Researcher William Stoops explores the psychology of drug addiction

Don’t miss the video interview with William Stoops at the end of this blog post.

One undergraduate psychology course changed William Stoops’ life.

Originally, Stoops planned to major in French, but after taking more psychology classes and getting involved in intensive, hands-on research, he decided in his senior year to devote his professional life to the study of the behavioral effects of drugs.

“I was fascinated by the idea that we can rigorously and scientifically study the effects of drugs,” Stoops said. “It’s not as simple as somebody is an addict, or someone has a drug-use disorder…There’s so much more to it, and it’s in that nuance where we can identify treatments and interventions.”

Stoops earned both his master’s and doctoral degree at UK, under the mentorship of Craig Rush, PhD, in the department of behavioral science in the College of Medicine. Most doctoral students go to another institution for postdoctoral work, but Stoops opted to stay at UK to work with Sharon Walsh, PhD, director of UK’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research on prescription opioids.

Researching a different type of addiction

While there is a national health crisis involving opioid abuse, Stoops focuses his research on cocaine addiction.

“For opioid-use disorder, we have approved medications to treat those problems. We have ways to intervene with an overdose. For cocaine, we don’t have any effective treatments,” Stoops said.

Data suggests that cocaine overdoses in African-Americans are at the same level as opioid overdoses in non-African-Americans.

In clinical and research communities, the only successful treatment of cocaine-use disorder is abstinence from cocaine. “But we don’t have a lot of data to say what the benefits of abstinence are,” Stoops said. “We also don’t have any data to say that reduced use does or does not produce benefits. So the goal is to look at abstinence versus reduction in cocaine use, and look at the broad array of health outcomes.”

This project is funded by a five-year $2.9 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Habitual cocaine users experience cardiac and immune system problems. By measuring physiological responses, as well as cognitive and psychological functions, researchers can develop a better data set for those using cocaine in a reduced amount and for those who abstain from cocaine.

Using prior research to improve public health

Stoops’ prior studies informed his current projects. Early in his career, Stoops and his team completed a randomized trial of an intervention called Abstinence Reinforcement that was delivered online to rural smokers.

“How can we reduce the barriers to getting treatment to individuals who really need it?” Stoops said. “We know that smoking rates are high in Kentucky in general, but especially high in Eastern Kentucky. It’s hard to get treatment there, because the nearest clinician or nearest treatment center is miles and miles and hours away. And we proved that it was effective. And it’s been part of a body of literature that spurred more work about mobile health and mobile delivery of treatments for various drug-use disorders.”

Stoops says one of the most rewarding parts of research is working with the National Health Institute on these public health issues, and he imparts that enthusiasm and dedication to the students he mentors.

“At the end of the day, even if we’re doing basic science research, we are contributing information that is going to positively impact the health of the taxpayers and the health of your fellow citizens. And you should enjoy being able to do that work.”

Next steps:

Team of young scientists at UK publishes innovative spinal research

According to a paper recently published in Cell Reports, labs from Case Western Reserve and UK’s Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center (SCoBIRC) were able to demonstrate the existence of a parallel neural network that could potentially restore diaphragm function after spinal cord injury.

This ghost network operates entirely separate from the brain, which has long been considered the only organ capable of directing respiratory function, and appears able to instruct the diaphragm to contract when properly activated.

While practical solutions are a long way away, the implications of this research for quadriplegics, many of whom rely on a respirator to breathe, are enormous. Constant mechanical ventilation increases the risk of fatal infection, which is the leading cause of death for spinal cord injury patients. Reducing reliance on ventilators would go a long way toward improving quality and longevity of life for those with devastating spinal cord injuries.

Building a team of young scientists

Perhaps more amazing is that this research is credited to a group of young scientists – one not yet graduated from college.

Warren Alilain heads the lab at SCoBIRC where Rachel Maggard, Lydia Hager and Daimen Stoltz work. Alilain has long been researching combination therapies to restore breathing function to patients with older cervical spinal cord injuries.

