Thursday, July 31, 2008

Patch Helps Mend Damaged Hearts

[Source: Ed Edelson, HealthDay News] - A mesh patch designed to regenerate cardiac muscle damaged by a heart attack or heart failure has done well in animal studies and preliminary human trials.

The patch is made of vicryl, a material used for suturing injured tissue that is later absorbed by the body, explained Jordan J. Lancaster, a predoctoral fellow at the Southern Arizona VA Medical Center in Tucson, who reported on the animal studies Wednesday at an American Heart Association meeting in Keystone, Colo.

"The mesh is grown in a bioreactor with human dermal fibroblast cells," Lancaster said. When the patch is placed on the heart, it delivers cells that grow to strengthen the heart muscle.
"We evaluated this patch in two studies," Lancaster said. "One was in an acute situation, immediately after a heart attack, the other was in chronic heart failure."

After a heart attack, he explained, there is abnormal enlargement of the left ventricle, which pumps blood to the body. The ventricle also works harder, which can ultimately lead to heart failure.

Applying the patch to rats after a heart attack, "we were able to prevent the negative functioning and the negative remodeling," Lancaster said. Blood flow to the heart muscle increased by 37 percent for rats who got the patch immediately after a heart attack, and the blood-pumping ability of the heart increased by 40 percent.

A second series of experiments applied the patch to rats three weeks after a heart attack to study its effect on heart failure. Blood flow was improved by 116 percent, and blood-pumping ability improved by 21 percent.

The animal studies were sponsored by Theregen Inc., a San Francisco company that has started human studies of the patch. A first study, primarily to test the safety of the patch, was done last year by Dr. Bartley P. Griffith, chief of cardiac surgery at the University of Maryland.

"We were very pleased," Griffith said of the trial, which included 12 heart attack patients. "In our patients, the application of the patch was not associated with any complications. The application of the patch is quite simple. Four stitches are enough to attach the patch."

One of the people given the patch died, and a study of the heart showed "remarkable new blood vessel formation," Griffith said. "We had generally very positive outcomes."

A second round of human trials has begun, said Dr. Gary Gentzkow, chief medical officer of Theregen. One trial is designed to study the effect of the patch on heart function. The second trial is intended to get a detailed look at heart tissue after the patch is applied. The subjects are people with heart conditions severe enough to require implanted heart-assist devices.

The trials are being done at several medical centers in the United States, Gentzkow said. "Enrollment is finished in the studies," he said. "We are in the follow-up phase. We expect complete follow-up results this year."

Further human studies depend on the results of those trials, Gentzkow said.
More information

Current heart attack treatments are described by the U.S. Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

UA Researchers Develop New Tool for Understanding Blood Flow and Heart Disease

[Source: Deborah Daun, BIO5] - UA researchers have developed a new tool for better understanding a chemical that regulates everything from blood flow and wound healing to lung function and memory formation. Their work may one day pave the way for new treatments for heart disease and other illnesses.

BIO5 member William Montfort, PhD, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry in the College of Science, collaborated with researchers working with insects to produce the protein soluble guanyl cyclase (sGC) in the lab. sGC occurs naturally in our bodies; it is important because it binds to and regulates a remarkably versatile chemical called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is found in our bodies as well.

"Our cells use it to regulate huge amounts of our physiology," Montfort says. Among other things, nitric oxide is also the active ingredient in nitroglycerin, which has long been manufactured as a drug to relax blood vessels and control the chest pain associated with heart disease.

By better understanding the workings of sGC, scientists can potentially better understand how nitric oxide works as well. Yet producing enough sGC to study in the lab has long been a challenge, because the genes that produce sGC in humans don't produce much of it, at least not in a stable form. Humans aren't the only ones who produce sGC and nitric oxide, however.

Montfort learned that a colleague of his in the Arizona Research Laboratories Neurobiology Division, Associate Professor Alan Nighorn, PhD, was also studying sGC—in hawkmoths, where nitric oxide regulates odor detection. Working collaboratively, Montfort and Nighorn's labs succeeded in producing the hawkmoth protein in larger quantities. Their research was published this month in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Now that sGC is available in sufficient quantities, Montfort's lab plans to map its atomic structure in intricate detail and search for compounds that stimulate its activity. They'll use what they learn to then try to develop drugs that mimic aspects of nitric oxide's behavior. Such drugs could one day provide heart patients with alternatives to nitroglycerin, which loses effectiveness over time. Montfort's work is funded through 2013 by NIH grants totaling $2.5 million.

"The research highlights what works so well at universities like ours, where we have broad-based science on a single campus," Montfort says. "The UA works hard to lower the barriers between departments and encourage multidisciplinary work. There's a long history of collaboration here."

The work also highlights the UA's commitment to training graduate students in multidisciplinary research. The first author on the paper, Xiaohui Hu, is one of Montfort's graduate students—and a part of the UA's Biological Chemistry program, which is designed to facilitate collaborative work among chemists, biochemists, and medicinal chemists. "I challenged Xiaohui Hu with this project, which is really a very difficult one, and he grabbed hold and pushed it forward with gusto and imagination," Montfort says.

The paper also brings out the critical role that basic research plays in our larger lives. "By trying to understand scent sensing in an insect we gained the tools to try to develop new drugs that will be important to human health," Montfort says. "You never know from where important insights are going to come."

Aging Impairs The 'Replay' Of Memories During Sleep

ScienceDaily (July 29, 2008) — Aging impairs the consolidation of memories during sleep, a process important in converting new memories into long-term ones, according to new animal research in the July 30 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. The findings shed light on normal memory mechanisms and how they are disrupted by aging.

During sleep, the hippocampus, a brain region important in learning and memory, repeatedly "replays" brain activity from recent awake experiences. This replay process is believed to be important for memory consolidation. In the new study, Carol Barnes, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Arizona found reduced replay activity during sleep in old compared to young rats, and rats with the least replay activity performed the worst in tests of spatial memory.

Barnes and colleagues recorded hippocampal activity in 11 young and 11 old rats as they navigated several mazes for food rewards. Later, when the animals were asleep, the researchers recorded their hippocampal activity again. In the young animals, the sequence of neural activity recorded while the animals navigated the mazes was repeated when they slept. However, in most of the old animals, the sequence of neural activity recorded during sleep did not reflect the sequence of brain activity recorded in the maze.

"These findings suggest that some of the memory impairment experienced during aging could involve a reduction in the automatic process of experience replay," said Michael Hasselmo, DPhil, at Boston University, an expert unaffiliated with the study.

Animals with more faithful sleep replay also performed better on memory tests. The researchers tested the same 22 rats on a spatial learning and memory task. Consistent with previous research, the young rats recalled the solution to the spatial task faster and more accurately than the old rats. In the old group, the researchers found that the top performers in the spatial memory task were also the ones that showed the best sleep replay. Irrespective of the animal's age, the researchers found that animals who more faithfully replayed the sequence of neural activity recorded in the maze while asleep also performed better on the spatial memory task.

"This is the first study to suggest that an animal's ability to perform a spatial memory task may be related to the brain's ability to perform memory consolidation during sleep," said study author Barnes.

Identification of the specific memory deficit present in the aging brain may be a first step to preventing age-related memory loss. "This study's findings could inspire the development and testing of pharmacological agents designed to enhance memory replay phenomena," Hasselmo said.

The research was supported by the Arizona Chapter of the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation and The McKnight Brain Research Foundation.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Early-diagnosis blood tests for Alzheimer's disease in development

[Source: Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer] - People with Alzheimer's face an awkward juncture in the near future. They'll be able to learn early on whether they have Alzheimer's disease -- even if they can't do much about it.

With therapies to halt or slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease seeming ever more elusive, several blood tests currently in development could determine who has the disease even before symptoms develop or become severe. Researchers say they believe people would use such a test, if only to prepare for a future with the limitations wrought by dementia."It would be a boon to the field," says Dr. Ronald C. Petersen, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "Many, many people are at risk due to family history, age, genetic characteristics. But we don't have a good prediction formula for who will actually get the disease."

Alzheimer's disease is extremely difficult to diagnose in its early stages because the symptoms, such as memory problems, can also be attributed to normal aging or a number of other illnesses. Even the appearance of plaque in the brain is not considered a telltale sign of the disease because some older people have plaque but do not suffer from dementia. Doctors and patients need a test that is convenient, accurate, reliable and inexpensive, says Dr. Harold Varmus, the former director of the National Institutes of Health and a member of the Alzheimer’s Study Group(ASG), an independent working group mandated by Congress to develop a national strategic plan for Alzheimer's disease.

"It's clear that finding this disease at the earliest possible stage provides the best possible window for therapeutics," Varmus says. "If you can make an early diagnosis, you can think about trying to arrest the disease, which is better than trying to reverse it."

