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March madness: National global health case competition features 13 universities

March Madness of a different flavor overtook Emory University March 18-19 as more than 200 students, judges, observers and staff convened for the first national Emory Global Health Case Competition.

The competition involved 20 teams of five students each, representing at least three academic disciplines per team. Emory fielded eight teams, and 12 teams came from leading universities across the country: Dartmouth, Princeton, Penn, Cornell, Yeshiva, Duke, Vanderbilt, UAB, USC, UCSF, Rice, and Texas A&M. All these universities are members of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health.

The first-place team, from Emory (l-r): Jason Myers, Candler School of Theology; Abdul Wahab Shaikh, Goizueta Business School; Stephanie Stawicki, Laney Graduate School; Andrew K. Stein, Goizueta Business School; Jenna Blumenthal, Laney Graduate School; Krista Bauer (judge), GE director of global programs; Meridith Mikulich, School of Nursing (not pictured)

As in two past local and regional case competitions, this year’s event was student initiated, developed, planned, staffed and conducted.

This year’s signature sponsor was GE, with additional sponsorship from Douglas and Barbara Engmann, and internal Emory funding.

“Global health continues to grow as a primary interest of students at universities across the United States, and the Emory Global Health Case Competition has gained a reputation as the leading national team event to showcase the creativity, passion, and intellect of our future leaders in global health,” says Jeffrey Koplan, MD, MPH, director of the Emory Global Health Institute.

The Feb. 17, 2011 issue of The Lancet included an article by Koplan and Mohammed K. Ali, assistant professor of global health at Rollins School of Public Health on the benefits of problem-based competitions to promote global health in universities.

Teams worked through the night on Friday for their Saturday morning presentations. The case involved a proposal for improving conditions in several East African refugee camps in the face of a severe budget cut. Judges were blinded to the academic affiliations of the teams, but Emory won the top two prizes (first prize was $5,000). UCSF and Dartmouth received honorable mentions, and Rice was given an innovation award.

 

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Emory cardiologist weighs in on issue of health literacy

Javed Butler, MD, MPH

A story in yesterday’s edition of the Washington Post claims that many Americans have poor health literacy. The Post cited a 2006 study by the U.S. Department of Education that found that 36 percent of adults have only basic or below-basic skills for dealing with health material. According to the report, this means about 90 million Americans can understand discharge instructions written only at a fifth-grade level or lower.

Emory Healthcare heart transplant cardiologist, Javed Butler, MD, MPH, was included in yesterday’s Post article citing his experience with patients who have health literacy issues. “When we say ‘diet,’ we mean ‘food,’ but patients think we mean going on a diet,” said Butler. “And when we say ‘exercise,’ we may mean ‘walking,’ but patients think we mean ‘going to the gym.’ At every step there’s a potential for misunderstanding.”

Butler, a professor of medicine at the Emory School of Medicine and director of Heart Failure Research for Emory Healthcare is studying this issue and its impact on patients with heart failure. He recently reported some of his findings Nov. 17 at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions conference in Chicago.

To read the entire Washington Post story, please click here.

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How the fetal environment affects long-term health

David Barker, MD, PhD

Why do some people, given the same apparent set of risk factors, develop certain diseases and others do not? British scientist David Baker, MD, PhD, is examining this question from a unique perspective.

Barker, a professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, is a pioneer in a field known as fetal programming. Fetal programming is the process in which environmental influences during prenatal development alter the body’s structures—for life.

He and other experts spoke on the fundamentals of the subject recently at the first Predicting Lifespan Health Conference at Emory University. “What we’re really looking for is just a few core mechanisms, which are linked to early human development and lead to a plethora of disorders,” says Barker.

Emerging evidence suggests that chronic diseases of adult life, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, have their origin through fetal programming, explains Michelle Lampl, associate director of the Emory/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute. “These diseases and others are initiated by adverse influences before birth,” says Lampl.

Speakers addressed fetal programming and the placenta, long-term cardiovascular disease and kidney function in low birth-weight babies, epigenetics and immunity, as well as postnatal influences from infant diet and growth patterns.

