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Published on: Oct 2, 2018

Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute is helping generate innovative health research ideas and promoting collaboration through the awarding of pilot grants in its Bridges to Translation IV program. This program seeks to link researchers not traditionally in health research with those who can help mold a new idea. Six diverse projects have been funded, giving researchers an opportunity to further explore new ideas and gather more information in preparation for larger grant opportunities from outside organizations. 

Letters of intent are now being accepted for the institute’s next funding opportunity, Bridges to Translation V. The institute will award up to $300,000 in funding to Penn State faculty, with awards capped at $50,000. The institute will give special consideration for projects that relate to rural and other vulnerable populations who experience health disparities, specifically projects that explore social determinants; environmental determinants; phenomic determinants; study of or interventions focused on those diseases identified by Case and Deaton; new methodologies including telemedicine, community-engaged research, big data modeling in research of the determinants of health; and population health and patient-centered outcome research. Letters of intent are due by Dec. 1.

A request for application workshop will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Oct. 17 at 110 Henderson at Penn State University Park. Transportation will be provided for Hershey faculty who would like to attend and who register. For more information, visit

After a competitive process, Bridges to Translation IV funded principal investigators Kerstin Betterman, Scott Bunce, Andrea Hobkirk, Helen Kamens, Scherezade Mama and Muzi Na. The projects are:

Affordable brain imaging for treating addiction

Scott Bunce is studying the use of a brain imaging technique to identify those who are in treatment for opioid addiction who are more vulnerable to relapse. The technique, called functional near-infrared spectrography, is a fraction of the cost of functional magnetic resonance imaging, commonly known as MRI. This imaging can be used to see changes in the brain that may be associated with opioid use disorder and then might be combined with genetic changes thought to put people at risk for developing opioid use disorder. By combining the imaging with the genetic factors, a model could be developed to evaluate a person’s risk of relapsing to opioid use. This could be helpful for determining more effective treatments.                            

“This pilot study is important to be competitive in obtaining both National Institute of Drug Abuse and other funding,” Bunce said. “Whereas these research ideas are competitive because they are relatively new and unique, it is important to have pilot data demonstrating that we can team with the right people and get the expected results to obtain the kind of funding to go to clinical trials. We expect that, with the expected results, we can move this research to a clinical trial, and eventually, to a product that can be put into use to help curb the impact of the opioid crisis. An added bonus is that we expect similar techniques should work for most substances of abuse.”

Bunce, an associate professor of psychiatry, is working with co-investigator David Vandenbergh, a professor of biobehavioral health. 

Stroke recovery in people with diabetes

Kerstin Betterman is studying why people with diabetes and those with high blood sugar have poorer outcomes, including death, after a stroke. She is looking at whether use of a specific FDA-approved medication at the hospital shortly after a stroke helps patients with high blood sugar. She will look to see if the drug helps make the immune system more responsive, thereby reducing inflammation and improving stroke recovery. 

“This pilot project will produce data that lays groundwork for future research proposals and new ideas," Betterman said. “It allows us to find better ways to manage patients with stroke and diabetes who are a high-risk group. If this pilot study shows that our intervention works, we will then apply for a multi-center study to confirm results and find better approaches for patients with diabetes and stroke.”

Betterman, an associate professor of neurology and neural and behavioral sciences, will work with Ian Simpson, professor of neural and behavioral sciences; Todd Schell, professor of microbiology and immunology; Kusum Sinha, Department of Neurology; and Allen Kunselman, research assistant, public health sciences. 

“As research questions get more complex, experts from multiple areas are required to address these questions,” Betterman said. “There is great need for cross-fertilization for best approaches and new ideas.”

Helping the study of flavor in e-cigarettes

Andrea Hobkirk is working on a way to safely and effectively deliver e-cigarette vapor (more specifically called aerosol) to MRI equipment so that its effects on the brain can be studied. This is important to determine what changes in the brain contribute to addiction of e-cigarettes, especially as it relates to the use of flavor, which is banned in traditional cigarettes. The pilot grant will be used to help develop the MRI equipment, calibrate the amount of nicotine in the vapor and evaluate if the device can be reliably used to obtain brain images. This equipment could then be used by the Penn State Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science to translate animal research to humans about the contribution of flavor to the addictive potential of tobacco products. 