“Jared Cregg and Jerry Silver [my colleagues at Case Western] have been looking into ways to restore diaphragm function after spinal cord injury for a while, and their research uncovered this latent network in neonatal mice about two years ago,” Alilain said.

“The initial neonatal results from Case Western were intriguing, but since most spinal cord injuries occur in adults, it was an important step to replicate the results in adult rats, and Jared knew my lab had the appropriate experience.”

So Cregg reached out to Alilain for help. Alilain collected his lab group together, mapped out the proposal from Case Western, and then asked, “Who wants to do it?”

Maggard and Hager, both first-year graduate students, and Stoltz, a college senior, looked at each other and thrust their hands in the air.

So, for three weeks last summer, the women duplicated Cregg’s experiments using adult rats and were able to confirm the presence of the ghost network.

Impressive results

And then Cell Reports came knocking.

All three women call the experience of having a manuscript accepted for a major publication at such a tender age “surreal.”

“It’s a huge career boost,” said Hager, who credits Alilain’s unwavering support and guidance both in and out of the lab for their success, with an enthusiastic chorus of seconds from Maggard and Stoltz.

In a moment reminiscent of a meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society, Alilain protests, saying that the credit belongs entirely to this group of bright young scientists.

“Warren has high expectations of us but he also helps us get there,” said Stoltz, who will receive her undergraduate degree this spring. “He brought us along to several national neuroscience meetings – a rare opportunity for someone my age – and taught us that science is about more than working in a lab.”

Maggard agreed with Stoltz, adding that being with Alilain at scientific meetings was like following a rock star around.

“Warren showed us that networking and sharing ideas were all critical elements of good science,” Maggard said.

Abundant opportunities at UK

Hager, Maggard and Stoltz also praise UK for the research opportunities it affords students.

“I was surprised at how many undergrads get to do lab work here,” Hager said. “They have their own projects, just like graduate students,” which gives them a leg up on their training.

Maggard called the sheer abundance of research opportunities at UK mind-boggling.  “It’s like an all you can eat buffet – there’s plenty of opportunity for those who look for them.”

UK Vice President for Research Lisa Cassis has long advocated for an inclusive and collaborative research environment, encouraging senior principal investigators to invest in one-on-one mentoring for students of all genders and at all levels.

“People generally think of a researcher as a gray-haired gentleman in a white lab coat, but more and more we are seeing that younger people – both men and women – are the new face of research,” Cassis said.

Positive sense of community

Cassis explained that the collegial nature of research at UK has fostered an environment where scientists feel comfortable sharing their ideas and techniques with each other and with students, noting that UK even gives financial incentives to units that collaborate with one another.

“That sense of community trickles down to the younger scientists and even our students, who learn that teamwork helps us stay competitive.  Many universities do not have that culture – some places are so competitive that it’s taboo to walk into someone else’s lab – and that’s a real barrier to student learning.”

Next up for Alilain’s group:  looking for clinically relevant ways to activate this latent breathing network to mimic normal breathing rhythm in people with spinal cord injuries.

“This is always the hardest challenge: taking knowledge gleaned from the bench and successfully applying it to the human condition,” Alilain said.

But he – and the next generations of scientists who benefit from the early opportunities afforded them at UK – are up to the task.

Next steps:

UK researchers receive prestigious grant to investigate vascular disease

The American Heart Association has awarded a UK and Baylor University research partnership $3.7 million to study aortic disease.

UK and Baylor were one of four teams nationwide to receive the honor, which coincides with the establishment of the American Heart Association’s Vascular Research Disease Network.

The grant will underwrite the work of the UK-BCM Aortopathy Research Center (UK-BCM ARC), which will focus on the impact of sex differences related to aortic diseases. Aortic disease can cause the expansion and rupture of a vessel wall in the chest or abdominal area, leading to potentially deadly internal bleeding.

“The study of vascular disease is a vitally important enterprise, as its prevalence is expected to increase dramatically as our population ages,” said Alan Daugherty, chair of the department of physiology, director of the Saha Cardiovascular Research Center in the College of Medicine and UK associate vice president for research.

