Home » MRCK16: UK is growing pockets of nationally recognized research excellence

MRCK16: UK is growing pockets of nationally recognized research excellence

A $265 million, 306,000-s.f. collaborative campus center set for summer 2018 completion will house scientific research specifically targeting Kentucky health disparities in cancer, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases.
A $265 million, 306,000-s.f. collaborative campus center set for summer 2018 completion will house scientific research specifically targeting Kentucky health disparities in cancer, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases.

In the wake of World War I, amid the tumult of a global community rearing from conflict, University of Kentucky President Frank McVey believed that the university needed to be viewed, “as more than an economic asset. It served, in fact, as an essential component of the well-being of the state.”

Throughout history, the University of Kentucky has upheld that vision, helping lead the commonwealth as an indispensable institution. A core component of this vision is the education and preparation of a highly skilled workforce. Since 2009, the number of graduates leaving UK with a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) degree has increased by 22 percent, and we are experiencing additional growth in graduates with degrees in business and health fields like medicine, nursing and health sciences.

From Market Review Central Kentucky 2016-17

Across campus we are creating pockets of research excellence – multidisciplinary communities of top talent that address the relevant challenges of our day. In the last year, faculty and staff researchers and creative scholars earned $316.5 million in external grants and contracts to support discovery across an array of fields, including nationally recognized programs in aging, cancer, translational science, and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease.

Included in UK’s growing research portfolio are top federal grants such as the Clinical Translational Science Award, National Cancer Institute-designation, and an Alzheimer’s Disease Center. UK is among only 21 U.S. institutions with this triple crown of federal research awards, signifying our position as a nationally competitive research university. To build on our success, we are investing in a $265 million research building that will house new teams of multidisciplinary researchers collaborating on community-improving work.

Our research enterprise goes beyond medical inquiry and includes emerging sectors such as renewable fuels and plant-based alternatives for industrial manufacturing. UK’s patent portfolio includes 311 active patents, and we generated more than $6.5 million in gross licensing revenue in fiscal year 2016. The portfolio reflects a strong and diverse research enterprise that mirrors some of Kentucky’s most vital industries: plant biotech, equine health and energy utilization, as well as innovative materials for medical devices, implants, and drug delivery and design systems.

UK plays an active role in the small business development with key city, state and federal partners. Our campus business incubator and the Coldstream Research Campus include more than 80 organizations and agencies employing more than 2,250 people.

Our work today – and our focus on the future – reminds us in compelling ways of our legacy, our history of confronting and overcoming challenge as an economic asset for the commonwealth. Each day we are, together, grappling with how we continue to fulfill this vision. We are working with a sense of common purpose at an uncommon and distinctive place as the university for Kentucky.

—Eli Capilouto President, University of Kentucky

Important construction underway includes $265M research building

Construction is underway on a research facility dedicated to addressing Kentucky’s unique health challenges and disparities. The 300,000-s.f. $265 million facility is scheduled for completion in spring 2018. Half of the funding for the facility is coming from the state of Kentucky; half is coming from university resources, including private gifts.  

Two unique areas of focus will distinguish the building:

• Its focus on Kentucky challenges, particularly health disparities in areas such as a cancer, diabetes, heart diseases, drug abuse and other health conditions where the state is among the country’s leaders in incident rates.

• Its fostering of multidisciplinary research across numerous fields – healthcare researchers (both basic and clinical), public health, behavioral sciences, agriculture outreach and extension, economics and engineering – working in close proximity and collaboratively to develop solutions to these complex problems.

The design and focus of the building come with a specific scientific underpinning.

“We know that so much of discovery today – whether at the cellular or community level – happens at the intersection of disciplines,” said Lisa Cassis, UK’s vice president for research. “This facility is being designed to foster discovery and collaboration so that what happens in labs and in the course of basic research can be translated to answers and solutions at the community level.”

Specifically, the new facility also will focus work and attention on health disparities in Appalachia, a region with some of the most pronounced rates of chronic diseases in the country.

The new building will be linked physically by pedways to other major research space in the heart of the campus, the Bio-Pharmacy Building and the Biological Biomedical Research Building, to further foster collaborative and multidisciplinary work. Being referred to as the “Appalachian Translational Trail,” this connecting conduit will house the nucleus of “translational” researchers who bring together all disciplines to take new knowledge from the laboratory bench to the market.

