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West Virginia University continues research projects

Allison Wolf, a postdoctoral fellow in the WVU School of Medicine, is investigating ways to make whooping cough vaccines more effective, for longer. One possible way is through a nose spray instead of a shot. (Photo provided by West Virginia University)

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University is at the forefront in research in numerous area including health, commerce and space weather.

In the study of diabetes management, the West Virginia Practice-Based Research Network’s Sight Outreach Program of the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute is training clinical staff to use the Intelligent Retinal Imaging System to image the patient’s retinas. A retinal eye exam is crucial for people with diabetes who are at risk for diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of blindness for people ages 20 to 65 in the United States.

“This I.R.I.S. program removes barriers to access that often prevent people from getting these exams and can help us bring the best care possible to persons with diabetes,” Dr. William Lewis, family medicine physician at Harpers Ferry Family Medicine and Sight Outreach co-director, said.

The program is convenient for providers and patients. At participating clinics, a can photograph of the patient’s retina can be taken and transmitted to a specialist at the WVU Eye Institute, a procedure that takes less than five minutes for most patients.

West Virginia University researchers Allison Wolf and Dylan Boehm investigated whether an update of DtaP, the 1996 whooping cough vaccine for babies and young kids, could strengthen the immune system’s attack on Bordetella pertussis, the bacteria that causes whooping cough. They also studied whether a nose spray measured up to a conventional injection. The results, published in npj Vaccines, are promising.

Patient receives retinal exam with handheld Intelligent Retinal Imaging System. (Photo provided by West Virginia University)

“There is evidence that new strains of pertussis are emerging, and these strains do not have components of our current vaccine,” Wolf, a postdoctoral fellow in the WVU School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology, said. “That might play a partial role in the re-emergence of pertussis in the United States and around the world.”

Triptans, the “mainstay of migraine treatment,” can’t take them more than twice a week, West Virginia University neurologist Umer Najib said. Patients who have a third migraine are out of luck.

Najib is researching neuromodulation to treat and prevent migraine attacks.

“Neuromodulation is a way to manipulate the central pain system by applying electrical or magnetic pulses to specific nerves or areas of the brain,” Najib, who directs the clinical research program for the School of Medicine’s Department of Neurology, said.

In a new clinical trial he’s leading, a cell-phone-sized device stimulates the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the human body. The vagus nerve charts a circuitous route from the brain stem through the face, neck, chest and abdomen.

Images captured can detect diabetic retinopathy and identify characteristics that would lead to further evaluation for glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration and more. (Photo provided by West Virginia University)

ElectroCore, which specializes in neuromodulation technologies, makes the device and funded the trial.

To keep the Maple syrup industry flowing in West Virginia’s, among the fastest growing in the state, more tapped trees are needed, Jamie Schuler, lead researcher and associate professor of silviculture in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.

“West Virginia has more total tappable trees than Vermont, but there are several barriers that limit participation in maple syrup production,” he said.

Barriers include limited landowner awareness as well as misinformation about forest resources and perceived forest management or harvesting principles.

With the help of a new grant from the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service, the team will work to make the state even more “maple friendly” by providing interested landowners with assistance in assessing their forests for maple syrup production.

Jamie Schuler, left, associate professor of silviculture, teaches a WVU student about maple syrup production. (Photo provided by West Virginia University)

Landowners who go through the assessment process won’t be obligated or pressured to tap their trees or harvest timber, he said.

“We simply want to show the importance of understanding the resource, potential management options and promote monitoring programs to limit threats to our natural resource,” Schuler said.

West Virginia University graduate student Alice Morgan of Sylvania, Ga., one of 10 recipients of a fellowship from the Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education, will spend the next year researching the impacts of adventure STEM curriculum on sixth graders who attend WVU’s Science Adventure School at the Summit Bechtel Reserve near Beckley.

Supported by the National Science Foundation, the program provides opportunities for researchers in the early stages of STEM education careers. Morgan is the first WVU student to receive the fellowship.

“My research shows students in West Virginia have very low interest levels in science and STEM subjects,” Morgan, a recreation, parks and tourism resources doctoral student in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, said. “However, STEM teaches curiosity, problem solving and rigorously investigating ideas before you decide what you think about them.”

WVU School of Medicine researcher Umer Najib is studying whether this neuromodulation device—made by electroCore—can prevent migraine in people who apply it to their necks three times a day. If his clinical trial suggests the device works as intended, it may point toward a new treatment that has fewer side effects than conventional migraine medications and is safer for a wider range of patients. (Photo provided by West Virginia University)

Usually, the earth’s magnetic field shields the planet from the sun, but it failed on Sept. 2, 1859. Known as the Carrington Event, the most powerful solar storm on record burst through the magnetic field and pummelled telegraph wires throughout the United States and Europe, breaking down communication systems and igniting several fires.

Piyush Mehta, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at West Virginia University, said a similar event today would unleash greater havoc, widespread blackouts, destroy electrical grids and cause $2 trillion in damages.

Mehta, with a $273,734-grant from the National Science Foundation and a WVU graduate student, will research more accurate ways to predict space weather using artificial intelligence and machine-learning.

“This research has come to light in recent years because of the advanced technological infrastructure we have today,” Mehta said. “We’ve got power grid lines, oil pipelines and satellites that gather GPS and weather information. Space weather can adversely affect all of these infrastructures.”

Umer Najib, assistant professor of neurology in the WVU School of Medicine and director of the Headache Medicine Fellowship Program. (Photo provided by West Virginia University)

With a fellowship from the Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education, Alice Morgan will spend the next year researching the impacts of adventure STEM curriculum on sixth graders who attend WVU’s Science Adventure School at the Summit Bechtel Reserve near Beckley. (Photo provided by West Virginia University)

Dylan Boehm, a former doctoral student in the WVU School of Medicine, works with Heath Damron, director of the WVU Vaccine Development Center, on enhancing the effectiveness of the whooping cough vaccine. (Photo provided by West Virginia University)

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