Gift creates research opportunities for Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research

Gift will help lab expand real-life application of non-invasive salivary testing.

A $150,000 gift from the Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Foundation will enable a new direction for the Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research: to translate basic scientific research into clinically useful information and methods.

The gift will fund a project to explore the feasibility of using saliva – rather than blood – to monitor lithium levels in patients taking lithium medications.

"The collaborative science happening at the Institute is impressive and we are excited to support their ground breaking research efforts," says Pamela Alexander, the president of the Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Foundation.

Lithium is used to treat a variety of severe psychiatric and mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. But lithium levels must be closely monitored since the effective therapeutic range is narrow. When dosage levels are too low, there may be no benefit. But when they are too high, there can be negative and toxic side effects.

Withdrawing blood to monitor lithium levels is a fraught process for many patients. Monitoring lithium levels by taking saliva samples – which is a minimally invasive process – holds great promise to make the monitoring process easier without compromising its precision.

The Prentiss Foundation gift is one example of the Institute’s progress from solely focusing on basic science to more broadly focusing on applying that science to the clinical settings that have real impact on people’s health. That broader focus also means looking beyond the hormone markers Institute scientists have been measuring to find and document other indicators in saliva.

The project will be conducted by an interdisciplinary team with experts in pharmacology (Elizabeth Thomas, Ph.D.), psychology and pediatrics (Douglas Granger, Ph.D.), psychiatry (Ruth Benca, M.D.) and clinical psychology (Kate Kuhlman, Ph.D.).

Thomas, a neuroscientist from Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, is a visiting researcher who will lead the project. Thomas earned her Ph.D. in pharmacology from UCI in 1994. Her current research links neuroscience and psychology, and she will bring a valuable perspective to the project.

"I am thrilled that Elizabeth recently joined our team at UCI. She is the type of interdisciplinary, collaborative researcher that the Institute always seeks to partner with," says Granger, who is also the director of the Institute.

Testing blood and, now, saliva for certain indicators can reveal what’s happening in the brain, according to Thomas. And that’s what her research is looking at: how those bodily indicators can illuminate the brain’s inner workings. Finding, documenting and studying those indicators opens up a new research area in neuroscience, since it’s impossible to take samples of a living person’s brain.

For this project, Thomas will be working with Benca, who is also the chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior in the UCI School of Medicine, to recruit patients who are taking lithium medications for a clinical study on the effectiveness of saliva sampling.

"This gift from the Prentiss Foundation will not only allow us to expand the scope of our research, but also could directly improve people’s lives. As a researcher, it is rewarding to know that our science helps others," says Granger.

The interdisciplinary collaboration also reflects the School of Social Ecology’s broader mission.

"Faculty, researchers and students in the School of Social Ecology are committed to interdisciplinary science that drives solutions to problems. It is within this spirit that we are proud of the Institute’s past research accomplishments and are hopeful for the future discoveries this Prentiss Foundation gift will enable," says Nancy Guerra, dean of the School of Social Ecology.