UK HealthCare celebrates 25 years of heart transplantation, sets new Kentucky record

Since beginning its heart transplant program in 1991, UK HealthCare has performed more than 350 transplants, including 43 in the year 2015. That number set a record for the most heart transplants performed by a Kentucky medical center in a single year and easily eclipsing the previous state record of 27 heart transplants performed in a single year.

The 2015 numbers place the UK Transplant Center in elite company – historically, only 20 to 25 medical centers in the country perform more than 30 heart transplants in a single year. With a heart transplant team comprised of multiple cardiothoracic surgeons, cardiologists and nursing staff working together, UK has adeptly managed to handle the ever-increasing demand of patients who require transplantation.

Additionally, more heart transplants could not be performed without a corresponding increase in the number of organ donors. Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA) have worked tirelessly in recent years to encourage more Kentuckians to sign up for the organ donor registry, enabling more patients to receive the gift of life.

 The surgical transplant team works in conjunction with UK Gill Heart Institute’s Advanced Heart Failure Program, offering a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to treating heart disease. While some patients will receive a left ventricular assist device as a destination treatment, some patients with advanced heart failure will receive an LVAD to serve as a “bridge” to transplant, enabling them to be more mobile – and thus healthier and stronger – by the time a matching donor heart becomes available.

UK entomologist active in Zika virus control efforts

A University of Kentucky entomologist is leading an international effort to find long-term, sustainable control options to effectively manage a mosquito known to transport several potential deadly viruses, including the Zika virus.

Grayson Brown, entomologist in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, is a former president of the Entomological Society of America, the world’s largest entomological organization. Along with a researcher from Brazil, Brown organized a meeting of the world’s entomological societies in March 2016 in Brazil. There, the world’s leading mosquito experts discussed collaborative control options for Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits Zika virus, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.

“Preparations to host this important summit began two years ago as a way to address dengue and chikungunya, which have become global epidemics with a reported 2.35 million cases in the Americas alone,” said Brown, director of UK’s Public Health Entomology Laboratory in the Department of Entomology. “Now that Zika has become an important health crisis, our mission has become even more critical. It is vital that the world’s scientific leaders work together on this issue.”

A native of Africa, the Aedes aegypti now exists in subtropical regions throughout the world. In the United States, the mosquito is mostly found in the southernmost states including Texas, Florida and California.

Zika and chikungunya rapidly gained momentum as major public health threats after their recent introductions in the Americas. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified Zika as a probable cause of microcephaly in newborns, leading the U.S. government to issue travel warnings to affected regions.

“For years, Zika virus was associated with monkeys, but it was hardly ever known to impact humans until recently. It became better adapted to humans after reaching South America,” Brown said. “The virus has mutated to be more pathogenic, but we don’t know much about that mutation yet. The Zika virus is mostly a threat to pregnant women, especially those in the first trimester. The average person has nothing to fear from Zika.”

UK a leader in national movement to end prescription, heroin abuse

The spread of prescription drug and heroin abuse in America has escalated to the status of a national epidemic. That crisis is amplified in Kentucky, where an estimated 1,000 people die every year from opioid or heroin-related drug overdose.

The University of Kentucky and UK HealthCare remain at the forefront of a national movement to end the scourge of prescription drug and heroin abuse. Toward this important mission, UK sent a delegation of executive, clinical and research leaders to join national thought-leaders and policymakers at the 2016 National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit, hosted by the nonprofit Operation UNITE, earlier this year in Atlanta.

At UK’s “Vision Session,” Drs. Catherine Martin and Daniel Wermeling presented on the issues of substance abuse intervention and prevention.

Martin, the director of child and adolescent psychiatry at UK, and Wermeling, a professor in the UK College of Pharmacy, were two members of a UK contingent that includes UK President Eli Capilouto, UK Vice President for Research Lisa Cassis, UK HealthCare Vice President for Administration and External Affairs Mark D. Birdwhistell, and Dr. Michael Kindred, a professor in the College of Medicine’s psychiatry department. The delegation moderated panels and breakout sessions with national policy makers.

