Monday, July 30, 2007

"Green" super rice one goal of newly formed UA-China Shennong Center

“Green” super rice is one goal of the newly formed Shennong Center for Crop Functional Genomics, a collaboration between The University of Arizona (UA) and Huazhong Agricultural University (HZAU) in Wuhan, China. Green refers not to the color, but the fact that the rice will be grown under very environmentally friendly conditions.

UA Department of Plant Sciences professor and BIO5 member Rod Wing, PhD, is working together on the rice project with Qifa Zhang, PhD, who heads HZAU’s National Key Laboratory for Crop Improvement – the number one crop molecular biology lab in China. “Rice feeds half the world and that half will double in the next quarter century,” says Dr. Wing. “Countries that depend on rice need to double the yield on less land, less water and in poorer soils. The 'green' super rice will do that with less fertilizers and pesticides, which is great for the environment.” Dr. Wing has significantly contributed to the sequencing of one species of domesticated rice. This understanding of domesticated rice, combined with the knowledge gained from his most recent work studying the genomes of wild relatives of rice will ultimately lead to crop improvements.

The wild relatives of rice can grow in conditions unsuited to domestic rice. Pinning down genes linked to desirable properties such as crop yield, drought tolerance, and resistance to pests, heat, cold, weeds, salt and pathogens could make it possible to grow domesticated rice in less than ideal environments, thus increasing production acreage and helping to reduce hunger around the world.

While Dr. Wing’s laboratory is studying the genome organization and evolution of 14 wild relatives of rice, Dr. Zhang’s laboratory has developed genetic populations with three of the same wild relatives that can be analyzed for yield, drought and pathogen resistance. Once a beneficial trait is identified in these populations, it can be isolated for study. Together, the Shennong Center researchers will utilize this system to develop green super rice varieties. Additionally, it also will be used by the international community to help identify the function of all 30,000 genes in rice. “Longtime relationships between the UA Plant Sciences Department and Huazhong Agricultural University are resulting in complementary talents and systems coming together in ways that will benefit many people,” says Dr. Wing.

Other projects are in development between HZAU, UA’s BIO5 Institute, and the following UA departments: Plant Sciences, Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Molecular and Cellular Biology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. For example, BIO5 Director and plant scientist Vicki Chandler, PhD, is working together with HZAU on finding ways to prevent a major fungal disease in corn plants, a particular concern for farmers and plant breeders in China. They also are interested in how to make corn plants more tolerant to submergence in water, which could translate to a large increase in yield in the regions of southern China where flooding is a serious threat.

The Shennong Center for Crop Functional Genomics was formally initiated during a trip to Wuhun, China in May 2007 by Dr. Wing, Dr. Chandler and other UA plant scientists and BIO5 members David Gang, PhD, David Galbraith, PhD, and Mark Orbach, PhD. Other UA participants included plant scientist Zhongguo Xiong, BIO5 member Elizabeth Vierling, PhD, from the Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and Molecular and Cellular Biology, and postdoctoral research associate Jeremy Edwards from the Galbraith lab.

Collaboration goals include not only research, but also workshops, training and faculty and student exchanges. Letters of invitation have been sent for several faculty and students from HZAU to visit UA and visa applications are underway.

Biodesign Institute, Mapp Biopharmaceutical, and Kentucky Bioprocessing collaborate on pharma products

[Source: The Biodesign Institute] -- The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, Mapp Biopharmaceutical and Kentucky Bioprocessing (KBP) will collaborate on developing, refining and producing low-cost pharmaceutical products for large cost sensitive markets in global health. The initial product targets include monoclonal antibodies for use in microbicides and mucosal vaccines to prevent transmission of certain infections. The three organizations also expect to collaborate on other products.

Charles Arntzen, PhD, of ASU’s Biodesign Institute is leading the team whose work is supported through funding from the National Institutes of Health, a component of the US Department of Health and Human Services. The goal of the initial collaboration is to move the vaccines and monoclonal antibodies into production and clinical trials.

The tobacco (Nicotiana Benthanmiana) plant based production system selected for use by the team offers the promise of a versatile, rapidly scalable platform for production of large volumes of product. In addition to these features, plant based manufacturing systems offer the ability to develop products at much lower cost than traditional biotechnology production methods. By producing the host tobacco plants in enclosed growth facilities the researchers expect to optimize the amount of product generated by each plant while minimizing any concerns over negative environmental impacts.

"While advances in biotechnology have provided the world with some incredible preventative, therapeutic and diagnostic products, these products are often very expensive, making them unavailable to many people, especially in the developing world," said Arntzen. "We believe that our work has the potential to pave the way for products that offer the same level of efficacy while meeting unmet needs of large, cost sensitive markets in global health," he said.

In acknowledging its role in the collaboration, KBP Chairman Hugh Haydon said, "We are delighted to be part of this distinguished team conducting such important work. The leadership of Dr.Arntzen and ASU along with the expertise of Mapp are perfect compliments to the experience and capabilities of KBP. We look forward to the opportunity to demonstrate the practical feasibility of developing a commercially scalable production system for these plant derived products."

