April 12, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 115—IU’s Grand Challenges

Many Americans say they know someone who has battled drug addiction. And preliminary findings from an IU Responding to the Addictions Crisis Grand Challenge found meaningful social contact with people who have experienced addiction can effectively reduce prejudice and discrimination. The study, conducted by Brea Perry, professor of sociology at IU, used data from the Person to Person Health Interview Study to assesses negative stereotypes, attitudes and behaviors that affect people with opioid use disorder, their families and friends, and healthcare providers. Preliminary findings suggest that 63 percent of Indiana residents have known someone personally who has struggled with drug addiction. Additionally, nearly half--44 percent--currently have someone in their personal social network experiencing drug addiction, including many with a close tie such as a family member or friend. Importantly, the researchers found that the likelihood of exposure to drug addiction through social relationships varies across groups. Younger people, those living in rural counties, and those in lower socioeconomic groups are significantly more likely to have known someone with a drug addiction problem. Perry says this is important because people who have known someone with drug addiction are less inclined to socially reject or isolate those who have opioid dependence, especially if they have a closer relationship with that person. On the other hand, the study found that knowing someone is not always linked to lower levels of stigma. Knowing someone whose behavior appears to confirm harmful stereotypes rather than disconfirm them, such as those who’ve had negative interactions with people with drug problems, is not associated with lower levels of stigma. Perry said when the interaction or contact with the person with drug use issues is meaningful or positive, it reduces stigmatizing attitudes. That is why it is important, she said, for anti-stigma interventions to find ways to foster positive interactions in the community.

IU’s Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge launched the Hoosier Resilience Index in 2019, through its Environmental Resilience Institute. Over the last year and a half, 27 Hoosier communities have used the index to learn about their vulnerabilities to climate change and better prepare to address them. So far, 14 local governments have completed the Index’s self-assessment, a detailed questionnaire designed to give cities, towns, and counties a snapshot of their climate change preparedness. Recent findings from the Index reveal that local governments that completed the assessment rate themselves as more prepared for some climate change impacts than others, for example, being better prepared to protect buildings and infrastructure from climate risks than habitats and people. The findings also point to common vulnerabilities shared by participating communities such as risks related to economic development, public health and safety, and land use. ERI Implementation Manager Andrea Webster says climate change is projected to bring more heavy rains and heatwaves to Indiana, presenting communities with the challenge of needing to do more to prepare. Without further action, many participating communities, especially their most vulnerable residents, could face grave economic and health consequences from climate change, she says. To better prepare their jurisdictions, Webster says local governments should find ways to provide assistance to residents who may face financial strain from increasing summertime energy costs, create zoning to protect native habitats, and plan for climate refugees and high air pollution days.

Finally, researchers at the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center, who are also affiliated with IU’s Precision Health Initiative Grand Challenge, have identified how breast cancer cells hide from immune cells to stay alive, a discovery that could lead to better immunotherapy treatment for patients. Researcher Xinna Zhang and colleagues found that when breast cancer cells have an increased level of a protein called MAL2 on the cell surface, the cancer cells can evade immune attacks and continue to grow. Zhang says like other cancer cells, breast cancer cells have tumor-specific substances on the cell membrane, which immune cells recognize so they can kill the tumor cells. IU’s study found that MAL2 can reduce the level of these substances, so the tumor cells are protected and can’t be recognized as a threat by the immune cells. Considered the future of cancer treatment, immunotherapy harnesses the body’s immune system to target and destroy cancer cells. Zhang says understanding how cancer cells avoid immune attacks could offer new ways to improve immunotherapy for patients. Professor Xiongbin Lu says current cancer immunotherapy has wonderful results in some patients, but more than 70% of breast cancer patients do not respond to cancer immunotherapy. One of the biggest reasons is that tumors develop a mechanism to evade the immune attacks, he says. Researchers now are exploring ways these findings could be used to develop and improve breast cancer therapies.

You are invited to view the Grand Challenges Summit program and publication starting April 13 at grandchallenges.iu.edu to see how IU is leveraging the combined resources of the university and our many partners to address issues of critical importance in Indiana, as we live up to the promise of being Indiana’s university.