Five new Gillings Innovation Labs awarded

October 5, 2017

Improvements to clean energy storage. Accessible screening tests for diabetic retinopathy. Better planning tools for opioid abuse responders. These are the potential of new research projects at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Five teams of UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health researchers and their collaborators have been awarded new funding for Gillings Innovation Laboratory awards (GILs), beginning this fall.

Dr. Orlando Coronell

Dr. Orlando Coronell

Dr. Stephanie Engel

Dr. Stephanie Engel

Dr. Emily Gower

Dr. Emily Gower

Dr. Kristen Hassmiller Lich

Dr. Kristen Hassmiller Lich

Dr. Stephen Marshall

Dr. Stephen Marshall

Dr. Steve Meshnick

Dr. Steve Meshnick

Gillings School awardees include Orlando Coronell, PhD, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering; Stephanie Engel, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology; Emily Gower, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology; Stephen Marshall, PhD, professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School and director of the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center (IPRC), and co-principal investigator Kristen Hassmiller Lich, PhD, assistant professor of health policy and management; and Steven Meshnick, MD, PhD, professor of epidemiology.

The GIL awards offer faculty members support to advance early-stage innovations and implement proven solutions into practice across local and global communities. The awards are administered by Research, Innovation and Global Solutions, the Gillings School unit that manages programs funded by the $50 million Gillings gift.

This sixth round of awards brings to 31 the number of projects that have been funded as GILs since 2007. Previous awards have facilitated the development of new ideas, technologies and methods, and provided research training to dozens of students and postdoctoral fellows. GIL award recipients have gone on to secure more than $44 million in additional related funding, launch related companies, and forge new, cross-disciplinary partnerships and collaborations.

Thirty teams submitted proposals for consideration this year. Reviewers across the university considered a number of factors, including the proposals’ innovation, potential for significant public health impact, scientific rigor and capacity for rapid or broad translation of the results into practice.

This year’s funding round placed a special emphasis on implementation science, encouraging submission of proposals that would promote the adoption and integration of evidence-based practices, interventions and policies into routine health care and public health settings. The funded proposals provide solutions to a wide range of public health problems.

One, led by Coronell and Wei You, PhD, professor of chemistry and applied physical sciences at UNC, will develop a novel technology that more than doubles the efficiency of saltwater-based batteries.

Engel will lead the first-its-kind research study to link environmental toxicants to early brain development, using state-of-the-art imaging tools.

Gower and Seema Garg, MD, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology in the UNC School of Medicine, will lead a pilot program that integrates cutting-edge retinal imaging technology and two-step image evaluation in pharmacy settings.

Marshall and Hassmiller-Lich will lead an initiative to collaborate with state agencies, using systems science methods to enhance cross-agency collaboration and capacity in response to North Carolina’s opioid epidemic

Meshnick will lead a feasibility study to identify and halt mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“At the 10-year mark of granting Gillings Innovation Lab awards, we have seen awardees make remarkable contributions to public health,” said Julie MacMillan, MPH, managing director of the Research, Innovation and Global Solutions unit at the Gillings School. “The research teams have made inroads against infectious diseases, obesity, diabetes, methodologic problems in cancer trials, health inequities, environmental problems and more. As a result of their discoveries through Gillings Innovation Labs, several faculty members substantially have changed their research foci. We track and admire these researchers’ important accomplishments, but we are especially proud of the ways in which they have taken chances in new areas, with new partners, to solve problems in innovative and exciting ways.”

Following are descriptions of the individual projects.


Maximizing the efficiency and lifespan of clean energy batteries

The replacement of coal-fired power plants with renewable energy sources such as hydropower, geothermal, wind and solar, is linked to the prevention of premature deaths, heart attacks and asthma attacks and to significant savings in health-care costs.

However, the intermittent nature of renewable energy limits its value, as periods of peak renewable energy output do not always coincide with periods of peak demand for electricity. There is a widely acknowledged need for scalable and economical means of storing electric energy to support the increasing deployment of renewable, intermittent energy sources. In fact, it is predicted that the global demand for large-scale energy storage technologies will exceed 40 GW by 2022.

Unfortunately, traditional batteries often employ expensive or hazardous materials and have remained economically unattractive for large-scale applications.

Dr. Orlando Coronell

Dr. Orlando Coronell

Orlando Coronell, PhD, and Wei You, PhD, will lead a project to further develop a technology that increases the energy efficiency and lifetime of saltwater-based energy storage devices (“concentration batteries”).

Saltwater-based concentration batteries, which store and extract energy through controlled separation and mixing of fresh water and salt water, tend to discharge rapidly due to the large difference in osmotic pressure that exists across the membranes inside the device.

The Coronell research group’s technology, referred to as “osmotic ballasts,” works by adding a small molecule to the battery that minimizes its spontaneous discharge and dramatically improves performance.

