Thursday, October 25, 2007

Arizona Cancer Center physician/scientist to receive faculty award

[Source: Donna Breckenridge, Arizona Cancer Center] -- Setsuko K. Chambers, MD, Bobbi Olson endowed chair in ovarian cancer research, director of women’s cancers for the Arizona Cancer Center, and professor and director of gynecologic oncology for The University of Arizona (UA), has been awarded the 2007 Senior Faculty Award from the UA Asian American Faculty, Staff and Alumni Association. She will be honored at the 18th Annual Scholarship and Awards Celebration on Saturday, October 27, 2007, at 7 p.m. at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center (1228 W. River Road).

“Dr. Chambers defines sustained excellence as exemplified by her numerous accomplishments at the Arizona Cancer Center and in her extensive career as a physician scientist,” says Wenxin Zheng, MD, FACP, professor of pathology and gynecology and director of molecular pathology for the UA, who nominated Dr. Chambers for the award. “I have no doubt that Dr. Chambers will continue to commit herself as an academic women’s physician and will continuously make outstanding contributions to women’s cancer in both clinical care and translational research,” adds Dr. Zheng.

The award acknowledges Asian American faculty members at The University of Arizona for meritorious achievements in promoting knowledge and scholarship within their discipline, in advancing the mission of excellence in teaching and/or in contributing service to the University and community. “Dr. Chambers is a true ‘triple treat’ – academic scholar, superb surgeon, and chemotherapist – while competing for grants at the highest level imaginable,” says Arizona Cancer Center Director David S. Alberts, MD. “She has done a wonderful job getting all of the other disciplines on the same page!”

Dr. Chambers came to the Arizona Cancer Center in 2004 from Yale University, where she was professor and director of the Gynecologic Oncology Fellowship Program. Throughout her career, Dr. Chambers has served on many national and regional committees, grant review panels and study sections. She is an examiner for the American Board of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and has served a president of the New England Association of Gynecologic Oncologists. She has authored more than 80 peer-reviewed publications and chapters.

Dr. Chambers serves in a leadership role as a member of the Center’s Director’s and Executive Committees, and as associate head for academic affairs and director of gynecologic oncology for the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. As part of her surgical and clinical responsibilities, Dr. Chambers also teaches and mentors residents. “Dr. Chambers represents the ideals of teaching, research, and advising of all students, residents, and young faculty within the University system,” says Kenneth Hatch, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology for The University of Arizona College of Medicine.

Dr. Chambers’ research laboratory, which is funded by the National Cancer institute, is devoted to understanding the molecular basis for breast and ovarian cancer invasion and metastasis. Her current role is to develop a comprehensive program, encompassing both research and clinical practice, in the areas of breast and gynecologic cancers. In addition to establishing interdisciplinary collaborations within the Arizona Cancer Center, Dr. Chambers has coordinated productive collaborations among researchers at the UA, McGill University, the University of Illinois, and Yale University.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Integrated Biosystems Research 2007 Symposium

"Advances in Proteomics Research," sponsored by the Arizona Proteomics Alliance, will be held Friday, November 16, 2007:
  • 8 am ~ Registration (& Coffee), Poster set up
  • 8:45 am – 5 pm ~ Lectures, Lunch, Posters Session, Panel Discussion
  • 5 – 6 pm ~ Reception
Location: Lectures at The Great Hall, Armstrong Hall (LAW); Lunch, Poster Session & Reception at The Biodesign Institute, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ ; Visitor Parking entrance off Terrace Road in Rural Road Parking Structure.

