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WSU Research Sustaining Health

The uncompromising pursuit of healthier people and communities

Addressing health disparities and preventing disease

American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities experience elevated rates of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. These communities are historically underserved when it comes to health care. Little research has been conducted to better understand and address their health care needs.

Dr. Dedra Buchwald of the WSU Health Sciences Spokane campus hopes to equip these communities with powerful tools to improve blood pressure control, and ultimately cardiovascular disease and stroke. With a $10 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, Dr. Buchwald will work with a Southwest tribe, an Alaska Native health care organization, and three Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community-based organizations to reduce health risks related to high blood pressure.

Taking aim at chronic disease

The grant is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Transdisciplinary Collaborative Centers for Health Disparities Research Program (TCC), which focuses on priority areas in minority health and health disparities. Dr. Buchwald will create one of two TCC centers that target chronic disease prevention. The other center will be based at Michigan State University.

A community partnership

Dr. Buchwald and fellow Principal Investigator, Dr. Spero Manson of the University of Colorado Denver, plan to engage community members in all aspects of the research process. The leaders of the Center’s three intervention projects are all American Indian or Alaska Native, and all are former mentees. The Center also includes teams of personnel who represent the spectrum of National Institute of Minority Health and Health

Disparities staff, academic institutions, and health care systems and agencies that play a role in serving minority communities. In addition, Drs. Buchwald and Manson will foster new scientific collaborations with local and regional partners. Scientifically rigorous and culturally informed, their investigations will respond to community needs while honoring community values.

Connecting communities for health

Join us April 18 at WSU Innovators in Seattle to learn more about how WSU’s work in Africa affects health in North America

Attend WSU Innovators to hear from two researchers working with Dr. Call, as well as Dr. Guy Palmer, the Allen School’s co-founder and senior director for global health at WSU. Tina Vlasaty of the Washington Global Health Alliance will moderate the panel.

The panelists will discuss the global-to-local approach needed to curb the emergence of antimicrobial resistance, and WSU’s role in developing solutions.

Learn more and register for this free event at

Stopping the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Young lady being treated in hospital bed

Advancing the health of communities worldwide

For decades, doctors have trusted antibiotic medicines to fight Infectious bacteria, saving lives and restoring health. Lately, though, the drugs often fail. To blame are newly emerging antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Drug-resistant bacterial infections cause nearly 23,000 deaths annually in the United States. Globally the annual death toll could be as high as 700,000.

WSU is part of global effort

Stopping antimicrobial resistance (AMR) requires a global effort. Washington State University is helping to lead the charge.

In the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, where experts study the emergence and spread of disease, researchers are examining the role the environment plays in proliferation of AMR.

Understanding how AMR spreads

AMR spreads quickly in developing countries where antibiotic use is unregulated and widespread. It thrives in low sanitation settings. Global travel and the international food trade aid dissemination of resistant bacteria worldwide.

WSU scientists are conducting research in east Africa to better understand the emergence and spread of AMR. They are working in partnership with Tanzania’s Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

Professor Doug Call of the Allen School is training scientists from Africa to better understand complex issues associated with AMR persistence. He teaches local scientists to recognize genetic mechanisms that can give resistant microbes an upper hand. Learn more about Allen School programs addressing AMR here.

Convening a Washington Coalition

In 2016 Washington State University joined with other organizations addressing global health issues to form the Washington State Antimicrobial Resistance Coalition. The group explores how drug resistance emerges in settings worldwide, then spreads into U.S. communities and hospitals.

The coalition fosters collaboration among federal agencies, Congress, international global health organizations, U.S. hospitals, research universities, and others to deploy resources strategically in the fight against AMR. It plans to monitor high-risk locations and test new approaches to keep superbugs in check.

Recent lecture in Seattle


The 2017 WSU Innovators event in Seattle featured researchers working with Dr. Call, as well as Dr. Guy Palmer, the Allen School’s co-founder and senior director for global health at WSU. Tina Vlasaty of the Washington Global Health Alliance moderated the panel.

The panelists discussed the global-to-local approach needed to curb the emergence of antimicrobial resistance, and WSU’s role in developing solutions.

Watch a video of the engaging conversation. 

Tasmanian devils evolve to resist deadly cancer

Tasmanian Devil

Exploring evolutionary genetics to stop disease

Ornery marsupials about the size of a small dog, Tasmanian devils reign as the dominant carnivore on their native island of Tasmania, 150 miles south of Australia. But in the past 2 decades, these ferocious creatures have faced a lethal threat: a fast-spreading, contagious cancer.

Devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) causes painful red welts to erupt on the animal’s mouth and head. Victims become unable to eat. They either starve to death or suffocate. Spreading like a virus, DFTD has wiped out 80 percent of Tasmanian devils in the wild. Epidemiological studies said that extinction was inevitable.

