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Lesser-known brain cells may be key to staying awake without cost to cognition, health

August 17, 2023

New animal research suggests that little-studied brain cells known as astrocytes are major players in controlling sleep need and may someday help humans go without sleep for longer without negative consequences such as mental fatigue and impaired physical health.

Published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the study found that activating these cells kept mice awake for hours when they would normally be resting, without making them any sleepier.
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Abortion facility access means long drives for 41.8% of women

August 2, 2023

Map showing locations of physical abortion clinicsm with 30-, 60-, 90-minute driving distance based on current and projected abortion restrictions. Image from WSU-led study in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology. One year after the Dobbs decision, 41.8% of U.S. women of reproductive age have to drive 30 minutes or more to reach an abortion care facility, according to a study of data as of June 2, 2023. Researchers predicted that number would rise to 53.5% if other state bills under consideration are passed. The study estimated longer drives as well, finding that 29.3% of women didn’t have access to a facility within a 60-minute drive and 23.6% lacked access even within a 90-minute drive. Those figures would jump to 45.6% and 43% respectively if new restrictions are passed.
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Astronaut who spent a year in space will keynote TwinFest 2023

July 19, 2023

Astronaut Scott Kelly in his NASA spacesuitAstronaut Scott Kelly spent 340 days aboard the International Space Station beginning in March of 2015 while his identical twin remained on Earth. That dynamic helped elucidate some of the molecular and physiological effects of significant stretches of time beyond the planet’s boundaries and helps illustrate the scientific value of state twin registries. Kelly is the featured speaker at this year’s Washington State University-sponsored TwinFest, which is set for July 22 in Everett. It’s the first TwinFest gathering in the Evergreen State since the Washington State Twin Registry moved from University of Washington to WSU in 2015.
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Sharp rise in severe, alcohol-related liver injury during pandemic

July 10, 2023

Hand of patient with needle attached is shown in a hospital bed.A boom in alcohol sales during the pandemic appears to have had dire consequences for some as hospital admissions for alcohol-related hepatitis, a life-threatening liver inflammation, increased dramatically, according to a study of national hospitalization data. Researchers found increasing cases of the alcohol-related liver illness from 2016 through 2020, but the rise was particularly pronounced the year COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. in 2020, which saw a 12.4% increase over 2019 levels. It was worse in younger patients, ages 18 to 44, a group that had a nearly 20% jump in hospital admissions for alcohol-related hepatitis.
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Alcohol harm reduction can also reduce other substance use

June 14, 2023

Doctor holding clipboard with paperwork talking to patient. nosing the disease in the paper with the medical report of the patient.Quitting alcohol or drugs was not a top priority for people experiencing homelessness in a harm reduction treatment study, yet participants still reduced their use of both. A different approach than traditional abstinence-based programs, harm reduction treatment for alcohol use disorder, also called HaRT-A, has patients set their own goals. In a study of 308 people experiencing homelessness, the participants receiving harm reduction treatment set goals of meeting basic needs and improving quality of life well above quitting alcohol and other substances. Yet harm reduction treatment still led to more reduced use compared to a control group who received regular services.
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Science-focused messaging could help reduce cannabis use during pregnancy

May 16, 2023

Image of pregnant belly with cannabis leaves against a black backgroundShort science-backed messages about the health risks of using cannabis while pregnant could be an effective way to discourage the dangerous trend. In a new study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, researchers at Washington State University found that conveying simple, scientific facts about how THC can harm a fetus was associated with reduced intentions to use cannabis while pregnant. This held true for messaging that was written to a group of women, aged 18–40, in either a narrative, story-based format or a non-narrative, factual-based one.
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Research Addresses Mental Health, Substance Use in Supportive Housing

May 9, 2023

An apartment buildingAs cities across the state and country are struggling to deal with a worsening homelessness crisis, a group of WSU scientists is helping to improve outcomes for people in permanent supportive housing. Working with housing providers in Spokane, Seattle, and Los Angeles, researchers in the Promoting Research Initiatives in Substance Use and Mental Health (PRISM) Collaborative are leading projects aimed at addressing homelessness.
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Study points to cause of safety concerns in widely used painkiller diclofenac

April 24, 2023

diclofenac word display on tablet over tableSafety concerns related to the widely used painkiller diclofenac may be tied to a little-studied drug-metabolizing enzyme whose expression can vary as much as 3,000 times from one individual to the next, according to new research. Findings from the study could be used to develop ways to identify individuals at risk of serious side effects from diclofenac and to determine safer dosing standards for specific populations, including women, young children and people of certain ethnicities.
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Cannabis exposures in suspected suicide attempts are on the rise

