Friday, November 30, 2007

Arizona Cancer Center study shows Hispanic women more prone to aggressive breast cancer

[Source: Donna Breckenridge, AzCC] - Results of a study published this week in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved indicate that when compared with Non-Hispanic White women, Hispanic women in the state of Arizona are more likely to have high-grade breast cancers, larger tumors, a greater number of positive lymph nodes, and advanced stage at diagnosis. Study results also indicate that Hispanic women are less likely to have tumors that are both estrogen and progesterone receptor positive, particularly in those under age 60. This is important because hormone-dependent tumors differ with respect to their biology, and these differences affect the type of treatment used, patient response to treatment, and patient prognosis.

“Breast cancer is an understudied and poorly understood disease in the U.S. Hispanic population, and we need to understand the magnitude and profile of breast cancer in our Latina population,” says María Elena Martínez, PhD, co-director of the Arizona Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program and principal investigator for the study. “This study confirms our suspicions that the profile of tumor presentation in Hispanic women in Arizona is consistent with a more aggressive disease pattern and less favorable prognosis than that of Non-Hispanic Whites.”

Researchers used data from the Arizona Cancer Registry to assess differences in tumor characteristics. A total of 25,494 invasive breast cancer cases (23,657 non-Hispanic Whites and 1,837 Hispanics) reported to the cancer registry from 1995 to 2003 were included in the analysis.

In the U.S., the rate of breast cancer incidence is higher among non-Hispanic Whites and lower among other racial/ethnic groups, including Hispanics. However, among Hispanic women, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and is the leading cause of cancer death. In addition, data indicate that breast cancer is presenting at an earlier age among Hispanics in the U.S. Preliminary data also suggest a higher risk of breast cancer may exist for those Latinas born in the U.S. than in those born in Mexico who are living in the U.S. The study was funded in 2006 as part of two grants from the Avon Foundation and the National Cancer Institute totaling approximately $1.2 million. The grants are enabling researchers in the U.S. and Mexico to undertake a binational (U.S. and Mexico) research study assessing the specific types of breast cancer occurring in Latinas in both countries.

In addition to Dr. Martínez, most of the other authors of the study are also affiliated with the Arizona Cancer Center, University of Arizona, including Drs. Raymond B. Nagle, Ana Maria Lopez, and Patricia Thompson. Drs. Christina Kim and Carrie M. Nielsen were also affiliated with the Arizona Cancer Center at the time of manuscript submission.The Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved is a publication of Johns Hopkins University and will be available online the week of Dec. 3.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Centenarians wanted for Sun Health Research Institute study on healthy aging

Sun Health Research Institute's Center for Healthy Aging and the West campus of Arizona State University are seeking out valley residents ages 98 and older for a new study that will examine the link between longevity and factors for healthy aging. “The purpose of this project is to gain a better understanding of the many factors involved in healthy aging. The best place to start is with people who've accomplished it,” says Walter Nieri, MD, director of the Sun Health Research Institute’s Center for Healthy Aging. “From this project, we seek to build wellness models that emphasize what individuals and the communities in which they live have done right to achieve longevity.”

Participation includes a brief phone interview followed by a one- to two-hour in-person interview at the individual’s residence or at the Sun Health Research Institute. Participants may have another family member, caregiver, or friend join them in the interview, but are encouraged to answer the questions on their own. Interviewers are specially selected, screened, and trained graduate students and professionals interested in the field of aging and work on a team with David W. Coon, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology at the West campus of Arizona State University.

The Longevity Project seeks participation of people from all cultures and backgrounds. Spanish-speaking interviewers are also available. If you or someone you know is approaching 100 or older, please call the Longevity Project hotline at the Center for Healthy Aging at the Sun Health Research Institute at 623/815-7677. Sun Health Research Institute’s Center for Healthy Aging was established to provide seniors with information, education and resources necessary to age gracefully and in a healthy manner.

Monday, November 26, 2007

TGen and ADHS receive ABRC grant to study Valley Fever genome

[Source: TGen] - The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and the Arizona Department of Health Services have been awarded a highly competitive Arizona Biomedical Research Commission (ABRC) grant to study the genome of the fungus that causes Valley Fever, a respiratory illness caused by the inhalation of fungal spores that live in the soils of the desert southwest. This research will result in new analytical tools that will help determine where Valley Fever comes from, how transmission occurs, and a way to link cases to sites of exposure. This information may lead to important public health interventions to potentially limit the spread of disease.

Valley Fever, also known as Coccidioides, is estimated to result in over 100,000 infections every year, mostly in Arizona. Over the last two years, Arizona has experienced a dramatic surge in the number of cases. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the number of reported Valley Fever cases hit a record high last year, with 5,535 cases in Arizona - up 57 percent from 2005. The cause for this surge is not well understood, but may be related to a combination of increased construction in virgin desert, an increase in new residents from other places in the country that don't have Valley Fever, and changing climate patterns. "Valley Fever may be the most important infectious disease in Arizona, in terms of sheer numbers of infections," said David Engelthaler, the Director of Programs for TGen North, and the former State Epidemiologist for Arizona. "This grant will allow for our researchers to explore the Valley Fever genome in a way that has never been done before."

