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UT Institute for Research, Innovation, Synergy and Health Equity Announces Six Grant Awards Totaling $402,000


The UT Institute for Research, Innovation, Synergy and Health Equity (iRISE) at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) has announced the latest round of grant recipients from its Pilot Translational and Clinical Studies (PTCS) Program. Six UTHSC researchers were chosen out of a competitive field of 28 submissions. The PTCS Program provides funding and support to further the iRISE goal of promoting clinical and translational science, bringing health care discoveries from “bench to bedside” and from “bedside to community.”

“The funding from these PTCS grants is crucial to jumpstarting translational research projects that not only contribute to the iRISE mission, but also facilitate involvement of junior faculty and trainees in clinical and translational research, stimulate multidisciplinary team building across the UTHSC campus and our partners, provide the preliminary data for larger NIH grants, and ultimately produce health benefits for the community that we serve,” said Dennis Black, MD, iRISE operations director and director of the Children’s Foundation Research Institute.

Beyond financial support, PTCS award recipients are also provided with program and business management support, and mentoring to navigate the process of establishing sustainable funding. The program prioritizes support for junior investigators, multidisciplinary teams and projects focusing specifically on health disparities. This is the second cohort of PTCS award recipients. To date, the program has awarded a total of $672,204 to 11 UTHSC researchers since its 2014 founding.

Each of the six current award recipients will perform and complete their research within a one-year period.

Ilana Graetz
Ilana Graetz, PhD

Ilana Graetz, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Preventive Medicine, will receive $75,000 for a project that uses a mobile application to track adverse effects of endocrine therapy for breast cancer treatment. Adverse effects associated with adjuvant endocrine therapy are an important reason for low adherence, and patients experience most toxicity effects early in their treatment. The early monitoring of these effects is projected to improve adherence and thus health outcomes. The widespread availability of smartphones across socioeconomic levels will also further iRISE’s goal of reducing health inequity.

Shalini Narayana
Shalini Narayana, PhD

Shalini Narayana, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Pediatrics, will receive $80,000 for her project using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to reduce the effects of seizures in patients with refractory epilepsy. When compared with patients with well-controlled epilepsy, these patients are faced with an increased risk for sudden and unexplained death and significantly greater morbidity, loss of productivity, and medical costs. In her study, patients will receive TMS over a two-week period, and long-term treatment efficacy will be tracked for up to 16 weeks. It is hoped that the results of this study will lead to a larger clinical trial.

Brooke Sanford
Brooke Sanford, PhD

Brooke Sanford, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Biomedical Engineering, will receive $47,000 to develop new clinical guidelines for patients to return to unrestricted activity following ACL surgery. There are an estimated 200,000 ACL injuries in the United States each year. Unfortunately, more than half of individuals with ACL reconstruction (ACLR) develop post-traumatic osteoarthritis between 30-50 years of age and with it the confounding sequel of associated joint pain, functional limitations, and decreased productivity and quality of life. Evidence suggests this is due, in part, to patients being returned to unrestricted activity prematurely, before their biomechanics have normalized to pre-injury baseline; however, there is a lack of consensus regarding specific criteria for return to unrestricted activity following ACLR. Her team aims to use a custom Wii Balance Board to measure limb loading during dynamic activities. Such results are expected to allow clinicians to identify ACLR patients who have met current clinical criteria for return to activity, but have not resumed normal function based on these new measures.

Thomas J. Schroeppel
Thomas J. Schroeppel, MD

Thomas J. Schroeppel, MD, associate professor, Department of Surgery, will receive $50,000 for his project exploring the use of beta-adrenergic blockade to lessen the catecholamine surge (a surge of stress hormones which impair cardiac function) following traumatic brain injuries (TBI) to lower mortality. There are more than 1.5 million TBIs annually in the United States, resulting in more than 50,000 deaths. The typical treatment for TBI consists of supportive care and monitoring of intracranial pressure. In previous studies, Dr. Schroeppel’s approach has shown a 65 percent reduction in mortality when compared to the prevailing treatment.

Nhu Quynh T. Tran
Nhu Quynh T. Tran, PhD

Nhu Quynh T. Tran, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Preventive Medicine, will receive $75,000 for her project to identify genetic mutations and clinical risk factors associated with recurrent non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) in patients undergoing liver transplantation. A liver transplant (LT) is the only treatment for advanced NASH, a condition associated with obesity and insulin resistance. These conditions are reaching epidemic proportions in our local population. Women are two times less likely than men to receive a liver transplant, but are twice as likely to develop NASH. While the pathogenesis of NASH has been well studied in non-transplant settings, little is known about risk factors for, or the pathophysiological mechanisms of, recurrent disease post-LT. Dr. Tran’s study will identify clinical risk factors and genetic mutations in the recipients and/or donors that predispose LT recipients to NASH recurrence. Without this knowledge it is difficult to develop therapies targeting recurrent disease or prevention.

Dahui You
Dahui You, PhD

Dahui You, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Pediatrics, will receive $75,000 for her project exploring the pathogenesis of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV is the most common cause of lower respiratory tract infections in infants. Infants who suffer from severe RSV disease are more likely to develop subsequent asthma, a condition especially prevalent in the Mid-South in both children and adults. The pathogenesis of severe RSV infection in infants remains elusive. Dr. You’s team has developed a neonatal mouse model to study the interaction of the diversity of gut microbiota and disease severity of RSV infection in infants. She aims to establish that less complex gut microbiota in neonatal mice fail to mature the immune system, resulting in severe RSV disease. She is also studying the microbiota from infants with and without RSV infection to determine if these findings extend to human infants.

Founded in 2014, the University of Tennessee Institute for Research, Innovation, Synergy and Health Equity (iRISE) focuses on bridging the gap from basic and clinical research to clinical and community practice. The high degree of health and health care disparities in the Mid-South provides both a challenge and an opportunity for iRISE researchers to engage in transformative research.