Six $30,000 seed grants have been awarded to advance Virginia Tech Carilion (VTC) School of Medicine and Research Institute research to address falling risks, prevention and treatment of infectious disease, and development of a patient simulator.

Tom Campbell, assistant director for research and operations for the research institute announced that teams of Virginia Tech and Carilion researchers submitted 22 proposals for consideration. "The partnership is clearly creating new approaches to medical research. Building on the momentum from the first round of funded seed projects, this second round will further the strong collaboration between Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic to set the stage for VTC," he said.

"These most recent seed grant awards represent the growing opportunities in research and education that exist between Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic," said Dr. Daniel Harrington, vice president for academic affairs for Carilion Clinic and associate dean for clinic and regional integration for the school of medicine. "This collaboration between researchers and clinicians is just the beginning of a strong and dynamic partnership that will strengthen both organizations and create an exciting learning environment for Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute students, residents, faculty, and researchers."

Building a realistic patient simulator

Shashank Priya, associate professor of materials science and engineering and of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, and Sonya L. Ranson, associate professor with the VTC school of medicine and manager of the Center for Experiential Learning, received a grant for "Prototyping a Human-like Patient."

"The program is part of a larger VTC project to develop a full–scale patient simulation facility and humanoid hospital, a training facility for healthcare providers using human patient simulators," said Ranson. The present facility already has three human patient simulators and various part-task trainers that allow students to practice basic clinical skills. The full-body mannequins are run from an associated control room.

"Our research builds upon the recent progress made at our laboratory in fabricating human-like skin and humanoid face, neck, arm, wrist, and fingers," said Priya. "With this grant, we will develop a human-like patient and study specific disease states. This seed fund will significantly strengthen our efforts and allow us to achieve important milestones in order to secure funding from federal agencies."

Priya is leading the effort on the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science's Humanoid Hospital, which consists of faculty members from mechanical engineering, chemistry, and human nutrition, food and exercise at Virginia Tech. His research interests include energy harvesting, artificial muscles, humanoid skin and face, actuators, and sensors.

A second grant that supports technology development also addresses controlling disease. David Popham, professor of biological sciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech; Dr. Charles Schleupner, VTC professor of internal medicine and director of the Carilion Clinic infectious disease fellowship program; and Stephen Melville, associate professor of biological sciences, received funding to develop "Improved Decontamination of Clostridium difficile spores."

C. difficile can cause disease when antibiotics kill other bacteria of the gut that keep C. difficile in check. Spores produced by C. difficile tolerate extreme conditions that most bacteria cannot tolerate. The research will determine optimum conditions for stimulating spore germination, which renders the bacteria sensitive to many antimicrobial treatments. The researchers will then learn if adding these germination conditions into established hospital decontamination methods improves their effectiveness. The reviewers praised the projects' "good translational potential."

They were also hopeful of the translational potential of the project, "Falling Risks in the Elderly: A Functional Cerebral Systems Approach to Vestibular Function." The neuroscience research, which addresses how the body receives and processes information in order to maintain equilibrium or balance, is being conducted by David W. Harrison, associate professor of psychology in the College of Science and director of the Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory at Virginia Tech; Dr. David B. Trinkle, VTC assistant dean for medical education and an associate clinical professor of psychiatric medicine, and Joseph E. Carmona of Queens, N.Y., a doctoral student in psychology at Virginia Tech.

Harrison is a licensed clinical neuropsychologist and Trinkle is training director of the geriatric psychiatry fellowship program at the Carilion -University of Virginia Roanoke Valley Program and medical director of the Carilion Center for Healthy Aging.

Preventing and treating infectious disease

Three of the selected projects specifically address infectious disease:

The first is: "Novel Identification and Characterization of the Quasi-species Variation during H1N1 'Swine Flu' Evolution in Humans," by Chris Roberts, associate professor of virology with the College of Veterinary Medicine's Center for Molecular Medicine and Infectious Diseases; Kevin Myles, assistant professor of entomology at Virginia Tech and member of the Vector-borne Disease Research Group; and VTC associate professors of internal medicine Dr. Stephanie Nagy-Agren, chief of the infectious disease section of the VA Medical Center in Salem; and Dr. Jean A. Smith, Carilion Clinic infectious disease section.

"The approach is to use new state of the art sequencing approaches to delve in depth into the genetic variability of current human influenza strains," said Roberts. "The goal is to obtain a fuller understanding of the complex mutations that are naturally occurring at a given time with the hope that we can predict which underlying mutations may evolve into more pathogenic strains of influenza."

The reviewers commented that the research is an "interesting approach to understanding the evolution of influenza. If successful, this could generate substantial interest as it could potentially allow greater predictability of influenza epidemiology."

The second infectious disease research project is: "Use of Antisense Therapeutics to Kill Intracellular Bacterial Pathogens," by Stephen M. Boyle and Nammalwar Sriranganathan, professors of microbiology in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech; and Dr. Tom Kerkering, professor of medicine with VTC, and section chief of infectious disease and medical director of infection control with Carilion Clinic. Antisense therapy involves turning off or inactivating messenger RNA transcripts within the pathogen so that they cannot reproduce or perform critical functions. The reviewers praised the strong collaboration of the research project and co-mentoring it will provide to a graduate student.

And the third infectious disease project is: "Amorphous Drug Polymer Nanoparticles for Infectious Disease Treatment," by Kevin Edgar, professor of wood science and forest products in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech; Richey Davis, professor of chemical engineering; Kerkering; and Jayasimha Rao, assistant professor, internal medicine section of the VTC infectious diseases program. Edgar's group conducts research to make medicines more bioavailable to the body. Davis' group conducts research on the formation of nanoparticles and the control of their size, composition, and related properties.


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