Below are some examples of ongoing BIO5 research projects focused on improving health and life in the 21st century and beyond. Visit our member profiles to learn more about their work.
Biomedical Optics and Imaging Innovations Promise Earlier Cancer Detection
Jennifer Barton, PhD, knows that early detection is the single most important factor in cancer survival. However, current testing methodologies have limitations. By combining work in optical engineering and oncology by developing miniature endoscopes that employ novel optical imaging techniques, there is promise for earlier cancer detection. By using Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), a noninvasive technique that concentrates a beam of near-infrared light on tissue, it will be possible to create an image of the cells below the surface.
Emerging Contaminants and Sustainable Water Systems
Shane Snyder, PhD, and his group focus on the development of safe water treatment technologies that minimize energy consumption and maximize water quality and sustainability for urban, agricultural, and industrial needs. Their research in chemistry involves developing and applying methodologies to identify and quantify both known and unknown environmental contaminants using a wide array of state of the art analytical instrumentation. By combining the disciplines of engineering, chemistry, and toxicology, they are able to comprehensively address challenging environmental issues such as potable water reuse, municipal bio-solids for agricultural applications and novel disinfection byproducts.
Genetic, Evolutionary, and Environmental/Social Basis of Disease
Yann Klimentidis, PhD, is a geneticist who is developing new, evolutionary-based approaches to determining which areas of the genome could carry genes that explain why certain ethnic groups are more susceptible to diabetes, certain types of cancer, lupus, hypertension, and other common diseases. These approaches could allow us to identify new genes involved in the pathogenesis of these diseases, and thus new therapeutic approaches for prevention and treatment.
Studying the Effects of Nature’s Toxicants on the Lungs
Scott Boitano, PhD, and his lab focus on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Lung disease is expanding worldwide, and is one of the top uncontrolled American epidemics. It leaves about 900.000 Americans too ill to work, costing billions in medical care and lost productivity. Most of the disease is linked to smoking and to environmental and occupational conditions. Dr. Boitano’s main focus is the affect of arsenic on the lung’s epithelial cells. The interactions between arsenic and the body’s tissues affect lives not just in Chile, Mexico, or Bangladesh – where arsenic in drinking water can reach very dangerous levels of up to 500 or even 1,000 ppb—but everywhere. Dr. Boitano is studying the long-term risks found in many American cities and towns where arsenic values are between 50 and 10 ppb, and where there are strong changes in how cells signal each other and repair wounds.
New Research in the Prevention and Treatment of HPV
Samuel Campos, PhD, studies early events of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPVs are small, non-enveloped DNA viruses that cause a variety of lesions ranging from benign waters to cervical cancers. Although over 100 types of HPVs have been identified, HPV16 is the most prevalent, and is alone responsible for more than 50% of cervical cancers in women worldwide. Dr. Campos and his lab study the mechanisms of HPV virus transmission at a cellular level, in hopes to discover new approaches for the prevention and treatment of HPV.
Bioinformatics and Systems Biology
Rod Wing, PhD, and his lab, The Arizona Genomics Institute, specialize in building what geneticists call a physical map of a genome- a crucial foundation of any genome sequencing effort. AGI has earned a reputation for providing extremely high-quality maps, as documented in previous sequencing efforts leading to the genome sequences of rice and corn. Having the genome sequence will allow scientists to locate and identify genes that can improve and strengthen crops and increase yield in order to help solve the Earth’s looming food crisis by creating new strains of the cereal crops that make up 60% of humankind’s diet.
The Role of Nanotechnology in Personalized Medicine
Marek Romanowski, PhD, and his work on translating physics into medical products have huge implications for the evolution of personalized medicine. On cue, a tiny pillbox of gold floating in your bloodstream can deliver its medicine exactly to the right cell, one that is sick with cancer, avoiding all of your healthy cells. A gold capsule – about 50 to 200 nanometers in diameter, large enough to do the work of transporting a few molecules of medicine and respond to light signals – is too large to pass out through the kidneys. But on command by an enzyme, it can fall apart into pieces smaller than 10 nanometers, just a few molecules. The new size can easily leave our bodies at no risk. The gold pillbox has many other possible applications. In addition to delivering a drug, it can become a part of a diagnostic test, or deliver genetic material to a cell to permanently modify the cells’ DNA—a key step in gene therapy.
