Pilot Projects Program

Round 3 Pilot Project Awardees

Katherine Ahrens, PhD
Katherine Ahrens, PhD

"All-Payer Claims Data: Opportunities to Improve Maternal Health"

Feasibility of using administrative data to follow pregnant women longitudinally over time: Maine and Vermont

Opioid use disorder (OUD) has been declared a public health crisis in the northern New England states for years, and one population requires particular care: pregnant patients. Dr. Katherine Ahrens at the University of Southern Maine received her pilot award to investigate whether pregnant patients could be followed over time through administrative-level data. They successfully monitored the treatments and health visits of patients in Maine and Vermont and found that patients using consistent medication for addiction treatment significantly lowered the risk of acute care encounters in the first year postpartum. Read our news story on their publication describing these findings here. Since this pilot work, Dr. Ahrens has joined several projects and programs that leverage claims data to answer key public health questions in the field of addiction. From working on a Maine state program supporting pregnant mothers to engaging with a 13-state data network, her focus has grown beyond the initial pilot to encompass a wide variety of topics. With her work, Dr. Ahrens hopes to highlight the opportunities for epidemiologists to conduct population-level investigations to improve maternal health in northern New England.

“There’s a large group of researchers like me who are epidemiologists and work with population-based data, and they should consider applying for pilot project funding from NNE-CTR. I want to encourage more people to apply for pilot projects using population-based data and all-payer claims data. There’s so much to be done, and the resources are here in Maine and Vermont to do it."


  1. Ahrens, KA, McBride, CA, O'Connor, A, & Meyer, MC (2021). Medication for Addiction Treatment and Postpartum HealthCare Utilization Among Pregnant Persons With Opioid Use Disorder. Journal of Addiction Medicine.
Screening and Cardio-surveillance of Cancer Patients Undergoing Immune Checkpoint Blockade

When immunotherapy was introduced in oncology, it revolutionized treatment for many cancers, including some that had no real treatment prior. However, it brought with it a hidden heart risk, and Dr. Sanjeev Francis of MaineHealth received his pilot award to try and detect these risks earlier. Oncologists noted that a small percent of patients receiving immunotherapies experience severe cardiovascular complications, and myocarditis is the one Dr. Francis says they worry about the most. This condition has high morbidity and mortality rates, even when detected early, so finding out which patients are at risk before symptoms start is critical. As immunotherapies are being used for more and more cancers, and multiple therapies are being used simultaneously in individual patients, the risk of this rare but serious cardiotoxicity is a growing concern. The project aims to answer two main questions: Is there a better way to understand who is at risk of myocarditis, and is there any signal that can be detected clinically using advanced cardiac monitoring that can alert clinicians to at risk patients before they start to show symptoms? Dr. Francis and his team recently enrolled the first patient and aim to enroll 25 total from across both urban and rural areas, which is something he feels is critical. As a clinician in our region, Dr. Francis believes the opportunity to enroll patients who have historically not participated in clinical research at this level fulfills part of the mission of our health system, so his project is focused on recruiting and supporting patients across the state of Maine, reaching to its most rural areas.

“The great part about the CTR program is that it created these connections with our translational scientists, and as a result of that, we used this concept to draft a larger grant that brought together more collaborators in Maine as well as partners outside of the state. This was all made possible because the CTR created an environment where we were thinking creatively about how we look at this clinical problem from different dimensions. So even before we enrolled our first patient, we had already taken the step of thinking bigger and expanding the project into bigger applications."

Dr. Sanjeev Francis, MD
Sanjeev Francis, MD

"Immunotherapy for Cancer: The Hidden Heart Risk"


Deirdre O'Reilly, MD MPH

Deirdre O'Reilly, MD, MPH

"Rock a Bye Baby: How Well do Opioid-Exposed Newborns Sleep?"

Sleep Disturbance on Bedside EEG: A Biomarker for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

It’s hard enough being a patient in pain or discomfort and struggling to describe symptoms to the doctor, but what about when the patient is just an infant who can’t express those same details? Dr. Deirdre O’Reilly of the University of Vermont received her pilot award to investigate if doctors can use the electrical activity of the brain to know when infants are at risk of withdrawal. Working with Dr. Adrienne Pahl at UVM and a team of researchers across Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire, their goal is to take emerging knowledge from laboratory and basic science around sleep and neurodevelopment and test the hypothesis that infants at risk of neonatal abstinence syndrome, or withdrawal, will have sleep disturbances. One challenge when identifying and treating infants experiencing withdrawal lies in their inability to explain their symptoms, so doctors need to rely on less objective measures. Drs. O’Reilly and Pahl were looking for something based on the underlying physiology of these babies, and applying EEG leads to see how their restful periods in sleep were and measure the underlying brain activity might give them a comparison showing differences between infants at risk of withdrawal and those who are not. The team is still collecting and analyzing data, and according to Dr. O’Reilly, their progress has been strengthened by their collaborations. Working under health and research systems like our hospitals and the NNE-CTR has provided a structure that she says is supporting researchers and interdisciplinary research teams.

“I thought this is something I want to do. I want to be involved in research that can really improve patient outcomes—take something we don’t know as much about, investigate it at the bedside, and lead to better outcomes."
Harnessing the Electronic Health Record in Primary Care for Hepatocellular Carcinoma Surveillance in Cirrhosis

Steven Lidofsky, MD, PhD (University of Vermont)


Emergency Department - Initiated Bupremorphine Intervention for Opioid Use Disorder

Scott Mackey, PhD (University of Vermont)

The development of an enhanced clinical encounter as a method of improving shared decision making at the time of PSA elevation

Jesse Sammon, DO (MaineHealth)