UAB Magazine Weekly - Features on Research
GIS Offers New Directions for Data
By Brian Hudgins
Sometimes a simple picture can say more than mountains of data—especially if that picture is created from the data itself. Akhlaque Haque, Ph.D., an associate professor of government at UAB and an expert in the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, learned this lesson in Cleveland.
Haque was working as a graduate assistant at Cleveland State University in the early 1990s when he found a new way to drive home a point about shifting city revenues. “I took data showing the gradual loss of tax base in the city, and I was able to connect that data to geography and show where the tax base was moving,” he says.
GIS combines satellite images and other mapmaking tools with data on economics, health, crime, or virtually any other type of information. The technology has been used by police to track crime rates by neighborhood, by businesses to pinpoint key customer bases, and by public health experts to analyze outbreaks of infectious diseases, among hundreds of other applications.
How Dogs Could Help Humans Fight Cancer—and Vice Versa
By Charles Buchanan
Man's best friend can fetch, sit, and roll over. Now dogs may be about to perform their greatest trick: helping humans fight cancer—while treatments originally developed for humans are helping dogs that are suffering from the disease.
Examinations of genetic-based canine diseases reveal that 58 percent or more are comparable to human diseases, says UAB neurosurgeon—and veterinarian—Renee Chambers, D.V.M., M.D. "Investigating naturally occurring canine brain tumors provides a unique opportunity" to advance cancer research, she says.
Three years ago, Chambers began the process of turning that insight into a full-fledged research program. Now, thanks to a grant from the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, Chambers and her colleagues have begun analyzing naturally occurring brain tumors in pet dogs as part of the Alabama Comparative Oncology Network.
Previous research has shown that canine brain tumors known as gliomas spring from chromosomal mutations that may also be the source of glioblastoma multiforme, a malignant human brain tumor with a low survival rate. The canine and human tumors also occur at similar rates in both populations, and they share common patterns of progression and response to treatment.
By Jo Lynn Orr | Illustration by Tim Rocks
What is the end result of research? How do the therapies and interventions that scientists develop actually reach the public? Why do new treatments quickly reach academic medical centers like UAB but move on to community hospitals and health clinics much more slowly, if at all? Is a cheaper but less-effective therapy better than one that is more effective but too expensive to be adopted in the real world?
Wynne E. Norton, Ph.D., specializes in asking—and answering—just these kinds of questions. As an expert in the relatively new field of implementation science (IS), she looks for ways to apply research results and other evidence-based findings to real-world practice in health-care and public health settings.
The Science of Solutions
Studies indicate that it takes 17 years for patients to benefit from just 14 percent of original research, says Norton, an assistant professor in UAB’s Department of Health Behavior in the School of Public Health. “IS seeks to speed up this process, and many agencies within the National Institutes of Health are on board with this goal,” she says. “The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality also is interested in the health-care delivery aspect, as well as in scale-up and spread, which is an extension of IS that involves facilitating widespread adoption of reliable strategies for effecting evidence-based services.”
UAB Experts Lead the Fight Against Heart Disease and Cancer
UAB has accomplished another first—and a sixth. Donna Arnett, Ph.D., named president-elect of the American Heart Association (AHA) in June, is on track to become the first epidemiologist to lead the organization and the sixth UAB faculty member to hold the top spot.
Epidemiologists study the patterns of disease—what causes them, how they spread, and how they can be controlled. “The election of an epidemiologist really fits well with the AHA’s mission of building healthier lives free of cardiovascular disease and stroke,” says Arnett, who chairs UAB’s Department of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health.
Perception and Prevention
Her mission as president-elect is to “push the agenda of prevention,” she says. “Recently the AHA discovered that 39 percent of Americans think they are in ideal health, but when you actually count the statistics—their diet, weight, and amount of exercise—less than 1 percent is in ideal health. My goal is to change that.” Arnett hopes to make a measurable impact in Alabama, which has an AHA health profile that ranks “second to last, just behind Mississippi, in diabetes, obesity, high hypertension, stroke, and cardiovascular disease rates,” she says.
In her new role, Arnett also will represent the AHA at various national meetings and work with the incoming AHA president and the immediate past president to handle strategy issues. She will begin her yearlong term as AHA president in July 2012.
Arnett has been involved with the AHA for 20 years, most recently serving as president of the Greater Southeast Affiliate of the AHA, which represents six states, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands. She also has led the AHA national research committee and the scientific publishing committee.
Saving Lives from Cancer
Comprehensive Cancer Center became president of the American Cancer Society (ACS) National Board of Directors. His one-year term has overlapped with an ACS plan to increase the number of lives saved from cancer to 1,000 each day.While Arnett makes plans for her national leadership role, Edward Partridge, M.D., is finishing his. Last November, the director of UAB’s
“It’s a privilege and honor to be part of an organization that—partly because of some work we’ve done at UAB—helps avert 340 cancer deaths each day,” Partridge says. “But there is much more we can do. We’re looking at our programs and how we deliver them to really make a difference in people’s lives.”
A Promising Future
Partridge, who is known nationally for his expertise in women’s cancer and his work to reduce race- and ethnicity-based cancer disparities in the Deep South, has volunteered with the ACS for more than 30 years and served as chair of its Mid-South Division. The breakthroughs he has seen over the decades point to a promising future for cancer prevention and treatment.
“We have the knowledge to prevent approximately 70 percent of cancer deaths in the United States by eliminating smoking or reducing rates to single digits, providing age-appropriate screening to our entire population, and assuring healthy diets and physical activity in a substantial portion of our population,” Partridge says. In addition, “technical advances have provided tools to eventually unravel the complex cancer development pathways. They will give us specific targets to modify and arrest or reverse the carcinogenic process.
“Cancer will be eliminated as a major public-health problem this century—probably in the first 50 years,” Partridge says. “How fast it occurs is limited only by the nation’s investment in cancer programs.”
Discovery Reshapes Textbooks and TB Treatment
By Chris Jones
Michael Niederweis, Ph.D., has spent most of his career trying to breach two formidable barriers. The first is the cell wall of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis (TB), which causes more deaths each year than any other bacterial pathogen. The second is the opposition of the TB research community, which has been slow to accept the UAB microbiologist’s revolutionary discovery about that wall.
Bacteria have evolved two types of cell walls to protect themselves from their environments. Some have a slimy, sugary coat while others have an outer membrane, like the wall of a fortress. TB researchers had long believed that the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium had a cell wall that was unique but nevertheless similar to the sugar-coated bacteria. But Niederweis and his team have shown evidence for an outer membrane, a finding that could have a profound impact on the development of new TB drugs.