Thursday, January 31, 2008

Arizona telemedicine program shares $15M FCC grant

[Source: Arizona University Communications] - The University of Arizona’s internationally renowned Arizona Telemedicine Program has received Federal Communications Commission funding to upgrade the broadband network it uses to deliver award-winning, critical health services to Arizona’s remotest communities. The award is part of a larger, UA-led effort to build a state-of-the-art telemedicine network for the American Southwest.

The Arizona Telemedicine Program, known as ATP, at the UA College of Medicine in Tucson co-authored the successful $15.56 million grant proposal to the Four Corners Telehealth Consortium, composed of representatives of the universities of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. That funding will pay for the development of the Southwest Telehealth Access Grid, which will enable health care providers in rural and low-income locations throughout the Southwest to access high-quality urban health centers through a broadband communications network.

ATP will receive $875,000 of that funding to upgrade network infrastructure systems to enhance the quality and security of its services to 171 telemedicine sites in 71 communities. The grant will enable the ATP to use emerging, ultra-high speed broadband technologies to better deliver health services, clinical research and distance-education programs throughout the Southwest. “This upgrade in Arizona will enable us to support a number of next-generation telehealth applications,” said Dr. Ronald S. Weinstein, founding director of ATP and executive director of the UA College of Medicine Institute for Advanced Telemedicine and Telehealth. Weinstein co-founded the Four Corners Telehealth Consortium in 2004.

“We anticipate that access to secure high-speed communications via new national network backbones will be important for telemedicine applications that are under development, such as three-dimensional imaging, and will catalyze a new round of innovation in the telehealth world,” Weinstein said.

Creation of a regional system of telehealth for the American Southwest is being hailed as a major step toward a nationwide broadband network for telehealth. FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said, “The development of such a network will create numerous opportunities for delivering telehealth services, including telemedicine applications that have the potential to revolutionize the current health care system throughout the nation. A dedicated national broadband network also will facilitate the President’s goal of implementing electronic medical records nationwide.”

Weinstein added, “Funding of the Southwest Telehealth Access Grid represents a significant step toward the creation of a nationwide broadband network dedicated to health care. Linking the Four Corner states’ networks is a significant step forward from the national perspective. It creates the opportunity for the linked Four Corners telehealth broadband networks to become a cornerstone of a national broadband health care network infrastructure.”

The grant addresses the need for high-speed data transmission via broadband conduits that is greatest in rural healthcare, where isolated clinics can save lives by using advanced communications technology to tap the expertise of modern urban medical centers. The FCC made the grant comes from its Rural Health Care Pilot Program, dedicated to establishing statewide and regional broadband telehealth networks throughout the United States. To date, the FCC has given more than $417 million to establish such grids in 42 states and 3 U.S. territories. Its funding is derived from the FCC Universal Service Fund fee, collected from long-distance and wireless telephone subscribers. Proceeds help to pay for Internet service to schools, libraries, low-income populations and rural communities.

The University of New Mexico will administer the Southwest Telehealth Access Grid component of the Four Corner network. Participating states include Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico; the FCC also added Texas to the grid. The ATP has both state and federal sponsors and has participated in many U.S. Department of Defense projects over the years. Initial meetings to organize the Four Corners Telehealth Consortium were funded, in part, by the U.S. Army Telemedicine and Advanced Technologies Research Center, headquartered at the U.S. Army Material Command at Ft. Detrick, Md. Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. Army has promoted the use of telemedicine in the U.S. and internationally, turning to Weinstein and the ATP to address national and international jurisdictional issues in telemedicine, including interstate licensing and institutional credentialing of telephysicians. The ATP’s involvement with international telemedicine includes collaborative programs in Latin America, the Balkans and Asia.

“The Arizona Telemedicine Program’s top priority is to provide health care for geographically remote and underserved populations in Arizona,” says Dr. Weinstein. “At the same time, we can serve as a model program for other states and countries throughout the world.” For more information about the Arizona Telemedicine Program, visit

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

UA-led research team awarded $50M to solve plant biology's grand challenges

[Source: Johnny Cruz, University of Arizona] - The National Science Foundation has awarded a University of Arizona–led team $50 million dollars to create a global center and computer cyberinfrastructure within which to answer plant biology's grand challenge questions, which no single research entity in the world currently has the capacity to address. The project will unite plant scientists, computer scientists and information scientists from around the world for the first time ever to provide answers to questions of global importance and advance all of these fields.

The five-year project, dubbed the iPlant Collaborative, potentially is renewable for a second five years for a total of $100 million. “This global center is going to change the way we do science,” says UA plant sciences professor and BIO5 member Richard Jorgensen, who is the lead investigator and director of the iPlant Collaborative. “We’re bringing many different types of scientists together who rarely had opportunities to talk to one another before. In so doing, we’ll create the kind of multidisciplinary environment that is necessary to crack the toughest problems in modern biology. ”Other institutions working with the UA include Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Arizona State University, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Purdue University. The project’s board of directors will be chaired by Robert Last, from Michigan State University.

About 79 percent of the grant will stay at the UA, with CSHL receiving approximately 16 percent, ASU four percent, and UNCW and Purdue a combined one percent.

UA participants in the iPlant Collaborative include BIO5, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Plant Sciences; the College of Science’s Departments of Computer Science, Mathematics, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; the Eller College of Management’s Department of Management Information Systems; the College of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; the Arizona Research Lab’s Biotechnology Computing Facility; and University Information Technology Services.

The iPlant center will be located in the UA’s BIO5 Institute in Tucson and will be administered by BIO5, the UA’s premier biotechnology center. BIO5 was founded to encourage collaboration across scientific disciplines, accelerate the pace of scientific discovery and develop innovative solutions to society’s most complex biological challenges. “The iPlant team,” said Joann Roskoski, executive officer of the NSF Directorate for Biological Sciences, “has a compelling vision for an organization by, for and of the community that will bring to bear the power of cyberinfrastructure to enable scientists everywhere to take on some of the most important questions in plant science.”

The iPlant Collaborative will create both a physical center and a virtual computing space where researchers can communicate and work together as they share, analyze and manipulate data, all while seeking answers to plant biology’s greatest unsolved mysteries – its grand-challenge questions.

Solving grand challenges is crucial, Jorgensen says, because plants affect every aspect of our lives. “Everything’s connected,” he explains. “As our climate changes and our environment changes we need to have a deep understanding of the biology of plants from the molecular to the ecosystem level in order to understand and mitigate the problems that will arise – to adapt as best we can and to focus our efforts on saving the organisms and ecosystems that are most important to save.”

The collaborative is designed so that any research team from any consortium of institutions or disciplines can propose a grand-challenge question. iPlant will facilitate the identification of such questions by the plant biology community (two to four the first year) and develop the iPlant cyberinfrastructure to help scientists answer those questions.

The cyberinfrastructure and the researchers will rely heavily on computational thinking, a form of problem-solving that assigns computers the jobs they’re most efficient at, and in doing so frees up humans to spend more time on the creative tasks that humans do best. The iPlant cyberinfrastructure will serve as a model for solving problems in fields outside of plant biology, too.

One feature of iPlant that will be developed is the ability to map the full expanse of plant biology research in much the way that Google Earth physically maps our planet. Like users of Google Earth, users of iPlant may one day be able to “zoom” in and out among various levels of plant biology, from the molecular to the organismic to the ecosystem level. For example, a researcher might “zoom in” to analyze the carbon fixed, oxygen produced and water utilized by individual leaves, then “zoom out” to analyze how all of these might affect large-scale changes in ecosystems and how that could in turn affect air quality and climate. Because collaboration among disciplines is central to iPlant’s mission, the cyberinfrastructure also will have a strong social networking component for both facilitating communication among researchers from different fields as they work and for researching the effectiveness of social networking in iPlant and in the plant and computer and information sciences generally.

All iPlant projects will have K–12, undergraduate and graduate education components as well, which are co-funded by NSF, BIO5 and Science Foundation Arizona. Students, teachers and the public will all have access to iPlant’s resources and data, as well as to educational tools designed to help them understand that data and develop inquiry-based learning modules for K–12, undergraduate and graduate science education. “The learning activities that will evolve from the iPlant collaborative will bring the challenges of real-world problem-solving and discovery to the classroom for both students and teachers. Science Foundation Arizona’s investment will ensure that Arizona students are engaged from day one,” says William C. Harris, president and CEO of Science Foundation Arizona.

