UVA engineer and biologist named recipients of Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Awards

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University of Virginia engineer Silvia Salinas Blemker and biologist Christopher Deppmann have been named recipients of 2011 Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Awards, which provide $100,000 in annual research support for three years to each awardee.

In addition to financial support, both Blemker and Deppmann will receive sophisticated videoconference equipment to enable periodic communications with the foundation and facilitate collaboration between other award recipients. This allows quarterly reviews with the Hartwell staff and board and encourages collaboration with any of the nearly 60 investigators funded by the foundation since 2006.

The Hartwell Foundation is dedicated to inspiring innovation and achievement among exceptional scientists and engineers who are pursuing biomedical research to advance children's health. This year 12 individuals, representing nine institutions, were selected as Hartwell Investigators. U.Va. is among three institutions that received two awards.

Blemker will use her award to improve the outcomes of cleft palate repair surgery using advanced physics-based computer simulation. An associate professor, she holds joint appointments in mechanical and aerospace engineering and biomedical engineering in U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science and orthopedic surgery in the School of Medicine.

Deppmann will use his Hartwell Award to study childhood metabolic disorders, targeting the peripheral nervous system to reverse obesity. He is an assistant professor with joint appointments in biology in the College of Arts & Sciences and biomedical engineering in the Engineering School.

Each year, The Hartwell Foundation announces its selection of the Top Ten Centers of Biomedical Research in the United States, inviting each center to hold an internal open competition to identify four faculty nominees based on early-stage, innovative and cutting-edge biomedical research that has not yet qualified for significant funding from outside sources. Top Ten research institutions that fully participate in The Hartwell Foundation nomination process also receive a Hartwell Biomedical Research Fellowship to fund one postdoctoral candidate of their choice for two years. U.Va. has been chosen among the Hartwell Top Ten and received fellowships every year since 2007.

Previous U.Va. Hartwell investigators include biomedical engineer Richard J. Price, in 2007; biomedical engineer Brian P. Helmke, in 2008; and biologist Michael Timko in 2009. U.Va. radiologist Talissa Altes received a 2010 Hartwell Biomedical Research Collaboration Award, along with Sean Fain of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"We are grateful to be a partner with The Hartwell Foundation and are very pleased that they will be supporting two U.Va. investigators who presented truly disruptive ideas for transforming the way we deal with widespread childhood health issues," said Thomas C. Skalak, U.Va. vice president for research. "The support is critically important for our most innovative people, because these ideas are at the very frontiers of research, and would not have been funded at this time by traditional mechanisms."

Silvia Salinas Blemker

Cleft palate deformities are one of the most common birth defects, and for more than a century, plastic surgeons have been attempting by trial-and-error to improve cleft palate repair. However, thousands of children who undergo this surgery each year continue to suffer from significantly impaired speech throughout their lives.

The outcomes of cleft palate repair surgeries and speech recovery remain suboptimal because the mechanics and function of palate muscles are complex and poorly understood, Blemker said. She proposes, through the use of advanced imaging and computer modeling, to create a modeling and simulation framework for predicting palate muscle function during speech, before and after cleft palate repair surgery.

The physics-based models that she has previously developed for simulating the action of skeletal muscle portray the complex three-dimensional behavior of muscle with a high level of detail and accuracy. Refining these modeling techniques to achieve representation of the palate musculature will represent an important advance for cleft palate surgeons. The model will be validated by comparisons with novel dynamic magnetic resonance imaging data, which together with her surgeon collaborator will be used to design more effective approaches for cleft palate repair.

"The idea of using such muscle models as a platform for surgical prototyping is unprecedented," said Fred Dombrose, president of The Hartwell Foundation. "If Silvia is successful, this new approach for cleft palate repair will lead to optimized clinical outcomes that will improve the physical and mental health of children born with this defect."

Christopher Deppmann

The question of how the body detects and responds to energy requirements and nutritional status is a long-standing and fundamental issue in medicine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 15 percent of pre-school children in the U.S. are afflicted with childhood obesity/metabolic disorder, an acute public health concern. More than 12 million children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight and or clinically obese.

Disorders linked to obesity include hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, sleep apnea, fatty liver and a high propensity for mental health disorders. About 25 percent of overweight children have impaired glucose tolerance and 4 percent may go on to develop type 2 diabetes.

Most treatment attention is focused on insulin regulation and not how the nervous system directly regulates energy utilization to and from fat tissue. The autonomic peripheral nervous system (outside the brain and spinal cord) acts to regulate body functions both below the level of consciousness (heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, salivation, perspiration, diameter of the pupils, etc.) and in parallel with the conscious mind (respiration, etc.). Through the release of norepinephrine, it also regulates fat breakdown for energy liberation.

In a paradigm shift, Deppmann proposes that modulating peripheral nervous system activity by targeted drug therapy may represent a better approach for anti-obesity and diabetes prevention therapies.

"How crucial metabolic processes are disrupted in childhood, leading to metabolic syndrome, is an unsolved and urgent problem, with most attention focused on insulin regulation and not what regulates energy utilization to and from fat stores," Dombrose said. "Chris offers an innovative perspective that the sympathetic nervous system may represent a novel independent sensor for the nutritional state."

The Hartwell Foundation

The Hartwell Foundation seeks to inspire innovation and achievement by funding research with the potential to benefit children of the United States. In the Hartwell competition, all nominees submit a detailed research proposal, make a formal presentation and are personally interviewed.

In selecting awardees, the foundation takes into account the nature of the proposed innovation, the extent to which a strategic or translational approach might promote rapid clinical application of research results, the supportive role and extent of collaboration in the proposed research, the institutional commitment to provide encouragement and technical support to the investigator, and the extent to which funding the investigator will make a difference.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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