TGen North, the Pathogen Genomics Division of TGen, is located in Flagstaff, Arizona. Under the direction of Dr. Paul Keim, a national expert on pathogen genomics, the TGen North team is working to develop new clinical diagnostic tools to rapidly identify Valley Fever cases. "This important Valley Fever grant is a step in the right direction," said Dr. Keim. "However, the need for research on this disease far outweighs the funding available. Because Valley Fever is mostly contained to the southwest, it does not show up on the federal radar screen. This is an Arizona problem and it will take and Arizona solution. The ABRC is to be commended for helping to take this issue head on." The total funding from ABRC will be $300,000 over the next two years. TGen and the Arizona Department of Health Services will collaborate on both the Coccidioides genome exploration project and new diagnostic development.

"This is an important step in combating Arizona's epidemic," said Susan Gerard, Director of the Arizona Department of Health Services. "Today's announcement shows Arizona is serious about addressing this health problem. Much more work is ahead of us, but this is a great start."

The Valley Fever Center for Excellence (VFCE) in Tucson, Arizona, has also promised its support for these studies. The VFCE is the site of ongoing studies for new drugs and vaccines for Valley Fever.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Innovation of the Week: Researchers discover novel stem cells in menstrual blood

Medistem Laboratories, Inc., in collaboration with researchers from three partner institutions -- the University of Western Ontario, the University of Alberta, and the Bio-Communications Research Institute -- has announced the discovery of a novel stem cell population derived from menstrual blood. The researchers say the cells, which they call "Endometrial Regenerative Cells," not only could solve the ethical dilemmas associated with embryonic stem cells but also can be differentiated into many more tissue types, potentially leading to more clinical applications. According to lead researcher Dr. Xialong Meng, "ERC cells can be converted into basically all the major tissues of the body, including the liver, lung, pancreas, brain, heart, blood vessel, and muscle. Additionally, these cells produce 100,000 times the number of growth factors found in cord blood, opening the door to numerous regenerative applications." The Scottsdale, AZ-based company has filed for patent protection on the cell line and has begun the commercialization process, including pre-clinical efficacy studies, said president and CEO Neil Riordan, PhD. "The indications currently being assessed include diabetes, liver cirrhosis, lung fibrosis, organ rejection, and multiple sclerosis. Should the data gathered prove strong in one or all the indications, the next step will be to file INDs with the FDA and move into clinical trials," Riordan added. Details of the discovery were published last week in the Journal of Translational Medicine.

The article can be downloaded at

Also go to:

UA's Richard Herrier first to earn Jacob Award for pharmacy practice

[Source: UA LQP Faculty/Staff News] - Richard Herrier, clinical associate professor at The University of Arizona College of Pharmacy, is the first recipient of a new award for innovative pharmacy practice. The Danny and Rae Jacob Award for Pharmacy Practice was established at the UA by the children of retired Tucson pharmacist and businessman Daniel Jacob. It recognizes pharmacists who demonstrate dedication to patient care, professional leadership and community service. The award is named for Jacob, a 1952 alumnus of the UA College of Pharmacy, and his wife, Rae. Jacob opened his first Tucson pharmacy in 1956 and owned 10 stores during his business career, including Danny?s Pharmacy.

Herrier joined the UA College of Pharmacy in 1994 following nearly 25 years with the Indian Health Service, where he played a key role in developing and implementing many innovations in ambulatory clinical pharmacy practice. At the college, he teaches patient assessment, primary care therapeutics and communications skills.

Herrier was selected as the inaugural recipient of the award because of his contributions to clinical pharmacy practice, including his vision for a specially equipped facility that resulted in a one-of-kind learning center now in use at the College of Pharmacy. The pharmacy practice laboratory was funded by Jacob family members and also is named for Danny and Rae Jacob.

UA researchers create robot driven by moth's drain

[Source: UA LQP Faculty/Staff News] - University of Arizona researchers have designed a robot that moves by using the brain impulses of a moth, which could be a step toward a future in brain engineering that will help repair damage or replace lost brain functionality.

Charles M. Higgins, UA associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and doctoral student Timothy Melano presented their findings and outlined the mechanics behind the robot's movements at the 37th annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego. "Combining the study of machines and the mechanics of the human body has led to great advances that have direct health benefits such as the development of the mechanical heart. Unfortunately, we are nowhere as advanced in our study of the brain as we are in the study of the heart," Higgins said. "Scientists have reached a frustrating point in understanding the brain ? we know how it operates, to an extent but don't know how to stop brain damage or repair it when it occurs," Higgins said.

But that may change in the future. Higgins has thus far been able to have robo-moth turn left or right but not forward or backward. The longest recorded movement has been 88 seconds.
The robot's motion is guided by a tiny electrode implanted in the moth's brain, Higgins said, specifically to a single neuron that is responsible for keeping the moth's vision steady during flight. The neuron transmits electrical signals which are then amplified in the robot's base and through a mathematical formula.A computer translates the signals into action, making the robot move.