BIO5 Director Vicki Chandler, also a principal investigator, explains, “Because of the Internet and cyberinfrastructure, this is the first time in the history of science that everyone can access the same data at the same time using the same tools as the researchers generating that data. The exciting challenge is to produce tools that students and teachers can readily access.” Each proposed grand-challenge question will have practical applications and societal implications. For a field like plant biology, those implications are many and far-reaching. “Human existence on this planet is absolutely dependent on plants,” Chandler says. “Our houses, our food, our atmosphere – everything about the quality of human life depends on plants.”

Welcome News to Arizona LeadersThe award – one of the largest NSF grants ever to an Arizona entity – came as welcome news to Arizona’s leaders, who have been working to build the state’s bioscience capacities in research and economic development. “Today’s announcement is proof that our investment in higher education is paying off,” Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano said at an Arizona state capitol news conference. “Arizona’s future lies in innovation in areas like the biosciences, and we are tremendously proud that the National Science Foundation has chosen Arizona to chart a new course in plant science research.”

“This is the sort of big return on investment that the UA has promised the State of Arizona since the BIO5 Institute was opened and housed with critical state investments,” said UA President Robert N. Shelton. “BIO5 is ideally suited to house the iPlant Collaborative. Its work will span scientific disciplines and bring together plant biologists of all kinds to examine plant life across its entire continuum, from individual plant cells to entire ecosystems.”

“This remarkable grant recognizes the great work being done every day by the researchers and students of The University of Arizona, particularly in the field of bioscience research. The UA has emerged as a leader in bioscience research and education, and I appreciate the National Science Foundation for recognizing their capabilities. Their achievement under this grant will benefit the people of Southern Arizona as well as all Americans,” says Congressman Raul Grijalva.

Deborah Daun, BIO5 (520-626-2059; Cell: 520-247-7440;
Johnny Cruz, UANews, (520-621-1879; Cell: 520-307-3362;
Lisa Joy Zgorski, National Science Foundation, (703-292-8311;

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Grant aids effort to produce anti-cancer drugs

[Source: Arizona Daily Star] - A three-decade-long effort to produce cancer-fighting drugs at the Arizona Cancer Center will proceed for at least another five years, with renewed federal funding.

A five-year, $6.5 million grant has just been awarded to the cancer center by the National Cancer Institute, to continue the center's drug development projects.

This is the cancer center's longest-running research grant, which has produced two new chemotherapy drugs in recent years, now being tested on humans in early clinical trials.

"This NCI-funded grant has been the centerpiece of Arizona Cancer Center research funding," said Dr. David S. Alberts, the center's director, in a statement released Tuesday.

"It is a national treasure in that it has continuously produced seminal data on new, active anti-cancer drugs and drug combinations for cancer treatment."

The NCI's first grant for this program, in 1975, brought Alberts to the University of Arizona to get drug development under way.

Among the most recent anticancer drugs in testing now are:

● PX-12, which targets a cancer-causing protein involved in colon, pancreatic, stomach and lung cancers.

The current federal grant will support the study of new anti-cancer drugs similar to PX-12 at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

● Imexon, now being tested in patients with melanoma, lung, breast and prostate cancers.

The new grant will fund testing Imexon in combination with another drug, Gemcitabine, against pancreatic cancer at the Arizona Cancer Center.

Also supported by the new funds is the use of radiologic imaging to identify patients most likely to respond to new chemotherapeutic agents.

ASU researchers granted $1.5M to seek West Nile virus vaccine

[SOurce: Ken Alltucker, The Arizona Republic] - Arizona State University scientists are testing whether tobacco plants can yield a vaccine or drug that blocks the West Nile virus from attacking a person's central nervous system.

Researchers at ASU's Biodesign Institute received a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to study ways to halt the disease. There is no drug that counteracts the virus, which last year infected more than 3,500 people in the United States and resulted in 109 deaths. There were 94 West Nile virus cases reported in Arizona.

The virus is typically transmitted by a mosquito bite and can cause serious illnesses such as encephalitis, meningitis and even a poliolike paralysis. People with weakened immune systems or those 50 or older are most at risk for developing West Nile encephalitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Qiang "Shawn" Chen and his research team are studying ways to deliver drugs directly to a person's brain to attack the virus.

Now, viruses such as West Nile can traverse the "blood-brain" filter that protects the organ, but drug treatments cannot. Chen's team, which includes scientists from ASU and Washington University in St. Louis, is attempting to develop plant-based antibodies that can cross this filter and attack the virus directly. A key part of the research is to create a system that cranks out these plant-based proteins. This allows a mass-production system of sorts that allows researchers to test many types of proteins in a rapid fashion. The goal is to find one that has the potential to break the blood-brain filter. The group will inject proteins into the tobacco plants and harvest the leaves for potential drugs. It takes just 10 days or so to harvest the modified plants.

"Shawn has come up with a clever way to cross into and protect the brain," said Charles Arntzen, director of Biodesign's Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology. Chen, an assistant professor at ASU's Polytechnic campus' department of applied biological sciences, said research of mosquito-borne disease is a personal mission. His father died after contracting meningitis from a mosquito bite while on a university-sponsored retreat in a remote area of China.

The University of Arizona, too, is studying ways to combat the West Nile virus. However, the Tucson researchers are studying a method that may prevent bites altogether. Scientists at UA's Bio5 Institute envision a molecule that would instantly kill a disease-carrying mosquito when it bites a human. This one-bite-and-you're-out molecule could be sprayed on mosquitoes, theoretically preventing the spread of mosquito-spread diseases such as West Nile virus, malaria, yellow fever or Dengue fever.

Helios Education Foundation invests $6.5 Million in new partnership with TGen

[Source: TGen] - Helios Education Foundation today awarded $6.5 million to the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) as part of a new partnership that extends the Helios Scholars Program at TGen for the next 25 years. The program helps cultivate new scientific and technical talent across the state of Arizona. "Helios Education Foundation's commitment to develop a long term partnership with TGen for student training is an incredible boost for Arizona's future in the biosciences," Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano said. "Arizona is poised to become a world leader in cutting-edge medical education and health care, but only if we provide the necessary training and mentorship. These types of public-private partnerships hold the key to what must be the central goal of an Arizona education: giving our students the skills they need to succeed in the high-tech, high-knowledge world of the 21st century."

The Helios Scholars Program at TGen is an annual summer internship program for 45 high school, undergraduate and graduate students in Arizona. Interns receive a stipend, are paired with a TGen scientist/mentor and are actively engaged in research projects in disorders as diverse as cancer, diabetes, autism and Alzheimer's disease. The eight-week program supports students from all backgrounds in their efforts to develop foundational skills as they pursue careers in science or medical-related fields. "Creating opportunities in education that have math and science at their core is very important to Helios Education Foundation," said the Foundation's Chairman Vince Roig. "We are excited to invest $6.5 million in this innovative and unique program at TGen because it opens new doors into the world of the biosciences for Arizona students. We're even more excited to be investing in a long-term partnership that will impact the future growth and development of the sciences in Arizona."

Helios Education Foundation provided funding for TGen's 2007 summer internship program, which included a stipend for students. This led to a sizable increase in the number of qualified student applications from around the State. The $6.5 million endowment enables TGen to extend its competitive internship program for 25 years and provide a stipend and other support for students. The Helios Scholars Program at TGen also encourages student diversity, with upwards of 20 percent of the interns coming from underrepresented populations. "We are excited to continue and expand our partnership with the Helios Education Foundation," said TGen president, Dr. Jeffrey Trent. "Our shared commitment to training the next generation of researchers provides an unparalleled opportunity for Arizona and those students seeking hands-on training to augment their classroom experience. For many of these students, this experience will prove to be a defining moment in focusing their career choices across the biosciences."

Applications are now available on-line at the TGen website: Interns must be a resident of Arizona or a full-time student at an Arizona-based high school, accredited college or university. The application deadline is March 14. Attributes that investigators consider in selecting students include a strong desire to conduct independent research, interests, academic achievement, curiosity, ambition, and aptitude for working independently and with a team. The application process is competitive, but many different backgrounds and abilities are represented among the students selected.