Targeted at research

A Redwood City, Calif., company, Satoris Inc., has announced plans to release a blood test for use in research later this year. A study published in the journal Nature Medicine in November examined blood samples from 259 people who had early- to late-stage Alzheimer's disease or did not have the disease. It found 18 proteins in the blood of Alzheimer's patients with concentrations different from normal individuals. The protein panel allowed for nearly 90% accuracy in diagnosing and characterizing the disease even among people with only a mild version of the disease called mild cognitive impairment.

The as-yet-unnamed test would be used initially with other diagnostic tests, such as brain scans, to provide a highly reliable result, says Cris McReynolds, president of Satoris. "It will be an important piece of information used with other information to make an accurate diagnosis."

McReynolds says he hopes a test for the general public will become available one or two years after researchers begin their work with it.

Another test, called NuroPro, is under development by Power3 Medical Products in the Woodlands, Texas. It measures 59 protein markers in the blood that distinguish people with Alzheimer's disease from those with Parkinson's disease as well as those without either disease. Data from a study by Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City, Ariz., are expected at the end of August, says Steven Rash, chief executive of Power3. He says the company hopes to launch a test for the public late this year.

It's too soon to tell if these tests are accurate enough to be diagnostic tests or if they may just suggest a higher risk for the disease, Petersen says.

Diagnostic tests that appear reliable in academic research settings may not be as impressive in the general population where "you take all comers," says Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, chief of biological psychiatry at Duke University and co-author of the new book "The Alzheimer's Action Plan."

"We should be cautious in applying this technology," he says. "I think people have a right to know, but at the same time people should be counseled fully and not be led into getting these tests without knowing the risks and benefits."

Test may lead to drug

The real value for a diagnostic blood test, at least initially, may be in research. Scientists are also optimistic that an early-diagnosis blood test will spark better drug trials and, ultimately, a blockbuster medication.

Many researchers believe that previous Alzheimer's drug trials have been hindered by inaccurate methods to identify subjects -- people who have the disease rather than some other type of dementia -- and by inferior tools to gauge a drug's effectiveness, such as through cognitive testing or asking people or their family members if the symptoms have improved.

Says McReynolds: "They have been operating in the dark."

ASU institute working on improving health worldwide

[Source: Nick Smith , The Arizona Republic]- The key to unlocking some of the most complex health issues facing society today may be found in some of the research being conducted in Tempe.

At the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, doctors, scientists and students are using state-of-the-art technology to improve the quality of life for people all over the world.

Some of the projects at the institute include pursuing nanotechnology improvements in solar energy, creating in-home diagnostic and treatment devices and developing a bio-diesel fuel from photosynthetic bacteria. Research at the institute has been going on for nearly four years and has resulted in patented inventions.

"The work being done there is pretty incredible," said Mike Hicks, a recent ASU graduate who works on a research team at the institute. "It really could make a big difference."

The institute receives funding from contributors that include state and federal government, industry grants and different philanthropies.

For the past year, researchers have been working on a system that simultaneously purifies dirty water on a mass level and turns the extracted bacteria into bio-diesel, according to institute staff. The research is being conducted on a small level inside labs, but the ultimate goal would be to receive funding to produce it on a marketable level. Other researchers are working on a personalized diagnostic and treatment system known as "Doc-in-a-Box." The goal is to have the system in every home to serve as a personalized doctor, according to Stephen Albert Johnson, the director for the Center for Innovations in Medicine at the Biodesign Institute.

"Doc-in-a-Box" would allow for detection of diseases before any symptoms arise by analyzing blood samples on a regular basis.

Hip Bone Density Helps Predict Breast Cancer Risk

[Source: ScienceDaily] - Measuring a woman’s bone mineral density can provide additional information that may help more accurately determine a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. That is the conclusion of a new study published in the September 1, 2008 issue of CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society. The study’s results suggest that incorporating bone mineral density tests with current risk assessments might significantly improve physicians’ ability to predict breast cancer risk in older, postmenopausal women.

Bone mineral density testing is done to diagnose osteoporosis and help assess the risk of fractures. Low bone mineral density is linked to higher risk of fractures, while normal density is linked to lower risk of fractures. It is possible that over a woman’s lifetime, hormonal and other factors that lead to higher bone mineral density can also lead to higher risk of breast cancer.

Studies have found an association between higher bone mineral density and higher breast cancer risk, and bone mineral density tests have been proposed as a potential addition to breast cancer risk models. This study, supported by Eli Lilly & Company, is the first to investigate the relationships among bone mineral density, traditional breast cancer risk assessment tool results, and breast cancer incidence among the same group of postmenopausal women.

To investigate these relationships, Dr. Zhao Chen of the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and her colleagues studied approximately 10,000 post-menopausal women (average age 63) taking part in the Women’s Health Initiative, a study conducted in 40 clinical centers throughout the United States and supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health. The researchers assessed the women’s initial bone mineral density level as well as their score on the Gail risk model, a well known and commonly used tool that estimates five year and lifetime risk of invasive breast cancer for women 35 years of age or older. They then followed the women for an average of approximately 8 years, noting which women developed breast cancer.

As expected, the study found that women with a high Gail score had a 35 percent increased risk of developing breast cancer compared to women with a lower Gail score. But the study also found a 25 percent increase in the risk of developing the disease with each unit increase in total hip bone mineral density t-score. While the two scores were independent of each other, women who had the highest scores on both assessments had a much higher risk in breast cancer.

The findings suggest that adding bone mineral density to currently used risk assessment tools may significantly improve the prediction of breast cancer risk. “Future studies should investigate whether incorporating bone mineral density and Gail score with other risk factors, such as breast density, can further improve the identification of women at high risk for developing breast cancer,” the authors wrote. This study also suggests that bone mineral density is a potential alternative for predicting breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women if Gail score is not available. Additional studies are needed to determine if the results from this investigation are applicable to a broader group of women, including minorities. The findings do not change the use of bone mineral density testing to diagnose osteoporosis or the need to treat osteoporosis in order to reduce the risk of fractures.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hutchinson Center Receives $7.6 Million Federal Grant to Study How Genetic Variations Influence Risk of Common Diseases

[Source: PRNEWSWIRE] - Researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have received a $7.6 million, four-year grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute to better understand the genetic and biological roots of common diseases. The Hutchinson Center is one of four U.S. research institutes to receive grants totaling about $31 million toward this effort.

The Hutchinson Center project, led by biostatistician and principal investigator Charles Kooperberg, Ph.D., and epidemiologist and co-principal investigator Ulrike "Riki" Peters, Ph.D., both of the Center's Public Health Sciences Division, will study how specific genetic variants influence the risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other common conditions, from obesity to dementia.

Mining more than a decade of data from the Women's Health Initiative, an ethnically and socio-economically diverse study population involving nearly 162,000 postmenopausal women nationwide, Kooperberg and colleagues will look also at how previously identified genetic variants are related to biological and physical characteristics associated with disease risk, such as weight, cholesterol and blood-sugar levels, and bone density. The scientists also will examine how lifestyle factors, such as diet, medications and smoking, may interact with genetic factors to influence health outcomes. For example, if a person follows a low-fat diet high in fruits and vegetables, would that lessen or negate the disease risk associated with a specific genetic variant?

"Through previous genome-wide association studies we know there are common genetic variants in the population that are associated with a moderate increase in the risk of various diseases. Now we want to know how environmental exposures and lifestyle factors, such as diet or smoking, influence disease risk in people with these genetic variants," Peters said.

Another goal of the study is to examine the pathways by which these genetic variants influence disease. "We hope to learn more about the mechanisms by looking at the associations between these genetic variations and intermediate biomarkers of disease, such as cholesterol levels as a marker for heart disease and bone density as a marker for hip fractures," she said.

To this end, the researchers will aim to genotype blood samples from 58,000 WHI study participants to investigate up to 100 known disease-specific genetic variants.

"Information generated from this study will be critical to determine the health impact of any given genetic variant and to prioritize them for intervention studies aimed to reduce their associated risk," Kooperberg said. "These findings may also provide valuable insights into disease pathways and mechanisms, and identify targets for disease screening, prevention and treatment."

The Hutchinson Center's Public Health Sciences Division houses the Clinical Coordinating Center for the Women's Health Initiative, one of the most definitive, far-reaching studies of postmenopausal women's health ever undertaken in the United States. Enrollment began in 1993 and participants will be followed at least until 2010. The study examines the prevalence and risk factors for a number of diseases common in aging women, as well as the effects of various interventions, from low-fat diets and hormone therapy to calcium and vitamin D supplementation.

