Immune System

UArizona Researchers Team Up to Address COVID-19 with the Help of TRIF and BIO5 Support

researchers in white lab coats examining a specimen
Research projects will address the pandemic from various angles, including public health, virology and drug discovery.

As of April 28, more than 6,500 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the state of Arizona. To address this burden on a local and global scale, thirteen UArizona teams have been awarded more than half a million dollars to explore virology, prevention and treatment, epidemiology, and psychology associated with COVID-19.

For nearly 20 years, the Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) has enabled UArizona researchers to conduct high-impact work by building up the scientific expertise and specialized equipment capacity at UArizona that allows swift response to scientific crises such the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last four year cycle, projects in infectious disease, immune system, and respiratory function have been seeded with over $5.8M.

As a rapid response to the pandemic, TRIF resources were quickly used to establish a seed grant mechanism. Interdisciplinary teams of two or more researchers representing their individual colleges and the BIO5 Institute were encouraged to pitch basic science, technology, clinical or population-based research projects that directly addressed COVID-19.

Fifty-five teams submitted seed grant applications. Their proposals were judged on potential impact, teamwork and use of core facilities.

Thirteen successful applicants were awarded up to $60K each. Over the next six months, teams will quickly pivot their existing research and draw upon their unique skills to address wide-ranging aspects of the pandemic.

Team of researchers working together
Genetics, Evolution and the Viral Lifecycle

Representing the College of Medicine – Tucson, Samuel Campos, Scott Boitano and Ken Knox will study an evolutionarily adapted aspect of the novel coronavirus. By understanding the modification of a key viral structure, Campos, Boitano and Knox aim to provide insight on infection and disease spread. Data and knowledge generated from their work may inform potential prevention and treatment strategies.

team of researchers working together

Identifying Potential COVID-19 Therapeutics through Image-Based Screening
Curtis Thorne, assistant professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, and Koenraad Van Doorslaer, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will use image-based screening to identify compounds that prevent viral replication in lung cells. They’ll also develop a technique to study replication of the novel coronavirus and plan to share it with other UArizona researchers studying COVID-19.

Team of researcher working together

The Use of Copper in Preventing Viral Persistence
Not just a coating for pennies, copper has been shown to have a negative effect on the novel coronavirus. Virologist Van Doorslaer will also team Michael Johnson, assistant professor of immunobiology, to investigate the ability of copper compounds to prevent the infection and replication of a related coronavirus. If successful, the team will test successful compounds against the novel COVID-19 virus.

Team of researchers working together

Improving Efficacy and Minimizing Toxicity of Anti-Malarial Drugs Against COVID-19
Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, two anti-malarial drugs, have shown promise as COVID-19 treatments through clinical studies in France, Italy and China. However, researchers are concerned about the safety and effectiveness of these compounds. Jianqin Lu and Xinxin Ding of the College of Pharmacy will use nanotechnology to improve the delivery of these drugs. Through this method, they aim to enhance drug efficacy and minimize toxicity.
Team of Researchers working together
Boosting the Immune System to Combat COVID-19
Directly targeting the virus is just one strategy researchers can use to treat COVID-19. Because of the severe gap in knowledge regarding the novel coronavirus, some researchers propose that developing a virus-targeted approach may not be quickly achievable. Instead, Lu will team with Yin Chen to explore whether enhancing COVID-19 patients’ immune systems can treat their infections.

Team of researchers working together

Novel Compounds to Enhance Anti-COVID-19 Activity and Safety
Because clinical studies of anti-malarial drugs have provided uncertain evidence regarding their utility, a third pharmacy team will test novel inhibitors in treating existing infections. Wei Wang, Steffan Nawrocki and Jennifer Carew will use the anti-malarial drugs as the foundation for designing similar, yet distinct compounds. By doing so, these experts in drug discovery and viral biology aim to identify new compounds which may prove to be safer and more efficacious.

Team of researchers working together

A Local Patient Database to Study Local COVID-19 Impact
Researchers representing medicine, pharmacy and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health will collect COVID-19 patient data from BUMC-T inpatient and BUMC Family Medicine Clinics. With this information, Karen Lutrick, Dean Billheimer and Brian Erstad will create a local database to allow for a greater understanding of disease impact on our local health system. Further, this database will provide a useful tool for future COVID-19 UArizona research efforts.

Team of researchers working together
Creating Foundations to Understand COVID-19 in Arizona
A public health team will also create a database to better understand the short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 in our area. Kristen Pogreba-Brown, Kate Ellingson, Pamela Garcia-Filion, Elizabeth Jacobs and Kacey Ernst will collect data from patient interviews to determine acute risk factors and disease symptoms. They will also initiate a long-term study to generate a database that can be used by all Arizona investigators addressing COVID-19.