“The work of the UK-BCM brings together two institutes that have established records of innovations in aortic disease research at all levels, and we’re delighted that the AHA has acknowledged our expertise with this grant.”

Additional projects

At the UK College of Medicine, two research programs will be launched during this partnership. The first, led by Daugherty, will investigate how sex hormones, including testosterone and estrogen, impact development of thoracic aortic disease in mouse models. Lisa Cassis, professor of pharmacology and nutritional sciences and vice president for research, will lead a team to explore how sex chromosomes affect the development and progression of aortic diseases in both thoracic and abdominal aortas using unique mouse models in which sex chromosomes are manipulated.

In addition to these research projects, the center will support a training program for research fellows led by Nancy Webb, director of nutritional sciences and professor of pharmacology and nutritional sciences. This program will recruit and train basic science and clinical postdoctoral research fellows who will be associated with the three projects.

“Our Association is excited about this newly funded research network, targeting vascular diseases,” said Joey Maggard, executive director of the Lexington Division of the American Heart Association.

“The American Heart Association is able to continue to fund such cutting-edge, academic research facility based projects like this one right here in Central Kentucky because of the ongoing generous donations in support of our mission.”

Next steps:

You can make a difference by participating in research

Written by Linda Rice, RN, CCRC, director of clinical operations at the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science, which is dedicated to accelerating discoveries that improve health.

Health research changes lives. It’s how we learn more about health conditions and make discoveries to improve treatments, care and diagnostics. Every medicine or device we use – from aspirin to pacemakers – was developed through a process of research. But research needs people in order to move forward. All too often, studies are forced to end early or don’t enroll enough participants, which means that many important questions go unanswered.

At UK, doctors, nurses and researchers are working diligently to advance discoveries that improve health, and we invite you to join us. You can make a difference by participating in research – you could even be part of a study whose results will help people in the future. Participating is a way to help others by “giving forward,” and it’s also an opportunity to learn more about your own health.

Whether you are healthy or have a medical condition, there are opportunities for you to participate. Health research is more than clinical trials for rare diseases. Sometimes it’s as simple as a questionnaire, a screening or helping to test a type of exercise. Many studies compensate participants.

Health research also includes extensive protection for participants. The ethical and legal codes that govern medical care also apply to research, which is further regulated with safeguards for participants. UK, like every research institution, also has a review board that evaluates all research to ensure protection of participants’ rights and welfare. Every study follows a carefully controlled plan of what researchers will do and what is asked of participants, and this plan is explained in detail before you decide to join. Participants are free to leave a study at any time.

Learn more

There are two ways to learn more and get involved in the process of discovery: You can view current research opportunities at UK, and you can also join ResearchMatch, which connects you with researchers nationwide.

Current Studies at UK: To explore opportunities to participate in ground-breaking research at UK, visit and click on “Current Studies.” You can browse opportunities by topic, like Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cancer, healthy volunteers, women’s health, drug and alcohol use, and many others.

ResearchMatch: To join this national database of research opportunities, visit ResearchMatch is an easy, secure, registry that unites people who are interested in research with active studies. Joining is free and fast. Simply register and wait to be contacted, or “matched,” to studies that might interest you. You can also browse studies, share ideas with researchers, and find patient organizations and health information. You always have the choice to participate or not, and you can leave ResearchMatch at any time. Individuals under the age of 19 must be enrolled by a parent or guardian.

If you’d like to learn more about health research, including frequently asked questions, please visit If you have questions about participating in research or current studies at UK, please contact us at or by phone at 859-257-7856 or 859-323-8150.

Next steps:

UK researcher using NIH grant to seek early predictors of Alzheimer’s

Olivier Thibault, a researcher in UK’s Department of Phamacology and Nutritional Science, along with researchers from four other institutions, is using a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a collaborative project using non-invasive treatments on mice to measure early predictors of Alzheimer’s disease in hopes of finding a cure.

Alzheimer’s disease wreaks emotional havoc on patients who are robbed of their memories, their dignity and their lives. It’s financially devastating as well: care for Alzheimer’s patients is predicted to top $1 trillion by the time children born today are having children of their own.

