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Universal questions

Dec. 14, 2005
By Andrea Gibson

Astronomers ponder how the universe began and how the cosmos creates new stars and galaxies. Chemists develop drugs that could help alleviate the complications of national health problems such as diabetes and cancer while researchers examine why Appalachians may not be able to afford or access such medical treatments. Engineers and scientists study toxins in our air and water and develop new ways to make the Earth cleaner.

These huge initiatives have one seemingly small thing in common: Ohio University researchers are tackling all of these issues right here on campus. While individual scientists and engineers have been involved in such work for more than a decade, a new initiative -- the University Research Priorities Program -- is pulling faculty and students from related fields together to help solve some of greatest questions facing our world today.

Three research priorities are featured in this series about faculty research that benefits the region, state and nation.

A health prescription

Melanie Moynan-Smith examines Knevek ThompsonCancer, diabetes and other autoimmune diseases impact millions of Americans, but they are especially prevalent in Ohio University's backyard of southeast Ohio, where poverty and lack of access to health-care providers exacerbate the problem. A broad coalition of researchers with the university's NanoBioTechnology Initiative, which will receive $8 million over the next six years, will explore research in the emerging areas of biotechnology, nanoscience and biomedical engineering. The initiative aims to recruit and retain talented undergraduate and graduate students and faculty while improving the quality of human life through better health care and medical technologies, including those with the potential for commercialization and job creation in Ohio.

Physicists and chemists affiliated with the project study nature's biological processes to learn how to create a new class of materials at the nanoscale -- which is the scale of single atoms. Examples include Tadeusz Malinski, the Marvin and Ann Dilley White Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, who has developed a nanoscale medical sensor for the early diagnosis of cardiovascular dysfunctions, heart attacks, strokes and Alzheimer's disease and to measure the efficiency of organ transplants.

Chemists and biomedical engineers involved in the NanoBioTechnology Initiative also examine the molecular basis of diseases and are developing diagnostics, drugs and treatments for health problems such as cancer and diabetes, says Stephen Bergmeier, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Researchers have received funding, for example, to work with a small business on new techniques to create antibacterial agents with novel activities. And Doug Goetz, an associate professor of chemical engineering who is leading the biomedical engineering effort, has received grants to study the mechanisms and therapeutics for inflammation and cardiovascular disease.

The project also encompasses the Appalachian Rural Health Institute's Diabetes Research Initiative. It seeks to improve the health status and quality of life of underserved rural populations, especially those in the Appalachian region, says Brooke Hallowell, associate dean for research in the College of Health and Human Services. The institute serves as an umbrella organization for interdisciplinary research and service, ranging from laboratory science to patient education, disease prevention and affordability and access to health care, she says. One component of ARHI is the Diabetes Center, which will study the prevalence and causes of the disease while developing new therapeutics for the condition.

"The interdisciplinary nature of this project is something that others wouldn't have attempted to do," Bergmeier says about the NanoBioTechnology Initiative, noting that many other universities focus on more discipline-specific research projects. "But there is more potential to make breakthroughs due to the interdisciplinary nature."

Andrea Gibson is director of research communications at Ohio University.

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Published: Dec 14, 2005 12:55:00 AM
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