Research in Brief


See just a snapshot of current research projects underway at Creighton University. 

Biochemistry: Studying noncoding RNAs for development of antibiological agents

RNA ResearchWhat:
Three-year, $436,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the structure and function of ncRNAs

Juliane Strauss-Soukup, PhD, professor of biochemistry, and undergraduate biochemistry students

Strauss-Soukup and team are studying the non-coding parts of RNAs called riboswitches. When small molecules, ligands or metabolites bind to riboswitch, RNAs they induce a structural change in the RNA that “switches” the production of protein up or down.

The team is looking at the potential, in humans, for RNA riboswitches to affect protein production. Though the team will do the majority of experiments in Strauss-Soukup’s lab, they will also collaborate with scientists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where undergraduate researchers will have access to X-ray crystallography.

Riboswitches control a number of essential metabolic pathways. If the team finds a way to dysregulate genes controlled by riboswitches, such as those involved in cancer progression, potential may exist for development of antibiological agents to fight cancer.

Biomedical Sciences: Solving Age-Related Hearing Loss in Humans

Hearing ResearchWhat:
$1.9 million R01 grant from National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIDCD/NIH)

David Zhi-Zhou He, MD, PhD, professor of biomedical sciences in the School of Medicine

He believes that the inner and outer hair cells, which convert sound into electrical impulses in the auditory nerve, may be part of the cause of age-related hearing loss. His research will compare the changes in these cells at the cellular and molecular levels between young and aging mice to determine age-related changes in gene expression, ultrastructure and cellular function.

Among other issues, loss of hearing in the elderly can contribute to social isolation and loss of autonomy. It is associated with anxiety, depression and cognitive decline. There is no medication available to treat or postpone age-related hearing loss. The hope is that identifying genes and pathways that control the aging process in hair cells will be useful for developing therapeutic treatments to postpone age-related hearing loss.

Communication Studies: Urban farming and building community

Urban Farming ResearchWhat:
Fulbright Fellowship to study food and community engagement

Samantha Senda-Cook, PhD, associate professor of communication studies

Senda-Cook will travel to the Asia Rural Institute (ARI) in Japan, where she plans to spend several months alongside ARI participants from around the world, learning about the intersections of agriculture and advocacy and the central role of food in fueling both individuals and the community. Her work has also involved Big Muddy Urban Farm, an Omaha-based nonprofit, and the Refugee Empowerment Center, where she interviewed refugees to understand the importance of working in a community garden for them.

Senda-Cook hopes to further understand and expand the role of urban farming, especially in Omaha, and investigate the ways food brings people together. Community gardens can have countless benefits for their neighborhoods. For example, they can serve as deterrents to crime. It offers an opportunity for people to get engaged with their community and one another, while learning more about their food and being empowered to care about where it comes from.

Dentistry: Charcoal toothpaste and teeth whitening, abrasion

Dentistry ResearchWhat:
Study examining trendy charcoal toothpaste to gauge its whitening power and effect on tooth enamel

School of Dentistry students, supervised by School of Dentistry professors Donal Scheidel, DDS, Sonia Rocha-Sanchez, PhD, and Martha Nunn, DDS, PhD

Under lab conditions simulating extended use of charcoal toothpaste by brushing for six minutes every day, the students observed a significant loss of enamel. They also saw the toothpaste making its way into the dentin of the teeth, leaving them with a gray to a yellow shade. Using an electron microscope in some trials, the students were also able to see the level of abrasion on tooth enamel.

Charcoal toothpaste may be a tooth-whitening trend, but this study demonstrated the truth behind the hype: though people may start using charcoal toothpaste to reverse discoloration, the students demonstrated that its continuous use actually causes that very discoloration.

Economics: Mid-American and Rural Economic Trends

Economics ResearchWhat:
Monthly Rural Mainstreet Survey and Mid-American States Survey from Economic Outlook

Ernie Goss, PhD, Jack A. MacAllister Chair in Regional Economics, Senior Scholar and Founding Director of the Institute for Economic Inquiry

For the Rural Mainstreet Survey, Economic Outlook surveys community-bank presidents and CEOs in rural, agriculturally and energy-dependent portions of a ten-state area regarding current economic conditions in their communities and their projected economic outlooks. The survey includes bankers from Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The states included in the Mid-American states survey are Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota. The survey uses the same methodology used for the NAPM Report on Business, which is released every month by the National Association of Purchasing Management. This methodology quantifies economic conditions with an index. The overall index ranges between 0 and 100 percent, with an index number greater than 50 percent indicating an expansionary economy for the next three to six months, and an index below 50 percent forecasts a sluggish economy for that period.