The moth is immobilized inside a plastic tube mounted atop the 6-inch-tall wheeled robot. To get the moth to imitate flight, Higgins and his team placed the moth in its apparatus on a circular platform surrounded by a 14-inch-high revolving wall painted with vertical stripes. The moth's neuron reacts to the movement of the stripes and the process begins.

The brain of a moth is about the size of a grain of rice. Although small, "its compact size and simplicity allows for an efficient way to do brain research,"Higgins said. "The underlying point in the creation of the robo-moth is the notion of advancing neuroscience," he said.

The Society for Neuroscience meets annually to show advances made by scientists who work to study the architecture of the brain and use that knowledge in the design of new machines.
Higgins' work is funded through grants from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Air Force. Both agencies granted funding to help gain an understanding of human visual operations.

UA scientists receive $2.5 million to study Amazon forests, climate change

[Source: UA LQP Faculty/Staff News] - A University of Arizona-led international team of scientists has received a five-year, $2.5 million grant that will send students and early-career scientists to the Amazon to study tropical ecology and biogeochemistry, and conduct related experiments within the tropical forest biome at the UA's Biosphere 2.

The National Science Foundation-funded project is called the Partnership for International Research and Education -- Amazonia, or Amazon-PIRE. The grant includes $1.5 million for stipends and fellowships to support participating students and early-career scientists. PIRE students will take a field course in Brazil's Amazon forest, conduct related experiments at Biosphere 2 and work with Brazilian scientists and students through exchanges at Brazilian scientific institutions.

The project combines international collaboration with interdisciplinary training in earth system science, remote sensing and modeling. "Our project has a globally important scientific goal ? which is to figure out how climate changes affect Amazon forests. And there's an educational goal ?to help transform science education so the next generation of scientists will be successful in an increasingly globalized scientific community," said principal investigator Scott Saleska, an assistant professor in the UA's department of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"The purpose of NSF's Amazon-PIRE program is to change how education works in this country by supporting new models for international collaboration and training. The educational goal is especially critical in environmental science, where cultural barriers can reinforce the disparity in knowledge between the most studied ecosystems, generally those in North America and Europe, and the ecosystems about which new knowledge and data are most needed, such as those in the tropics," Saleska said. "Because the forests of the Amazon basin form the largest contiguous, intact tropical forest on Earth, Amazonia is a storehouse of carbon whose fate will influence the fate of climate change globally," said Saleska, also a member of Biosphere 2's science steering committee member and of the UA's Institute for the Study of Planet Earth.

Saleska's co-principal investigators on the grant are Alfredo Huete, UA professor of soil, water and environmental science, W. James Shuttleworth, UA professor of hydrology and water resources and atmospheric sciences, and Steven C. Wofsy, professor of atmospheric and environmental science at Harvard University. Other UA researchers participating in the project include Biosphere 2 Director Travis Huxman, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; Brian Enquist, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; Timothy Finan, director of the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology; Joellen Russell, assistant professor of geosciences; and Scott Whiteford, director of UA's Center for Latin American Studies. [Read more at]

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

TGen and NAU awarded federal grant to develop biowarfare disease diagnostic

[Source: Tgen] - A faster diagnostic tool will give physicians more timely and accurate information about melioidosis. The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and Northern Arizona University (NAU) have been awarded a highly competitive five-year $4.5 million research grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop new diagnostics and analytical tools for an important biodefense disease called melioidosis or Whitmore's Disease. The illness was part of the biowarfare arsenal for both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War era. Although both biowarfare programs have been disbanded, remnants may exist. At this time, melioidosis can be found mostly in Southeast Asia and results in thousands of cases and deaths every year in countries like Thailand and Australia.

The research will be conducted at TGen North, the institute's pathogen genomics and biodefense research facility located in Flagstaff. Nationally recognized biosafety expert Dr. Paul Keim, Director of TGen's Pathogen Genomics Division and Professor of Biology and Cowden Endowed Chair in Microbiology at NAU, will lead this research effort. Dr. Keim's laboratory has developed one of the most comprehensive repositories for melioidosis samples in the world.
Under the direction of Dr. Keim, researchers will focus on developing smarter and faster diagnostic tools to give physicians more timely and accurate information on the cause of the disease, a species of bacteria known as Burkholderia pseudomallei, or "Burk". "We have made great strides already with Burk and have identified genetic markers that predict the outcome of disease-essentially predicting whether or not a particular infection is destined to be fatal without prompt and aggressive treatment," said Dr. Keim, who is a co-principal investigator on the grant. "We need to quickly develop these markers into accurate diagnostic tools and get them into the clinics where this disease occurs."

TGen will work in collaboration with NAU and a clinical facility, the Menzies School of Health Research, located in Darwin, Australia.

