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Designing a Smart Sensor Network for Tracking Submarines

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Illustration of network concept. (Getty Images)
Illustration of network concept. A UConn researcher at the National Institute for Undersea Vehicle Technology is developing a ‘smart sensor network’ that is both energy-efficient and resilient, to track targets such as enemy submarines. (Getty Images)

A team of UConn engineers is developing an energy-efficient “smart sensor network” to track targets of interest, such as the proximity of enemy submarines or ships to Navy vessels.

The U.S. Navy currently uses underwater Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance (ISR) sensor networks that run on full power, which can be a problem for long-term operations. The more accurate the sensor, the more power they consume.

The sensor networks currently being used could consist of several multi-modal sensor nodes, called sensor buoys, where each node acts independently and contains a diverse sensor suite, a data-processing unit, a transmitter and receiver, and a GPS device. The sensor suite can be composed of different types of sensors to detect and track targets, such as underwater microphones and active sonars.

Batteries typically burn out within  a few days,  just as cell phones suck up more power when running multiple operations.

Traditionally, these sensor nodes operate on full power, running all devices simultaneously, but the batteries that power them typically burn out within a few days of operation,  just as cell phones suck up more power when running multiple operations. This causes sensing failures which, in turn, leads to holes in coverage and affects tracking performance.

This poses a challenge to the Navy, since it deploys thousands of acoustic sensor networks throughout the ocean, where battery replacement can be time-consuming or impossible.

To address the challenge, Shalabh Gupta, a UConn engineer and researcher at the National Institute for Undersea Vehicle Technology, devised the concept of a “smart sensor network” that is energy-efficient as well as resilient to failures.

Intelligent Energy-efficient Sensor Network. (Illustration by Hayley Joyal '18 (SFA))
Intelligent Energy-efficient Sensor Network. (Illustration by Hayley Joyal ’18 (SFA))

In a smart sensor network, sensor nodes adapt their sensing modalities based on the information about the targets’ whereabouts. Thus, the nodes around the target, such as a ship or submarine, activate their high-power sensing devices to track the target accurately, pinpointing its location, velocity, and trajectory.

On the other hand, the nodes that are located farther away from the target cycle between low-power sensing and sleep states to minimize energy consumption while still remaining aware.

Thus, if a low-power sensor detects a target, the node switches to high-power sensing to track it. Similarly, the high-power sensing devices that are tracking the target predict the target’s trajectory and alert other sensors within range of the target’s path, so that they switch to high power. Once the target has passed outside of a sensor’s range, it reverts to low-power mode.

The smart sensor networks also provide resilience. If a few nodes in the network fail, then the nodes surrounding the hole in coverage formed by the failed nodes jointly optimize to expand their sensing ranges to cover the gap.

“These networks have to contain built-in, distributed intelligence,” says Gupta, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

His first research paper on the algorithm, coauthored by graduate student James Hare, was published online in IEEE Transactions on Cybernetics in August 2017.

With this advance, crews on ships and submarines will be able to track enemy watercraft with batteries that last about 60 to 90 percent longer, Gupta says.

Gupta’s lab has prototypes of the sensors for ground use, and has been talking with Navy personnel about using them for the underwater acoustic sensor network.  He is currently seeking funding to build underwater sensors.

Piecing Together Our Planet Pixel by Pixel

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UConn researcher Chandi Witharana is using remote sensing as 'a virtual passport' to monitor vast expanses of land in remote areas, including the Arctic tundra. (Chandi Witharana)
UConn researcher Chandi Witharana is using remote sensing as ‘a virtual passport’ to monitor vast expanses of land in remote areas, including the Arctic tundra. (Torre Jorgenson, University of Alaska-Fairbanks)
At first glance, the high-resolution satellite images of the Arctic tundra look like the lacy skin of a cantaloupe melon. But this characteristic feature of the tundra is perfect for studying the rapidly changing landscape of the region using remote sensing technologies. (Chandi Witharana)
At first glance, the high-resolution satellite images of the Arctic tundra look like the lacy skin of a cantaloupe melon. But this characteristic feature of the tundra is perfect for studying the rapidly changing landscape of the region using remote sensing technologies. (Torre Jorgenson, University of Alaska-Fairbanks)

At first glance, the high-resolution images of the polygons look like the lacy skin of a cantaloupe melon – perhaps not what would be expected of images of the Arctic tundra. But this characteristic feature of the tundra is a perfect focus for remote sensing technologies and for studying the rapidly changing landscape of the region.

From the Antarctic to the Arctic and areas in between, Chandi Witharana is applying powerful remote sensing technology to study global problems.

Witharana, a visiting assistant professor in UConn’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, says remote sensing is “a virtual passport” to these remote areas, allowing him to carefully monitor the harsh landscape from his grizzly bear-free computer laboratory on campus.

He and his collaborators are currently mapping thousands of square meters of the Pan-Arctic, using satellite images to collect data. The images offer a resolution so powerful that anything larger than 30 centimeters can be imaged from space, enabling the researchers to study areas across the globe that would be difficult or impossible to survey otherwise.

For the Pan-Arctic project, satellite images are taken roughly every two days, over a massive stretch of land encompassing parts of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia.

Each point or pixel within each image is identified by its geographical location, using latitude and longitude, and this geo-referencing is used to mesh the data together using super computers. The researchers then compare various features between images taken over time, noting changes or trends.

