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UToledo Awarded $1.1 Million Federal Grant to Advance Clean Water Technology

Searching for new ways to address the growing threat to drinking water in northwest Ohio and across the globe, Dr. Jason Huntley discovered that native freshwater bacteria can destroy toxins produced during harmful algal blooms.

The University of Toledo scientist has now received a $1.1 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to advance that research into real-world solutions.

Huntley, an associate professor in the UToledo Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, has already shown in lab experiments that biofilters using those Lake Erie bacteria can remove microcystin at levels exponentially above current exposure guidelines established by the World Health Organization.

“This grant will enable us to extend our research to the next level,” Huntley said. “We did this successfully in the lab. Now we want to scale it up and put the bacteria to work in the water treatment plant.”

Huntley

The three-year research project will take a multifaceted approach to translate Huntley’s earlier finding into technologies that safeguard the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people.

“One of our big pushes here at UToledo is to not just do science for science’s sake, but to ask questions about how it can improve human health,” Huntley said. “This isn’t just a Toledo problem. There are harmful algal blooms all across the country and all across the world. This is a solution to a global health problem.”

Water treatment plants primarily use activated carbon to capture the microcystin toxins released during some harmful algal blooms. While effective, there are drawbacks. It can be expensive, there’s a limit to how much toxin can be removed from the water and the process generates microcystin-laden waste products that have to be dealt with.

Huntley and his research team believe their bacteria could help address those issues. Biofilters could be used to treat drinking water before it reaches the tap, and the bacteria could be added to the treatment plant byproducts to degrade the lingering toxins.

It’s also an inexpensive solution.

“It’s not free, but it’s really cheap to grow these bacteria that chew up and degrade the toxins. We grow them in water, that’s it. We think we can use them to treat water coming into the treatment plant as well as eliminating toxins in the water treatment byproducts, eliminating the need to incinerate these waste products or send them to a landfill,” Huntley said.

Prior to large-scale testing at the Toledo wastewater treatment plant, researchers will work to further develop and test the biofilters in a range of conditions, such as different water pressures and temperatures.

The research team also will work to isolate and identify the bacterial enzymes that break down microcystin, with a goal of being able to produce them on an industrial scale. Some of that work will be done in collaboration with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — a connection that was made during 2019’s National Lab Day at UToledo. The long-term goal is to develop water treatment tablets or droplet bottles that could be used to quickly detoxify water while boating, at family cabins or while hiking.

Huntley’s early work on this issue was funded by the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative and the Ohio Sea Grant. The success of that research helped UToledo earn the NOAA grant.

“This is turning taxpayer money here in Ohio to federally funded grants that bring big money back to Ohio,” Huntley said.


UToledo Launches Dashboard to Report Positive COVID-19 Cases On Campus

The University of Toledo has launched a public dashboard to provide transparent information about the prevalence of COVID-19 within the UToledo community.

The dashboard, which will be updated weekly, provides information about the number of positive cases among faculty, staff and students across the University. It also includes a snapshot of the University’s current cleaning and disinfectant supplies, as well as enhanced cleaning procedures.

“As the University continues to navigate this pandemic, we want to share what we know about the prevalence of COVID-19 within our campus community,” UToledo Interim President Gregory Postel said. “By building this dashboard, we’re also giving ourselves a better understanding of how cases on campus compare to the community around us, and what data-driven adjustments we may need to make to protect the health of our entire community.”

UToledo’s dashboard is part of a refreshed coronavirus website that details the University’s response to the pandemic.

The positive cases are reported using data from a variety of sources, including tests conducted by The University of Toledo Medical Center on behalf of the University, self-reported cases, and the voluntary surveillance testing of asymptomatic faculty, staff and students.

Recognizing that employees and students may have sought testing through their own healthcare provider, UToledo is closely working with the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department and other public health agencies to receive updated reports of all cases connected to the University.

UToledo has COVID-19 testing available on both Main Campus and Health Science campus through UTMC for all symptomatic employees and students, with test results available in as little as 24 hours. Through a partnership with Azova, the University began voluntary random surveillance testing of asymptomatic faculty, staff and students on Aug. 19.