"We are extremely grateful for the study participants who have provided a wealth of biological data that will permit us to link genetic variants to relevant intermediate biomarkers that will potentially provide important clues to the biological basis of the disease," Kooperberg said.
Also collaborating on the project, in addition Kooperberg, Peters and colleagues from the WHI Clinical Coordinating Center, are investigators from the University of Arizona Cancer Center, Ohio State University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ariz. companies nab millions in venture funds

[Source: Andrew Johnson, The Arizona Republic] - Venture capitalists invested millions of dollars in a handful of Arizona businesses in the second quarter, according to two new reports.

Recipients include medical-device companies that have received previous investments and a new company spun out of Freescale Semiconductor that nabbed $20 million, a large sum by Arizona standards.

Venture capitalists invest money in companies, typically in exchange for an ownership stake. Their investments are important because businesses use the funds to develop products and hire employees in hopes of becoming profitable.

But determining exactly how Arizona, which trails many other states in venture-capital activity, is trending compared with previous quarters is difficult because the reports contradict each other.

The MoneyTree Report from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association stated five companies received $33.8 million from investors. In the year-ago quarter, seven companies got $46.4 million, according to the report, based on data from financial-information service Thomson Reuters.

The Quarterly U.S. Venture Capital Report released by Dow Jones VentureSource paints an opposite picture. It states six businesses received $101 million, up significantly from the second quarter of 2007, when four companies received $31.9 million.

So what gives?

The difference is partly due to different reporting methods. The MoneyTree Report relies on information venture-capital firms report. Dow Jones surveys companies. The reports don't always capture the same deals.

Nationally, the MoneyTree Report said venture capitalists invested $7.4 billion in 990 deals, while Dow Jones pegged the figures at $6.64 billion in 602 deals.

Although there has been a slowdown nationally in venture capital-backed initial public offerings and mergers and acquisitions, Steve Socolof said it's still a good time to invest in new companies.

Socolof is managing partner of Murray Hill, N.J.-based New Venture Partners LLC, which, with four other venture-capital firms, invested in EverSpin Technologies Inc. last month.

EverSpin was spun off from Austin-based Freescale Semiconductor, which has operations in Chandler. EverSpin has about 50 employees and manufacturers magnetic-based memory chips.

"It's a technology that many people . . . have worked on for many years, and no one has been able to bring a commercial product to market," Socolof said.

Venture awards
A handful of Arizona firms received investments in the second quarter. Deals disclosed in two recent reports include:
• EverSpin Technologies Inc. in Chandler received $20 million.
• TeleSphere Networks Inc. in Scottsdale received $10 million.
• Zounds Inc. in Mesa received $8.7 million.
• Regenesis Biomedical Inc. in Scottsdale received $2.8 million.
• Medipacs Inc. in Tucson received $1.7 million.
• NP Photonics Inc. in Tucson received $700,000.

Sources: Thomson Reuters and Dow Jones VentureSource

XL Renewables fills tanks with algae-based fuel

[Phoenix Business Journal, Ashley Macha] - Think twice before cleaning out your fish tank: That algae build-up might just help fuel your car.

XL Renewables Inc. is a Phoenix biorefinery aiming to provide fuel and food for a growing population through algae biomass. The company hopes to become a major player in animal feeds, nutritional oils and energy feedstocks.

President Ben Cloud said the idea behind the company was to import corn to produce biodiesel, but issues arose and XL began looking at algae as an alternative. The company now is looking at algae not only as a fuel substitute, but also as a means to solve problems facing the environment and food supply.

"Algae biomass will emerge as a third primary crop on the world scene that will be competitive with corn and soybeans for foods, animal feeds and fuel supply," Cloud said.

The company opened its 40-acre algae development center in Casa Grande in November 2007. Cloud said Arizona offers sunlight, environment, water and land base for large-scale algae production.

The algae development center uses a specialized trough system. The algae is exposed to sunlight, promoting growth, as it flows through troughs spread across the 40-acre facility. The algae solids then are concentrated for processing.

"Working in the area of renewable fuels and energy, I've really come to believe and understand that we are heavily polluting our world with our consumption of fossil fuels," Cloud said. "It is exciting to see the emergence of the new technology. Anything that prevents us from using fossil fuels is a plus."

Measures To Limit Effects Of Pandemic Flu On Nursing Homes

[Source: ScienceDaily] - The greatest danger in a pandemic flu outbreak is that it could spread quickly and devastate a broad swath of people across the United States before there is much of a chance to react. The result could be a nation brought to its knees by a disease run rampant.

Among those most vulnerable to a pandemic flu outbreak are the 2.5 million residents of the nation's 18,000 residential care (nursing home) facilities. Because there are few anti-virals and no vaccines available to combat such a flu epidemic, these facilities most likely will try to prevent introduction of the flu through non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI), like the use of masks, social distancing, isolating symptomatic persons, etc.

But among NPI interventions, which methods or combinations of methods will work and be effective in keeping the flu outside the walls of a facility or keep the flu spread to a minimum among a population that literally will be sitting ducks in the path of the disease?

Now, a team of researchers, including one from Arizona State University, has taken a major step in determining what will work by developing mathematical models and testing scenarios that show which NPIs are appropriate for which levels of pandemic flu. Their work is published in an early on-line edition of the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences on July 21, 2008.

"Our work is the first to provide a flexible road map for prevention and protection of vulnerable populations living in residential care facilities, said Gerardo Chowell-Puente, an assistant professor in ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

"We found that something previously considered implausible -- the protection of a health care institution against pandemic influenza by using only non-pharmaceutical measures -- may be possible and may be practical," Chowell-Puente said. "We want this work to get those concerned with mitigating the impact of pandemic influenza in such facilities to evaluate and consider implementation of the recommendations implicit in our study."

In "Protecting residential care facilities from pandemic influenza," authors Miriam Nuño of UCLA and the Harvard's School of Public Health; Tom Reichert of the Entropy Research Institute; Abba Gumel of the University of Manitoba along with Chowell-Puente, say their roadmap provides an important planned first line of defense for the pandemic flu.

"Currently, most facilities do not have a ready to implement plan in place should a pandemic take place," the researchers said. "Our work details a set of simple interventions that seem workable and may be easily implemented by current staff members."

Five types of NPIs were evaluated. They included: screening visitors and staff who leave and then return to the facility; isolating symptomatic residents; placing restrictions on visitors, like reducing visit times or having them use electronic communications devices or communicating from behind transparent impermeable barriers; modifying work schedules, which could include four full days on site followed by four full days off site with a period of isolation from the community for a portion of the time off site; and precautions taken by staff and visitors to reduce their risk of infection, like washing hands and using protective masks.

"Overall, we found that conventional NPIs sufficed to curtail only mild outbreaks, and that higher level of NPIs requiring greater social restrictions and higher levels of cooperation were needed to manage more severe outbreaks," said Chowell-Puente, who evaluated the NPIs effectiveness through the use of mathematical models for the study.

"The biggest surprise in our study was identifying the critical role that staff plays in controlling the spread and preventing the introduction of disease in the facilities," said lead author Miriam Nuño.

"Many residential facilities (like nursing homes) are chronically understaffed," Nuño added. "Our research shows the current working demands of staff need to be improved if we hope to improve our preparedness plans."

Some of the improvements, the researchers note, include more regular work hours and schedules for care givers, as well as other basic benefits, like paid sick days.

"Our research shows that work schedules that include multiple days on-site at the facility are the key to surviving pandemics. With that practice, employees must go into isolation for several days at home before coming back to work. But, the benefits from longer work- and off-periods incorporating isolation periods can only be had if employees can be fully engaged in the protection of their institution," the researchers stated.

"Facilities must eliminate disincentives. For example, employees sick themselves with the flu or forced to care for afflicted family members must be paid for time away. A single act of non-cooperation can bring down an entire facility. In return, those employees who recover become immune, become fully available for further service and no longer represent a threat for introducing the virus," they added.

NCRR Provides $33M for High-End Instrument Grants at Multiple Universities

[Source: a GenomeWeb staff reporter, GenomeWeb News] - The National Institutes of Health has provided 20 research institutes with a total of $33 million to buy new mass spectrometers and other relatively expensive biomedical research technologies through its National Center for Research Resources.

These High-End Instrumentation grants are aimed at helping researchers buy tools costing over $750,000, and NCRR provides up to a total of $2 million per award.

Among the grants announced today, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston will use its $2 million award to purchase a secondary ion mass spectrometer for quantitative intracellular stable isotope imaging.

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., will use its $2 million award to buy a large memory cluster computer at the Institute for Computational Medicine to speed creation and use of computational models and algorithms for disease diagnosis and treatment.

The State University of New York Stony Brook received $851,000 to buy an orbital trap mass spectrometer for use in finding and characterizing proteins and novel diagnostic biomarkers.

The Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix, Ariz., will use its $2 million award to buy supercomputing equipment for translational research aimed at identifying biomarkers for several common diseases.

