MPower Day Highlights Impact, Innovation

“In this month alone about 200 babies will be born in Maryland with opioids in their bodies,” said Asaf Keller, PhD, MD while addressing a crowd of legislators, students, faculty, and staff at the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State Advocacy Day in Annapolis on March 6, 2018.


State Sen. Adelaide Eckardt (R-Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico Counties) tries a virtual reality display at MPower Day.

The day was designed to highlight the innovation and impact that collaborative research between the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) has had on solving important problems for the people of Maryland and the nation.

More than 20 diverse programs represent the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership, and each would be unattainable or difficult to achieve if UMB or UMCP acted independently of one another. “We have a great partnership,” said UMB President Jay A. Perman, MD.  “It’s like Wallace Loh says, 1 and 1 equals 3 or 4,” he continued, referencing UMCP president, Wallace Loh, PhD, JD.

Opioid Use Disorder Collaborative Research Program

Asaf Keller, professor, University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) at UMB and his partner, Eric Wish, PhD, associate professor and director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at UMCP, head up the Opioid Use Disorders Collaborative Research Program. The partnership leverages the sizable strengths and complementary missions of both institutions to advance interdisciplinary research, create opportunities for students, spark economic development, and solve important problems for the people of Maryland.

In Keller and Wish’s case, the problem is opioid abuse and both researchers are dedicated to finding practical solutions to address the epidemic that kills more than 250 Marylanders a year.

A particularly devastating aspect of the crisis is treating babies born to mothers who abuse opioids.

The condition, known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), causes newborns to display symptoms similar to those of a heroin addict going through withdrawal including, tremors, seizures, nausea, and diarrhea. “Most of them (babies) will be miserable,” said Keller.

The current treatment for these babies is to give them more opioids, but the long-term consequences on brain development are not known. That’s why Keller and Wish are conducting an ongoing study of a decidedly low-tech way to comfort them: cuddling. The study, taking place at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), uses an army of volunteers to snuggle sick babies a few hours a day. Initial results find the cuddled babies require fewer opiates and are discharged from the hospital sooner that non-cuddled babies. “We hope to be able to monitor them into adolescence and check their development, cognitive ability, and developmental success,” over the years, said Keller.

The Opioid Use Disorder Collaborative Research Program is also fighting the current drug epidemic by educating physicians, medical students and those in the dental field to be able to identify at-risk patients and by helping to develop safe prescribing policies for pain medication. The education extends to patients as well, with the implementation of voluntary tapering programs designed to slowly wean users off of addictive drugs.

Finally, the program is analyzing urinalysis results and medical records from patients admitted to emergency rooms for a suspected drug overdose to better understand the patterns of opioid and other drug use.

Wish, who has been studying the effects of drug abuse for 28 years, said the opioid program’s work is important and will lead to solutions. “I think we’re going to have a lot of great findings that will lead to more sane policy in the area of drugs,” he said.

Maryland Blended Reality Center

The opioid group is also collaborating with the Maryland Blended Reality Center (MBRC), to reduce dependence on drugs to treat pain. The MBRC, a collaboration between UMB, UMCP, and UMMC strives to improve the lives of Marylanders by developing augmented and virtual reality technology for medical and healthcare applications.  One of the center’s four main thrusts is non-opioid pain management through immersive environments that show promise in distracting patients and decreasing the need for opioids during invasive procedures.  The therapy involves putting on a headset that immerses the patient in a virtual world of their choosing to induce relaxation and distraction from pain. Choices include a mediation room, a beach, a video game, even an opera performance.

The Center’s principals include the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center with co-director and UMSOM Professor Sarah Murthi, MD,  and the College of Computer, Mathematics & Natural Sciences (CMNS) in College Park with co-director and Professor Amitabh Varshney, PhD.

In addition to providing alternative therapy for opioids, the MBRC is developing the next generation of medical education with interactive blended reality modules designed to teach gross anatomy dissection. Varshney’s computer science team in College Park has developed a method to film a gross anatomy dissection in 3D so that students will be able to have an immersive experience away from the dissection lab.

According to Murthi, Varshney’s team is breaking down the gross anatomy dissection into modules, “so that more than just medical students can experience the immersive awesomeness of gross anatomy dissection.”

State Senator Adelaide Eckardt (R-Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico Counties) was one of numerous attendees to don virtual reality goggles at the MBRC’s popular interactive display at Advocacy Day. Eckardt, a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Nursing, was immediately enveloped in a 360 degree video scenario of a Maryland State Police helicopter landing on the helipad at Shock Trauma to transport a crash victim to the emergency room.

“Is this a real patient,?” she marveled, as Dr. Murthi explained the training possibilities of the video.

“I’m a nurse, so I love it,” said Eckardt.

Other areas of focus include critical care patient diagnostics that allow health care providers to interact more directly with patients and training police to identify and combat implicit bias that can affect interactions with the public. Researchers are adapting virtual environments to help police understand their biases. Prince George’s County Police began the training on March 6, the same day Varshney and Quinlan were presenting in Annapolis.

“We have created virtual reality scenarios of white, black, Asian-Americans and Latinos coming in and addressing the police officers,” said Varshney. “How do officers react? That self-awareness, we believe, will be very critical in helping bridge the divides between various communities.”

The Center for Sports Medicine, Health, and Human Performance

Housed in the new Cole Field House in College Park, the Center for Sports Medicine Health and Human Performance (CSMHHP) increases access to world-class sports medicine and occupational health services, and advances the discovery of innovative solutions to improve human health, performance, and injury prevention and recovery.

UMSOM Professor Alan I. Faden, MD, and UMCP Professor Elizabeth Quinlan, PhD, arethe scientific co-directors of CSMHHP dedicated to researching traumatic brain injury (TBI), a major health problem in the US with 3-4 billion cases per year and over $100 million in costs per year.

“The overall goal is to better understand traumatic brain injury and a number of novel techniques and approaches harnessing the exceptional strengths in TBI and spinal cord injury both clinically and experimentally at University of Maryland, Baltimore with the excellent strengths in complementary areas in computer science, engineering and the physical and biological sciences at College Park,” said Faden.

Their multilevel research begins at the molecular level with studies to understand how molecules in the brain respond to therapy. Researchers will also make use of the multi-modal imaging capacity housed in Cole Field House which will allow them to track initial and long-term responses to therapy. The center is also studying the synergistic positive effects of nontraditional treatments such as intermittent fasting. “We’re also interested in incorporating traditional responses to brain injury with some of the newer approaches that are based on findings by faculty in College Park and UMB that demonstrate that manipulations of diet, exercise and cognitive function help to promote recovery from brain injury,” Quinlan noted.

State Senator Cheryl Kagan (D – Montgomery County), one of several legislators who attended the event, was immediately drawn to a display outlining the work of the Maryland Cochlear Implant Center of Excellence, which combines the research and educational strengths of UMCP with surgical and clinical expertise from UMMC and UMSOM to provide cutting edge care for people with hearing loss. “I’m always interested in learning about dynamic new innovations and developments in the state,” said Kagan. “I’ve been working in 911 issues for several years and as we shift to next gen 911 it’s important to understand the issues that those who are deaf or hard of hearing are facing.”

To learn more about the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership visit:

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