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College of Medicine faculty receive grants from the Comprehensive Health Studies program

Strategic plan funding affirms College of Medicine’s commitment to addressing complex health challenges faced by patients and communities

Penn State College of Medicine leaders awarded $286,732 in pilot funding to researchers as part of goal one of its strategic plan, which is focused on becoming a recognized leader in patient-centered, translational sciences through comprehensive health studies. The projects seek to unlock the complex interactions of genetics, biological processes, socio-economics and life circumstances to improve the understanding of human health and mechanisms of disease.

Ten faculty received seed funding for their proposed research projects to address health challenges faced by today’s patients and communities through novel interdisciplinary and patient‑centered research.

“The ideas put forth by our faculty are truly novel and support other strategic plan initiatives,” said Kevin Black, MD, interim dean. “From treatments for devastating neurological conditions to addressing health disparities in our communities, our faculty are working together to solve pressing public health problems and develop new therapeutic strategies for our most challenging diseases.”

Goal One of the College of Medicine’s strategic plan is to become a leader in translational sciences. Interim director for the goal, Cynthia Chuang, MD, and interim associate director, Amy Arnold, PhD, said awarding these first pilot funds was an exciting step toward the formation of the Center for Comprehensive Health Studies.

“Penn State has a rich history of bringing together researchers from different disciplines to solve a variety of society’s challenges,” said Arnold, associate professor of neural and behavioral sciences. “The Center for Comprehensive Health Studies will harness that spirit to focus on solving complex problems in medicine that can’t be addressed by a specific clinical or scientific discipline.”

The College of Medicine awarded three types of seed grants to investigators. Catalyst Awards and Collaborative Pilot Awards, which help researchers develop innovative research ideas, and Collaborative Program Awards, which promote collaboration among established researchers to solve major scientific and health challenges.

The goal of the awards is for faculty to develop research ideas into proposals that lead to external funding from the National Institutes of Health and other leading research funding institutions, and translate those discoveries into improved health and health care for the diversity of communities the College of Medicine and Penn State Health serve. The funds will also bring researchers from different disciplines together to address community health needs, a core component of the College of Medicine’s mission since its founding.

“We congratulate our colleagues for receiving these funds that will not only help them explore new ideas, but also impact the health of communities in central Pennsylvania and beyond,” said Chuang, professor of medicine and public health sciences. “These projects are just the beginning of what we envision will one day be a robust collaborative group of scientists, clinicians and community members coming together to develop solutions to complex health problems.”

2022 Comprehensive Health Studies Pilot Funding Awards

Catalyst Awards

  • Ephraim Church, MD – assistant professor of neurosurgery, radiology and neurology; director, cerebral revascularization program
    • Project title: Cerebral bypass and moyamoya disease program health studies
    • Project summary: Moyamoya disease is a poorly understood and devastating cerebrovascular disease that causes repeated strokes in young people. Church aims to build a moyamoya disease referral center that conducts robust translational research to better understand the disease and investigate new treatment strategies.
    • Amount awarded: $10,000
  • Scott Simon, MD – associate professor of neurosurgery
    • Project title: The impact of genetic variation in iron metabolism on intracerebral hemorrhage recovery and outcomes
    • Project summary: Iron is a key component of blood and when the brain bleeds, the iron released into the brain plays an important role in how damage occurs. One gene that regulates iron also impacts the course of other brain disease like Alzheimer’s. Simon proposes to better study how this gene affects recovery from intracerebral hemorrhage, or bleeding in the brain.
    • Amount awarded: $10,000
  • William Calo Perez, PhD, JD, MPH – assistant professor of public health sciences
    • Project title: Implementation Science Collaborative (ISC)
    • Project summary: Calo Perez seeks to establish an Implementation Science Collaborative that will provide education and support research on the practice of implementation science — methods and strategies that facilitate the uptake of evidence-based medical practice and research into regular use by health care providers. This project will also convene a collaborative group of faculty and trainees to develop a shared research agenda for implementation science.
    • Amount awarded: $10,000
  • William Curry, MD, MS – professor of family and community medicine and public health sciences
    • Project title: Engaging individuals, communities and health systems to reduce impact of determinants of health causing disparities in breast cancer screening and breast cancer in south central Pennsylvania
    • Project summary: Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in Pennsylvania, which has a lower breast cancer screening rate than the national average. Curry will use health informatics to bring health systems and local communities together to develop better breast cancer screening strategies in south central Pennsylvania.
    • Amount awarded: $6,732