Alzheimer’s begins its destruction decades before there are outward signs of memory loss, so some recent scientific effort has focused on recognizing the earliest signs that portend disease onset. Those telltale signs, called biomarkers, would enable patients to receive treatment for Alzheimer’s sooner, thereby delaying the disease’s devastating progress or stopping it altogether.

The biomarker treasure hunt has been difficult thus far. There’s been little to no progress toward finding one that is a “triple threat” – non-invasive, inexpensive and easily translatable to community populations. So, the NIH called for research proposals to find new ways to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and predict its progression.

Building a research proposal

Among the grant applicants was a group of scientists from four different institutions, each with a specific scientific skillset that when put together had the resources to test the presence and reliability of one such biomarker.

“When I first saw the call for applications, I was really excited,” Thibault said. “I remembered some interesting work that came out of Bruce Berkowitz’s lab at Wayne State University and thought it might be the cornerstone of a project that met the grant’s parameters.”

That cornerstone is called Quest MRI, a dynamic process that is able to pinpoint levels of oxidative stress in specific regions of the brain over time, and in living subjects. The technique is non-invasive and usually doesn’t require expensive modifications to existing equipment.

“Almost everyone with a television set has heard about the benefits of antioxidant-rich vitamins like A, C and E, and superfoods like blueberries, green tea and dark chocolate,” Thibault said. “Well, antioxidants are the body’s defense against something called free radicals. Free radicals are natural byproducts of chemical processes in the body, and in a healthy state free radical production is offset by the work of antioxidants. But when there are too many free radicals, the balance is disrupted, and the resulting oxidative stress can increase the risk for diseases like AD.”

People write off the times when they can’t remember where they left their keys, but realizing they don’t know how to get home from the grocery store is a wake-up call that something is terribly wrong. The scientific term is “spatial disorientation,” and it’s a critical hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

The capacity for spatial orientation lies in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. Berkowitz and Thibault hypothesized that using Quest MRI to measure oxidative stress in the hippocampus of a live animal and compare it to that animal’s ability to remember how to navigate a maze could be proof of the existence of a biomarker for Alzheimer’s. Even better – the process uses inexpensive drugs that are already FDA-approved – making Quest MRI easily translatable to the general population.

The NIH was impressed, and awarded the foursome $2.8 million over five years to test the hypothesis.

How the collaboration works

Rounding out the project are Geoffry Murphy at the University of Michigan and Brian Bennett at Queen’s University in Canada. Bennett has developed a mouse genetically predisposed to high levels of oxidative stress, and Murphy’s mice are already afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.

Thus begins a roughly 850-mile circuit of testing where Bennett’s oxidative stress mice are flown from Ontario to Ann Arbor, Mich., where Murphy puts them and his own Alzheimer’s mice through a maze to assess spatial navigation. Murphy himself then drives the mice to Detroit, where Berkowitz uses his Quest MRI to determine free radical production in the hippocampus. Ultimately, the mice end up in Thibault’s lab, which uses calcium imaging techniques to measure how neurons are affected over time, thereby measuring the relationship between free radical production, oxidative stress and behavioral changes in the same animal. Some of the mice actually make more than one circuit to assess cognitive and corresponding biochemical changes over time.

“The entire process provides a deeply characterized analysis of mice that may well affirm Quest MRI’s ability to identify the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease,” Thibault said.

Even better, says Thibault, the group foresees a bonus aspect of their research: they will also be able to test the efficacy of pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic methods to reduce free radical production in the hippocampus. Advantageous data would point to the possibility of reducing free radical production using either an antioxidant “cocktail” or a light therapy called photobiomodulation.

Either option, Thibault said, would be “the cherry on the cake.”

The mice don’t begin their journey until later this month, but Thibault and his colleagues are energized at the prospect of joining the hunt for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

“To be able to identify or even predict Alzheimer’s disease using Quest MRI, and then also be able to intervene using antioxidants or photobiomodulation, would be a one-two winning punch,” Thibault said.