Additionally, the University is testing all student-athletes upon their return to campus. Surveillance testing of student-athletes will continue throughout the fall semester.

The University is encouraging faculty, staff and students to self-report positive cases in order for the University to more quickly provide appropriate resources and take precautions to keep campus safe.

Should a student require self-isolation due to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, UToledo has set aside alternative housing to protect the health and safety of all students.

UToledo Interim President Gregory Postel, M.D., explains the dashboard data.

UToledo Interim President Gregory Postel, M.D., explains the dashboard data and how this information is being used by University leadership to make decisions to keep our campus community safe and healthy.


UToledo Adjusts Fall Semester Calendar in Response to COVID-19 Concerns

The University of Toledo is adjusting its fall semester calendar as an additional measure to protect the campus community during this COVID-19 pandemic.

UToledo will begin the fall 2020 semester on Monday, Aug. 17 — one week before the planned first day of class — and is making additional adjustments to the fall academic calendar so that students will end the on-campus portion of their studies by the Thanksgiving holiday.

In adjusting the semester, UToledo also is eliminating fall break, which was planned for Oct. 22 and 23. All final exams will be completed remotely the week of Nov. 30 – Dec. 4. These changes to the academic calendar will not impact the number of weeks in the semester as students will still be on campus for the regularly scheduled 15 weeks.

“Adjusting the fall semester in this way provides our students a great on-campus learning experience while also reducing the potential risk of exposure with students, faculty and staff traveling during the Thanksgiving holiday. We want to avoid, as much as possible, the potential for a member of our campus community to contract and spread the virus when returning to campus,” said Dr. Karen Bjorkman, provost and executive vice president of academic affairs.

With the change in the academic calendar, students will have the opportunity to move-in to the residence halls beginning Aug. 2 and continuing through Aug. 15. More information on the move-in process and scheduling will be sent to residential students in the coming weeks. Students graduating in December will be able to move out of the residence halls after their final examination(s).

“There are a number of uncertainties about COVID-19, but our public health and infectious disease experts have been working closely with local and state health officials to implement proactive strategies to mitigate risk while ensuring our students’ academic success,” said Dr. Amy Thompson, UToledo vice provost and public health scholar. “In the event that a ‘second wave’ of this virus in late fall becomes a reality, this strategy is one of many preventative measures UToledo can take now to protect our students and our campus community.”

UToledo continues to finalize its Rocket Restart plan to put measures in place to promote a safe return to on-campus operations. Additional details will be released in early July.


Altered sense of taste present in half of COVID-19 cases

Nearly half of individuals who contract COVID-19 experience changes in their sense of taste, a new analysis led by a University of Toledo researcher has found.

The systematic review, published in the journal Gastroenterology, could provide yet another diagnostic hint for clinicians who suspect their patients might have the disease.

“Earlier studies didn’t note this symptom, and that was probably because of the severity of other symptoms like cough, fever and trouble breathing,” said Dr. Muhammad Aziz, chief internal medicine resident at UToledo and the paper’s lead author. “We were beginning to note that altered or lost sense of taste were also present, not just here and there, but in a significant proportion.”

Aziz and his research collaborators analyzed data from five studies conducted between mid-January and the end of March. Of the 817 patients studied, 49.8% experienced changes to their sense of taste. Researchers suspect the true prevalence could be even higher because some of the studies were based on reviews of patient charts, which may not have noted every symptom.

“We propose that this symptom should be one of the screening symptoms in addition to the fever, shortness of breath and productive cough. Not just for suspected COIVD patients, but also for the general population to identify healthy carriers of the virus,” Aziz said.

Prior research has found that a significant number of people who have COVID-19 don’t know they’ve been infected and may be spreading the virus.

Aziz and his research collaborators suspect an altered sense of taste is more prevalent in patients with minor symptoms, though more studies are needed to validate that suspicion. Even so, changes in an individual’s sense of taste could be a valuable way to identify carriers who are otherwise mostly asymptomatic.

