Research Update

October 2019

ACRI Researchers Receive NIH Grant to Study Prenatal Exposures to Opioids

Ashley Acheson, PhD, and Xiawei Ou, PhD, will study how prenatal exposure to opiods and other drugs affects children's brain development.

Xiawei Ou, PhD, and Ashley Acheson, PhD, have been awarded $516,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how prenatal exposure to opioids and other drugs affects children’s brain development. The 18-month grant sets the foundation for a major component of NIH’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative, the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) Study.

The current opioid epidemic has dramatically increased the number of children pre- or postnatally exposed to opioids, and as a result, a pressing need exists to understand how these exposures as well as commonly associated adverse environmental factors influence children’s cognitive and behavioral development. The grant that Dr. Ou and Dr. Acheson received is Phase I of a linked application with Duke University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Cincinnati, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, to gather important feasibility data and lay a solid foundation for a future large scale multi-site research study on this topic. The second phase of the HBCD Study will enroll and follow thousands of children from before birth through age 10 to examine how brain development and children’s cognitive function and behavior are influenced by prenatal opioid and other drug exposure, childhood trauma and adversity, and other environmental factors.

Dr. Ou and Dr. Acheson are experts in neuroimaging and pediatric brain development and have assembled a strong interdisciplinary team of collaborators and sites to achieve the vision set in their proposal. Among the resources they will use are ACRI’s Pediatric Clinical Research Unit to conduct cognition and behavior assessments and Arkansas Children’s state-of-the-art 3T MRI scanner providing increased neuroimaging capabilities for research. Dr. Ou is an Associate Professor of Radiology and Pediatrics, and Dr. Acheson is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavior Science. Their collaborators at ACH and UAMS include Jessica Coker, MD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Obstetrics and Gynecology; Leanne Whiteside-Mansell, EdD, Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine; Lorraine McKelvey, PhD, Associate Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics; Whit Hall, MD, Professor of Pediatrics; and Charles Glasier, MD, Professor of Radiology and Pediatrics.

Meet the Researcher: Kimberly Stephens, PhD, RN

Kimberly Stephens, PhD, RN

Kimberly Stephens, PhD, RN, joined ACRI this month. She has an appointment as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics’ Center for Applied Research and Evaluation with a secondary appointment in the Department of Biochemistry. Dr. Stephens is also a junior investigator in the Center for Translational Pediatric Research. She came to ACRI from Johns Hopkins where she completed postdoctoral work in animal models of pain. Her research focuses on the epigenetics of pain and cancer.

Dr. Stephens’s introduction to research began while working on clinical trials regarding pain while completing her doctorate as a critical care nurse. Participating in an NIH-funded T32 training program as a postdoctoral scholar, she examined the chromatin changes in sensory neurons in rat models. Dr. Stephens was soon awarded an NIH F32 grant to further her research work in addition to intramural support from the Blaustein Pain Endowment Fund. Her recent research findings identify potential regulatory regions in the genome that may play a role in the development of chronic pain in rats.

“Everyone does not develop chronic pain,” said Dr. Stephens, “Some people are more susceptible than others and are more likely to suffer chronic pain after they receive chemotherapy drugs or have surgery for breast cancer or hernias, for example.” She believes that some people develop a vulnerable nervous system as a result of previous experiences such as pain, early life adverse exposures, or chemicals. These exposures serve to prime the nervous system to develop chronic pain after a major surgery or injury. At ACRI, Dr. Stephens will closely study the mechanisms involved with pain that are changed by environmental exposures, surgery, or injury that prime the molecular state thus making a person susceptible to chronic pain.

Dr. Stephens is excited to join ACRI as she begins this next step in her career. She noted, “ACRI has great resources and wonderful people. I look forward to building relationships and working to build research that can produce results meaningful to those who live with pain every day.” 

Arkansas Biosciences Institute Holds 2019 Fall Research Symposium

Stepan Melnyk, PhD, presented his recent findings at the Fall Symposium of the Arkansas Biosciences Institute.

The Arkansas Biosciences Institute (ABI) held its Fall Research Symposium on September 25 at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. For over 15 years, ABI funding (through the Arkansas Tobacco Settlement Act of 2000) has expanded biomedical and agricultural research in the state through its member institutions: ACRI, Arkansas State University, the University of Arkansas-Division of Agriculture, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

ACRI researchers proudly represented the institute during the Fall Research Symposium. Dr. Tara Johnson was ACRI’s featured speaker in the Scientific Sessions. Her presentation. “Implementation and Quantification of the General Movement Assessment,” discussed her research on the early identification of infants at high risk for the development of cerebral palsy and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Dr. Johnson’s innovative work includes an unbiased, quantitative artificial-intelligence approach to early identification of neurodevelopmental disorders that outperforms human observations. Successful completion of her work will not only allow for earlier identification of, but also earlier treatment for, neurodevelopmental disabilities. Many ACRI researchers provided updates on their research at the ABI poster session during the afternoon of the symposium.