Next steps:

  • Last year, the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging was redesignated as an NIH Alzheimer’s Disease Center. Learn more about this prestigious designation and what it means for our patients and their families.
  • Alzheimer’s disease usually affects people who are 65 or older. If there’s a senior in your life, be aware of these signs and symptoms of the disease.

UK doctoral student combining passions to advance Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment

When Alex Helman began her search for a doctoral program that would allow her to further her knowledge of neuroscience and conduct research on Alzheimer’s disease, she was surprised to add the University of Kentucky to her list.

Initially, she was shocked by the number of people doing research on Alzheimer’s disease, but when she looked more, she found that the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging’s designation as an Alzheimer’s Disease Center by the National Institutes of Health provided numerous opportunities to work on research to advance the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Research opportunities at UK

After her visit to campus, she learned that many of the faculty conducting research were eager to include students as research assistants and there were abundant opportunities to do the work she loved.

“I left my visit thinking ‘Oh my gosh, I want to go to UK.’”

She is now a doctoral candidate in the UK College of Medicine Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. She completed a year of lab rotation and then joined the research staff of Paul Murphy, associate professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry.

Helman currently works on a project in the lab of Elizabeth Head, professor of pharmacology and nutritional sciences, as part of a team conducting a longitudinal study to examine the development of Alzheimer’s disease among people with Down syndrome.

“I’ve always been interested in a range of policy issues but my primary passion has always been science, and for a long time I kept those two things separate,” Helman said.

But, as she paid more attention to politics, she realized the fields of science and politics were more connected than she thought, and she found a role to play in both.

Applying research to policy

For the past 2 1/2 years, Helman has served the Alzheimer’s Association as a liaison between the organization and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr’s office in Lexington. She began her advocacy work as a congressional team member, tasked with working with an assigned legislator to advocate for the policy goals of the organization. For the past year and a half, she has been leading these efforts as an ambassador.

This spring, she will take her passions for policy and science to the next level as a Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellow. This fellowship program, offered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, will provide her with the opportunity to work in Washington, D.C., for 12 weeks. She chose to apply to serve on the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine to learn more about policies that improve the retention of women in science, technology, engineering and medicine fields.

Helman will defend her doctoral dissertation this summer and earn her PhD. She hopes to work for the federal government in science policy work, possibly in workforce policy or scientific advising through the American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellowship.

“If we stay in our labs and don’t advocate for ourselves it’s easy to be forgotten. Your data doesn’t speak for itself; you speak for your data.” She said. “You can do your work, and it’s important to continue to be as unbiased as possible, but our data means nothing if no one values and understands it.”

Next steps:

UK, UK HealthCare leaders take case for opioid addiction funding to Washington

Kentucky is among the states most ravaged by opioid abuse and drug addiction.

But the University of Kentucky – with researchers and clinicians working across a number of colleges and disciplines – is on the front lines of finding solutions.

Leaders from UK Research and UK HealthCare – along with some of the institution’s most prolific researchers – took their stories of hope and challenge to Washington, D.C., recently to make the case with some of the country’s top elected officials about the need to continue federal funding to address drug addiction and abuse.

“The scourge of opioid abuse and addiction is wreaking havoc on Kentucky. Addiction is a disease of despair, victimizing individuals and communities when they are most vulnerable. It does not discriminate by ZIP code or neighborhood; race or ethnicity – it affects us all,” said UK President Eli Capilouto, who led the delegation to Washington.

“Universities across the country are locked in a fight against opioid abuse. The University of Kentucky is among the leaders, working in partnership with local, state and federal stakeholders to stem the tide of this insidious menace.”

A group of UK representatives – including Executive Vice President for Health Affairs Mark Newman, College of Medicine Dean Bob DiPaola, Vice President for Research Lisa Cassis and Vice President for University Relations Tom Harris – joined Capilouto in meetings with top elected officials in the country over the course of three days recently. Officials included Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul as well as U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers, Andy Barr, Brett Guthrie, Thomas Massie, Jamie Comer and John Yarmuth.

A second team of UK representatives, led by UK’s Vice President for Administration and External Affairs Mark D. Birdwhistell, included faculty from six different colleges who are engaged in substance abuse and addiction research. The university currently has $22.5 million in research funding around these issues as part of UK’s $330 million research enterprise. UK, in fact, received $11.2 million in research funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse last year alone.

“The breadth of ongoing research in substance abuse by our faculty led to vibrant discussions with congressional staff,” Cassis said. “Everyone had the same goal, and all agreed that support for substance research is critical.”

UK’s opioid-focused research team in Washington included:

  • Carrie Oser, a sociology professor examining health service utilization, drug treatment outcomes and infectious disease prevention among rural residents and minorities.
  • Donald Helme, an associate professor in the UK Department of Communication who focuses on media- and school-based campaigns designed to prevent risky behaviors.
  • Alison Davis, an agricultural economics extension professor who has facilitated a local substance abuse coalition in Russell County, Ky., that is adopting strategies and policies to reduce substance abuse.
  • Mark Fillmore, a professor of psychology focusing research on acute and chronic effects of abused drugs on mental capacity.
  • Kristin Ashford, an associate professor of nursing and co-creator of the Perinatal Assistance and Treatment Home (PATHways), which is helping pregnant women who use opioids. Since the program launched in 2014, more than 150 women have received treatment through PATHways; of those, 77 percent who were admitted to labor and delivery tested negative for illicit drug use.
  • Jeffery Talbert, a pharmacy professor who focuses his research on the intersection of policy decisions and health outcomes.
  • April Young, an assistant professor of public health who works with the UK Center on Drug and Alcohol Research and is helping lead a $1.16 million cooperative research effort to build community-grounded health responses to combat opioid abuse in Appalachia.

“Their work is making a difference,” Birdwhistell said. “But they will be the first to tell you that progress is not possible without the support they receive from our lawmakers and federal funding for their research efforts. Together, we can turn the tide, if we remain focused.”

Next steps:

UK researcher using $2.9M grant to treat cocaine-use disorder

Does reducing the use of cocaine, but not abstaining from the substance entirely, produce health benefits? There’s currently little research available that answers that question.

William Stoops, PhD, professor in the UK College of Medicine and director of regulatory knowledge and support for the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science, has received a $2.9 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to find more answers.

Stoops hopes his research will contribute to the evolving knowledge of treatment for cocaine-use disorder (CUD), a substance-use disorder that currently has no well-established treatment methods.

“Facilities treating cocaine-use disorder are doing what they can, but there is no common practice,” Stoops said.

And while medications are available for other common substance-use disorders including opioid-use disorder and alcohol-use disorder, no medication is available to treat CUD.

Finding a more successful treatment model

Another challenge is that under the current model, CUD treatment is considered “successful” only if a patient abstains entirely from using the substance. Stoops points out that although abstinence is the ideal outcome, such a “total” fix is not the same measure of success used in treating other chronic diseases.

“Abstinence may be too high of a bar to set. We don’t do that with other chronic diseases – we focus more on reduction or management, like when treating someone for high blood pressure,” he said.

Stoops, along with interdisciplinary team members from the departments of behavioral science, psychiatry, internal medicine and psychology at UK, hope to determine if reduced cocaine use confers health benefits to individuals with CUD. He hypothesizes that a reduction will lead to improved health, and abstinence will yield even more benefits.

Health and economic benefits

The study will take place over five years and aims to enroll 200 participants (about 40 per year). Participants, who must be between 18 and 65 years old, will be asked to participate in a 12-week intervention. During the intervention, participants will need to be available three days a week for short visits. After the initial 12-week period, there will be long-term follow-up. The clinical component of the study will be conducted through the clinical services unit of the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science.

In addition to helping people manage and treat their CUD, Stoops and the research team are also aware of the economic benefits to more people entering recovery.

“Substance use disorders in general, and CUD specifically are very expensive to the taxpayer. They lead to billions of dollars in lost productivity and healthcare costs each year,” Stoops said.

“Not having an effective, broadly used treatment, combined with the lack of a strong evidence base about whether reduced cocaine use can confer benefit, hampers our ability to help people with CUD.”

