News and Analysis



GW researchers earned a $2.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to study the impact of ancient viruses in certain cancers for patients with HIV, according to a University release.

Douglas Nixon, the chair of the microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine department in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, will work with Eduardo Sotomayor, the director of the GW Cancer Center to study how the ancient Human Endogenous Retroviruses, or fossil viruses that have become part of the human genome over millions of years, factors into certain cancers for HIV patients, as well as why certain cancers are more prevalent in HIV patients than in patients without HIV.

The GW Cancer Center also provided seed funding for the research, according to the release.

Nixon said in the release that he is not primarily a cancer researcher, but that HIV and AIDS research can lead to understanding about biology and cancer mechanisms.

“I believe this project shows the importance of seed funding, but also of cross-disciplinary work – something GW has made a priority, allowing people from different fields to come together and talk to each other in ways many large institutions do not,” Nixon said in the release. “I am delighted to be joining the cancer research community and to work with the GW Cancer Center.”

Nixon and his team of researchers have looked extensively at these ancient viruses over the past decade, creating a program called “Telescope” that can determine where the ancient viruses exist in HIV patients and which ones are expressed in cancer patients with and without HIV, according to the release. Nixon and his team believe that HIV may reactivate some of these ancient viruses as well as the anti-virus immunity, which can be expressed in some cancers.

Sotomayor said in the release that he thinks the research will have significant implications.

“We believe this research will have major implications for cancer research, and in the future, cancer patients,” Dr. Sotomayor said.

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The D.C.-area Innovation Corps program was awarded $3.45 million over the next five years by the National Science Foundation to renew the program, according to a University release.

The I-Corps program brings together four D.C.-area universities – GW, Virginia Tech, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland at College Park – to train students and faculty in entrepreneurship. UMD is the lead institution for the region.

These regional sites, or “nodes,” work to help researchers “transition fundamental science and engineering discoveries to the marketplace,” by providing the appropriate research infrastructure and training, according to the release.

Leo Chalupa, the vice president for research, said in the release that GW’s commitment to innovation and technology commercialization made it a natural fit for this I-Corps site.

In recent years, officials have touted I-Corps as a way for researchers to turn their work into marketable goods or companies.

“The renewal of this NSF grant demonstrates the measurable and continuing success of the DC I-Corps program,” Chalupa said in the release.

The regional sites support other I-Corps sites nationwide as well as offer seven-week I-Corps curriculum to their teams. More than 3,000 people have participated in the D.C. I-Corps program at the university level, with more than 5,500 participants total, according to the release.

Six teams from GW have also gone to national I-Corps, out of 1,031 total teams trained and 45 teams from the D.C. area.

Jim Chung, the associate vice president for innovation and entrepreneurship and a co-principal investigator for the D.C. I-Corps, said in the release that 33 students, faculty and postdoctoral fellows from GW have received training for the program so far.

“The DC I-Corps Node has been critical for building the infrastructure and resources for supporting innovation and entrepreneurship at GW,” Chung said in the release.

Chung said in the release that the D.C. I-Corps plans to expand implementation of a short course format to “different diverse and geographically located groups,” over the next five years.

The D.C. I-Corps also plans to expand their outreach over the next five years by launching a veterans-only cohort and focusing on researchers who have not previously received funding but are eligible for $50,000 in funding from the program by taking the short course, according to the release.

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Researchers at GW are partnering with four other groups to develop new solar cells with plans to create the world’s most efficient solar panel, according to a University release.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a government agency within the U.S. Department of Energy that funds research and development for advanced energy technologies, awarded the $900,000 grant to GW. Research scientist Matthew Lumb in the School of Engineering and Applied Science will lead the research to produce a new concept in solar panel design.

“This is an exciting opportunity for GW to partner with a leading innovator in solar energy,” Lumb said in the release.

GW researchers will partner with Semprius, a startup in North Carolina, the Naval Research Laboratory, tool supplier Veeco and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a total budget of $3.6 million, according to the release.

Lumb said in the release that the most common types of solar panels, the grid-like rectangles on the roofs of houses, use flat-plate photovoltaics technology to convert sunlight into energy.

Semprius, one of the research partners, created a different option that uses more sophisticated materials to increase efficiency. The company created concentrator photovoltaic panels that use micro-scale solar cells, which is both more cost effective and more efficient.

Lumb said in the release that he’s teaming up with Semprius to develop a design that is both cost effective and can be used across different locations.