Ranu Jung and the 16th annual International Computational Neuroscience meeting

[Source: Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering] -- Ranu Jung, an associate professor in the Harrington Department of Bioengineering and director of the Center for Adaptive Neural Systems at ASU, and Sharon Cook, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and the School of Life Sciences, participated in the 16th annual International Computational Neuroscience meeting July 7-12 in Toronto, Canada. Jung is president of the Organization for Computational Neurosciences, which sponsors the annual meeting. Crook is on the program committee for the meeting. Four ASU graduate students also participated, along with more than 300 faculty, researchers, postdoctoral fellows and students from 22 countries.

Three ASU graduate students presented research posters. Abstracts of the presentations were published as a supplement by the journal BMC Neuroscience. The ASU faculty also used the meeting as an opportunity to train doctoral students in developing symposia and workshops. Under their guidance, Mini Kurian, graduate student in mathematics and statistics and Joe Graham, a graduate student in bioengineering, led the organization of a workshop entitled "Neuro-Machine Interfaces: Integrating Biology and Technology to Develop Functionally Relevant Devices.” Jung presented an introduction and overview of the topics for discussion at the meeting, followed presentations by experts on information theory, neural plasticity and deployment of medical devices for pain management.

Eye-twitching might be necessary for seeing

[Source: Robin Moroney, WSJ] -- Researchers might finally have explained an oddity about eyesight that has flummoxed scientists for decades: why eyes seem to twitch involuntarily, Scientific American reports (subscription required). Those frequent flickers were once thought to be random, but now scientists say that the process could be essential for observing stationary objects. Since the 1800s, scientists have observed that when people deliberately focus on a stationary image, other parts of the image seem to fade away.

In recent decades, scientists have begun to suspect that human eyes make imperceptible movements as a way of adapting to the challenge of seeing stationary objects. Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik, both of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, write how recent experiments suggest that the largest of the eye’s involuntary tics, called microsaccades, are in fact essential to seeing. In one experiment, scientists found that the eye movements of volunteers became smaller and less frequent before the participants reported that an optical illusion on a screen faded from their view. The eye movements accelerated just before the image reappeared. Researchers think that the miniature eye movements help stop an image from fading, and serve as a signal to the brain that something out there is visible.

The findings might eventually help doctors treat problems that are associated with either too high or too low a rate of involuntary eye movement, such as “lazy eye,” which causes people to lose the ability to perceive details, and is the most common cause of vision loss in one eye among 20- to 70-year-olds. Involuntary eye movement also might expose individuals’ subliminal thoughts. Recent research suggests that microsaccades may twitch in the direction of objects that attract interest, even if a person’s focus is elsewhere. Thus, the authors say, “No matter how hard you might avert your eyes from the last piece of cake on the table or the attractive male or female standing across the room, the rate and direction of your microsaccades betray your attentional spotlight.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

National study shows five fruits and vegetables a day are as good as it gets to prevent breast cancer recurrence

[Source: Donna Breckenridge, Arizona Cancer Center] - Over a period of approximately seven years, 479 Arizona breast cancer survivors participated in the largest national randomized clinical trial to assess the influence of diet on the recurrence of breast cancer. The Arizona Cancer Center is one of six institutions to enroll women in the multi-center Women’s Healthy Eating and Living (WHEL) study. The findings, reported in the July 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggest that a diet very high in vegetables, fruit, and fiber, and low in fat does not reduce breast cancer recurrence or death in early stage breast cancer survivors when compared to guidelines promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The WHEL study included 3,088 breast cancer survivors between 18 – 70 years of age. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two diet groups. One group followed the 5-a-Day guidelines promoted by the USDA, while the other group was asked to follow a dietary pattern that included 5 vegetable servings, 16 ounces of vegetable juice, 3 fruit servings, 30 grams of fiber, and 15 – 20 percent of total daily energy intake from fat. Participants were followed for 6–11 years, with a median participation of 7 years Results indicate that for women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer there was no additional benefit in consuming more than the USDA-recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. The groups were nearly equal in disease-free survival curves.

The Arizona Cancer Center also conducted the study’s dietary assessments, and study authors include Cancer Center members Cynthia Thomson, PhD, assistant professor of nutritional sciences, and Cheryl Ritenbaugh, PhD, MPH, professor of family and community medicine. “The benefit of a healthy diet is the same as increasing to 13 or 14 servings of fruits and vegetables daily,” says Dr. Thomson. “A diet including 5 to 7 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, along with keeping fat intake below 30 percent, is adequate to help prevent breast cancer recurrence.” Study officials are quick to point out that results speak only to breast cancer survivors. They did not address whether the high-vegetable/fruit/fiber and low-fat diet would alter the risk of primary breast cancer.

The WHEL study also did not focus on weight control, which may be an important factor in breast cancer recurrence and survival. A study published in the June 10, 2007 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology by WHEL study researchers, including Dr. Thomson, demonstrated that eating 5 to 7 fruits and vegetables a day and being moderately active improved survival, even in overweight women. “It is critically important that we continue to study the changes in Western lifestyle associated with progression-free survival in patients with common cancers such as breast, colon and prostate cancers,” says Arizona Cancer Center David S. Alberts, MD. “The WHEL trial was beautifully designed to evaluate the impact of a low-fat, high fruit and vegetables diet on early stage breast cancer recurrence. Although this dietary intervention did not seem to work, the WHEL study analysis suggests that the addition of regular physical activity (e.g., 30-60 minutes of walking daily) to a low fat/high vegetable diet will have a pronounced impact on progression-free survival in these women.”