Collaborative Pilot Awards

  • Aleksandra Zgierska, MD, PhD – Jeanne L. and Thomas L. Leaman, MD, Endowed Professor and Vice Chair of Research in the Department of Family and Community Medicine; professor of family and community medicine, public health sciences and anesthesiology and perioperative medicine; and Alice Zhang, MD – primary care research fellow, family medicine physician and clinical instructor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine
    • Project title: Not just for snacks: vending machines as an innovative method to address diseases of despair and health disparities in central Pennsylvania
    • Project summary: Zgierska and Zhang will collaborate with faculty across campuses and community partners to pilot‑test the use of smart vending machines as a way to reduce harmful outcomes from diseases of despair in central Pennsylvania communities. Potential benefits include improved prevention of opioid overdose, and sexually‑transmitted and other infections, including HIV and COVID-19.
    • Amount awarded: $50,000; with an additional $35,000 in support from the UPMC Pinnacle Foundation.
  • Nandakumar Nagaraja, MD, MS, FAHA – associate professor of neurology
    • Project title: Multi-shell diffusion imaging to evaluate the ischemic core and predict outcomes in acute ischemic stroke
    • Project summary: Nagaraja’s project will enhance post‑stroke imaging techniques to improve diagnosis and delivery of stroke therapies. The goal is to more accurately determine areas of the brain that are dead following a stroke. Improved imaging accuracy could help doctors more precisely identify patients who could benefit from reperfusion therapy, which restores blood flow to certain areas of the brain.
    • Amount awarded: $50,000
  • Smita Dandekar, MD – associate professor of pediatrics; director, childhood cancer survivorship clinic
    • Project title: Exercise intervention coupled with standard cancer care to reduce chronic pain in adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer survivors
    • Project summary: One in four long‑term childhood cancer survivors experience chronic pain, which can increase the risk of opioid use and misuse. Dandekar’s project will evaluate whether integrating an exercise intervention program into standard post cancer directed treatment could lead to an improvement in chronic pain outcomes and a decrease in the need for medications to manage chronic pain in AYA cancer survivors.
    • Amount awarded: $50,000
  • Todd Schell, PhD – professor of microbiology and immunology
    • Project title: Schweinfurthin-mediated enhancement of immunotherapy for cancer
    • Project summary: Immune-based therapies have increased the survival of patients with deadly cancers such as metastatic melanoma and lung cancer, yet more than half of patients fail to respond to immunotherapy. Schell’s team previously identified natural products called schweinfurthins that improve immunotherapy in a preclinical melanoma model, but how they improve therapeutic outcomes is unknown. Schell’s team will study how schweinfurthins impact tumors to understand which immune cells contribute to effective therapy, identify tumor types that are likely to respond to schweinfurthins, and identify an improved method to synthesize a novel schweinfurthin.
    • Amount awarded: $50,000

Collaborative Program Award

  • Dino Ravnic, DO, MPH, MSc – associate professor of surgery
    • Project title: A multidisciplinary approach to vascularized tissue engineering
    • Project summary: Bone loss is a frequent problem after events like traumatic injuries or cancer surgeries. Reconstructive procedures are often suboptimal and other attempted therapies have not translated to clinical use. Ravnic proposes to assemble a collaborative research team that will address the need for new therapies by developing thick, engineered bone flaps.
    • Amount awarded: $50,000


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