The Role of Novel Medical Diagnostics in Environmental Monitoring
Linda Powers, PhD, and her team of bioengineers, have developed technology that enables people working in the field to rapidly monitor and identify microbes causing contamination in floors, water, and air; to detect bioterrorism agents; and to test for disease organisms such as those causing SARS and avian flu. Much of Dr. Powers’ work has commercial applications and can be used in protecting airports and borders, aiding pharmaceutical companies, and speeding water quality testing. Dr. Powers’ is currently working with NASA’s Spaceward Bound program on tests that may be part of a future Mars mission. Her lab is also focused on making less expensive diagnostics for HIV, TB, and malaria for field use in Third World countries.
Lalitha Madhavan, MD, PhD, is a neurologist whose research concentrates on stem cells and their potential to help understand and treat neurological diseases. The ultimate goal of her studies is to devise brain repair strategies for neurological disorders based on the manipulation of stem cells, and also in combination with other alternative approaches. Her current projects center on studying stem cells in the context of aging and Parkinson’s disease.
Jill Tardiff, MD, PhD, is a nationally renowned cardiologist who specializes in sudden cardiac death, a disease that is one of the main causes of death in young adults. Dr. Tardiff brings an experienced clinical perspective to the strong program in cardiac muscle fibril function and dysfunction at the UA’s Sarver Heart Center.
Eliot Herman, PhD, and Monica Schmidt, PhD, are working with plant biotechnology to enrich and fortify crops. They spent ten years finding the protein in soybeans responsible for soy allergies, and have created a hypoallergenic soybean. They are now focused on how their hypoallergenic, carotene-enriched soybeans can fortify everyday products to help feed populations, aid premature baby’s intestine formulations, and help with degenerative eye disorders among many other things.
Processing Immense Data Sets to Study Genomes
Eric Lyons, PhD, is working with the iPlant Collaborative to create a computer infrastructure that enables researchers in the biological sciences to process immense data sets. Dr. Lyons has developed a system called CoGe, or Comparative Genomics. CoGe provides the tools to allow any scientist in the world to compare and analyze any genome side by side. Originally developed for plant genomes, the software is designed to accommodate any set of genomes from all domains of life. This software will make it easier for researchers around the world to identify genes responsible for qualities like disease resistance or food quality in crops, and has major applications for future use with humans.
The Role that Genetics and the Environment Play in Asthma
Fernando Martinez, MD, and Regents’ Professor of Pediatrics at the UA, is internationally renowned for his work studying the childhood origins of adult airway disease. Dr. Martinez is focused on finding the links between genetic disposition and environmental triggers underlying the development of asthma and chronic airflow limitation. This includes implementing novel strategies for prevention and early intervention in asthma and COPD.
How Modern, Urban Environments Affect Genetic Development and Treatment
Donata Vercelli, MD, is working to dissect the genetic patterns of thousands of children and focus on the molecular mechanisms that regulate allergic inflammation in humans. In her lab, she is exploring ways that modern urban life has affected genetic development in infants and children in various environments. Dr. Vercelli aims to provide theoretical insights into asthma that will feed into applications in biochemistry and pharmacology for drug designs that will have global impact.
Studying How Cells Work- or Don’t- in Plants and Humans
David Galbraith, MA, PhD, is convinced that cell sorting techniques he’s developed in his work as a plant scientist might also have the potential to enhance our understanding of how cells of all types work – or, in the case of diseases such as cancer, how they fail to work. Instead of focusing on the cell as a whole, this technique focuses on cell nuclei – each with distinct genetic material that regulates the functions of all living organisms. Advanced analysis techniques of gene expression could potentially help us understand everything from how plants respond to environmental stresses and how to increase the yield of food crops, to treating diseases where the action of cells go awry, as happens with cancer.
Defining Normal Aging And Memory Loss
Carol Barnes, PhD, believes that once you understand the mechanisms of healthy brain aging, you can better understand diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Far too little is known about the most basic mechanisms of how we remember things, or fail to, as we age. Dr. Barnes studies the brain’s main center for learning and memory- the hippocampus. In her laboratory, Dr. Barnes conducts animal behavioral studies. One major breakthrough has been recording impulses in hundreds of brain cells at once in a freely behaving animal, producing a giant mural of memory in action. That map shows exactly which cells fall down on the job during aging, and could one day show us how to fight Alzheimer’s disease.
Understanding Infections of the Brain
Anita Koshy, MD, is a neurologist and infectious disease specialist who was trained in one of the most prestigious national labs in the country addressing infections of the central nervous system. Dr. Koshy has developed new models for the study of toxoplasmosis, a parasite that infects over 10% of Americans and causes severe brain diseases in those with weakened immune systems. Now a member of the BIO5 Institute at the UA, her clinical and research interests include how infections of the brain occur and how we can better understand them on a molecular level in order to improve their treatment.