In the Arctic tundra, the researchers are seeing degradation proceeding at an alarming rate.

“Previously it was thought that topography was fixed, needing millions of years to change,” says Witharana. “But this degradation is happening within the span of a decade.”

Without remote sensing technologies, collection of this type of data over such vast expanses of land would be cost-prohibitive, dangerous, and potentially impossible for humans to accomplish, since many areas are remote and cannot be reached even by helicopter.

A satellite image of a refugee camp. (Chanda Witharana)
A satellite image of a refugee camp. (Torre Jorgenson, University of Alaska-Fairbanks )

Remote sensing is also a vital tool for an entirely different kind of extreme – wars and their effects on civilian populations. Working with the United Nations, Witharana studied how people migrate under forced conditions, where refugee settlements are established, and the number of those affected.

Due to the chaos inherent in war, the only unbiased and accurate measures of refugee populations are those gathered using remote sensing, says Witharana. “You cannot trust any other source in conflict situations. It is not possible to report exact numbers from the ground.”

Witharana has not only used the technology for his own research, he has introduced it to K-12 STEM classrooms as part of the Next Generation Science Standards. Using their own virtual passports, students can apply tools like Google Earth and StreetView to go on virtual hikes, exploring the Antarctic landscape and areas such as Deception Island and Bailey Head, and study the penguin population.

After a little tweaking, Witharana says, the technology can become a valuable tool in gathering information about almost anything you are interested in. The possibilities are as vast as the landscapes surveyed.

“This is everyday science, it is artwork, and it is a rich educational tool.”

Witharana is also participating in UConn’s Metanoia on the Environment, and will be holding a satellite image gallery during the week of Earth Day. The gallery will present appealing patterns, shapes, colors, and textures of the natural and human-made landscape, as well as sentient views of forced migration, violence, and destruction triggered by autocracy, racial aggression, and ethnic tension. The intent is to prompt viewers to observe and recognize the beauty in the world, and to contemplate the role humans play in its shaping.

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation Arctic System Science Program Award # 1720875.

New Compound Helps Activate Cancer-Fighting T Cells

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An illustration showing interactions between components of the AH10-7 compound (yellow), an immune system antigen presenting cell (gray) and an invariant natural killer T cell (green and blue) that spark activation of iNKT cells in “humanized” mice. (Image courtesy of Jose Gascon/UConn)
An illustration showing interactions between components of the AH10-7 compound (yellow), an immune system antigen-presenting cell (gray), and an invariant natural killer T cell (green and blue) that spark activation of iNKT cells in ‘humanized’ mice. (Image courtesy of Jose Gascon/UConn)
Researchers Amy Howell and José Gascón of the chemistry department discuss a molecular simulation on a laptop monitor in the academic wing of the Chemistry Building. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
Researchers Amy Howell and José Gascón of the chemistry department discuss a molecular simulation on a laptop monitor in the academic wing of the Chemistry Building. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells are powerful weapons our body’s immune systems count on to fight infection and combat diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, and lupus. Finding ways to spark these potent cells into action could lead to more effective cancer treatments and vaccines.

While several chemical compounds have shown promise stimulating iNKT cells in mice, their ability to activate human iNKT cells has been limited.

Now, an international team of top immunologists, molecular biologists, and chemists led by University of Connecticut chemistry professor Amy Howell reports in Cell Chemical Biology the creation of a new compound that appears to have the properties researchers have been looking for.

The compound – a modified version of an earlier synthesized ligand – is highly effective in activating human iNKT cells. It is also selective – encouraging iNKT cells to release a specific set of proteins known as Th1 cytokines, which stimulate anti-tumor immunity.

One of the limitations of earlier compounds was their tendency to cause iNKT cells to release a rush of different cytokines. Some of the cytokines turned the body’s immune response on, while others turned it off. The conflicting cytokine activity hampered the compounds’ effectiveness.

The new compound – called AH10-7 – is uniquely structured so that does not happen.

“One of the goals in this field has been to identify compounds that elicit a more biased or selective response from iNKT cells, and we were able to incorporate features in AH10-7 that did that,” says Howell, who has been studying the role of glycolipids in modulating the human immune system for more than 20 years.

The robust study, years in the making, also applied advanced structural and 3-D computer modeling analysis to identify the underlying basis for the new compound’s success. These highly detailed insights into what is happening at the molecular level open up new paths for research and could lead to the development of even more effective compounds.

“We synthesized a new compound, demonstrated its effectiveness with biological data, and learned more about its interactions with proteins through X-ray crystallography and computational analysis,’’ says UConn associate professor of chemistry José Gascón, a specialist in quantum and molecular mechanics. “We are providing protocols so that other scientists can rationally design related molecules that elicit desired responses from iNKT cells.”

The molecular analysis helped validate and explain experimental results.

“By exposing a crystalized form of the molecular complex to a high-intensity X-ray beam at the Australian Synchrotron, we were able to obtain a detailed 3-D image of the molecular interplay between the invariant natural killer T cell receptor and AH10-7,” says corresponding author Jérôme Le Nours, a structural biologist with the Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University in Australia. “This enabled us to identify the structural factors responsible for AH10-7’s potency in activating iNKT cells. This valuable insight could lead to the development of even more effective anti-metastatic ligands.”