Taste disorders are tied to a variety of viral illnesses. The review did not attempt to identify the reason that COVID-19 is causing changes in patients’ sense of taste; however, researchers theorize it could be COVID-19’s ability to bind to what’s known as the ACE-2 receptor, which is expressed in epithelial cells on the tongue and mouth.

Because the novel coronavirus was unknown prior to its emergence in January, scientists have been moving rapidly to learn more about both the virus and the disease it causes.

Aziz said the drip of new information shows the need for more scientists to dig into the impacts of COVID-19.

“A lot of things are being missed, which is why I think researchers from every field should try to look into this and see if it’s affecting their specialty in one way or another,” he said. “Who knows what systems this virus is affecting. If we can catch it earlier in the disease course, we can prevent the spread of the virus and potentially have ways of managing it.”


UToledo med, nursing students get option to graduate early

In response to the unprecedented public health crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, The University of Toledo is allowing more than 275 medical and nursing students the option of graduating early.

Students in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences and College of Nursing who have completed all course work, met their degree requirements and been approved for early graduation are eligible to receive their diploma starting as soon as April 17.

Students not graduating early will receive their diploma at UToledo’s previously scheduled virtual commencement ceremonies, which are May 9 for the College of Nursing and May 15 for the College of Medicine and Life Sciences.

The option for early graduation was approved Monday by The University of Toledo Board of Trustees with the support of President Sharon L. Gaber and Provost Karen Bjorkman.

“The College of Medicine and Life Sciences is committed to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Christopher Cooper, dean of the UToledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences. “We are proud of our graduating medical students that will be joining residency programs in our region and across our nation. These soon-to-be young doctors will play an important role in meeting people’s healthcare needs.”

In order for a fourth-year medical student to graduate early, they must also enter their residency program early. After receiving their diploma, they must apply for and receive a medical license in the state in which they will be practicing.

Nearly half of UToledo’s fourth-year medical students matched with residency programs in Ohio. Students also matched in some of the hardest hit states, including New York, Michigan and California.

Nursing graduates also have the ability to quickly begin practicing. The state of Ohio recently updated its regulations to allow newly graduated nurses to receive a temporary license before taking the national standardized licensure examination which has been delayed due to the pandemic. The state of Michigan has taken similar steps.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created a huge need for nurses, both in our region and across the country,” said Dr. Linda Lewandowski, dean of the College of Nursing. “Many of our students have expressed interest in getting out into the field ahead of the predicted surge to help relieve the strain on our healthcare system. These students are ready to practice now, and we’re proud of their eagerness to make a difference.”


UToledo Announces Leadership Change at UTMC

The University of Toledo Medical Center will soon be under new leadership with the promotion of its chief financial officer.

Rick Swaine

Swaine

Richard Swaine will serve as chief executive officer of UTMC effective April 17.

Dan Barbee, who had led the hospital since 2016, has accepted a position as president of rural market for Mercy Health – Toledo.

“Rick will provide stable leadership amid the ongoing planning efforts underway to set a path forward for UTMC. I am confident that with the support of our outstanding physicians and hospital staff, our hospital is well positioned to weather this current global pandemic and future changes.” UToledo President Sharon L. Gaber said.

“We look forward to working with Rick and continuing to provide high-quality healthcare for our patients,” said Dr. Samer Khouri, UTMC chief of staff and chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine. “There’s never been a more critical time for teamwork in the healthcare industry.”

Swaine was named UTMC’s chief financial officer in March 2019. He joined UTMC from Beaumont Health System in Southfield, Mich., where he had served as senior vice president and hospital president of the 280-bed Beaumont Hospital Grosse Pointe since 20008. Swaine’s long career at Beaumont spanned from 1985 to 2019 in which he also served as vice president of finance for Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak and Beaumont Hospital Troy.


University of Toledo Medical Center lab can now test for COVID-19

The University of Toledo Medical Center’s pathology laboratory now has the ability to test for COVID-19 and deliver results in less than 48 hours. The service will significantly reduce the waiting period for patients and their physicians to confirm a diagnosis.

UTMC is the first laboratory in northwest Ohio with the capability to test for COVID-19.

