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Research News

First-of-its-kind driving simulator lab at UAB powered by donation from Honda Manufacturing of Alabama and ALDOT
First-of-its-kind driving simulator lab at UAB powered by donation from Honda Manufacturing of Alabama and ALDOT
The facility will enable new distracted-driving research, addressing a major public health issue that is a leading cause of highway and traffic-related injuries and death.

During Distracted Driving Awareness Month, UAB has opened the first SUV driving simulator laboratory in the world.

In the development of this lab, UAB partnered with Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, which provided a full-bodied 2016 Honda Pilot built at their factory in Lincoln, Ala., to be retrofitted with state-of-the-art simulator technology funded by the Alabama Department of Transportation. The technology gives UAB researchers the opportunity to conduct important safety studies involving distracted driving practices.

Representatives from Honda, ALDOT and Alabama’s Office of the Attorney General joined the UAB team to announce the new initiative at a grand opening this week.

“Honda Manufacturing of Alabama is honored to partner with UAB in this important project, with the goal of saving lives by increasing awareness of distracted driving,” said HMA Vice President Mike Oatridge. “Honda is very pleased we could donate the most advanced Honda Pilot ever built in Alabama, which has a five-star crash safety rating and features Honda most advanced safety features including the full range of Honda Sensing technology.”

The goal of this effort is to facilitate solutions and best practices in motor-vehicle-related safety and crash prevention, addressing the major public health problem of highway and traffic-related injuries and death. 

“Data tell us that distracted driving is a factor in nearly 50 percent of car crashes, which translates to one million injury-producing crashes each year,” said Despina Stavrinos, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences and director of the UAB Translational Research for Injury Prevention Laboratory. “Ten percent of those crashes result in a fatality. Understanding which factors influence an individual’s likelihood to engage in distracted driving is essential to being able to purposefully address this growing problem. With this new simulator, we will be able to gain new information about how drivers participate in distracted behavior, giving us valuable insight that can increase the effectiveness of educational campaigns and improve driving safety.”

news Driving Simulator 2The core of Stavrinos’ work is the prevention of injury, particularly unintentional injuries like those that result from distracted driving behaviors. She will lead her TRIP Lab in conducting studies with the new simulator.

The first study, set to begin in a couple of weeks, will focus on teens and adults over 65, two of the most vulnerable populations when it comes to distracted driving.

The simulator is intended to be available to researchers from all appropriate disciplines throughout UAB, other universities in the state, and even throughout the Southeast. In addition, non-university research scientists will be afforded access to the simulator and its associated support services.

“UAB really thrives on investing in resources that are going to allow multidisciplinary research to take place,” said Richard Marchase, Ph.D., vice president for research and economic development at UAB. “With this new technology, which we are very thankful to Honda Manufacturing of Alabama and ALDOT for helping us create, we will be able to do just that and make this facility a destination for collaboration and innovation for researchers across campus and beyond. It will be a resource that I’m sure will be game-changing.”

“Honda Manufacturing of Alabama is honored to partner with UAB in this important project, with the goal of saving lives by increasing awareness of distracted driving,” said HMA Vice President Mike Oatridge. “Honda is very pleased we could donate the most advanced Honda Pilot ever built in Alabama, which has a five-star crash safety rating and features Honda's most advanced safety features, including the full range of Honda Sensing technology.”

Individuals interested in utilizing these resources or contributing should contact Stavrinos at dstavrin@uab.edu or (205) 934-7861. 

UAB observational study of Zika virus infection during pregnancy begins in Brazil
UAB observational study of Zika virus infection during pregnancy begins in Brazil
UAB professor leads study in Brazil to help further understand the effects of Zika virus during pregnancy.
william brittWilliam Britt

An observational study of pregnant women in Brazil to further understand Zika virus and its impact on reproductive health and fetus development have been launched. William Britt, M.D., professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, leads the study, which complements his current research in Brazil on cytomegalovirus infection during pregnancy. CMV infection can lead to hearing and vision impairment in babies. Suresh Boppana, M.D., and Karen Fowler, M.D., professors in the UAB Department of Pediatrics, are co-investigators on this project.

“We are expanding the scope of our research to include studies of the outcomes of pregnancy in women with Zika virus, which in some cases parallels the outcomes of pregnancy in women with cytomegalovirus infection,” Britt said. “These studies are part of a larger effort by the NIH to more fully define the natural history of Zika virus in pregnancy, including identifying laboratory and clinical characteristics of this infection associated with damage to the developing brain. The results of these studies will establish the foundation for interventions to limit the consequences of the virus infection in pregnant women.”