Efforts to harness the therapeutic potential of human iNKT cells began 20 years ago with the discovery that natural and synthetic forms of glycolipid ligands known as alpha-galactosylceramides, or α-GalCers for short, were potent activators of iNKT cells. Scientists immediately recognized their possible value in fighting cancer and other diseases. These α-GalCer ligands serve as tiny dock masters in our immune system, helping antigen-presenting cells attract and bind with iNKT cells so they can be activated to kill cancerous cells or fight off pathogens and other foreign invaders.

Comparison of tumor suppression in the lungs of wild mice (top row) and 'humanized' mice (bottom row). First column represents untreated mice. Second column, mice treated with the KRN7000 synthesized compound. Third column, mice treated with the new compound AH10-7. Results show the newly synthesized compound AH10-7 is at least as effective as KRN7000 in suppressing growth of melanoma cells. (Images courtesy of Dr. Steven Porcelli and Weiming Yuan)
Comparison of tumor suppression in the lungs of wild mice (top row) and ‘humanized’ mice (bottom row). First column represents untreated mice. Second column, mice treated with the KRN7000 synthesized compound. Third column, mice treated with the new compound AH10-7. Results show the newly synthesized compound AH10-7 is at least as effective as KRN7000 in suppressing growth of melanoma cells. (Images courtesy of Dr. Steven Porcelli and Weiming Yuan)

The first promising version of a synthesized α-GalCer was a compound known as KRN7000. While KRN7000 powerfully stimulated iNKT cells in both mice and humans, it triggered the release of a flood of many types of cytokines, limiting its potential for clinical applications. Since then, researchers have been searching for new variations of KRN7000 that maintain their effectiveness in activating human iNKT cells while also favoring release of the powerful tumor fighting Th1 cytokines.

In the current study, Howell and colleagues made two significant modifications to an α-GalCer ligand in an attempt to make it more effective. They found that adding a hydrocinnamoyl ester on to the sugar stabilized the ligand and kept it close to the surface of the antigen-presenting cell, thereby enhancing its ability to dock with and stimulate human iNKT cells. In addition, trimming off part of the molecule’s sphingoid base appears to initiate the critical Th1 cytokine bias. Both changes, working in tandem, strengthened the effectiveness of the entire molecular complex in terms of activating human iNKT cells, Howell says.

To further validate AH10-7’s effectiveness, the researchers tested the new compound in wild mice as well as partially “humanized” mice, whose genomes were modified to mimic the human iNKT cell response. Notably, AH10-7 was shown to be at least as effective as KRN7000 in suppressing the growth of melanoma cells in the partially humanized mice.

Dr. Steven Porcelli, an immunologist with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in N.Y., also served as a corresponding author on the study.

The research was supported in part by NIH grants U01 GM111849, R01 GM087136, R01 AI45889, and R01 AI 091987.

A complete list of the contributing researchers and funding resources for the study “Dual Modifications of α-Galatosylceramide Synergize to Promote Activation of Human Invariant Natural Killer T Cells and Stimulate Anti-tumor Immunity” can be found here.

The Tragic Story of America’s Only Native Parrot

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The last recorded Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) died nearly 100 years ago. (Wikimedia Commons)
The last recorded Carolina parakeet died nearly 100 years ago. Now, some scientists consider the Carolina parakeet one of the top candidates for ‘de-extinction.’ (Wikimedia Commons)

It was winter in upstate New York in 1780 in a rural town called Schoharie, home to the deeply religious Palatine Germans. Suddenly, a flock of gregarious red and green birds flew into town, seemingly upon a whirlwind.

The townspeople thought the end of the world was upon them. Though the robin-sized birds left quickly, their appearance was forever imprinted on local lore. As author Benjamin Smith Barton wrote, “The more ignorant Dutch settlers were exceedingly alarmed. They imagined, in dreadful consternation, that it portended nothing less calamitous than the destruction of the world.”

The history of the Carolina parakeet’s decline parallels the history of American growth over the course of the 19th century. All that prosperity came with many terrible costs.

You and I know that the birds weren’t a precursor of mankind’s demise – but in a way, there was impending doom ahead. These birds were Carolina parakeets, America’s only native parrot. Exactly 100 years ago this February, the last captive Carolina parakeet died, alone in a cage in the Cincinnati Zoo, the same zoo where the last captive passenger pigeon, named Martha, died four years earlier. The last “official” wild Carolina parakeet was spotted in Florida just two years later.

Why did these birds go extinct? It remains a mystery. Given that parrots today are at greater risk for extinction than other major bird groups, is there anything scientists can learn from the Carolina parakeet?

Unraveling parakeet mysteries

Over the past six years, I’ve been collecting information about where the Carolina parakeet was observed over the past 450 years.

I spent hours upon hours reading historical documents, travel diaries, and other writings, ranging from the 16th century all the way into the 1940s. I’ve often become lost in the stories surrounding these parrot observations – from the first accounts of Europeans exploring the New World, to the harrowing tales of settlers traveling the Oregon Trail in the 1800s, to grizzled egg hunters scouring the swamps of Florida in the early 1900s.

