Five new Gillings Innovation Labs address pressing public health needs

April 23, 2008
The UNC School of Public Health has announced funding for five new Gillings Innovation Labs (GILs), ranging from water testing in developing countries to mental health services in North Carolina.

The projects were among 36 proposals submitted earlier this year by School faculty, in collaboration with many other individuals and organizations. Proposals were reviewed by more than 100 subject-matter experts from around the country. Final decisions were made by the School’s senior leadership, including the dean, associate deans and department chairs. Funding is for a maximum two years.

“We are delighted by the strong, innovative proposals we received for these, the first competitively awarded GILs,” Dean Barbara K. Rimer said. “They each address high priority public health needs. All have potential for significant impact. Three of the projects focus specifically on North Carolina, two others on developing countries around the world. They’re all highly interdisciplinary – within UNC as well as with universities, agencies and businesses around the world. The projects showcase our ability to apply different skills and perspectives to find the best solutions to big problems. That’s the true spirit of the GILs – and our School.”

GILs are funded through a generous gift to the School of Public Health by Dennis and Joan Gillings. Each innovation lab will engage in one or more of these areas: high-impact research, demonstration projects and teaching practices which anticipate future public health challenges and accelerate sustainable solutions in North Carolina and around the world.

In addition to promoting major improvements in public health, GILs will engage interdisciplinary teams, train future public health leaders, and encourage connections among academic investigators, communities, governments, and public and private institutions committed to stemming public health threats.

Here are the five new GILs:

Single-dose vaccine for multiple respiratory viruses could help infants and children

Dr. Ralph Baric

Dr. Ralph Baric

This team, led by epidemiology professor Ralph Baric, aims to develop a single dose vaccine, delivered by the respiratory route (not needles) for infants and children in the developing world. The vaccine will have a shorter production cycle than current vaccines (which can take up to a year to culture). This is critical in fighting emerging diseases. The team wants to find a low-cost, multivalent single dose vaccine that is stable at room temperature, all of which is important if the vaccine is to be administered in developing countries.

Worldwide, more than 5 million children under age 5 die of respiratory infections, including pneumonia and influenza. Vaccines for these diseases in the developing world are usually unavailable, or they are costly, don’t protect against the right viruses, are not stable enough to be portable in many parts of the world and require multiple dosing, all of which discourage their use in developing countries.

This project, if successful, would make the vaccines more accessible in developing countries. Also, it would revolutionize vaccine design through the use of synthetic genomics and computer-based genome design. It could also provide a novel, easily-accessible paradigm for the design and delivery of other vaccines for global health.

Project partners include: UNC School of Medicine, Carolina Vaccine Institute, Global Vaccines (a not-for-profit company in Research Triangle Park, NC).

Mental Health System Improvement in North Carolina

Caring for people who have serious mental illness, substance abuse, and/or developmental disabilities has become one of North Carolina’s greatest public health challenges. Problems abound, including short supply of community-based crisis services, over-use of state psychiatric hospitals, the many people with serious needs who do not receive the most effective services, and growing numbers of people with mental illness who are detained in jails across the state.

Dr. Joseph Morrissey

Dr. Joseph Morrissey

This innovation lab, led by Joseph Morrissey, professor of health policy and administration, UNC School of Public Health; professor of psychiatry, UNC School of Medicine; and Deputy Director for Research, UNC’s Sheps Center, will use a variety of systems dynamics modeling tools in partnership with community representatives to address these shortcomings.

In the first year, the team will map the clinical, organizational, and financial factors driving use of mental health services in the tri-county Orange, Person, Chatham (OPC) and Durham County (DC) areas. These sites offer both a predominantly rural laboratory (OPC) and an urban counterpart (DC) to apply qualitative and quantitative methods, stakeholder participation, and computer simulations to identify leverage points and intervention strategies for enhancing system performance. In the second year, the team will scale up to statewide implementation. These statewide models will allow the team to assess financial and human impacts of alternative policies and ways to improve the accessibility, quality, and effectiveness of public mental health services locally and throughout North Carolina.

Morrissey will work with colleagues from the UNC Schools of Public Health and Medicine; the UNC Sheps Center for Health Services Research; Duke University Medical School, and a variety of community partners.

Linking data collected by hospitals, ambulance services, could mean better disease management

The data’s there – if only we could link the information held in many different systems, then we would have a better picture of how diseases develop and spread. With that clearer picture, we’d have a better chance of preventing disease and reducing human suffering.

Dr. David Richardson

Dr. David Richardson

That’s the theory behind the Gillings Innovation Lab led by David Richardson, assistant professor of epidemiology, UNC School of Public Health. He and a team from the UNC schools of Information and Library Science and Medicine plan to develop innovative computer systems that can link and analyze data collected in electronic hospital and ambulance records. The idea is to get a clearer picture of diseases and how they are treated. The hope is that more complete information will result in a better understanding of the causes of disease, and more effective efforts at prevention and/or treatment. The team will use asthma as a model, seeing who is affected most by the disease, investigating environmental causes, and assessing the kind of treatment patients receive, especially if attacks result in hospital or emergency room visits. Local and state medical service providers will then have a model to help them make better decisions about health care services, including education.

Portable field tests could effectively check water for fecal contamination

Dr. Mark Sobsey

Dr. Mark Sobsey

Mark Sobsey, Kenan University Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering, UNC School of Public Health, will lead this Gillings Innovation Lab’s efforts to develop and evaluate simple, portable field tests to detect fecal contamination in water. Infectious diseases coming from fecal contamination of water include diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, enteric fevers and infectious hepatitis, killing more than 1.6 million people per year and making billions sick. This project aims to develop simple fecal microbe tests that are as reliable as current standard tests, but that will not require sophisticated, expensive and fragile laboratory equipment, infrastructure, energy (electricity) or advanced training of test users in environmental microbiology or water quality analysis.

The ultimate goal is to make these simple, reliable tests available commercially to people around the world. Team members anticipate a test could be available in about two years. This team comprises scientists from a number of universities and organizations, including NOAA Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research; University of Puerto Rico; University of Johannesburg; Department of Microbiology, University of Venda (South Africa); Resource Development International – Cambodia; Seoul National University School of Public Health.

Identifying what pollutants in city air are most harmful

Dr. William Vizuete

Dr. William Vizuete

Air pollution is linked to tens of thousands of deaths each year. Yet, when scientists conduct toxicology studies in the lab, they see few health effects from exposure to measured pollutants found in the air around us. What is missing in these studies, says William Vizuete, is that people breathe a mixture of pollutants that include chemicals that are only created in the air, and are typically not measured. Vizuete will lead the Gillings Innovation Lab that will look for easier, more effective ways of finding and measuring these toxic pollutants that people actually breathe, especially in cities.

Studies in the School of Public Health’s rooftop environmental chamber, where air quality is examined, have shown that pollutants are 5-10 times more harmful when aged in sunlight. This project will use the chamber data to identify the pollutants that are harmful to people’s lungs. Researchers also will work to develop a portable device that uses technology similar to what is used in the rooftop chamber. This advance would allow them to use cultured human lung cells to study air in the field where pollution occurs. Vizuete’s team will include scientists from the UNC School of Medicine.

These GILs join two other labs named last fall – the Center for Innovative Clinical Trials and the Carolina Global Water Partnership. Additionally, Rimer said three other proposals submitted this spring have been identified for accelerated review and funding.

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For more information on the Gillings Innovation Labs, including funding guidelines, please see

School of Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or