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Researchers to Watch

By Dawn Marie Yankeelov

The faces of Kentucky university research across many disciplines can be quiet and often operate under the radar. However, discoveries are often interdisciplinary and offer a range of steps forward in science.

Here are some – but by no means all – of the faces of the up and coming innovation and research found on the campuses that often see more acclaim for basketball and football than their science corridors.

Dr. James Hoying, chief of cardiovascular therapeutics at the UofL Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, oversees development  of 3D printing of complex heart capillary  system structures to better understand how to improve therapies.
Dr. James Hoying, chief of cardiovascular therapeutics at the UofL Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, oversees development of 3D printing of complex heart capillary system structures to better understand how to improve therapies.

Dr. James B. Hoying, PhD. 

Chief, Division of Cardiovascular Therapeutics, UofL’s Cardiovascular Innovation Institute

“Given the relative high incidence of type II diabetes and obesity in the Kentucky region,” said Dr. James B. Hoying, “we suspect that there are also many women experiencing symptoms of microvascular angina, yet are not being diagnosed nor treated.”

Women are five times more likely to have angina pain that is not a coronary artery problem – rather it arises from issues at the capillary level that require different treatment, said Hoying, who, with grant funding, launched the Kentuckiana Microvascular Angina Research Center in November.

KMARC will leverage expertise in the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, the University of Louisville cardiovascular medicine program, local clinics (including the Veterans Administration hospital), academic programs in cardiovascular science, epidemiology and public health. It will involve pre-clinical studies as well as patient-oriented studies.

A Ph.D. with 26 years experience in basic and applied biological sciences focused on vascular biology and vascular repair, Hoying works across multiple disciplines from clinical applications and translational pre-clinical teams to engineering disciplines, computational and theoretical mathematics, and bioinformatics. His research experience is in microvascular biology, dysfunction and repair supported by a variety of funding sources including the National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association and Department of Defense.

Hoying’s research involves 3D printing of tissue structures such as capillaries and cell constructs at UofL’s CCI and at Louisville-based Advanced Solutions Inc., where he is scientific advisor and equity partner.

Hoying holds patents related to growing and manipulating capillaries in the laboratory and for cell-based therapies.

Advanced Solutions develops and commercializes integrated software and hardware solutions for life science. Its patent-pending tissue structure information modeling and BioAssemblyBot workstation lets physicians, researchers, engineers and scientists design, visualize and print 3D virtual models of complex tissue structures.

Vasanthi Sunkara and Dr. Mahendra Sunkara

Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research, University of Louisville

Mahendra Sunkara
Mahendra Sunkara

Reducing sulfur in fuels will improve air quality because combustion emissions often have harmful sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides gases, and sulfate particle exposure leads to premature mortality and heart and lung problems like asthma and bronchitis.

Enter Vasanthi Sunkara and Dr. Mahendra Sunkara, a husband-and-wife research team of almost a decade. The Sunkaras work in bio fuels and fuel cells at Advanced Energy Materials LLC, which has licensed technology from the University
of Louisville.

They are leading a $750,000 SBIR Phase II Grant research project into high-performance catalyst technology for sulfur removal and other applications. Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. matched the grant with $500,000 last year.

Vasanthi Sunkara
Vasanthi Sunkara

AdEM, a UofL spinoff company at the Bluegrass Industrial Park in east Louisville, is researching fuel alternatives and improvements, and nanowire applications to improve energy efficiency. AdEM is working to commercialize and scale up production (to 500 kgs) for a pilot catalyst test at a prospective client’s site. In the next two years, the company plans to investigate sulfur removal in bio fuels and fuel cells with strategic partners.

With a U.S. patent portfolio of nine issued and four pending, the company holds an exclusive license agreement through UofL’s Research Foundation Office of Technology Transfer. The original expertise was developed by researchers at UofL’s Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research.

“Sulfur removal has become significant for transportation fuels due to increased environmental regulations. Any sulfur content in the fuel makes it poisonous for specific applications such as fuel cells,” said Vasanthi Sunkara. “As such, a sulfur removal catalyst that does not leave any trace of sulfur has a huge impact to the market.”

She is CEO and president of AdEM and has been overseeing business operations since 2010. She has an MBA from UofL and more than 13 years corporate experience in information technology and project management with Louisville Water Co. and National Processing Co.

Mahendra Sunkara is AdEM’s chief technology officer and founder, a professor of chemical engineering, a University Scholar and the director for the Conn Center. He has eight U.S. patents and several applications pending.

Moriel Vandsburger, PhD.

Assistant Professor of Physiology, University of Kentucky College of Medicine

Dr. Moriel Vandsburger
Dr. Moriel Vandsburger

Dr. Moriel Vandsburger, 33, is a researcher to watch as he was one of the 1 percent of researchers under 35 to achieve National Institutes of Health funding last year. In August 2015, Vandsburger began promising five-year, $1.9 million research that involves MRI techniques for viewing scar tissue in the heart for those with kidney failure.

Kidney disease is the ninth leading cause of death in the United States; 12 people die daily waiting for a kidney transplant. Patients on dialysis due to kidney disease often die from cardiac failures or related issues.