  • To foster a collaborative research network in Arizona advancing systems biology and its translation to personalized medicine.
  • To advance the proteomics capabilities in the state through improved awareness of the most cutting-edge methodologies and their novel applications.
Invited speakers will address topics of: Protein Biomarkers – Discovery and Validation; Avances in Protein Analysis; Protein Networks, Pathways, and Clinical Applications. The symposium will also feature panel discussions with invited guests:
  • Dr. Leland Hartwell, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
  • Dr. Brian Balgley, Calibrant Biosystems, Inc.
  • Dr. James Kerwin, House Ear Institute
  • Dr. Amanda Paulovich, Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center
  • Dr. Tom Grogan, Ventana Medical Systems
  • Dr. Russ Finley, Wayne State University
  • Dr. Jeffrey Trent, Translational Genomics Research Institute
  • Dr. George Poste, The Biodesign Institute

For more information, visit To register before the November 9 deadline, contact Pam Young at 480 727-0378 or

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust and Flinn Foundation launch $45M initiative to develop personalized diagnostics

Two Arizona-based philanthropic organizations have committed $45 million to fund an innovative initiative to develop personalized molecular diagnostics. The ability to diagnose and treat disease based on every person's unique physiological makeup is critical to enabling physicians to improve health outcomes while at the same time reducing medical costs. Under the Partnership for Personalized Medicine, The Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust has committed $35 million and the Flinn Foundation has granted $10 million to bring together a wide range of resources to advance a global personalized medicine initiative.

World-renowned scientist Dr. Lee Hartwell, 2001 Nobel laureate and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has been recruited to lead this effort. The Hutchinson Center, based in Seattle, is a leader in using molecular diagnostics for the early detection and clinical management of cancer and other diseases. In addition to his current position as president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he will chair the Partnership executive committee, which includes Dr. George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, and Dr. Jeffrey Trent, president and scientific director of the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen). "It is a tremendous opportunity for me to be a part of this new model for improving health while reducing health care costs that is being funded by the Piper and Flinn foundations," Hartwell said. "The collaboration between TGen, the Biodesign Institute at ASU, other institutions in Arizona and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center brings together enormous expertise to tackle major challenges in bringing new science and technology to disease management."

The cornerstone of the Partnership is the creation of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics that draws upon the scientific strengths of two of the state's leading bioscience entities, TGen and the Biodesign Institute at ASU, each of which will contribute significant laboratory space to the effort. The Piper Center will utilize bioinformatics and high-performance computing expertise at both institutions, existing nanotechnology and imaging expertise at the Biodesign Institute, and supercomputing resources through ASU's Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. Additionally, an industrial scale, high-throughput proteomics production facility will be established that taps expertise at both TGen and the Biodesign Institute at ASU in robotics, protein analysis and computing.

Hartwell's involvement provides the Piper Center with opportunity to draw on the Hutchinson Center's extensive capabilities in health economics and the design of clinical and public-health trials through consultative and collaborative relationships. "The Piper trustees made this investment because Dr. Hartwell has a vision to transform the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease," said Dr. Judy Jolley Mohraz, president and CEO of the Piper Trust. "That vision draws together scientists, clinicians, engineers, statisticians, insurers and regulators to work collectively to make health care more targeted and affordable. This initiative holds the promise of making a difference in the quality of life for people here in Arizona and throughout the world."

According to John Murphy, president and CEO of the Flinn Foundation, biomarker discovery and diagnostic development could ultimately lead to earlier disease detection and more precise disease management. "To leverage Arizona's institutional assets, the Flinn Foundation's grant commitment to TGen will link Arizona's research universities, health care providers, research institutes and industry partners throughout the state to support the collection and storage of biospecimens and drive Arizona-centric demonstration projects," Murphy said.

Approximately 50 percent of the Flinn Fund for Arizona Proteomics Research will be available to promote research collaborations to leverage the state's significant institutional resources in this field, Murphy added, with the balance supporting the creation of a high-throughput proteomics production facility. Proteomics is a promising and cutting-edge field that studies proteins and their functions in the body. The proteomics production facility will focus on discovering new proteins for the development of diagnostic tests for patients with cancer or other illnesses. These tests could ultimately lead to earlier disease detection and more precise disease management.