The University of Minnesota will use its $1.2 million award to buy an automated, high-throughput nanoliter crystallization platform for making crystals from purified protein complexes in studies of Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

The University of Wisconsin – Madison has been awarded $1.7 million to purchase a liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer that it plans to use in metabolic profiling, biomarker discovery, and studies of molecular interactions.

Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. will use $988,000 to buy a robotic storage and distribution system for a large-scale biobank that will enable exploration of genotype-phenotype relations involved in a range of diseases.

Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., will use the $990,000 award to purchase a high-throughput Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer and automated liquid chromatography system for research into protein synthesis.

Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., will use $1.9 million to buy a Fourier transform mass spectrometer for use in researching biomedical conditions. The instrument will be housed in the university’s Resource for Biomedical and Bio-Organic Mass Spectrometry, where it will support research at the Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences.

UA team using moth protein to seek disease cures

[Source: ALAN FISCHER, Tucson Citizen] - A protein the hawk moth uses to detect odors is leading University of Arizona researchers toward possible therapies for high blood pressure, wound healing, cancer and other human maladies.

Nitric oxide, or NO, a gas produced in all human cells, is involved in many processes that determine how our bodies work, said William R. Montfort, UA professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and chemistry.

A protein called soluble guanylyl cyclase, or sGC, interacts with NO to affect areas of physiology including blood pressure, brain memory formation, blood coagulation and cancer metastasis, Montfort said.
With a better understanding of how sGC interacts with NO, researchers are working to develop drugs to resolve such health problems, he said.

"The right compound is a billion dollar compound," he said. "It could help millions of people."
"We have compounds that may lead to drugs and we will be pursuing them with a vengeance," he said. "The regulation of the protein - how you turn it on and turn it off - will be the key.

"We are gearing up to do straight forward drug discovery," he said. "A really useful compound would be one that stimulates sGC and lowers blood pressure or interferes with the metastasis in cancer."

Montfort's team began working with human sGC, but technical problems made research progress slow, he said.

At about the same time, Alan Nighorn, a UA neurobiology professor, was studying how hawk moths recognize odors using a process that includes their sGC.

Hawk moth sGC proved more robust and better for Montfort's research.

The team's research, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, is funded with National Institutes of Health grants totaling $2.5 million, he said.

Montfort, who is affiliated with the UA's BIO5 Institute, Arizona Cancer Center and Sarver Heart Center, said the project has broadly involved the UA science community.

"We've covered the entire university with this project. The key is to think broadly," he said.

The team's work, which was anchored by key discoveries by UA biochemistry graduate student Xiaohui Hu, will take time to put new medicines on the shelf, Montfort said.

"We're in the early stages. It isn't going to happen overnight," he said. "We don't know when we will discover a compound that will translate into the clinic that will relieve blood pressure or overcome the metastasis of cancer."

The primary target now is cardiovascular, finding ways to alleviate high blood pressure problems, he said.
Wound healing, asthma and cancer are others that will be pursued, he said.

In addition to trying to resolve human health problems, the team is pushed by the process of discovery, Montfort said.

"The beauty of the science is also a part of the story," he said.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

IGC Taps LabVantage for Lab Software for Cancer Genome Atlas

[Source: a GenomeWeb staff reporter , Genone Web News] - The International Genomics Consortium will use LabVantage’s Sapphire lab information management software to handle biobanking needs for the Cancer Genome Atlas pilot project, the company said today.

IGC, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based non-profit, is running the biobank for CGA’s Human Cancer Biospecimen Core Resource component. TCGA is a joint project of the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute.

The Sapphire solution is used in all the steps of biorepository management including informed consent, clinical data collection, sample and data collection, pathology review, and biomolecule extraction and distribution.

Financial terms of the agreement were not released.

ASU Biodesign director moves into research post

[Source: Ken Alltucker, The Arizona Republic] - Arizona State University has appointed its Biodesign Institute Director George Poste to a new research position.

Poste will take on the role of chief scientist for an ASU endeavor called the "complex adaptive systems initiative" that seeks to pool the university's intellectual firepower and bolster its research reputation.

Poste, who was appointed May 2003 to his director post, will remain as executive director of Biodesign until his replacement is hired.

ASU's Neal Woodbury is now Biodesign's deputy director and will shoulder some of the institute's workload as Poste establishes the new initiative.

"The deal I had with George was to take five years and get Biodesign established as an internationally prominent institute, and we achieved that," ASU President Michael Crow said. "Now, I want him to develop the broader scientific trajectory for ASU."

Poste will be charged with boosting ASU's research competitiveness in emerging areas such as synthetic biology, sensor technologies and health-care informatics.

Crow said Poste will have a small staff and budget in excess of $1 million.

Under Poste, the Biodesign Institute has generated $199 million in funding and filed many patents.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Athapaskan Migration To Southwest U.S. Illuminated With Y Chromosome Study

[Source: ScienceDaily] - A large-scale genetic study of native North Americans offers new insights into the migration of a small group of Athapaskan natives from their subarctic home in northwest North America to the southwestern United States. The migration, which left no known archaeological trace, is believed to have occurred about 500 years ago.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Illinois, is detailed this month in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. It relied on a genetic analysis of the Y chromosome and so offers a window on the unique ancestral history of the male Athapaskan migrants. Previous genetic studies of this group focused on mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down exclusively from mothers to their offspring.

The new findings reinforce the hypothesis that the Athapaskan migration involved a relatively small group that nonetheless was very successful at assimilating and intermixing with native groups already living in the southwest. The newcomers were so influential that the Athapaskan language family now dominates many parts of the Southwest. Now called Apacheans, the Navajo and Apache descendants of the early migrants are dispersed throughout the central Southwest and speak languages closely related to the Chipewyan, an Athapaskan language found in the subarctic.

(Language studies also revealed that Athapaskans migrated to the northwest U.S. and settled on the coast in parts of California and Oregon.)

How the Athapaskan migrants were able to spread their language -- and genes -- so successfully is unknown. Anthropologists note that the migrants probably arrived in the Southwest at a time of stress among indigenous groups as a result of an extended drought.

The new study also revealed how pervasively European males intermixed with native groups, said principal investigator Ripan Malhi, a molecular anthropologist in the department of anthropology at Illinois.

"A lot of the Y chromosomes have been replaced by European males," he said.

Malhi and his colleagues looked at specific regions on the Y chromosome that can vary from person to person. Tiny differences in the sequence of nucleotides that spell out the genetic code can be used to determine whether -- and how closely -- individuals are related to one another. Those who share many of these genetic signatures are more likely to share a recent common ancestor than those who don't.

The researchers analyzed 724 Y chromosomes from 26 native populations in North America. By including groups from across the continent (they studied tribes from Alaska to the Yucatan Peninsula and eastward to Hudson Bay and southeast U.S.), the researchers were able to analyze genetic differences among many native groups and to get an idea of the degree of European male infiltration into the native gene pool.

Consistent with a previous study of native North American mitochondrial DNA (also led by Malhi), the new analysis found a pattern that indicates that a small group of subarctic Athapaskans miYgrated to the Southwest. This pattern is reflected in the fact that many Apacheans carry the genetic signature of a small subset of subarctic Athapaskans.

These findings also affirm an earlier study of variants of a particular protein, albumin, in different native groups. That study showed that while many Apacheans carried an albumin variant common among natives in the Southwest and Mesoamerica, some Apacheans were the only ones to carry a variant that also occurs in subarctic populations.

Other patterns emerged from the Y chromosome analysis. One genetic signature associated with European males was detected in native males throughout North America, but was found at the highest frequency in groups living nearest to Hudson Bay, where trade between Europeans and the region's indigenous peoples was established in the early 17th century.

The new study, along with the earlier genetic and protein studies and the language analyses, is filling a gap in the archaeological record of Athapaskan migration, Malhi said.

This gap is the result of the fact that the Athapaskan migrants seem not to have altered the physical landscape, architecture or cultural practices of the populations they assimilated in the southwest U.S.

The only lasting evidence of the Athapaskan migration found so far is in their language and their genes, Malhi said.

"We're fitting together different lines of evidence," he said. "We're not just using the genetic data. We're using it in combination with the linguistic, oral histories from elders in the community and archaeological data. And even though there has been over a century of archaeological research done in the Southwest, there's not much information there about the Athapaskan migration into the Southwest."

The team also included researchers from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, the University of California at Davis, Washington State University, the University of Montana, the University of Arizona and Trace Genetics.

TGen Awarded $1.99 Million Grant to Advance Highly Parallel Supercomputing

[Source: TGen] - The National Institutes of Health (NIH) today awarded a $1.99 million grant to the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) to enhance its supercomputing capabilities. The grant was one of only 20 funded by the Center for Research Resources (NCRR), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The project aligns TGen with Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and Biodesign Institute, as computational and bioinformatics teams will build a scalable supercomputing system and work to develop various computational and statistical tools that address complex biomedical questions. When up and running, the new system doubles the supercomputing capabilities currently in place.