Conuropsis carolinensis (Linnaeus, 1758), the extinct Carolina parakeet, is on public display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. (Wikimedia Commons)
Conuropsis carolinensis (Linnaeus, 1758), the extinct Carolina parakeet, on public display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. (Wikimedia Commons)

I also dug through natural history museum collections, looking at what many would just see as just some old, dusty, creepy dead birds. But I see them differently: beautiful in their own way, each with a story to tell.

My goal was to unravel some of the lasting mysteries about the Carolina parakeet – like where it lived. Historically, people used to determine a species range by plotting the most extreme observations of that species on a map, drawing a polygon around them and called it a day. Because of this, people long thought Carolina parakeets lived from upstate New York all the way to Colorado and down to the Texas coast.

But birds are often seen in areas where they don’t normally go. For instance, the range of the snowy owl – like Hedwig of “Harry Potter” fame – doesn’t really extend all the way to Bermuda, though one was once spotted there.

What’s more, scientists don’t know what really drove these parakeets to extinction. Some thought it was habitat loss. Some thought it was hunting and trapping. Some thought disease. A few even thought it was competition with nonnative honey bees for tree cavities, where the parakeets would roost and nest.

Thanks to the data I compiled, as well as cutting-edge machine learning approaches to analyze those data, my colleagues and I were able to reconstruct the Carolina parakeets’ likely range and climate niche. It turned out to be much smaller than previously believed. Generally, their range extended from Nebraska east to Ohio, south to Louisiana and Texas. The eastern subspecies lived mostly along the southeastern coast from Alabama, through Florida, and up to Virginia.

We were also able to confirm the longstanding hypothesis that the parakeets in the northwest part of their range migrated southeast in the winter, to avoid the blistering cold of the Midwest.

Why it matters

John James Audubon's 'Carolina Parakeets.' (Wikimedia Commons)
John James Audubon’s ‘Carolina Parakeets.’ (Wikimedia Commons)

In a world that faces extinction on a scale not seen in the past 65 million years, some of you may wonder: Aren’t there more important things to study?

While this may seem rather minor, some scientists consider the Carolina parakeet one of the top candidates for “de-extinction.” That’s a process in which DNA is harvested from specimens and used to “resurrect” extinct species, not unlike “Jurassic Park” (but way less action and decidedly less Jeff Goldblum).

If someone were to spend millions of dollars doing all of the genetic and breeding work to bring back this species, or any other, how will they figure out where to release these birds? Given the effects of climate change, it’s no longer a given that scientists could release birds exactly where they used to be and expect them to flourish.

Whether or not de-extinction is a worthwhile use of conservation effort and money is another question, best answered by someone other than me. But this is just an example of one potential use of this type of research.

In many ways, the history of the Carolina parakeet’s decline parallels the history of American growth over the course of the 19th century. All that prosperity came with many terrible costs. As the U.S. expanded and remade the landscape to suit its needs, many native species lost out.

Today, parrots face a serious threat of extinction. Parrot diversity tends to be highest in areas around the world that are rapidly developing, much like the U.S. during the 19th century. So whatever lessons the Carolina parakeet can teach us may be crucial moving forward.

I continue to study Carolina parakeets, and other recently extinct species, in the effort to hear and relate these lessons. As cliche as it is to say, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Originally published in The Conversation.

How Privacy Concerns Drive Website Business Models

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Icon of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Messenger (Facebook's proprietary messaging app) alongside other social media apps on a Samsung Galaxy smartphone's touchscreen. (Erik Tham/Getty Images)
Limiting online privacy intrusion may be best accomplished through the invisible hand of the market itself, says business professor Ram Gopal. (Erik Tham/Getty Images)

As is evident with the current Facebook crisis, third parties pose a significant potential privacy risk to visitors. But Facebook is not the only website using them. The convenience of easy sign-ins with Google or Twitter accounts also results in immediate identification with third parties.

Currently, there is effectively no tracking of where your data goes, and no ability for a consumer to know what is done with their data.

Even before the Facebook data breach, a U.S. Senate report found that visits to online news sites may involve connecting with hundreds of other parties, and the “sheer volume of such activity makes it difficult for even the most vigilant consumer to control the data being collected or protect against its malicious use.”

If simply landing on a website can cause substantial and instantaneous sharing with third parties, this begs the question, “What’s going to limit this privacy intrusion?”

Regulatory organizations such as the Federal Trade Commission and the European Union are looking into policy enforcement strategies.

But an overlooked method of limiting this privacy intrusion is through the invisible hand of the market itself. Our work focuses on the possibility that websites dealing with visitors who are more concerned about their privacy will be faced with a market that curbs their behavior.

In a paper published in a recent issue of MIS Quarterly, we found that when visitor privacy concerns for a website are high relative to the competition, the website will have a smaller niche market of customers willing to pay high subscription prices in exchange for privacy protection.

We concentrated on two sources of income for websites: subscriptions and the sale of visitor data to third parties. A website using the subscription model needs a large base of visitors, but it can also sell visitor information in secondary markets through advertising or other third parties. Therefore, the website must strike a balance between subscription and third party monetization in this two-sided market.

An overlooked method of limiting this privacy intrusion is through the invisible hand of the market itself.

At the other extreme, a website facing low visitor privacy concerns can tap into a larger market of customers willing to exchange their personal information to access the website. We found that the website’s profits are highest when visitors have moderate privacy concerns – not too low and not too high – especially when the competition faces very high privacy concerns.

We also analyzed how the third party industry structure is impacted by visitor privacy concerns.

