UAB Magazine Weekly - Features on Research
Could Higher Costs Lower Auto Fatalities?
By Nicole Wyatt
The high price of cheap gas: Research by UAB's Michael Morrisey and others found that gas prices and auto fatalities seem to be inversely proportional. That is, as the price of gas rises, fewer people die on the roads.
As gas prices rise, so do the tempers of many drivers. This spring, the average price of a gallon of unleaded gasoline rose nearly a dollar compared to a year ago. And even though prices have fallen slightly in the past few weeks, they are still close to record highs.
The news isn’t all bad, however. While the rising prices may make saving money difficult, they could help save lives by reducing the number of motor-vehicle fatalities. Michael Morrisey, Ph.D., director of UAB’s Lister Hill Center for Health Policy, helped shed light on the silver lining in a study with the UAB Injury Control Research Center. Just a ten-cent sustained increase in gas prices reduced motor-vehicle fatalities per capita by a total of 2.3 percent over two years, he says.
Less Blood on the Highway
“As careful as the enforcement of speeding and drunk-driving laws is, one thing that has changed over the last few years is that gas prices are higher,” Morrisey explains. “In turn, fewer people are on the roads, and drivers are combining trips. As a consequence, there’s less opportunity to have a crash and die.”
The opposite seemed to be true when Morrisey and his fellow researchers began studying gasoline prices. “We had seen evidence that many public-policy interventions were effective in reducing fatalities, but the trend in fatalities per capita wasn’t falling,” he says. “As economists, we looked for reasons that could explain that, and declining real gas prices in the late 1990s and early 2000s were an obvious candidate.”
UAB Imaging Lab Explores Science in HD
By Grant Martin
Melissa Chimento has seen the face of the enemy, and that enemy looks like—a finger. Chimento, a UAB alumna, is an electron microscopist in UAB’s High Resolution Imaging Facility (HRIF), a technology-packed lab in the Shelby Biomedical Research Building that offers researchers the chance to see their work up close and personal, even when the object of their attention is thousands of times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.
A male (right) and female fruit fly are shown at more than 75 times their size by using laser confocal microspy. To view this and other images from the HRIF, scroll down and click the arrows in the slideshow below.
At the controls of an FEI Tecnai T12 TEM, Chimento has captured images of anthrax, adenoviruses, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the potentially lethal bug that causes tuberculosis—looking remarkably fingerlike (and quite nonthreatening) in its native environment.
Each year, hundreds of researchers pay a visit to the HRIF, says Kent Keyser, Ph.D., who directs the facility and UAB’s Vision Science Research Center. Vision researchers are regular users of the lab’s equipment, which includes two electron microscopes and several high-powered light microscopes, but its users also include scientists from the Comprehensive Cancer Center, Rheumatic Disease Core Center, Hepatorenal Fibrocystic Disease Core Center, Cystic Fibrosis Center, Biomatrix Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Center, and many others, Keyser notes. These centers also provide monetary support for the facility, Keyser adds, “which is critically important in helping keep fees low while maintaining a high standard of service.”
Seeing Is Believing
Researchers come to capture details of cellular processes and to take advantage of the HRIF’s ability to create two- and three-dimensional reconstructions and animations and record time-lapse video, among dozens of other applications. The devices necessary to do this “are all very expensive, so placing the equipment in a shared core facility ensures that it is accessible to scientists from all different labs across campus, as well as scientists from other universities and institutions,” explains HRIF microscopist Shawn Williams.
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New Facility Aligns Interdisciplinary Researchers in Fight Against Blindness
By Grant Martin
Paul Gamlin, chair of the Department of Vision Sciences, is one of several researchers who will share space in the new EyeSight Foundation of Alabama Vision Science Research Laboratories
When officials from the UAB schools of optometry (UABSO) and medicine dedicated a newly renovated research space in Volker Hall this past fall, it signaled more than just an expansion of laboratories. The state-of-the-art facility marked the start of a historic collaborative arrangement designed to break through the current limitations of vision science research and bring the scientific world closer to a full understanding of the diseases that cause blindness.