April 19, 2023

Cannabis leaf in waterSuspected suicidal cannabis exposures have increased 17% annually, over a period of 12 years, according to a Washington State University-led analysis of U.S. poison center data. The vast majority of the attempts, more than 92%, involved other substances in addition to cannabis, and the data cannot show a direct causal link between cannabis and suicide attempts. Still, the findings are cause for concern, the researchers said.
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Discovery could hold the key to healthy aging during global warming

April 4, 2023

Scanning electron microscopy images of C. elegans worms show young worms with smooth cuticles (skin) (left) and old worms that show more wrinkles (right). Researchers have long known that many animals live longer in colder climates than in warmer climates. New research in C. elegans nematode worms suggests that this phenomenon is tied to a protein found in the nervous system that controls the expression of collagens, the primary building block of skin, bone and connective tissue in many animals.
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Image of woman with her head in her hands, signifying pain and discomfort.E-health reduces patient pain, opioids in clinical study

April 3, 2023

An online “e-health” program helped more people with chronic pain reduce their opioid medications and pain intensity than a control group that had only regular treatment in a recent clinical study.
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Recovery road sign with arrow pointing left on blue sky background.Comparison with Canada highlights poor access to U.S. methadone treatment

March 15, 2023

People living in the United States must travel significantly farther to access methadone treatment for opioid addiction than Canadians, suggests a new study led by Washington State University researchers. The researchers’ analysis showed that the average driving distance to the closest methadone clinic accepting new patients was more than three times greater in the U.S. compared to Canada.
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Research Highlights

Making an Impact
WSU Helps State Pilot New Substance Use Treatment

Substance use research at Washington State University helped spur a recent change in Washington state policy to provide Medicaid coverage for contingency management, a behavioral treatment that uses gift cards and small prizes to help motivate people to quit using drugs.

WSU researchers, who have been conducting studies that show contingency management’s effectiveness for decades, have spent the past two years providing training and coaching to a small number of Washington state clinics implementing the intervention to treat stimulant drug addiction as part of a pilot project sponsored by the state Health Care Authority. Their work helped convince the state to include contingency management in its Section 1115 Medicaid waiver. With the recent approval of that waiver, Washington state is now the second state in the nation after California to provide Medicaid coverage for contingency management.
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Researcher on the Rise
Portrait photo of Christine MuheimQ&A with Christine Muheim

For postdoctoral research associate Christine Muheim, becoming a scientist wasn’t so much a predetermined path as it was an instinctive journey to follow her interests as they developed. This ultimately led her to the lab of WSU neuroscientist and College of Medicine faculty member Marcos Frank, where she has been working on basic science studies on the ties between sleep, learning, and plasticity since 2017.
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SP3NW to Open Wet Lab for Local Startups

Funded by a $65,000 grant from the Health Sciences and Services Authority (HSSA) of Spokane and matching funds from Washington State University, WSU’s business incubator SP3NW will be opening a 563-square-foot wet lab in the WSU Spokane Innovation Center building later this summer. The new laboratory will support life science startups working to discover new chemicals, biological materials, or drugs.

Available through a wet lab membership with SP3NW, the lab will provide the standard equipment needed in a biosafety level 1 setting, including incubators, microscopes, a wet bath, shaker plates, a filtered fume hood, and centrifuges.

Armstrong said the lab will help startups extend their financial runways by providing equipment and space that they would otherwise have to procure themselves using limited capital that could be used to support other aspects of the business. It will also provide economic benefits to Spokane by helping to retain promising startups in the area.

Interested startups may contact SP3NW at or through the website contact form.

Media Mentions

Substance use researcher Crystal Smith (College of Medicine) was featured in a CBS News article on the health impacts of cannabis use.

Research presented at an American Academy of Neurology (AAN) conference by medical student Adithya Vegaraju was featured on the AAN’s Brain and Life Podcast and several medical news outlets, including Physician’s Weekly and Consumer HealthDay. Vegaraju’s study—which he conducted under the mentorship of Solmaz Amiri (College of Medicine/IREACH)—looked at the mental health benefits of living near parks and water sources.

A project led by Dedra Buchwald (College of Medicine/IREACH) in partnership with researchers at the University of Miami and Brigham Young University – Hawai’i was the topic of articles that appeared in USA Today and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, as well as Fierce Biotech and other outlets. Known as Natives Engaged in Alzheimer’s Research (NEAR), the NIH-funded project battles disparities associated with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias in American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander peoples.

