Monday, January 28, 2008

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

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