In addition to the stipends, Helios Education Foundation and TGen recognize each student as a Helios Scholar. The endowment also funds an end-of-the-summer symposium where students present their work to their peers, TGen staff, family and guests. Additionally, the endowment provides six merit-based scholarships and supports several extra curricular activities to encourage student interaction and learning. TGen's past summer interns boast an array of impressive accomplishments, including publishing scientific abstracts and peer-reviewed articles, gaining acceptance into medical and graduate school and winning scholarships and prizes. In 2005, TGen interns Albert Shieh and Anne Lee took first place in the team category at the 2005-2006 Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology. The interns split a $100,000 scholarship.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Banner plans to buy $1.8M cyclotron as part of new imaging lab

[Source: The Business Journal of Phoenix, Angela Gonzales] - Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center plans to buy a $1.8 million cyclotron as part of a new molecular imaging laboratory it is building.

A cyclotron makes imaging tracers for a positron emission tomography, or PET, scanner, used to help doctors conduct research as well as diagnose and treat diseases.

The PET scanner long has been used by Alzheimer's researchers to measure the chemical processes that take place in organs and tissues, allowing doctors to determine if they are healthy or diseased. This scanner is different from an X-ray or CT scan, which look at the structure of organs, tissues and bones in the body.

Doctors also use the PET scans to determine the growth rate of cancerous tumors, measuring blood flow in the heart and making certain neurological diagnoses.

The Banner Alzheimer's Institute recently started to incorporate two new PET tracers that measure amyloid plaques in the brain, a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease, into multiple research projects.

"The new cyclotron and Molecular Imaging Laboratory will play a critical role in helping Banner fulfill its patient care and research missions," said Dr. Eric Reiman, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer's Institute.

UA labs research myriad sciences

[Source: Dan Sorenson, Arizona Daily Star] -

You'd probably like Robert Gillies, or at least what he's trying to do.

What's not to like? He and his research group are trying to eliminate the need to repeatedly stab cancer patients with big, hollow biopsy needles.

But it's hard to tell that from his titles and affiliations at the University of Arizona.

"I'm the director of the Advanced Research Institute for Biomedical Imaging. I'm appointed in the departments of radiology, biochemistry and molecular biophysics (as well as) the physiology, biomedical engineering and biological chemistry programs," says Gillies.

"We do cancer imaging," says Gillies of his ARIBI (Advanced Research Institute for Biomedical Imaging) role.

The intent is to see inside a human body being treated for cancer and observe its response to the cancer drug without a biopsy.

The work involves a number of tongue-twister technologies — Fluorodeoxyglucose Positron Emission Tomography, Dynamic Contrast Enhanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Diffusion-weighted Magnetic Resonance Tomography, etc.

Another Gillies program, also under a National Institutes of Health grant, involves using molecules to target cancer.

"We can define a 'ZIP code' of cancer cells and then design molecules that will be addressed to those 'ZIP codes,' " Gillies said. The molecules would either be therapeutic or markers to make the cancer cells show up on imaging.

Some of his work is done under his appointment to the UA's Arizona Research Labs, as diverse a herd of scientists and technicians as you're likely to find. ARL also provides infrastructure, including the Biological Magnetic Resonance Facility that Gillies uses.

In ARL, you'll find: a nuclear reactor, a "fly farm" that produces more than 300 species of fruit flies for genetic research, a lab that does the DNA testing for National Geographic's Genographic Project, researchers looking into treatments for autism and brain diseases and disorders, a number of programs having to do with medical technological developments and much more.

It's blender science.

Emily Landeen and Latifa Borgelin, graduate researchers working enthusiastically over Christmas break in the tomblike basement of the UA's BioWest Building, said these interdisciplinary collaborations are sometimes bizarre.

In one scientist's lab, a team is seeking reasons for mass migrations out of Africa about 100,000 years ago, Landeen said. In another, they're trying to match up changes in a common language with genetic markers from one part of Indonesia to another.

Borgelin and Landeen said the efforts brought together geneticists, linguists, mathematicians, human rights activists, cultural anthropologists and computer scientists, and likely some other disciplines they had forgotten.

These interdisciplinary efforts often involve ARL, its scientists, facilities or services.

Whatever the problem and mix of scientists, Borgelin says it makes for interesting work.

"We're further along than other labs because of this collaboration," says Borgelin of the Hammer Lab, headed by ARL associate professor Michael Hammer.

Like Gillies, Jennifer Barton hopes her work will eventually emerge as a minimally intrusive and highly effective medical treatment.

Barton, the director of the Tissue Optics Lab, describes the technology under development in her lab as "like ultrasound, but with light."

"It's very similar in that we put energy into tissue and look at what's reflected back," says Barton, an associate professor and director of ARL's Division of Biomedical Engineering.

She said the technology is very promising, not only because it is minimally invasive, but because it can see cancers at very early stages close to the surface of a cancerous organ. At the earliest stages, she said, cancers are often near the surface and difficult-to-impossible to detect with other imaging technologies.

"We can see about 5 microns resolution, which is about the size of a cell," says Barton. "That's important because sometimes where these cancers develop, it's a structure only a couple cells deep."

If testing proves the technology to be worthwhile, Barton said, it could become commercially available in as little as three to five years.

Linda Restifo is looking for cures for autism and related mental disorders using established over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Although testing so far is limited to neurons in fly brains, she said some drugs with totally unrelated intended purposes have not only checked, but reversed the aberrant curly or "filagree" growth of neurons in flies — and people — with autism.

She said the connection is not a great leap because flies and humans share a large number of genes identified with mental defects.

"When the fruit fly version is defective, the fruit flies have memory and learning disorders," said Restifo, a professor of neurobiology and neurology with appointments at ARL and BIO 5.

Although she can't name the drugs until the work is further along, she said some of the "repurposed" drugs completely stop the neuron curling and others increase it.

She said the work also holds promise for other forms of mental disorder.

Basis for interdisciplinary work
ARL is all over the place physically, too. ARL people and labs are found in the world of red brick on the main campus as well as on the North Campus – University Medical Center, the Arizona Cancer Center and in the adjacent warren of buildings and modular sheds and the flashy new Keating (Bio 5 Institute) and Medical Research buildings.

Sometimes, Gillies says, he doesn't know who is working for what unit. "One week a student may be working in my lab and the next week somebody else's.

"One of the attractive things about the University of Arizona is there are very low barriers to cooperation," he says.

That's as it should be, says Michael Cusanovich, a regents' professor of biochemistry, former UA vice president for research and director of ARL since 1988.

Cusanovich came to the UA as an assistant chemistry professor in the 1970s, as the university made a brash move to become a heavy player in science.

ARL was founded in the late 1970s, at a time when interdisciplinary science was a rarity. Traditionally, scientists kept to their own departments and disciplines.

"UA wasn't much of a player on the national scene in the '50s and early '60s, says Cusanovich. "But (former President Richard) Harvill made a move, an investment."

Harvill's power play to put UA on the science map was boosted by the creation of the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs, "one of the first in the nation," says Cusanovich.

"But we didn't necessarily have the infrastructure to support" the mix of scientists from different disciplines.

He said that led to the creation of the ARL, at first mainly to provide infrastructure in support of interdisciplinary work.

"It was very farsighted," says Cusanovich, adding: "I take no credit; I was an assistant professor at the time. But now, interdisciplinary is almost a required element. Science has become so complicated that no one person can have all the expertise needed."

He said the UA's new Bio 5 Institute is the latest incarnation of that concept, bringing scientists from several disciplines under one roof.

But ARL is hardly old school. It remains broad — though mostly biology-related.

"We can create and disband," Cusanovich said of ARL's ability to adapt to the times and meet emerging needs.

And, on occasion, those ARL creations have been remarkably prescient.

ARL's Institute for the Study of Planet Earth was founded in 1993. ISPE Director Jonathan Overpeck, one of the lead authors on the report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made a worldwide splash for UA last month. He was in the group of scientists awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for work on climate change. (Former Vice President Al Gore shared the prize).

"We're constantly on the outlook for new opportunities to maximize the talent we have on campus," Cusanovich said.

"We created, in the mid-'90s, the Valley Fever Center for Excellence," said Cusanovich. "At that point, for reasons I don't understand, the College of Medicine didn't see the need, but I felt it was relevant to the Southwest. They've done well, fabulously. And I spun it into the College of Medicine about three years ago."

ARL's Human Origins Genotyping (DNA) Laboratory also fits the times. Rather than having researchers all over campus doing their own genetic lab work, ARL began offering the service on and off campus. The lab was contracted to do the testing for National Geographic's Genographic Project — tracking the path out of Africa taken by hundreds of thousands of people who have paid $100 to learn about ancestral wandering.