In initial studies, the Coronell lab demonstrated that incorporation of the osmotic ballast technology into saltwater-based concentration batteries more than doubled their energy efficiency. Building on this initial discovery, the team will further design and optimize the technology to maximize the energy efficiency and useful life of saltwater-based concentration batteries. Scientific efforts such as these, which seek to make clean energy storage technologies more efficient and economical, could play an important role in catalyzing the expansion of renewable energy and mitigating the effects of climate change.


Linking environmental toxicants to early brain development with biomarker and imaging data

Although there is overwhelming observational evidence that toxic chemicals can negatively impact neurodevelopment, even at extremely low levels of exposure, there are no studies that have looked at early life toxic chemical exposure in relation to physical changes in the brain from birth to age 5.

Dr. Stephanie Engel

Dr. Stephanie Engel

Stephanie Engel, PhD, will lead a study team investigating the influence of environmental toxicant exposure on early brain development. The project will leverage an ongoing study of longitudinal brain development (Baby Connectome Project) and use state-of-the-art structural and functional imaging technologies and image analysis tools to examine the prenatal and early postnatal effects of toxic environmental exposures.

The team will focus on postnatal phthalate exposures, as there is growing concern that phthalate exposures may impact child neurodevelopment. Phthalates are ubiquitous in consumer products, such as food processing and packaging materials, pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

Data from this study may provide key insights into the nature and trajectory of brain development following pre- and postnatal toxicant exposures, a dimension of environmental neurotoxicity that has not been examined. Documenting the effect of exposure to environmental toxicants on early brain development could be a critical factor in influencing future public health policies and regulations.


Partnering with pharmacies to bring retinal evaluation to more patients

Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is the leading cause of blindness in working-age Americans. Of the nearly 44 million Americans with diabetes, 35 percent will develop DR during their lifetimes. Although 95 percent of vision loss from diabetic retinopathy is preventable with early detection and intervention, rates of screening for this disease remain low.

Dr. Emily Gower

Dr. Emily Gower

Emily Gower, PhD, and Seema Garg, MD, PhD, will lead a collaboration with Rite Aid Pharmacy to evaluate the integration of diabetic retinopathy retinal evaluation into the standard pharmacy workflow.

The team will implement cutting-edge, time-saving retinal imaging technologies in three Rite Aid Pharmacy stores. They also will test a novel two-stage process for reviewing retinal images during the study, initially sorting images into abnormal and normal categories, followed by targeted review of abnormal images from a trained ophthalmologic specialist.

The project team proposes this two-stage review process as a potentially more cost-effective and efficient method of evaluating retinal screening images, which may be essential if successful adoption of DR evaluation in pharmacies results in an increased number of images requiring review.

This project represents the first time that ophthalmic evaluation infrastructure will be investigated in a pharmacy setting. Scaling the adoption of retinal imaging technologies and enhanced screening methods to more pharmacies across the United States ultimately could lead to increased levels of evaluation for diabetic retinopathy, and pave the way for pharmacies to provide other ophthalmic and diabetes management services.


Using systems science tools to improve the impact of state response to opioid epidemic in NC

Dr. Stephen Marshall

Dr. Stephen Marshall

Dr. Kristen Hassmiller Lich

Dr. Kristen Hassmiller Lich

Opioid overdose was identified as one of the top ten causes of death in the United States in 2015, with opioid overdose deaths rising inexorably over the past 15 years. Responding to the crisis effectively requires substantial planning and decision making across a multitude of state and federal agencies.

Stephen Marshall, PhD, and Kristen Hassmiller Lich, PhD, will lead an initiative to improve the effectiveness and impact of planning and decision making for state agencies engaged in North Carolina’s opioid epidemic.

The team will use systems science tools to examine collaborative decision making and planning across state agencies and develop a complex systems model of fatal opioid overdose. The team plans to work closely with the Opioid and Prescription Drug Abuse Advisory Committee in North Carolina. This work, which involves increased cross-agency collaboration, ultimately may improve the collective impact of state agencies engaged in the opioid epidemic.


Halting mother-to-child transmission of Hepatitis B

Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of infants are infected with hepatitis B Virus (HBV) every year, simple and effective HBV interventions, such as testing pregnant women and vaccinating newborns, are not routinely performed in many sub‐Saharan African countries.

Dr. Steve Meshnick

Dr. Steve Meshnick

Steven Meshnick, MD, PhD, will lead a pilot feasibility study, in collaboration with the Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo) School of Public Health, to address this critical health-care gap.

The project will identify women with hepatitis B early in their pregnancies, intervening to prevent the disease’s transmission by treating the mother and providing the HBV vaccine to the infant within 24 hours of birth.

Because the infrastructure required for successful HBV testing and treatment already exists in many sub-Saharan countries in support of HIV mother-to-child transmission prevention programs, this intervention model could be scaled and implemented effectively in other African countries.

The project team hopes that the success of this pilot feasibility study will lead to policy changes that combat the HBV epidemic and substantially reduce the burden of chronic HBV infection in high-burden countries across Africa and beyond.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu