Pilot grant program helps advance research, promote collaboration

Matt Solovey
March 13, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Understanding the risk of hydrogen sulfide in rural communities, developing technology to diagnose disease in the field and addressing kidney stones through proper hydration are three very different projects involving vastly different research disciplines. That’s the point of the Bridges to Translation pilot project funding available through Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute. The aim is to generate innovative health research ideas that can be explored through collaboration. The program seeks to link researchers not traditionally in health research with those who can help mold an idea.

Letters of intent are now being accepted for Bridges to Translation IV. The institute will award up to $300,000 in funding to Penn State faculty, with most awards between $35,000 and $65,000, for projects that help overcome roadblocks that move research findings in the laboratory to practical knowledge applied to patients in an exam room. The institute is looking for researchers who are developing new evidence-based programs and practices, new ways to analyze data, innovative training programs and novel technologies; researchers like Weihua Guan, an assistant professor of electrical engineering.

Guan received pilot funding through the institute in 2015 to work on technology to more easily diagnose malaria. Guan’s technology can diagnose a patient within 30 minutes and can work with a smart phone to interpret results. He was assisted by his graduate student, Gihoon Choi, in developing the technology, which uses discs inserted into a portable analyzing unit to check blood, saliva, sputum, urine, stool and pathogens including parasites, bacteria and viruses. Guan has named his technology AnyMDx.

“The Clinical and Translational Science Institute pilot grant enabled an otherwise-impossible, fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration between our lab and Dr. Liwang Cui’s lab,” Guan said. Cui, a professor of entomology, studies malaria. Guan has concentrated on developing the technology to be used in the diagnosis of the parasite.

“The pilot grant is critical for us to cross the discipline and truly understand the key challenges in malaria diagnostics,” Guan said. “This kind of translational funding opportunity is of significant importance for the engineers like us to cross the boundary and see the challenges from the clinical need perspective. It enables collaborators from a different discipline to speak the same language.”

Guan has fully tested the mobile molecular diagnostic system for malaria in laboratory settings. He has one published article on the technology, in the journal Lab on a Chip, with another paper currently under review. He has also published three conference papers.

“These critical preliminary results enable us to seek external funding opportunities to move our research forward,” Guan said. “As an open and versatile platform, the technology is highly relevant to a large array of other infectious diseases that demands sensitive and specific testing. We are expanding the technology into other critical infectious diseases such as Zika and HIV.” 

Bridges to Translation was also important for David Conroy, professor of kinesiology and human development and family studies, to move his idea forward. Specifically, it gave him invaluable patient feedback that allowed him to adjust his research to be more effective. 

Conroy is developing a technology-based intervention to help patients with kidney stones. His lab is using wearable sensors to develop algorithms that can detect when people drink and when to alert them that they need to drink.

“One of the best strategies for preventing a recurrence of kidney stones is to increase fluid consumption,” Conroy said. “Clinical guidelines recommend eating and drinking enough to produce 2.5-3L of urine daily. But thirst is not sufficient to motivate the fluid consumption required to meet that guideline, and people often forget to drink when they are not thirsty. The key is that we want to limit reminders to times when patients have not been drinking so they don’t tune out the messages or get annoyed by unnecessary reminders.”

Conroy, a behavioral scientist, collaborated with Dr. Necole Streeper, a physician-researcher in urology who specializes in kidney stones, and computer scientists who develop digital biomarkers from high-frequency sensor data. He also had the opportunity to collaborate with patients.

“We learned early on from focus groups with patients that there was limited interest in wearing some of the wearables we had in mind, so we focused on sensors that many people already wear on their wrist — namely, accelerometers and gyroscopes,” he said. “We also learned that patients were very interested in connected water bottles. We had been completely focused on wearable sensors and hadn’t anticipated that interest. The Clinical and Translational Science Institute was very supportive of us adapting to respond to patient feedback. We think our next application for external funding will be stronger as a result.”

This year’s grant has six special consideration categories: substance misuse and addiction; health of rural communities; investigator-initiated clinical trials, community engagement, translating research evidence to policy, and new technologies to monitor and deliver healthcare. Projects that address these areas will be receive additional focus.

Rural communities, like those that surround Penn State, are important to the institute as it concentrates on research that benefits the community it serves. One of its first awardees was Dr. Philippe Haouzi, a professor of medicine, who was given the opportunity to explore a research question that is important to rural Pennsylvania, separate from his established research program.

Haouzi’s NIH-funded research is through the CounterACT Program of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. His unique program focuses on the risk of chemical exposure — like cyanide and hydrogen sulfide — in an industrial accident or terrorist attack. By understanding these risks, better responses can be implemented if an incident happens, like an accident during transport of industrial chemicals. 

Haouzi’s pilot program looked at the use of the vitamin B12 to prevent the long-term effects of hydrogen sulfide exposure, which includes memory problems. The issue is of importance in Pennsylvania and its large rural population, where farm waste, manure use and the expanding natural gas industry may add to a continual low exposure to the gas.

“The Bridges to Translation grant allowed us to explore our idea for a year without National Institutes of Health funding,” Haouzi said. “To receive NIH funding, your proposal has to be very specific. This grant gave us the support to get more data, which we could then use to apply for external grants.”

The pilot grant has led to published studies and further research, including collaborations with other institutions including Temple University.

The pilot grants are also a way to expose Penn State faculty to the important services and programs the institute offers to accelerate discoveries to benefit human health.

“This project has heightened my awareness of the Clinical and Translational Institute service cores,” Conroy explained. “I have begun to take greater advantage of them since working on this application. They have been a tremendous resource in planning external funding applications.”

To learn more about the Bridges to Translation IV request for application, visit here. Letters of intent are due by March 23.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 14, 2018