Posts filed under ‘Research’

Innovative social media program designed to keep HIV-affected individuals healthy

Dr. John Zurlo

Dr. John Zurlo

Dr. John Zurlo saw his first AIDS patients during his internal medicine residency training in 1984.

The mysterious new disease robbed patients of their ability to fight off infections. They developed an aggressive form of an unusual skin cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma. Their mouths and throats were covered with oral thrush. They suffered from unusual forms of pneumonia and meningitis and often developed dementia.

Back then, “almost everybody died from AIDS,” says the physician, who went on to train in infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Zurlo came to Penn State Hershey Medical Center in 1990 and became director of the HIV/AIDS program later that decade. Today, as director of the infectious diseases training program, he still spends much of his time providing care to those with HIV – the virus that leads to AIDS.

AIDS drugs, known as antiretroviral therapy, first came on to the market in 1987. Within the next 10 years they became miracle drugs. Today, thanks to advancements in the drugs and better understanding of the disease, people with HIV who take their medications can control their infections and live full lives without ever developing AIDS. Some of these drugs can now be used as pre-exposure prophylaxis, and can help protect people who are at high risk of contracting HIV. These drugs are highly effective in preventing HIV infection.

Problem solved? Unfortunately, not even close, Dr. Zurlo says. Too many HIV-positive Americans aren’t on antiretroviral therapy —almost 50 percent, according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And too many people still contract the virus: There are roughly 50,000 new infections in the U.S. every year.

“The challenge is that the population we need to reach—which is largely young people—is really not engaged in care,” Dr. Zurlo says. “They’re not diagnosed or, if they are, they’re not in care. And if they are getting care, they’re not taking their medications. Therefore, when you look at the big picture of 1.2 million people in the United States who are infected with HIV, only about 30 percent have full control of it.”

A major obstacle is overcoming the stigma that is still attached to HIV/AIDS more than three decades after its emergence. That stigma, Dr. Zurlo says, discourages young people from getting tested and sticking to their treatment.

“For a lot of our patients, just showing up in clinic is a reminder of something they don’t want to think about,” he says.

Dr. Zurlo is committed to changing the statistics across the full HIV care continuum, which actually starts with people who are at risk but not infected yet. His team recently received a $1.2 million grant from HRSA, the federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration, to use the power of social media to get more people between the ages of 13 to 34 into the HIV care continuum.

The four-year grant is issued through the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program’s Special Projects of National Significance. Dr. Zurlo’s group is one of 10 centers around the country that won HRSA grants to try different social media approaches to support engagement and retention in HIV care.

Under his leadership, the Medical Center is teaming up with three other providers in the greater Harrisburg area—Alder Health Services, Hamilton Health Center and the PinnacleHealth REACCH Program—to address unmet needs around HIV/AIDS using social media.

The program will target two groups of young people. The first is the group of youth and young adults in Harrisburg and surrounding rural communities who are at risk for or diagnosed with HIV but have either not linked to care or have fallen out of care. The second group is current patients who are at high risk for falling out of care, going off their meds, and transmitting HIV in the community.

“Nationally, the loss-to-follow-up rate is enormous with HIV, but especially among young people, and even more so among young men of color,” Dr. Zurlo says. “They’re less likely to be diagnosed, less likely to be in care, less likely to be on medicine, and therefore less likely to have control of their infection.”

The Medical Center already has an HIV/AIDS social media campaign aimed at youth called OPT-In For Life. (“OPT” stands for Opportunities to Prevent Transmission.) The website, along with the program’s Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter pages, are places where young people can learn about HIV/AIDS resources and connect with the community.

The new funding will be used to expand the OPT-In For Life campaign and aggressively market it to underserved communities in central Pennsylvania, including LGBT, African American and Latino youth. Dr. Zurlo hopes a new mobile app, fresh content and active chat rooms will encourage young people to engage in their care. Patients will be able to communicate directly with their health-care team through the app. The funding will also pay for banner ads on OPT-In For Life’s social media sites and on popular dating apps to promote free local HIV testing.