It's also involved in the Shoah Project, an attempt to identify the remains of thousands of people thought to be Holocaust victims from a mass grave in Ukraine.

But, sometimes, adapting means ARL units go away. Cusanovich said the UA's aging nuclear reactor is set to be decommissioned in 2010.

Cusanovich said the UA has "a reputation throughout the world" for scientific excellence far beyond what most people in Tucson realize.

Did you know . . .
• The director of Arizona Research Labs' Institute for the Study of Planet Earth, Jonathan Overpeck, is among the team of author-scientists awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for work on climate change. Overpeck was one of the lead authors on the report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
• The ARL is one of the world's leading providers of Drosophila. The ARL's "fly factory," the Tucson Drosophila Stock Center, has more than 400 distinct lines of fruit flies, commonly used in genetic research.

On the Net
• Arizona Research Labs:
• Got flys? stockcenter.arl. The Web site includes a "Fly Food Recipes" link.
• Tissue Optics Laboratory: ~BMEoptics

Friday, January 25, 2008

New NAU building earns 'greenest in state' distinction

[Source: Anne Ryman, The Arizona Republic] - A new building at Northern Arizona University has earned the distinction as being "greenest in the state" for being energy efficient and using sustainable materials. The U.S. Green Building Council has awarded the new Applied Research and Development building a platinum rating, the highest possible. The national building rating system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, awards points in several areas, including energy conservation, use of renewable resources and innovative technology.

NAU's building earned 60 points out of a possible 69. NAU's 60 is the highest number awarded so far to any building in Arizona.

Nicknamed the "ARD Building," the three-story glass-and-brick structure sits at the northwest corner of Knoles and University drives behind the Target store. The nearly 60,000-square-foot building features soaring windows that let in lots of natural light. Automatic window shades open and close to regulate inside temperatures.

Some of the building's energy-efficient features are straightforward, including low-pressure faucets and toilets, automatic window shades and low-water landscaping. Other aspects are more unique. Thousands of recycled blue jeans, for instance, serve as ceiling insulation.

NAU President John Haeger said the university plans to incorporate green features in all new construction. "The building itself reflects the ethics of the university, of being environmentally conscious," he said. University officials say the building's $25 million price tag is about 10 percent higher than traditional buildings. But they point out that lower operational costs will more than make up the difference.

Arizona Public Service Co. donated a solar-power system which, combined with other technologies, enables the building to cut electricity use by 60 percent. Burns Wald-Hopkins Architects designed the building, which took about three years from conception to opening, said Rich Bowen, NAU's associate vice president for economic development.

Employees have started moving in. In the next few months, NAU's Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics will take over the third floor. The lab, overseen by Professor Paul Keim, is famous for its research in the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. Keim and his team discovered that the anthrax letter that killed a Florida photo editor came from a genetic strain identical to one developed in U.S. government labs. Besides the anthrax lab, the building will house offices for the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, among others.

NAU's building is the latest in a green-building trend. The U.S. Green Building Council has certified more than two dozen new Arizona buildings with various green ratings, although none are as high as NAU's. Arizona State University built the state's first platinum-certified new building in 2007, the Biodesign Institute's Building B. That building earned 52 points. Worldwide, about 70 buildings have platinum status, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

Engineering and Natural Sciences dean named first VP for Research

[Source: Lisa Nelson, Director, NAU Public Affairs] - With a goal to underpin Northern Arizona University's distinctive research profile, Laura Huenneke has been named NAU's vice president for Research.

Huenneke, who has served as founding dean of the NAU College of Engineering and Natural Sciences since 2004, will assume her new post after an interim dean is named for the college. Her appointment is contingent upon approval by the Arizona Board of Regents, which is expected in March.

"Laura's background and accomplishments as a scientist and as an academic administrator have prepared her well for this position," said NAU President John Haeger. "Her knowledge of state initiatives in science, engineering, math and economic development readies her to advance the role of vice president for Research at NAU."

Prior to joining NAU in 2003 as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Huenneke was chair of the Department of Biology at New Mexico State University, where she was named a Regents' Professor.

"It's a tremendously exciting opportunity to help the university expand the scope and impact of its scholarship and research," Huenneke said. "I'm eager to see us use our research activity to reinforce our identity as one of the state's three research universities. The kind of scholarship and research we do really distinguishes us from our sister institutions."

In particular, Huenneke cited NAU's focus on applied research that is rooted in "our place, our region and our partners." She also noted NAU's strong record of success with undergraduate research and master's programs.

During her career, Huenneke has worked on faculty development, including a focus on helping early-career faculty build their capabilities and records as researchers. As dean, she has been involved with major construction projects for engineering and science buildings and has led strategic planning for the college.

Huenneke also has been engaged with regional economic development through the Northern Arizona Bioscience Roadmap, a regional focus of the state's commitment to the biosciences. Additionally, she is a board member for the Coconino County Sustainable Economic Development Initiative, which includes corporate, nonprofit, governmental and educational representatives.

As a researcher in plant ecology, conservation biology and ecosystem science, Huenneke has published more than 50 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters. She was the lead investigator of the Jornada Basin Long-Term Ecological Research Site, a multimillion dollar consortium of university and federal investigators. She also managed significant external funding from the National Science Foundation, the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey and other sources. Huenneke has international experience in research collaborations with colleagues in South Africa, Argentina, Australia, the United Kingdom and Mexico, and in training graduate and postdoctoral students from Mexico and China.

Huenneke served on the Research and Graduate Education Task Force at NAU, which recommended to the president in 2006 the separation of the positions of vice provost for Research and dean of the Graduate College. That recommendation ultimately led to the search for a vice president for Research.

IBM, CINJ Collaborating on Cancer Research Project

[Source: GenomeWeb staff reporter , GenomeWeb News] - The Cancer Institute of New Jersey and IBM announced today that they are collaborating to develop more accurate diagnostic tools aimed at improving cancer treatments and outcomes.

The new project will use advanced computer and imaging technology to create a database where physicians and scientists can compare patients’ tissues with digitally archived cancerous tissues for which genomic and proteomic data is available. Organizers said this will not only lead to more personalized treatment, but also to enhanced cell and radiological cancer studies.

The initiative, which is being funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, is an extension of the 2006 “Help Defeat Cancer” campaign. For that project, researchers used IBM’s World Community Grid — a virtual supercomputer based on unused computer time donated by volunteers — to create an expression signature library for breast, colon, head, and neck cancers and to develop reliable analytical tools for high-throughput tissue microarrays.

In the next phase, they plan to expand that project into other types of cancer and also create a Center for High-Throughput Data Analysis for Cancer Research. The Center will rely on pattern recognition algorithms for developing diagnostic tools based on archived cancer specimens and radiology images. That information will be integrated with proteomic and genomic data to aid treatment recommendations.

Researchers at several institutions, including Rutgers University, Arizona State University, Ohio State University, and the University of Pennsylvania are involved in the project. David Foran, director of CINJ’s Center for Biomedical Imaging and Informatics, and IBM’s Leiguang Gong are leading the effort.

IBM plans to donate high-performance P6 570 series class systems to the Center, which will use grid technology that lets collaborators from around the country access the Center’s database and software

Friday, January 18, 2008

Latest study says statins don't slow Alzheimer's

[Source: Steven Reinberg, HealthDay News] - Despite some reports that statins might slow or prevent Alzheimer's disease, a new study finds no evidence for the theory. While some animal studies have suggested this possibility, whether the same benefit translates to humans hasn't been clear, the researchers said. "We didn't find a relation between statin use and the risk of Alzheimer's disease or a decline in thinking ability," said lead researcher Dr. Zoe Arvanitakis, an associate professor of neurology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

In addition, brain autopsies found no effect of statins on the two main causes of dementia, Alzheimer's and stroke, Arvanitakis said. In the study, Arvanitakis' team collected data on 929 Catholic clergy who took part in the Religious Orders Study, which looks at aging and Alzheimer's disease. At the start of the study, all the participants were around 75 years old and had no signs of dementia. All had a brain autopsy after death, and each had yearly cognitive exams for up to 12 years. The findings were published in the Jan. 16 online edition of Neurology.
When the study started, 119 people were taking statins. Over the 12 years of the study, 191 people developed Alzheimer's. Of these, only 16 had been taking statins. Moreover, brain autopsies on more than 250 people who died during the study failed to find any evidence that taking statins had an effect on pathology of Alzheimer's disease or strokes, the scientists found. "This study adds to the growing evidence that statins don't lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease," Arvanitakis said.