The study, based at UC San Diego Rebecca and John Moores Cancer Center, also involved University of California, Davis, Stanford University, Kaiser Permanente in Oakland and Portland, and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Full text of the article is available at A broadcast quality video news report is also available through .

Monday, July 16, 2007

Levitus garners prestigious NSF award

[Source: Joseph Caspermeyer, Biodesign Institute] - The Biodesign Institute’s Marcia Levitus has been named the recipient of a $568,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award, given to a very select group of young scientists deemed to be leaders in their respective fields.

With the prestigious award, Levitus will develop a finely detailed picture of how genes are controlled. “Our current understanding of how genes are turned on and off is very hazy,” Levitus says. “I believe that medicine will not be able to provide answers to how cellular processes lead to disease until we understand the most fundamental questions regarding how DNA is packed in our cells at the molecular level. But to get there, we still need to resolve many open puzzles regarding how DNA bends and wraps around proteins. We are reaching an exciting quantitative era in biology where it is possible to address these questions with tools traditionally used in the physical sciences.”

Typically, an organism’s complete genetic information, or genome, contains anywhere from 10 million to 100 billion DNA letters spaced out along chromosomes. If all of the DNA were stretched out from end to end, it would be up to six feet long. Somehow, the threads of DNA must be finely spooled and stuffed into the cell’s nucleus, a space about 10 times smaller than the width of a human hair. “Understanding how DNA is packed inside the nucleus of the cell is necessary to decipher fundamental processes in cell physiology,” Levitus says. “This knowledge will improve our very limited understanding of how genes work, which will aid the understanding of biological processes including aging and cancer.”

The core DNA packaging unit is called a nucleosome, which acts like a protective armor for the DNA code. It can take just a single nick, or a misplaced or lost letter in the DNA code, to cause the development of diseases such as cancer. But nucleosomes also must fill the role of a genetic conductor, helping to orchestrate all of the DNA information in a cell to be copied, read, and turned on and off at precisely the right tempo. Levitus, a researcher in the institute’s Center for Single Molecule Biophysics and assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry and physics, is attempting to create a quantitative model of the first triggering events in this cascade. Her research focuses on the smallest unit of DNA packaging – a single nucleosome – where 147 letters of the DNA code are wrapped twice around a core octet of proteins.

The energetics of this process requires a cellular feat of strength. Levitus explains that DNA is a very stiff material, with a physical strength similar to a thin cylinder made of Plexiglas. “The physics of DNA bending around the nucleosome is not that well understood, but I am trying to understand the physics of how the DNA sequence influences the ability of DNA to bend around the nucleosome,” she says. To help reach her research milestones, Levitus is collaborating with Northwestern University researcher Jonathan Widom, whose recent groundbreaking work has shown that nucleosomes seem to prefer to assemble at preferred positions within the DNA sequence – the first important steps to uncovering a nucleosome positioning code that may be hidden within every genome.

Levitus’ research grant also is important for its social commitment. As a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, she is particularly interested in increasing participation of women and Hispanic students into the sciences. “There are not too many women in the physical sciences, and as the scientific field becomes more quantitative, the number of women goes down,” Levitus says. “It’s a very sad fact, and I think it’s terrible that more women don’t go into this field. I also realize from talking with Hispanic undergraduates that they often feel like they don’t belong in science.” To overcome these barriers, Levitus works one-on-one in the classroom as a role model and mentor to encourage more minority women to participate in the physical sciences.

In addition, many students with interests in biochemistry and the life sciences can struggle with the math and basic numerical skills that have become increasingly indispensable for today’s interdisciplinary and large team approach to solving science problems. “My research exemplifies the increasing demand for quantitative reasoning in today’s biochemical and biological research, and shows the importance of applying concepts from the physical sciences to address basic questions involving biological systems,” Levitus says. “My background allows me to teach biochemistry students to think in quantitative terms, and make them appreciate the importance of learning math and physics. I want them to realize that otherwise they will not be able to face the challenges found in some of the most exciting problems of today’s biochemical research.”

Clues to future evolution of HIV come from African green monkeys

[Source: Science Daily] — Monkey viruses related to HIV may have swept across Africa more recently than previously thought, according to new research from The University of Arizona in Tucson. A vervet monkey, Chlorocebus pygerythrus, taken in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. A new family tree for African green monkeys shows that an HIV-like virus, simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV, first infected those monkeys after the lineage split into four species. The new research reveals the split happened about 3 million years ago.