Lumb and Semprius have been working on a six-junction solar cell that will improve energy conversion efficiency. He said in the release that these cells are made from high-quality crystals that interact with light and split the solar spectrum six ways to generate electrons that power solar panels.

The current record for efficiency in a concentrator cell, measured under direct sunlight, is 46 percent. Lumb’s team is aiming for 50 percent efficiency with their concentrator cells.

Lumb said in the release that his research will extend the reach of solar energy technology to previously uneconomical locations and set a new precedent in solar panel performance.

This research project is one of 11 solar technology innovations that ARPA-E is funding through a $24 million program called MOSAIC.

“The MOSAIC program places an emphasis on solutions that combine cutting-edge scientific research, pushing the boundaries of what is possible, but which maintain a clear path to low-cost, manufacturable processes and designs,” Lumb said in the release. “These factors create the potential for a disruptive impact on commercial photovoltaics of the future.”

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The School of Medicine and Health Sciences has created a new Center for Healthcare Innovation and Policy Research, according to a press release.

The new center “focuses on multi-disciplinary, collaborative scholarship on enhancing value in health care delivery” and will absorb the Office of Clinical Practice Innovation and Urgent Matters, “expanding its reach across GW,” according to the release.

Jesse Pines, the new center’s director and a professor of emergency medicine and health policy and management, said in the release that a major focus of the center will be “the rigorous study of the most innovative practices in medical care with the goal of promoting evidence-based public policy.”

“We hope to contribute to effective policymaking and improve healthcare in a time of major delivery system and payment changes,” Pines said in the release.

The center’s core faculty includes Pines; Steven Farmer, who will act as the center’s associate director and is also an associate professor of medicine, Andrew Meltzer, an associate professor of emergency medicine, Barbara Gage, an associate professor of clinical research and leadership and Trudy Mallinson, also an associate professor of clinical research and leadership, according to the release.

The center will create partnerships both within GW and across the nation, which will be formally recognized through a fellows and scholars program, according to the release.

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The GW Cancer Center received a $1 million grant for a training program to promote health equity and improve communications for patients and providers, according to a release.

The Pfizer Foundation, a charitable organization that provides funds and resources to improve global health strategies, awarded the grant to the center to advance cancer care by improving communication, patient health literacy and cultural sensitivity between patients and health care providers.

Mandi Pratt-Chapman, the lead researcher and associate center director for patient-centered initiatives and health equity at the GW Cancer Center, said in the release that health care professionals are pressed for time and patients are often overwhelmed by information.

“We will develop tools to help patients identify their priorities for care and clarify when information is confusing,” Pratt-Chapman said. “We will also train patient navigators and clinicians on communication techniques to support patient engagement and understanding of information across diverse and intersecting backgrounds.”

This grant will continue efforts to help patients make informed choices about their health care through the GW Cancer Center’s Prepared Patient Program.

The program will train patients to advocate for themselves, and health care providers will learn culturally sensitive practices, according to the release.

This research will also examine the ways gender, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity and income impact the patient and provider relationship. Researchers hope to determine if providers who received this training will be more committed to providing culturally sensitive care, the release states.

“Productive patient-provider interactions are essential to ensuring that all individuals living with cancer are able to access quality care,” Caroline Roan, the president of the Pfizer Foundation, said in the release. “We are pleased to be working with the GW Cancer Center on this initiative to improve access to patient-centered, equitable oncology care for women.”

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GW was selected to lead 18 institutions with a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to use immunotherapy advances to develop a cure for HIV, according to a University release.

The research will be funded with a $28 million grant. Researchers said in the release that the cell therapy approach will focus on strengthening immune systems to eliminate the virus.

“We are happy and humbled to have been selected as one of the recipients of this important award,” Douglas Nixon, lead researcher on the grant and chair of the department of microbiology, immunology, and tropical medicine in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said in the release. “We have gathered together a diverse group of researchers, who are all driven by the belief that a cure will depend on enhancing natural anti-HIV immunity, and that finding a cure must be accomplished in a fully participatory stakeholder fashion.”

The project is titled “Bench to Bed Enhanced Lymphocyte Infusions to Engineer Viral Eradication.” The goal of the research is to enhance the killing ability of HIV-specific killer T-cells.

BELIEVE will partner with Altor Bioscience Corporation, which has created a drug that can enhance the immune system’s ability to kill HIV cells. Researchers will also partner with Torque, a biomedical engineering company with the technology to deliver drugs to the infected cells that the researchers will use to clear the HIV viral reservoir.