However, one expert thinks this study is not conclusive, and clinical trials that are under way should provide a definitive answer on the issue. "We will see the results of these trials fairly soon," said William Thies, vice president of medical and scientific affairs for the Alzheimer's Association. "This finding fits in with a great deal of other work that has been done on statins," said Thies. "Most of these studies show a benefit, but this is not the first one to show there isn't a benefit." Statins are excellent drugs for lowering cholesterol, Thies said. "But there is no recommendation that you take statins for Alzheimer's disease," he added.

Larry Sparks, director of the Roberts Laboratory for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the Sun Health Research Institute in Arizona and one of the first to link statins with Alzheimer's prevention, doesn't think the study was large enough to give a definitive result. In his own work, Sparks has found a benefit from statins in treating patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. However, he thinks the type of statin makes a difference. "Research suggests that statins that don't get into the brain may prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer's," Sparks said. "This is a continuing story."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Diabetes EXPO coming April 26 to Phoenix

Calling all Exhibitors…There is still space available for the upcoming Diabetes EXPO which will be held Saturday, April 26th at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Last year we had over 5,000 people attend the EXPO. The EXPO is everything that deals with diabetes all under one roof for one day. The EXPO is geared towards people with diabetes, their families and people at risk for diabetes. This year we are expecting over 6,000 people to attend the event.

The EXPO will feature over 70 exhibits focused on diabetes care and products. In addition, there will be a variety of speakers on diabetes related topics. FREE health screenings, cooking demonstrations and Q&A opportunities with medical professionals will be provided. There will also be a “Youth Zone” - a special area dedicated to children and families.

If you have not reserved your space yet please fax your contract to Mary Mendola at 888-342-2383, ext. 7098 as soon as possible. The deadline to reserve your space is April 4, 2008. Given the tremendous impact that this event will have on the diabetic community we would like you to join us for the day. If you are unable to purchase exhibit space for the 2008 EXPO we would still like you to attend and experience the EXPO so that you can budget for it next year. Should you have any questions or wish to sign on for exhibit space at the EXPO please contact me at or 888-342-2383, Ext. 7098.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Study finds that blood test can gauge prostate cancer risk

[Source: TGen] - New genomics research has found that a simple blood test can determine which men are likely to develop prostate cancer. Researchers at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), Wake Forest University, the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, and the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, found that five genetic variants previously associated with prostate cancer risk have a strong cumulative effect.

Published today in the "Online First" section of the New England Journal of Medicine, and in the February 28 print issue, researchers found that a man with four of the five variants has an increased risk of 400 to 500 percent compared to men with none of the variants. The researchers then added a family history of prostate cancer to the equation - for a total of six risk factors. A man with at least five of the six factors had increased risk of more than 900 percent. "This is a finding that could significantly impact patient care," said senior researcher Jianfeng Xu, M.D., Dr. PH., Professor of epidemiology and cancer biology at Wake Forest University and a consultant to TGen. "Because this information could help physicians to better assess prostate cancer risk, a screening test using these five variants maybe particularly useful in men with a family history of prostate cancer or those who have a marginally elevated prostate specific antigen (PSA)."

Currently, age, race and family history are the three factors associated with increased risk of prostate cancer. Family history is believed to account for about 10 percent of prostate cancer cases; researchers estimated that the five variants combined could account for about 40 percent of cases. The study is one of the first to illustrate how a combination of several genes can affect risk of disease. The study involved analyzing DNA samples from 2,893 men with prostate cancer and 1,781 healthy individuals of similar ages - all participants of a prostate cancer study in Sweden. "These data show that a cumulative risk factor approach is likely a more powerful way of assessing risk as compared to looking at single risk factors," said Dr. John Carpten, Ph.D., Director of TGen's Division of Integrated Cancer Genomics. "Once the model is validated and refined, it is our hope that it will eventually equip physicians with a tool to help them make more informed clinical decisions."

Until last year, no specific genetic variants had been consistently identified as markers for prostate cancer risk. Then, advances in technology allowed researchers to take a more systematic approach to looking at the entire genome. Instead of solely studying genes that they suspected were related to disease susceptibility, they could study the entire genome and look for associations. Through these searches, several research teams identified five genetic locations associated with risk of developing prostate cancer: three on chromosome 8q24, one on chromosome 17q12 and one on 17q24.3.

Each variant alone was associated with moderate risk, but the effect wasn't considered significant enough to justify testing individuals. The current study was the first to evaluate whether there is a cumulative effect from having multiple variants. "When we considered the variants together we discovered their potential for predicting individual risk," said David Duggan, Ph.D., an Investigator in TGen's Genetic Basis of Human Disease Division. "Because of the cumulative effects of these risk variants and family history, for the first time associations found through genome-wide screening appear to be useful in clinical practice."

The researchers said further study is needed to determine how their findings of genetic testing may complement PSA (prostate-specific antigen) testing. The researchers found that the risk associated with the genetic variants is independent of PSA results. "This suggests that a subset of men deemed to have a low risk of prostate cancer based on their PSA levels may in fact be at significantly elevated risk due to inheriting one or more of the genetic variants," said S. Lilly Zheng, M.D., Associate Professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest and the first author of the paper. Genetic testing of these five variants will soon be offered at a CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments)-certified laboratory at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
For more information, visit the web site or call 866-487-2344. Co-researchers include senior author Henrik Gronberg, M.D., Ph.D. Professor at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, and William B. Isaacs, Ph.D, Professor at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, MD.

`Request for Information’ seeks clinical affiliations for Phoenix Biomedical Campus

[Source: Al Bravo, University of Arizona] - The Arizona Board of Regents and The University of Arizona today announced a “Request for Information” process to pursue clinical affiliations for The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix in partnership with Arizona State University. The Request for Information seeks responses from health care entities who wish to propose concepts and approaches for building a clinical presence on the Phoenix Biomedical Campus. “We are building a world-class academic health campus and we are seeking affiliates who share this vision,” said Fred Boice, president of the Arizona Board of Regents. “Our goal remains the same – to make this a world-class medical school with top-notch patient care and superior research.”

The University of Arizona, supported by the state and the City of Phoenix, has made a long-term commitment to medical education and biomedical research in downtown Phoenix. This year, the first class of 24 students was admitted to the Phoenix medical school campus, and class size will eventually grow to 150. A new research building, jointly housing faculty and researchers from The University of Arizona and Arizona State University, opened recently on the downtown campus, and additional facilities for the site are in the planning phase.

The University of Arizona College of Medicine - Phoenix in partnership with Arizona State University already has established itself as a powerful and important partner in meeting the region's growing demand for new doctors and improved medical care. Part of the plan for the Phoenix campus includes the eventual construction of an academic medical center. Negotiations began last year with Banner Health, a well-established non-profit health care provider, to partner on the medical center construction and operation. Both sides were determined to develop a plan that would make the medical center an affordable and effective reality within the next five years. However, the complexities of recruiting and funding a medical faculty, coupled with the current fiscal challenges facing the state, have made it necessary for the University to consider new organizational models, approaches to growth, and financing solutions that are responsive to the realities of 21st century academic medicine.

“Over the coming decade, we have every expectation that clinical facilities will be built on the Phoenix Biomedical Campus,” said UA President Robert N. Shelton. “We will continue to work with the City of Phoenix, the Governor and Legislature to develop funding options as we explore other possible partnerships and operational models. Suspending discussions with Banner over the medical center facility is not an ending, but the beginning of a new process that we are confident will grow into a vital resource for Maricopa County and the State of Arizona.”

The Request for Information seeks affiliates interested in long-term investment in a campus that will have ambulatory and inpatient facilities, cutting-edge patient care, advanced biomedical research, and superb education offered by academic faculty.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

UA researchers put the bite on mosquitoes

[Source: Deborah Daun, BIO5 Institute] - Few things sting like a mosquito's bite--especially if that bite carries a disease such as malaria, yellow fever, Dengue fever, or West Nile virus. But if a team of University of Arizona (UA) life sciences researchers has their way, one day mosquito bites may prove deadly to the mosquitoes as well.
"Our goal is to turn the female mosquito's blood meal into the last meal she ever eats," explains project leader Roger L. Miesfeld, a professor of biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology in the UA College of Science and a member of BIO5 and the Arizona Cancer Center.

