Million-Dollar Gift Extends UCI Saliva Lab’s Lithium Research Capabilities

UCI’s Hillary Piccerillo and Tatum Stauffer record samples in the Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research lab. Photos by josephbeaird1229@gmail.com

A $1 million gift given by the Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Foundation to UC Irvine’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research (IISBR) is aimed at increasing a study on the use of lithium to improve drug monitoring and treatment for individuals with psychiatric conditions.

Douglas Granger, the institute’s director and the UCI Chancellor’s Professor of Psychological Science, Pediatrics and Public Health, is co-leading the research project with Elizabeth Thomas, a trained pharmacologist who got her Ph.D. at Irvine and says she has had a long-standing interest in psychiatry.

“Lithium is one of the most effective and affordable treatments for bipolar disorder and has decades of history of preventing suicide in patients,” says Thomas, who acknowledges monitoring lithium levels can be a difficult task. “If you don’t have enough lithium in your system, it doesn’t benefit you, but you have too much, it can be toxic.”

Granger and Thomas say the main reason for starting their research in saliva came about by looking for a better alternative to blood sampling.

“More frequent monitoring would enable health care providers to adjust medication dosing and fine-tune those protocols at the level of the individual patient,” Granger says.

An additional advantage to using saliva is that it doesn’t need to be processed immediately and can be frozen to be tested at a later date, adds Thomas, who notes the machine used in the IISBR lab can be used to measure any metals but is especially valuable in monitoring lithium.

Elizabeth Thomas and the IISBR’s machine used for testing saliva samples.

“It’s a super sensitive way to measure it by diluting a [saliva] sample in acid and using plasma to blow apart the sample and picking out the patterns of lithium,” she says.

Granger contends the advances made in saliva research at UCI speaks on a larger scale to what sets the university apart from other schools: interdisciplinary research. He and Hillary Piccerillo, lab supervisor at the IISBR, said it was crucial to have people across different levels and fields of study to provide better insight.

“We have a lot of teaching aspects involved in this,” Piccerello says. “We teach graduate and undergraduate students and it’s really great to get people involved at such an early stage.”

Tatum Stauffer, a research laboratory assistant at the IISBR, concedes to having been surprised by the level of involvement from the project’s principal investigators, who send them samples of patients from across the country.

Photo by josephbeaird1229@gmail.com

With the machine’s capability to test other metals and elements in saliva, the staff at the IISBR say they are excited for the impact and momentum that the Prentiss Foundation gift has created. “There are so many applications that could be applied for future research,” says Piccerello, still amazed.

The gift is to be spread out over the next five years and through three different stages of research. Thomas says the current first phase goal is to expand recruitment sites and collect more data. “We are hoping to collaborate with engineers to develop a point-of-care device for patients to use at home and monitor their levels,” she adds.

The research project has potential implications to greatly improve the experience of health care providers in accurately basing treatment decisions, according to Granger. As the son of a faculty member who taught at UCI for almost 40 years, he said he is proud to be a part of the work being done today.

“The primary mission of UCI is excellence in research, discovery and innovation,” Granger says. “Its an exciting enterprise to contribute too and much remains to be done at UCI to develop those programs of research excellence.”

Joseph Beaird is an editorial intern for OC Weekly from Yorba Linda. He is a sophomore majoring in Journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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