“In today’s genomic research environment, high-throughput instruments allow scientists to collect increasingly large amounts of data,” said Dr. Ed Suh, Senior Investigator & Director Chief Information Officer of TGen’s Computational Biology division and the grant’s Principle Investigator. “This scalable computing system will allow TGen and ASU scientists to explore those large volumes of complex data more thoroughly and at an accelerated pace.”

TGen and ASU scientists are collaborating on a variety of research projects that develop and examine molecular profiles of human diseases and fundamental pathways involved in disease states. The focus is to discern complex or simple sets of biomarkers useful for disease diagnosis and prognosis, as well as to develop molecular classification for directing optimal therapeutic choice and identifying new targets. The molecular profile datasets being analyzed cover diseases including: Alzheimer's, autism, diabetes, coronary heart disease, malignant gliomas, melanoma, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, multiple myeloma, and breast cancer.

“The parallel supercomputing system supported by this NIH grant provides a powerful resource for ASU and TGen engineers, researchers, biomedical informaticians, computer scientists and biologists to interact in solving complex computational problems that will lead to better disease diagnosis and prognosis. This is a great opportunity to enhance our supercomputing capability with a dedicated system for biomedical research,” said Dr. Deirdre Meldrum, dean of ASU’s School of Engineering and director of the Center for Ecogenomics at the Biodesign Institute at ASU.

For the complexities of many of today’s biomedical computational research, handling vast amounts of raw data creates a bottleneck in research due to the slow computer processing time. Technology has evolved quite rapidly in the last five years, making it possible to greatly increase the amount of processing power available to researchers. The system to be developed by TGen and ASU will possess higher-bandwidth and storage to allow efficient development and use of computational models and algorithms at a rate of nearly 24 trillion operations per second.
According to Dr. Dan Stanzione, director of ASU’s High Performance Computing Initiative (HPCI), this means answers will come faster.

“The success of TGen and ASU scientists to date has come at the sacrifice of time. However, individuals affected with disease do not have the luxury of time. The parallel cluster-computing system will optimize TGen and ASU researchers’ ability to meet their data analyses and systems modeling needs, and hopefully accelerate timely and effective discovery toward improved human health,” said Dr. Stanzione.

The TGen and ASU high performance computing groups have also developed various parallel computing techniques such as domain decomposition and dynamic load balancing methods to achieve optimal efficiency in solving computing and memory intensive problems on parallel computing machines. All of the techniques take full advantage of the parallel cluster computer system.

“In an era of highly-competitive grant funding, this award speaks to the quality of research happening at TGen and ASU, and illustrates yet again, the collaborative nature of Arizona’s biomedical research environment,” said Dr. Jeffrey Trent, TGen’s President and Scientific Director.

The parallel cluster computer system will be installed in the HPCI facility located on the ASU campus. HPCI staff will provide management and operational support for the system in conjunction with TGen’s HPBC team.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


[Source: Office of the Governor,] - Governor Janet Napolitano today announced the new Arizona STEM Education Center, which will help Arizona expand its focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education to successfully prepare our children to lead in today’s competitive global economy.

“The new education center will help make certain that Arizona cultivates the skills needed to thrive in today’s global marketplace,” Governor Napolitano said. “Increasing science, technology, engineering and math education is critical to our students’ and state’s future.”

A public-private partnership with initial funding from Freeport-McMoRan Cooper & Gold and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the Center aims to increase STEM teacher recruitment, training and retention; improve STEM skills in P-12 students, and boost the number of students entering higher education and graduating with degrees in STEM disciplines.

To accomplish this, the Center will work with stakeholders throughout the state to provide our students with an engaging and effective STEM education.

The Center is a collaboration among the Governor’s office, Science Foundation Arizona, the P-20 Council, the Arizona State Board of Education, tribal communities, Arizona universities, community colleges, and business and philanthropic initiatives. It will be housed within Science Foundation Arizona, which was established to build and strengthen Arizona’s scientific, engineering and medical competitiveness.

Darcy Renfro will serve as executive director of the Center. Currently the Governor’s policy adviser for higher education, innovation and the economy, Renfro previously served as the assistant deputy director of the Arizona Department of Commerce, in the area of Workforce Development and practiced law at the Arizona-based law firm of Fennemore Craig.

Building off of the Governor’s education priorities and her National Governors Association initiative, Innovation America, the Center’s efforts will support the Arizona State Board of Education’s new high school graduation requirements and increased academic standards, particularly in math and science. In anticipation of the upcoming increased demand for STEM teachers in Arizona, the Center will also support best practices in recruiting, training and retaining STEM teachers.

The Center will be funded independently, with both private and philanthropic funds.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Scientists Develop Water-Soluble Nanoarray for RNA

[Source: GEN News Highlights] - Scientists at Arizona State University say that they have developed a gene detection platform made up entirely from self-assembled DNA nanostructures.

A recent breakthrough of making spatially addressable DNA nanoarrays came from work on scaffolded DNA origami. In this method, 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,” says Hao Yan, Ph.D., a member of the university’s Center for Single Molecule Biophysics and an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

“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,” Dr. Yan adds. “The arrays themselves are reagents, instead of solid surface chips.”
To make the DNA origami RNA probes, the investigators took advantage of the basic DNA pairing rules. By controlling the exact position and location of the chemical bases within a synthetic replica of DNA, Dr. Yan programmed a single stranded genomic DNA, M13, into nanotiles to contain the probes for specific gene expression targets. In a single step, the M13 scaffold system can churn out as many as 100 trillion of the tiles with close to 100% yield, according to Dr. Yan.

The research 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. The group used atomic force microscopy (AFM) to image the tiles at the single molecule level.

“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,” explains Dr. 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.

“Since the DNA-RNA hybridization has such a strong affinity,” notes Dr. Yan, “in principle, a single molecule would be able to hybridize to the probe tile.”

The study is published in the January 11 issue of Science.

Madeira Therapeutics Names J. Lyle Bootman to Board of Directors

[Source: Business Wire] - Madeira Therapeutics, a new drug-development company specializing in pediatric pharmaceuticals, has announced the addition of a notable pharmaceutical industry veteran to its Board of Directors. According to Madeira CEO Peter S. Joiner, J. Lyle Bootman, PhD, ScD, Dean of the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy will take an active role in the direction of the company.

Dr. J. Lyle Bootman is professor of pharmacy, medicine and public health, and a Fellow of several professional associations including the American Pharmacists Association, American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists and the American College of Apothecaries. He is the author of Principles of Pharmacoeconomics and the founding and executive director of the University of Arizona Center for Health Outcomes and PharmacoEconomic (HOPE) Research, one of the first such centers in the world. He is former president of the American Pharmacists Association and President Emeritus of the Pharmacy Therapeutics Society.

Dr. Bootman recently received the 2008 Remington Honor Medal, widely considered the profession's highest honor.

"This is a significant step in the growth and development of Madeira," stated Pete Joiner, CEO, Madeira Therapeutics. "Our strategy focuses on the reformulation of pediatric pharmaceuticals for appropriate dosage levels in children. Dr. Bootman is a renowned expert--his knowledge and guidance will serve us well. It is an honor to have him join our Board of Directors."

Madeira Therapeutics is a new drug-development company specializing in pediatric pharmaceuticals. The Madeira strategy focuses on reformulating approved adult drugs for better dosage control in children. A cholesterol drug is already in the development pipeline and the company has plans to develop formulations for acute pain management and diabetes. Madeira intends to utilize the FDA's 505(b)(2) approval method, which relies in part on the FDA's findings for a previously approved drug, thereby shortcutting IND approval by years and tens of millions of dollars. For more information, contact Peter Joiner, (913) 661-1962, or via email at

Mathematical modeling offers new approaches to fight dual-resistant hospital infections

[Source: EUREKALERT, Carol Hughes,] - A mathematical model that looks at different strategies for curbing hospital-acquired infections suggests that antimicrobial cycling and patient isolation may be effective approaches when patients are harboring dual-resistant bacteria.

In an era of superbugs, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureas (MRSA), and an increasing public awareness and concern over bacterial infections, this type of modeling, if used to develop policies and treatment protocols, may reduce dual drug-resistant infections in hospitals.

The models results will be presented by Carlos Castillo-Chavez, an Arizona State University Regents Professor on Feb. 17 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting. Castillo-Chavez will be honored at the meeting with the 2007 AAAS Mentor Award for his efforts to help underrepresented students earn doctoral degrees in the sciences.
In discussing the mathematical models, he notes that the research is an outgrowth of an undergraduate honors thesis by Karen C. Chow, now a graduate student at ASU, in collaboration with his postdoctoral research associate Xiaohong Wang.