The Martin Delaney Collaboratory program, which gave the grant, creates public-private partnerships for HIV/AIDS research. Current HIV strategies are limited because they cannot completely clear infected cells, according to the release.

“We know that through this strategic collaboration with our research partners and a commitment to finding a cure, we will move closer to reaching our goal of eradicating HIV/AIDS,” Nixon said in the release.

Nixon, along with Catherine Bollard, the chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Children’s National Health System and professor of pediatrics and microbiology, immunology, and tropical medicine, Alan Greenberg, the director of the District of Columbia Center for AIDS Research and chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Milken Institute School of Public Health and Brad Jones, an assistant professor of microbiology, immunology, and tropical medicine, will serve on the BELIEVE executive committee.

GW will work alongside 18 other institutions on the research, both nationally and internationally. Among the other institutions involved in the collaboration are NIH, Harvard University, the University of Toronto, the University of São Paulo, Brazil and Georgetown University.

The studies will be conducted with local clinics associated with these institutions in Canada, Brazil, Mexico and the U.S.

“Long before we begin clinical trials, we will create local community advisory boards in each participating area so there is ownership of the research, and continued communication, engagement, and understanding of what’s going on, especially for the large community of people living with HIV in D.C.,” Martha Sichone Cameron, the director of prevention at the Women’s Collective and member of the Community Advisory Board of the District of Columbia Center for AIDS Research, said in the release.

Jones, a member of the executive committee, said in the release that he created the acronym for the project and was inspired by a friend of his who is living with HIV.

“This individual had followed HIV research quite closely, but at that moment told me that he no longer believed that HIV could be cured,” Jones said in the release. “We feel that recent advances in immunotherapy, such as those that have transformed the treatment of cancer, provide a strong basis for hope that curing HIV is possible.” 

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GW researchers developed a model that will help researchers, policymakers, patients and providers improve acute care delivery, according to a release last week.

Researchers in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences created a model for acute, unscheduled care for emergency rooms, doctors’ offices, urgent care centers and telemedicine. The study was published in Annals of Emergency Medicine journal and was funded through the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the release.

“Our ultimate goal was to create a model about how and why people get sick and injured in this country, how they seek care, and the outcomes of that care including recovery, death, and importantly, costs,” Jesse Pines, lead author of the study and director of the Center for Healthcare Innovation and Policy Research, said in the release. “Our model includes many underappreciated factors, including the social and individual determinants of acute care such as violence, poverty, and public health, along with factors that affect care-seeking decisions, and care quality within specific settings.”

Using the model, healthcare providers can solve problems like long waiting times, high costs, poor communication between providers and poor care coordination after patients’ illnesses, according to the release.

Gaetano Lotrecchiano, a co-leader on the project and an assistant professor of clinical research and leadership at SMHS, said in the release that the researchers brought together providers, payers, policymakers and patients to make recommendations.

“The process of creating this model was truly multi-disciplinary and used both qualitative and quantitative means to understand the situation better,” Lotrecchiano said. “Including these different voices was vital in ensuring that the model reflected everyone’s experience with illness and injury, not just one group. It will make the model more useful for making policy.”

When providers use the suggested model, they should be able to eventually reduce healthcare costs, Mark Zocchisenior, co-author and research associate of CHIPR, said in the release.

“By describing how people get sick and injured in a simple way, this model serves as a jumping off point for comprehensive approaches to improving acute care delivery and outcomes, and hopefully in the end reducing costs of care,” Zocchisenior said.

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Eight faculty and staff members from the School of Medicine and Health Sciences will travel to Thailand for a science and research summit this month, according to a University release.

The International Medicine Programs are co-sponsoring a three-day scientific summit with Kohn Kaen University in Thailand that will begin June 27. The summit will connect researchers and encourage faculty members at both universities to work together on immunology, tropical medicine and cures for cancer and HIV. The summit will also include training sessions on regulated research practices.

Faculty at GW and Khon Kaen University have worked together in the past, researching a foodborne liver fluke and its relationship to cancer, Huda Ayas, the associate dean for international medicine and executive director of the Office of International Medicine Programs, said in the release. She said this conference is a chance to further build those relationships.

“Our latest collaboration, the scientific summit, will further benefit faculty and students at GW and Khon Kaen University,” Ayas said.