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development-funded study looks to increase enrollment to approximately 200 pregnant women per month in Ribeirão Preto, in the state of São Paulo. The collaboration between UAB and Marissa Mussi-Pinhata, M.D., chief of the Department of Pediatrics of Ribeirão Preto Medical School at the University of São Paulo, follows pregnant women beginning in their first trimester, regardless of their Zika virus infection status.

Samples of blood, urine, breast milk and amniotic fluids from the mother will be collected during and after pregnancy, as well as urine, saliva and cord blood from the newborn infants. Researchers will analyze the maternal and newborn samples for evidence of Zika virus infection, following infants suspected of having Zika from birth until age 2.

Personality may dictate how distracted you are while driving
Personality may dictate how distracted you are while driving
UAB researchers uncover new information about drivers’ likelihood to participate in risky roadway behavior.
distracted drivers study 4Click to see older drivers graphic. Click to see teen drivers graphic.

Extraverted older adults and conscientious, curious teens may be more likely to engage in risky driving behavior, while agreeable teens are less likely to drive distracted, according to new research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

In the study published online this month in Accident Analysis and Prevention, the research team said that certain personality characteristics relate to distracted driving tendencies.

Leading the project was Morgan Parr, an undergraduate psychology student in the UAB Translational Research for Injury Prevention (TRIP) Laboratory. Parr worked with Despina Stavrinos, Ph.D., director of the TRIP Lab and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences, and others to uncover these new findings about the link between personality and distracted driving. Stavrinos has made injury prevention, and unintentional injuries such as those that result from distracted driving behaviors in particular, the core of her work.

“Data tell us that distracted driving is a factor in nearly 50 percent of car crashes, which translates to 1 million injury-producing crashes each year. Ten percent of those crashes result in a fatality,” Stavrinos said. “Understanding which factors influence an individual’s likelihood to engage in distracted driving is essential to being able to purposefully address this growing problem. Through this study, we were able to gain new information about why drivers might be participating in distracted behavior, giving us valuable insight that can increase the effectiveness of educational campaigns and improve driving safety.”

While researchers have closely examined the impact of demographics, health, and sensory and cognitive functioning on driving behaviors, the influence of personality on driving behaviors has not yet been a major focus of study. UAB’s team sought to take a closer look at that potential link.

“Others in the field have hypothesized that personality traits may have some impact on distracted driving practices; but no one had taken the next step, which was to test that theory,” Stavrinos said. “Before going into the study, common sense and other related research told us that there would likely be some kind of link between the traits and behaviors — we just didn’t know exactly how one would dictate the other.”

The UAB researchers used one of the most widely accepted models of personality, McCrae and Costa’s Big Five questionnaire, to evaluate which traits might correlate to distracted driving behaviors. According to this model, everyone falls within a continuum for each of five factors: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

“We targeted two populations that we believe are at risk for potentially dangerous driving practices — teens ages 16 to 19 and older adults ages 65 to 85,” Parr said. “While the underlying factors that lead to increased crash risk for the two groups are likely different, one emerging concern for both groups is their use of electronic devices behind the wheel.”

Participants included 120 drivers who completed the 45-item Big Five questionnaire assessing their own personality traits as well as the Questionnaire Assessing Distracted Driving, or QUADD, assessing the frequency of their distracted driving behaviors — talking on their cellphones, sending text messages and interacting with their cellphones, all while driving — by reporting the number of times per day they engaged in the risky activities during a two-week period.

The Results

The researchers’ hypothesis that higher openness to experience, agreeableness and extraversion would be associated with greater self-reported levels of distracted driving behaviors across both age groups was partially supported.

Population 1: Teens

For teen drivers, openness to experience was associated with an increase in two of the distracted driving behaviors: texting and interacting with a cellphone while driving. A 10 percent increase in openness was associated with a 22 percent increase in risk for distracted driving. This finding may provide partial explanation for prior work finding that individuals high in sensation seeking and impulsiveness — traits often associated with the openness factor — report more driving violations.

distracted driver teenConscientious teen drivers were also more likely to engage in texting and interacting with their cellphone while driving. Because individuals scoring high in conscientiousness typically endorse organized, dependable and even obsessive traits, the research team expected that high scores in this personality trait would result in fewer instances of engaging in distracted driving behaviors; however, a 10 percent increase in conscientiousness was associated with a 21 percent increase in risk for those distracted driving behaviors.

