators at 11 other sites around the country say the test will be best used to identify “low-risk” patients—those who get a negative result and, because of their health history and other blood test results, are unlikely to require further studies and are able to be sent home. Patients who test positive, however, may require more testing to be certain of a diagnosis, since those with inflammatory bowel disease or other inflammatory conditions appear to be prone to “false positive” results even when they do not have appendicitis.

“At a time when the country is focused on reducing health care spending, tests that can increase efficiency and eliminate unnecessary tests are a welcome addition to the tools we use to care for patients in our increasingly crowded emergency rooms,” Dr. Mills says. “A negative test result could help us reassure our patients about what might be wrong with them, and help us open space for other sick patients.”

Nanotechnologists Collaborate to Form Near-Frictionless Diamond Material

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and IBM Research-Zürich have fabricated an ultra sharp, diamond-like carbon tip possessing such high strength that it is 3,000 times more wear-resistant at the nanoscale than silicon.

The end result is a diamond-like carbon material mass-produced at the nanoscale that doesn’t wear. The new nano-sized tip, researchers say, wears away at the rate of one atom per micrometer of sliding on a substrate of silicon dioxide, much lower than that for a silicon oxide tip which represents the current state-of-the-art. Consisting of carbon, hydrogen, silicon and oxygen molded into the shape of a nano-sized tip and integrated on the end of a silicon microcantilever for use in atomic force microscopy, the material has technological implications for atomic imaging, probe-based data storage and as emerging applications such as nanolithography, nanometrology and nanomanufacturing.

The importance of the discovery lies not just in its size and resistance to wear but also in the hard substrate against which it was shown to perform well when in sliding contact: silicon dioxide. Because silicon–-used in almost all integrated circuit devices–-oxidizes in atmosphere forming a thin layer of its oxide, this system is the most relevant for nanolithography, nanometrology and nanomanufacturing applications.

Probe-based technologies are expected to play a dominant role in many such technologies; however, poor wear performance of many materials when slid against silicon oxide, including silicon oxide itself, has severely limited usefulness to the laboratory.

Researchers built the material from the ground up, rather than coating a nanoscale tip with wear-resistant materials. The collaboration used a molding technique to fabricate monolithic tips on standard silicon microcantilevers. A bulk processing technique that has the potential to scale up for commercial manufacturing is available.

Robert Carpick, professor in the department of mechanical engineering and Applied Mechanics at Penn, and his research group had previously shown that carbon-based thin films, including diamond-like carbon, had low friction and wear at the nanoscale; however, it has been difficult to fabricate nanoscale structures made out of diamond-like carbon until now.

Understanding friction and wear at the nanoscale is important for many applications that involve nanoscale components sliding on a surface.

“It is not clear that materials that are wear-resistant at the macroscale exhibit the same property at the nanoscale,” lead author Harish Bhaskaran, who was a postdoctoral researcher at IBM during the study, said.

Defects, cracks and other phenomena that influence material strength and wear at macroscopic scales are less important at the nanoscale, which is why nanowires can, for example, show higher strengths than bulk samples.

The study, published in the current edition of the journal Nature Nanotechnology, was conducted collaboratively by Dr. Carpick and postdoctoral researcher Papot Jaroenapibal of the department of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science; Mr. Bhaskaran, Bernd Gotsmann, Abu Sebastian, Ute Drechsler, Mark A. Lantz and Michel Despont of IBM Research-Zürich; and Yun Chen and Kumar Sridharan of the University of Wisconsin. Mr. Jaroenapibal currently works at Khon Kaen University in Thailand, and Mr. Bhaskaran currently works at Yale University.

Research was funded by a European Commission grant and the Nano/Bio Interface Center of the University of Pennsylvania through the National Science Foundation.

Almanac - October 12, 2010, Volume 57, No. 07