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Clinical trial for patients with atrial fibrillation tests implantable device in place of blood-thinning drug

Clinical Trial for Patients with A-fib

A new clinical trial underway for patients with atrial fibrillation will test an implantable device in place of a common blood-thinning medication, according to researchers at Emory University Hospital Midtown.

Atrial fibrillation (commonly called A-fib) is a heart condition in which the upper chambers of the heart beat too fast, causing an irregular heartbeat and ineffective pumping action. This condition can cause blood to pool and form clots in the left atrial appendage (LAA). If a clot forms in this area, it can increase the chances of having a stroke.

Many patients with A-fib are prescribed blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin (brand name Coumadin), to prevent blood from clotting. This medication is effective in reducing the risk of stroke, but may cause side effects such as bleeding. It also requires frequent blood draws to monitor dosage levels.

The trial, called PREVAIL (Prospective Randomized EVAluation of the Watchman LAA Closure Device In Patients with Atrial Fibrillation Versus Long Term Warfarin Therapy), involves implanting a small, umbrella-shaped mesh device called the Watchman closure device, into the heart chamber via catheter. This is a confirmatory study (and the third study testing the implant), which will also look at safety and efficacy of the device.

David De Lurgio, MD, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology, Emory University School of Medicine, is the principal investigator of the trial. He explains that by implanting this device into the left atrial appendage of the heart, it closes that area off. That, in turn, prevents blood clots from escaping and entering the blood stream, which could lead to a stroke.

Patients are randomly selected by computer to either receive the device or remain on Coumadin without the device (control group). Those selected to receive the device will remain on Coumadin for 45 days following implant. If the heart tissue has healed after those 45 days, participants will be taken off Coumadin and placed on aspirin therapy and possibly clopidogrel (Plavix), an anti-platelet medication.

Researchers will then follow study patients with and without the device for five years, monitoring those who are no longer taking Coumadin very closely. If the FDA approves the device at the end of this clinical trial, participants in the control group will then have the option to receive the device.

De Lurgio and his colleagues have had five years of experience with this technology, thus far. Emory Healthcare is the only health system in Georgia providing access to this device through participation in this clinical trial.

For more information, please call 404-686-2504.

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A good reason to enjoy a little Valentine’s Day chocolate

From the Clinic to You

BY CHERYL WILLIAMS, RD, LD

If you’re looking for an excuse to indulge in the yummy chocolate you get this Valentine’s Day, research suggests it may not be so bad for you.

A number of studies, conducted over the last decade have associated cocoa and dark chocolate consumption with heart health benefits. These benefits come from cocoa, derived from the cacao plant, which is rich in flavonoids (cocoa flavanols to be exact). Flavonoids are antioxidants also found in berries, grapes, tea, and apples. As a whole, antioxidants prevent cellular damage and inflammation which are two major mechanisms involved in the development of heart disease.

So what does the research say?

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high-flavanol dark chocolate reduced bad cholesterol (LDL) oxidation and increased good cholesterol (HDL) levels. LDL oxidation promotes the development of plaque and hardening of the coronary arteries, thus lessening oxidation could help to prevent heart disease.

A Harvard research study found that flavanol-rich cocoa induced nitric-oxide production, which causes blood vessels to relax and expand, thus improving blood flow. Improved coronary vasodilation could potentially lower the risk of a cardiovascular event.

In a double-blind randomized Circulation study flavonoid-rich dark chocolate (containing 70% cocoa) reduced serum oxidative stress and decreased platelet activity (clumping) in heart transplant recipients. This favorable impact on vascular and platelet function is relevant because vascular dysfunction and platelet activation (adhesion upon damaged cell wall) are the basis of atherothrombosis (blood clotting) and coronary artery disease.

How can you reap chocolate’s potential benefits?

Not all cocoa products and/or chocolates are created equal. Milk chocolate, for example, is not rich in flavanols (contains only 10-20% cocoa solids) and white chocolate contains none at all. In addition, some cocoa products and chocolates are processed with alkali, which can destroy flavanols.

Follow these tips for heart healthy chocolate consumption:

  • Avoid cocoa products processed with alkali (dutched) as seen in the ingredient list
  • Choose dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa
  • Enjoy 100% unsweetened non-dutched cocoa (great for hot chocolate!)