Team of researchers working together

Characterization of Critically Ill COVID-19 Arizonan Patients
Because our current understanding of the disease is limited to emerging, highly variable case reports, a third team will produce a database with information on hospitalized COVID-19 patients in our state. Vignesh Subbian, assistant professor in the College of Engineering will work with Jarrod Moiser of COM-T to compile patient characteristics and document the safety of their care. Through their efforts, they aim to better understand the clinical characteristics and courses of seriously ill COVID-19 patients in Arizona.

Team of Researchers working together

Using Genetics to Study the Origin and Spread of COVID-19 in Southern Arizona
To date, only one viral genome has been recorded for Arizona COVID-19 cases. Michael Worobey and David Baltrus plan to add nearly 40 more genomes to GenBank, a repository curated by the National Institutes of Health. In addition to contributing data, the group seeks to understand the relationship of the Arizona outbreak to the national epidemic. By comparing viral genomes across the country, the group plans to determine origin of COVID-19 in Southern Arizona and the number of transmission chains in the area.

Team of researchers working together

Understanding Vulnerability to COVID-19
The novel coronavirus is highly infectious in older adults and those with pre-existing critical health conditions. The reasons for this vulnerability are currently unknown. Immunobiology department head Janko Nikolich- Žugich and associate professor Deepta Bhattacharya will work with Craig Weinkauf, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery, to determine the links between these populations and COVID-19 susceptibility.

Team of researchers working together

COVID-19 Risk in Wastewater Treatment Facilities
In addition to traveling through droplets in the air generated by a sneeze or cough, the novel coronavirus passes through the feces of infected individuals. These live viruses can become airborne in wastewater treatment plants, posing a threat to facility workers. A team of five researchers – Luisa Ikner, Walter Betancourt, Jeff Prevatt, Kelly Reynolds and Ian Pepper – will study the risk of the airborne virus to facility worker health.


Team of researchers working together

COVID-19 and Brain Function
A hallmark of COVID-19 is the impairment of respiratory function. However, a fourteenth project will assess the cognitive impact of COVID-19. Funded by the Center for Innovation in Brain Science, Lee Ryan of the COS and Meredith Hay of the COM-T will utilize an existing database of over 50,000 individuals to understand brain-related impacts of the infection.


About the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona connects and mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, biomedicine, pharmacy, basic science, and computational science to find creative solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and has resulted in disease prevention strategies, promising new therapies, innovative diagnostics and devices, and improved food crops.
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BIO5 Institute Announces Newest BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellows

2024 BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellows
Eight outstanding postdoctoral researchers were awarded the 2024 BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship, which aims to propel interdisciplinary researchers to the next stage of their careers.
Caroline Mosley, BIO5 Institute

Now in its sixth year, this competitive fellowship through the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute provides exceptional postdoctoral researchers with monetary awards and professional development opportunities. 

Since 2019, over 40 BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellows have been awarded $5,000 each to advance their scientific projects and gain the skills they need to become independent researchers in their respective fields. The award can be used to learn new skills in workshops, travel to conferences, or visit peer labs to further collaborations. Each fellow works with a BIO5 member as a primary mentor and forms a mentoring committee that assists them with grant applications, career advice, and job talk preparations.  

The 2024 BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellows are: Marjan AghajaniAngela GreenmanAtsushi IshiiDavid JordanZoe LyskiGemma PurserPhilip Yost, and Ran Zhang.

Seeing a need to invest in the success of postdoctoral researchers, BIO5 member Michael D.L. Johnson, associate professor in the Department of Immunobiology at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson, established the fellowship with support of BIO5 leadership to support cross-disciplinary projects aligned with the BIO5 mission. 

The Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) that helped launch BIO5 more than 20 years ago continues to be a catalyst in enabling effective, cross-disciplinary bioscience research, innovation, and impact at the university and in supporting the next generation of scientists through training opportunities like the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship. 

Learn about the 2024 Fellows and their interdisciplinary research 

Marjan Aghajani, PhD 

Proposal Title: The role of the ER stress-inducible ribosome-binding protein 1 (RRBP1) in cardiomyocyte protection during ischemic stress 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Shirin Doroudgar, Department of Internal Medicine, UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix  

Heart problems caused by narrowed heart arteries, or ischemic heart disease, can affect the signaling pathways and survival of the cardiac muscle cells responsible for the contraction of the heart. It's critical to understand the molecular mechanisms of these cells and pathways to prevent cell death and the resulting stress placed on the cardiovascular system. 

