PHHP announces newest Research Innovation Fund awards

By Jill Pease

Technician loads syringe into device on lab bench with computer in foreground.
Lab technician Rashad Austin loads a fluorometer in the lab of Dr. Russell Hepple. With support from the PHHP Research Innovation Fund, Hepple and his team will study whether or not a specific pathological mechanism may play a role in different disease states that affect skeletal muscle.

The University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions announces a new round of awards for the college’s Research Innovation Fund, which is designed to fund pilot testing or feasibility studies that will place faculty members in an optimal position to obtain research funding from outside agencies.

The college has awarded new grants to Russell Hepple, Ph.D., a professor in the department of physical therapy; Kathryn Ross, Ph.D., M.P.H., an associate professor in the department of clinical and health psychology; and Drew A. Westmoreland, Ph.D., MSPH, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology. Their study topics range from the physiology of muscle change in illness to self-monitoring for weight loss and the use and acceptability of low alcohol and nonalcoholic beer, wine, and spirits.

The grant will allow Hepple to test his hypothesis that a pathological mechanism known as mitochondrial permeability transition, or mPT, plays a role in skeletal muscle changes.

Dr. Russell Hepple

“The concept that mitochondrial permeability transition might play a pathological role in skeletal muscle is a new concept that my lab is exploring based on largely circumstantial evidence that mPT is occurring in skeletal muscle in many different disease states, including sepsis, Pompe disease and cancer cachexia, which is a wasting syndrome,” Hepple said.

Hepple recently applied for a R21 grant from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases to fund a study to determine whether genetically targeting mPT in skeletal muscle would confer protection to skeletal muscle and systemic inflammation in a mouse model of sepsis. While the grant submission received a positive score, Hepple was advised that more preliminary data could put his submission in a much better position for funding. The PHHP Research Innovation Fund award gives Hepple the resources to generate evidence mPT is occurring in skeletal muscle, which will strengthen upcoming grant submissions.

“My hope is that this will give us the evidence needed to convince all reviewers that our R21 on sepsis is based upon a strong premise,” he said.

Ross applied for a PHHP Research Innovation Fund grant to support two National Institutes of Health R01 grant applications, currently under review.

Dr. Kathryn Ross headshot
Dr. Kathryn Ross

Ross is examining how clinician feedback — a best practice for behavioral weight loss programs — should ideally be delivered to help participants lose weight and maintain weight loss. While highly effective, these personalized messages can be time consuming to compose and deliver, Ross said.

“The cost and staff time required to provide this feedback can serve as a barrier, often leading to versions of our interventions being implemented without this feedback, even though we know it is important for supporting weight loss outcomes,” Ross said. “This work remains relevant even in light of medical management of obesity, for example, with adults seeking treatment via bariatric surgeries and newer medications, such as Wegovy and Mounjaro. These treatments both require similar behavioral changes that may benefit from individualized feedback.”

With Research Innovation Fund support, Ross plans to develop technology for clinicians to write and send feedback to participants within an existing mobile app developed by her team called MyTrack+. She will also run a small feasibility trial of the proposed larger trial that is designed to establish a protocol for optimal clinician feedback strategies.

“We submitted this pilot to fund the technical development and run 32 participants — versus 300 proposed in the larger trial — through all of our trial procedures so that we can demonstrate to reviewers our ability to successfully complete the larger project,” Ross said.

Westmoreland’s project is designed to produce some of the first research on how non-alcoholic beer, wine and spirits may be useful tools in reducing heavy alcohol consumption. Given the recent commercial expansion of these products, leadership at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has identified this topic as an area needing more research to understand the full potential of these products as a harm reduction strategy.

Dr. Drew Westmoreland

“While we know that these products are growing commercially, we don’t have a clear understanding of whether or not people like these products, or how they are or are not incorporating them into their alcohol drinking,” Westmoreland said.

Westmoreland and her team will conduct a survey with 1,500 nationally-representative adults, 21 years or older, to determine the use and acceptability of low alcohol and nonalcoholic beer, wine and spirits, as well as potential motivating factors for consumption.

“Collecting this data is an important first-step in determining the feasibility of these products for future harm reduction interventions,” Westmoreland said.

All faculty members with primary appointments in PHHP may submit proposals to the PHHP Research Innovation Fund. Priority is given to early career faculty, but faculty of all ranks — assistant, associate and full — are eligible. Collaboration across PHHP departments is highly desired and collaboration with other colleges is encouraged. More information and application instructions are available on the PHHP Research website.