Even though the necessary technologies to develop personalized diagnostic tests are available, barriers such as the expense of clinical trials and difficulty obtaining clinical samples have significantly slowed the development process. The Partnership will focus on the development, testing and validation of new molecular diagnostic tools and the approval and distribution of these tools for widespread clinical use. This will be accomplished through a series of collaborative demonstration projects that integrate key health organizations. "The Holy Grail of personalized medicine includes blood-based tests that improve diagnosis and help direct clinical care," said Trent. "The unparalleled opportunity the Partnership provides is to expand the magnitude of proteomic studies across a spectrum of key clinical questions." The Partnership includes recruitment of new faculty and will engage national and international partners to ensure developments are rapidly commercialized. "With the team of scientific and clinical research excellence we are assembling, our goal is to transform medicine from the current 'one size fits all' approach to one that is targeted around a patient's unique genetic and molecular profile," Poste said.

Partnerships formed with large health care systems and disease-focused foundations will facilitate the implementation and validation of molecular diagnostics in clinical settings, as well as close ongoing interaction between scientists and clinicians. Health care systems will benefit from newly developed diagnostics through the most cost-effective use of medical treatments, while patients and the public in general will enjoy greater overall health outcomes. ASU President Michael Crow added that this endeavor "promises to become a shining example of how multiple partners can work together to address a critical need in human health and accelerate solutions that extend beyond our own community."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Interdisciplinary UA & NAU team receives $3.3M to study biosurfactants

[Source: University of Arizona Communications] -- BIO5 investigators at The University of Arizona and a scientist at Northern Arizona University recently received a $3.3 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to research four classes of unique biosurfactants. Research applications are widespread and could include bioremediation of metal and oil contaminated sites, additives to pharmaceutical preparations such as skin creams and therapeutic ointments, use as anti-microbial dispersants, and more environmentally friendly detergents and cleaning agents. The UA portion of the grant is $2.8 million. The UA and NAU scientists are characterizing the fundamental properties of these molecules and looking at ways to scale-up production and purification for commercial applications. They also seek to discover new biosurfactants from bacteria obtained from unusual or unexplored environments.

Biosurfactants are molecules produced by bacteria that reside in the region of space where two phases of matter (such as a solid and a liquid) connect. Biosurfactants are attractive, environmentally-friendly “green” alternatives to more traditional synthetic surfactants because they exhibit less toxicity and higher biodegradability with comparable or better surface activity. “These biosurfactants have remarkably elegant chemical structures that have evolved over the last 3.5 billion years to be very good and very efficient surface active agents,” says BIO5 member Jeanne Pemberton, Ph.D., a professor in UA's chemistry department. “These unique molecules designed by nature possess decidedly different structural features compared to the types of surfactants previously designed by chemists.”

Surfactants are used in household and industrial cleaners, personal care products, and various manufacturing processes including food processing and the production of plastics, paints, coatings, textiles, pulp and paper, and agricultural products. It is a multi-billion dollar industry and growing.

Dr. Pemberton; BIO5 member Raina Maier, professor of Soil, Water and Environmental Science; BIO5 member Robin Polt, professor, Department of Chemistry; and Jani Ingram,, a chemist from NAU are the primary investigators on the new grant. UA Vice Dean for Graduate Studies Maria-Teresa Velez, who is also a co-investigator on this award, will help oversee the development of education and training opportunities targeting underrepresented students, ranging in age from high school through graduate school, and in-service teachers. “We need to more fully explore the microbial world for natural products such as biosurfactants that can be harnessed for the benefit of industry, biotechnology, and medicine,” says Dr. Maier. This newly funded research builds substantially on a recently completed NSF-funded joint effort between Drs. Pemberton and Maier.

Former Maryland bioscience leader named CEO of Arizona BioIndustry Association

[Source: Arizona BioIndustry Association] -- The Arizona BioIndustry Association has named a new president and chief executive officer to lead the growing statewide bioscience trade association. C. Robert (Bob) Eaton, who led a bioscience industry support organization in Maryland for 10 years, has relocated to Phoenix and began his new position on October 1.As president of MdBio, Eaton helped to expand the nonprofit organization from a staff of two to eight with an annual operating budget of about $2 million. He managed the investment of approximately $4 million in more than 30 bioscience companies, and has worked closely with senior biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry leaders regarding state and federal regulatory and policy issues. Under his leadership, MdBio developed an array of programs to support the growth and success of bioscience companies, primarily in the areas of business development, communications, workforce training, and K-12 education. “Bob brings to Arizona a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and practical experience in the bioscience industry,” said Michael Mobley, vice chair of the association who chaired the committee that led the national search. “He also has proven leadership in directing and growing a nonprofit, statewide trade association.