“Too many Kentucky families are too often confronted by the dark and painful scourge of prescription drug abuse and opioid addiction. It’s an epidemic that penetrates communities across the nation, both urban and rural, but has especially intractable roots in Appalachia and the regions served by the University of Kentucky,” Capilouto said. “UK’s expert faculty and clinicians are on the frontline – heroes in the field – confronting these challenging policy and health care questions with the support of our federal leaders and community partners.”

UK Markey Cancer Center participates in Moonshot Summit focused on doubling rate of progress in cancer 

The University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center was one of 40 American Association of Cancer Institute centers to host a Cancer Moonshot Summit this year in conjunction with the national Moonshot Summit held in Washington, D.C. 

Established by President Barack Obama during the 2016 State of the Union address and led by Vice President Joe Biden, the goal of the Cancer Moonshot is to double the rate of progress in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care over the next five years and to ultimately end cancer.

“The Moonshot cannot be achieved by one person, one organization, one discipline or even one collective approach,” Biden said. “Solving the complexities of cancer will require the formation of new alliances to defy the bounds of innovation and accelerate the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and – ultimately – a cure. It’s going to require millions of Americans speaking up and contributing what they’re able. That’s what the Cancer Moonshot Summit is all about.”

At Markey, more than 100 people, including cancer physicians, researchers, staff, patients, caregivers, philanthropists and others who play a role in cancer care, had discussions on barriers to cancer research and care, ultimately developing a list of specific problems and suggested solutions to send on to the White House.

“This has just been a phenomenal event,” said Dr. Mark Evers, director of the UK Markey Cancer Center. “Everybody coming together to talk about the problems we now face in cancer care and how we deliver cancer care is just really unique. Here at Markey, we wanted to look broadly at the initiatives of the Cancer Moonshot, but we want to tailor it to some unique challenges we face here in Kentucky.”

At UK’s Markey Cancer Center, patient growth continues to increase with more than 94,000 outpatient visits in the past year, a 4 percent increase over 2015 visits and a 42 percent increase since Evers’ arrival in 2009. In addition, the number of analytic cancer cases seen by Markey doctors has nearly doubled – 49 percent – since 2009.

Markey’s five-year survival rates for lung, brain, prostate, liver and ovarian cancers are higher than the national average. In particular, Markey’s liver cancer survival rates are outstanding, with a 27 percent five-year-survival rate versus the SEER national average of 16 percent.

Additionally, cancer funding continues to increase, with Markey bringing in $43 million in funds from the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, and other peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed sources – a $5 million increase in research funding over the previous year.

Bourbon stillage research is truly a Kentucky project

In Kentucky, bourbon production is both a rich tradition and a booming industry. And as the state’s flagship research institution, the University of Kentucky has discovered an inventive way to work with a local bourbon distillery.

Steve Lipka, associate director at UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research, and his Electrochemical Power Sources team are always on the lookout for abundant and sustainable materials that can be converted into value-added products. In this case, Lipka and his CAER team partnered with Wilderness Trail Distillery in Danville to test stillage, a by-product left over during the bourbon production process.

Bourbon stillage contains water and grain and is often used as cattle feed in its solid state. Lipka and his team have discovered multiple new uses for its liquid portion. Through a process called hydrothermal carbonization, the team learned that stillage can be transformed into a solid material made up of tiny, uniformly-sized particles also known as “green material.” 

“We take these (green materials) and we then do additional post-processing to convert it into useful materials that can be used for batteries,” Lipka said.

These batteries include carbon-monofluoride batteries, the most energy-dense primary batteries in the world. Applications for these types of batteries include:

• Implantable cardiac pacemakers

• Electronic devices: electric, water and gas meters, cameras, computer clock and memory back-up

• Commerce: powered credit cards

• Oil and gas exploration: data logging and control systems

• Automotive: tire pressure monitoring system

• U.S. military: portable communications equipment

• Aerospace

The stillage also is being used to create cheaper, more effective activated carbons for water filtration with funds from General Electric Appliances in Louisville. These systems could be useful for both consumer products and municipal drinking water supplies to remove chloramine and chloroform.