The EyeSight Foundation of Alabama Vision Science Research Laboratories will provide space for 15 researchers—including six from the UABSO’s Vision Science Research Center—who formerly occupied separate laboratories in the Callahan Eye Foundation Hospital, Worrell, Shelby, and Spain-Wallace buildings. “Our Vision Science Research Center has long been known for its innovative approaches through interdisciplinary research efforts,” says UABSO interim dean Rodney Nowakowski, O.D., Ph.D. (’75). “This new facility will accelerate many of our ongoing projects by bringing the participating researchers together in the same space. Our hope is that this arrangement will also help generate new ideas and new lines of inquiry for future research endeavors.”
Vision loss stems from a wide variety of diseases, including glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration. Scientists in the new vision science research laboratories will focus on examining the underlying pathologies of these conditions and on uncovering the reasons why blinding diseases are so common in the southeastern United States. “The incidence of partial vision loss and blindness is disproportionately high in the Southeast,” says Paul Gamlin, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Vision Sciences, “so UAB is particularly well-suited for this type of facility. We hope to provide the infrastructure for research that will help prevent vision loss throughout the state, region, and nation.”
The facility was created through a $1.2-million grant from The EyeSight Foundation of Alabama, plus additional funds from the provost’s office and the schools of medicine and optometry. The open-lab design concept will enable several faculty members to share large, conjoined lab spaces, creating more opportunities for collaboration.
School of Optometry faculty relocating to the new labs include Paul Gamlin, Ph.D.; Alecia Gross, Ph.D.; Kent Keyser, Ph.D.; Timothy Kraft, Ph.D.; Thomas Norton, Ph.D.; Steve Pittler, Ph.D.; and Om Srivastava, Ph.D. Xincheng Yao, Ph.D., from the School of Engineering, will join them. Faculty from the School of Medicine moving into the new labs include Christine Curcio, Ph.D.; Christopher Girkin, M.D.; Clyde Guidry, Ph.D.; Judith Kapp, Ph.D.; Russell Read, M.D., Ph.D.; Shu-Zhen Wang, Ph.D.; and Yuhua Zhang, Ph.D.
Answering the Call
There are many practical advantages to bringing researchers together into a shared space. Less obvious, however, are the potential advantages that could come from the favorable impression such a facility might have on organizations funding research. After all, collaborative, interdisciplinary efforts between scientists have been commonplace at UAB for years, but having a facility dedicated to those collaborative relationships will increase visibility of the projects, thereby making UAB even more competitive for funding. “While much of the initial focus is on increasing the limits of basic research, there is an increased emphasis from the National Institutes of Health on translational research and even clinical treatments,” Gamlin says. “And the new labs put UAB in position to take advantage of that.”
“When you’re focused on your own area of research, which goes all the way down to the molecular level, it’s easy to wonder, ‘Is what I’m doing ever going to translate into a treatment for disease in my lifetime?’” adds Judith Kapp, Ph.D., the Department of Ophthalmology’s vice chair for basic research. “This facility creates an excellent environment where researchers can work together and imagine how their work is going to translate, and it will keep them focused.”
“The proximity of researchers will foster collaboration,” agrees Steven Pittler, Ph.D., who is currently working on retinal degeneration. “I am trying to understand the basic mechanisms of how the retina functions as well as conducting translational research in finding disease of the retina and related disorders. To have access to other researchers with different areas of expertise, as well as the opportunity to share some specialized equipment will be a huge advantage.”
The research labs were dedicated during a two-day celebration in September, which included a reception, dedication, and lab tour. Additionally, Paul Sieving, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Eye Institute, was the featured speaker of the Vision Science Symposium, which coincided with the event.
Examining an Economic Expert
By Glenny Brock
Friedrich Hayek's warnings against the dangers of government intervention have won the late economist a new following. But Hayek's views are more complex than many of his fans realize, says UAB philosopher and economist Erik Angner.
Austrian economists are hot these days. In 2010, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich A. Hayek, which was originally published in 1944, rocketed to the top of Amazon’s list of bestselling nonfiction books—propelled in part by praise from commentator Glenn Beck. Hayek’s warning against the dangers of government intervention has earned him renewed attention in recent years, but his ideology was far more nuanced than many of his fans may realize, says Erik Angner, Ph.D., UAB assistant professor of philosophy and economics, director of the UAB Center for Ethics and Values in the Sciences, and author of the book Hayek and Natural Law (2007: Routledge). Here, Angner offers a closer look at a man who is often described as one of the key economists of the 20th century.