The timing is ideal, as we are embarking upon a new era of expansion in representing the interests of Arizona’s bioindustry.”In previous roles, Eaton worked with the Technology Council of Maryland, where he worked with industry leaders to establish the Maryland Bioscience Alliance; served as director of R&D programs for the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (now PhRMA) in Washington, D.C.; worked with a small molecular biology services company in Gaithersburg, Md.; and was involved in protein biochemistry research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Eaton also served on several boards and councils in Maryland and Virginia related to the bioscience and technology industries. He received a master’s degree in science, technology, and public policy from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in applied and engineering physics from Cornell University. “Arizona has earned a national reputation as an emerging leader in the biosciences,” Eaton said. “The potential for a young and growing trade association is unlimited in such a fast-growing and reputable region. It’s an exciting opportunity for me, and I’m eager to start meeting the players and determining how the association can best serve their needs.”

The Arizona BioIndustry Association is the state’s affiliate to the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the nation’s largest trade association serving biotechnology firms, based in Washington, D.C. It offers benefits, events, information, advocacy, and other services to more than 100 member firms involved in the biosciences.Among Eaton’s responsibilities will be to increase memberships and other revenue sources in order to move the association to self-sufficiency, and to shepherd an effort underway to expand the association’s statewide service into Tucson and Flagstaff by partnering with the Bioindustry Organization of Southern Arizona and bioscience leaders in northern Arizona.

The association is planning a series of meet-and-greet events in the next month to introduce Eaton to members and other stakeholders. Eaton succeeds Jon W. McGarity, the association’s first executive officer, who resigned in May to serve as President and CEO of InSys Therapeutics in Phoenix. [Note: Bob Eaton can be reached at 602-495-2937;]

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Arizona Cancer Center member publishes books on prostate cancer

[Source: Donna Breckenridge, Arizona Cancer Center] -- Richard J. Ablin, PhD, a member of the Arizona Cancer Center’s Biology and Genetics Program, has published a new book, Metastasis of Prostate Cancer, available from Springer Press. The book provides an innovative look at prostate cancer with specific focus on metastasis (secondary malignant growths from a primary site of cancer). Dr. Ablin’s book is especially useful for researchers and physicians interested in the origins and spread of prostate cancer, and in the mechanisms of metastasis of other forms of cancer. He is a well-known innovator in the field of prostate cancer research and is the discoverer of prostate-specific antigen (PSA). The book is Dr. Ablin’s fourth and is co-edited by Malcolm D. Mason of Wales. Metastasis of Prostate Cancer contributes to the efforts of laboratory researchers to translate their discoveries into clinical applications, enabling efforts in the laboratory to make a visible difference in the lives of patients for whom the research is meant. Its scope ranges from basic research at the molecular biology level to treatments for prostate cancer patients. Curative approaches are also presented, ranging from conventional drug design to immunogene therapy.

Dr. Ablin earned a doctoral degree in microbiology from the State University of New York at Buffalo and was also trained as a United States Public Health Service Postdoctoral Fellow. From his undergraduate alma mater, Lake Forest College, he received the degree of D.Sc., honoris causa. In 1997, for his discovery of PSA in 1970, Dr. Ablin was a nominee for the Lasker Award. Included in the First Edition of Who’s Who in Emerging Leaders of America in 1987, Dr. Ablin was an early investigator of the immunobiological aspects of the development and progression of cancer and a pioneer in the field of cryosurgery (the application of intense cold for the destruction of unwanted tissue) and the concept of “cryoimmunotherapy” for the treatment of cancer. He is a member of numerous professional societies and serves on the editorial board of several medical journals.