Marian Wilson (College of Nursing) was a guest on The Broken Brain, a podcast dealing with topics related to psychology and psychotherapy. She joined the podcast to discuss her research on chronic pain, cognitive behavioral pain management strategies, and the interaction that pain patients have with opiate medication and opioid dependency.

Research conducted by Liat Kriegel and Michael McDonell (College of Medicine) related to permanent supportive housing—a housing solution intended to reduce chronic homelessness—was mentioned in a KUOW radio article about a Seattle-based supportive housing facility.

Franck Carbonero (College of Medicine/Program in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology) was quoted in a MedicalNewsToday article on the potential benefits of daily grape consumption for increasing certain bacteria in the gut.

Yool Lee (College of Medicine) commented in a Drug Discovery News article about novel research that harnesses circadian rhythms—24-hour cycles that are a part of the body’s built-in clock—to maximize the effectiveness of vaccines and cancer treatments.

Florida-based TV news station WPTV quoted John White (College of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences) in an article describing a new study that suggests that taurine—a supplement found in energy drinks—may slow aging.

Eka Burduli (College of Nursing) was quoted in a Washington State Standard article about changes in state guidelines that are helping Washington state to move to a new model of care for newborns exposed to drugs or alcohol before birth.

Research led by Kris Kowdley (College of Medicine) that showed that alcohol-induced liver disease spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic was covered in the New York Post, Spokesman-Review, and TriCities-based NBC Right Now. An internationally recognized expert on liver disease, Kowdley also talked to ConsultantLive for an article about hepatitis C virus disease clearance.

Phil Lazarus (College of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences) was featured talking about his talked to the UK-based London Post for an article that compares the addictive qualities of cannabidiol (CBD) to those of tobacco.

Michaele Armstrong (SP3NW) was quoted in a Science Insider article highlighting a new National Science Foundation (NSF) grant program that will be awarding $160 million in grants this fall to revitalize underserved U.S. regions. SP3NW is part of a multi-institutional team that is among 34 semifinalists for the NSF’s first five Regional Innovation Engine (RIE) grants. The team was selected based on their proposal to build a smart climate economy in the Columbia River basin region.

Awards & Honors

Portrait photo of Amanda BoydPortrait image of Mary PaineTwo WSU Spokane researchers were recently elected as members of the Washington State Academy of Sciences, a not-for-profit organization of more than 300 elected members who are nationally recognized for their scientific and technical expertise. Amanda Boyd—an associate professor in the College of Medicine and co-director of the Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health (IREACH)—was elected in recognition for her contributions to the understanding of environmental health risk communication to Indigenous and rural populations and advancing diversity in clinical trials. Professor of pharmaceutical sciences Mary Paine is being recognized for her contributions to the field of drug metabolism and disposition that have shaped practices of currently used drug development processes. In particular, Paine’s work has helped advance scientists’ understanding and quantitative prediction of natural product-drug interactions and drug-drug interactions. Boyd and Paine were among 29 new inductees elected this year, six of whom are WSU faculty. The academy was created in 2005 as a way of providing independent scientific and engineering assessments of issues that impact the citizens, government, and businesses of Washington State.

Portrait photo of Sterling McPhersonSterling McPherson—professor and assistant dean for research in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and the director of the Program of Excellence in Addictions Research—has been elected as board member for the College on Problems of Drug Dependence (CPDD). Established in 1929, the CPDD is the longest standing group in the United States addressing problems of drug dependence and abuse. It currently has more than 1,000 members.

A WSU team representing the Northwest Health Education and Research Outcomes Network (NW HERON) placed first in the research category at the Washington Academy of Family Physicians poster symposium recently. NW HERON is a practice-based research and educational network established by the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, the Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health (IREACH), and the WSU Health Equity Research Center. The team’s poster detailed findings from an Empire Health Foundation-funded study on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on well-being of rural and American Indian cancer patients in Washington State. Authors on the poster included Gina Leipertz, Patrik Johansson, Magdalena Haakenstad, Kimny Sysawang, Jennifer Lee, James Volz, and Anthippy Petras.

Publication Highlight

A study conducted by researchers in the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has revealed that gut microbes—microorganisms that live inside digestive organs—help drive 24-hour rhythms in the body. While many of these so-called circadian rhythms are controlled by a central biological clock in the brain, previous WSU research had shown that there are separate biological clocks in peripheral organs such as the gut and liver. Knowing exactly what drives these peripheral clocks is important to address the health consequences that result from disrupted circadian rhythms, such as those caused by night shift work and travel across time zones.