Previously, scientists thought SIV infected an ancestor of green monkeys before the lineage split, much longer ago. "Studying SIV helps us learn more about HIV," said the paper's first author Joel Wertheim, a doctoral candidate in the UA department of ecology and evolutionary biology. "This finding sheds light on the future direction of HIV evolution." All SIVs and HIVs have a common ancestor, added senior author Michael Worobey, a UA assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

The new work suggests African green monkeys' SIVs, or SIVagm, may have lost their virulence more recently than the millions of years previously thought. Green monkeys almost never get sick from SIVagm. If SIVagm was once a monkey killer, the change in its virulence may shed light on the future course and timing of the evolution of HIV. The new research also challenges the idea that one ancient SIV was transmitted vertically, down through time, and evolved into many SIVs as its original host diverged into many different species.

Wertheim and Worobey suggest various SIVs arose because SIVs were transmitted horizontally, between primate species, and evolved into a new host-specific form only after transmission.

HIV arose from chimpanzee SIV that was transmitted to humans, probably when people had contact with chimpanzee blood from hunting and butchering the animals, Worobey said. The team's research article, "A Challenge to the Ancient Origin of SIVagm Based on African Green Monkey Mitochondrial Genomes," is in the July issue of PLoS Pathogens and can be found at The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health funded the research. Previous research had sketched out the family trees, or phylogenies, of the four species of African green monkeys and their accompanying SIVagm, but Wertheim wanted to know more. "I wasn't convinced by the evidence out there that these monkeys were infected before they speciated," Wertheim said. "So I set out to perform a rigorous test of that hypothesis." He extensively sequenced the mitochondrial DNA genes of the four species of African green monkeys. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to child.

The four green monkeys he studied are the sabaeus monkey, Chlorocebus sabaeus, which lives in western Africa; the tantalus monkey, Chlorocebus tantalus, which is found in central Africa; the vervet monkey, Chlorocebus pygerythrus, which lives in eastern and southern Africa; and the grivet monkey, Chlorocebus aethiops, which lives in northeast Africa.

The scientists used the genetic sequences to sort out the ancestral relationships among the different species of monkeys. Other researchers had already constructed phylogenies for the four different SIVagm that showed their relationships. "We put together, for the first time, a really solid phylogeny for African green monkeys, which we didn't have before," Worobey said.
If the monkeys' ancestor had been infected with an ancient SIV, the SIV family tree should match that of the four monkey species. The trees didn't match. "The monkey tree was significantly different from the virus tree," Wertheim said.

The researchers then looked at the geographic distribution of the four African green monkey species. The relative ages and information on which pairs of SIVagm were most closely related revealed the probable transmission route of SIV. The researchers hypothesize that the infection started in the westernmost species, sabaeus monkeys, moved east into neighboring tantalus monkeys, and then took one of two paths: southeast into vervets and then north into grivets or northeast into grivets and then south into vervets. Wertheim said, "I was surprised that the geography could explain the virus phylogenetic tree, how well it fit. You just look and -- there it is!" The UA researchers suggest that in the border zones where two African green monkey species' ranges come in contact, transmission probably happened during interspecies sexual encounters or fights. Wertheim pointed out that hybrid monkeys have been seen in the wild in the border zones. Worobey said, "Some of the trends we see give new evidence on how quickly or slowly these changes take place."

Citing some laboratory research that suggests HIVs from the late 1980s are more virulent than HIVs from the 2000s, Worobey added, "For HIV, the really cool thing is that these changes can take place on a more rapid timeline that previously thought." Wertheim adds, "Understanding how emerging infectious diseases evolve in their natural host organism helps us understand the disease's possible trajectory." The team's next steps are figuring out exactly when SIV infected African green monkeys and studying SIVs in other species of monkeys.

Arizona Cancer Center announces formation of Skin Cancer Institute

[Source: Donna Breckenridge, Arizona Cancer Center] - The Arizona Cancer Center proudly announces the formal establishment of its Skin Cancer Institute, which was recently approved by University of Arizona officials. The mission of the new Institute is simple: to prevent and cure skin cancer in the state of Arizona. The Institute plans to accomplish this goal by bringing together laboratory researchers, clinicians, and health educators under one multidisciplinary, collaborative group.

“The Skin Cancer Institute is one of the few places in the United States where a patient can access dermatologists, oncologists, surgeons, and health care educators in one location,” explains Robin Harris, PhD, MPH, associate professor of public health and deputy director of the Skin Cancer Institute. “This type of coordinated care is not offered anywhere else in Arizona.” Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer and has a higher incidence than all other types of cancers combined. Prevention and treatment of skin cancer are particularly important for residents of Arizona, which is second only to Australia in the number of cases of non-melanoma skin cancer diagnosed each year. In addition, the American Cancer Society estimates that 1,300 Arizonans will be diagnosed in 2007 with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

In 2005, the Bert W. Martin Foundation donated $400,000 to help establish the Skin Cancer Institute. The foundation recently continued its support of the Institute with a second donation of $290,000, which will provide partial funding of the Institute’s activities. “The 2005 grant from the Martin Foundation represented their trust and support that we would be able to establish the Skin Cancer Institute,” says Naja McKenzie, PhD, RN, research assistant professor of nursing and executive director of the Skin Cancer Institute. “We sincerely appreciate their continued support of our vision.”