Low-fat diet possibly linked to lower risk of ovarian cancer

[Source: Donna Breckenridge, Arizona Cancer Center] -- A low-fat diet may decrease the risk of ovarian cancer in postmenopausal women, according to a study published online October 9 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. “Until now, the relationship between diet and ovarian cancer risk has received little attention, and it is important to know that the risk of this cancer also can be reduced by maintaining a healthy diet,” says Cynthia A. Thomson, PhD, RD, assistant professor of nutritional sciences and public health at the Arizona Cancer Center. Dr. Thomson is the second author on the study. Previous reports from the Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Randomized Controlled Trial examined the effect of a low-fat diet on the risk of breast and colorectal cancer in postmenopausal women, but it was not yet known whether the same diet would alter ovarian cancer risk. “The results of this study are extremely important, in that they provide an opportunity for post-menopausal women to lower their risk of developing ovarian cancer by following a healthy diet, low in fat,” says Arizona Cancer Center Director David S. Alberts, MD, who specializes in the treatment of ovarian cancer.

Lead author Ross Prentice, Ph.D., of Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle and colleagues analyzed data from the dietary modification trial to see if the changes in the women’s diets decreased the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer and invasive cancers overall. In the trial, nearly 20,000 women were randomly assigned to the diet modification group, and almost 30,000 women ate their normal diet. The women participating in the diet were asked to reduce their fat intake to 20 percent of their overall diet, as well as eat at least five serving of fruits and vegetables a day and at least six servings of whole grains. They were followed for an average of eight years.

The risk of ovarian cancer was similar in the two groups for the first four years of follow-up, but it was reduced in the dieting group during the following four years. Women who had the highest fat intake before the trial saw the greatest reduction in risk. There was no difference in endometrial cancer risk between the two groups, but a trend toward a reduction in invasive cancers overall was suggested in the dieting group. It was not statistically significant. “Since the participants saw a protective effect after four years or more, the study speaks to the importance of long-term commitment to healthy eating habits,” says Dr. Thomson. “Ongoing... follow-up of trial participants may provide additional valuable assessment of the effects of a low-fat dietary pattern on these and other cancer incidence rates,” the authors write.

The National Institutes of Health established the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) in 1991 to address the most common causes of death, disability and impaired quality of life in postmenopausal women. The WHI addressed cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. The WHI was a 15-year, multi-million dollar endeavor and one of the largest U.S. prevention studies of its kind, enrolling 161,808 women aged 50-79. Approximately 5,000 Arizona women participated, with Tamsen Bassford, MD, head of the University of Arizona College of Medicine’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, serving as the principal investigator. The three major components of the WHI were a randomized controlled clinical trial of promising but unproven approaches to prevention; an observational study to identify predictors of disease; and a study of community approaches to developing healthy behaviors.

The clinical trial and observational studies were interrelated and conducted at the same 40 clinical centers. Issues addressed included benefits and risks of hormone therapy, changes in dietary patterns, and calcium, vitamin D supplementation in disease prevention. An extension of the WHI observational study and clinical trial began in 2005 and will last until 2010. Dr. Thomson is serving as the principal investigator in Arizona, with 3,680 women currently participating. The Arizona Cancer Center is the state’s premier National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center. With primary locations at the University of Arizona in Tucson and Scottsdale Healthcare, the Center has more than a dozen research and education offices throughout the state and 275 physician and scientist members working to prevent and cure cancer. For more information, go to

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

BIO5 and Biodesign Institute seek early detection of Type 2 diabetes

[Source: University of Arizona Communications] -- A new team of researchers from The University of Arizona and Arizona State University is taking aim at the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States: adult-onset, or type 2, diabetes. The coalition’s goal is to learn how to predict who will develop the disease long before any symptoms appear. “Right now,” says Serrine Lau, professor at UA’s College of Pharmacy and member of the BIO5 Institute, “current indicators, biomarkers, of type 2 diabetes are not well defined and most such markers are only reliably detected in people who have already been diagnosed with the disease. Finding these clues, which will allow for the early treatment and possible avoidance of the complications associated with the disease, is the goal of our research.”

