VA Grant Furthers UNO/UNMC Research on COPD


Grant Rohan

A federal grant awarded from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will allow researchers from the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) to spearhead further research on chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD.)

COPD ranks as the third highest cause of death in the United States, with the disease being common among those who have served in the armed forces.

The VA Office of Research and Development awarded a Small Projects in Rehabilitation Research (SPiRE) grant to Debra Romberger, M.D.; Henry J Lenhoff, professor of internal medicine, chair of the UNMC Department of Internal Medicine and physician at Nebraska Medicine and the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System (NWICHS); and Jenna Yentes, Ph.D., assistant professor at UNO’s Department of Biomechanics. SPiRE funding is awarded generally to short-timeline projects with high potential for translating to care in clinical rehabilitation settings.

The $200,000 SPiRE grant will fund a two-year study based around finding the best methods of exercise and breathing 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,” Yentes said.

This study will further the COPD research Yentes began while earning her doctorate in 2014. The VA granting her this award speaks to her dedication in obtaining research funding for COPD after being previously denied several times.

The VA encourages SPiRE award recipients like Yentes and Romberger to work toward a larger VA Merit Award. Nick Stergiou, Ph.D., assistant dean of Biomechanics and Research Development in UNO’s College of Education, believes this is the first step in that direction.

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

The study itself will consist of measuring walking and respiratory rates while maintaining a fast walking speed on a level surface, compared to a walking slower at a higher incline. The goal is to improve both the respiratory and physical health of COPD patients by finding an exercise with the right pace and slope, allowing patients to extend their workout and see the best results.

“Patients with COPD often have difficulty with activities of daily living because of shortness of breath,” 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.”

The Omaha VA Medical Center will recruit patients to help participate in the study. Those who match certain criteria and are approved for the study will make three trips over three weeks to UNO’s Biomechanics Research Building to walk on a variety of surfaces at different speeds. Researchers will collect data to determine a correlation between pace and slope, which could be applied to COPD patients in physical therapy and exercise education.

“This grant is sparking further collaboration between researchers at UNO and UNMC campuses that will ultimately lead to invaluable 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.”