The NAU portion of the research will be headed by Dr. David Wagner, an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences and the Associate Director of the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics at NAU. "This is truly a collaborative project," Dr. Wagner said. "Although melioidosis is a potential bioterrorism weapon and an important cause of disease in some parts of the world, it does not occur naturally in the United States. As a result, international collaborations are absolutely crucial to allow us to effectively study this important pathogen. Our partners in Australia bring more than 20 years of experience of working directly with melioidosis in a clinical setting. TGen brings their excellent skills in developing rapid, accurate diagnostic tools, and NAU brings years of experience of working with Burkholderia pseudomallei in the laboratory."

The end result of this research will be a tool that accurately identifies and characterizes the pathogen in clinical samples in a matter of hours. The existing technology requires several days to analyze samples.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Arizona Cancer Center receives $12 million SPORE grant to fight GI cancers

[Source: Donna Breckenridge, Arizona Cancer Center] -- The Arizona Cancer Center’s Gastrointestinal (GI) Cancer Program has received a $12 million Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The Center is one of only five institutions nationwide to receive a GI SPORE grant. The others include Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the University of North Carolina, and Vanderbilt University.

The grant is a five-year renewal of the Center’s first GI SPORE, funded in 2002. The GI SPORE is one of the five largest grants ever awarded to the University of Arizona College of Medicine and is the largest new grant to be funded in the past ten years.

“Dr. Gerner and his research colleagues in the Arizona Cancer Center have developed one of the top five research programs in the country for the prevention and treatment of colon, pancreatic and esophageal cancers,” said Arizona Cancer Center Director David S. Alberts, MD. “Their research is absolutely world class!” “We’re very excited about the work that’s been accomplished during the past five years and are honored to be the only institution in Arizona that holds an NCI SPORE,” say Eugene W. Gerner, PhD, director of the Arizona Cancer Center’s GI Cancer Program and principal investigator for the grant. “As a result of the grant’s renewal, we can move forward to develop even more new methods for preventing and curing GI cancers.”

Highlights of the accomplishments of GI SPORE researchers during the past five years include:

• The discovery of two new GI cancer-fighting drugs and completion of a Phase I clinical trial for one of the drugs.
• Identification of a genetic marker, obtained through a blood test, for individuals likely to benefit from the colon polyp preventive action of aspirin.
• A collaborative “first-of-its-kind” study of Barrett’s esophagus, the precursor to a form of esophageal cancer, to identify markers that predict which patients with Barrett’s esophagus will develop esophageal adenocarcinoma.
• A unique binational study involving investigators in the Arizona Cancer Center and The University of Arizona Health Sciences Center, exploring the relationship between arsenic and cancer in southern Arizona and northern Mexico.
• Discovery of neurological effects in cancer survivors, which may help improve the quality of life of patients coping with the long-term effects of treatment for GI and other cancers.
• The first patient advocate research team to be integrated into a large NCI research grant in Arizona.
• $9 million in new grants, which were generated from $1.5 million in funding for developmental research – a six-fold increase.
• 138 publications in national scientific journals.
• Five patents. In 1992, the NCI established the SPOREs to promote interdisciplinary research and to foster translational research, which brings new scientific discoveries to the clinic.

The long-term objective of the Arizona Cancer Center’s GI SPORE grant is to prevent and cure GI cancer by developing novel approaches for risk assessment, screening, chemoprevention, and therapeutics.

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 20 percent of cancer deaths in the U.S. in 2007 will be from GI cancers, and colorectal cancer will be the second leading cause of overall cancer deaths.

The SPORE renewal includes four major research projects, three cores (services to support the projects), and career development and developmental research programs. The SPORE brings together a cross section of researchers from The University of Arizona, including the Arizona Cancer Center, the Health Sciences Center, and the BIO5 Institute. Other collaborators are from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the University of California Irvine Chao Family Cancer Center, the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center in Scottsdale, and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix. A supplemental grant to study biomarkers for Barrett’s esophagus involves researchers from The University of Arizona, the Southern Arizona VA Medical Center, Johns Hopkins, Mayo Rochester, Mayo Jacksonville, the University of North Carolina, Vanderbilt, and the University of Maryland. A second supplemental study to continue researh on the relationship between arsenic exposure and cancer involves a binational team of investigators from The University of Arizona, Universidad de Sonora, and the Instituto Technologico de Sonora.

For more information on the GI SPORE, go to

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Leading bioengineer named to Biodesign Institute advisory board

[Source: Julie Kurth, ASU] -- The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University has named biological engineer Drew Endy, Ph.D., to its advisory board. Endy is an assistant professor in the biological engineering department at MIT, where he co-founded the Synthetic Biology working group and the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. He organized the first International Conference on Synthetic Biology and his synthetic biology labs led to the organization of the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, a worldwide genetic engineering competition for undergraduates.

One of a handful of pre-eminent researchers in the emerging field of synthetic biology, Endy has led a number of initiatives supporting free access to genetic information as a means to encourage greater progress in the field. His research has focused on developing foundational tools that make it easier to engineer biology, so that many more biotechnology applications can be readily realized – from medical therapies, to chemical and materials manufacture, to environmental sensing and remediation.

Endy also has been instrumental in founding several organizations, including the Molecular Sciences Institute, an independent not-for-profit biological research lab in Berkeley, Calif.; Codon Devices Inc., a venture-funded startup working to develop next-generation DNA synthesis technology; and the BioBricks Foundation, a not-for-profit group promoting development, standardization and responsible use of standard biological parts to make them freely available to the public.

The advisory board is an elite 14-member group chaired by Stephen Benkovic, Ph.D., who is the Evan Pugh Professor and Eberly Chair in Chemistry at Penn State.

“Dr. Endy is moving the field of synthetic biology forward for the benefit of humanity,” said Dr. Benkovic. “His creative leadership has been instrumental in defining research themes in this fascinating new field, which makes him a tremendous asset to our board.”

Members of the Biodesign Institute Advisory Board provide external reviews of the institute’s research, which helps Biodesign leaders assess its strengths and where improvements are needed.

“The board provides objective feedback from top thought leaders in their fields,” said George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute. “Organizational isolation is the enemy of good science, and so we consider this input critical to our success.”

Arizona Cancer Center physician to receive APOS award

[Source: Donna Breckenridge, Arizona Cancer Center] -- Karen Weihs, MD, medical director of the Psychosocial Oncology Program for the Arizona Cancer Center and professor of psychiatry for The University of Arizona College of Medicine, has been awarded the 2008 American Psychosocial Oncology Program Award for Outstanding Clinical Care. Dr. Weihs will receive her award at the American Psychosocial Oncology Society’s annual conference in Irvine, California, in February 2008.

“Dr. Weihs has made significant contributions to psychosocial oncology clinical care since coming to The University of Arizona and the ArizonaCancer Center in 2005,” says Dr. Terry Badger, RN, FAAN, professor and division director, Systems, UA College of Nursing, who nominated Dr. Weihs for the award. “Dr. Weihs, along with her interdisciplinary staff, provides high-quality psychosocial oncology care for patients and their families and conducts innovative research to continually improve services. She is truly a champion for psychosocial oncology services, and countless oncology patients and their families have benefited by her expertise over the years,” says Dr. Badger.

The American Psychosocial Oncology Society’s Award for Outstanding Clinical Care is given annually in recognition of outstanding clinical contributions to the field of psychosocial oncology.

“Dr. Weihs is one of those extremely rare physician scientists who simultaneously develops outstanding translational research programs while providing warm, loving, psychosocial care for women with breast cancer,” says Arizona Cancer Center Director David S. Alberts, MD. “She has had a hugely positive impact on both our research and clinical breast cancer programs in the Arizona Cancer Center and University Medical Center,” he adds.

Dr. Weihs joined the UA Department of Psychiatry as an associate professor in January 2005. She is also co-investigator for an R01 grant with George Howe, PhD, from George Washington University, where she worked for 14 years prior to joining the UA. Dr. Weihs was appointed as medical director for the Arizona Cancer Center’s Psychosocial Oncology Program in August 2007. In her role as medical director, she coordinates increased services for risk identification, preventive intervention, symptom screening, and therapeutic interventions for mental health and quality of life. She works with four social workers to provide psychosocial services to Arizona Cancer Center patients. She is also a comprehensive member of the scientific community at the Center and is studying the effects of these new programs on the well being of patients treated here.

Dr. Weihs also practices psychiatry, providing individual and family psychotherapy, as well as pharmacotherapy services, to cancer patients. In addition, she has mentored doctoral students in clinical psychology and family studies, serving as co-director for five doctoral dissertations, as well as being a reader for another six dissertations. Her clinic is a teaching forum for psychiatry residents and medical students.

Coalition joins diabetes battle

[Source: Joe Caspermeyer, Biodesign Institute] -- A new team of researchers from ASU and the University of Arizona 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, 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,” says Serrine Lau, a professor at UA’s College of Pharmacy and a member of the BIO5 Institute. “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.”

The principle 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 kinesiology chair Larry Mandarino, who directs the Center for Metabolic Biology in the College of Liberal Arts and sciences.

Lau spearheads the team’s investigation using cutting-edge technologies to discover and validate new biomarkers to 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 (TRIF). TRIF is a special investment in higher education made possible by passage of state Proposition 301 in November 2000.

“Our project is unique in the country,” Lau says. “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,” says 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, we now understand that genomics alone is insufficient to fully understand cellular biochemistry,” Lau says. “It is the proteins that are the workhorses in regulating biological events.”

Researchers use state-of-the-art technology, including protein sequencing by mass spectrometer, which is 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 to identify proteins and their functional states, as well as 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,” says another study participant, Craig Stump, 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,” Lau says. “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.”

ASU launches renewable biofuel research initiative with BP and SFAz

[Source: PRNewswire] -- Arizona State University has announced a significant research partnership with energy company BP and Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) to develop a renewable source of biofuel. The research effort focuses on using a specially optimized photosynthetic bacterium to produce biodiesel, a sustainable high-energy fuel that can be used in conventional engines. "This project illustrates the type of high impact research that is possible when state, industry and academic leaders converge on an urgent societal problem," said George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. "We are delighted to be part of an international research effort with BP and SFAz to reduce our transportation economy's dependency on oil and develop cleaner, sustainable sources of energy."