Lau spearheads the team’s investigation using cutting-edge technologies to discover and validate new biomarkers to accurately detect pre-type 2 diabetes. It is a collaborative project between UA’s BIO5 Institute and ASU’s Biodesign Institute, supported by the Technology and Research Initiative Fund, known as TRIF. TRIF is a special investment in higher education made possible by passage of state Proposition 301 in November 2000.

The principal researchers on the project include UA’s Serrine Lau, George Tsaprailis and Craig Stump; Randy Nelson and Mike Mobley from ASU’s Biodesign Institute and ASU West Kinesiology Professor Larry Mandarino. “Our project is unique in the country,” says Lau. “First, collaborations between our two groups of experts enable us to combine exceptional intellectual and technological resources to address the problem. Second, we are conducting a highly targeted discovery investigation, which is guided by very well-defined clinical protocol. Third, we have a broader patient sample. Similar projects elsewhere are investigating patients who have already been diagnosed with diabetes, but we are looking at a more random sample of the population, and trying to learn how to predict who will develop diabetes.”

“We have the technologies and tools in place now to construct a detailed molecular signature of diabetes,” said Randy Nelson, who heads the Molecular Biosignatures Analysis Unit at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. “By studying the changes in both the expression and structure of proteins related to diabetes, we can determine their contribution to the disease process.”

Nelson is an expert in proteomics, a scientific discipline that studies changes in protein composition – generally in biofluids such as blood and urine – and how these changes relate to disease. “With the completion of the human genome project,” says Lau, “we now understand that genomics alone is insufficient to fully understand cellular biochemistry. It is the proteins which are the workhorses in regulating biological events.”

Researchers use state-of-the-art technology including protein sequencing by mass spectrometer, an instrument used to determine the composition of a physical sample by generating a spectrum representing the masses of sample components. The BIO5/Biodesign team uses mass spectrometers not only to identify proteins and their functional states, but also to measure the quantity of particular proteins. For example, someone with a disease may be producing too much of a given protein that would normally be present in lower amounts in a healthy individual. “As a clinician treating diabetes, this research is particularly exciting,” said another study participant, Craig Stump, MD, chief of the section of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension at the UA College of Medicine. “We’ve always used a shotgun approach to preventing diabetes – we know we have been overtreating some people, and undertreating others. Knowing a patient’s individual risk for diabetes will allow physicians to offer highly specific recommendations to avert the disease. It’s going to change lives.”

“The investigation is challenging, overarching and sometimes it can be intimidating,” continues Lau. “But we now realize that it is the path we have to take. It is essential that we approach this in a cooperative and global manner.”

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

New federal law paves way for CPath, others in drug development field

[Source: Phoenix Business Journal] -- Legislation aimed at promoting drug safety and economic development is paving the way for The Critical Path Institute in Tucson. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., said her bill was signed into law today by President George W. Bush as part of the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007.

Dr. Raymond Woosley, president and chief executive of The Critical Path Institute, known as CPath, said the bill authorizes creation of a public/private partnership to work on accelerating drugs to market, which is what CPath does. "It puts $5 million out there for us to request," Woosley said. One of the big problems in drug development is that testing methods need to be updated, he said. "We test drugs today the same way we did 50 years ago," he said. CPath is helping to change that, he said. "We've got 16 companies working with the FDA," Woosley said. "We developed an agreement between those 16 companies to come together and share with each other how they test drugs."

He said the goal is not for these pharmaceutical companies to make more money, but to develop safer drugs by accelerating testing and focusing on safety. The FDA and its European and Japanese counterparts are part of the consortium. "We've got 190 scientists working together, and it all started because Arizona gave us the funding," Woosley said. "We had to have a legal agreement that said we've got a model that doesn't break antitrust rules." [Note: For more information, visit]

Genes May Hold The Keys To How Humans Learn

[Source: Science Daily] New research is giving scientists fresh insights into how genetics are a prime factor in how we learn. Michael Frank, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Laboratory for Neural Computation and Cognition at The University of Arizona, headed a team whose results are reported in the Oct. 1 issue of Early Edition, an online site hosted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Frank and his colleagues found links to learning behaviors in three separate genes associated with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical in the brain that is often associated with pleasure, learning and other behaviors. Several neurological disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, are also linked to abnormal levels of dopamine. Frank's study points to fundamental genetic differences between "positive" and "negative" learners.