Dr. Zurlo’s team set hard goals and objectives for the program, which range from increasing social media followers and getting more people tested to improving antiretroviral therapy stats and decreasing viral loads.

“Here we are sitting on this gold mine of incredible treatment for HIV, and nobody has to die of it anymore. You don’t see AIDS-related complications like I once saw at the beginning of the epidemic,” Dr. Zurlo says.

He, like many others in the field, is confident that a cure for AIDS will be found in our lifetime: “The message I want to get out there is: This is what you need to do in order to stay well until we can cure you.”

  • Jennifer Abbasi


November 30, 2015 at 10:41 am 1 comment

Mentorship and Funding Award Supports Up-and-Coming Researchers

For researchers early in their careers, it’s not just funding that matters—mentorship is also critical for success.

Dan Morgan

Dan Morgan

Dr. Dan Morgan has been studying cannabinoid signaling in the brain. Dr. Greg Lewis recently developed simulation software for fracture surgeries. Dr. Joslyn Kirby investigated bundled payments for management of a skin condition. These three Penn State College of Medicine doctors received guidance from senior researchers, along with $200,000 to fund their research, through the College’s Junior Faculty Research Scholar Awards program.

The program, launched in 2011, provides support to early-stage investigators in basic, clinical, and translational science research.

“It’s a way for us to jump start the research programs and career development of researchers here,” says program co-director Dr. Sarah Bronson, who is also director of Research Development and Interdisciplinary Research and co-director of the Junior Faculty Development Program. “We put equal weight on funding the scholar’s research program and recognizing a career and development plan that is going to make that research program happen.”

Joselyn Kirby

Joslyn Kirby

To that end, applicants don’t just propose the research they want to do. They also submit mentorship “dream team”—at least three experienced investigators who will provide advice and assistance in developing and executing a research proposal and a career development plan. The mentoring team meets with the scholar a minimum of once every six months.

Each scholar’s award is named to honor the contributions of senior investigators at Penn State Hershey who made a difference through their own research and through the mentoring of colleagues and trainees.


October 14, 2015 at 10:51 am Leave a comment

Physician of the Year honor caps off 40-year career of serving hemophilia patients

Dr. Elaine Eyster

Dr. Elaine Eyster

When Elaine Eyster traveled to Dallas in mid-August to receive the National Hemophilia Foundation’s 2015 Physician of the Year award, she was more impressed by those in attendance than the plaque she received.

Many there had survived the HIV epidemic. Others had been cured of their Hepatitis C infections.

“Earlier in my career most would have been in wheelchairs or walking around on crutches,” she said. “Because of the availability of good treatment, they are leading active, productive lives.”

When Eyster was in medical school, half of the boys born with a severe form of hemophilia died before their 19th birthday. Those who survived were destined to spend most of their lives on crutches or in wheelchairs as a result of joint and muscle damage from repeated bleeding episodes.

Eyster has spent more than four decades conducting research, caring for patients, working on teams, mentoring others and providing leadership to bring such changes about. That is why the executive committee of the Mid Atlantic Region III Federally funded Hemophilia Treatment Centers and the Hemophilia Center of Central PA in Hershey nominated her for the award.

James Ballard, professor of humanities, medicine and pathology at Penn State Hershey, was hired by Eyster 40 years ago as the institution’s second hematology fellow.

“She was my mentor, and we have had a long period of collaboration,” he said. “She is an incredibly talented person who has great scientific skills and is a great problem solver.”

He has seen Eyster care for hundreds of patients with hemophilia and advocate for their well-being on a regional and national level.

“She has been a friend and doctor to many, and I think she has reached a point in her career where it is obvious to everyone that she has made significant contributions scientifically and in terms of patient care and advocacy.”