One important part of that vision is to promote early detection and treatment of skin cancer. To this end, the Skin Cancer Institute has opened the Pigmented Lesion Clinic, located in the Arizona Cancer Clinic at UMC North. The first program of its kind in the state, the Pigmented Lesion Clinic sees patients with an increased number of benign and atypical melanocytic lesions, or moles. These patients are at a high risk of developing melanoma, the most serious of all skin cancer types. The Clinic provides comprehensive evaluations and tracks changes in patients’ skin lesions using total body digital photography. “Patients with an increased number of moles represent a significant challenge at the time of dermatological evaluations since it is very difficult to determine the degree of changes in a given mole over a specific period of time,” says Clara Curiel, MD, assistant professor of dermatology. “Total body images can be a useful melanoma screening method in these patients, while avoiding a series of unnecessary skin biopsies.”

In addition to leading-edge treatment, the Skin Cancer Institute is dedicated to educating the community on sun safety and skin cancer prevention. In May 2007, in association with the Tucson Dermatology Society and The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the Institute sponsored the second annual “Living in Harmony with the Sun” event at the Desert Museum. The weekend included free skin screenings for the public and exhibits on sun safety.

The Skin Cancer Institute also provides training and educational support for the state-mandated SunWise™ program, including continuing education courses for teachers. “The state mandates sun safety lessons as part of the curriculum but does not offer any training,” explains Dr. McKenzie. “The Skin Cancer Institute offers training for educators as well as support for implementing this mandated curriculum.” The Skin Cancer Institute hopes to expand its community awareness programs. Integral to its plan is the establishment of the Prevention Resource Center, a place where health care providers, educators, and the general public from throughout Arizona can obtain more information about skin cancer prevention. The long-term vision for the Skin Cancer Institute is to serve as the model for community- based skin cancer research and care in the United States.

“Skin cancer literally is in epidemic proportions in Southern Arizona and has become one of our biggest public health problems,” says Arizona Cancer Center Director David S. Alberts, M.D. “For more than 25 years, my personal goal has been to establish the University of Arizona and the Arizona Cancer Center as the number one academic institution in the fight against skin cancer. The newly approved Skin Cancer Institute within the Arizona Cancer Center represents our best chance to reverse this ‘epidemic!’”

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Arizona Myeloma Network (AzMN)

The Arizona Myeloma Network is a nonprofit corporation headquartered in Arizona that focuses on community outreach, promotes Education, Awareness and Advocacy, helps improve patients’ treatment and quality of life and consists of healthcare professionals, patients, families and others concerned about Multiple Myeloma .

AzMN will be holding awareness workshops for the cancer community: "Why is it important to consider donating tissue for cancer research?"

The ‘Tissue Donor Awareness Project (TDAP)’

Register for any of the three locations listed below:
  • Saturday, Sept. 15, 2007, from 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m., Registration: 9:30-10:00 a.m. Orange Tree Golf Resort, 10601 N. 56th Street, Scottsdale, AZ 85254
  • Saturday, Oct. 13, 2007, from 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m., Registration: 9:30-10:00 a.m. Prescott Resort & Conference Center, 1500 Highway 69, Prescott, AZ 86301
  • Saturday, Nov. 17, 2007, from 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m., Registration: 9:30-10:00 a.m. Sheraton Tucson Hotel & Suites, 5151 E. Grant Road, Tucson, AZ 85712

To view the ‘Tissue Donor Awareness Project’ flyer and to register, please click here.

NIH launches Web service to connect inventors with commercial partners

[GenomeWeb staff reporter]— The National Institutes of Health has started a web-based program designed to connect NIH licensees and grant awardees to potential commercialization partners, the NIH said Wednesday. The NIH Pipeline to Partnerships initiative, known as P2P, is designed to enable licensees and awardees, especially early-stage developers, to “showcase their technologies and product development for an audience of potential strategic partners, investors, and licensees,” NIH said. "In the last decade, many successful biomedical products have come from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies that licensed early-stage technologies from NIH," said Mark Rohrbaugh, director of the NIH’s Office of Technology Transfer, which helped develop the initiative with the NIH Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs.

"Faced with less demand for early-stage technologies, this pipeline provides an avenue for potential partners to find NIH licensees along the spectrum of product development to share costs, infrastructure, and expertise as the research and development progresses to later stage clinical trials," he added. The NIH said researchers can view the pipeline of technologies, searchable by category and stage, on OTT’s website.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Arntzen in the spotlight for national science policy, plant biology honors

[Source: Joe Caspermeyer, Biodesign Institute] -- Biodesign Institute researcher Charles Arntzen has been doubly honored by the White House and the American Society of Plant Biologists for his leading role in science policy and lifetime contributions in research and teaching. Arntzen, a Regents’ Professor who also holds the ASU Florence Ely Nelson Presidential Chair in Plant Biology, has provided expertise and national service since 2001 on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST). Recently, Arntzen was part of a six-member panel that met with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman in the Oval Office to present a report on the nation’s future energy needs and new technology options to meet them. Arntzen had contributed to the report’s emphasis on biofuels as an alternative to imported petroleum.