"All three genes affect brain dopamine functioning, but in different ways, and in different parts of the brain" Frank said. "The genes predicted people's ability to learn from both the positive and negative outcomes of their decisions." Two of the genes - DARPP-32 and DRD2 - predicted learning about the average, long-term probability of rewards and punishments, not unlike your personal preference for why, for example, you might choose steak over salmon.

"When making these kinds of choices, you do not explicitly recall each individual positive and negative outcome of all of your previous such choices. Instead, you often go with your 'gut,' which may involve a more implicit representation of the probability of rewarding outcomes based on past experience," Frank said. The DARPP-32 and DRD2 genes control dopamine function in a region of the brain called the striatum, thought to be necessary for this kind of implicit reward learning. A third gene, COMT, did not predict long-term reward or punishment learning, but instead predicted a person's tendencies to change choice strategies after a single instance of negative feedback. Frank said this gene affects dopamine function in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area associated with conscious processing and working memory. This would be akin to switching from steak to salmon upon remembering your last experience with overdone steak.

The overall research program was designed to test a computer model that simulates the key roles of dopamine in reinforcement learning in different parts of the brain, as motivated by a body of biological research. "The reason we looked at these three individual genes in the first place, out of a huge number of possible genes, is that we have a computer model that examines how dopamine mediates these kinds of reinforcement processes in the striatum and prefrontal cortex," Frank said. "The model makes specific predictions on how subtle changes in different aspects of dopamine function can affect behavior, and one way to get at this question is to test individual genes."

Among the evidence incorporated in the model and motivating the genetic study is research showing that bursts of dopamine production follow in the wake of unexpected rewards. Conversely, dopamine production declines when rewards are expected but not received. To test their hypothesis, the researchers collected DNA from 69 healthy individuals who were asked to perform a computerized learning program. The volunteers were asked to pick one of two Japanese characters that appeared on a screen and were "rewarded" for a "correct" response, and "punished" for an "incorrect" one.

Frank said more research is needed to confirm that genetic effects are accompanied by brain-related changes in behavior. But, he said, the research offers insights into the genetic basis for learning differences and insights into improving human cognition and learning, both normal and abnormal.

"Understanding how dopaminergic variations affects learning and decision-making processes may have substantial implications for patient populations, such as (those with) Parkinson's disease, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia," Frank said. "The genetics might also help us identify individuals who might gain from different types of learning environments in the classroom."

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

¡VIDA! The Second Annual Mujer Latina Breast Cancer Conference Oct. 27

[Source: Donna Breckenridge, Arizona Cancer Center] ¡VIDA! The Second Annual Mujer Latina Breast Cancer Conference is a collaborative community effort that will offer bilingual Spanish/English breast health education. Topics will include screening, nutrition, osteoporosis, treatment and survivorship. A panel of Latina breast cancer survivors will share their experiences, and community health centers will provide exhibits with educational materials.

¡VIDA! The Second Annual Mujer Latina Breast Cancer Conference
Saturday, Oct. 27, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
El Pueblo Community Center Senior Building (101 W. Irvington)
Free admission, complimentary breakfast and lunch

Advanced registration required, please call (520) 626-2271 or (520) 626-0331 The conference, initiated and coordinated by Dr. Ana María López, associate dean of outreach and multicultural affairs and associate professor of clinical medicine and pathology at the University of Arizona, Arizona Cancer Center, will bring together cancer experts to work collaboratively to increase cancer education in the Latino community.