The medical center is working closely with the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department and other area hospitals to prioritize testing for patients who are hospitalized with severe pneumonia or who are in intensive care units with severe respiratory illness. UTMC also will test symptomatic first responders and healthcare providers who have had direct exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case while not wearing personal protective equipment.

“Testing supplies are still limited and we have to be strategic about how we deploy our resources,” said Mo Smith, associate vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at UTMC. “However, by working with our community partners, we can significantly increase the pace of testing in northwest Ohio as we work to fight this dangerous virus.”

UTMC has the ability to process 180 samples per day. Patients will not be able to individually request a test. All testing must be ordered by healthcare professionals, following criteria established by the Ohio Department of Health.


UToledo medical students learn residency placements via virtual Match Day event

A total of 165 fourth-year medical students at The University of Toledo learned their residency placements Friday during a live-streamed, virtual Match Day event.

The annual Match Day celebration is a highly anticipated moment for medical students in the UToledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences and at medical schools across the country. Soon-to-be physicians discover at the same moment where they will spend the next three to seven years in residency as they train in their chosen specialties.

Under normal circumstances, students gather together in person with family and friends to share the experience of learning the next step in their careers. However, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the need to limit large gatherings, UToledo celebrated the 2020 Match remotely.

“We know this is a very important time in the lives of our students, and one they expected to spend with friends and colleagues as they take one of the final steps before going out into the community as physicians,” said Dr. Christopher Cooper, dean of the College of Medicine and Life Sciences. “We worked very hard to create something special despite the difficult realities we’re living with right now. We are so proud of this class of fourth-year students who will soon be providing care in the communities in which they’ll be practicing.”

In addition to the 165 who learned their Match on Friday, two individuals had already matched with the U.S. Armed Forces, bringing the grand total to 167.

The number of students who matched with The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences residency programs increased 30% over the previous year, while the total number of students staying in the greater northwest Ohio increased nearly 50% over the 2019 match.

“We are delighted so many of our students will be staying in our region as they begin their careers as physicians,” Cooper said. “One of our key missions is to provide a pipeline of well-trained, well-qualified physicians to care for our region’s health. It’s encouraging to see such a large increase in the number of students who matched in northwest Ohio.”

Among the other institutions where UToledo students will do their residency work are Yale, Brown, Emory, Duke, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the Mayo Clinic, and the Cleveland Clinic.


UToledo, Owens launch new nursing education partnership

The presidents of The University of Toledo and Owens Community College will sign a dual-admission partnership for nursing students at 8:30 a.m., Thursday, March 5, in Heritage Hall, Room 123.

The new program — the first of its kind in northwest Ohio — allows nursing students to jointly apply for admission at both Owens and UToledo, establishing a seamless pathway for students to earn an Associate in Applied Science degree in registered nursing from Owens followed by a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from UToledo.

“Creating pathways for student success is an important part of Owens’ strategic plan and we are excited for what this dual enrollment agreement with the University of Toledo means for our nursing students,” said Steve Robinson, Ph.D., president of Owens Community College. “This seamless pathway from an associate to bachelor’s degree will help remove another barrier to student success and we are proud to partner with The University of Toledo to make that happen.”

“This is a wonderful way to strengthen our relationship with Owens and provide even more opportunities for students in our region, ensuring their success in the workplace,” UToledo President Sharon L. Gaber said. “Having a baccalaureate degree increases opportunities for nurses, and it is important that we establish these types of partnerships to ensure individuals in our community have the strong educational foundation they need for a successful nursing career.”

The new dual-admission program is designed to give students a sense of belonging at both institutions, while providing unique opportunities and support throughout their education.

Advisers from both Owens and UToledo will work with students from the start to ensure they are taking the courses needed to complete both degrees. Students also will have the ability to participate in UToledo events and programming, and to take courses at UToledo while working toward their associate’s degree at Owens.

Upon completion of their associate’s degree from Owens, students have a guaranteed spot in the UToledo College of Nursing’s online R.N. to B.S.N. program, with no additional application or admission fee.

While a B.S.N. isn’t necessary for licensure, recent surveys from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing have found that more than 80% of employers strongly prefer job candidates with a bachelor’s degree. A number of studies also have shown patients who are cared for by nurses with higher levels of education have more positive outcomes.

