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Columbia University has appointed two new professors—Dr. Hua Gu and Dr. Yong-Rui Zou—to Irene Diamond professorships in immunology in the Department of Microbiology. The professorships are part of a $10 million effort by The Irene Diamond Fund to support immunology in New York City medical schools, universities, and research institutes. Drs. Gu and Zou are among 13 researchers being funded by the initiative.

Dr. Gu, who seeks to understand the proper control of the signals essential to a normal immune defense to prevent immune deficiency and autoimmunity, was named an Irene Diamond Associate Professor of Immunology effective Jan. 1. He will receive up to $1 million to help establish his laboratory and facilitate independent work at Columbia. Before his appointment, Dr. Gu was head of lymphocyte development at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Zou's research focuses on the mechanisms of HIV pathogenesis, work she hopes will pave the way for designing a strategy to block HIV entry into cells. She also works on defining the roles of chemokine receptors and their ligands in lymphoid development. After she was appointed assistant professor of microbiology at Columbia in 2001, Dr. Zou received an award from the prestigious Pew Scholar Program. Her appointment as an Irene Diamond Assistant Professor of Immunology, which took effect Sept. 1, 2002, provides Dr. Zou with up to $500,000 to support her research.

The Irene Diamond Fund has made available $10 million to establish and support immunology professorships in New York City at institutions that demonstrate a commitment to developing or expanding immunological science and are willing to dedicate substantial resources to the effort. Columbia is one of five institutions approved to receive funding for one or more Irene Diamond professorships in immunology.

The immunology professorships are the first to be awarded by the Irene Diamond Fund. Irene Diamond is president of The Irene Diamond Fund Inc. and was president of The Aaron Diamond Foundation. Along with her husband, Aaron, a New York real estate developer, Irene first established The Aaron Diamond Foundation. The foundation spent $220 million during its 10-year concentrated giving efforts (1986-1996), mostly in New York City. In addition to supporting the Rockefeller University/Columbia University Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, the foundation created a $20 million postdoctoral research fellowship program for young scientists in the AIDS and drug abuse fields and supported public education, arts, human rights, and civil liberty programs. The Irene Diamond Fund, developed in continuation of Mrs. Diamond's philanthropic efforts after the close of The Aaron Diamond Foundation in 1996, is concentrating efforts in AIDS, immunology research, and the performing arts.

Laboratory research often requires investigators to perform surgical procedures on rats and mice under the microscope. But researchers and technicians typically have no surgical training before they begin work in a laboratory, forcing them to learn such techniques through trial and error. Eventually they become proficient but they often sacrifice a number of rodents for training purposes.

To teach researchers the basics of microsurgery, Columbia University Health Sciences' Institute of Comparative Medicine, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and Office of Grants and Contracts created a new course that began in March 2002. The two-day course is offered free to Columbia researchers who receive IACUC approval. The researchers must be performing or intend to perform surgery on rodents in their work.

Dr. Yelena Akelina, microsurgical instructor/program coordinator, teaches the course once a month during the academic year. Each class is limited to three students.

Researchers learn how to use surgical microscopes, microsurgery instruments, and inhalation anesthesia and how to perform microsuturing, vessel dissection, cannulation (catheter insertion), laparotomy (abdominal incision), and wound closure procedures. Instruction includes one lecture and hands-on sessions. Students are provided with a CD-ROM on rodent surgery, videotapes, and textbooks.

After viewing the CD-ROM and videotapes, students practice suturing on latex pieces under the microscope. Then students perform vessel cannulations and tracheotomies on a plastic rat model. The plastic rats are reusable and thereby reduce the number of live animals needed for training. Next, students conduct procedures on live rats and mice. Dr. Akelina supervises all of the procedures and evaluates students individually. Students who successfully complete all course requirements receive a certificate of completion.

In the future, the course may cover more procedures, such as open chest surgery and organ transplants. The course is described in a paper in the January Lab Animal.

—Matthew Dougherty

For the past five years, research has shown an association between gum infections in pregnant women and pre-term birth. But the studies included relatively small numbers of women, were cross-sectional, and could not determine any causal associations.

Now, Columbia University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Kentucky are participating in a large, randomized, clinical trial to study whether the treatment of periodontal infections reduces the incidence of pre-term birth and low birth-weight babies.

The University of Minnesota-led study is supported by a three-year, $7 million grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Recruitment begins in March of 816 women who have periodontal disease and are in the first trimester of pregnancy. Women from different racial and ethnic groups will be included in the study.

Half of the women will receive periodontal treatment during pregnancy while half will receive such treatment after delivery. The treated women will be taught proper oral hygiene techniques and have their teeth cleaned every three weeks to eliminate oral inflammation.

Dr. Panos N. Papapanou, associate professor of dentistry and director of the division of periodontics in the School of Dental and Oral Surgery, is leading Columbia's effort, which will enroll 204 women at Harlem Hospital. This cohort will consist primarily of African American women, as African Americans have one of the highest rates of pre-term birth.

If the study shows that treating periodontal disease reduces the risk of pre-term birth, the next step would be to include periodontal care in the standard package of prenatal care women obtain, Dr. Papapanou says. Periodontal infections are both preventable and curable.

—Matthew Dougherty


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