The use of renewable, photosynthetic bacteria in the production of biofuel eliminates the need for costly and complex processing. In addition, the large-scale microbial cultivation, using only solar energy and an environmentally controlled production facility, can be set up on arid land. "A key imperative of our global sustainability initiatives at Arizona State University is to engage our faculty and students and provide innovative solutions for the problems that afflict our planet," said ASU President Michael Crow. "We are taking advantage of perhaps our greatest natural resource, the abundant sunshine of the Southwest, as a prime catalyst for new discoveries that will benefit our region."

The renewable technology holds significant promise, with an estimated high biomass-to-fuel yield. Furthermore, because the bacteria are dependent upon carbon dioxide for growth, a more environmentally friendly and potentially carbon neutral energy source is feasible. The small footprint needed for bacterial biofuel production allows the technology to be placed adjacent to power generating stations and the utilization of flue gas as a carbon source.

"The proposal from Arizona State University was funded due to the superb caliber of scientists leading the project and the great untapped potential of microorganism-driven biofuel production," said William C. Harris, president and CEO of SFAz.

The renewable biofuel project is the latest in a series of SFAz's Strategic Research Group awards. The SRG program is designed to award resources to cultivate research partnerships within the state by leveraging state funds with matching industry investment in order to create a competitive advantage for Arizona.

"This collaborative effort gives Arizona the opportunity to lead the world in solar technology development in a span of five to 10 years and reap enormous benefits: environmental impacts, wealth generation resulting from commercialized technologies, and economic implications for entire regions," said Harris. "This research will lead the way in tapping a great new source of clean renewable energy." Tony Meggs, Group Vice President of Research & Technology at BP, adds: "The energy sector as a whole is going through a period of rapid and complex change, with an explosion of investment in the sustainable energy sector. This is an exciting new collaboration for BP, demonstrating our commitment to the development of technologies that have real potential for bringing sustainable, low-carbon energy to the world."

The initiative will draw on a diverse array of multidisciplinary ASU research and expertise from the Biodesign Institute, School of Life Sciences and Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. ASU professors Bruce Rittmann and Wim Vermaas will lead the research and development efforts while colleague Neal Woodbury will serve as project coordinator. Key members of the ASU team also include: Fulton School Dean Deirdre Meldrum, Roy Curtiss, Robert Roberson, Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, Ferran Garcia-Pichel, Paul Westerhoff and Mark Holl.

"We will be pursuing two coordinated, parallel tracks in which we will both optimize the metabolic processes involved in the production of the high-energy biofuel and engineer a photobioreactor to make the process efficient and cost-effective," said Rittmann.

Two profs at UA win big honor in science

[Source: Eric Swedlund, Arizona Daily Star] - Two University of Arizona professors are newly elected Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Carol A. Barnes and Nancy A. Moran are among 471 scholars nationwide who are being recognized by their peers this year for their scientific achievements. They will be honored at the Fellows Forum on Feb. 16 during the association's annual meeting in Boston.

Barnes is a regents' professor in psychology and director of the UA's McKnight Brain Institute. She specializes in cognition and aging, with research about how the normal aging process causes changes in the brain.

Moran is a regents' professor in ecology and evolutionary biology. Her research on the evolution of biological complexity focuses on the symbiotic relationships between animals and their partner bacteria.

Founded in 1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science is the world's largest scientific society and publishes the journal Science.

Fruit flies, UA creating buzz in study of genetics

[Source: ALAN FISCHER, Tucson Citizen] - UA researcher Therese Ann Markow appreciates the huge role that fruit flies, the tiny pests that buzz around decaying fruits and vegetables, have played in the study of genetics.

But she still smashes them when they hover around her glass of wine.

"Even though many people think of them just as flies, I think they are a great opportunity to learn many things that can ultimately benefit people," she said.

Markow, a University of Arizona regents' professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, is a corresponding author of a paper published Wednesday in Nature comparing the evolution of the genomes of 12 closely related fruit fly species.

Markow, a member of the UA BIO5 Institute, led a team that selected and provided the DNA for eight of the 12 species of Drosophila - the fruit fly - that will be used to study how genes and genomes have evolved in the tiny critters.

The four-year process involved inbreeding thousands of flies over eight to 14 generations to develop clean lines with no genetic variations.

The DNA was harvested from fly embryos so it would not be contaminated by the bacteria and yeast the insects eat, she said.

Sequencing, which was done elsewhere, is the process of determining the arrangement of the components that make up the genetic material.

The 12 species studied come from different ecological backgrounds and histories, she said.

The species' genomes evolved between 1 million and 40 million years ago, which offers researchers a good look at how the flies changed over time.

"We can ask about the tempo and mode of genome change because we have species that diverged varying amounts of time ago," she said.

And flies from the desert evolved differently than flies living in the tropics, she said.
Researchers can look at how the fly's genes developed ways to deal with heat, lack of water, environmental poisons, invasive species and other threats.

"Applications for this are very far reaching," she said.