Vandsburger and his research team will use new imaging MRI techniques to compare scar tissue changes in two populations: patients who have had a heart attack and thus have dense scar tissue, and patients with diabetes who are more likely to have diffuse scar tissue over wider areas.

Pre-clinical trials with 75 patients will develop and validate this premise, potentially showing changes in scar tissues that often cannot be tracked but signal a path for a potential pharmaceutical treatment. It also may identify an easily measurable blood biomarker to monitor scar tissue at the point of care. This approach to heart failure study encompasses physics, engineering and biology, Vandsburger said.

He has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Virginia and a bachelor’s in bioengineering from the University of California San Diego.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute awarded the grant to study kidney failure and the accuracy of a new imaging method. Precursor work to this study was funded by the American Heart Association.

Dr. Demetra E. Antimisiaris, PharmD,  CGP, FASCP

Director, Polypharmacy Initiative, University of Louisville

Dr. Demetra Antimisiaris
Dr. Demetra Antimisiaris

Our body responds very differently to medications as we age, yet most people over 70 take at least six medications daily – many have up to 12 prescriptions. But physicians generally manage care only in their specialty, often without looking for contraindications.

Dr. Demetra E. “Dee” Antimisiaris, associate professor in geriatric medicine and director of the University of Louisville Polypharmacy Initiative, is a leading researcher in polypharmacy. She fights inappropriate medication prescribing and use, especially in older adults. Antimisiaris speaks on medication-related hospitalizations and dangerous outcomes as well as identifying gaps in information flow that lead to this problem.

With UofL Technology Transfer Office assistance, Antimisiaris has a process patent pending in medication management she hopes creates improvements in medication care.

A polypharmacy review is one of four evaluations conducted for every patient admitted to UofL Geriatrics as part of the interdisciplinary Geriatrics Evaluation and Treatment program. Additionally, a GET geriatrician performs a medical evaluation, a psychologist does a cognitive evaluation and a social worker does a psycho-social assessment of their caregiving and support needs.

Dr. Dee has a philosophy of care.

“My challenge is knowing drug toxicity when it presents itself,” she said. “Whenever a patient experiences a challenge in mood, sleep, eating or health status, it’s important to at least question medications. Sometimes it is difficult for the healthcare team to discover medication-related problems during an average office visit, so it is critical for patients to feel free to speak up when they don’t feel right. Patient care must include a regular, close review of medications, as it is sometimes the medication given to cure that causes the harm.”

Antimisiaris instructs professionals on medication oversight, including pharmacy and medical students, residents, fellows, faculty and community physicians. She is active in community outreach efforts, now working with mHealth Initiative of Greater Louisville and a UofL Geriatrics’ spinoff, the Institute of Sustainable Health and Optimal Aging.

Antimisiaris previously was a consultant pharmacist and assistant professor at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy and completed a joint academic-geriatrics pharmacy residency at UCLA-USC.

Bruce Alphenaar

Chairman of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, University of Louisville J.B. Speed School of Engineering

Bruce Alphenaar
Bruce Alphenaar

Bruce Alphenaar, chairman of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Louisville J.B. Speed School, has been principal investigator or co-principal investigator on over $35 million in research funding since joining UofL in 2000.

Alphenaar now has a $1.05 million federal grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, to study protecting computer memory devices from extreme radiation, such as could occur with a nuclear meltdown.

UofL built micro-electro-mechanical systems devices for the study in its Micro/Nano Technology Center at the Speed School. MEMS tend to be resistant to radiation conditions, and Alphenaar’s three-year study will examine this.

The devices are being exposed to radiation at Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Space and Defense Electronics and returned to UofL for follow-up assessment.

A Speed professor of electrical and computer engineering and University Research Scholar in nanotechnology, Alphenaar joined UofL after seven years working for Hitachi Europe in partnership with the Cambridge University Microelectronics Centre. He holds eight U.S. and European patents and has spoken on his work at numerous international symposia.

Suzanne Smith, Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Director of the UK Unmanned Systems Research Consortium; Director of the Kentucky Space Grant and NASA EPSCoR Programs at UK.

Suzanne Smith
Suzanne Smith

Unmanned aerial craft researcher Suzanne Smith started a study in August 2015 that involves an interdisciplinary approach to better understanding weather and climate factors close to the ground with a combination of agriculture, environmental chemistry and mechanical engineering.

She is working on a project to develop weather research drones that work in flocks, funded by a $6 million National Science Foundation grant dispersed between the University of Kentucky, Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma and University of Nebraska).

“The opportunity is to have better weather models and study how unmanned technologies can really be useful,” she said.

Kentucky has a strong aerospace industry, and students in undergraduate and graduate research as well as small businesses can benefit, she said. As director of NASA’s higher education programs for the state, Smith works with at least 80 students a year directly and through workforce development.

Now director of the UK Unmanned Systems Research Consortium, Smith’s first drone research was in 1980 and she has continued to assist in aerospace matters, including wing design. UK has been flying research drones for about 12 years.