We deal primarily with the issue of finding ways of slowing down the growing levels of dual resistance to antimicrobials that are the result of their intense use in the treatment of nosocomial (hospital-acquired) infections, says Castillo-Chavez, a mathematical epidemiologist in ASUs College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Model simulations were used to compare the effects of antimicrobial cycling, in which antibiotic classes are alternated over time, with mixing programs (random allocation of treatment drugs) in a setting where the goal is that of reducing the prevalence of dual resistance, Castillo-Chavez says.

Resistance to multiple drugs cannot be ignored and cycling programs appear more useful in reducing dual resistance than the random mixing regime, he says. The early diagnosis and isolation of colonized patients with dual-resistant bacteria turns out to be quite effective at maintaining lower levels of dual resistance in hospitals.

He notes: This seems to be the first time that models are used to deal with the evaluation of two distinct methods of reducing the impact of dual resistance in hospitals. Models that focus on reducing the prevalence of pathogens resistant to two types of drugs, excluding the possibility of dual resistance, have been studied in the past. Models were used to show that random allocation treatment regimes might be better than cycling.

Here, we show that cycling may be useful when dealing with dual resistance the most worrisome hospital situation, he says.

Our theoretical work shows that cycling is better if the goal is to reduce dual antimicrobial resistance. We explore the impact of isolating individuals who have developed dual resistance and found out that isolation, in fact, dramatically reduces the persistence of dual resistance. However, we never win the battle against antimicrobial resistance through the exclusive use of integrated microbial management approaches that focus entirely on the prescription of antibiotics, he says.

Focusing on reducing dual resistance results in increases in the levels of individuals experiencing single resistance. In other words, at the end of the day, drugs provide no silver bullet and only policies that reward their judicious use have a shot at slowing down what appears to be a loosing battle, he says.

If we insist in the exclusive use of antimicrobials to fight nosocomial infections, then it is only a matter of time before we begin to run out of effective antibiotics.

Honeybee researcher to unravel properties governing lifespan with support from Norway

[Source: EUREKALERT, Margaret Coulombe,] - Gro Amdam, associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, has been awarded two grants totaling the U.S. equivalent of about $1.4 million from the Norwegian Research Council to investigate biochemical factors and social life history properties that can influence aging and longevity in honeybees. Amdam also is with the Department of Chemistry, Biotechnology and Food Science at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Norway.

The first study will focus on the molecular properties of honeybee vitellogenin, a protein which, Amdam says, acts at the intersection between social behavior and aging. The second project, to be headed by Amdams postdoctoral fellow Siri-Christine Seehuus in Norway, will examine the genetic and endocrine factors, which may determine longevity in diutinus workers, a specialized sub-caste of honeybees.

In a series of previous studies, Amdam has shown that vitellogenin protein affects aging rate and endocrine signaling in honeybees. In addition, separate studies conducted with Robert Page, director of ASUs School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, demonstrated that the protein also influences social behavior, longevity and sensory responsiveness.

Generally, vitellogenin is described as a conserved yolk protein found across a broad range of egg-laying species. The functions of proteins homologous to honeybee vitellogenin therefore have been studied primarily in the context of female reproduction, Amdam says. New data from my laboratory suggests, however, that the protein can be active in signal transduction
Amdam hopes to understand more about the structural and binding properties for the honeybee vitellogenin protein through examination of synthesized protein fragments, combined with crystallography and spectroscopy. Her intention is to unlock how the protein can have pleiotropic effects on honey bee social organization which also may open a window onto mechanisms that enabled honey bee social life to emerge.

Amdam and Seehuus will both exploit the plasticity found in honeybee social life history in their work examining the causal basis of the extreme longevity of honeybee diutinus workers (up to 1 year, in contrast to the normal lifespan of about 2 months). While Seehuus will focus on endocrine regulation, Amdam will study the role of a key social factor, the presence versus the absence of young brood.

Since sister honeybees can be both short-lived and extremely long-lived, it is clear that diutinus development within a colony is not determined by genetic predisposition, Amdam notes. Rather, diutinus bees develop as a function of social change when the young brood (honeybee larvae) is removed from the nest. Preliminary results from my lab in Norway point to a major effect on lifespan of pheromones released by the brood. Amdam graduate students have found that exposing the workers to brood phermones alone (using synthetics in the absence of actual brood) prompt the diutinus workers to build up particularly large body reserves of proteins and fats which likely have positive effects on survival.

Next, Amdam will study how the dual effects of brood, that is the physiological load of nursing the larvae and exposure to brood pheromones, translate into levels of individual gene- and protein expression, storage dynamics of tissues, and at the level of behavior, food intake and feeding.

Amdam expects that together the planned studies will unravel patterns of interplay, from molecular- to social mechanisms that can govern lifespan in social species.

Mayo Clinic Proceedings examines link between bacteria in the digestive system and obesity

[Source: EUREKALERT , John Murphy,] - Obesity is more than a cosmetic concern because it increases a persons risk for developing high blood pressure, diabetes and many other serious health problems. Its well understood that consuming more calories than you expend through exercise and daily activities causes weight gain. But with about one in every three American adults now considered obese, researchers are attempting to identify additional factors that affect a persons tendency to gain and retain excess weight. In the April issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers from Mayo Clinic Arizona and Arizona State University examine the role that bacteria in the human gastrointestinal tract play in regulating weight and the development of obesity.

Known as gut microbiota, the trillions of bacteria that populate the human gastrointestinal tract perform a variety of chores. These friendly microbes help extract calories from what we eat, help store these calories for later use, and provide energy and nutrients for the production of new bacteria to continue this work.

According to John DiBaise, M.D., a Mayo Clinic Arizona gastroenterologist and lead author of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings article, several animal studies suggest that gut microbiota are involved in regulating weight and that modifying these bacteria could one day be a treatment option for obesity.

One study cited by the authors observed that young, conventionally-reared mice have a significantly higher body fat content than a laboratory-bred, germ-free strain of mice that lack these bacteria, even though they consumed less food than their germ-free counterparts. When the same research group transplanted gut microbiota from normal mice into germ-free mice, the germ-free mice experienced a 60 percent increase in body fat within two weeks, without any increase in food consumption or obvious differences in energy expenditure.

Another animal study reviewed by the authors focused on the gene content of the gut microbiota in mice. Finding more end products of fermentation and fewer calories in the feces of obese mice led researchers to speculate that the gut microbiota in the obese mice help extract additional calories from ingested food.

These results suggest that differences exist in the gut microbiota of obese versus lean mice, raising the possibility that the manipulation of gut microbiota could be a useful strategy for regulating energy balance in obese people, says Dr. DiBaise.

Although information on the link between gut microbiota and obesity in human subjects is more limited, the authors present some evidence supporting this connection. One study cited placed 12 obese participants in a weight-loss program for a year, randomly assigning them to either a fat-restricted or carbohydrate-restricted, low-calorie diet. Researchers noted distinct differences between lean and obese participants when they monitored the type and number of bacteria found in participants stool samples before and after the diet changes.

Another study cited followed children from birth to age 7 and analyzed stool samples collected at 6 and 12 months. The children who were normal weight at age 7 had distinctly different bacteria in their samples from those collected from overweight-obese children, suggesting that differences in the composition of the gut microbiota precede overweight-obesity.

Dr. DiBaise says that much more research is needed to clarify a number of issues related to the relationship between the gut microbiota and obesity. Future studies need to establish whether the small changes in caloric extraction seen in recent studies can produce measurable weight differences in humans.

Microorganisms may help produce renewable energy in large quantities

[Source:] - Scientists at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University say that two complementary approaches may help use microorganisms to produce renewable energy in large quantities, without damaging the environment or competing with the food supply.

The researchers say that the first approach is to use microbes to convert biomass to useful energy.

According to them, different microorganisms can grow without oxygen to take this abundant organic matter, and convert it to useful forms of energy such as methane, hydrogen or even electricity.

The second approach, they say, is to use bacteria or algae that can capture sunlight to produce new biomass that can be turned into liquid fuels like biodiesel, or converted by other microorganisms to useful energy.

Biodesign Institute’’s Bruce Rittmann, Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, and Rolf Halden say that both approaches currently are intensive areas of biofuel research at the institute, which has a joint project with petroleum giant BP to harvest photosynthetic bacteria to produce renewable liquid fuels, such as biodiesel.

The researchers believe that the future of microbial bioenergy is brightened by recent advancements in genome technologies, and other molecular-biology techniques.

They, however, add that even if one picks the idea bug for generating bioenergy, growing, maintaining, and optimising conditions for its use remains a daunting challenge in terms of scalability and reliability.

“Microbial communities that are used to harvest energy must be resilient to fluctuations in environmental conditions, variations in nutrient and energy inputs and intrusion by microbial invaders that might consume the desired energy product,” Nature magazine quoted the authors as saying.