Survey results and analysis provides a barometer for the economy in a region that relies upon the industries of agriculture and energy. The information helps citizens, business and community leaders make important decisions.

Survey results have a wide reach and are disseminated through a newsletter and carried in national media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and Fox Business News, providing a reliable, consistent and easy-to-understand source for information on the regional economy and its relationship to broader economic trends.

Ecology: Connections Within and Around Coastal Ecosystems in the Southeast

Ecology ResearchWhat:
Six years of funding from the National Science Foundation’s Georgia Coastal Ecosystems Long-Term Ecological Research program, the third renewal of NSF funding for the work since 2000

John Schalles, PhD, professor of biology, in collaboration with colleagues at six other institutions, and students

Dynamic forces such as drought, sea-level rise and reduced river flows are beginning to damage freshwater wetlands. Using new spatio-temporal analysis of an extended area, Schalles and team can measure the overall decline of salt marsh plant biomass to help gauge the health of the ecosystem. Schalles’ involvement with this work over three decades gives him a huge and detailed sample size, showing trends within the bigger picture.

Georgia has nearly one third of the East Coast salt marsh habitat, which is part of a complex and unique ecosystem. When this ecosystem suffers even slightly, it affects the wider environment. For example, damage to wetlands may have an effect on seafood caught in the area, which may impact the local economy as well. Schalles’ work helps identify how these shifts relate to one another.

Interdisciplinary Health/Biomedical Sciences: Prion Proteins and Associated Diseases

Prion ResearchWhat: 
Five-year, $2.44 million National Institutes of Health grant

Co-primary Investigators:

  • Anthony Kincaid, PhD, professor of pharmacy sciences
  • Jason Bartz, PhD, professor of medical microbiology and immunology
  • Candace Mathiason, PhD, in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology at Colorado State University

To gain insight into how prion proteins act as infectious agents, the researchers will study those tissues where prions initially establish a foothold. They will observe the proteins’ behavior shortly after infection but before the outward appearance of the resulting diseases, which include mad cow and chronic wasting disease.

Prion proteins can lay dormant in tissues long after infection. Earlier detection and understanding the mechanisms at work in infection could help limit disease outbreaks. Outbreaks of both mad cow disease and chronic wasting disease have led to public health concerns.

In addition, the interdisciplinary, inter-institutional nature of the study — with investigators from pharmacy, medicine and veterinary sciences, along with collaboration from a Creighton physicist and an environmental engineer from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln working with Bartz’s lab — means this complex problem will get several different perspectives.

Occupational Therapy: Engaging Rural Stakeholders in Creating an Agenda for Type 1 Diabetes Research

Diabetes ResearchWhat:
Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) award in the amount of $247,020, for a project to gather information on common barriers and concerns for rural families with children who have Type 1 diabetes

Vanessa Jewell, PhD, OTR/L, assistant professor of occupational therapy, who is also a parent of a child with Type 1 diabetes

Jewell and partners will recruit, train and establish a patient-centered advisory research team (PCART) that will help shape a patient-centered research agenda to address issued faced by families with a child who has Type 1 diabetes. The PCART will include stakeholders, such as parents and patients, who understand these issues. These stakeholders will develop a group collaborative process model that involves design thinking in order to develop focus group questions, finalize a recruitment plan, and workshop solutions with stakeholders. The PCART will remain in place to help with the development, implementation and dissemination of patient-centered research findings that could improve quality of life for families affected by Type 1 diabetes.

Thousands of people in Nebraska have Type 1 diabetes, a disease characterized by insulin deficiency, which requires significant effort to manage blood glucose. For families with children who have Type 1 diabetes, this can affect their quality of life. The condition is also associated with increased medical costs, and families in rural areas may experience greater challenges in accessing care and resources to manage the condition.

Involving patients in the decision-making process for their health care is associated with improved outcomes, such as improved self-advocacy and higher adherence to medical management of their conditions. Involving patients and other stakeholders in the decision-making process for research on the challenges, likewise, may lead to similarly positive outcomes.