The dual-admission program is open to new and continuing students at Owens. The institutions will begin taking applications on May 1.


NIH awards UToledo $2.3M to develop vaccine against hard-to-treat infection

A multidisciplinary research group at The University of Toledo has been awarded $2.3 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop a vaccine against a bacterial infection that, once established, is nearly impossible to eradicate.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a common bacterium that is generally harmless to healthy individuals. However, in people with compromised immune systems or specific conditions such as cystic fibrosis, it can be deadly.

Chronic lung infections, including those caused by drug resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa, are the leading cause of death in cystic fibrosis. For example, 60% of individuals with cystic fibrosis experience such an infection, which is often chronic and leads to serious morbidity or mortality. In addition, ventilator-associated pneumonia represents a serious, and often deadly, hospital-acquired infection most commonly caused by infections from the bacterium.

UToledo researchers in lab

Dr. Katherine Wall and Dr. Steven Sucheck are working develop a vaccine against a difficult-to-treat infection.

“Pseudomonas, and many other bacteria, are becoming increasingly resistant to even the best currently available antibiotics. It’s a major source of hospital-acquired infections and has a high mortality rate,” said Dr. Katherine Wall, professor and chair of the Department of Medicinal and Biological Chemistry in the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and principal investigator on the NIH grant. “The infection is very hard to get rid of once it gets established.”

The Word Health Organization recently placed the bacterium among the most critical antibiotic-resistant pathogens, particularly because of the threat it poses in healthcare settings. In the United States alone, more than 32,000 infections of multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa occurred in hospitalized patients in 2017, causing an estimated 2,700 deaths. Thousands more deaths occurred worldwide. In addition to lung infections, Pseudomonas aeruginosa can cause serious blood infections.

Researchers have been working on vaccines targeting the bacterial infection for decades, but as development of new antibiotics lags, preventing the infection has taken on a new urgency.

A 2016 report commissioned by the British government, for example, found antimicrobial resistance could cause up to 10 million annual deaths and cost $100 trillion in economic damages by the year 2050.

The five-year NIH grant, which comes through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will fund UToledo research aimed at developing new methods for creating synthetic vaccines and a workable vaccine that could protect against Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

“There have been many attempts to make protein and carbohydrate vaccines. One thing that is unique about this project is that we are combining well-defined organism-specific carbohydrate antigens with organism-specific protein antigens,” said Dr. Steven Sucheck, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and lead principal investigator on the grant.

Antigens are the toxins from a bacteria or virus that trigger the body’s immune response.

“In this work, we combine a synthetic carbohydrate antigen with organism-specific protein antigens to increase the antigen coverage,” Sucheck said. “If the strategy is successful, it greatly expands the potential applications of synthetic carbohydrates in vaccines.”

Many of the common vaccines we receive in childhood, such as chicken pox and polio, are manufactured with dead, weakened or altered pathogens to generate immunity to the infection.

Synthetic carbohydrate vaccines instead use complex chemistry to create well-defined carbohydrate antigens that can be conjugated with proteins to create a vaccine.

Sucheck and Wall have been collaborating on vaccine development for more than a decade, beginning with a project to develop synthetic vaccines to help the body’s natural immune system better engage against cancer cells.

The new pseudomonas project, which also includes Dr. Erin Prestwich, assistant professor in the Department of Medicinal and Biological Chemistry, is a significant expansion of that, taking the basic vaccine development platform and shifting its target to bacteria rather than tumor cells.

Sucheck is also actively working on discovering new drugs to fight tuberculosis, another bacterial infection that is becoming increasingly difficult to treat because of antibiotic resistance. In 2018, he and a former colleague now at the University of Nebraska received a five-year, $2.1 million NIH grant to continue their work.

“There’s an expertise in the lab related to carbohydrates that we’re trying to leverage in different ways. You can use them to make vaccines, or we can try to target bacteria such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis with small molecules. That’s the broader theme that runs through my work,” Sucheck said. “We’re always trying to do work that’s impactful and addresses an urgent need. New approaches to treating drug-resistant bacteria is one of those urgent needs.”