With a background in medical physiology, immunology, and cell biology, Marjan Aghajani is pursuing a research career focused on studying abnormal changes in body functions caused by cardiovascular disease.  

“I want to understand how cardiac muscle cells, or myocytes, respond to stressful challenges. My vision is that such responses could become the basis of new therapies for heart diseases that stress cardiac myocytes,” said Aghajani.  

Aghajani will use the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship to study the molecular mechanisms involved in ischemic heart disease. Using human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs), she will focus on the role of ribosome-binding protein 1 (RRBP1) in cardiomyocyte survival under ischemic stress. The funds and mentorship will help her gain expertise in hiPSC culturing and differentiation and present her work at a heart research conference. 

Angela (Angie) Greenman, PhD 

Proposal Title: Quantifying the super-relaxed state of myosin 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Samantha Harris, Department of Physiology, UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson 

Understanding the molecular mechanisms of muscle contraction can lead to a better outcome of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a prevalent cause of heart failure in adults.  

Using her expertise in molecular biology, physiology, and muscle function, Angie Greenman plans to use her BIO5 Fellowship to further her career goals of becoming an independent scientist studying and teaching how skeletal and cardiac muscle function in health, disease, and under the stress of exercise. 

"I want to study the effects that cardiac and skeletal muscle proteins have on regulating contraction and relaxation in normal physiology and testing these same proteins under the stress of pathology and under the demands of exercise,” said Greenman.  

Greenman will use the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship to expand her laboratory skills, particularly in fluorescent microscopy techniques related to muscle function, to study the role of cardiac myosin binding protein-C (cMyBP-C) in muscle contraction and relaxation. Funding will allow her to visit with an expert in the field at the University of Copenhagen, learning novel techniques for characterizing different states of myosin during relaxation that opens doors to new avenues of research in her field.   

Atsushi Ishii, MD, PhD 

Proposal Title: Gaining tools to probe the dynamics of brain stem cell regeneration during aging 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Lalitha Madhavan, Department of Neurology, UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson 

Understanding the effects of aging and sex hormones on neurogenesis is important for a deeper understanding of various cranial nerves and psychiatric diseases. Some central nerve diseases develop in a variety of age-dependent manners and go into spontaneous remission, while others, such as autism spectrum disorder, develop from birth and progress chronically, and others, such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, develop in old age. Some symptoms develop and progress over time, and symptoms change with age. 

With his long-standing interests in neurological disorders and a background working as a pediatric neurologist, Atsushi Ishii wants to research regenerative approaches for addressing age-related neurological disorders. 

“Working on neurodevelopmental disorders previously in a clinical setting, I became intrigued with the role of age-dependent changes in these contexts, which although important, were less appreciated and studied,” said Ishii. 

Ishii will use the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship to investigate the molecular pathways associated with the aging of neural stem progenitor cells (NSPCs), particularly focusing on the NRF2 transcription factor and its interaction with sex hormones. He plans to visit an expert in the field at Tohuku University in Japan to learn about NRF2 biology and cutting-edge methods, as well as attend a conference around stem cell research to network and present his work.  

David Jordan, PhD 

Proposal Title: Preliminary biomechanical evaluation of the concurrency of carpal tunnel syndrome and trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Zong-Ming Li, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson 

Millions of people are afflicted with carpal tunnel syndrome and osteoarthritis, musculoskeletal disorders of the hand and wrist. 

David Jordan's mechanical engineering expertise, along with his background in physiology, bioengineering, medical imaging, and computer modeling, gives him a unique multidisciplinary perspective on the biomechanical study of the hand and wrist. 

“My current research focus involves the imaging, testing and modeling of the trapeziometacarpal joint, which is the most affected hand joint by osteoarthritis. I aim to develop novel therapeutic treatment mechanisms for this disorder,” said Jordan. 

Using the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship funds, Jordan will study the concurrency of carpal tunnel syndrome and osteoarthritis. He wants to identify and recruit patients with concurrent cases of these disorders and construct apparatuses for testing hand function. Jordan also plans to attend conferences focusing on orthopedic research and biomechanics to jumpstart his independent research career. 

Zoe Lyski, PhD 

Proposal Title: Uncovering mechanisms behind suboptimal immunity in immunocompromised individuals 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Deepta Bhattacharya, Department of Immunology, UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson 

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown, people do not develop equally protective immune responses to infection and vaccination, and those with immunocompromising conditions and cancer are especially at risk. 

With expertise in immunology and virology, Zoe Lyski will use the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship to further study how immune responses influence viral evolution.  

