VA grant funds UNO/UNMC research into COPD

by Brandon Bartling, University of Nebraska at Omaha | August 13, 2019

Image with caption: From left, Debra Romberger, M.D., and Jenna Yentes, Ph.D.

From left, Debra Romberger, M.D., and Jenna Yentes, Ph.D.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the third leading cause of death in the United States and is a disease especially prevalent among those who served in the armed forces. Through a federal grant, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is putting investigators from UNMC and the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) on the front lines of COPD research.

The VA Office of Research and Development granted a Small Projects in Rehabilitation Research (SPiRE) award to Debra Romberger, M.D., Henry J. Lehnhoff Professor of Internal Medicine and chair of the UNMC Department of Internal Medicine and physician at Nebraska Medicine and the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care system (NWIHCS); and Jenna Yentes, Ph.D., assistant professor within UNO's Department of Biomechanics. The VA awards SPiRE funding to relatively shorter timeline research projects that show potential for translating to care in a clinical rehabilitation setting.

This study continues the COPD research Dr. Yentes began while earning her doctorate in 2014.

SPiRE award recipients are encouraged by the VA to next pursue a larger VA Merit Award. Nick Stergiou, Ph.D., assistant dean of the Division of Biomechanics and Research Development in UNO's College of Education, believes this is just the beginning.

"This award opens the door for larger VA grants to fund Dr. Yentes' research on COPD," Dr. Stergiou said. "The diagnostic and prognostic potential of her studies for COPD patients is tremendous."

The $200,000 SPiRE grant will fund a two-year study focused on finding the optimal methods of breathing and exercise for veterans who suffer from COPD.

"This award provides an opportunity that could help patients with COPD reap the rewards of high-performance exercise, ultimately improving their fitness and quality of life despite the debilitating symptoms of the disease," Dr. Yentes said.

The study will examine differences in respiratory and walking rates while walking at a fast pace on level ground versus walking uphill at a slower pace. The goal is to find the right pace and slope that allows patients to extend the amount of time that they exercise, improving the respiratory and physical health of COPD patients.

"Patients with COPD often have difficulty with activities of daily living because of shortness of breath," Dr. Romberger said. "Pulmonary rehab is recognized as an important therapy for them, but the best kind of exercise in rehab is not clear. Our goal is to help patients with COPD have better quality of life in doing things they enjoy by improving their endurance with the ideal kind of exercise."

Patients will be recruited to participate in the study through the Omaha VA Medical Center. Those who match research criteria will make three visits to UNO's cutting-edge Biomechanics Research Building over three weeks to walk at different paces on varying surfaces. Collected data will help researchers determine the impact of pace and slope on exercise. Findings could be applied to physical therapy and exercise education for COPD patients.

"This grant is sparking further collaboration between researchers at the UNO and UNMC campuses that will ultimately lead to invaluable new findings in the understanding and mitigation of COPD," said Ken Bayles, Ph.D., interim associate vice chancellor for research and creative activity at UNO and associate vice chancellor for basic research at UNMC. "This collaborative effort and partnership demonstrate what is possible when UNO and UNMC work together with community partners."

Dr. Yentes was recently awarded the Promising Scientist Award by the International Society of Posture & Gait Research. She is the first American to receive the honor, which is awarded to ISPGR members early in their research careers for exceptional research related to posture and/or gait.

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John S Davis
August 13, 2019 at 7:37 AM

Congratulations Dr Romberger and Dr Yentes! This collaborative effort highlights the partnership with the VA, UNMC and UNO.