In the report to President Bush, PCAST recommended an increase in federal support for science and technology research and development, noting that many of the advanced technologies described had originated from federally funded research. “PCAST has concluded that of all the emerging technologies studied in this report, biofuels offer the greatest promise for advancing, in the relatively near term, the twin goals of reducing oil dependence and significantly reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector,” according to an excerpt from the report (

The report also included the following overarching recommendations:
  • Promote the Energy Policy Act of 2005 incentives
  • Support state energy initiatives
  • Position the federal government as an early adopter of new technology

In addition, Arntzen has been selected by the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) to receive the inaugural Fellow of ASPB Award in 2007. The 2007 Fellow of ASPB Award is granted in: “recognition of distinguished and long-term contributions to plant biology and service to the Society by current members in areas that include research, education, mentoring, outreach and professional and public service.” Only a select one of out 500 (0.2 percent) of current ASPB members was eligible for the award. Arntzen will receive the ASPB award in a ceremony in Chicago on Saturday, July 7th.

Biodesign Institute leads innovative project to prevent breast cancer

[Source: Joe Caspermeyer, Biodesign Institute] -- Biodesign Institute researchers have received nearly $9 million in grants to develop a preventive vaccine against cancer. Stephen Albert Johnston, PhD, director of the institute’s Center for Innovations in Medicine, will focus his research project on breast cancer. Johnston is one of only two recipients in the nation bestowed with a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the Department of Defense’s Innovator Award, funded through its Breast Cancer Research Program. His Biodesign research colleague, Douglas Lake, PhD, will lead a three-year $1.2 million project from the W. M. Keck Foundation to take the basic technology and see whether it could be applied to several other forms of cancer.

Yvette Ruiz and Douglas Lake discuss their latest efforts to uncover cancer protein signatures as part of a Biodesign Institute and Mayo Clinic cancer vaccine project. The project has received nearly $9 million in funds from a Department of Defense ’Innovator Award’ and the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., with an estimated 1.45 million cases of cancer diagnosed this year. More than 560,000 people will die from the disease. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death in women. The Department of Defense, using appropriations from a congressionally directed medical research program, has sought to eradicate breast cancer by funding innovative, high-impact research through a partnership of scientists and consumers. The Innovator Award recognizes individuals who have a "history of visionary scholarship, leadership and creativity."

“Breast cancer’s course is often long and devastating and, despite advances in diagnosis and treatment, one in five women still succumb to the disease,” said Johnston. “It’s time to fundamentally rethink how we approach this problem. Our goal, based on some promising preliminary results, is to see if we can make a vaccine that would be given to all adult women to prevent the occurrence of breast cancer”

Johnston notes that the most successful medical intervention in history has been the development of vaccines against infectious disease. “Developing a cancer vaccine would be the perfect solution, not only in eliminating cancer mortality, but also potentially some of the costs of diagnosis and treatment.”

The W.M. Keck Foundation Award will further push the boundaries of cancer vaccine research by laying the groundwork for breakthrough discoveries to broaden the team’s approach to other cancers. “It’s been well-established that cancers create foreign proteins that the immune system can recognize,” said Douglas Lake, who will lead the Keck Foundation project. “If we could pre-immunize an individual with a collection of proteins that effectively represent any foreign protein that a breast tumor would produce, the immune system would arm itself against breast cancer,” said Lake. “And, if the platform technology proves successful, it could be applied to other cancers.”

The Biodesign Institute duo will lead a highly interdisciplinary team of scientists and clinicians, which involves renowned collaborators from other institutions including: Laurence Miller, MD, Mayo Clinic director for research and Richard Smith, PhD, chief scientist at Pacific Northwest National Labs. The research team, utilizing the latest advances in genomics, proteomics and immunology, wants to find a number of common signatures that occur across a wide spectrum of breast tumors. “This has truly been a collaborative effort, with significant contributions from both organizations,” according to Miller. “I am thrilled that this is going forward, and am also pleased to see this important project launching our joint efforts in the Mayo Clinic/ASU Center for Cancer-related Convergence, Cooperation and Collaboration (MAC5).”

The research work will be performed at the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Innovations in Medicine and Mayo Clinic’s new Collaborative Research Building. This project is the first major initiative undertaken under the MAC5 umbrella partnership. Earlier, the organizations invested seed funds including private funding from Mayo and ASU funding made possible by the Arizona voter-approved, Proposition 301 Technology Research and Infrastructure Fund (TRIF). The funds allowed Johnston’s team to launch the project and obtain the initial supportive data. Space has been allocated at research facilities at the Biodesign Institute and on the Scottsdale campus of Mayo Clinic, with additional faculty and clinicians being hired to support the project.

To find common elements in breast cancer and other tumors, the research team will use patient and normal samples from extensive tissue banks at the Mayo Clinic. The team will develop new techniques to identify small protein fragments, or peptides, found in breast cancer cell lines and primary tumors. “The key is that these peptides have to trigger an immune response against breast tumors but not in normal cells,” said Johnston.

Johnston knows demonstrating their approach will be a significant challenge. But he has been encouraged by recent mouse studies in his lab, which have identified peptides that have shown protection against breast cancer. Lake is advancing these preliminary mouse studies by identifying peptides from human tumors that are candidates for a cancer vaccine. “We believe the technology and knowledge base now exists to determine whether or not this idea is feasible,” said Johnston. “If we are successful in our approach, we hope to bring a vaccine candidate to clinical trials by the end of the grant period.”