But some Tasmanian devil populations defied those dire predictions. WSU biology professor Andrew Storfer is probing the secret to their survival. His findings may answer fundamental questions about how disease spreads in both animals and humans.

Comparing DNA, before and after the outbreak

Dr. Storfer is part of an international team of scientists studying Tasmanian devil populations. He and fellow scientists from Great Britain and Australia collected Tasmanian devil DNA from before and after the DFTD outbreak. By comparing genes in the old and new DNA, the team identified genetic variants that didn’t exist before DFTD emerged. The variants appeared in regions of the genome linked to immune function and cancer response.

Dr. Storfer’s findings suggest that Tasmanian devils are evolving genetic resistance to DFTD.

Helping Tasmanian devils and other species

Dr. Storfer hopes that Tasmanian devils with disease-resistant DNA can be bred to enhance the genetic diversity of an off-island captive population. The offspring can be used to reintroduce the species where populations were wiped out by disease.

The research also explores questions about the evolution of cancer transmissibility and causes of remission and recurrence. Answers could protect animals and humans alike.

Predicting the Progression of Cancers

Grant Trobridge

Pharmacy research paves way for genetic tests

Physicians may soon have another diagnostic tool to help treat cancer patients, thanks to a new partnership between WSU and a genetic testing company based in India. Under a recently signed licensing agreement, Datar Genetics Ltd. will use a set of genes identified by College of Pharmacy researchers to develop tests to predict prostate cancer recurrence and breast cancer survival. The partnership was facilitated by the WSU Office of Commercialization, which is looking for additional licensing partners in other countries.

The research that led to the identification of the 20 genes was conducted in the lab of Grant Trobridge, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences. In work funded by the National Cancer Institute, Postdoctoral Research Associate Arun Nalla used a virus to create genetic mutations in human prostate cancer cells to understand how tumors become independent of androgen, a male hormone. Androgen-independent tumors don’t need testosterone to grow and thus no longer respond to hormone therapy, making them much harder to treat. The virus Nalla used can insert its DNA into the genome of a human cell, which made it possible to pinpoint which genes got altered and led to androgen independence. Using a similar approach, doctoral student Victor Bii looked for genes that caused breast cancer to spread to other parts of the body.

Trobridge said their work is a small but critical step on the way to their long-term goal of developing targeted cancer therapies. “Ultimately, we’d like to be able to predict which treatments are more likely to work based on patients’ genetic profiles.”

Collaborative to study health reform impact on disabled

Inquiry to see if reforms address cost and access disparities faced by people with disabilities

Professor of Health Policy and Administration Jae Kennedy is heading up a new initiative to establish the Collaborative on Health Reform and Independent Living, a multi-institutional effort to evaluate the impact of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on the well-being of working-age adults with disabilities. Funded through a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, the collaborative brings together disability advocates and researchers from WSU, the University of Kansas, George Mason University, and the Independent Living Research Utilization program at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital.

Jae KennedyUntil recently, many adults with disabilities did not have access to private health insurance coverage and had to rely on public programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid. With the implementation of the ACA, that has changed.

“The ACA has endured many legal and legislative challenges, and many of its reforms are now a feature of the U.S. health care system,” said Kennedy. “We need to know the magnitude of these changes, and whether they are addressing the pervasive disparities in access and cost that people with disabilities face.”

In partnership with several national disability advocacy organizations, the collaborative’s researchers will conduct five research projects to study health insurance costs, coverage, and outcomes; determine information and training needs among staff in Centers of Independent Living; and identify changes in disability program application and enrollment rates. Kennedy said the collaborative’s findings may be used to advocate for policy changes to address any remaining health disparities in this vulnerable population.

REM sleep vital for young brains

child in rem sleep

Sleep’s final stage key to development

A recent study of the role of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in the development of young brains suggests that it makes experiences “stick” in the brain. The discovery was published in Science Advances by Professor of Medical Sciences Marcos Frank and his former graduate student Michelle Dumoulin Bridi.

Frank said their findings emphasize the importance of REM sleep in early life and point to a need for caution in giving young children REM-suppressing medications like antidepressants and stimulants for ADHD.

The idea for Frank’s study came from earlier research that suggested a relationship between sleep and developmental brain plasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between neurons, or brain cells. He said this form of plasticity was first described in the visual system through studies that showed that there is a critical period in a young animal’s development in which vision shapes the connections in the cortex, the brain’s main processing area. These studies also showed that sleep was required for those changes to fully express themselves, but didn’t look at the role of the different stages of sleep. Frank specifically set out to study the role of REM sleep, the final of five sleep stages that make up a sleep cycle. REM sleep is the stage during which we show fast, random eye movements and experience vivid dreams. Inadequate REM sleep has been associated with chronic insomnia and mood disorders and impedes memory and learning.