Human applications could include looking at detoxification, adapting to stresses, resistance to toxins, utilizing different kinds of resources, and understanding metabolism as it relates to diabetes research, she said.

While the fruit flies breed in decaying material and are often found around rotting fruit and vegetables, they play a vital role in scientific research, she said.

"They are hugely valuable flies. They all have different stories to tell," she said.

"They are the organism by which many genetic principles have been discovered. They are historically very valuable."

Drug firm opens Valley office

Company seeks investors to help develop cancer drug

[Source: Ken Alltucker, The Arizona Republic] - A small Indiana-based drug-development company seeking to develop an "off switch" to cancer has established a Scottsdale office as ground zero in its battle against the deadly disease. Executives of Semafore Pharmaceuticals said the Scottsdale office, at Loop 101 and Via de Ventura, will employ about 20 workers within one year but could grow based on drug-development successes. Semafore has raised more than $19 million and employs about 20 at its Indianapolis headquarters.

The company's Valley office will focus on business development and provide clinical and regulatory support. The company eventually may add a local research lab, too. Semafore Chief Executive Officer Edward Jacobs said the company tapped Arizona because of the state's focus on growing the bioscience industry, as well as the expertise from the likes of Dr. Daniel Von Hoff and Arizona Cancer Center Director David Alberts, local cancer researchers. Jacobs, who left the Silicon Valley biotech company SuperGen Inc. to join Semafore, has a Scottsdale home.

Raising money

Jacobs said the company's immediate goal is to attract investors and support the development of its potential cancer drug, SF1126. The company wants to raise up to $25 million from venture funds and other investors. "This business is very money-intensive," Jacobs said. "The idea now is to raise funds as quickly and as cheaply as possible."Semafore's chief pitch to venture-capital firms and other sophisticated investors is that the company's lead drug candidate, called a PI3 kinase inhibitor, could pave an important new path in the fight against cancer. Its drug-development approach seeks to halt cancer growth by disrupting diseased cells. The company will seek funding from Silicon Valley investors as well as a new Valley-based venture fund, Translational Accelerator LLC, which seeks to fund Arizona bioscience companies.

'Master switch of cancer'

"Many people have called it the master switch of cancer," said Von Hoff, a nationally known cancer researcher and founder of the Translational Genomics Research Institute. "It's a real important target. If you can modify it or knock it out, you can have an effect on cancer."Cancer cells grow by communicating with healthy cells. If that communication can be halted, as Semafore wants its drug to do, researchers believe it would effectively stop the disease from spreading. Such an approach varies from traditional cancer treatment such as chemotherapy, which kills cancer cells along with healthy cells in an indiscriminate fashion. The company already has received Food and Drug Administration approval to test the safety of its drug in a human clinical trial. That Phase 1 safety trial is under way at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale and at Indiana University Cancer Center.

Next study in 2008

If the drug proves safe, the company will initiate a Phase 2 study next year to test its effectiveness, Jacobs said. Von Hoff helped design the clinical-trial approach, and TGen's clinical-research unit in Scottsdale has assisted the clinical trial. Arizona's biotech leaders say Semafore's announcement is a sign that private-sector companies are noticing the region's push to grow a research-based economy.Other early-stage drug-development companies that have relocated to Scottsdale and Phoenix over the past couple of years include InNexus Biotechnology, InSys Therapeutics and Systems Medicine. "I think it says that people are really beginning to recognize the depth and breadth of the expertise that is here in Arizona," said Bob Eaton, president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Bioindustry Association. "This is another signal of the growth and strengthening of the local industry."

Firm looks to grow Valley presence through new plant

[ Source: Angela Gonzales, The Business Journal of Phoenix] - Phoenix's bioscience hub could be key to expansion plans for a Los Angeles pharmaceutical company that uses nanotechnology to kill cancer cells.

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, CEO and executive chairman of Abraxis BioScience Inc., said he has been looking around the world for the types of collaborations and vision he sees in Phoenix.

Soon-Shiong was in town this week, meeting with Gov. Janet Napolitano, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, and Valley bioscientists and economic development executives.

"You have an opportunity to change the country," he told the group.

He said he looks forward to forging partnerships with Arizona scientists, including those at the Translational Genomics Research Institute and The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.

"I hope to be part of your vision," Soon-Shiong said.

In July, Abraxis bought a 200,000-square-foot specialized manufacturing facility in Phoenix from Watson Pharmaceuticals Inc. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed in 8-K or 10-Q statements filed with U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Soon-Shiong said buying the Phoenix facility was the first step toward creating a presence in the Valley. The plant, where 85 Abraxis employees now work, will allow his company to expand its manufacturing capabilities to provide the necessary infrastructure for worldwide growth of the company, he said.

He told the Phoenix Business Journal he plans to take the plant to the next generation of nanoparticle capabilities.

This is good news for Arizona's growing bioscience hub, said Barry Broome, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. He said Arizona has been looking for a pharmaceutical partner with access to capital that can help propel the growth of the bioscience industry.

"Abraxis could be a partnership that will do that," Broome said.