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Valley team hopes to develop 1st preventive breast-cancer vaccine

[Source: Kate Nolan, The Arizona Republic] -- An Arizona mission to invent the first preventive cancer vaccine is being armed by the U.S. Department of Defense. Dr. Stephen Johnston won a five-year, $7.5 million "Innovator Award" from the Defense Department's Breast Cancer Research Program, according to an announcement planned today by Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute and Mayo Clinic. The grant supports efforts toward a breast-cancer vaccine by 15 researchers at MAC5, a partnership between Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale and ASU in Tempe.

Researchers plan to use common proteins among breast cancers to vaccinate against attacking cancer cells. No cancer vaccines exist. However, the HPV vaccine prevents an infectious disease related to cervical cancer."Now I can concentrate more on science than raising money," said Johnston, director of the institute's Center for Innovations in Medicine. A growing view that cancer research has not been innovative enough, may have positively influenced the Defense Department's decision, Johnston said."Conceptually, this idea is out far enough that we're not sure it will work," Johnston said, adding that the venture could lead to a vaccine against all major cancers.The research team includes Dr. Laurence Miller, director of research at Mayo , and Dr. Richard Smith, chief scientist at Pacific Northwest National Labs in Richland, Wash.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Researchers identify genetic mutation that may alter patient response to cancer therapeutics

[Source: TGen] -- Researchers from Eli Lilly & Company and the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) today announced finding a novel recurring mutation of the gene AKT1 in breast, colorectal and ovarian cancers. The altered form of AKT1 appears to cause tumor cell proliferation and may play a role in making cells resistant to certain types of therapies. The findings are reported in an advance online publication (AOP) of the journal Nature.

The PI3-Kinase/AKT pathway is among the most commonly activated cellular pathways in human cancers and members of this pathway are among the most frequently targeted for new cancer drug discovery efforts. Activation of this pathway results in cancer cell growth and cell survival. Although AKT1 is central to pathway activation, its role in cancer has been that of an intermediary between mutated upstream regulatory proteins and downstream survival signaling proteins. This is the first evidence of direct mutation of AKT1 in human cancer tumors: it was discovered in clinical samples from cancer patients, yet has never been detected in cancer cell lines. "This discovery is a seminal finding in cancer biology that confirms AKT1 as an oncogene in breast, colorectal and ovarian cancer. The mutation alters the electrostatics of binding pocket in the pleckstrin homology domain, the portion of the enzyme that docks with phospholipids on the cell membrane," said Kerry L. Blanchard, PhD, MD, Executive Director, Discovery Biology Research, Eli Lilly & Company.

To identify the AKT1 mutation, the researchers analyzed 150 tumor samples from patients with either breast, colorectal or ovarian cancer (50 samples from each tumor type). Analysis of the data showed that 8 percent of breast, 6 percent of colorectal and 2 percent of ovarian tumors had the AKT1 mutation in the samples that were screened in their study. "Recently, molecular features such as the AKT1 mutation are beginning to change drug development efforts. This discovery adds to the short but growing list of molecular features that may help guide both current and future cancer drug development," said John Carpten, PhD, Senior Investigator and Director of TGen's Integrated Cancer Genomics Division and the study's lead author. "The next step is to determine the prevalence of the AKT1 mutation in different populations and, hopefully, use the information gained to stratify patients going into clinical trials for AKT inhibitors." If validated by further studies, the identification of this recurring mutation has the potential to impact cancer treatment and drug development. "This is a gorgeous study that used a variety of sophisticated techniques to provide new insights into the tumorigenic process," said Bert Vogelstein, MD, Director of the Ludwig Center for Cancer Genetics & Therapeutics at The Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

James E. Thomas, PhD, of Lilly's Cancer Discovery Research division, explained, "AKT1 is a protein kinase or enzyme that plays a key role in activating survival, proliferation and metabolic pathways. Interestingly, other cellular proteins that regulate this network have also been shown to be mutated in a variety of cancers including lung, breast ovary, prostate, colorectal and brain cancers. This mutation in AKT1 is striking direct evidence for the role of AKT1 in cancer formation." The identification of the AKT1 mutation was a collaborative effort between Eli Lilly & Company and TGen. "This discovery demonstrates the importance of studying the genetic make up of cancers at the clinical level rather than relying on model systems," adds Jeffrey Trent, PhD, Scientific Director of TGen. "This is a key study highlighting Lilly’s commitment to translational research approaches in cancer drug discovery and development. Furthermore, this work is a great example of a successful public-private partnership at a global level that involves Lilly Research Laboratories in Indianapolis, TGen in Phoenix, Lilly Singapore Centre for Drug Discovery, and the Economic Development Board of Singapore", adds Richard Gaynor, MD, Vice President of Oncology Discovery at Eli Lilly & Company. He added, "This mutation further validates AKT1 as an attractive drug target, and it also will be a valuable tool for the stratification of patients for targeted therapies. This paradigm of identifying specific defects in cancer cells to successfully develop innovative therapies has been validated with oncology drugs such as Gleevec in leukemia and Herceptin in breast cancer."