They say that the key to large-scale success in microbial bioenergy is managing the microbial community so that that it delivers the desired bioenergy product reliably and at high rate.
The authors say that in the absence of such molecular techniques, scientists understanding of methanogenic communities progressed through slow, incremental advances over several decades. They believe that society cannot wait decades for new bioenergy sources.

The researchers feel that scientists should now take full advantage of the existing pre-genomic, genomic, and post-genomic tools to understand microorganisms involved in bioenergy production so as to speed up scientific and technological advances.

The authors conclude: “Information from these tools, when properly integrated with advanced engineering tools and material, should accelerate the rate at which microbial bioenergy processes can be converted from the realm of intriguing science to real world practice.” (ANI)

UA researcher probes potential for plants' power in medicine

[Source: Tom Beal, ARIZONA DAILY STAR] - David Gang's laboratory and the kitchen he shares with his wife and six children contain some of the same ingredients.

At the University of Arizona, where he is a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, Gang grows turmeric and ginger plants in greenhouses on the roof of a parking garage on East Sixth Street.

He raises basil plants in controlled chambers in the basement of the Bio5 Research Institute across campus.

At home, Gang sprinkles turmeric on just about everything he cooks, even adds it to fruit smoothies.

Turmeric, a staple of Indian cooking that gives curries their bright yellow color, doesn't flavor things all that much, he said. "The kids don't even notice it," he said.

Ginger and basil also figure in their diet. They taste good, Gang said, and they are good for you.

He knows ginger works. He's been chewing it for years since discovering that it eased an undiagnosable stomach ailment he developed during his graduate school years.

"It had a dramatic effect," he said. "I went from being sick every day to being well most of the time."

Gang said his recovery is part of the reason he decided to concentrate his research on learning how plants make the remarkable substances that modern scientists are just beginning to study for their healthful effects.

Knowledge of the properties is not new, Gang said. "Ayurvedic practitioners in India have known about them for thousands of years."

Gang and his group are trying to identify and uncover the distinct compounds that make them work.

Turmeric is hot in natural healing circles, having been reidentified in recent years as a potent anti-inflammatory, with possible beneficial effects for everything from arthritis to Alzheimer's disease.

Gang said medical researchers have identified regions in India with very low incidences of the two diseases.

They happen to be regions in which turmeric is most widely used in food preparation.

Scientists have isolated the main active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, but Gang is also interested in two other compounds found in the rhizome of turmeric that have up to 100,000 times the anti-inflammatory potency of curcumin.

It's one of the reasons Gang believes it's more beneficial to actually eat the spices than it is to take supplements of isolated compounds, he said.

"I've always been more holistic when it comes to your health," he said. "You're better off using it as part of your diet than waiting till you get sick and taking a supplement," he said.

The fruits of the research Gang conducts could be many and varied. Working at Bio5, said Gang, gives him the opportunity to interact with researchers in other fields who might be able to make use of what he discovers.

One colleague is already looking to form a private company to develop pharmaceutical remedies from the compounds he isolates.

The research could also lead to targeted breeding of new varieties of plants, Gang said.

A chemist by training, he now combines biochemical analysis with genomics into a field called biochemical genomics.

Studying aromatic plants such as sweet basil, ginger and turmeric seems fruitful, said Gang, because the substances that have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and even cancer-preventive properties are isolated in distinct sections of the plants, such as the rhizomes of ginger and turmeric.

Someday, products made from the fruits of Gang's research may cure what ails you. In the meantime, Gang suggests you simply spice up your meals.

● Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or

UA Researchers Engineer Self-Destructing Virus

[Source: University of Arizona Communications] - University of Arizona researchers have sown the seeds of a virus' destruction in its own genetic code – or rather, in the genetic code of the organisms it seeks to infect. Their work could improve both the understanding of how viruses work as well as the ability to make plants and animals more virus-resistant.

Working with a virus that infects bacteria, Bentley Fane, a professor of veterinary sciences and microbiology and a member of the BIO5 Institute, and James Cherwa, a graduate student in Fane's lab, pinpointed a region of a protein that's crucial to building the virus' structure, designed a modified version of that protein, and engineered the bacteria's cells to produce the modified protein.

When the virus infected cells of the bacteria, it "recognized" the modified protein and, following the instructions encoded in its own DNA, the virus tried to incorporate the altered protein into copies of itself. Instead the protein gummed up the works of the replication process, causing the virus to die without producing any offspring. "We were shocked by just how potent the inhibitory protein was," Fane said.

The research casts light on the biology of how viruses work and how the proteins they create interact with one another. It was recently highlighted in the “Spotlight” section of the Journal of Virology.

“We all have an interest in better understanding both how viruses work and how to stop them from working,” Fane explained.

Viruses are little more than strands of DNA or RNA surrounded by a protein coat; they can't reproduce on their own. Instead they invade the cells of more complex host organisms – everything from bacteria to plants and animals – and hijack the machinery inside those host cells in order to replicate.

Along the way, viruses can cause any number of diseases, including blights in plants and colds, flu and HIV in humans. Fane hopes to begin using what he's learned to engineer virus-resistant plants. While similar work has been done with plant viruses before, none of those viruses had the icosahedral shape and structure that is the focus of Fane and Cherwa's research.

The virus they're working with also reproduces quickly – a generation lasts all of about 20 minutes – which means their research provides an up-close view of evolution in action. Over the course of 200 generations, Fane and Cherwa have watched the virus evolve a mutant strain that not only can replicate in spite of the inhibitory protein, but that may also, according to some very preliminary research, be somewhat dependent on the protein. In other words, the original strain's inhibitory protein poison just may be the resistant strain's medicine.

That resistant strain would have a hard time surviving outside the lab, because its resistance is pretty much the only thing it has going for it – it is otherwise less healthy than the original virus.

"When something mutates, it does so at a cost to its usefulness," Fane said. "It's always illuminating to see how a virus adapts to something like this, though, because it always manages to. That's the power of evolution and selection."

Power3 Reports on NuroPro® Study

[Source: The Woodlands] - Power3 Medical Products, Inc. (OTCBB:PWRM), a leading proteomics company specializing in the development and commercialization of diagnostic tests for early detection of breast cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, is providing an interim status report of its international validation study of the company’s NuroPro® blood serum biomarker test for Parkinson’s disease.

To date, Power3 has analyzed 73 patient samples for the international validation study provided by the University of Thessaly School of Medicine, in Greece, to confirm previous clinical validation studies completed in the United States. The previous study from a US patient population demonstrated that the blood serum protein biomarkers used in the NuroPro® diagnostic test have the ability to consistently distinguish between Parkinson’s disease patients and normal control subjects.

The samples from the University of Thessaly have demonstrated that changes in the blood serum concentration of the protein biomarkers were consistent with previous Power3 results obtained from US Parkinson’s disease patients. As part of the current validation study, Power3 has standardized its methods for collection, storage, shipping, processing, and biostatistical analysis. This study confirms Power3’s ability to reproduce its Parkinson’s disease diagnostic-test results with superior sensitivity and specificity in the 95% range. Power3 expects to strengthen the validation study with samples from over 100 Greek patients by September 2008.

Power3 is also conducting an additional 300-patient clinical validation study of its NuroPro® blood serum test for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease in collaboration with Dr. Marwan Sabbagh, the Director of Clinical Research at the Cleo Roberts Center of Clinical Research at the Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City, Arizona.

“The potential of the Power3 study cannot be understated. Patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease will benefit by having earlier diagnosis and treatments resulting in an overall better outcome,” says Sabbagh. To date, 69 patient samples have been analyzed. Power3 expects to provide an interim report on this study in July 2008 and complete this validation study in September 2008.

Katerina Markopoulou, Assistant Professor of Neurology at the University of Thessaly, commented: “The available data regarding the sensitivity and specificity of the protein biomarkers identified by Power3 for the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease are very promising. The validation of these findings in larger patient cohorts of different ethnic backgrounds will provide additional important information regarding NuroPro’s® applicability in the diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases.”

Steven B. Rash, Chief Executive Officer, commented, “This study provides further support we are rapidly approaching the stage to commercializing the first ever blood serum proteomic tests for the diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases. These encouraging Parkinson’s tests results and the numerous validation studies that are currently underway for Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, and similar neurological disorders, confirm our commitment to bringing these tests to market in late 2008 or early 2009. We believe this test will be a major advance for patients and physicians, as it will offer a means to detect neurodegenerative diseases at their earliest stages without a painful and complicated spinal tap procedure.”

New ASU lab aims to spur Arizona solar industry

[Source: Ginger D. Richardson, The Arizona Republic] - Arizona State University is creating a Solar Power Laboratory in hopes of boosting the state's renewable-energy industry.