Pharmacology: Understanding Brain Cell Communications

Pharmacy ResearchWhat:
Five-year, $1.88 million National Institutes of Health grant to study how a protein code called glutamate delta-1 helps connect specific neurons

Shashank Dravid, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology in the School of Medicine (lead investigator)

  • Yoland Smith, PhD, Emory University
  • Gajanan Shelkar, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow
  • Jinxu Liu, research associate
  • Ratnamala Pavuluri, research technician
  • Pauravi Gandhi, graduate student


Using cutting-edge technology including optogenetics, which use light to activate the communication processes between neurons, the team can closely inspect the connections between neurons and watch for breakdowns.

Mental disorders including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism have been associated with the protein glutamate delta-1. The team hypothesizes that some of these disorders may arise because of improper communication between neurons in certain brain circuits. Fundamentally, the goal is to contribute to the understanding of how the brain is wired.

Pharmacy Sciences: Powder Formulation and Delivery Device for Inhaled Clofazimine

Pharmacy ResearchWhat:
Two-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) subcontract totaling $184,920 to develop an optimized formulation of powder clofazimine (CFZ) and conduct studies on CFZ formulation

Justin Tolman, PharmD, PhD, associate professor of pharmacy sciences

Tuberculosis (TB) and antibiotic resistant TB are growing problems in the United States and the world despite current treatment approaches. Recently, an old and rarely used antibiotic, clofazimine, has been investigated for possible use in TB. 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) asked for proposals to develop an inexpensive, easy-to-use, inhaled delivery system for clofazimine to be used with combinations of systemic anti-TB drugs to improve treatments. Tolman gathered preliminary data about inhaled clofazimine through support from a Jack and Louis Wareham Faculty Research Award from Creighton. 

Tolman has used his preliminary data on clofazimine in partnership with Creare LLC, an engineering firm in New Hampshire. Creare will lead the development an inexpensive inhaler device. Tolman will lead the inhaled clofazimine preparation and testing in cells, mice, and rats. 

Two key aims of Tolman’s part of this project are to: 1) determine the rate and extent that clofazimine remains in the lung tissue of mice, and 2) to prove that inhaled clofazimine is potentially safe in rats for future testing in humans. 

After the successful completion of this two-year grant, Tolman hopes to receive a Phase II SBIR grant (three-year and up to $1.5 million) that will enable completion of necessary preliminary studies for an eventual Phase 1 clinical trial in humans. 

Psychological Science: Neuroscience of drug addiction and social settings

Neuroscience ResearchWhat:
Research to reveal the neuroscience of addiction and the power of social settings to help overcome drug addiction

Dustin Stairs, PhD, professor of psychological science, and undergraduate researchers

Stairs has observed that rats, animals with a similar social drive to humans, were less likely to avail themselves of available drugs if they were raised in enriched environments with plenty of novel objects to use, and in social situations with two or more other rats. But in isolation, the animals readily take more drugs and more quickly show addiction-like behaviors. The next goal is to identify what has changed biochemically in these rats that makes them vulnerable.

Although many people try drugs, scientists are not exactly sure to what extent genetics, personality, and social factors determine whether a person becomes addicted. As observed in the rats, Stairs believes that social settings exert a strong influence. The hope is that some of the research with rats will be translatable for humans. As the nation homes in on the crisis surrounding opiate addiction, Stairs is looking to move his research into that arena.

Theology: Encountering Catholic Leaders in Uganda

Theology ResearchWhat:
Fellowship from the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program to delve into the lives of Roman Catholic Church leaders in Uganda and explore how political realities have affected their lives and work

Jay Carney, PhD, professor of theology

In Kampala, Uganda’s capital, Carney intends to conduct oral interviews and comb over local archives to create what will be one of the first monographs on postcolonial Catholic history in Uganda. He will examine numerous areas of Church leadership, including social work, Catholic radio, peace building and politics. Carney hopes to make the study resonate for a broader audience by offering a biographical perspective on each of the leaders, rather than focusing on the institution.

Seeking stability in the postcolonial era, some Ugandans found direction in the Roman Catholic Church, the largest religious denomination in the country. The Church has played a role in developing the nation and resisting dictatorships, and Carney’s study will provide additional insights into what this has meant for the individuals who lived it over the past decades. Overall, the project will offer a perspective on what it means to be a Catholic leader and what institutions like Creighton can learn from Catholic higher education in Uganda.