If you are interested in participating in or learning more about the study you can find more information at

Next steps:

  • Researchers are working hard to identify new treatments and strategies to improve health, but they need healthy participants and those with medical conditions to participate in clinical studies. Find out how you can participate in clinical research at UK HealthCare.
  • Read how UK researchers are using an NIH grant to fight drug abuse in rural Kentucky.

UK dean’s outstanding research recognized by the American Heart Association

The American Heart Association (AHA) awarded its Population Research Prize for 2017 to Donna K. Arnett, dean of the UK College of Public Health and professor of epidemiology, “for insightful research successfully blending the basic molecular sciences with population studies to produce a highly relevant new understanding of major aspects of cardiovascular disease including risk prediction, hypertension and heart failure.”

Arnett received the prize during Sunday’s opening of the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2017, a premier global exchange of the latest advances in cardiovascular science for researchers and clinicians, which was held at the Anaheim Convention Center in California. The annual prize honors important studies of cardiovascular disease patterns in populations.

“Throughout her praise-worthy career, Dr. Arnett has worked to integrate molecular science with population studies, using her extensive training in both disciplines, to produce broadly relevant results for the health of the public,” said Dr. John Warner, president of the AHA.

“Her personal success is evident in both her publication record and her funding,” he noted. “She has published more than 500 peer-reviewed reports in high-impact journals in multiple fields, including seminal work she has led identifying genetic biomarkers and in risk prediction, hypertension, heart failure, imaging and methods development.”

Arnett also has played a key role in the development of the population research portfolio of the AHA, where she served as a bridge between the population and molecular research communities.

“Her many years of service have included time as a high-profile role model for population research during her presidency of this association, in 2012-2013,” Warner said.

An NIH-funded researcher for 20 years, Arnett studies genes related to hypertensive disorders and organ damage that results from hypertension. She has published more than 450 peer-reviewed papers and two books.

Next steps:

How a Markey lab is helping stroke patients

When George Quintero first heard about a new clinical trial that could improve motor function in stroke patients, he knew he had to find a way to bring it to UK HealthCare.

Quintero, a research analyst for the UK Department of Neuroscience, first obtained a list of criteria to apply. The phase II trial required a physician with experience in frame-based surgery, which was easy for UK to fulfill: Dr. Craig van Horne, a neurosurgeon for the Kentucky Neuroscience Institute, has been performing this style of surgery on neurology patients for more than 20 years.

The second required element was a bit trickier. To be a treatment site for this innovative trial, the stroke team needed resources and buy-in from a stem cell lab with specific cell processing skills near the hospital.

“Originally, we thought we just needed a cell lab,” Quintero said. “We realized we didn’t have any experience in the sort of cell delivery we needed. My background is basic sciences and I have a plain cell lab, so it wouldn’t be sufficient.”

Finding the right lab

Quintero hunted for an appropriate lab across the city, beginning with UK’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS). He combed through the work of individual investigators, and then tried to identify facilities around town that would have the means and experience to carry out the specific stem cell work needed for the trial.

After running into several dead ends, he stumbled upon the idea of bone marrow transplants, which use stem cells collected from bone marrow to repopulate the blood after aggressive treatment for blood cancers. Quintero finally had a lead: Just across the street from KNI, the UK Markey Cancer Center’s Blood and Marrow Transplantation (BMT) Program performs upward of 100 bone marrow transplants for patients each year.

Quintero reached out to Dr. Gerhard Hildebrandt, division chief of Hematology and Blood and Marrow Transplantation at UK. Although the work required was unrelated to the usual duties of the stem cell lab, Quintero says Hildebrandt was on board with the project.

“He was very excited,” Quintero said. “He thought that sort of stem cell delivery for neurological diseases would be a really advantageous thing for UK to have. So he was an early supporter of us moving forward, and he got me in touch with the group at the cell lab.”

Working together to improve patient care

Tucked away on the second floor of Albert B. Chandler Hospital, the three staff members of UK’s stem cell lab – lab manager Rita Hill and medical technologists Martha Pat Kinney and Giovi Hidalgo – quietly and efficiently go about their work of preparing stem cells for bone marrow transplant patients at the UK Markey Cancer Center.