Other UA researchers involved with the project include Patricia Y. Scaraffia, Guanhong Tan, Jun Isoe, BIO5 member Vicki H. Wysocki, and the late Michael A. Wells. These researchers have discovered that one particular mosquito species, Aedes aegypti, has a surprisingly complex metabolic pathway, one that requires its members to excrete toxic nitrogen after gorging on human blood. If the mosquitoes fail to do so, they'll also fail to lay eggs--and will likely sicken and die. Scaraffia, a research assistant professor in UA's department of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, and the other members of the team are publishing their findings in the January 15, 2008 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Miesfeld and his colleagues are seeking a molecule that is harmless to humans, but that will gum up the works of mosquito metabolism, forcing the mosquitoes to hang onto the nitrogen. Such a molecule would kill both the mosquitoes and their would-be progeny--thus slowing the spread of disease. Once found, this molecule--and similar molecules aimed at other mosquito species--could be developed into an insecticide and sprayed in places where mosquitoes congregate, such as around water and on mosquito netting.

The researchers envision one day also developing an oral insecticide--a mosquito-slaying pill that members of a community with a high instance of, say, yellow fever or malaria might take in order to reduce the mosquito population. The pill wouldn't be a vaccine; if someone who took it were then bitten by a disease-carrying mosquito, they would still become infected. However, the mosquito would ingest the insecticide, along with the human blood, causing her to bear fewer young and possibly die before she could bite anyone else. "The whole community would essentially become one big mosquito trap," Miesfeld explains, and over time, mosquito populations and disease rates would both decline. "It would be a group effort that in the long run could have a huge impact."

In a world where both mosquitoes and the diseases they carry are becoming increasingly resistant to known insecticides and medicines, finding new ways to fight them is crucial. "This would be one more weapon in our arsenal against diseases that kill millions of people a year," Miesfeld says.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Synthetic Biology symposium to be held March 19

Save The Date! The University of Arizona's BIO5 Institute and Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute Present: Synthetic Biology Symposium, Wednesday, March 19, 2008, Thomas W. Keating Bioresearch Building, 1657 E. Helen Street, The University of Arizona, Tucson. Speakers include:
  • J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., The J. Craig Venter Institute, Life: The Next Generation
  • Jay Keasling, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, Programming Novel Cellular Functions
  • Pamela Silver, Ph.D., Harvard Medical School, Systems Biology
  • Jack Szostak, Ph.D., Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Elucidating Information Content of Biological Pathways
  • Gerry Epstein, Ph.D., Center for Strategic & International Studies, Washington, DC, Synthetic Genomics: Balancing Benefits and Risks

For more infromation, contact Christina Hahs, Administrative Associate, BIO5 University of Arizona, Phone: 520-626-4272,

Nanotechnology innovation may revolutionize gene detection in a single cell

[Source: ScienceDaily] - Scientists at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute have developed the world's first gene detection platform made up entirely from self-assembled DNA nanostructures. The results, appearing in the January 11 issue of the journal Science, could have broad implications for gene chip technology and may also revolutionize the way in which gene expression is analyzed in a single cell. "We are starting with the most well-known structure in biology, DNA, and applying it as a nano-scale building material, " said Hao Yan, a member of the institute's Center for Single Molecule Biophysics and an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the College of Liberal and Sciences.

Yan is a researcher in the fast-moving field known as structural DNA nanotechnology -- that assembles the molecule of life into a variety of nanostructures with a broad range of applications from human health to nanoelectronics. Yan led an interdisciplinary ASU team to develop a way to use structural DNA nanotechnology to target the chemical messengers of genes, called RNA. The team included: lead author and chemistry and biochemistry graduate student Yonggang Ke; assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry Yan Liu; Center for Single Molecule Biophysics director and physics professor Stuart Lindsay; and associate professor in the School of Life Sciences, Yung Chang. "This is one of the first practical applications of a powerful technology, that, till now, has mainly been the subject of research demonstrations," said Lindsay. "The field of structural DNA nanotechnology has recently seen much exciting progress from constructing geometrical and topological nanostructures through tile based DNA self-assembly initially demonstrated by Ned Seeman, Erik Winfree and colleagues," said Yan.

A recent breakthrough of making spatially addressable DNA nanoarrays came from Paul Rothemund's work on scaffolded DNA origami, a method in which a long, single-stranded viral DNA scaffold can be folded and stapled by a large number of short synthetic "helper strands" into nanostructures that display complex patterns. "But the potential of structural DNA nanotechnology in biological applications has been underestimated, and if we look at the process of DNA self-assembly, you will be amazed that trillions of DNA nanostructures can form simultaneously in a solution of few microliters, and very importantly, they are biocompatible and water soluble," said Yan.

DNA chip and microarray technology have become a multi-billion dollar industry as scientists use it to examine thousands of genes at the same time for mutations or uncovering clues to disease. However, because DNA probes are pinned to the solid surface of the microarray chips, it is relatively slow process for the targets to search and find the probes. Also, it is hard to control the distances between the probes with nanometer accuracy. "In this work, we developed a water soluble nanoarray that can take advantage of the DNA self-assembling process and also have benefits that the macroscopic DNA microchip arrays do not have," said Yan. "The arrays themselves are reagents, instead of solid surface chips."

To make the DNA origami RNA probes, Yan has taken advantage of the basic DNA pairing rules in the DNA chemical alphabet ("A" can only form a zipper-like chemical bond with "T" and "G" only pair with "C"). By controlling the exact position and location of the chemical bases within a synthetic replica of DNA, Yan programmed a single stranded genomic DNA, M13, into nanotiles to contain the probes for specific gene expression targets.

Yan refers to the self-assembled DNA nanoarrays as nucleic acid probe tiles, which look like a nanosized postage stamp. In a single step, the M13 scaffold system can churn out as many as 100 trillion of the tiles with close to100 percent yield. Yan's team designed three different DNA probe tiles to detect three different RNA genes along with a bar code index to tell the tiles apart from each other. "Each probe can be distinguished by its own bar code, so we mixed them together in one solution and we used this for multiplex detection," said Yan. The group uses a powerful instrument, atomic force microscopy (AFM), which allows the researchers to image the tiles at the single molecule level.

On the surface of each DNA probe tile is a dangling single stranded piece of DNA that can bind to the RNA target of interest. "Each probe actually contains two half probes, so when the target RNA comes in, it will hybridize to the half probes and turn the single stranded dangling probes into a stiff structure," said Yan. "When it is stiffened, it will be sensed by the atomic force microscope cantilever, and you can see a bright line, which is a height increase. The result is a mechanical, label-free detection." The technology is able to detect minute quantities of RNA. "Since the DNA-RNA hybridization has such a strong affinity, in principle, a single molecule would be able to hybridize to the probe tile," said Yan.

Although there are still many technical hurdles yet to overcome, the group is excited about the potential applications of the technology. "What our approach provides is that the probe tiles are a water-soluble reagent, so the sample volume can potentially be shrunk down to the volume of a single cell level. Our ultimate goal is to detect RNA gene expression at the single cell level."
The research was performed in the Biodesign Institute's Center for Single Molecule Biophysics, Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, and ASU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Department of Physics and School of Life Sciences. This research is partly supported by funding from NIH and from NSF, U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and Office of Naval Research.

Friday, January 11, 2008

St. Joe's in Phoenix to open heart and lung tower

[Source: Betty Reid, Arizona Republic] - St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center will open its eight-story Heart & Lung Institute Tower to patients Sunday. The $15 million addition to the hospital will meet a growing demand by lung patients for transplants. Heart patients will have a floor dedicated to their care.The lung-transplant service, added in 2007, now has a home in the tower that is 37,000 square feet and covers three floors and four units. The lung-transplant tower at St. Joseph's is the only medical center in the Valley to do lung transplants. Doctors did the first one in April 2007 and so far has done 11 transplants. Before then, Valley patients who needed such care were referred to medical facilities in Tucson or California.