“There is an unmet need to uncover key drivers of suboptimal immunity and develop means of improving vaccine immune responses in immunocompromised patients. My project aims to help fill this knowledge gap,” said Lyski. 

Her project supported by the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship will focus on understanding suboptimal immunity in cancer patients, particularly regarding antibody responses to vaccination and subsequent viral evolution. Funds will help develop targeted mRNA vaccine approaches to improve outcomes in immunocompromised patients and allow her to travel and present her research at an immunology conference.  

Gemma Purser, PhD 

Proposal Title: Investigating the role of urban forest soils in mitigating atmospheric volatile organic compound driven air pollution in cities 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Laura Meredith, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, College of Agriculture, Life & Environmental Sciences 

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) contribute to air pollution, which has implications for human health particularly in urban areas. The presence of VOCs in the atmosphere has a variety of sources, but of rising concern are those originating from personal care items, cleaning products, and industrial solvents.

Specializing in atmospheric and analytical chemistry, Gemma Purser wants to further her understanding of microbial analysis and urban ecosystems to better study VOCs.  

“This fellowship offers a unique opportunity to explore critical questions at the intersection of urban ecology, atmospheric chemistry, and microbiology. I am excited about the potential impact of this research on understanding the role of urban forest soils in buffering the newly emerging sources of atmospheric volatile organic compounds in cities,” said Purser.  

Using funds from the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship, Purser will start a collaborative independent research project with Urban Biogeochemistry program at Boston University and Aerodyne Research, Inc. (ARI) to study the interplay between urban green spaces and volatile organic compounds in improving air quality. She will use the funds to conduct soil experiments using advanced mass spectrometer instrumentation at ARI and work with Boston University to further develop her microbial analysis techniques. 

Philip Yost, PhD 

Proposal Title: Biomimetic 5-module chimeric antigen receptor therapy 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Michael Kuhns, Department of Immunology, UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson

When our immune system works correctly, it deploys T cells to detect and eliminate viruses, bacteria, and other organisms that cause disease. However, sometimes these cells go rogue, attacking healthy cells and causing autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes. 

With an extensive background in cellular and developmental biology, Philip Yost wants to have a meaningful impact on human health research using a novel approach – biomimetic engineering – to genetically engineer cells that can lead to new immunotherapy treatments. 

“Since joining the Kuhns lab in fall 2022, I have successfully established a workflow for a second-generation chimeric antigen receptor as a platform to expand from just the treatment of Type 1 diabetes and extend as an application for treatments against other diseases,” said Yost. 

Yost will use the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship to design and develop a second-generation biomimetic chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) for T-cells in immunotherapy, capable of redirecting T-cells effectively. He will use the funds to enhance his immunology training through advanced courses and attending conferences.  

Ran Zhang, PhD 

Proposal Title: A fluorescence-based high throughput screening assay to target the Nsp14 ExoN of SARS-CoV-2 

BIO5 Member & Principal Investigator: Hongmin Li, Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology, R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy 

Emerging and evolving coronaviruses present challenges to researchers as they must continually advance their understanding of antiviral therapies.  

With her expertise in veterinary medicine, microbiology, and virology, Ran Zhang aims to provide valuable insights into potential antiviral drug development for coronaviruses. 

“Given the current global emphasis on antiviral research, particularly considering recent pandemics, there's a heightened demand for professionals with specialized knowledge in antiviral drug development. I want to contribute to groundbreaking discoveries that can have a profound effect on public health,” said Zhang. 

With the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship, Zhang will research the role of non-structural protein 14 (nsp14) in coronaviruses' replication, particularly SARS-CoV-2, and develop a high-throughput screening assay to identify inhibitors of nsp14 activity. The funds and mentorship allow Zhang to design, implement, and test experiments that will help her understand viral replication mechanisms and add to the development of antiviral therapies. 

Growing “mini organs” to study the immune system and cancer

Science Talks Podcast Episode 49 Featuring Dr. Martha Dua-Awereh
Dedicated to cancer research, Dr. Martha Dua-Awereh examines the interaction between our immune system and cancer cells in hopes of identifying better treatments.

Cancer is an incredibly complex disease. To better understand how it interacts with the human body, researchers in the lab grow organoids, miniature three-dimensional tissue cultures derived from stem cells. Amy Randall-Barber from the BIO5 Institute was joined on Science Talks by Dr. Martha Dua-Awereh who uses organoids to study colorectal and pancreatic cancer with the Alfred Bothwell lab in the Department of Immunobiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine — Tucson. Dr. Dua-Awereh earned her PhD from the Department of Systems Biology and Physiology at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine and was a 2023 BIO5 Postdoctoral fellow. She is the first in her family to live in Arizona, and additionally has several other firsts that are discussed in the interview.