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

SFAz investments promote brain diagnostics, solar technology

[Source: The Business Journal of Phoenix] -- Science Foundation Arizona selected eight research proposals out of 44 submissions to receive $2 million designed to advance the technologies to the point of commercialization. Researchers receiving funding are:
  • Nasser Peyhgambarian, a professor in the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, who is working to introduce ultra-low voltage hybrid polymer/sol-gel electro-optic modulators and switches as the next-generation of broadband. Peyghambarian also is working to commercialize a miniaturized fiber-optic sensor used in non-invasive real time monitoring of brain activity.
  • David Lynch of UA's Department of Materials Science and Engineering is developing technology to reduce the cost of manufacturing solar-grade silicon while reducing pollution.
  • Dominic McGrath, professor in the Department of Chemistry at UA, is developing a disposable infusion pump for pain management IV therapy, drug and fluid delivery and insulin therapy for Medipacs, a Tucson biotech facility.
  • Qiang Hu, professor in the Department of Applied Biological Sciences at Arizona State University Polytechnic, is working on a project to increase the productivity and reduce production costs of Astaxanthin, an antioxidant for humans and color additive in foods like meat and fish -- a project that could lead to creation of a manufacturing plant in Arizona.
  • John Kouvetakis, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at ASU is looking to find an improved, cost-effective and sustainable method for producing high-brightness and energy-efficient lighting and solar applications.
  • Wayne Frasch, a professor in the School of Life Sciences at ASU is working on molecular detection technology that rapidly tests and diagnoses pathogens such as anthrax, E-coli, cancer, forensics, STDs, avian flu and hospital-acquired infections.
  • Trevor Thornton, director of ASU's Center for Solid State Electronics Research, plans to introduce a cost-effective option for companies that require high-voltage, high-speed integrated circuits in partnership with Honeywell.

The investments are part of the 2007 Small Business Catalytic program, designed to create a catalyst for technology development, company formation and high-tech job creation in Arizona.
"The research funded by our Small Business Catalytic program has great commercialization potential, a key component in Arizona's efforts to grow an economy rooted in knowledge and innovation," said William C. Harris, president and CEO of SFAz. "These projects will bring new patents to Arizona researchers with the ultimate goal of forming spin-off companies that create new jobs for Arizonans."

Curtiss named ‘Bioscience Researcher of the Year’ by Arizona BioIndustry Association

[Source: Julie Kurth, Arizona State University] -- Roy Curtiss, III, PhD, of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, was named “Bioscience Researcher of the Year” at the third-annual Excellence in Bioscience Awards Dinner, held recently and sponsored by the Arizona BioIndustry Association.

Curtiss is a leader in exploring the genetic basis by which bacteria colonize, invade and induce disease. Dubbed in the press as a “70-year-old biology superstar,” Curtiss also has considerable expertise in avian, plant and phage genetics. He is director of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, where he oversees a 130-member research team working on more than a dozen projects. He is also a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences and is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Curtiss’ primary focus is on alleviating suffering and death in the developing world.

One of his major projects is development of a vaccine against bacterial pneumonia. Bacterial pneumonia kills more children around the world each year than any other infectious disease. That drives Curtiss and his global team to perfect a safe, yet potent vaccine for this lethal pathogen that can be tolerated even by newborn babies — and administered as a one-dose solution in a simple eyedropper.

In 2005, Curtiss received a $14.8 grant from the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, funded primarily by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to lead this international research project. Preliminary studies have been successful, and the team hopes to move the vaccine technology forward to begin human clinical trials within the next year. The single-dose, oral vaccine for bacterial pneumonia promises to outperform the existing injectable vaccine in every way — safety, affordability, ease of distribution and effectiveness. In addition, the technology has the potential to be used for a range of existing and new vaccines.

Before coming to ASU in 2004, Curtiss was the George William and Irene Keochig Freiberg professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., where he chaired the Department of Biology for 10 years. His body of published work includes more than 250 reviewed articles. He earned a BS from Cornell University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.

Monday, July 2, 2007

UA first in arizona to install “second generation” DNA sequencer

[Source: Deborah Daun, Marketing & Communications, BIO5 Institute] -- UA’s Arizona Genomics Institute (AGI) has installed Arizona’s first “second generation” DNA sequencing machine. What took six months to accomplish with a “first generation” DNA sequencer now can be achieved in a few hours and at a fraction of the cost.

Under the direction of UA Plant Sciences Professor and BIO5 member Rod Wing, PhD, the new 454 GS-FLX DNA sequencer is being used in a variety of genomics research efforts, including AGI’s rice DNA sequencing projects. Dr. Wing has significantly contributed to the sequencing of one species of domesticated rice. This understanding of domesticated rice, combined with the knowledge gained from Dr. Wing’s most recent work sequencing the genomes of wild relatives of rice will ultimately lead to crop improvements.

The wild relatives of rice can grow in conditions unsuited to domestic rice. Pinning down genes linked to desirable properties such as crop yield, drought tolerance, and resistance to pests, heat, cold, weeds, salt and pathogens could make it possible to grow domesticated rice in less than ideal environments, thus increasing production acreage and helping to reduce hunger around the world.