We found that higher visitor privacy concerns will result in the website using fewer third parties, and the result is a higher concentration in the third party market for that industry. Higher industry security requirements result in higher barriers to entry, which also increase the industry concentration of third parties.

These findings about the third party market corroborate the finding that third party concentration is higher in markets with high privacy concerns, such as healthcare. Ironically, in a concentrated market, the fewer – but more powerful – third parties collect data from manywebsites. These third parties gain a more comprehensive visitor profile, which has greater value, but also greater privacy risk to visitors.

In the wake of the Facebook data breach, it is evident that policymakers and regulatory organizations must monitor the third party market for potential privacy violations.

Additionally, requiring transparency with respect to the exact third parties and the types of data they are receiving would allow consumers to make better decisions regarding their privacy. Adding tracking features for consumers to see where their data goes beyond these third parties would create additional and potentially important transparency.

Currently, there is effectively no tracking of where your data goes, and no ability for a consumer to know what is done with their data.

OVPR Quarterly Reports

Dear Colleagues,

Now that data has been finalized, I would like to provide you with several reports relating to sponsored program activity—both research and education/service—managed by Sponsored Program Services within the Office of the Vice President for Research at UConn and UConn Health. These reports include:

In the reports, data is presented in two ways: by the PI’s Academic Home Department and by the Managing Department or Center/Institute. Please refer to the first pages of the reports for definitions and information regarding the data. Should you have any questions regarding these quarterly reports, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Please note that we have included an additional Summary of Sponsored Program Activity, including the Effective F&A rate on awards. This information provides a snapshot of our activity as compared to the same period last year and can be found on the third page of the Proposals, Awards, and Expenditures: FY14-FY18Q2 report.

Through the 2nd quarter of FY2018, we have seen continued increases in Proposals, Awards, and Expenditures over the same period in FY2017. The significant increase in Awards is primarily due to a shifting of Federal awards from the last quarter of FY2017 to the 1st quarter of FY2018 due to delays in the approval of the federal budget. Award rates are expected to return to more traditional levels as the year progresses. FY2018 combined Expenditures across both campuses are on track with FY2017 spending; however, there has been a decrease at UConn Health which has been offset by an increase at Storrs. The Effective F&A rate for FY2018 through the 2nd quarter at Storrs is 29.60% and 33.24% for UConn Health.

The OVPR continues to seek creative solutions to address the major challenges UConn and UConn Health researchers face as a result of decreasing federal funds. I am confident we can continue upwards trends by continuing to work together, aggressively apply for extramural funding, and pursuing new channels of support for the tremendous research, scholarship, and creative activities taking place every day at UConn and UConn Health.

Thank you for your continued commitment and contribution to our students, to your research and scholarship, and to UConn/UConn Health.

Sincerely,

Dr. Radenka Maric
Vice President for Research
UConn/UConn Health
Professor in Sustainable Energy
438 Whitney Road Ext., Unit 1006
Storrs, CT 06269
Storrs: 860.486.3621
UCH: 860.679.2230
www.research.uconn.edu

Bones in All the Wrong Places

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Skeleton of Harry Eastlack (1933-1973), who had a rare disorder called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva caused by a genetic mutation that transforms connective tissue, such as muscle, ligaments, and tendons, into bone, resulting in progressive fusion of all the joints in the skeletal system. (Memento Mütter Museum, under a Creative Commons License)
Skeleton of Harry Eastlack (1933-1973), who had a rare disorder called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva caused by a genetic mutation that transforms connective tissue, such as muscle, ligaments, and tendons, into bone, resulting in progressive fusion of all the joints in the skeletal system. (Memento Mütter Museum, under a Creative Commons License)

By the time he died in 1973, Harry Eastlack had two skeletons; the one he was born with, and the one that grew around it, gradually encasing him in a prison of his own bone. Forty-five years later, UConn researchers have shown in the Feb. 2, 2018 of Nature Communications that a certain type of cell is responsible for Eastlack’s disease. Their results could help others with this disease, as well as hint at why millions of people suffer from bony growths after sports and deep tissue injuries.

Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) affects only 1 person in 2 million. It’s caused by a spontaneous mutation that affects only a single protein. But the effect is devastating.

“In FOP, the most mild injuries – a childhood vaccination, a bruise – triggers massive bone growth. And nothing can be done about it. It can’t be surgically removed, because that triggers more bone,” says UConn stem cell biologist David Goldhamer. “If bone grows across a joint, that joint locks, and it will never move again.” Inevitably, FOP sufferers grow more and more bone, slowly getting locked in this secondary skeleton. Many die in midlife, often of respiratory problems due to their inability to breathe well. Eastlack died at age 39 from pneumonia.

Goldhamer began studying FOP when he was at the University of Pennsylvania and a doctor who treated FOP patients approached him. What is special about muscle tissue, the doctor asked. Why does muscle give rise to these bony growths? After meeting FOP patients and their families, Goldhamer was inspired to use his expertise in muscle biology to address these questions. He has researched FOP ever since, and he finally has answers to the doctor’s questions.

A microCT picture of pseudocolored heterotopic ossification. (John B. Lees-Shepard, Michael J. Schneider Jr., and David J. Goldhamer/UConn Photo)

The mystery bone-making culprit, it turns out, isn’t related to muscle. Instead, it’s a type of cell called Fibro/Adipogenic Progenitors (FAPs). FAPs hang out in muscle tissue, but it’s not entirely clear what they do. No one had any idea they were capable of making cartilage and bone.