As of the publication of this podcast and interview, Dr. Martha Dua-Awereh has taken a position as researcher at Avery Therapeutics, Inc. and Dr. Alfred Bothwell has left the University of Arizona. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ARB: To get started, I have a couple of icebreaker questions. Question number one: What is your favorite place you’ve ever been to? 

My favorite place is Brooklyn, New York. And I will tell you why, soon. 


ARB: What is something that you've always wanted to do, but you've not done yet?  

I've always wanted to go to Ghana and Paris. My family is originally from Ghana, but I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. My mom wanted to go to Ghana with me, but we haven't had the time or money. Same for Paris, I want to go to Paris because it’s beautiful. Hopefully in the next couple of years, I'll be able to go and see both. 

ARB: Absolutely! 

You are the first in your family to live in Arizona – what brought you here? 

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, went to college in Philadelphia, then back to Brooklyn to finish another degree, and then decided to go to Cincinnati for graduate school.  

While I was there, my mentor, Dr. Yana Zavros, got offered a position at the University of Arizona. Generally, if you want to take a student with you to another institution you can, but you don't necessarily have to. But she decided to take me with her, and discussed with the program coordinator before she approached me and said, ‘Hi, I'm going to go’ and I said, ‘Sure!’  

So, I came here and virtually completed my degree. Afterwards, I decided to stay when I got offered a job. Dr. Zavros, as well as other mentors, such as Dr. Juanita Merchant, reached out to people and Dr. Bothwell contacted me before I even finished my degree. 


ARB: We’re glad you stayed! 

Can you tell us about your series of 'firsts’? I should disclose that I saw a video online while doing research for this podcast that you did for postdoctoral affairs here at the University of Arizona, where you mentioned these. 

I guess the number one ‘first’ was being born in the US. I'm the first in my family, since our family is from Ghana. There's an aspect that's embedded of being Ghanian in everything that we do, then being American, I add an extra layer to that. Through my eyes as a Ghanaian American, I see my family get exposed to many things, good or bad. 

Another first is leaving New York. My family is from Ghana and London, but the ones that come to New York tend to stay in New York and not branch out to the rest of the country. Since I've been to different places, I've established this culture, this pattern of traveling. My nieces and nephews have also done the same thing. In fact, my sister and my niece are coming to visit me in Arizona. They've never been but now they have a reason to. My nephew, when he was looking at colleges, looked outside of New York. That was something that impacted my family. Even my mother who never wanted to leave New York, is now in Arizona with me.  

In terms of education and pursuing a tertiary degree, I was first in my family to do that, but I'm not the last. My nieces and nephews have done it. It's become an option that once you finish high school, we should look at college and then look beyond that.  

My ‘firsts’ have established a legacy for my family, a way for them to use me as a troubleshooter, the fixer. I can give them information about things they should do, what can be improved on, and what they can add to their lives in ways they didn't expect.  

For me it's been an adventure. And for them, it's been a learning experience. 


ARB: That's great that you're inspiring your family and sharing your experiences. It's been brave of you to be the first for everything. 

I'm not someone who I would describe as adventurous or daring. But I am curious. I think my curiosity has led me to different paths in my life. 


ARB: That's what they say about scientists; curiosity is the biggest element to becoming a scientist.  

Let's talk about your research. You are in Dr. Bothwell's lab, can you tell us about the overall research goals and how it impacts human health? 

Our lab is mainly an immunology and cancer research lab. We look at ways the immune system interacts with not just cancer, but also other types of diseases. We look at infections, for example Leishmania infection, a parasitic disease found in parts of the tropics, subtropics, and southern Europe.   

We also look at how the immune system interacts with cancer, mainly whether cancer can manipulate it. The reason we look at these things is to see if we can identify targets to improve upon therapies regarding infection or cancer. We look at not just the ways the immune system recognizes cancer and destroys it, but ways that the cancer can manipulate the immune system to hide and to mask its function. For example, cancer can trick the immune system into thinking that it is also an immune cell. 


ARB: I've heard about the immune system being used to fight cancer, but the way that you've just explained it was awesome, thank you. We need that research more than ever.  

What is your current project in your fellowship and in the lab? 

I mentioned immunology cancer research component, that's mainly my focus. I work with pancreatic and colorectal cancer. I'm looking to see whether there are factors that encourage these cancer cells to have more interactions with immune cells.  

