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Heavy Metal

Pitt proposes a national metalworking center that could spark the economy and save lives

Nearly everything made of metal —from your belt buckle to the components of your computer that make it hum—can be traced back to a metalworker who formed these parts from raw metal with a cutting or stamping machine.

Three years ago, a man named Zenaida Presas was doing this for a Texas company, making drill bits and drilling rigs. But he became mysteriously ill and later died.

Allegedly, his machine’s metalworking fluids—which generally are used to lubricate and reduce machine tool wear—were biologically contaminated, according to a lawsuit against his company that industry magazine Metalworking Fluid is following.

Pitt industrial engineering professors point to Presas’ death as one of the more dramatic reasons why a national research center for metalworking fluids is needed.

Although the federal government has fluid exposure guidelines for industry, there’s a dearth of objective knowledge about fluid safety and disposal, says Bopaya Bidanda, Ernest E. Roth Professor and chair of Pitt’s Industrial Engineering Department.

This problem is more acute at small and mid-size companies with 500 or fewer workers. Fluid salesmen’s pitches—not objective research—often shape decisions about how the fluids will be bought and handled, Bidanda says. He adds that some managers don’t know that it can be worthwhile to recycle the fluids or introduce improved fluid disposal technologies.

Bidanda hopes Pitt can educate the industry by building the first-of-its-kind national metalworking fluids center: “We almost want to be a Consumer Reports for cutting fluids.” Pitt is seeking about $500,000 for start-up costs from federal, state, and corporate sources.

To get the national center rolling, the University sponsored a gathering last June that was affectionately dubbed, “The Fluids Meeting.” There, Pitt professors and plant managers from industry heavyweights like Westinghouse, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler batted around ideas and problems in the industry.

They didn’t report any major worker health hazards, but several managers clamored for better, less time-consuming worker training—a cry heard throughout the Great Lakes region and beyond, Bidanda says.

This meeting was held at the Manufacturing Assistance Center (MAC), an industrial incubator just northeast of Pittsburgh that was opened in 1994 by Pitt’s Industrial Engineering Department. There, small start-up companies can share high-tech metalworking machines they couldn’t afford to purchase on their own. In addition, MAC provides its students—many of them adults laid off from other fields––training in advanced machining and grinding techniques to get better-paying manufacturing jobs. Bidanda hopes MAC will one day house the national center.

One of the center’s first goals, according to Bidanda, will be development of a CD-ROM that will teach workers how to safely handle and dispose of metalworking fluids. “A lot of the smaller shops are taking the fluid out back and dumping it,” says Bill Peduzzi, MAC plant manager.

Another problem the national center will address is the health risk posed by dirty metalworking fluids. During the making of metal parts, machine nozzles spray the lubricating fluids onto hot metal, where they form droplets that workers can inhale. Eventually, the fluids, if not replaced, begin to smell like rotten eggs and can cause rashes on a worker’s skin, says Peduzzi. The Presas lawsuit claims these fluids contributed to his untimely death.

For this problem, Joseph Grabowski, associate professor in Pitt’s chemistry department, may have an answer. He’s working on a device that will detect whether anything harmful is in those droplets that workers breathe. If the device proves reliable, he envisions the national center making it available to metalworking shops nationwide.

Other partners in the effort to build the national center include Pitt faculty from the Graduate School of Public Health and the Department of Chemical Engineering. Also, Vice Provost for Research George Klinzing allocated money to make last June’s Fluids Meeting happen and supports the research. Another partner is the World-Class Industrial Network, a project development and management consulting company in Pittsburgh.

Bidanda predicts that within five years of getting seed money, the center will have a national impact by making safer, more efficient machine shops. The result for the consumer—less expensive belt buckles, computer parts, and anything else made out of metal.

—Jonathan Szish

Tracking Depression

Discovery might lead to more effective treatment

The alarm goes off. You just lie there, trying to convince yourself to get out of bed. After a restless night of sleep, you really don’t feel like going to work. Actually, you haven’t really felt like doing anything for the past two weeks. You once loved your job, now you dread going in, doing work, talking to your coworkers. You feel helpless and empty, and you’re drifting away from family and friends. They don’t understand, and why make the effort? You stopped eating; you’re not hungry. And you aren’t interested in reading or watching movies or listening to music anymore.

Depression affects almost 20 million Americans a year. Generally, these blue moods are short. For some, the experience is crippling, becoming a condition called Recurrent Early Onset Major Depressive Disorder (RE-MDD), an affliction that the World Health Organization considers the second-leading cause of disability worldwide. Often those afflicted find little relief in treatment, and some resort to drug and alcohol abuse. Others struggle throughout a lifetime, trying to overcome the overwhelming depression.

For the past 15 years, George Zubenko, Pitt professor of psychiatry and director of the Molecular Neurobiology and Genetics Laboratory, and his staff have been in his lab in the upper levels of Thomas Detre Hall of the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, mapping genes, interviewing patients, writing grants, and doing research, all to understand RE-MDD.

In his most recent study, Zubenko took blood samples from 100 people with RE-MDD and 100 without it to see if there was a genetic cause or marker that indicated depression originating in particular areas. Zubenko discovered 19 regions of the genome associated with depression.

“We suspected there were at least a few different genes involved in making women and men susceptible to major depression,” Zubenko says. He was right. “The results of this study suggest that sex-specific genes for recurrent major depression may actually be the rule rather than the exception.”

Of the 19 regions, it seems that only three are common to both men and women, but the other 16 were specific to one sex or the other. Those differences between the sexes may lead to discovering types of depression that are gender specific. By identifying these regions, Zubenko is closer to finding genes that cause depression, which will improve treatment. Currently, a range of drugs exists to treat depression, but it’s unclear which drug works best for a particular person. Zubenko’s research will help match the right drug with the right person, based on genetics.

He continues his search for the genes that cause depression, knowing that his work will lead to more precise drug treatment, with fewer side effects, based on each person’s genetic profile.

Meghan Holohan

Breakthroughs in the Making

Power Broker. When a satellite unexpectedly runs out of power, the nearest repair option may be millions of miles away. Reliable power systems will be key as space flight, satellites, and remote drones become even more routine. The University of Pittsburgh and IBM Corp. are collaborating to improve power management in future systems. Rami Melhem leads this project, involving computer technology that can endure component failure and even repair itself. Melhem is professor and chair of Pitt’s Department of Computer Science and professor of electrical engineering and computer engineering. IBM donated $70,000 in specialized equipment to this venture.

Science Appliance. Many elementary and high schools students aren’t confident or successful when tackling math and science. For the next five years, Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, led by Director Lauren Resnick, will work with the University of Wisconsin to reform K-12 math and science education nationwide. Supported by $35 million from the National Science Foundation, the initiative’s goal is to improve student achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, especially for youngsters from minority and low-income families.

Free Agent. At a campus press conference, U.S. Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) announced that health organizations can now access free software to detect bioterrorist attacks more quickly and improve treatment response. The Real-time Outbreak and Disease Surveillance System, or RODS, alerts hospitals to a sudden increase in symptoms that may suggest an unusual disease outbreak. The software, developed by Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, was the subject of a Pitt Magazine cover story in June 2002, which can be read online.

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