“It may seem counterintuitive that conscientious teens would be the ones to participate in risky behavior,” Parr said. “However, it may be that these individuals feel the need to respond immediately to text messages from peers, even in a potentially dangerous context, such as driving in a car, in order to maintain peers’ perception of their dependability.”

Contrary to the original hypothesis, teens with lower levels of agreeableness were more likely to report texting and interactions with a phone while driving — a 10 percent decrease in agreeableness was associated with a 16 percent increase for distracted driving.

“The cooperative nature, including respect for rules and authority figures, of individuals who score high in agreeableness may make them less likely to engage in distracted driving behaviors because of their deference to road regulations and concern for safety,” Stavrinos said.

Population 2: Older Adults

In older adults, only one personality factor was significantly associated with distracted driving behaviors — extraversion. A 10 percent increase in extraversion scores translated to a 20 percent increase in instances of talking on or interacting with a phone.

distracted drivers older1Based on previous research suggesting that those high in extraversion are more susceptible to peer influence, the team hypothesized that drivers high in extraversion would be more likely to engage in texting and driving behavior, especially teen drivers who are more often influenced by peer relationships. However, extraversion was associated with an increase in talking and interacting with a cellphone while driving only among older drivers.

With the older adult population’s reporting minimal instances of texting while driving, there was no link found between personality traits and that particular distracted driving behavior.

“This study showed us that personality traits are an important factor in understanding distracted driving tendencies. More research into this area will help us become even more clear about how personality traits can predict distracted driving behaviors,” Parr said. “With more information, we can tailor our injury prevention efforts to appeal to drivers with specific personality traits that we know are associated with a higher risk of distracted driving behaviors.”

Lawson receives ADA investigator award
Lawson receives ADA investigator award
Nathaniel Lawson, DMD, assistant professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham School of Dentistry, is the recipient of the 2015 John W. Stanford New Investigator Award given by the American Dental Association.

nate lawsonNathaniel Lawson, DMD, assistant professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham School of Dentistry, was recently awarded the 2015 John W. Stanford New Investigator Award for his research project examining methods used to measure the effectiveness of new composite materials used in crowns, cavities and other dental repairs.

“In the laboratory, we test many of the new products that either have come to market or are about to come to the market,” Lawson said. “Often we will discover problems with new materials based on specific clinical applications.”

He says that, as these materials transition to mainstream dentistry, clinicians will need to know if they are able to fully polymerize at different depths. Lawson’s research project examined the method used to measure the depth of cure of composites, specifically bulk fill composites.

In his laboratory, some of the new materials being tested include a resin infiltration material that would allow small cavities to be restored without the use of anesthesia or drilling and new filling materials that release calcium and phosphate to help remineralize teeth.

The American Dental Association Council on Scientific Affairs selected Lawson to receive the award, which is being bestowed for the third time in as many years.

“It was a huge honor for me to receive a national research award from the ADA,” Lawson said. “The recognition from the ADA helps me realize the benefits of pursuing an academic career and serves as encouragement for me to continue working in dental research.”

Before becoming an assistant professor, Lawson earned both his DMD in 2011 and his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering in 2012 at UAB.

The John W. Stanford New Investigator Award honors the contributions of one of the ADA Standards Program’s most vital figures, John Stanford, Ph.D. The award acknowledges the original research that dental students and new dentists produce in the realm of dental standards.

UAB awarded $19.5 million grant for new xenotransplantation program
UAB awarded $19.5 million grant for new xenotransplantation program
Gift from United Therapeutics will establish Xenotransplantation Institute and bring additional resources to support the endeavor with a goal of genetically modified kidney transplants taking place by 2021.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Comprehensive Transplant Institute has been awarded a five-year, $19.5 million grant from biotechnology magnate United Therapeutics Corporation to launch a pioneering UAB Xenotransplantation Program that both groups hope will lead to genetically modified kidney transplants from pig models to humans by 2021.

“More than 8,000 people either died waiting for a kidney transplant or became too sick to receive a kidney transplant in 2014,” said Selwyn Vickers, M.D., senior vice president and dean of UAB’s School of Medicine. “As a research and medical community, we have to do more to try and help those suffering. This very generous gift from United Therapeutics will enable us to establish a unique research arm for the School of Medicine that gives us the chance to be the first in the world to transplant genetically engineered kidneys from nonhuman organs into human recipients within the next five years. This opportunity further defines our school and UAB Medicine as an outstanding destination for education, clinical care and research — all with the ultimate goal of securing the top medical and scientific talent in the country and becoming the preferred destination for patients in Alabama and across the country who need care.”

xeno graphic rev

Xenotransplantation is any procedure that involves the transplantation, implantation or infusion into a human recipient of either live cells, tissues or organs from a nonhuman animal source or human body fluids, cells, tissues or organs that have had ex vivo contact with live nonhuman animal cells, tissues or organs, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Joseph Tector, M.D., Ph.D., one of the leading xenotransplant researchers in the United States, has been recruited from Indiana University to run UAB’s xenotransplantation program. His first day at UAB was April 1. Tector was a professor of surgery in the IU School of Medicine and director of its transplant institute.