The SMHS faculty members attending the summit share research interests with researchers at Khon Kaen University, and some faculty have already worked with their counterparts in Thailand, she added.

“We recognize that international research partnerships take time, but are confident that this summit will be a springboard for research collaborations between GW and KKU faculty and a model for future international scientific summits in other countries,” Ayas said.

Ayas, Jeffrey Bethony, a professor of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine at SMHS, and Pewpan Maleewong, a professor of parasitology and the associate dean for research affairs at Kohn Kaen University organized the summit.

David Diemert, an associate professor of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine who will be attending the conference, said in an email that he hopes to establish relationships with colleagues in Thailand.

“KKU investigators are world-renowned for their research on neglected tropical diseases, my area of interest,” Diemert said. “I’m excited to hear more about their latest research and potentially enter into collaborations.”

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A researcher from GW found in a study published this week that students who enroll in certificate, associate or bachelor’s degree programs at for-profit institutions generally experience a decline in earnings and greater debt five or six years after attendance, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Stephanie Riegg Cellini, a professor of public policy and public administration and economics, and Nicholas Turner, an employee of the Office of Tax Analysis at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, collected information from the U.S. Department of Education and the Internal Revenue Service on 1.4 million students who enrolled at for-profit institutions between 2006 and 2008, according to the article. They found that these students experienced lower earnings relative to their own earnings before enrolling.

“The most compelling result in our study is that, on average, students in certificate programs in for-profit institutions have lower earnings than demographically similar students in public community colleges, who pay a lot less for their education,” Cellini said in an email. “On average, for-profit students experienced declines in earnings after attendance while public sector students experienced earnings gains.”

Cellini added that she became interested in studying the for-profit college sector in graduate school when she saw late-night commercials that promised graduates flexible scheduling and high earnings.

“No one was studying these schools at the time, and I wondered if their claims could be true,” she said in an email. “Back then, there were very little data on these institutions, so it is really exciting to finally be able to look at student outcomes in this sector with a large, representative data set.”

Cellini said they found their results by calculating the difference between students’ annual earnings five to six years before enrollment and their earnings five to six years after attendance. She said this approach helped control some of the students’ unobservable characteristics, like their natural abilities.

“We then compared this after-before difference for students in for-profit certificate programs to the difference for similar public sector students to net out the effects of the Great Recession and other common experiences of students in the years we study,” Cellini said in the email.

The effects of the economic downturn in 2008, which occurred around the same time the study was conducted, is not the only potential issue the researchers point out: Students at for-profit colleges often leave the programs before they complete their degrees, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Cellini said that the results of her research are not very “encouraging” for the for-profit sector and may prompt changes within those institutions.

“We need to take a careful look at the schools in the sector and consider additional regulation for poor-performing institutions,” Cellini said in an email. “We also need to make sure students have adequate information about their future earnings and the debt they may incur if they attend one of these institutions.”

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Researchers from GW, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Georgia found in a new study that conspiracy theories surrounding Zika virus vaccines published on social media can put vulnerable people at risk of not following medical advice, according to Science Daily.

The researchers, including David Broniatowski, a professor of engineering management and systems engineering at GW, used real-time social media monitoring to find conversations about Zika virus vaccines and identify the conspiracy theories being discussed.

“Even though the science is relatively clear, we found many conspiracy theories that could be affecting people’s health-related decisions, such as whether to vaccinate,” Broniatowski told Science Daily. “Unfortunately, the people most affected are from the most vulnerable communities, with little access to the facts.”

The researchers added that health authorities could use this technique to identify and respond to conspiracy theories that could potentially be harmful to public health, cutting the time it normally takes to respond and helping to debunk these conspiracy theories quickly.

“Shortly after Zika rose to prominence, we were able to track these conversations very quickly using our social media monitoring method,” said Broniatowski, the GW professor, according to Science Daily. “This is a promising approach to the fast response to disease, and could help counteract the negative impact of these conspiracy theories in future.”

The conspiracy theories studied included a claim that the Zika virus vaccine caused microcephaly – a condition in which babies are born with small heads and brains which has been linked the the Zika virus – and that pharmaceutical companies were blaming the Zika virus to profit off the vaccines.

“Once people have made up their minds about something it’s hard for them to change their opinions,” Mark Dredze, a professor from Johns Hopkins University and the lead author of the study, told Science Daily. “I’d find it surprising if this sort of story really had no impact whatsoever, and I can’t imagine it would make people more likely to pursue a healthy response.”

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