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Research Roundup


Microbiologist Jingru Sun checks on a sample in her research lab on the WSU Health Sciences Spokane campus.

By Judith Van Dongen

Jingru SunNew $1.9M NIH Grant to Study Nervous, Immune System Link

The key to finding a cure for autoimmune diseases may just lie in a tiny, transparent roundworm that lives in the soil, according to Jingru Sun (left), an assistant professor in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

Sun uses Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) as a model animal for studying the interactions between the nervous system and the innate immune system, the body’s native defenses against infection. The strength of C. elegans is in its simplicity—its nervous system has only 302 well-identified neurons, whereas human brains have more than 86 billion neurons.

Supported by a new five-year, $1.9 million grant funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Sun and her research team are working to better understand how neurons and immune cells communicate with each other in response to pathogen infection. Their research in C. elegans has already identified specific proteins and neurons that work together to suppress immunity during an infection. Though more work is needed to identify additional neurons involved in this process and delve into other unanswered questions, their findings have brought scientists one step closer to understanding the mechanisms that keep the immune system in balance.

“Excessive immune responses have been linked to human health conditions such as Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease,” Sun said. “If we can identify the cellular and molecular pathways involved in neural regulation of immunity, this could one day be used as the basis for developing a drug to target those pathways so we can cure or better treat those diseases.”

Smart Home Research to Help Older Adults Manage HealthShelly Fritz

With funding from a $1.77 million NIH grant provided through the National Institute of Nursing Research, a new, multidisciplinary WSU project will help older adults with chronic conditions age in place by combining smart home technology with a nurse’s clinical insight. Assistant Professor of Nursing Roschelle Fritz (right) ‘15 has joined forces with smart home technology expert Diane Cook and clinical psychologist Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe to design and test their “clinician-in-the-loop” smart home concept.

The five-year project will use smart watches and sensors placed in the homes of 30 older adults with two or more chronic conditions at Touchmark on South Hill, a retirement community in Spokane. Throughout a one-year period, the technology will detect each individual’s motion and behavior patterns while Fritz monitors their health, both remotely using telehealth and through in-home visits.

Sensor data captured during adverse health events—such as fall injuries or low blood sugar—will be fed into intelligent software, which would learn to recognize and predict changes in an individual’s health status and alert a family member or health care provider.

For example, absence of motion at a time when a person is normally up and about could be an indication that the person has fallen, while an increase in nightly bathroom visits could point to a urinary tract infection.

“There aren’t enough nurses to care for our growing population of older adults,” said Fritz. “The new model we’re developing could extend nurses’ reach, help prolong older adults’ independence, improve quality of life, and reduce caregiver burden.”

Kimberlly McKeirnanPilot Study Supports Idaho Rule Change on Immunization

Idaho residents may get their next flu shot from a pharmacy technician, thanks to a rule change that took effect in March. The change, which made Idaho the first U.S. state to allow pharmacy technicians to administer immunizations, was supported by a pilot study conducted by WSU in collaboration with Albertson’s Companies.

“I’m excited about the potential positive public health impact this has,” said Clinical Assistant Professor Kimberly McKeirnan (left), who led the College of Pharmacy team that took on the project. “We’ve seen diseases like whooping cough and measles make a comeback because people aren’t getting immunized.” She said the change improves patient access to immunizations, empowers good pharmacy technicians to do more, and helps free up pharmacists’ time.

With special permission from the Idaho State Board of Pharmacy, the WSU team developed a four-hour immunization training course, got it accredited, and used it to train 25 Albertson’s and Safeway pharmacy technicians from northern and southern Idaho in December 2016. Technicians completed a post-training survey and tracked the number of immunizations they provided from training completion through May 2017, which added up to 953 shots.

McKeirnan said the pilot study results showed that pharmacy technicians were competent and comfortable providing immunizations after completing the training.

The team has now trained more than 100 Idaho pharmacy technicians and will be rolling out a train-the-trainer program to expand their reach. They expect to see other states follow suit and will be at the ready when that happens.

Research Ensures Safety of Long-Haul Pilots, Flying PublicGreg Belenky

The long-time work of a WSU scientist is helping to keep the skies safe for travelers to faraway destinations and the multi-pilot crews that fly them there.

For the past ten years, Gregory Belenky (right)—a research professor in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine—has studied the effects of ultra-long range flights on the sleep and performance of pilots flying for United Airlines and the former Continental Airlines. He was part of a group of scientists that helped the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) draft a new rule for pilot duty and rest regulations that addressed these 16-plus-hour flights, which he said weren’t covered by FAA regulations at the time.

The rule, which was finalized in 2012, puts the burden on airlines to prove that ultra-long range flight routes are at least as safe as standard flight operations.

To help United Airlines gain preliminary FAA approval to test new ultra-long range routes, Belenky used a mathematical model to predict pilots’ performance throughout the proposed flight route and comparable long-range (8- to 16-hour) flight routes, based on their sleep-wake history. Subsequently, he and his research team provided pilots with tools to measure in-flight sleep and performance and record fatigue and sleepiness levels during the ultra-long and long-range flight routes. Comparing the results, they found that pilots got more sleep during ultra-long range flights while maintaining an equivalent level of performance.

Belenky estimates that they have collected data from more than 250 pilots so far. Ultra-long range routes studied include those from San Francisco to Sydney and Melbourne; Newark to Hong Kong; and the Island Hopper route from Honolulu to Guam. They are currently studying a new proposed route from Newark to Singapore.

Jason WuStudy Finds Mechanism Behind Spread of Prostate Cancer

A discovery made by Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Jason Wu (left) could be the key to expanding treatment options for late-stage prostate cancer, the third leading cause of cancer death in U.S. men.

Working with scientists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and elsewhere, Wu found that an enzyme known as monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) helps prostate cancer cells metastasize, or spread, to bone. In their paper published in the journal Cancer Cell earlier this year, they identified a network of proteins activated by MAOA that interact with bone cells in a way that creates a favorable environment for tumor growth. What’s more, their findings suggest that clorgyline, a chemical compound that inhibits MAOA, can be used to reduce the spread of prostate cancer cells. Drugs similar to clorgyline are commonly used as antidepressants.

Using several human prostate cancer cell lines in mice, the researchers found that mice showed increased prostate cancer metastasis when they increased the expression of MAOA in the cancer cells. On the other hand, when they used clorgyline to suppress the activity of the MAOA enzyme, mice had fewer bone metastases and lived longer.

“Our findings provide a rationale to pursue the new use of MAOA inhibitor drugs to benefit late-stage prostate cancer patients with signs and symptoms of metastasis,” said Wu.

The next step, he said, would be to investigate whether the findings from their study also hold up in other types of cancers. He said a clinical study to test the use of MAOA inhibitors in prostate cancer patients is already underway.