Stepan Melnyk, PhD, Director of ACRI’s Metabolomics Core, emphasized the importance of ABI support: “It is amazing to have funds that allow research by people with little or no current research money. It’s beneficial for both junior and established researchers.” Dr. Melnyk noted that the annual symposium is an excellent opportunity to exchange ideas and build collaborations, adding “You can see what other institutions are concentrated on and picture yourself in this collaborative puzzle.” Dr. Melnyk said ABI support and collaborations allow his core facility to work on eight to ten projects per year that might not otherwise occur.

2019 ACRI/ABI Investigator-Initiated Research Grant Awards

The recipients of the 2019 ACRI/ABI Investigator-Initiated Research Grant Awards have been announced. The award includes funding up to $75,000 over a two-year period.

  • Amit Agarwal, MD: “Utilizing telemedicine to improve monitoring and follow-up for children on chronic invasive home ventilator”
  • Debra Jeffs, PhD, RN: “Virtual Reality for Implantable Port Access in Adolescents with Cancer”
  • Emir Tas, MD: “Nutritional Stimulation of Growth in Children with Short Stature”

The ACRI/ABI Investigator-Initiated Research intramural grant mechanism was created to encourage exploratory/developmental research by providing support for the early and conceptual stages of project development. Proposed research projects must focus upon novel, original research that is directly relevant to the development and/or health of infants, children, or adolescents. Eligible candidates must have an academic faculty appointment in the UAMS College of Medicine, Pharmacy or Nursing and conduct pediatric research on the ACH campus. Support priority places emphasis on new investigators and collaborations across scientific disciplines.

2019 ACRI/ABI Postdoctoral Fellowship Grant Awards

The recipients of the 2019 ACRI/ABI Postdoctoral Fellowship Grant Awards have been announced. The award includes funding up to $15,000 over a two-year period.

  • Brittany Allman, PhD: “The Effects of Exercise during Pregnancy on Maternal Plasma Amino Acid Profile” (Mentor: Elisabet Borsheim, PhD)
  • Bavana Ketha, MD: “Direct Peritoneal Resuscitation for Gastroschisis” (Mentor: Sherry Courtney, MD)
  • Zachary Waldrip, PhD: “Investigating the potential of DNA-PK(cs) as a novel immunosuppression target for transplant therapy” (Mentor: Marie Burdine, PhD)
  • Victoria Winningham, MD: “Effect of synchronized versus continuous high flow nasal cannula on work of breathing in infants with BPD” (Mentor: Sherry Courtney, MD)

The ACRI/ABI Postgraduate Grant intramural grant mechanism was created to support investigator-initiated, hypothesis-driven (goal-directed) research directed by trainees conducting pediatric research on an Arkansas Children's campus. Eligible candidates include those with a MD, PhD, MD/PhD, PharmD, or PharmD/PhD degree who are in their second year of postgraduate training. All trainees must apply with a mentor who is a full-time UAMS faculty member.

Find Out About Opportunities to Participate in Research

The American Society for Nutrition (ASN), the world’s premier nutrition science society, has appointed Brian Piccolo, PhD, of the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center (ACNC) to its inaugural Statistical Review Board (SRB). As ASN publishes several high-impact journals, it sought out experts in statistics and data scientists to form a first-ever SRB for its journal editors to assess the quality of manuscript stats and “omics” analysis. The SRB will provide ASN journals with a shared pool of experts to evaluate the appropriateness of new or complex statistical methods, to make recommendations to improve the conduct and reporting of statistical analyses, and to ensure that the highest standards are upheld when reviewing clinical studies, meta-analyses, and other nutrition research.

Information on currently enrolling clinical studies at ACRI is available at ACH's Clinical Trials Webpage. Interested families can voluntarily join ACRI’s Research Registry at to be contacted about pediatric clinical research. To receive Text Alerts about currently enrolling clinical research studies, interested persons can text RESEARCH to 411247 (message and data rates may apply; terms and conditions at

ACRI Researcher-Specific Announcements

Announcements that are specific to ACRI/ACH Campus Researchers may be found at the Weekly Research Update page: