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Two Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine scientists, Jeffrey Savas and Arun Sharma, are winners of the Jeff Savas2015 Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Awards. Sharma is also Director of Surgical Research and a member of the Developmental Biology Program at Stanley Manne Children's Research Institute at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

 

Savas, an assistant professor of neurology, won for a project to correct hampered synapses in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Sharma, a research assistant professor in urology, won for his proposal to develop new treatments for Crohn’s disease in children.


Each year, The Hartwell Foundation invites a limited number of institutions in the U.S. to nominate faculty members who are involved in early-stage, cutting-edge biomedical research that has not qualified for significant funding from outside sources. The award provides $100,000 in annual direct costs for three years. Twelve individuals representing nine institutions received recognition as Hartwell Investigators. Northwestern was one of only three institutions receiving two awards. This marks the third year in a row that a researcher affiliated with Northwestern and with the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute has received this honor.


“The 2015 competition was very competitive. The proposal by Savas was indicative of strong representation in neurobiologyArun Sharma this year. The proposal by Sharma was also quite compelling, with exciting potential for benefitting children,” said Fred Dombrose, president of The Hartwell Foundation.


The goal of Savas’s research is to investigate proteins in particular brain synapses that may be linked to autism spectrum disorder. (Synapses are specialized junctions between two or more nerve cells.) “This research on mouse models of autism aims to provide new knowledge to accelerate the development of effective therapeutics to treat children with ASD,” he said.  “My proposal represents a pioneering effort and will be the first investigation to determine how specific synapses are perturbed and reformed in ASD.”


Savas said he will combine genetic, chemical and mass spectrometry-based methods into a new approach that facilitates probing the particular molecules present at individual synapses.


Autism spectrum disorder comprises a group of brain development disorders characterized by significant deficits in social communication and social interaction. Children with ASD also have an increased risk of intellectual disabilities, epilepsy and attention deficit disorder. Approximately 1 in 68 children is affected by ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

It is believed that ASD represents a heterogeneous collection of disorders caused by the mutation of multiple genes that function within common brain pathways. Recent genetic research suggests that proteins in brain synapses play a key role in the pathology of ASD, where altered functionality in synapses can lead to disturbances in neural circuits, which ultimately contribute to impaired behaviors and pathology. Understanding the underlying mechanism of altered synapse function could provide possible targets for drug therapy.


“As a new father, being chosen for this award is particularly meaningful to me since the mission of The Hartwell Foundation is to fund projects with the potential to benefit children,” Savas said. “Early career awards like The Hartwell are hugely important to junior faculty members like myself since they provide research support to obtain the preliminary data needed to secure sustained funding through the National Institutes of Health.”


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Allow Good Northwestern

Allow Good Northwestern, a new student-run education program led by four Northwestern students, won a grant of $10,000 to continue its work on youth philanthropy. The program began as a capstone project for the Civic Engagement Certificate Program at the School of Education and Social Policy.

Recently the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at Brandeis University awarded its top Generous U grant to Allow Good Northwestern, composed of SESP students Fannie Koltun, Matt Herndon and Imani Wilson and Communication student Rachel Sepulveda. The Northwestern group, a partnership with the Evanston nonprofit Allowance for Good, applied for the grant in collaboration with a similar program at the University of Chicago.

Allow Good goals
“Our mission is to educate high school students in the Evanston area on issues concerning philanthropy, social justice and community development in order to ultimately empower these youth to be change makers in their communities,” says Koltun, a sophomore studying human development and psychological services. With the support of Northwestern undergraduates, high school students work towards carefully researching how they will gift a local nonprofit with a $1,000 grant.

The Northwestern group, as a chapter of Evanston’s Allowance for Good nonprofit, plans to provide weekly courses to high school students that emphasize methods for responsible giving. “We feel this experiential learning component encourages students to thoroughly conduct nonprofit research and engage more in philanthropy lessons,” says Koltun.

Allow Good Northwestern blossomed from a capstone project in the SESP Civic Engagement Certificate Program into a campus organization that fosters lasting connections between Northwestern and local high schools. Now the volunteer-based group is seeking interested Northwestern undergraduate students for both executive board member and teacher positions.

Students in Allow Good Northwestern want to disprove the assumptions that today’s youth are self-absorbed and that philanthropy is only for rich people. “Allowance For Good strongly believes that everyone can be a philanthropist,” says Koltun. “Philanthropic giving thus becomes a way for youth to become engaged with their communities by learning about local social issues, local nonprofits and ways of evaluating organizations.

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Low-income families of children with food allergies spend 2.5 times more on emergency department and hospitalization costs nationally, according to new Northwestern Medicine research.

 

The dependence on emergency care means children with food allergies from low-income families may not be able to afford foods free of their food allergen, obtain epinephrine or see an allergist who would counsel them on prevention and management of their food allergies.