Goldhamer, post doc John Lees-Shepard, and assistant research professor Masakazu Yamamoto at UConn, as well as colleagues at the University of Michigan and Alexion Pharmaceuticals, examined FAPs with a mutation in the ACVR1 protein. University of Pennsylvania scientists had already identified the mutation as the cause of FOP. What Goldhamer and his colleague showed is what it does: it alters a single type of protein that acts as a receptor on the surface of FAP cells, and this mutant receptor somehow tells FAPs to develop into cartilage and bone at injury sites.

Now Goldhamer and his colleagues are trying to understand the basic biology of how and why the disease progresses, in the hopes that future FOP patients won’t meet the same fate as poor Harry Eastlack.

 

Babe Ruth in a Kimono: How Baseball Diplomacy has Fortified Japan-US Relations

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Former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo, presents flowers to former Dodgers President Peter O'Malley (R) after he received The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon from Harry H. Horinouchi, consul general of Japan in Los Angeles, as part of Japan Night celebration at Dodger Stadium prior to the start of a baseball game between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies July 8, 2015 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Baseball has been a unifier, bringing together the people of two nations with vastly divergent histories and cultures, says UConn researcher Steven Wisensale. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
On Feb. 9, 2001, an American submarine, the USS Greenville, surfaced beneath the Ehime Maru, a Japanese ship filled with high school students who were training to become fishermen. The ship sank, and nine students and teachers died.

Had a Japanese submarine surfaced beneath a North Korean ship and sunk it, the two nations might have gone to war.

But in this case, U.S. and Japanese officials were able to turn to a familiar diplomatic tool: baseball. To honor the victims, they formed a youth baseball tournament that takes place each year, with the location alternating between Shikoku and Hawaii.

The role of baseball in Japanese-U.S. diplomacy has a long and rich history. After American educator Horace Wilson and railway engineer Hiroshi Hiraoka introduced the sport to the Japanese people in the 1870s, it flourished. With time, the sport has been a unifier, bringing together the people of two nations with vastly divergent histories and cultures.

Goodwill tours first began in the early 1900s, when Japanese and American college baseball teams competed against one another. Professional teams soon followed. While World War II interrupted the cultural exchange, baseball has served as a healing mechanism since the end of the war, helping the two geopolitical foes become loyal allies.

As a recent Fulbright scholar in Japan, I studied the role baseball played in the diplomatic relationship between Japan and the U.S. I’ve identified six key moments in this unique history.

The Babe wins hearts and minds

In 1934, though the clouds of war were looming, Babe Ruth and his American teammates embarked on an 18-game tour of Japan.

Swatting 13 home runs, waving American and Japanese flags, clowning with kids, and even donning a kimono, the Babe won the hearts and minds of the Japanese people.

Today, Ruth’s statue stands in the Sendai Zoo. It was on that very spot – considered sacred by some – where the great Yankees slugger’s first home run in Japan landed.

When the team returned to the U.S., Connie Mack, owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, proclaimed that the two countries would never go to war.

“There was strong anti-American feeling throughout Japan,” Mack told reporters, “and then Babe Ruth smacked a home run, and all the ill feeling and underground war sentiment vanished just like that!”

Unfortunately, seven years after Ruth’s visit, Mack would be proven wrong.

Lefty to the rescue

In 1949, four years after the end of World War II, American troops were still occupying Japan.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, was charged with overseeing the postwar occupation and rebuilding efforts. With food shortages and homelessness a recurring issue – and complaints about some culturally insensitive troops – he became concerned about anti-American sentiment and feared a communist insurgency.

MacArthur, who had played baseball as a cadet at West Point, understood the cultural importance of the sport to both countries. As a way to ease tensions, he summoned former MLB star Lefty O’Doul, who had become the manager of the minor league San Francisco Seals. The Japanese people were already familiar with O’Doul: He had played during the 1931 tour, persuaded Ruth to go to Japan in 1934, and helped launch a Japanese professional league in 1936.

The Seals would become the first American baseball team to play in Japan since Ruth’s tour, and their 10-game tour drew 500,000 fans, including 14,000 war orphans at a game against an American military all-star team. Emperor Hirohito even met with O’Doul to thank him and the Seals.

MacArthur would later say that O’Doul’s tour was the greatest example of diplomacy he had ever seen. Today, O’Doul is one of only three Americans in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.

Wally Yonamine ‘integrates’ Japanese baseball

In the early 1950s, several Japanese team owners began to explore the feasibility of recruiting American baseball players, hoping an infusion of American talent could elevate the quality of play.

However, there was still some concern about lingering hostility from the war, and owners worried that fans wouldn’t take kindly to rooting for “pure American” ballplayers. Matsutaro Shoriki, the owner of the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, reached out to his good friend, Lefty O’Doul, for advice.

After consulting with the U.S. State Department, O’Doul recommended Wally Yonamine. The Japanese-American spoke no Japanese and was initially subjected to racist taunts.

Nonetheless, as the first American to “integrate” Japanese baseball after World War II, he would change Japanese baseball forever: Between 1951 and 2017, more than 300 American players would follow Yonamine’s lead and sign with Japanese ball clubs.