Also, remember that chocolate is not a health food, as it is high in calories, fat and added sugar. Thus, make room for dark chocolate by cutting extra calories elsewhere in your diet. Additionally, stick to small amounts (e.g. 1 ounce) and do not eat in place of plant-based whole foods such as vegetables and fruits.

Cheryl Williams is a registered dietitian at the Emory Heart & Vascular Center. She provides nutrition therapy, wellness coaching, monthly nutrition seminars and healthy cooking demonstrations working with the Emory HeartWise Cardiac Risk Reduction Program.

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University-industry partnerships: a matter for cautious aggressiveness

Emory President James Wagner was keynote speaker last week at the 2011 Academic & Industry Intersection Conference sponsored by Georgia Bio and the Atlanta Clinical & Translational Science Institute (ACTSI). The conference focused on ethical issues in translating academic research into commercial drugs and medical devices.

Wagner pointed out the great power these relationships hold for the service of humanity, provided they are properly structured and managed. He recommended “cautious aggressiveness” by both universities and industry.

We should incorporate ethical considerations into our partnerships so that the practice of ethics is not “restrictive and paralyzing, but instead becomes part of the design criteria motivating our success, not restricting it.

Wagner is co-chair of President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The commission lists five principles with broad application for biomedical translational research: public beneficence; responsible stewardship; intellectual freedom and responsibility; democratic deliberation; and justice and fairness.

He emphasized that researchers should guard against personal conflicts of interest and ensure against any compromise of research objectivity. But he cautioned against the temptation to value the process of ethics more highly than the ethical principles themselves, and the temptation to substitute compliance for true ethical practice.

Is it possible that we and our partners have come to place too much faith in documented protocols, and that excessive regulatory burden may give investigators a false sense of absolution of their own responsibility to exercise judgment and ethical practice? he asks.

“How does that square with the moral imperative to bring new knowledge that can benefit individuals and society to practice as soon as possible? Wouldn’t it be unethical to withhold the application of such knowledge if it is known to be able to do good?”

Ethical practice should not be an afterthought, Wagner emphasized, but instead a deeply understood and critical part of design and protocol and procedure — where the exercise of expert judgment goes beyond regulatory compliance.

“A challenge to all of our universities is to advance an ethics education that will bring heightened abilities to our investigators and their partners with the goal…of establishing even more trusting partnerships that can bring technology more safely and swiftly…from the minds of creative investigators, to the laboratory bench, to the manufacturing assembly line, to the vendor’s shelves, and to the bedside.”

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HIV in metro Atlanta concentrated in four-county geographic cluster

The HIV epidemic in metropolitan Atlanta is concentrated mainly in one cluster of four metro area counties – Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, and Gwinnett that includes 60 percent of Georgia’s HIV cases, according to a study by researchers in the Emory Center for AIDS Research (CFAR).

In a paper published in the Journal of Urban Health, the researchers found that the rate of HIV in the cluster is 1.34 percent. This fits the World Health Organization’s description of a “generalized epidemic” (>1 percent). Outside the cluster, the HIV prevalence in Georgia is 0.32 percent.

The researchers matched HIV prevalence data from the Georgia Division of Public Health, as of October 2007, to census tracts. They also used data from the 2000 census to examine population characteristics such as poverty, race/ethnicity, and drug use.

The large Atlanta HIV cluster is characterized by a high prevalence of poverty along with behaviors that increase the risk of HIV exposure such as injection drug use and men having sex with men.

The investigators also found that 42 percent of HIV service providers in Atlanta are located in the concentrated cluster, which should facilitate prevention and treatment.

Paula Frew, MPH, PhD

“A major aim of our study was to improve public health practice by informing local planning efforts for HIV services,” says corresponding author Paula Frew, MPH, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and an investigator in the Emory CFAR.

With more than 50,000 new HIV infections reported yearly in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to be a major public health problem. The number of HIV/AIDS cases is increasing faster in the South compared to other areas of the country. According to Kaiser State Health Facts, Georgia ranks 9th in the nation in the number of HIV/AIDS cases with more than 3,000 new HIV infections diagnosed in 2007.