Eyster’s early research focused on the HIV epidemic in the hemophilia population. In 1982, when three people with hemophilia who had been heavily transfused with blood clotting factors developed an immune disorder similar to those described in gay men, her team was in a unique position to investigate this mysterious illness.

She had saved samples of plasma because she was interested in the transmission of hepatitis by clotting factors.

“At that time, we didn’t know anything about what caused AIDS or how it was transmitted,” she said. Those samples played a key role in helping to explain how HIV infections were transmitted and how the immune deficiency progressed after an individual became infected.

Similar research conducted later with her collaborators at the NIH addressed the transmission and the outcomes of the hepatitis C virus infections that were acquired  by  almost all people with hemophilia who had received clotting factor concentrates during the 1970s and 80s, before effective donor screening and viral inactivation methods were developed.

“Hepatitis B was a big problem for people with hemophilia, so I was saving the samples because I thought there would be more to learn and I wanted to be prepared by having materials to study it,” she said. “Or – as my late husband would say – because I never threw anything away.”

Eyster was also instrumental in getting state funding to establish The Hemophilia Center of Central PA, which has grown over the years to serve about 450 active patients who now receive comprehensive hemophilia care at Penn State Hershey.

She hopes the future will bring development of replacement blood clotting factors that remain active for weeks rather than days for people with hemophilia– and that can be given subcutaneously rather than intravenously to prevent and treat bleeding.

Eyster also would like to see researchers find a way to prevent the body from attacking and destroying the transfused clotting factors – or develop an effective gene therapy that will allow people with hemophilia to produce their own clotting factors.

Although she no longer works full time, Eyster gets excited when she talks about the staff at the hemophilia center.

“It’s so gratifying to have such a great team of people to work with and to see what we can accomplish,” she said. “It has been a most rewarding experience to get to know so many families and to help care for so many wonderful people.”

-Jen Vogelsong

September 16, 2015 at 9:24 am Leave a comment

3D printing technology opens up new possibilities

A new printing technology at Penn State Hershey gives doctors and researchers new possibilities.

Instead of ink on paper, a 3D printer can “print” strands of material in layers to create solid items. Doctors can imagine, design and create prototypes of everything from surgical tools to medical devices like abdominal drains and orthopedic screws.

“There is a big splash about 3D printing — and with good reason,” said Dr. Randy Haluck, vice chairman for technology and innovation for the Department of Surgery.

In the past, a doctor who wanted only a few of something for testing or custom use would have to go through a manufacturing process set up to make thousands of the same thing. Now, a single item or a small batch can be printed.

“This is faster, more efficient and cheaper,” said Dr. Peter Dillon, chair, Department of Surgery.

Just as a draft of text can be printed on a two-dimensional surface and then tweaked and revised before printing again, the same can be done with the 3D machine.


September 1, 2015 at 7:38 pm Leave a comment

Meet Dr. Leslie Parent, Penn State Hershey’s new vice dean for research

Dr. Leslie Parent

Dr. Leslie Parent

With a career in retrovirology research, a passion for education, and a 24-year history at Penn State Hershey, Dr. Leslie Parent brings a strong skillset to her new position as vice dean for research and graduate education.

Parent transitioned to the role in early June from her former position as chief of the Division of Infectious Disease.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to help other people do better research,” Parent said. “That was what really motivated me: the opportunity to enhance the research going on here at the College of Medicine. We already have excellent, successful investigators. We can take something that already has such a strong foundation and look for ways to promote our research, engage more people in our research, and build a better and more complete infrastructure for research.”

Parent started in the Division of Infectious Disease as a fellow, completed a post-doctoral fellowship in retrovirology, and started her own NIH-funded laboratory in 1998. She was named chief of the division in 2007 and was later asked to co-lead the college’s M.D./Ph.D. program, helping train future physician scientists.

Parent believes she brings an optimistic attitude and persistence to the role.