 

“This shows disparities exist in care for low-income children with food allergy,” said lead investigator Dr. Ruchi Gupta. “The first line management for food allergy is prevention, but costs for special foods and epinephrine auto injectors can be a barrier for many families. Some patients may not have access to allergen-free foods and cannot afford to fill their prescription.”


Gupta is an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and an attending physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.


Low-income families may be unfamiliar with programs that can help them receive epinephrine at low costs.

The paper was published in Pediatrics April 27.


“We are worried these children are not getting access to specialty care to provide detailed education and confirmation of their allergies,” Gupta said. “This leads to more potential life-threatening allergic reactions that lead to more emergency room visits.”


Lower-income families also tend to incur fewer costs for specialty care and spend less on out-of-pocket medication costs.


Researchers analyzed data from a national survey of 1,643 caregivers of food-allergic children and found that children from low socioeconomic backgrounds had lower odds of being diagnosed by a physician.


“The specialists are the ones who provide a lot of education and guidance for families with food allergy, and these families are missing out on that,” said first author Lucy Bilaver.


Bilaver was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Healthcare Studies at Feinberg when she worked on the study and now is an assistant professor of nursing and health studies at Northern Illinois University.


The lowest income families were paying $1,021 per year for emergency and hospitalization costs compared to $416 per year for the highest income group.


Researchers also point out families with lower socioeconomic status often lack the financial means and access to allergen-free foods to prevent allergic reactions before they start. They suggest pediatricians work with families to create an action plan detailing how to recognize allergic reactions, including when and how to give epinephrine. Additionally, more needs to be done to ensure families can access safe foods.


The study was supported by Food Allergy Research & Education.


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Arch_FVM0995.jpgNorthwestern University was recognized as a champion in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) College and University Green Power Challenge. The award recognizes Northwestern as well as the Big Ten Conference for having six participating schools who collectively used the most green power among all conferences.

 

Northwestern voluntarily purchases more than 122 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of green power, representing 50 percent of the school’s annual electricity usage -- equivalent to the electricity use of nearly 11,200 average American homes annually.


The University generates some of its own green power from a solar photovoltaic array on the roof of the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. The 16.8-kilowatt panel display has the potential to generate as much as 20,000 kWh of electricity per year. The amount generated on campus is expected to increase every year as new solar arrays are installed on campus.


Northwestern also works to reduce the environmental impact of energy consumption on campus through a partnership with ENERGY STAR®, an EPA program that helps businesses and individuals save money and protect the climate through superior energy efficiency. The University uses the ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager tool to track energy use in buildings and identify opportunities to improve efficiency.


In addition, when improving facilities or planning for new construction, energy efficiency and sustainability are key considerations. Since 2010, Northwestern’s efforts have resulted in an impressive savings of 146,288,182 kBtu, resulting in 11 national awards.

 

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A stunning explosion of zinc fireworks occurs when a human egg is activated by a sperm enzyme, and the size of these “sparks” is a direct measure of the quality of the egg and its ability to develop into an embryo, according to new research from Northwestern Medicine.

 

The discovery has potential to help doctors choose the best eggs to transfer during in vitro fertilization (IVF), the scientists said.

This is the first time the zinc sparks have been documented in a human egg.


“This means if you can look at the zinc spark at the time of fertilization, you will know immediately which eggs are the good ones to transfer in in vitro fertilization (IVF),” said Teresa Woodruff, one of the study’s two senior authors and an expert in ovarian biology at Northwestern. “It’s a way of sorting egg quality in a way we’ve never been able to assess before.”


Woodruff is the Thomas J. Watkins Memorial Professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and director of Northwestern’s Center for Reproductive Science.


Scientists activated the egg by injecting a sperm enzyme into the egg that triggers calcium to increase within the egg and zinc to be released from the egg. (The eggs in the study were not fertilized with actual sperm because that is not permitted in human research under federal law.)


“It was remarkable,” Woodruff said. “We discovered the zinc spark just five years ago in the mouse, and to see the zinc radiate out in a burst from each human egg was breathtaking.


“All of biology starts at the time of fertilization, yet we know next to nothing about the events that occur in the human. This discovery required a unique partnership between biologists and chemists and non-federal dollars to support the research,” she said.


The study was published April 26 in Scientific Reports.


As the zinc is released from the egg, it binds to small molecule probes, which emit light in fluorescence microscopy experiments. Thus the rapid zinc release can be followed as a flash of light that appears as a spark.


“These fluorescence microscopy studies establish that the zinc spark occurs in human egg biology, and that can be observed outside of the cell,” said Tom O’Halloran, a co-senior author.  O’Halloran is the Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor in Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and director of Northwestern’s Chemistry of Life Processes Institute.


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