Opposition to Intervention
Unlike many contemporary authors who write about Friedrich Hayek, UAB's Erik Angner (above), says he approaches his subject as a scholar rather than a proponent or critic.
Angner explains that contemporary conservatives like Hayek for his opposition to government intervention in the marketplace. They emphasize three main tenets of his philosophy:
1. Government intervention leads to increased debt and inflation, particularly when the government spends money it doesn’t have.
2. Economic control is, in effect, political control. For instance, monetary policy defined by a central banking authority represents government encroachment on overall freedom.
3. Individual freedom is a precondition for prosperity. “Hayek believed that the price system fulfilled a critical function in society, and the price system only works if people can choose freely what to buy and at what price” Angner explains. Consequently, Hayek opposed government monopolies and price ceilings or floors that limit consumer choice. Moreover, Hayek believed that interference with the price system could be the first step toward government intervention in other aspects of people’s lives.
Exploring the Food-Cancer Connection
By Tara Hulen
Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D.
• Connects the UAB Cancer Center’s basic nutrition science and lifestyle-intervention programs in a translational and interdisciplinary approach
• Conducted some of the largest studies on the links among diet, hormones, genes, and cancer progression; effective lifestyle interventions to improve cancer survivorship; and metabolic/body composition changes in response to cancer treatment
• Serves on boards and panels for the American Cancer Society, several National Institutes of Health standing and ad-hoc committees, and the World Cancer Fund
• Named a Komen Professor of Survivorship
• Holds an undergraduate degree in nutrition science and chemistry from the University of Michigan; a master’s in nutrition from Texas Woman’s University; and a doctorate in nutrition science from Syracuse University
The eye-opening, life-reassessing shock of a cancer diagnosis can also be one of life’s teachable moments. For two decades, that insight—finding hope in the midst of catastrophe—has driven the research of Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., the new associate director for cancer prevention and control at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and Webb Chair in Nutrition Sciences at the UAB School of Health Professions. She is an international leader in understanding how dietary changes affect cancer survivorship.
Confronted with a diagnosis of cancer, many patients are open to diet and lifestyle changes that can help them get and stay healthy, says Demark-Wahnefried. “There’s a great opportunity in cancer survivorship, because more and more people are surviving their cancer, particularly for breast and prostate cancer, where more than 90 percent of people diagnosed are surviving. We’ve had good success in actually making people better than they were before they had cancer. There are lots of things that can be done.”
It’s especially important to take advantage of this opportunity, she continues, “because although people survive their cancer, they’re at more risk for having a second cancer once they’ve been diagnosed. They’re also at more risk for heart disease, osteoporosis, and other illnesses” due to weakened bodies, pre-existing conditions, genetic predisposition, and other factors.
Understanding the Chemotherapy-Weight Gain Dilemma
Cancer Center director Ed Partridge, M.D., recruited Demark-Wahnefried to UAB in spring 2010 after she had spent three years at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which followed a long research career at Duke University.
It was the chance to work with a renowned Duke researcher that drew Demark-Wahnefried into the field. She became involved in a major study investigating the reasons why women with breast cancer tend to gain weight while on chemotherapy.
This weight gain is a concern, Demark-Wahnefried explains, because 71 percent of breast cancer patients who are diagnosed after menopause are overweight or obese to begin with. And even though the exact nature of the relationship is still unclear, it is apparent that excess weight is harmful to women with breast cancer. “What’s theorized is that body weight affects hormonal levels,” Demark-Wahnefried says. “It also affects adipokines and cytokines, which are inflammatory biomarkers that probably feed the cancer.”
Before the study began, Demark-Wahnefried explains, the clichéd assumption went like this: Women were gaining weight because they indulged in extra comfort foods while dealing with the stresses of chemotherapy. But metabolic tests revealed that women actually eat less when they are on chemotherapy, she says. The culprit is the fatigue caused by chemotherapy, which leads women to become less active; that, in turn, brings about a loss of lean body mass. “When you lose lean body mass, it makes an impact,” Demark-Wahnefried says. “You can’t eat as many calories as you once did.”
The quantity of muscle mass lost was astonishing, she recalls. “The amount we saw just wasting away from these women in one year after diagnosis was comparable to 10 years of normal aging.” Chemotherapy targets quickly metabolizing cells, including muscle, she says, “so it makes sense.”