Research Challenge Trust Fund

Focus on Faculty

Daret St. ClairLinda Van Eldik
Dr. E. Vernon Smith and Eloise C. Smith Alzheimer’s Research Chair

The intention when Linda Van Eldik took over as Sanders-Brown Center on Aging director in February 2010 was for her to work with William Markesbery, founding director of the center, on the Alzheimer’s Disease Center (ARC) renewal proposal. After all, Markesbery had received more NIH grants than any other researcher at UK and had successfully competed for the ARC grant many times since UK first received it in 1985. As fate had it, Markesbery passed away before Van Eldik officially took the reins. But she says UK’s success in securing the $7 million grant from the National Institute on Aging, which will fund the center through 2016, is a testament to the legacy of the Sanders-Brown Center and a confirmation of the quality of its researchers and volunteers. Van Eldik says, “This five-year renewal in funding will enable us to continue our mission of research, education outreach and clinical programs. Over the next five years we’re going to be focusing on the theme ‘Transitions and Translation.’” She explains that “transitions” refers to understanding the earliest changes in the brain that underlie the progression from normal brain aging to Alzheimer’s disease. “Translation” refers to turning that basic scientific knowledge more efficiently and rapidly into treatments that will help Kentucky’s aging population. Center programs include telemedicine to assess cognitive skills and deliver support to caregivers throughout the state, and the African American Dementia Outreach Partnership that works with local agencies to offer the resources of the university to those who can most benefit from them. More than 700 research volunteers participate in clinical trials and the brain donation program.

Gregory JichaGregory Jicha
Robert T. and Nyle Y. McCowan Alzheimer’s Research Chair

Gregory Jicha, an associate professor of neurology who works in the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, is spearheading a project called Telemedicine Assessment of Cognition in Rural Kentucky. The goal of the project, which began in fall 2008, is to adapt and validate the Uniform Data Set (a standard set of questions, developed by the National Institute on Aging, asked of every patient being screened for Alzheimer’s) and other measures for diagnosing early dementia in the telemedicine setting. A related and obviously important goal is to determine whether these consultations, part of the Memory Disorders Clinic, are as effective as face-to-face meetings with a doctor. Jicha says, “Our goal is to ensure that though telemedicine is not better than an in-person evaluation, it’s as good as an in-person evaluation. And ours is the first study in the nation that has convincingly shown that to be true.” The Memory Disorders Clinic is one of 12 ongoing telemedicine clinics at UK. “Many people don’t realize it,” Jicha says, “but UK probably has the best telemedicine system network in the world. Our telemedicine clinics actually allow us to cover the entire state, from Pikeville to Paducah, providing services where they’re needed.” Jicha is also involved in a spinal fluid donation project. Scientists can test cerebral spinal fluid for altered proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease. These so-called biomarkers are a sign of chemical changes in the brain long before a person develops the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Philip KernPhilip Kern
Barnstable Brown Kentucky Diabetes and Obesity Center Endowed Chair

Philip Kern, a professor of endocrinology and molecular medicine, serves as director of the Barnstable Brown Diabetes and Obesity Center. Kern says, “Having inflammatory cells in our fat tissue might have been a protective force once upon a time. If you just got gored by a saber tooth tiger while defending your home, you might want to have some inflammatory cells nearby in that superficial space to help fight off infection. Nature never imagined we would be as fat as we are now. So now a natural defense mechanism is going haywire as we get more and more obese.” Kern points out that weight gain causes low-grade inflammation throughout our tissues, which makes us more resistant to the actions of insulin. He is partnering with Charlotte Peterson in the College of Health Sciences to understand the effects of exercise in maintaining insulin sensitivity and preventing diabetes. He is also looking at the anti-inflammatory benefit of omega 3 in fish oil. Kern explains, “We are recruiting people with pre-diabetes and putting them on fish oil and placebo. And then we are performing fat and muscle biopsies to look for changes in inflammation.” Clinical trials of new drugs and therapies are an important part of UK’s research enterprise. In June 2011, UK was awarded a $20 million grant by the NIH’s Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) program to further advance and support the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science. The UK center—the only designated CTSA in Kentucky and one of only 60 nationwide—is led by Kern, associate provost for clinical and translational science. The goal of the CTSA: speed up the process of taking discoveries made in the lab to patients in the doctor’s office.

Susanne Arnold and Robert McGarrySusanne Arnold
Rose Carol Shumate Professor in Cancer Research

"We know that tobacco is the number one cause of lung cancer, but that isn’t the only factor causing the high cancer burden for southeastern Kentucky," Arnold says. In a previous study, Appalachian colon cancer patients had significantly higher amounts of arsenic, chromium and nickel than non-Appalachian patients. Although trace amounts of metals (such as iron) are necessary for the body's normal functions, prolonged exposure to trace elements including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, nickel, and vanadium has been linked to several types of cancer—including lung cancer. In Arnold’s study, participants will fill out a questionnaire about smoking habits, and researchers will determine the amount of exposure to trace elements by taking toenail, hair, urine, and blood samples. To determine the source of the exposure, they'll also collect water and soil samples from the home. Arnold, a native of Kentucky, also spearheads the Marty Driesler Cancer Project, a partnership between the Markey Cancer Center and community health care providers in the 5th District targeting early detection, prevention and treatment of lung, liver and esophageal cancer.