Yonamine’s arrival in Japan also coincided with the signing of the 1951 peace treaty that ended U.S. occupation of Japan in 1952.

The Giants poach a player

In 1964, left-handed relief pitcher Masanori Murakami was sent to the United States by the Nankai Hawks for special instruction from the San Francisco Giants. Assigned to the Giants’ minor league affiliate in Fresno, California, Murakami was scheduled to return to the Hawks in June. But he ended up staying on with the Giants when the Hawks never summoned him home.

By September, the Giants in the heat of a pennant race needed to replenish their depleted pitching staff. So they called up Murakami from the minor leagues, and the Japanese southpaw was so effective in his short stint with the Giants that they wanted him to stay on with the team. By the end of the season, they claimed they owned the rights to his contract.

Nippon Professional Baseball protested, and although a compromise was reached – with Murakami being permitted to stay one more year with the Giants before returning to Japan permanently – no Japanese players would be allowed to come to the U.S. for more than 30 years.

Japanese team owners were well aware of what happened to the Negro Leagues after MLB clubs started poaching their best players. Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947; by 1958, they had dissolved.

‘The Tornado’ eases economic tensions

In the 1980s, Japan’s economy went into overdrive. By 1990, Japan had passed the U.S. in per capita GNP, and many Americans began to resent their success. Japanese investors were gobbling up icons of American business like Rockefeller Center and Universal Studios, while auto workers smashed Toyota cars to protest Japanese trade policy.

In 1995, finding a loophole in his contract, right-handed pitcher Hideo Nomo declared himself “retired” at age 26 and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent. Many of his countrymen viewed Nomo as a traitor, and there were rumors that his father had stopped speaking to him.

But Nomo became an instant star. With a corkscrew windup that flummoxed hitters, “The Tornado” was named the starting pitcher for the 1995 All-Star game and won the Rookie of the Year award. Nomo’s success in the States softened the backlash back home, and Japanese baseball fans ended up embracing him.

The posting fee is implemented

Yet as more and more Japanese players followed Nomo to Major League Baseball, Nippon Professional Baseball owners were rightfully concerned about losing their “national assets” and receiving nothing in return. So in 1999, they worked in concert with Major League Baseball to establish a “posting fee” system.

In short, a Japanese team can “post” a player who wants to play stateside; MLB teams then bid for the rights to negotiate with the player. This compromise apparently satisfied the Japanese, while forcing MLB teams to be more selective in pursuing Japanese ballplayers.

Some of the more notable players to join MLB clubs via the posting system include Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and Kenta Maeda. The most recent arrival is Shohei Ohtani. This past offseason, the Los Angeles Angels paid a U.S.$20 million posting fee to Ohtani’s former team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, and gave Ohtani a $2.3 million signing bonus.

In an ironic twist, Ohtani, like Babe Ruth, is talented as a pitcher and a hitter. With the Angels, he plans to do both – a fitting echo to the legacy of the superstar who became one of baseball’s leading diplomats.

Originally published in The Conversation.

Disclosing Too Much Info Can Harm a Company’s Competitive Edge, Study Says

Read on UConn Today. 

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in the New York financial district on Wall Street. (Jeff Hutchens/Edit by Getty Images)
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in the New York financial district on Wall Street. (Jeff Hutchens/Edit by Getty Images)

Strict accounting laws, designed to help shareholders gain better insight into corporations, may ultimately harm a firm’s competitive position by forcing disclosure of proprietary information, according to Ying Zhou of the University of Connecticut, who has spent years analyzing the consequences of such mandates.

Zhou, assistant professor of accounting in the School of Business, presented her findings in January at the 2018 Financial Accounting and Reporting Section Meeting in Austin, Texas.

Ying Zhou
Ying Zhou, assistant professor of accounting

The focus of her research circles around a new requirement, widely implemented in 1998, that required companies to expand their segment disclosure. Previously, enterprises grouped products and services by industry lines. The loose definition of “industry” permitted flexibility and allowed managers of some diversified firms to report all operations in a single, broadly defined segment.

Under the original requirements, some large companies combined information about their myriad businesses in one report, failing to distinguish different factions of the business. They often cited proprietary information as the reason.

To study the impact of the new requirements, Zhou collected written evidence from companies that lobbied against the changes citing a competitive disadvantage. She tracked and studied 138 of those firms, examining their performance both two years prior to the initial proposal and two years after the accounting change was implemented.

“The results lend support to corporate concerns about competitive harm caused by extensive disclosure,’’ Zhou said. “Some of this information can truly be proprietary.”

With the new requirements, called SFAS-131, regulators had sought more expansive disclosure citing the interest of informing and protecting investors. The information revealed was not previously available through other channels. The Financial Accounting Standards Board adopted SFAS-131, noting that financial preparers could provide the additional information promptly and inexpensively.

An overwhelming majority of lobbying firms opposed the proposal and argued for a competitive-harm exemption, saying the reporting plan could compromise firms’ strategic and competitive interests.

In her study, Zhou found that among those companies that objected to the new accounting requirements, operating performance declined for firms that changed their segment reporting, but not for those that continued to report the same segments. She tested her results by comparing a separate control group.