To investigate whether gut microbes might drive peripheral clocks, the researchers conducted a study in mice to examine the rhythmicity of bile salt hydrolase, a key microbial enzyme involved in bile acid metabolism, which helps the body digest and absorb fats. First, they developed a novel biochemical tool to detect bile salt hydrolase activity in small amounts of fecal samples from mice. They then used the tool during experiments that exposed mice to a shifted feeding pattern, as if they were exposed to shift work. After exposure to the shifted feeding pattern, the circadian rhythm of bile salt hydrolase in the mice was dramatically out of sync with that of their central biological clock. This discovery indicates that the shifted feeding pattern changed the rhythm of bile salt hydrolase production in by the mice’s gut microbes, which in turn may drive their peripheral clocks.

The researchers’ findings shed new light on how gut microbes may cause circadian rhythms in the digestive system to be out of sync with rhythms driven by the brain’s central biological clock. This could eventually help scientists identify therapeutic, dietary, or lifestyle interventions to correct disrupted circadian rhythms in metabolism. Study authors include WSU Professor and Sleep and Performance Research Center Director Hans Van Dongen; PNNL scientist and former WSU College of Medicine Postdoc Chathuri Kombala; and PNNL Staff Scientist Kristoffer Brandvold. Their paper was published in the journal Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry.

Funding Highlights

Portrait photo of Dedra BuchwaldPortrait photo of Patrik JohanssonDedra Buchwald and Patrik Johansson (College of Medicine/IREACH) have received $1 million in matching funds from the Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment and the Community Foundation of Southwest Washington for a two-year study on cancer prevention. The goal of the project is to advance cancer prevention in rural, non-white, and underserved communities in Washington state, which suffer disproportionately higher cancer rates. The researchers will use 2010-2019 data from the Washington State Cancer Registry data and other sources to conduct a geospatial analysis of risk factors for cancer outcomes. These data will generate maps of hot (negative) and cold (positive) spots for cancer outcomes. Assisted by medical student ambassadors, the research team will then interview administrators, providers, and cancer patients at 10 rural practices in cancer hot and cold spots in primary care practices within the Northwest Health Education Research Outcomes Network (NW HERON). These interviews will help identify barriers to and facilitators of positive cancer outcomes to support future public health programs. The study will be conducted in collaboration with the emerging WSU Community Centered Health Home Initiative, which centers on bringing quality healthcare to rural communities.

Portrait photo of Jiyue ZhuJiyue Zhu (College of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences) has received a five-year, $1.9 million Maximizing Investigator’s Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences—an agency within the National Institutes of Health—to decipher the molecular mechanisms of telomerase regulation during development. Telomeres are the protective caps of chromosomal ends. In adult humans, telomeres get shorter every time cells multiply. This ultimately causes cells to lose their ability to proliferate, a process known as replicative aging. In stem cells, cancer cells, and certain other types of cells, telomerase lengthens telomeres to compensate for their loss during cell proliferation. Telomerase regulation is critical for human aging and influences the risk of cancer and many age-related diseases. While recent advancements on telomerase regulation in cancer cells have greatly improved scientists’ understanding of human telomerase gene activation during cancer development, it remains unknown why these mechanisms are repressed in other cell types. As part of this project, the researchers will use their unique tools to address fundamental mechanisms critical to telomerase regulation and telomere maintenance in humans and ultimately the mechanisms of telomere-associated human diseases.

PhD in nursing student Jordan Ferris has received a $17,397 grant through the WSU Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Program for a study of barriers and facilitators in the return-to-work process of registered nurses who are recovering from substance use issues. There is a critical shortage of registered nurses in the U.S. Increasing burnout and moral distress can contribute to the development of substance use disorders, which can result in affected nurses being removed from the workplace. The return-to-work process is complicated by different license restrictions and orders from the board of nursing, and little is known about the barriers and facilitators to this process. The goal of this research project is to understand the return-to-work process for nurses and the barriers and facilitators within that process as nurses experience it. Working with dissertation committee chair Marian Wilson and committee members Janessa Graves and Victoria Sattler, Ferris will collect and analyze qualitative and quantitative data from 20 to 30 participants who have completed or are in the process of completing their return-to-work process through the RN Refresher Program at WSU. Findings from the study could help determine how to create better pathways back to work and retain RNs in a shrinking workforce.

Grant & Contract Award Summary
April 1 – June 30, 2023

This summary provides an overview of funding activity in the third quarter of this fiscal year, which covers awards for new and continuing research and other sponsored projects received between April 1 and June 30.
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