There's this process called trogocytosis, which usually happens between immune cells where they recognize each other, and they take parts of the cell and make it their own without killing or destroying the other cell. Cancer can have this interaction with the immune cells, too. It's very unusual, but it can happen, and there might be some cancers where it happens more often. We're trying to figure out what factors contribute to that, what makes trogocytosis happen in one type of cancer, in one cell versus another.  

We're seeing whether these same factors allow cancer cells the ability to expand and grow, depending on the part of the body. They're localized, just like every part of your body, every organ, there's a different environment, different cells. And cancer can sometimes be the same way. But there's an extra step that allows cancer to transcend this, and we're investigating what factors make that switch in the cancer cell from being localized to spreading, or metastasizing. So, I also look at metastasis and whether there might be correlation between this ability for the cancer cell to mask itself from the immune system. 


ARB: Is that the work you are doing for the fellowship? 

The fellowship is providing me opportunities to run tests. Because of so many different factors involved with cancer and the immune system, we want to look exactly at which genes might be expressed, overregulated, and affected. I'm also able to use the fellowship to travel, go to conferences, and talk more about my science. It can be difficult to do, especially for me, since my research is not the easiest to understand. It's still complicated for me, and I work on it every single day! 

Being able to share is not only impactful to my field but also people in general, and the fellowship has allowed me to do that.  


ARB: Have you done any trips yet this year? 

Not yet, but I’ve planned two trips. 


ARB: Where are you going? 

The first trip is in Chicago and it’s for the American Association of Immunologists. I've never been and will hopefully be presenting my research. Then the second trip is for the American Physiological Society, which I am a member of. I've gone on different trips as a graduate student, but this is the first time I'll be going as a postdoc to talk about my research.  


ARB: That’s great, I hope you meet collaborators or pick up some great ideas. 

So, in a video that I saw of you, online that you did for the UArizona Postdoctoral Affairs Department here, you mentioned organoids. What is an organoid? 

An organoid is kind of what it sounds like, it's a mini organ. That's a very simple way of breaking it down. In cell culture, people take cells and plate them on dishes, and it’s a 2D system where cells are interacting. Whereas with organoids, you can look at a 3D interaction. It’s almost as if you are looking at a smaller version of what you would expect in your organs.  

Matrigel is one of the components we use to grow organoids, and it's supposed to be a matrix that mimics what you have in your body. So, you're not just getting the interactions of the cells, but how they interact with different factors, such as cell culture.  

So, organoids are just little versions of your organs, and they can be made up of different cells that make up your organs.  


ARB: Can you grow an organoid that is specific for the liver or pancreas? 

Exactly, yes, I work with colorectal cancer, so I will work with pancreas or colon organoids. I think people have been able to isolate or generate organoids from almost every organ. If not all, very close. 


ARB: How cool that scientists have been able to come so far with this research that helps humans and can hopefully cure cancer someday. 

Right. And how do we generate organoids? Well, that process is interesting.  

I've generated organoids from mouse organs and human organs. One way is through a tissue sample or biopsy, and another way is through stem cells. But what you need for the basic level of an organoid is a stem cell. Depending on what we add to the culture, the stem cell will mimic those same cells as your organ. We can break tissues down and grow organoids from it. 


ARB: How do you get human tissue? 

Great question. Here at the University of Arizona, there's a repository with a research core where patients who come in for procedures that require a biopsy can donate a sample. This repository will collect that tissue and preserve it. It's usually frozen tissue, sometimes it can be fresh, but we ask for samples of tissue to grow organoids. Along with the repository, there’s a research core that will take those same tissues, generate organoids and freeze them for when we need them. 

It's hard to get human tissues, because of course, you can’t go to everyone and say, ‘Hey, can have a piece of your tissue?’ So, we appreciate these contributions. Particularly from my research where I'm working on studies that directly apply to human treatments, and ideally working with human cells is great.  

With every sample, I am so appreciative, and it's made me look at science in a completely new and multifaceted way. 


ARB: How can people find out about donating? Or is it truly happenstance? 

There are a couple of ways. Sometimes you through a physician or scientist directly, especially if they are doing clinical trial or clinical study. They may collect those samples to be passed over to the laboratory. 

Another way is through collaborations with Banner Hospital and University of Arizona. I think there's a pathway set up where people in the research core are notified by physicians about a patient who is coming in for a procedure, so they can ask the patient beforehand.  

I think the best way is to work with the research core directly to make requests for different types of tissues from different populations. Because we also want to see whether there's difference between men and women, and I'm particularly interested in minority populations.  

I guess it's not as well advertised as I would hope it would be, but I think there's more awareness of how important it is. We have limitations of tests or exploring theories working with humans. This allows us to see whether a particular drug or chemotherapy works without putting a person through unnecessary trauma or burden. 