The study showed differences between Atlanta and other large cities in the distribution of HIV cases. While cases in several other large cities were concentrated in specific neighborhoods, HIV cases in metro Atlanta are more generalized within the four-county metro area. All the cities, however, were similar in the link between HIV, poverty and men having sex with men.

“Prevention efforts targeted to the populations living in this identified area, including efforts to address their specific needs, may be most beneficial in curtailing the epidemic within this cluster,” Frew says.

Other authors of the paper include Emory CFAR members Brooke Hixson, MPH; Saad B. Omer, MBBS, MPH, PhD; and Carlos del Rio, MD.

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What’s left when it comes to research?

Cesare Lombroso

In an editorial appearing in a recent issue of The Lancet, Emory Rollins School of Public Health professor Dr. Howard Kushner contends that the connection between left-handedness and a raft of mental and physical disorders has gained currency since the 1980s and ‘90s.

Although Kushner acknowledges a long history of suspicion surrounding left-handedness, he spotlights one Cesare Lombroso, a Turin physician who spent a great deal of time in and around the 19th century pointing a negative finger at left-handedness. Lombroso’s contemporaries mistakenly considered his studies, albeit mere observations, to be cutting-edge science.

Although scientific standards have changed since Lombroso’s time and today’s studies do not portray left-handedness with such profound negativity, Kushner says, “general claims about the pathology of left-handedness persist.” This despite studies showing left-handers displaying exceptional intellectual and creative talents.

So, what are we to conclude about the connection between left-handedness and health? Kushner doesn’t say. Instead, he asks us to consider that despite all the advanced scientific tools we have at our disposal, researchers should keep in mind that these very tools may not enable us to conclusively explain the mystery behind left-handedness and its meaning. Yet, we should not stop trying. After all, he says, today’s researchers are making solid contributions to such research–while raising provocative questions along the way.

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National Academy of Sciences recognizes Yerkes Primate Center neuroscientist

Elizabeth A. Buffalo, PhD

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has recognized 13 individuals with awards acknowledging extraordinary scientific achievements in the areas of biology, chemistry, physics, economics and psychology.

Elizabeth A. Buffalo, PhD, a researcher at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, is one of two recipients of the Troland Research Awards. Buffalo is being honored for innovative, multidisciplinary study of the hippocampus and the neural basis of memory. Troland Research Awards of $50,000 are given annually to recognize unusual achievement by young investigators and to further empirical research in experimental psychology.

The recipients will be honored in a ceremony on Sunday, May 1, during the NAS 148th annual meeting.

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National AIDS Strategy: Comments on a coordinated effort

In this month’s issue of the journal Future Microbiology, Emory infectious disease physician/scientists Rana Chakraborty and Wendy Armstrong from Emory School of Medicine summarize and comment on the goals and challenges of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy released July 10, 2010.

The National AIDS Strategy was the result of a directive by the Obama Administration to the Office of National AIDS Policy. The strategy’s overall goals were to reduce the number of people who become infected with HIV, to increase access to care and improve health outcomes for people living with HIV, and to reduce HIV-related health disparities.

“The National HIV/AIDS Strategy calls for a long overdue national coordinated effort to curb the rise in new HIV infections and enhance therapy in those already infected,” write the authors.

While the goals are worthy, the strategy will present many challenges, and the authors address each goal individually, and highlight challenges:

  • The initiatives are expensive, and already resources in the United States are not adequate to treat all patients currently diagnosed with HIV infection.
  • Convincing the general population that HIV is still a major problem and an incurable and often-fatal disease will remain a challenge.
  • Nontraditional testing sites outside clinics or hospitals, such as churches, while central to enhancing testing, may present problems of confidentiality.
  • Increasing the number and diversity of available providers of care is difficult given the current financial realities of the American healthcare system where medical practices with a high percentage of HIV patients often can’t break even financially.

The creation of a strategy is a positive step, say the authors, but it needs a clear financial commitment. The strategy’s strengths include a focus on specific high-risk populations, the concept of re-introducing conventional prevention methods including condom distribution and needle-exchange programs, and creating better outreach between leading HIV/AIDS centers in cities and HIV providers in rural settings.

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