“With this new technology, we will determine if flavor characteristics change the addictive potential of nicotine-delivery products such as e-cigarettes,” Hobkirk said. “This research will translate to tobacco policy and treatment by helping us understand how flavored tobacco products contribute to nicotine dependence for new tobacco users and influence smokers’ ability to switch from traditional cigarettes to harm-reduction products.”

Hobkirk, an assistant professor of public health science, is working with co-investigators Prasanna Karunanayaka, assistant professor of radiology; Reema Goel, faculty research associate, public health sciences; and Zachary Bitzer, postdoctoral scholar, food science.

Stress in teens and drug use

Helen Kamens is studying how stress in early life influences the likelihood of later opioid use. In particular, she will study how exposure to social stressors in adolescence changes morphine use. Changes in the section of the brain associated with drug use, reward learning and motivation — specifically genetic changes — will also be studied. Through this research, it is hoped that the findings could be translated to improve prevention and treatment strategies in adolescents that grow up in stressful environments. 

“Deaths related to opioid use have skyrocketed in our county and to address this epidemic we need a better understanding of the genetic and environmental factors that lead to use. All abused drugs have some common actions in the brain, and some distinct differences,” Kamens said. “My lab has worked with a number of both legal and illegal drugs, but I have yet to work with opioids. This grant allows for funding to extend our work into this class of drugs. This is important as we know that opioid misuse is a critical public health crisis in America. Understanding the biological risk factors that contribute to drug use behavior is critical to effective prevention and treatment.”

Kamens, an assistant professor of biobehavioral health is working with Sonia Cavigelli, associate professor of biobehavioral health; Patricia Sue Grigson, professor of neural and behavioral sciences; and Diana Fishbein, professor of human development and family studies.

Addressing discrepancies in rural cancer survivors

Scherezade Mama is piloting a program to increase physical activity and decrease stress in breast cancer survivors who live in rural communities. This is important because high stress and a lack of physical activity contribute to poorer survivorship outcomes, poorer health and lower quality of life for these cancer survivors than those who live in an urban community. Mama will test a pilot program that combines group activity and home-based sessions that incorporate aerobic exercise and mind-body strategies. 

“There are little to no programs to increase physical activity and reduce stress that were designed specifically for rural cancer survivors,” Mama said. “The few programs that exist were designed for the clinic rather than a community setting. This pilot grant will help us adapt an existing program for rural cancer survivors living in rural communities across Pennsylvania.” 

Mama, an assistant professor of kinesiology and public health science, will work with Stephanie Lanza, professor of biobehavioral health and human development; Gene Lengerich, professor of public health sciences; Kathryn Schmitz, professor of epidemiology; Chris Sciamanna, professor of medicine and public health sciences; and Joshua Smyth, professor of biobehavioral health and medicine.

“I am passionate about reducing cancer health disparities and promoting health equity in underserved and vulnerable populations,” Mama said. “This pilot grant is important to me, because it will help me toward achieving that goal and will provide valuable insight into specific adaptations needed for rural cancer survivors and rural community settings.”

Diet and stress due to lack of food

Muzi Na is studying the use of the use of a smart phone to monitor the stress associated with lacking the resources to get food, known as food insecurity. This is important because one in three low-income households lack the resources to get food, which is associated with development of diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and adverse mental health. Not being able to consistently get food leads to unhealthy eating patterns and mental distress. The pilot study will gather preliminary data comparing changes in food access to mental distress and being vulnerable to stress in low-income adults. 

“My prior research focuses on food insecurity in relation to nutritional and health outcomes in many low-and-middle income countries,” Na said. “However, the problem in the developing worlds may be very different from in developed countries. The pilot grant will provide me the opportunity to understand reasons for health disparities through data collection in low-income families in Central Pennsylvania.” 

The pilot study may reveal an approach that involves several medical disciplines because it focuses on the role of stress in adult health when there is a lack of food. Through the use of the smartphone monitoring, it may also identify specific times people are likely to struggle with having enough food, which could lead to a way to break the cycle of disease development.

Na, an assistant professor of nutritional sciences, is working with Lori Francis, associate professor of biobehavioral health; Jennifer Graham-Engeland, associate professor of biobehavioral health; Runze Li, Eberly Family Chair Professor of Statistics; and Laura Murray-Kolk, associate professor of nutritional sciences.

News Topics: CTSI, Funding, Health Equity