ARB: I think everybody can think of a person who has been affected by cancer. 

Initially, I wasn't sure I wanted to go into cancer. But my brother was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer a couple of years ago and passed away very suddenly. I think one of the issues that affects our family to this day is that he didn't want to tell us about it. And I think if he had known how much I was involved with cancer, maybe he would have felt more confident in talking to me, what therapies to explore, or how serious it is. In our family, there are members that weren't aware of how much it would affect his life and how quickly it would do so.  


ARB: It really rocked a lot of people’s worlds because it went so quickly. I’m sorry. 

Thank you. I have friends who are confused about their friends’ cancer and why they respond well to some therapies but not others.  

My goal is to figure out what factors might cause those differences so people can have a better understanding of how cancer affects your life and what we can do about it. 


ARB: My mom passed away from breast cancer about nine years ago. She had surgery and was cancer-free for four years. And they say there’s a five-year window, and in the fifth year, it came back as bone cancer and metastasized. We all wondered about the same things. Like, why did it come back? How come it couldn't stay away? Like, why didn't they detect it sooner? Just lots of questions and no answers. 

You touched on this a bit earlier when you mentioned a mentor who brought you here to Arizona. Do you have any influential mentors in your life, whether it's career or personal? 


There’s so many. The first person I always think about is my mom. She influences my personal and academic work, motivating and pushing me. My mom didn't have the chance to go to college, even though she wanted to. And she wanted to make sure that I had those opportunities.  

Even now, to this day, if I work too hard, she says, ‘Hey, take a break.” She reminds me to take care of myself, which I usually forget to do. 

And then, who I mentioned before, Dr. Zavros. She’s here at the University of Arizona still and it’s easy to pop in when she's available and say, ‘Hey, I have a question.’ And then there’s a senior scientist who works in the repository research core, Dr. Jayati Chakrabarti. I usually have questions about organoids both in terms of work and grants. And they remind me that my work is important and go and try different experiments.  

I have mentors outside the University of Arizona, which I think is important. One is Dr. Arnaldo Diaz Vasquez, the associate dean at the University of Texas Southwestern. And I met him when I was at the University of Pennsylvania for a summer program. He coordinated that program, and maintained a relationship with me so I could ask all kinds of questions. Should I present this poster? Should I talk to this person?  

And I’m continuing to get mentors. I work in Dr. Bothwell’s lab, and one of our next-door labs is Dr. Justin Wilson, and I can get the perspective of being a new faculty member from him. 


ARB: I've noticed how willing faculty are to answer questions since we give a lot of tours. And the undergraduates will ask how they can work in a lab. And my honest answer is just email them and they will email you back! 

Yes, I was there once. Asking as many people as you can for information really helps. And the University of Arizona excels at that. 


ARB: Right! So, what’s next for you? 

That's a great question. I’m hoping to finish my postdoc in the next couple of years. From there, I know I want to do cancer research. I'm not sure if I want to do it in academia right away, because there are things in government that I'm also interested in terms of policy.  

For a short while, I did have medical education, and I really did love seeing patients. There's a lot of pre-clinical research questions about human health or human conditions. And usually, I'm the one to answer those questions, and I’ve realized how important that is when it comes to science. So, I might even go back and pursue medicine to tie it all together. 

The next steps may be doing a bit more research or more education to do more research!  


ARB: Wow! Thank you again for coming to Science Talks and sharing your story. 

Goodrum accepted into executive leadership fellowship

Dr. Felicia Goodrum
UArizona Health Sciences

Felicia Goodrum, PhD, interim associate department head and professor of immunobiology in the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson has been accepted into the Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program hosted by Drexel University. She is also a professor in the BIO5 Institute, a member of the UArizona Cancer Center and a member of the AEGIS Consortium.

Aegis Consortium Funds Research Aimed At Reducing the Threat Of Future Pandemics

Dr Janko Nikolich
UArizona Health Sciences

The Aegis Consortium awarded seed funding to eight projects that align with the UArizona Health Sciences center’s mission to create a pandemic-free future.

College Of Medicine – Tucson Researchers Tackle Immune Rejection Of Biomedical Implants

College of Medicine -- Tucson
UArizona Health Sciences

Biomedical implants, such as breast implants and pacemakers, improve patient health and quality of life but may be rejected as foreign bodies. Suppressing production of an immune protein could reduce this risk.