The venture's goal is two-fold: to increase Arizona's chances of landing new solar-based businesses and to spur technology research that could ultimately make solar power cheaper and more readily available to the masses.

In establishing the lab, ASU joins the growing tide of individuals and firms banking on sun-based power in a big way.

Researchers believe solar is on the verge of a great breakthrough that will make it the go-to energy source for the next generation.

"Everyone wants a piece of it, and everyone is investing in it," said Rob Melnick, executive director and chief operating officer of ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability. "This will give ASU the opportunity to pull together all the things that will substantially speed development of new technologies."

The new lab is a collaboration of the university's sustainability institute and the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and will pull together researchers across ASU's many campuses.

It will be housed on both the Tempe and Mesa campuses and cost between $2 million and $3 million to get up and running.

Getting beat

The sun shines in Arizona more than 300 days a year, making the state uniquely positioned to capitalize on solar energy.

But the state hasn't done so, at least when it comes to attracting companies already producing essential solar-energy components.

Last month, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council announced that in the last year, at least nine companies that make solar equipment had passed over Arizona and chosen instead to locate new manufacturing facilities in neighboring states.

The economic council's President and CEO Barry Broome estimates those projects have cost the state more than 3,800 jobs, $2.3 billion in investment, and $73 million in state and local revenues over the next decade.

He and others were pushing a proposal that would help lure solar manufacturers to the state via tax incentives, but it failed to gain the required support in the Legislature.

The economic council is still talking to 11 other solar companies that are considering the state for new solar manufacturing plants, and Broome is hoping the new ASU lab and newly hired personnel will help provide a carrot to lure them here.

As part of its new effort, the university has brought in several prominent industry figures from the University of Delaware who have extensive experience in solar-cell technology.

Broome says their presence at ASU "absolutely changes our dialogue" with the companies the economic council is trying to lure to the state.

"They have either done work (with) or knew the leaders of two thirds of them," he said. "They are going to give us an audience with these companies in a much more meaningful way."

The university is also bringing in George Maracas as the initiative's chief operating officer.

Maracas has years of experience in the private sector in the fields of molecular technology and nanotechnology and has a wide range of commercial and industry contacts, according to ASU.
New research, less cost

Solar-research efforts are on the rise.

Emerging Energy Research, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm, estimated in a December report that about $20 billion will be spent on solar-power research in the next five years.

Much of it will focus on ways to make solar power more efficient and therefore more affordable.

Even with tax credits, small rooftop solar systems currently cost in excess of $10,000; in most cases, it takes upwards of seven to 10 years to recoup those up-front expenses.

"Any research that is focused on bringing the cost of solar down, anywhere in the supply chain, is all going to help," said Monique Hanis, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries association. "Right now, the industry feels that solar should be on par with traditional fossil fuels in about a decade."

ASU researchers are focusing on both existing and unproven technologies through a variety of government grants and industry partnerships, Melnick said.

For example, photovoltaic panels are the current backbone of most solar-based systems. They are also a 25-year-old technology. Researchers are currently looking for ways to make them more efficient, so that less of the sun's power is lost when raw energy is transferred into electricity.

The university also is partnering with companies like British Petroleum on projects to try to "mimic nature" using plants and bacteria in combination with the sun's energy.

Maracas said the university has about $2 million in commitments for 2008 and expects additional grants to come in the next couple of years.

Meanwhile, the state's other universities are working on their own breakthroughs.

The University of Arizona in Tucson established AzRISE last year; its researchers are looking at how to better generate and store solar energy, among other things.

Northern Arizona University has made strides in the field too. A chemistry professor there is studying cobalt as a cheaper way to capture light for solar power.

ASU, however, says its strength will come from the fact that it will have so many people working together on a variety of disciplines within the industry.

"We may not be better than one university doing one thing," Melnick said. "But ASU has it all."

He added, "When you have this much action, this much going on with a commercialized technology, someone is going to have a breakthrough.

"It will absolutely happen."

Arizona BioIndustry Association Adds New Directors

[Source: BUSINESS WIRE] - The Arizona BioIndustry Association (AZBio) has added three new members to its Board of Directors, which was restructured earlier this year to assist AZBio in more effectively operating as a unified association representing the interests of all bioscience companies throughout the state.

The three new Directors are Monique Heiser, Vice President and General Manager of the Covance Laboratories facility under construction in Chandler; Randal Schulhauser, Sr., Manager of Technology & Business Development at Medtronic Microelectronic Center in Tempe; and Raymond Woosley, President and CEO of Critical Path Institute in Tucson.

"I'm pleased to welcome these three outstanding individuals to the AZBio Board," said Michael Mobley, Associate Director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University and Chair of the AZBio Board of Directors. "Arizona's bioscience companies are part of a global industry, and it will be valuable to have the perspective of these prominent organizations as we continue to develop a varied portfolio of benefits for our members."

Robert Eaton, AZBio's President & CEO, said, "AZBio represents all bioscience companies in the state, regardless of geography, size or stage of development. I am excited that our Board of Directors will now more fully represent the spectrum of organizations that make up Arizona's bioscience community."

The Arizona BioIndustry Association is a not-for-profit trade association that seeks to unify, empower and advance its member organizations, who collectively form Arizona's bioscience community, and to make Arizona a place where bioscience companies can grow and succeed. AZBio is the state affiliate in Arizona for both the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the preeminent trade association for the biotechnology industry in the United States, and AdvaMed, a national trade association whose members produce nearly 90 percent of the health care technology purchased annually in the United States.

Covance, with headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey, is one of the world's largest and most comprehensive drug development services companies with annual revenues greater than $1.5 billion, global operations in more than 20 countries, and more than 8,900 employees worldwide. Information on Covance's products and services, recent press releases, and SEC filings can be obtained through its website at

Medtronic, Inc., headquartered in Minneapolis, is the world's leading medical technology company, alleviating pain, restoring health and extending life for people with chronic disease. Each year, over 6 million patients benefit from Medtronic's technologies used to treat conditions such as heart disease, spinal conditions, neurological disorders, vascular disease and diabetes. Medtronic has almost 38,000 employees working in over 120 countries, generating annual revenues exceeding $13.505B. (

Critical Path Institute, headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, with offices in Rockville, Maryland, was established in 2005 as a publicly funded, nonprofit research and education institute to enable collaborations between scientists from the FDA, industry and academia. Critical Path Institute's mission is to help implement the FDA's Critical Path Initiative by developing faster, safer and smarter pathways to new medical products. Visit for more information.

SOURCE: The Arizona BioIndustry Association Arizona BioIndustry Association

Robert Eaton, 602-495-2937

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Study Assesses Eukaryotic Tree of Life

Source: GenomeWeb News] – More and better organism sampling aimed at achieving greater genomic depth will be necessary to flesh out the tree of life, a new analysis suggests.

In a paper appearing online in Science yesterday, University of Arizona evolutionary biologist Michael Sanderson assessed the current state of the eukaryotic tree of life, looking at the phylogenetic signal present. He discovered that while there is a relatively strong signal for well studied groups, such as vertebrates and non-vertebrate animal models, the information available for the other eukaryotes is very broad and mostly insufficient for creating one unified tree of life.

In the article, Sanderson argued that creating a eukaryotic tree of life remains a lofty, but ultimately achievable goal. “Construction of a high-resolution phylogenetic tree containing all eukaryotic species in the database is a grand challenge that is substantially more tractable than inferring the entire tree of life,” he wrote, “but to succeed, strategies will have to overcome serious sampling impediments.”

First, though, Sanderson emphasized the need for understanding the strength and distribution of the phylogenetic data that’s currently available in the NCBI taxonomy tree. To do this, he looked at the phylogenetic signal found in 1,127 higher taxa representing 14,289 phylogenies and 2.6 million GenBank sequences.

The analysis revealed a strong phylogenetic signal for vertebrates — especially humans — and model organisms such as Drosophila. Overall, though, just 12 percent of the operational taxonomic units tested garnered the minimal phylogenetic support used in Sanderson’s analysis.

In general, the groups of eukaryotes with more species diversity were slightly less likely to have achieved minimal phylogenetic support. “Some taxa with surprisingly low support exemplify how biological diversity can overwhelm substantial and sustained phylogenetic efforts,” Sanderson wrote.

He also noted that the sequence data available so far “are enriched for taxonomic diversity to the relative exclusion of some high-throughput genomics data, which, though presently available for only a small fraction of eukaryotic taxa, ultimately should enable stronger phylogenetic inferences.”

In the future, Sanderson predicted that better phylogenetic inference tools will improve the information that can be gleaned from available data, but he also emphasized the need for newer sampling strategies and targeting sequencing projects appropriately.“[S]ampling protocols guided by quantitative assessments of the phylogenetic distribution of data will improve the efficiency of emerging phylogenomic strategies for building the tree of life of known organisms,” Sanderson wrote.