This year, they expect to treat many more patients. The new tower previously had been the Barrow Neurological Institute, which also has a new space in a different tower. Julie Ward, vice president of nursing at St. Joseph's Hospital, said the new feature enhances the medical center's 113-year-old goal of delivering outstanding medical care. "Our mission calls for us to provide patients with the best care possible and to grow and develop our clinical services as our community expands," Ward said. "The opening of the Heart & Lung Tower is the latest example of our mission in action."Placing care for heart and lung patients in one area means workflow at nurse stations will improve and each patient room is connected to a central monitoring unit, hospital officials said. The operating suites at the towers also have upgraded technology."The new space and technology will allow us to provide world-class, disease-specific care to our patients," said Tony Hodges, medical director of St. Joseph's Center for Thoracic Disease and Transplantation. "The telemedicine capabilities in our new operating room are unparalleled regionally. This will not only enhance patient care and outcomes but allow us to grow our research and educational mission as well."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Researchers move two steps closer to understanding genetic underpinnings of autism

[Source: TGen] - Today's issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics (AJHG), describes what might be a corner piece of the autism puzzle-the identification and subsequent validation of a gene linked to the development of autism by three separate groups of scientists. An accompanying commentary by Dr. Dietrich Stephan, Director of the Neurogenomics Division at the Translational Genomics Research Institute's (TGen), further explains the findings. Autism is a perplexing disease whose cause remains unexplained. It has long been suggested that environmental factors, linked with genetics, play a role in causing the disorder. As recently as last week, researchers in California published a study that found no proof linking autism with a mercury-based preservative found in childhood vaccines. While there are no clear-cut answers, researchers are one step closer to understanding autism's genetic cause.

In March 2006, Dr. Stephan, Director of TGen's Neurogenomics Division, led a team of researchers at TGen and collaborators at the Clinic for Special Children (CSC) in Strasburg, PA, that identified a gene called CNTNAP2. When mutated, this gene indicated a predisposition to autism in a specific population of Old Order Amish children from Pennsylvania.

One of the most important principles in science is the ability to replicate results. Now, three groups of researchers from Yale University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Johns Hopkins University, have replicated the initial finding in the general population, unequivocally implicating this gene as causing the newly defined Type 1 autism. All three studies plus Dr. Stephan's commentary are published in the January edition of AJHG. According to Dr. Erik Puffenberger, Laboratory Director of the Clinic for Special Children, "Our previous finding of association between loss of CNTNAP2 function and autistic behavior has been validated in the general population. This is a very exciting step for autism research. It also highlights the enormous potential of the 'small science' approach. Our initial work used only four affected Amish children. Careful study of these four patients uncovered the association between CNTNAP2 and autistic behaviors. From that small beginning, CNTNAP2 has now been implicated as a significant risk factor for autism."

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a broadly used term for a set of developmental disorders that emerges in infants and young children. ASD impairs a child's intuitive thought, language and social development to varying degrees. Most individuals diagnosed with ASD require lifelong supervision and care; the most severely affected are unable to speak. ASD is the fastest growing developmental disability in the U.S. Two decades ago, roughly one child in 10,000 was diagnosed with ASD; it now affects one in 150 births. "The field of genetics is replete with examples where researchers are unable to reproduce results. Here we have independent confirmation in multiple groups using large samples sizes," said Dr. Stephan. "Now that the results of the initial CNTNAP2 gene finding have been replicated, it strongly supports the notion that the 'broken version' of CNTNAP2 is recognized as a cause of autism in the general population."

In collaboration with the Phoenix-based Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC), a nonprofit community-based organization dedicated to research, education and resources for individuals with ASDs and their families, TGen will apply these research findings to children in Arizona who have been diagnosed with ASD. "The heterogeneity of the disorder has frustrated our past efforts in the search for causes of autism," said Dr. Raun Melmed, medical director and co-founder of SARRC. "This exciting discovery will further our capacity to individualize approaches to the diagnosis and treatment of autism."

The next step, noted Dr. Stephan in the commentary, is to develop a diagnostic to test for the CNTNAP2 mutation. If physicians could implement behavioral interventions early enough, children with autism may have a better chance of developing normally. The initial discovery of CNTNAP2 in autism was published in the March 30, 2006, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

ClinXus joins international Critical Path Institute Consortium

[Source: Sarah Lamb, Van Andel Institute] - ClinXus, a Grand Rapids-based, life-sciences alliance, recently became the first non-profit organization to join the Critical Path Institute’s Predictive Safety Testing Consortium (PSTC). Critical Path Institute supports the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with collaborative research and education programs that enable the safe acceleration of medical product development. The PSTC brings pharmaceutical companies together to share and validate each other’s safety testing methods under advisement of the FDA and its equivalent in Europe, the European Medicines Agency (EMEA). “The PSTC has been described as a model for modernizing the development of medicinal products,” said ClinXus Board President Craig P. Webb, Ph.D., Van Andel Institute scientific investigator and director of translational medicine. “It allows pharmaceutical companies and partners to share knowledge and resources to bring life-saving drugs to the FDA more quickly and safely.”

The FDA launched the Critical Path Initiative in March 2004, to identify medical product development problems and opportunities for improvement. The study identified the process for preclinical and clinical testing of drugs as a major contributor to delays in drug development. Critical Path Institute was established in 2005 as an independent nonprofit research and education institute to facilitate collaboration between scientists in government, industry and academia. In March 2006, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, announced the formation of the PSTC involving scientists from the FDA, Critical Path Institute and several of the United States’ largest pharmaceutical companies to share internally developed laboratory methods to predict the safety of new treatments before they are tested in humans.

The initial PSTC members include Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development, LLC, Merck and Co., Inc., Novartis Pharmaceutical Corporation, Pfizer, Inc., Roche Palo Alto, LLC, and Schering Plough Research Institute. Since that time, the PSTC has added seven additional pharmaceutical industry members and invited EMEA to serve in an advisory role similar to that of the FDA.
William Mattes, Ph. D., director of the PSTC noted, “The PSTC has made rapid progress since its inception last year and this is a testimony to the commitment and willingness of the member companies to share their testing methods and data. We have already found a number of improved tests for drug safety that can be used in the early stages of drug development. ClinXus will greatly facilitate the next phase that includes clinical evaluation of these new tests.”

ClinXus, a life-sciences alliance dedicated to introducing molecular biomarkers into the clinical trial process, a fundamental component of personalized medicine, becomes the first non-profit organization to join the consortium. ClinXus was formed in July 2006, with the assistance of a $1.5 million grant from the Michigan 21st Century Jobs Fund in addition to funding and in-kind donations from each of the six member institutions. The alliance uses the expertise and services of each member institution to provide a single point of contact for clinical research clients, as well as patients and physicians that participate in clinical studies. Its focus is to develop innovative clinical trials that are primarily biomarker driven, involving new medicines, devices and diagnostics in all stages of testing. ClinXus’ members include Van Andel Institute (VAI), Spectrum Health, Saint Mary’s Health Care, Jasper Clinical Research & Development, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) and Grand Valley Medical Specialists. For more information, contact Joe Gavan, (616) 234-5390.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Life at the jolt: New insights into fuel cell that uses bacteria to generate electricity

[Source: Arizona State University] - Researchers at the Biodesign Institute are using the tiniest organisms on the planet 'bacteria' as a viable option to make electricity. In a new study featured in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering, lead author Andrew Kato Marcus and colleagues Cesar Torres and Bruce Rittmann have gained critical insights that may lead to commercialization of a promising microbial fuel cell (MFC) technology.

"We can use any kind of waste, such as sewage or pig manure, and the microbial fuel cell will generate electrical energy," said Marcus, a Civil and Environmental Engineering graduate student and a member of the institute's Center for Environmental Biotechnology. Unlike conventional fuel cells that rely on hydrogen gas as a fuel source, the microbial fuel cell can handle a variety of water-based organic fuels. "There is a lot of biomass out there that we look at simply as energy stored in the wrong place," said Bruce Rittmann, director of the center. "We can take this waste, keeping it in its normal liquid form, but allowing the bacteria to convert the energy value to our society's most useful form, electricity. They get food while we get electricity."

Waste not

Bacteria have such a rich diversity that researchers can find a bacterium that can handle almost any waste compound in their daily diet. By linking bacterial metabolism directly with electricity production, the MFC eliminates the extra steps necessary in other fuel cell technologies. "We like to work with bacteria, because bacteria provide a cheap source of electricity," said Marcus. There are many types of MFC reactors and research teams throughout the world ( However, all reactors share the same operating principles. All MFCs have a pair of battery-like terminals: an anode and cathode electrode. The electrodes are connected by an external circuit and an electrolyte solution to help conduct electricity. The difference in voltage between the anode and cathode, along with the electron flow in the circuit, generate electrical power. In the first step of the MFC, an anode respiring bacterium breaks down the organic waste to carbon dioxide and transfers the electrons released to the anode. Next, the electrons travel from the anode, through an external circuit to generate electrical energy. Finally, the electrons complete the circuit by traveling to the cathode, where they are taken up by oxygen and hydrogen ions to form water.