“I like to explore all the possibilities and do our best to achieve the things we set out to do,” she said. “I like to set goals and then gather people around to work as a team to achieve those objectives. I think team work is really important and I hope that I can be someone who can build teams and use a lot of different people’s talents to achieve the things we want to do here.”


August 26, 2015 at 9:28 am Leave a comment

Unique division brings heart devices to life

An engineer, a surgeon, and a machinist walk into a conference room.

It might sound like the start of a bad joke, but it’s a regular scene in Penn State Hershey’s Division of Artificial Organs, where experts in vastly different fields bring their knowledge together to design, manufacture, implant and test artificial hearts in one location.

Cardio-thoracic surgeon Dr. William S. Pierce formed the team in 1970 when he came to Penn State’s then-new Milton S. Hershey Medical Center after working on artificial heart development for the National Institutes for Health. Penn State’s strong engineering staff and Hershey’s suburban location offered the resources to develop the kind of collaborative program he envisioned.

Eric Yeager

Eric Yeager makes blood sacs in Penn State Hershey’s Division of Artificial Organs by dipping polished stainless steel molds into honey-colored liquid polyurethane polymer.

Forty-five years later, Dr. Gerson Rosenberg, chief of the Division of Artificial Organs, can walk down the hall from his office to a machine shop, plastics lab, metal-polishing station and rooms where mock circulatory testing is done on heart-assist devices for adults and children. An assist device helps a sick heart do its work so it can rest while the patient awaits a transplant, so researchers are always looking for ways to improve the devices to work better and for longer.

<<View a video of Dr. Piece and Dr. Rosenberg’s work>>

At a nearby facility, veterinarians provide pre- and post-op care for animals implanted with pediatric heart-assist devices and a new pneumatic heart pump — operated by air pressure — that could improve the lives of young adults and adolescents born with congenital heart defects.

“We are unique in that everything from start to finish is done in one location,” Rosenberg said. (more…)

August 5, 2015 at 12:15 pm 1 comment

PaTH Network starts studying patients at four institutions with support from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute

Which health outcomes really matter to patients? That’s the question the PaTH Network is starting to investigate with the help of  nearly $7 million in funding from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), a non-profit created through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Four major university health systems—Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Johns Hopkins University—make up the PaTH Network. It’s one of 29 health data networks across the country and a coordinating center, collectively known as PCORnet, funded by PCORI.

PCORI’s mission is to help patients, their caregivers and healthcare providers make informed healthcare decisions based on outcomes that are relevant to those living with a particular condition. That means designing studies that track these patient-centered outcomes.

Dr. Cynthia Chuang

Dr. Cynthia Chuang

“It’s traditionally been the researchers who have determined what the outcomes should be in studies,” said Dr. Cynthia Chuang, professor of medicine and public health sciences and Penn State’s lead principal investigator on the project. “For a long time, that really seemed to make sense, until you think about: How do we know that these are the outcomes that really matter, and who should the outcomes matter to? When you think about it that way, it should be the patients who say, ‘Having my condition, these are the things that are most important to me.'”

While researchers typically focus on scientific measures like lab values, Chuang said, patients might be more focused on their quality of life, whether or not they can walk without using a walker or how they can take fewer medications.

The PaTH Network is using PCORI’s funding to study patient-centered outcomes for atrial fibrillation (AF or A fib, the most common type of irregular heartbeat) and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF, a rare lung disease with an unknown cause). All of the clinical data research networks in PCORnet, including the PaTH Network, are also working together to better understand the development and treatment of obesity, as well as how some people maintain a healthy weight across their lifetime. By joining forces with other institutions, researchers will have far more patients involved in the study—potentially 3 million in the PaTH Network alone—making the study results much more powerful.

The benefits of larger studies are perhaps obvious for rare conditions, like IPF, for which a lone institution might only have a handful of participants. But large groups of participants also help advance research in more common conditions, like atrial fibrillation, that have many treatment options and no gold standard of care.


July 13, 2015 at 7:06 am Leave a comment

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