Bucks for Brains
Focus on Faculty
Edward Hirschowitz, Merck and Co. Pulmonary Medicine Professor
Each year in the United States more than 200,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer, and 85 percent of them will die within the first five years of diagnosis. Eighty-five to 90 percent of those diagnosed are found to have non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), characterized by tumors that spread slowly to other parts of the body. Detecting lung cancer early was the goal that drove five years of research by UK Markey Cancer Center researchers Edward Hirschowitz and Li Zhong to create a blood test to predict NSCLC. The test identifies panels of antibodies generated by the immune system in response to very early stage NSCLC. Studies have shown that the presence and amounts of these antibodies in the blood predicted NSCLC with 85 percent accuracy, suggesting that the disease may be present three to five years before reaching the necessary size needed for diagnosis by traditional imaging, like CT scans. Studies currently are under way to confirm the reliability of the test on a larger group of patient samples. If successful, 20/20 GeneSystems Inc. plans to introduce the test within the next year. It would become the first blood test to predict cancer since the prostate specific antigen test was introduced in the 1970s.
Leslie Crofford, Gloria W. Singletary Professor in Women’s Health
“Why do some diseases affect women more than men? Why do women respond to some drugs and therapies differently than men? What environmental factors and behaviors most influence women’s health? We don’t know. But we want to find out,” says Leslie Crofford, director of the Center for the Advancement of Women’s Health. The center is leading the Kentucky Women’s Health Registry, which is collecting information to track health trends and recruit women to participate in medical trials. More than 5,200 Kentucky women have enrolled in the registry, and Crofford hopes to collect data from 25,000 women over the next 10 years. The center is reaching out to women through research, student and resident training, and health information workshops, as well as primary care with an emphasis on prevention. Crofford, chief of internal medicine’s division of rheumatology, is continuing her studies on rheumatic diseases, including arthritis and fibromyalgia—chronic, widespread muscle pain, accompanied by fatigue. Her study of Pfizer’s Lyrica™ showed the drug could significantly reduce the pain of fibromyalgia and improve sleep. “The inflammatory and stress-related diseases I study are much more common in women, so it’s a natural fit.”
Sam Turco, Antonio S. Turco Professor in Biochemistry
Soldiers returning from Iraq have nicknamed the unwelcome souvenir the “Baghdad boil.” The scientific name of the bumps that can grow to the size of a silver dollar is leishmaniasis. Sam Turco, a professor of biochemistry, has spent 20 years studying the unique characteristics of this rugged and potentially deadly parasite that thrives in the gut of a sand fly. When a host sand fly bites a human, macrophages rush to the site of the bite to fight off the invader, but leishmania calmly goes about its business of replicating. Leishmaniasis that remains on the skin causes open, slow-healing and sometimes disfiguring skin sores. If the bug works itself inwards, it can spread to organs and can cause death if left untreated. About 2 million new cases of leishmaniasis occur each year, primarily in India, Sudan and Afghanistan. Turco, with colleagues at UK and Washington University in St. Louis, has recently made some important inroads to understanding how this parasite functions. When the researchers genetically engineered leishmania to prevent it from making sugar-coated lipids and proteins, the parasite didn’t survive in sand flies or in macrophages.
Janice Almasi, Carol Lee Robertson Endowed Professor in Literacy
A class of 4th graders in Kent Island, Maryland, in 1986 changed Janice Almasi’s life. She had been reading about the benefits of peer book discussions, so she tried that approach in her classroom. “As I witnessed the outcome—nine year olds debating the interpretation of a line in a book and actually listening intently to each other’s understanding of the text—a chill shot down my spine,” recalls Almasi, a professor in the UK College of Education since 2004. She created a model where students interact as if they’re members of Oprah’s Book Club, rather than answering questions directed to them from the teacher. In her most recent study, kindergartners, first graders, second graders, and third graders were divided into experimental and comparison groups. The experimental group practiced peer discussion; the comparison group read and discussed texts in the more traditional way—responding to teacher-directed questions. She saw marked differences in the two groups’ motivation to read: “The children in the peer discussion group viewed reading as significantly more important and valuable.” Almasi is a member of the board of directors for both the National Reading Conference and the International Reading Association.
Alan Daugherty, Gill Foundation Chair in Preventive Cardiology
The bad news: It’s the 10th biggest killer in the country, it has no effective treatment except for risky surgery, and it affects a rapidly growing demographic. The good news: Alan Daugherty’s groundbreaking research may lead to prevention—or even a cure. Daugherty, a professor of medicine and physiology, and director of the Cardiovascular Research Center, studies aortic abdominal aneurysm (AAA), a disease that predominantly affects males over 55. Few people have heard of the disease, and even fewer study it—making Daugherty’s work all the more important. For reasons that are still unknown, AAA begins with a bulge in the aorta; the bulge eventually ruptures, causing massive internal bleeding. “At the moment, it’s a disease that you usually don’t know you have until the thing bursts and you bleed out into your belly,” says Daugherty. “We’re trying to determine the type of cell in the aorta that is responsible for starting this disease, as well as those responsible for its progression.” Daugherty’s lab has narrowed down the possible cell types to macrophages, endothelial cells and smooth muscle cells, thanks to a mice model of the disease he and Lisa Cassis (nutritional sciences) accidentally discovered while studying hardening of the arteries.
Ginny Sprang, Buckhorn Professor of Social Work
Three million children have been reported as victims of child maltreatment, with the total number of reports nationwide increasing 41 percent since 1988. Kentucky has the 7th highest rate of maltreatment-related fatalities in the United States. In 2007, UK established the Center for the Study of Violence Against Children (CSVAC). Center Director Ginny Sprang, an associate professor in social work and psychiatry, says, “The center is a model for effective university-community engagement and a catalyst for establishing UK as a leader in the areas of research and practice relating to violence against children.” The center recently received $1.6 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to develop, disseminate and test innovative treatments to help young children who have been victims of violence. Sprang is co-director of the center’s Comprehensive Assessment and Training Services (CATS) Clinic. Funded by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health & Families, the clinic serves as the living laboratory for CSVAC’s research, education and training activities. Since 2003, she has led the Behavioral Health Disaster Response Project, a statewide collaboration among UK, the University of Louisville and the state’s Department of Public Health. “We are committed to finding workable solutions to real-world problems,” Sprang says.