Further analysis revealed that although there was little change in sales growth but a significant increase in selling, general, and administrative expenses per dollar of sales, suggesting an unusual sales effort to maintain market share in an intensified competitive environment. Segment profitability analysis showed that the decline in performance is attributable to the new segments disclosed under the new rule.

“In accounting literature, the existence of propriety costs has been used extensively as the rational explanation for non-disclosure in many settings,’’ she said. “However there is little evidence that mandatory disclose of propriety information really results in competitive harm—until now.’’

New Study Identifies Effective Treatments for Persistent Asthma

Read on UConn Today.

Asthma inhaler and a pressurised gas cannister refill. (Getty Image)
Asthma inhaler and a pressurised gas cannister refill. (Getty Image)

When it comes to treating teens and adults with persistent asthma, using a single corticosteroid and long-acting bronchodilator treatment for both daily asthma control and for rescue relief during sudden asthma attacks is more effective than taking separate medications for daily control and rescue, according to an analysis led by University of Connecticut researchers.

The findings appear today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Diana Sobieraj, left, assistant professor of pharmacy practice, and William Baker '02 (Phr) '04 Pharm.D., associate professor of pharmacy practice at the Pharmacy/Biology Building on Feb. 28, 2018. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Diana Sobieraj, left, assistant professor of pharmacy practice, and William Baker ’02 (Phr) ’04 Pharm.D., associate professor of pharmacy practice at the Pharmacy/Biology Building. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Standard treatment guidelines for persistent asthma in the United States currently suggest using different medications for daily control and rescue relief. Patients use an inhaled corticosteroid, with or without a long-acting bronchodilator known as a long-acting beta-agonist or LABA, for daily asthma control. Patients usually carry a second inhaler containing a short-acting beta-agonist (albuterol) for rescue relief when they have symptoms of wheezing, coughing, or a full-blown asthma attack.

For patients 12 and older with persistent asthma, the researchers found that Single treatment for Maintenance and Reliever Therapy, also known as SMART, resulted in significantly fewer asthma attacks, hospitalizations, and emergency room visits, compared to patients following the current standard of separate medications for control and rescue.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. About 25 million people in the U.S. have asthma; 7 million of them are children. While some individuals may only experience asthma when they exercise or in certain weather conditions, those with persistent asthma struggle to control their symptoms every day.

The UConn findings are part of a larger comprehensive review of asthma-related medical practices conducted for the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) at the request of the National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute.  The complete AHRQ report is available online today.

The UConn-led review encompassed 16 randomized controlled trials involving more than 22,700 patients to evaluate the effectiveness of SMART. The formulation used for the SMART approach was almost exclusively a single inhaler with a dry powder formulation of budesonide (a corticosteroid) and formoterol (a long-acting beta-agonist).

“The use of the corticosteroid-bronchodilator treatment for daily control is well established. The whole concept behind SMART is to use the same treatment for quick relief when it is necessary, eliminating the need to carry another different medication,” said UConn Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice Diana Sobieraj, the study’s principal investigator. “These studies found that the corticosteroid-formoterol mix is effective not only when used for daily control, but also for quick relief.  However, we did not review the evidence about side effects related to this practice.”

New long-acting bronchodilators known as LAMAs found to be effective when added to inhaled corticosteroids for uncontrolled asthma

In a separate review also appearing today in JAMA, a UConn-led analysis found that a new class of long- acting bronchodilators – known as long-acting muscarinic antagonists or LAMAs – significantly reduced the risk of exacerbations in people over 12 years with uncontrolled asthma when added to an inhaled corticosteroid, compared to a placebo.

However, LAMAs were not associated with a significant reduction in asthma exacerbations when compared to the use of long-acting beta-agonists or LABAs, when used along with an inhaled corticosteroid, the researchers said.

“The available evidence does not suggest that there is a significant difference in the way the newer type of long-acting bronchodilators (LAMAs) impact asthma exacerbations, asthma symptoms, or lung function compared to the long-acting bronchodilators (LABAs) that have been used for years” Sobieraj said. “But the studies we reviewed are not robust enough to determine whether one of these two classes of long-acting bronchodilators may be better than the other.”

Commonly used to treat patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, LAMAs are not currently incorporated into national treatment guidelines for asthma. The LAMA studies reviewed in the current meta-analysis focused almost exclusively on the long-acting muscarinic antagonist tiotropium.

The comprehensive scientific reviews reported in the two studies were led by a multidisciplinary team from the UConn School of Pharmacy’s Evidence-based Practice Center. The center is one of 13 nationally supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The centers review scientific evidence surrounding common medical conditions and new medical technologies to improve the quality and safety of national health care.

The AHRQ conducted its review of asthma treatments and protocols at the request of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). The Institute sponsors national asthma treatment guidelines. The Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma (Expert Panel Report-3) was published in 2007.

Evidence-based practice centers at Johns Hopkins University, the Mayo Clinic, and the ECRI Institute also contributed to the AHRQ review, providing scientific analysis on three other asthma-related topics.

UConn co-investigators on the systematic reviews were William Baker, Erin Weed, Elaine Nguyen, Craig Coleman, and C. Michael White. Also serving as co-investigators were Dr. Stephen Lazarus of the University of California, San Francisco; Dr. Jason Lang of Duke University; and Kathryn Blake of Nemours Children’s Specialty Care.

The research reviews were sponsored by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. They were awarded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality through Contract No. 290-2015-00012-1.