Banner Health merges with Sun Health

[Source: Ken Alltucker, The Arizona Republic] Banner Health plans to merge with Sun City's Sun Health hospital network in a deal that would expand the reach and power of the Valley's largest hospital group.Banner, which now operates eight Valley hospitals, has agreed to acquire assets valued at about $400 million from the Sun Health network, including Sun Health's Del E. Webb and Boswell hospitals in Sun City. The deal would further solidify Banner's position as the Valley's largest hospital group, creating a formidable 10-hospital organization with about 25,000 employees and 3,356 beds with significant influence over patient care in the nation's second-fastest-growing metropolitan region.

Financial terms between the nonprofit hospital groups were not released. Hospital executives expect it will take six to nine months to complete the deal, which must pass muster with the Federal Trade Commission and Arizona health regulators.Sun Health President and CEO Leland Peterson said Sun Health agreed to combine forces with Banner because of the larger hospital group's financial strength and advanced technology.“We see this as an opportunity to bring together our complimentary forces,” Peterson said. “We could see that opening doors to new (sources) of capital was very important.”Sun Health's roots trace back three decades as the community health provider for Sun City, but the hospital group's resources have been strained with the rapid growth of bedroom communities such as Surprise, Peoria and Litchfield Park.

Sun Health's Boswell and Del E. Webb hospitals would be renamed to include Banner when the merger is consummated. Other entities that would be folded into Banner include the Sun Health Research Institute, Sun Health MediSun, Sun Health Boswell Rehabilitation Center, Sun Health Residence for Special Adults, Sun Health Olive Branch Senior Center and Sun Health Community Education & Wellness Center.The Sun City-based hospital group's charity groups, including the Sun Health Foundation, Sun Health Auxiliary and Sun Health Properties, are not part of the merger and will continue to independently raise money for the hospitals and research.Banner CEO Peter Fine vowed to invest significant resources in Sun Health's network, both by expanding existing buildings and constructing new facilities as required. He added the Banner would carry over its commitment to bring the latest technology to Sun Health's network, including electronic medical records.He added that Banner's top priority is providing high quality patient care.“We are an organization of people, not an organization of buildings,” Fine said.Banner has been on an aggressive expansion in metro Phoenix, investing more than $1 billion in new hospitals both in the West and East Valleys.

The deal allows it to quickly expand into the Northwest Valley, an area of rapid population growth.“We certainly had been watching Banner expand its network,” said Jim Hertel, publisher of the Arizona Managed Care Newsletter. “It left open the question as to whether they were going to look to fill in on the north side through construction or acquisition. We clearly have our answer now.”John Rivers, chief executive officer of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association, said the merger gives Sun Health a stable financial partner that can better withstand fluctuations in reimbursement from insurers and Medicare payments. Sun Cities, with its elderly patients, provides a high percentage of Medicare patients.“Sun Health gets a strong financial partner out of this and Banner gets a very, very deep presence in the West Valley with an organization that has a lot of community support,” Rivers said.Both Peterson and Fine stressed the importance of engaging and gaining the support of the 4,000 volunteers who assist Sun Health's network. These volunteers have clocked nearly 11,000 hours at the hospitals and clinics over the past three decades, performing duties such as greeting visitors, delivering oxygen tanks or drugs to patients and even donating bodies to science.

In addition to the two West Valley hospitals, the 4,500-employee Sun Health network operates a rehabilitation center, various health services for senior citizens and a nationally recognized research institute.Both Banner and Sun health-care networks offer services in clinical care and research, including cardiac and vascular care, orthopedics, neurosciences, urology, oncology and other care.The deal also brings together two of Arizona's premier research groups, the Sun Health Research Institute and Banners' Alzheimer's Institute.The two entities have worked together on many Alzheimer's-related research projects over the years, including a joint project to make patients available for a large-scale clinical trial.

Sun Health, which has about $34 million in active federal grants on a variety of research projects, has drawn acclaim for its brain and organ donation bank used by scientists around the globe to study age-related illness. Dr. Joseph Rogers, Sun Health Research's president and senior scientist, said the two research groups will remain independent for the immediate future, but he think the two groups eventually may combine operations.“We are very excited about this. We think it provides a great opportunity for collaboration,” said Rogers.

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