“It had been theorized that REM sleep is important for brain development, because infants spend up to 70 percent of their sleep time in REM sleep, as compared to adult humans, who typically only spend about 20 percent of their sleep in the REM stage,” said Frank. “But no one could explain what exactly REM sleep is doing in the developing brain, which made it a particularly interesting state to examine.”

During their study, the researchers had young animals wear a patch over one eye, which caused their brains to start changing neuronal connections in the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information. They monitored the animals’ brain activity while awake and asleep and randomly assigned them to one of two groups. One group was allowed to sleep normally, whereas animals in the other group were consistently woken up—some during REM sleep and others during non-REM sleep. The researchers found that those that went without REM sleep didn’t show normal brain development. This suggests that REM sleep is required to solidify changes in the visual cortex. Furthermore, they found that a brain protein named ERK, which is involved in these types of changes, did not activate in animals that had been deprived of REM sleep.

Frank and Dumoulin Bridi also looked at brain activity patterns during REM sleep and found they are very similar to those seen during wakefulness.

“It appeared as though animals’ waking experiences were being reactivated while they slept,” said Frank. He said further studies are needed to fully uncover the biochemical process by which REM sleep fixes brain changes, which may eventually lead to new therapies to treat brain injury and neurodegenerative diseases.

Measuring community well‑being

WSU Vancouver’s Probst looking at mix of stressors, employment, resources

Does where you live affect your ability to cope with financial and employment stress? That question is on the minds of policymakers with limited dollars to spend on social services. The answer could help them determine how best to support struggling individuals.

The question was also on the mind of Washington State University psychology professor Tahira Probst. It seems logical that people with access to more services would fare better. But Probst wondered whether, instead, people might compare their situations’ with their neighbors’ in a “keeping up with the Joneses” fashion. If so, those struggling economically in communities with fewer resources might actually feel better than those in similar straits living in a supposedly “healthier” community.

With a grant of $50,000 from the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program, Probst and her collaborators are examining nationwide data compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation along with interviews conducted by Gallup Polling.

Preliminary results are intriguing. They suggest that while a more prosperous, healthier community can help mitigate certain types of stress related to income (such as inability to pay bills on time), employment-related stress is a different matter. If your neighbors are happily employed while you have lost your job or are worried about layoffs, you may have more trouble coping.

“Community well-being definitely matters, but in surprising ways,” Probst said. “It can help people to cope better with private sources of stress such as financial struggles, while resulting in worse outcomes for those facing more public stressors such as unemployment.”

Ion mobility spectrometry

Investigating one of society’s most powerful workhorses

On a cool evening last April, at exactly 8:01 p.m., the International Space Station traced a bright silver arc over Pullman. Inside, a small sensor scanned the air for hazardous vapors and relayed the data to flight controllers in Houston.

Meanwhile, 200 miles below in the Syrian desert, soldiers searched through rubble carrying a handheld device that sounds an alarm in the presence of chemical warfare agents. At airport security gates and customs stations all over the world, similar devices sniff out explosives and narcotics.

The technology behind those detectors is called ion mobility spectrometry or IMS. While it may be unfamiliar, IMS is emerging as one of society’s most powerful workhorses, able to detect and identify an extensive range of potentially harmful materials.

For the last 40 years, Washington State University chemistry professor Herbert Hill has led the development and expansion of ion mobility. Today IMS is poised to revolutionize the medical field as an ultrasensitive diagnostic tool. It is also the key component in a prototype breathalyzer able to detect marijuana and other drugs.

Read the rest of the story in Washington State Magazine.

Marshaling communities to stop substance abuse

Program engages community members in research, training, and outreach

Substance abuse exacts a heavy toll on American Indians and Alaska Natives. John Roll, professor and senior vice chancellor for WSU Spokane, aims to stem that population’s tide of addiction by launching a community-based research, training, and outreach center.

The Behavioral Health Collaborative for Rural American Indian Communities will examine multiple influences on behavioral health throughout patients’ lifespans. It is funded by a $5.5 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (part of the National Institutes of Health).

Working with co-investigator Sterling McPherson and other investigators at the University of Washington and WSU, the team will build partnerships with members of the American Indian community throughout the Inland Northwest and engage them in key roles in the Center. Scientific research will be combined with a community-based participatory approach. The Center will reach out to people of all ages—children, college students, and adults. Dr. Roll and Dr. McPherson hope to build deep ties to American Indian communities, bringing people together to achieve common goals: improving health and quality of life.

Washington State University