What is the matrix?

"We knew that the MFC process is relatively stable, but one of the biggest questions is: How do the bacteria get the electrons to the anode?" said Marcus. The bacteria depend on the anode for life. The bacteria at the anode breathe the anode, much like people breathe air, by transferring electrons to the anode. Because bacteria use the anode in their metabolism, they strategically position themselves on the anode surface to form a bacterial community called a biofilm. Bacteria in the biofilm produce a matrix of material so that they stick to the anode. The biofilm matrix is rich with material that can potentially transport electrons. The sticky biofilm matrix is made up of a complex of extracellular proteins, sugars, and bacterial cells. The matrix also has been shown to contain tiny conductive nanowires that may help facilitate electron conduction. "Our numerical model develops and supports the idea that the bacterial matrix is conductive," said Marcus. In electronics, conductors are most commonly made of materials like copper that make it easier for a current to flow through . "In a conductive matrix, the movement of electrons is driven by the change in the electrical potential." Like a waterfall, the resulting voltage drop in the electrical potential pushes the flow of electrons. The treatment of the biofilm matrix as a conductor allowed the team to describe the transport of electrons driven by the gradient in the electrical potential. The relationship between the biofilm matrix and the anode could now be described by a standard equation for an electrical circuit, Ohm's law. Within the MFC is a complex ecosystem where bacteria are living within a self-generated matrix that conducts the electrons. "The whole biofilm is acting like the anode itself, a living electrode," said Marcus. "This is why we call it the 'biofilm anode.'"

Life at the Jolt

The concept of the 'biofilm anode' allowed the team to describe the transport of electrons from bacteria to the electrode and the electrical potential gradient. The importance of electrical potential is well known in a traditional fuel cell, but its relevance to bacterial metabolism has been less clear. The next important concept the team had to develop was to understand the response of bacteria to the electrical potential within the biofilm matrix. Bacteria will grow as long as there is an abundant supply of nutrients. Jacques Monod, one of the founding fathers of molecular biology, developed an equation to describe this relationship. While the team recognized the importance of the Monod equation for bacteria bathed in a rich nutrient broth, the challenge was to apply the Monod equation to the anode, a solid. Previous studies have shown that the rate of bacterial metabolism at the anode increases when the electrical potential of the anode increases. The researchers could now think of the electrical potential as fulfilling the same role as a bacterial nutrient broth. The team recognized that the electrical potential is equivalent to the concentration of electrons; and the electrons are precisely what the bacteria transfer to the anode. Equipped with this key insight, the team developed a new model, the Nernst-Monod equation, to describe the rate of bacterial metabolism in response to the "concentration of electrons" or the electrical potential.

Promise meeting potential

In their model, the team identified three crucial variables to controlling an MFC: the amount of waste material (fuel), the accumulation of biomass on the anode, and the electrical potential in the biofilm anode. The third factor is a totally novel concept in MFC research. "Modeling the potential in the biofilm anode, we now have a handle on how the MFC is working and why. We can predict how much voltage we get and how to maximize the power output by tweaking the various factors," said Marcus. For example, the team has shown that the biofilm produces more current when the biofilm thickness is at a happy medium, not too thick or thin. "If the biofilm is too thick," said Marcus, "the electrons have to travel too far to get to the anode. On the other hand, if the biofilm is too thin, it has too few bacteria to extract the electrons rapidly from the fuel." To harvest the benefits of MFCs, the research team is using its innovative model to optimize performance and power output. The project, which has been funded by NASA and industrial partners OpenCEL and NZLegacy, lays out the framework for MFC research and development to pursue commercialization of the technology.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Alzheimer's group, drug firm in deal

[ Source: Ken Alltucker, The Arizona Republic] - Banner Alzheimer's Institute has struck a pact with a British pharmaceutical company to test brain-imaging technology in Arizona that researchers say may yield more clues and treatments to Alzheimer's disease. Banner scientists will test a molecule developed by London-based AstraZeneca that could help measure harmful protein deposits in the brain associated with the fatal disease. The technology could make it easier for researchers to track the progression of the disease and test drugs that aim to treat or prevent the brain disorder that afflicts 5 million Americans.

"The most important thing is they came here and recognized the resources of Banner Alzheimer's Institute and the state of Arizona," said Dr. Eric Reiman, executive director of the institute. "It is tools like this that will play a role in developing promising therapies." The technology centers on a molecule, called a radioligand, that AstraZeneca believes can help measure the progression of Alzheimer's disease. The molecule works by clinging to amyloid plaque, or protein deposits in the brain that are a trait of the disease. The molecule will allow scientists to measure the growth of the plaque through a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. Banner and AstraZeneca said the technology could help gauge the effectiveness of existing Alzheimer's drugs or provide clues to new treatments. The scientists will conduct six studies between now and the end of 2009 on various measures. Neither Banner nor AstraZeneca released terms of the research agreement. Reiman said the AstraZeneca molecule is one of a handful of PET tools being evaluated worldwide for how well they measure, visualize and quantify protein deposits in the brain.

Why don't we get cancer all the time?

[Source: ScienceDaily] - The seemingly inefficient way our bodies replace worn-out cells is a defense against cancer, according to new research. Having the neighboring cell just split into two identical daughter cells would seem to be the simplest way to keep bodies from falling apart. However that would be a recipe for uncontrolled growth, said John W. Pepper of The University of Arizona in Tucson. "If there were only one cell type in the group, it would act like an evolving population of cells. Individual cells would get better and better at surviving and reproducing," said Pepper, a UA assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a member of UA's BIO5 Institute. "When cells reach the point where they divide constantly, instead of only when needed, they are cancer cells."

Instead, multicellular organisms use a seemingly inefficient process to replace lost cells, Pepper said. An organ such as the skin calls upon skin-specific stem cells to produce intermediate cells that in turn produce skin cells. Although great at their job, the new skin cells are evolutionary dead ends. The cells cannot reproduce. Losing the ability to reproduce was part of the evolutionary path single-celled organisms had to take to become multicellular, Pepper said.

What was in it for the single cells? "Probably they got to be part of something more powerful," Pepper said. "Something that was hard to eat and good at eating other things." Pepper and his colleagues published their paper, "Animal Cell Differentiation Patterns Suppress Somatic Evolution," in the current issue of PLoS Computational Biology. Pepper's co-authors are Kathleen Sprouffske of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia and Carlo C. Maley of the Wistar Institute.

The National Institutes of Health, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Pew Charitable Trust and the Santa Fe Institute funded the research. Pepper became curious about the origins of cooperation between cells while he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. "Organisms are just a bunch of cells," he said. "If you understand the conditions under which they cooperate, you can understand the conditions under which cooperation breaks down. Cancer is a breakdown of cooperation." Pepper and his colleagues used a kind of computer model called an agent-based model to compare different modes of cellular reproduction.
The results indicate that if cells reproduce by simply making carbon-copies of themselves, the cells' descendants are more likely to accumulate mutations.

In contrast, if cellular reproduction was much more complicated, the cells' descendants had fewer mutations. Suppressing mutations that might fuel uncontrolled growth of cells would be particularly important for larger organisms that had long lives, the team wrote in their research report.

ASU's law school offering class addressing nanotechnology

[Source:] - The Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law Arizona State University is offering Nanotechnology and the Law, a course geared toward graduate students in public policy, bioengineering, biomedicine, justice studies and political science, as well as law.

Nanotechnology, a growing science with huge implications for health, safety, quality of life and the environment, is the science of the small. It has the ability to manipulate and utilize materials at the nanoscale, where they can display unique and beneficial characteristics. It is a $50 billion industry, with more than 500 nanotechnology products on the market, from stain-free pants and suntan lotion to slow-churned ice cream. Scientists are working to develop building materials that are lightweight, strong and inexpensive, and produced with something called carbon nanotubes. Manufacturing these particles creates the possibility of environmental danger.

Professor Doug Sylvester, who will be offering the course next semester, has designed it to get students thinking and talking about a balance that protects health and safety while not penalizing science. Guest lecturers will include David Guston, director of ASU's Center for Nanotechnology in Society, and Cynthia Selin, a Center researcher; Mike Kozicki, director of the ASU Center for Applied Nanoionics and a professor in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering; and Jason Robert, an assistant professor in the College of Life Sciences. The course will be held from 1:30-3:25 p.m. Thursdays, beginning Jan. 17th in Armstrong Hall. To register for the course, go to