Michael D.L. Johnson named inaugural Keating Family BIO5 Professor

Group of people standing together
The new distinguished professorship recognizes a BIO5 member with interdisciplinary research excellence and a commitment to mentorship.
Caroline Mosley, BIO5 Institute

Michael D. L. Johnson, associate professor in the Department of Immunobiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson, is the inaugural Keating Family Endowed Professor for Interdisciplinary Research at the BIO5 Institute. 

“I’m honored to be recognized with this level of support from the Keating Family BIO5 Professorship.” said Johnson, a member of the BIO5 Institute. “It’s exciting to have the BIO5 Institute invest in projects that reinforce my efforts to be a good steward of science, both in and outside of the laboratory. This acknowledgement gives me the confidence and opportunity to continually build on my research and outreach ideas.”  

Created by BIO5 Institute director Jennifer Kehlet Barton and made possible by the Thomas W. Keating family, this award is given to a BIO5 member who exemplifies the characteristics of interdisciplinary biosciences research excellence, collegiality, spirit of mentorship and engagement, and strong communication skills.  

“Michael Johnson was an obvious choice to be the inaugural recipient. His interdisciplinary research is outstanding, and his impact goes even further,” said Barton. “He cares deeply for his lab, university and scientific community and has nurtured multiple programs to assure the opportunities and benefits of bioscience are available to all. He has an infectious optimism that inspires us to do better and be better.” 

A deserving recipient in research and mentorship 

Johnson leads an interdisciplinary research lab that highly values training and outreach at all levels, from aspiring college students to postdoctoral researchers. Alongside his research and training programs, he accepted the position of associate dean for basic science research and graduate studies at the UArizona College of Medicine — Tucson in August 2023. 

The Johnson lab studies Streptococcus pneumoniae — the bacteria responsible for pneumonia — and copper toxicity.  

As living organisms, bacteria need nutrients and metals when they infect a human host. However, too much metal such as copper can harm bacteria. By investigating why copper is toxic to bacteria and how bacteria interact with metals during infections, the Johnson lab works toward developing novel therapeutic strategies against deadly bacterial infections. 

Weaponizing copper against bacteria is especially critical as the misuse of antimicrobials creates drug-resistant pathogens. For example, a FY23 BIO5 Rapid Grant is helping Johnson and his collaborators develop a chemical compound with copper that could act as an antimicrobial agent.  

Along with his research, Johnson has developed various workforce development programs while at the University of Arizona. Two notable examples are the National Undergraduate Research Project (NSURP) and the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship. 

In the midst of the pandemic, Johnson and David Baltrus, associate professor in the School of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences and BIO5 member, built a summer research program that became the largest program of its kind to provide remote microbiology internships for underrepresented students with support from Jennifer Gardy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

The National Summer Undergraduate Research Project (NSURP) completed its fourth summer in 2023 of virtually matching undergraduate students with mentors around the world. With around 400 students supported through the program and upwards of 250 mentors, Johnson is thrilled to see the program continue to grow. 

“This program is not only developing research skills but changing science communication,” said Johnson. “These interns are working on real-world projects at their kitchen table and fostering scientific discussion with their friends and family.” 

Johnson also saw a need to support researchers further in their scientific journey. In collaboration with the BIO5 Institute leadership and staff, he developed the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship to better support outstanding early career researchers in 2019.  

Meant as a launchpad, the fellowship provides financial support and mentorship to postdoctoral fellows in the labs of BIO5 members. The year-long experience helps postdoctoral researchers learn the intricacies of grant and funding mechanisms to better ensure their long-term success. 

“We need to make sure that we support people from one step to the next in their scientific careers,” said Johnson. “To stay innovative, we need diverse mindsets and perspectives working on projects.” 

First BIO5 distinguished professorship 

Establishing a distinguished professorship at the BIO5 Institute has long been a goal for Barton as a way of recognizing extraordinary faculty. With more than 350 BIO5 members across a wide variety of colleges at the UArizona, these researchers work together to advance the pace of scientific discovery while developing and commercializing new devices, diagnostics, and treatments.  

Beyond their research, BIO5 members embody the ability to communicate the positive impact of their work to the community, government, industry, students, and fellow researchers.   

Barton wanted to formally recognize and support a BIO5 member who best exemplifies these values every day, while also recognizing the transformative contributions of Thomas Keating and his family. 

Awarded for a one-year period starting July 1, 2023, the professorship is renewable for an additional one-year period upon review by the BIO5 Institute director. As a rotating professorship, future awardees will be chosen through a nomination and committee process. Associated funds can be used for exploring new research areas, purchasing equipment, and supporting students. 

“I’m not worried that I’ll run out of ideas, but I need the people to help me execute them,” said Johnson. He's excited to use the distinguished professorship to support his current program and students, and perhaps get some new ideas off the ground.