“Transplantation is one of medicine’s greatest triumphs, saving thousands of lives each year, and improving the quality of life for many of those fortunate enough to obtain a scarce graft from another person,” said Tector. “Unfortunately, the supply of human organs is insufficient to treat all the patients who present each year with organ failure, and who could benefit if a compatible graft were available. While substantial progress has been made toward harnessing the tremendous potential of stem cell biology and tissue engineering, most approaches based on these young technologies are at a proof-of-concept stage, and far from clinical application. These considerations provide a powerful impetus for preclinical translational research to develop clinical therapies using organ and islet xenografts, which I believe are close to making clinical impact.”

Xenotransplantation is not entirely novel. Pig heart valves have been used for many years without ill effect and seldom elicit rejection. UAB scientists believe whole organ transplants from genetically modified pigs are possible in the near future if immunological and physiological barriers can be overcome. Creating a xenotransplant program is another step in UAB’s commitment to academic and research excellence and clinical innovation for lifesaving treatments that reach beyond standard clinical techniques, said Herbert Chen, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery and surgeon-in-chief of UAB Hospital.

“One of the things that makes UAB the best place in America to be a student, resident, faculty member and leader is that its people are fearless when it comes to trying to find solutions to complex problems facing our world today,” Chen said. “This will be daring work, and we are focused on bringing in the research and clinical talent necessary to discover if xenotransplantation will be a viable option for humans in the very near future. We believe it will be.”

joseph tector boxJoseph Tector, M.D., Ph.D., has joined UAB and will head UAB's new xenotransplant program. Read more about Tector's clinical practice.Devin Eckhoff, M.D., director of UAB’s Division of Transplantation said the primary motivation for using genetically engineered kidneys from nonhuman resources is driven by supply, demand and cost.

In terms of supply and demand, Alabama has more than 3,400 residents in need of a kidney transplant, and more than 100,000 U.S. citizens total are waiting kidney transplants as of January 2016. All told, more than 121,000 people in the United States are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants of some type.

From a cost perspective, a recent article in the American Journal of Transplantation showed that the cost of dialysis treatments averages $1.45 million per patient over the course of a lifetime. According to the article, the net benefit for society from saving thousands of lives each year and reducing the suffering of 100,000 more who are receiving dialysis would be about $46 billion per year. In addition, it would save taxpayers approximately $12 billion each year.

Eckhoff said UAB’s current infrastructure, forthcoming infrastructure improvements and faculty and staff recruitment efforts will continue the Division of Transplantation’s growth efforts and stimulate more innovation zones in Birmingham and across Alabama.

“We want UAB to be the premier center for in-stage organ disease, whether it’s liver, heart or kidney, and there is no doubt that our list of those awaiting transplants — especially kidney transplants — is steep, and the cost of ongoing dialysis care is prohibitive,” Eckhoff said. “The average wait for someone with blood type O, the most common blood type, is six to eight years, so there is a real need. Even if you were to get 100 percent consent from every brain dead donor in America, you still wouldn’t have enough organs to fill the need. And here in the south, we’re in the hotbed of organ failure — kidney failure, liver failure. People are dying waiting on organs. Xenotransplantation is a natural fit for us as a university and could potentially spur more biomedical opportunities in our region.”

Advances in molecular biology and immunology have made the possibility of xenotransplantation appear more feasible in recent years. The goal for xenotransplantation is that it will be a long-term solution for patients, much like living- and deceased-donor donations, which Eckhoff emphasizes will remain as important as they are today, even if xenotransplantation efforts are successful; xenotransplantation is viewed as a supplement to living- and deceased-donor transplants.

“Organ donation is irreplaceable, but finding other avenues to increase options for those suffering from kidney disease and kidney failure is a must,” Eckhoff said.

UAB leads the nation in living donor transplantation and is a leading research center in providing novel therapies for long-term survivors. Its goal of providing innovative access to transplant has enabled UAB physicians to provide 12,000-plus transplants over five decades.

John Simon Guggenheim



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