Hershey, Pennsylvania — The Penn State Medical College leaders are awarding $286,732 in trial funding to researchers as part of the first goal of its strategic plan, which is focused on becoming a recognized leader in patient-centered translational science through comprehensive health studies. Projects seek to unleash the complex interactions of genetics, biological processes, social economics, and life conditions to improve understanding of human health and disease mechanisms.

Ten faculty members have received seed funding for their proposed research projects to address the health challenges faced by patients and societies today with new, interdisciplinary, patient-focused research.

“The ideas that our faculty have brought forward are truly new and support other strategic plan initiatives,” said Dr. Kevin Black, Interim Dean. “From treatments for devastating neurological conditions to tackling health disparities in our communities, our faculty work together to solve pressing public health problems and develop new treatment strategies for the most challenging diseases.”

The goal of the College of Medicine’s strategic plan is to become a leader in the translational sciences. Target’s interim director, Cynthia Chuang, MD, and interim associate director, Amy Arnold, said awarding this first trial money was an exciting step toward forming the Center for Comprehensive Health Studies.

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

The Faculty of Medicine has awarded three types of primary grants to researchers. The Catalyst and Collaborative Pilot Awards, which help researchers develop innovative research ideas, and the Collaborative Program Awards, which promote collaboration between 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 to translate these discoveries into improving health and health care for diverse communities at the College of Medicine and the Health of Pennsylvania. The funds will also bring researchers from different disciplines together to meet community health needs, a key component of the medical school’s mission since its founding.

“We congratulate our colleagues for receiving this money 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 powerful collaborative group of scientists, clinicians, and community members coming together to develop solutions to complex health problems.”

2022 Pilot Funding Awards for Comprehensive Health Studies

Catalyst Awards

  • Ephraim Church, MD Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery, Radiology and Neurology. Director of the Cerebral Revascularization Program
    • Project Title: Brain bypass and health studies program for moyamoya disease program
    • the summery of project: Moyamoya disease is a devastating, poorly understood cerebrovascular disease that causes frequent strokes in young adults. Church aims to build a referral center for moyamoya disease that will conduct robust multidisciplinary research to better understand the disease and investigate new treatment strategies.
    • Awarded Amount: $10,000
  • Scott Simon, MD Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery
    • Project Title: Effect of genetic variation in iron metabolism on recovery from intracerebral hemorrhage and outcome
    • the summery of project: Iron is a major component of the blood, and when the brain bleeds, the iron released in the brain plays an important role in how the damage occurs. A gene that regulates iron also influences the course of other brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Simon suggests a better study of how this gene affects recovery from cerebral hemorrhage, or bleeding in the brain.
    • Awarded Amount: $10,000
  • William Calo Perez, Ph.D., Ph.D., Master of Public Health Assistant professor of public health sciences
    • Project Title: Society for Execution Science (ISC)
    • the summery of project: Calo Perez seeks to create a Collaborative in Applied Sciences that provides education and research support about the practice of executing science – methods and strategies that facilitate the assimilation of evidence-based medical practices and research into regular use by health care providers. This project will also bring together a collaborative group of faculty and interns to develop a common research agenda for implementation science.
    • Awarded Amount: $10,000
  • William Carey, MD, MS Professor of Family and Community Medicine and Public Health Sciences
    • Project Title: Engaging individuals, communities, and health systems to reduce the impact of health determinants that cause disparities in breast and breast cancer screening in south central Pennsylvania.
    • the summery of project: Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in Pennsylvania, where the breast cancer screening rate is lower than the national average. Carey will use health informatics to bring health systems and communities together to develop better breast cancer screening strategies in south central Pennsylvania.
    • Awarded Amount: $6732

Co-pilot Awards

  • Alexandra Zgerska, MD, PhD – Jane L. Thomas Lehmann, MD, associate professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Family and Community Medicine; Professor of Family and Community Medicine, Public Health Sciences, Anesthesia and Perioperative Medicine
  • Alice Chang, MD – Research Fellow in Primary Care, Physician in Family Medicine, and Clinical Instructor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine
    • Project Title: Not Just for Snacks: Vending Machines as an Innovative Way to Address Desperation and Health Disparities in Central Pennsylvania
    • the summery of project: Zgierska and Zhang will collaborate with faculty across campus and community partners to test the use of smart vending machines as a way to reduce adverse outcomes from diseases of hopelessness in Central Pennsylvania communities. Potential benefits include improved prevention of opioid overdose, sexually transmitted infections and other diseases, including HIV and COVID-19.
    • Awarded Amount: $50,000 with additional support of $35,000 from the UPMC Pinnacle Foundation.
  • Nandakumar Nagaraja, MD, MSc, FAHA Assistant Professor of Neurology
    • Project Title: Multicore diffusion imaging to assess the ischemic nucleus and predict outcome in acute stroke
    • the summery of project: The Nagaraja project will improve post-stroke imaging technologies to improve diagnosis and delivery of stroke treatments. The goal is to more accurately identify the areas of the brain that died after a stroke. The improved imaging resolution could help doctors more accurately identify patients who could benefit from reperfusion therapy, which restores blood flow to specific areas of the brain.
    • Awarded Amount: $50,000
  • Smita Dandekar, MD Assistant Professor of Pediatrics. Childhood Cancer Survival Clinic Director
    • Project Title: Exercise intervention alongside standard cancer care to reduce chronic pain in adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer survivors
    • the summery of project: One in four long-term childhood cancer survivors have chronic pain, which can increase the risk of opioid use and abuse. The Dandekar Project will evaluate whether incorporating a sports intervention program into standard targeted therapy after cancer can improve chronic pain outcomes and reduce the need for medications to manage chronic pain in AYA cancer survivors.
    • Awarded Amount: $50,000
  • Todd Schell, Ph.D. Professor of Microbiology and Immunology
    • Project Title: Schweinfurthen-mediated enhancement of cancer immunotherapy
    • the summery of project: Immunotherapy-based therapies have increased the survival of patients with fatal cancers such as metastatic melanoma and lung cancer, but more than half of patients fail to respond to immunotherapy. Schell’s team previously identified natural products called Schweinfurthen that improve immunotherapy in a preclinical melanoma model, but how to improve therapeutic outcomes is unknown. Schell’s team will study how schweinfurthins affect tumors to understand which immune cells contribute to effective treatment, identify the types of tumors likely to respond to schweinfurthins, and identify an improved method for new schweinfurthin synthesis.
    • Awarded Amount: $50,000

Collaborative Program Award

  • Dino Ravnik, DO, MPH, MSc Assistant professor of surgery
    • Project Title: A multidisciplinary approach to vascular tissue engineering
    • the summery of project: Bone loss is a frequent problem after events such as traumatic injuries or cancer surgeries. Reconstructive procedures are often suboptimal and other treatment attempts have not translated into clinical use. Ravnik suggests forming a collaborative research team that would address the need for new treatments by developing thick, engineered bone slices.
    • Awarded Amount: $50,000

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