Inside the Elmore Research Wing at Noll Laboratory there is what looks like a mini hospital: a nurses' station, exam rooms, a specimen processing lab, ultra sound machines, metabolic carts, EKG machines, and crash carts.
But this is not a hospital; it is a place for research.
What makes this center unique is that at any given time, with the guidance of a certified medical team, dozens of researchers are conducting studies with a common goal: to improve public health.
Lowering the risk for heart disease with healthy foods and recommended dietary patterns, monitoring fetal growth in pregnant women, and analyzing the impact of concussions in athletes are just some of the major health questions investigators analyze through studies at the Penn State Clinical Research Center (CRC).
The CRC at University Park provides a resource for clinical studies to researchers across colleges at Penn State. Researchers can conduct studies that require oversight by trained medical professionals, including routine procedures like drawing blood and measuring blood pressure or less common procedures, such as exercise testing under stress conditions and adipose tissue or taste bud biopsies.
A service unit in the Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the CRC is part of a National Institutes of Health funded initiative led by the College of Health and Human Development and College of Medicine. A second CRC is located at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey.
The University Park CRC includes clinical research physicians, a nurse practitioner, and registered nurses on staff, who work with investigators to safely and effectively conduct studies. Additionally, the CRC Advisory Committee provides oversight and reviews protocols before any study is conducted.
Tracey Allen, a registered nurse practitioner, manages daily operations at the CRC. She and her staff provide training and guidance to the investigators, research staff and undergraduate and graduate students who work in the CRC. If a study requires a technique or procedure not yet utilized in the CRC, Allen and her staff undergo training in order to meet a researcher’s needs.
“I feel like I’m always learning,” Allen said.
The CRC also features a metabolic kitchen for food and nutrition studies. Investigators from both Hershey and University Park campuses conduct feeding trials. In these studies, participants are provided individual test foods or an entire daily menu of food to meet the study specifications, and then undergo specific testing procedures to determine the effects of the diets on various health outcomes.
Amy Ciccarella, a registered dietician and research nutritionist, manages day-to-day operations for the metabolic kitchen. She plans menus, oversees staff members who prepare the food, counsels study subjects, and works with the investigators to conduct these challenging studies.
“I’m always learning new things from all of the research studies and I wouldn’t get that from a traditional dietetic job,” Ciccarella said.
Amy Ciccarella, a registered dietician and research nutritionist, manages day-to-day operations for the metabolic kitchen.
CRC enables otherwise impossible health studies
Penny Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition, utilizes the CRC often in her research, which includes determining if nutrition reduces inflammation in the human body or if a diet intervention reduces risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Currently, she is working with David Proctor, professor of kinesiology and physiology, to study how walnuts affect heart disease risk factors.
Specifically, they are analyzing whether walnuts can improve artery elasticity. Hardened arteries increase risk for heart attacks and strokes, and arteries that are more pliable reduce those risks, she said.
As a researcher, Kris-Etherton said her goal is to generate scientific evidence to guide dietary recommendations and improve Americans’ health.
“Having a state-of-the-art facility that has the oversight that the CRC has enables us to conduct very high-quality studies and the results generated from them are used to make population recommendations and treatment guidelines,” Kris-Etherton said. “We are living in an evidence-based analysis era where all of the evidence is considered and every single study is graded. Researchers want their studies to be given the highest grade because that type of study is weighted more when it comes to issuing population recommendations and treatment guidelines.”
In another project, Anne-Marie Chang, assistant professor of biobehavioral health in the College of Health and Human Development and College of Nursing, leads an interdisciplinary team in a complex study of sleep funded by the CTSI and conducted through the CRC. The first of its kind at the CRC, each participant will live at the CRC for 11 days with multiple procedures carried out each day to analyze the health effects of sleep loss.
The sleep study is an example of how the CRC facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration. The team includes 15 researchers across four colleges at Penn State: Health and Human Development, Agricultural Sciences, Information Sciences and Technology, and the Eberly College of Science.
Researchers have relied heavily on CRC staff members to plan for and facilitate the study, including making patient rooms ready for participants to live in for an extended period of time, preparing specialized meals, and training for specific experimental procedures.
“There’s no way, without this kind of service and support, that we would be able to conduct this study,” Chang said. “There is the shared attitude of getting the best research completed, whatever that takes.”
A resource for students and community members
From heart disease to concussion research, the Clinical Research Center facilitates specialized studies at Penn State. Image: Kevin Sliman
The CRC is not solely available to full-time researchers; students also have access to the facility. Yujin Lee, a nutritional sciences doctoral student, has utilized the CRC to study how probiotic intervention may reduce cardiovascular risk and if eating dark chocolate and almonds helps reduce the risk of heart disease.
For these studies, CRC staff members screened potential participants by measuring their height, weight, and blood pressure, taking a blood sample for analysis, and carrying out the required study testing procedures on the qualified participants.
“Without the nursing staff and CRC facility, we could not conduct blood draws and we could not measure any of our blood-related endpoints,” Lee said. “Without the CRC, this study probably could not be done at Penn State.”
Those who participate in the CRC studies also notice benefits, beyond minimal monetary compensation for their contribution. Tim Robinson, who has been an instructor for the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences for 20 years, is a regular participant in studies at University Park. Most of the studies he participates in are food focused, from walnuts to chocolate.
In many of the controlled feeding studies, the CRC provides participants with all daily meals. Participants cannot consume any other foods, which means contributing requires true commitment.
“What I like about it is that in my personal lifestyle I can eliminate the sort of hassle of figuring out what to eat, especially for lunches. It’s more convenient,” Robinson said. “Also, I feel like I’m presented with a well-balanced diet with high-quality foods.”
Beyond the convenience, Robinson appreciates being involved in something out of the ordinary that benefits health research and his own nutritional health. Not to mention, he said, participation makes for a good conversation piece at a dinner party.