Overseen by Dr. Roger Herzig, medical director of Markey’s Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, the lab processes stem cells for both autologous transplants – those using the patient’s own stem cells – and allogenic transplants, in which stem cells harvested from related or unrelated donors are used.

When presented the opportunity to help KNI participate in this trial, Herzig was immediately interested, having previously collaborated on other projects at UK HealthCare. Hill says the team wanted to help but had some initial reservations because of their already busy workload – to do the study, the Markey stem cell team would have to take on additional work outside of their usual service area.

“I first met Dr. Quintero and he gave us a protocol to look at, and wanted to know if we were interested,” Hill said. “We thought, ‘Yes.’ But there is a time constraint and with the BMT program rolling, we weren’t sure if we could really support it.”

For the trial to work, the stem cell team would have to work closely with Quintero and van Horne to ensure seamless patient care. The lab would receive genetically modified stem cells from the pharmaceutical company, process the cells for implantation per trial protocol, and deliver them to Quintero. Once he signed off, van Horne would initiate the procedure by drilling a small hole into the patient’s skull and injecting the stem cells into the brain. Because most of the patients in the trial would be traveling long distances just for this procedure, it was essential to have the process streamlined and efficient from start to finish.

“An idea is pretty easy to have and say, ‘Let’s do this!'” van Horne said. “But when you realize all the work that has to go into these things, it’s phenomenal.”

First, scheduling was key. Hill says Quintero and van Horne were willing to be flexible on the timing of when they could bring in patients, and they worked out a schedule that wouldn’t conflict with their normal duties for Markey.

Secondly, Hill and her team looked closely at the protocol, and noted some small elements of the process that could be improved. After several conversations, the company sponsoring the trial even adopted Hill’s suggestions and implemented them at other trial sites nationwide.

“One of the advantages of having Rita is that she has a lot of expertise in managing cell labs and the requirements of cell processing,” Quintero said. “She sort of gave some direction that the study needed, and the study welcomed that because they wanted the input from individuals to make the project better.”

Culture of collaboration

This recent trial is yet another example of what van Horne describes as “the proliferation of collaborative culture to solve human problems” across UK’s academic and healthcare campuses.

“One of the things that I think is unique about UK is there’s really a culture of collaboration,” van Horne said. “I’ve previously been in other institutions where that culture doesn’t exist… It’s not, ‘This is too much, we just can’t do this,’ but ‘Oh, that’s a great idea, let’s figure out a way to make that work.’ And everybody stepped up and pitched in and made it happen.”

“This kind of collaboration is what keeps making the research and the medicine new,” Herzig said. “And that’s what keeps me coming back to work.”

It’s not the first time the stem cell lab has stepped up to help other across the medical campus. They’ve previously assisted with stem cell research in nephrology and cardiology. Participating in these outside projects has helped the team learn more about what properties stem cells possess aside from the ability to reconstitute blood, which may prove useful in future endeavors.

“Part of the academic mission is collaboration; that allows us to tackle problems that individually we can’t do,” Herzig said. “You never know what technique you have today that you’ll be able to transfer to a different situation tomorrow. The things that we’re learning from this are probably going to be helpful in other future projects.”

Hill and her team spend most of their working time in the lab, but they do personally deliver stem cells to the bone marrow transplant patients who are preparing to undergo their infusions, giving them a brief encounter with the person who will be benefiting from their work. In addition to simply “enjoying the science” of this new project, Hill says the idea of helping even more patients provides some extra personal motivation.

“Who knows, you could have a family member or loved one later on who suffers from a stroke, and this trial could benefit them in the future,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you want to help?”

Next steps:

  • Researchers are working hard to identify new treatments and strategies to improve health, but they need healthy participants and those with medical conditions to participate in clinical studies. Find out how you can participate in clinical research at UK HealthCare.
  • At the UK Comprehensive Stroke Center, we offer treatment, prevention and rehabilitation services for stroke patients. Learn more about our program.