GPEC, which worked to bring Abraxis to Phoenix, hosted a private reception for Soon-Shiong.

Bob Eaton, the new president and CEO of the Arizona Bioindustry Association, said he is excited about the potential for Abraxis to become a significant player in the state's bioscience industry.

"It's clear that more people are now recognizing the quality and depth of bio-related expertise coming together in Arizona," Eaton said.

Eaton came here from Maryland, where he was head of the MdBio trade group for 10 years. He started his position with the Arizona association in mid-October.

X. James Xia, president of GenoSensor Corp. in Tempe, said he looks forward to finding ways he can collaborate with Abraxis.

"I see opportunities for us to work together," he said.

GenoSensor focuses on providing genomic technologies that labs use worldwide for gene profiling and screening.

Abraxis received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2005 for a drug called Abraxane to treat metastatic breast cancer. The company's technology allows chemotherapy drugs to be injected directly into tumors, past blood vessel walls into the tumor cell membrane, Soon-Shiong said. It uses albumin, a human protein, to deliver the chemotherapy.

"It feeds the tumor with nanoparticles and uses the tumor's biology against itself," he said.

While the company markets Abraxane for metastatic breast cancer, it is planning clinical trials this year to test the treatment for other forms of cancer. Abraxis forged a co-promotion agreement with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to market Abraxane.

Parkinson's tie to impulsiveness studied

[Source: Lauren Neergaard, Time Magazine] — Your brain is supposed to fire a "hold your horses" signal when faced with a tough choice. But a brain implant that stops the tremors of Parkinson's disease may block that signal — a new explanation for why some Parkinson's patients become hugely impulsive.

Scientists have long known that anti-Parkinson medications occasionally spark compulsions like pathological gambling.

Research published Thursday found another treatment, a pacemaker-like brain implant, can trigger a completely different kind of impulsiveness. How different? The drugs leave a subset of patients unlikely to learn from bad experiences, like a losing poker hand.

The brain implant doesn't hinder learning. In contrast, those patients can make hasty decisions as the brain loses its automatic tendency to hesitate when faced with conflict, University of Arizona researchers reported online in the journal Science.

In fact, the first patient they studied displayed an alarming example when he saw something across the room he wanted and tried to dash over without his wheelchair.

Neuroscientist Michael Frank had to catch the man before he fell.

"Deep brain stimulation," or DBS, involves placing electrodes into a small region called the subthalamic nucleus, an area important for controlling movement. But it also is where scientists believe the brain yells: "Stop, weigh your options!"

Frank's theory: When electrodes fire to disrupt excessive movement, they also may block that signal.

"It makes a lot of sense," said Dr. Valerie Voon, a psychiatrist with the National Institutes of Health's neurology center, after reviewing the research.

The study doesn't offer easy solutions. But it could affect how neurologists counsel Parkinson's patients after DBS surgery.

"Because they don't have those brakes in place, you need to teach someone to slow down" when faced with certain decisions, Voon said.

At least 1 million Americans have Parkinson's, suffering increasingly severe tremors and periodically stiff or frozen limbs as brain cells quit producing dopamine, a chemical crucial for movement. There is no cure. Standard treatments include medications to stimulate dopamine and, once those fail, DBS surgery to control tremors.

Doctors have long noticed varying degrees of impulsiveness in Parkinson's patients, from making uncensored remarks to rare cases of extreme behavior such as compulsive gambling, shopping, eating or sex. Changing medications or doses often solves extreme symptoms _ if patients or their families report the worrisome behavior.

Frank wondered what role the brain implant plays.

His team used specialized computer games to probe decision-making in 15 Parkinson's patients taking dopamine drugs, 17 others who received DBS, and 14 healthy older adults.

First, participants were shown pairs of Japanese characters and told to pick the "correct" one. It was baffling — what makes one symbol better, especially if you don't know Japanese? But as the computer screen beamed back "Correct!" or "Incorrect!" their brains learned to prefer some characters over others.

Then Frank paired the symbols differently: "Correct" ones together to simulate "win-win" decisions; "incorrect" pairings to model choosing the lesser of two evils; and easy "right-wrong" pairs.

Healthy people and Parkinson's patients on dopamine drugs hesitated briefly when faced with win-win or lose-lose choices, allowing time to weigh options. But DBS patients didn't hesitate with lose-lose choices _ and actually sped up win-win decisions.

Remarkably, switch off the brain implant and DBS patients quit rushing the close calls.

As in previous research, medicated patients were less likely to learn which "wrong" symbols to avoid, backing the theory that dopamine drugs can hinder learning from negative feedback.

But do the DBS patients' hasty choices really matter in a win-win situation, where there's no clearly wrong answer?

In the real world, definitely, said Arizona's Frank. Say your job offers a range of 401K options. Sure, any one is better than no investment, but just grabbing the first one might not be the most lucrative.

It hasn't been obvious that different treatments cause different impulsive behaviors, said Dr. Kathleen Shannon of Chicago's Rush University Hospital.

"They all seem to make bad decisions and have trouble making decisions," she said. Now, "I'll start to look at my patients differently."