Institute of Medicine Internal Seed Grant awardees announced

The Institute of Medicine at the University of Maine coordinates and supports the research and public outreach efforts of some of the state’s leading experts, whose research and scholarly work at UMaine advances rural health care, diagnostic medicine, immune system diseases and disorders, and medical humanities.

In March 2021, The Institute of Medicine (IoM) requested proposals in the areas of health and life sciences for a seed grant program, meant to support the goals and objectives of the Institute. This grant program required two or more full-time UMaine or UMM faculty to work together on a pilot project aimed at collecting preliminary data/proof of concept leading to the submission of a related significant proposal by July of 2022. Preference was given to projects that required collaboration across departments and/or colleges. Each selected project has a maximum budget of $25,000. Five recipients have been awarded funding in this second round of seed grant funding.

The Office of the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School launched the UMaine Medicine Initiative in 2018 to increase support and stimulate further medical research by our world-class faculty and partners. The initiative became the Institute of Medicine in 2020 and now serves as a bridge connecting the health care community with the university. It also provides guidance related to medical research, medical device development, rural health care, and outreach, community engagement, and workforce development.

This is the second-round seed grant funding. The initial grant awardees were announced in June of 2020. It was reported that this initial round of UMaine Medicine seed funding allowed researchers to showcase the university’s research expertise in the biomedical and health sciences as well as to highlight the potential for continued growth in this area. The external collaborations formed and the equipment acquired is expected to contribute to future projects, and the $1.16 million in follow-on grant funding expanded the scope of researchers’ plans. In addition to the impact on research, the 39 students who worked within these teams received invaluable workforce development training that will serve them throughout their educational and professional careers.

Brief synopses of the funded projects follow. Two projects, led by Elizabeth DePoy and Jeffrey Hecker, are co-funded through the Injury Prevention Seed Grant Program, part of the University of Maine System Grand Challenge Pilot Initiative: Rural Health and Wellbeing.

1. Pathways to care for individuals with serious mental illness in Washington County

PI: Jeffrey Hecker, Professor of Psychology

The proposal will study the lived experience of individuals with serious mental illness, as well as the experiences of primary care providers who first diagnose and treat these individuals, in Washington County. The data will build upon the information we gather through an asset-mapping and needs assessment study of Washington County that will be completed in the summer of 2021 and will complement data our colleagues at Maine Medical Center Research Institute (MMCRI) will collect in Western Maine. The proposed study will advance collaborations the PI has developed with MMCRI, Northern Light Acadia Hospital, the University of Maine at Machias, and the Maine Office of Behavioral Health, the long-term goal of which is to develop a state-wide early intervention network for individuals with serious mental illness. The pilot data we collect, in combination with the asset map/needs assessment data and the data from Western Maine, will inform applications for NIH and other funding to develop and test innovative early intervention strategies for rural Maine youth and families.

2. Advanced imaging of muscle fiber development

PI: Jared Talbot, Assistant Professor of Developmental Biology

Diseases such as arthrogryposis result from transient loss of muscle movement in utero. These diseases are fairly common in newborns and can require multiple surgeries throughout a lifetime to correct. Dr. Talbot has developed zebrafish models of Distal Arthrogryposis type I (DA1) and will use these to investigate the earliest steps of muscle formation. Here, Dr. Talbot and Dr. Tilbury will develop a new innovative imaging technology that will enable these DA1 studies. This funding will provide supplies needed for this project, as well as the student and PI support needed to generate preliminary data for several large grants with submissions in the year following the project.

3. Injury prevention in a vulnerable cognitively impaired population

PI: Elizabeth DePoy, Professor of Social Work

This project weaves together multiple related strands of research relevant to the Institute of Medicine’s mission. It is “dedicated to the advancement of human health and wellbeing in the state of Maine and beyond”, and follows directly the seminar delivered by Michael Mason Pathways to Commercialization of Medical Products or Devices (2021), in keeping with the biomedical engineering sub-focus of the IOM. We will conduct a rollator AuTomatic Braking System (ATBS) pilot study. To enhance the potential for federal funding support that can ultimately lead to the commercialization of a much-needed device, this project will obtain and analyze data to inform the revision of our current ATBS proof-of-concept, an automated braking system integrated into or retrofitted on rollator walkers. The study will be conducted by a collaborative team from four units at the University of Maine; Disability Studies, Center on Aging, School of Social Work and Mechanical Engineering.

4. Three-dimensional (3D) human biomimetics for X-ray radiation dosimetry and biomedical image analysis

PI: Terry Yoo, Associate Professor of Computer Science

Studying the impact of diagnostic x-ray dose on human tissue has historically been problematic; it is unethical to subject patients to unnecessary procedures and impossible to implant dosimetry sensors in vivo. Further, the rapid growth of machine learning in early disease detection has created an enormous demand for radiological screening data. Using a Crane Quad 3D fused deposition modeling printer equipped with M3D QuadFusion print head capable of blending materials from up to four different filaments, we propose to build from mixed media solid models that have x-ray attenuation characteristics that mimic human tissue when imaged with a CT scanner. The resulting capability to repeatedly produce identical copies of human x-ray biomimetics will promote shared science, allowing copies of biomimetic models to be distributed among research teams worldwide, comparing emerging methods for early screening of disease. 3D printed models can be exposed repeatedly, enabling the collection of data of the same model with varying x-ray scanning parameters, something not allowed with human subjects. We also propose to explore the design and production of solid models with human x-ray characteristics with embedded dosimetry sensors. By accurately modeling the self-shielding properties of human anatomy, we will be able to help radiation health physicists understand the differential x-ray dose inflicted on different tissue, e.g., how different soft tissues distributed across the body absorb ionizing radiation.

5. Towards developing a multisensory dining ecosystem (EatCoSystem) to stimulate appetite and motivate older adults to eat better

PI: RA Nimesha Ranasinghe, Assistant Professor of Spatial Informatics

This proposal is a feasibility study addressed to one of NIA’s explicit research priorities: “develop effective interventions to maintain the health and well-being and prevent or reduce the burden of age-related diseases, disorders, and disabilities in the aging population.” The aging process can be accompanied by selected consequences such as sensory decline (e.g., olfactory dysfunction), often linked to numerous neurodegenerative disorders. Indeed, taste and smell impairment in Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders (ADRD) has been recognized since the 1980s. Decreased taste and smell can result in diminished appetite, weight loss, malnutrition, and a deterioration in medical conditions. Getting an older person to eat and maintain positive behavior while dining can be difficult and requires motivation. This unmet medical need can be addressed by developing technological interventions that will effectively stimulate appetite employing smell, taste, and visual stimuli to help ADRD patients eat better.