Ohio State University: President’s Research Excellence Accelerator Grants fund innovative projects

Nearly $750,000 has been awarded to 15 interdisciplinary Ohio State research teams in the second year of the President’s Research Excellence (PRE) Accelerator Grant program. Administered by the Office of Knowledge Enterprise, each grant of up to $50,000 is designated for small teams to pursue innovative, high-risk, high-reward research.

“When we bring together different expertise and different points of view, we have the potential to solve some of society’s biggest problems,” said Dorota Grejner-Brzezinska, vice president for knowledge enterprise at Ohio State. “This funding provides a vital seed for Ohio State researchers to explore their ideas to solve complex problems and a mechanism to drive convergent research across the university.”

Since the inception of the PRE program in 2021, Ohio State has invested more than $3 million in seed support for cross- and interdisciplinary research that have the potential to attract external funding.

March 2022 Accelerator Grant recipients include a proposal titled “A Feasibility Pilot Study to Reduce the Intergenerational Transmission of Obesity to Children of Parents Undergoing Bariatric Surgery.”

Research has found that children of parents with severe obesity who have bariatric surgery are at high risk of developing obesity and disordered eating behaviors, said principal investigator (PI) Keeley Pratt, a professor with the College of Education and Human Ecology.

Pratt and a team that includes co-investigators Alicia Bunger, College of Social Work, and Chris Taylor and Bradley Needleman, College of Medicine, received a $50,000 Accelerator Grant. Their project will compare the early effects of two interventions (parent-only vs. parent and child), integrated into routine preoperative care for parents and their children.

“I have a pretty strong background in family-based pediatric weight management, and in that type of a setting, because weight status and behavior are so congruent between parents and children, when children have obesity and are referred to pediatric weight management, often their parents have obesity, too,” Pratt said. “I kind of flipped the lens in looking at adult weight management and bariatric surgery.”

The majority of patients who make lifestyle changes to address obesity through the bariatric surgery process are women who are of child-bearing or parental age, Pratt said.

“There are a bunch of children who are witnessing the effects of bariatric surgery on parents, and it provides this opportunity to potentially either intervene on children’s health or even to prevent obesity for those children,” Pratt said. “It’s kind of this untapped area where there’s a really promising clinical impact of the work. This project is developing the feasibility of what would it be like to intervene in that setting in the least invasive way possible.”

For a proposal titled “Artificial Intelligence-Driven Development of Novel Chemical Tools for Controlling Mosquito Disease Vectors,” PI Peter Piermarini of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) is working with co-investigators Liva Rakotondraibe and Xiaolin Cheng with the College of Pharmacy. The research team will use their $50,000 grant to explore an innovativePeter Piermarini
Peter Piermarini
artificial intelligence (AI) approach to accelerate development of novel, plant-derived chemical tools for controlling mosquito-transmitted diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and Zika virus, Piermarini said.

“We discovered a compound – cinnamodial (CDIAL) – that a plant produces that’s endemic to Madagascar. It’s a plant that’s used in traditional medicines, and we identified a molecule within that plant that is toxic to mosquitoes,” he said. “What’s interesting about the molecule is that it kills mosquitoes that have been become resistant to conventional insecticides that are used for mosquito control. Resistance is an emerging problem because it’s reducing the number of chemical tools that are available to control mosquitos effectively.”

The researchers plan to use AI to identify which part of the CDIAL compound can be used as a natural insecticide, Piermarini said.

“We’re going to generate a few dozen derivatives of this molecule and test them against mosquitoes. And then we’re going to use artificial intelligence to try to help tease out which parts of the molecule are promoting its activity against mosquitoes, and also tell us which parts may be weak in its activity against mosquitoes,” he said. “Through those analyses, we’re hoping to identify modifications we can make to CDIAL to make it a much more effective insecticide for killing mosquitoes.”

For a proposal titled “What Lies Beneath: Using Microsporidian Parasites to Control Mosquito Breeding in Stormwater Catch Basins,” CFAES researchers Sarah Short and Ryan Winston are collaborating with Risa Pesapane with the College of Veterinary Medicine. The research team is testing whether microsporidian parasites could be used for effective mosquito control in stormwater catch basins, which are prime breeding sites in cities around the world, said Short, the project’s PI.

“Microsporidian parasites are natural parasites of many animals, and there are some that are highly specific to certain species of mosquitoes. This is an area that is very understudied but that may hold promise for novel control of mosquito populations,” Short said.

While the research team’s work is currently limited to laboratory experiments and field tests, the results could eventually have a global impact, Short said.

“There are very few researchers actively investigating microsporidian parasites of mosquitoes, so it’s also an opportunity for us to put Ohio State in a novel place as a research institution,” she said.

Other March 2022 Accelerator Grant recipients include:

“Targeting Ethylene Signaling to Condition Crop Resistance to Geminiviruses” – The project will identify strategies to build plants that are resistant to geminiviruses and mitigate crop losses that exacerbate global food insecurity. PI: David Bisaro, College of Arts and Sciences.

“Determining Primary Splicing Changes in Spinal Muscular Atrophy” – The project will identify genes that lead to spinal muscular atrophy. PI: Arthur Burghes, College of Medicine.

“Development of Nanobody-Based Protein Degraders Targeting Misfolded Proteins in Neurodegenerative Diseases” – The project will identify new therapeutic treatments for neurological disorders. PI: Nam Chu, College of Medicine.

“Cis-inhibition of Notch Pathway Activity in Development and Disease” – The project will use developmental and cancer biology, biochemistry and engineering approaches to identify disease detection strategies. PI: Susan Cole, College of Arts and Sciences.

“Developing the ‘van der Waals’ Vacuum as a Host for Quantum Bits” – The project will explore a novel approach to protect electronic devices from radio frequency interference. PI: Jay Gupta, College of Arts and Sciences.

“Small Molecule Inhibitors for Directed Targeting of BET/Brd4 Extra-Terminal Domain as a Novel Cancer Therapeutic” – The project will develop small molecule inhibitors to target indicators associated with cancer. PI: Ross Larue, College of Medicine.

“Developing a Transformative Social-Emotional Learning Program for Adolescents” – The project will develop social-emotional learning intervention strategies for middle school students. PI: Tzu-Jung Lin, College of Education and Human Ecology.

“Discovery of Novel Therapeutic Targets to Improve Health Span after Spinal Cord Injury” – The project will address the liver’s responses that impair recovery from spinal cord injuries. PI: Dana McTigue, College of Medicine.

“Engineering Durable Disease Resistance in Plants by Exploiting a Novel Host Protein” – The project involves an innovative strategy that leverages a host protein to enhance staple crops’ immunity to fungal/bacterial pathogens without the application of chemicals. PI: Guo-Liang Wang, College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“Leveraging Artificial Intelligence to Accelerate Life-Saving 911 Care” – The project aims to transform the process for 911 emergency calls, applying an artificial intelligence system to accelerate the identification of life-threatening conditions and set the stage for a prototype real-time decision support system. PI: Henry Wang, College of Medicine.

“Towards a Conversational Assistant for Patient Prep” – In this project, the researchers aim to take initial steps toward developing an automated conversational assistant that can help patients properly prepare for procedures. PI: Michael White, College of Arts and Sciences.

“Fair Machine Learning Adaptable to Deployment Environments in Healthcare” – The project aims to develop a framework to further facilitate the use of machine learning in health care and improve health equity. PI: Xueru Zhang, College of Engineering.