Kentucky’s Space Grant Consortium has invested in NASA-aligned research for over 25 years alongside Kentucky’s NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

An Association for Unmanned Vehicles International report in 2013 estimated the economic impact of drone-related activity in the state at $537 million over the next decade, including more than $5 million in new tax revenue and hundreds of jobs.

Mary Nan S. Mallory, M.D., M.B.A.

Professor of Emergency Medicine, University of Louisville School of Medicine Attending Physician, University of Louisville Hospital

Mary Nan Mallory
Mary Nan Mallory

Intubation can mean life or death and University of Louisville Hospital physician Dr. Mary Nan S. Mallory has seen what it takes to get it right. Inspired to simplify the procedure, Mallory co-invented OneScope, an innovative laryngoscope that optimizes airway intubation for both routine anesthesia practice and emergency situations.

She founded and leads the startup team at Inscope Medical Solutions LLC, which just received the coveted $100,000 Louisville Vogt Invention and Innovation Fund Award.

OneScope integrates controllable, on-demand suction into an all-in-one, disposable laryngoscope that is operable entirely by the left hand, freeing the right to pass the breathing tube.

Foreseeing a $1.1 billion laryngoscope market in 2016, Inscope Medical will initially focus on expanding through U.S. distribution partners and then globally.

UofL filed an international Patent Cooperation Treaty utility patent application for OneScope technology in January 2015 and offered Inscope an exclusive option to license it. Laryngoscopes are FDA Class I medical devices exempt from 510(k) intent-to-market requirements on safety, but Inscope Medical is filing a 510(k) submission to cover additional marketing claims associated with integrated suction.

While earning a UofL Entrepreneurship MBA in 2015, Mallory was able to enter business plan contests with a team that won several graduate school venture pitch competitions, including the Global Venture Labs Investment Competition in Austin, Texas.

Armon Perry, Ph.D., MSW 

Associate Professor at the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work

Armon Perry
Armon Perry

Armon Perry of the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work will test a new program to help non-custodial fathers be successful parents with his latest five-year, $4.9 million federal grant. Work began in fall 2015 to examine how to provide better support for men fulfilling fatherhood’s responsibilities.

In partnership with the Department of Income Support in the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the Kent School, the Stepping Up 4 Your Child project aims to integrate the provision of responsible parenting, economic stability and relationship education services to fathers at risk for paternal disengagement.

It will give non-custodial fathers in several counties a comprehensive, solution-oriented, group-based parent education. Additional individualized case management will help them achieve financial independence, increase parenting skills and develop a co-parenting alliance with their child’s mother.

“We expect American men to be able to earn a family income and be responsible for their children in certain ways, and we measure their manhood by it,” Perry said. “The focus of my work is about enhancing men’s ability to fulfill their socially prescribed roles as fathers and financial providers,”

Fathers tend to be more involved in their children’s lives, but Perry believes men need to have opportunities to ask for help when they need it and, like women, may need assistance in parent-child relationship-building. They also should have access to help developing marketable job skills and achieving income goals to meet financial obligations, he said.

“Support has grown for responsible fatherhood programs aimed at improving the quantity and quality of fathers’ involvement,” said Perry, who teaches and does research as an associate professor at the UofL Kent School.

The Stepping Up 4 Your Child project will determine the resources necessary for success and identify services assets in local communities.

The funding is a New Pathway for Fathers and Families grant through the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Greg Gerhardt

University of Kentucky, College of Medicine

Greg Gerhardt
Greg Gerhardt

Funded by public and private donations, Dr. Greg Gerhardt and his research colleagues at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine are investigating improvement in Parkinson’s disease therapy that alters progression of the disorder.

As the scientific director of the Brain Restoration Center at UK, Gerhardt is also a member of the Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center faculty. The most promising and rewarding work he is conducting, he said, relates to work at the Brain Restoration Center using deep brain simulation via neurotrophin growth factor injections to slow Parkinson’s.

The peripheral nerve regrows itself after damage, and this therapy can slow the disease and positively influence a patient’s balance, gait and tremor. Gerhardt’s team is using patients’ own peripheral nerves to generate the neurotrophin that is to be pumped into their brains.

Only one side of the brain is being injected in this research phase, which is of great interest to other Parkinson’s researchers. Twenty patients from seven states have received implants so far with more planned during the next year. They will be followed for a number of years.

“This injection can often reset to their baseline,” Gerhardt said. “We are making sure it is a very safe procedure with this testing and have found evidence of both safety and efficacy. It appears that there is a decreased need for medications after the procedure.”

Pursued in conjunction with a pharmaceutical partner and the Michael J. Fox Foundation, this UK-based research will escalate to a multicenter trial in a few years. Gerhardt is collaborating with Dr. Craig van Horne, associate professor of neurosurgery in the College of Medicine, and Dr. John Slevin, a neurologist.

Potential additional participants can review the clinical study at clinicaltrials.gov and look for identifiers: NCT01833364 and NCT02369003.

Gerhardt has been an active National Institutes of Health-funded researcher for 31 years, the past 16 years at UK.