Improving Health

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.
For more information: (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Instagram | LinkedIn).

Local Opinion: The Novel Threat of COVID-19

Royalty free photo by Viktor Forgacs
AZ Daily Star

Dr. Felicia Goodrum Sterling, Immunobiology professor with UArizona College of Medicine-Tucson and BIO5 faculty, discusses the COVID -19 epidemic including our ability and responsibility to protect our community and those most vulnerable. Relatively simple non-pharmaceutical interventions have been effective in limiting infectious disease. These include: washing your hands, covering coughs and sneezes, staying home when sick, disinfecting common areas and surfaces, and social distancing (e.g. avoiding handshakes).

Son-mother scientific team study plant-based solutions to treat cancer

Chris and Susan Frost at the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
Building upon a deep familial bond, Chris and Susan Frost at the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute are making strides to more precisely and safely deliver chemotherapeutic drugs.
Caroline M.M. Bartelme, BIO5 Institute

Strong relationships are important for successful research endeavors. 

But what if that relationship was even more personal? Just ask son and mother scientific duo, Chris and Susan Frost, at the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute. 

“I’ve always had a very good relationship with my mother,” said Chris Frost, assistant research professor at the UArizona BIO5 Institute. “Collaborating over science hasn’t changed our interactions, just the language.” 

From an outsider perspective, their collaboration seems more unusual because of their disciplines – Chris Frost is rooted in the ecological world of plants while Susan Frost has years of experience in cancer biology. 

But dig a little deeper, and perhaps this partnership isn’t too unexpected. 

“We’re family, but we also have a connection at the molecular level,” said Susan Frost, emeritus professor at the University of Florida and designated campus colleague (DCC) at the BIO5 Institute. “He’s a chemical ecologist and I’m a biochemist.” 

After almost a decade of work, they bridged their areas of expertise in a 2023 study published in PLOS One that investigated how a plant-derived compound has the potential to treat cancer by more precisely delivering chemotherapeutic drugs.  

Today, with support from the BIO5 Institute, they are formally collaborating on experiments and writing grants as University of Arizona researchers.  

Communication at the cellular level 

Their fields of plant ecology and cancer biology didn’t converge for many years. 

Chris Frost studies how plants dynamically react to their environment through chemical signals. An example of these signals are terpenes, natural organic compounds responsible for the way most plants smell. Often found in essential oils, terpenes have a wide range of medicinal use, from antimicrobial to anti-inflammatory. 

Chris Frost, PhD

Chris Frost, PhD, is a plant chemical ecologist and assistant research professor at the BIO5 Institute.

Susan Frost focuses on different kinds of signals. She studies proteins in cells that function as gateways permitting the transport of substances in and out of a cell.  

For most of her scientific career spanning over 50 years, she was in diabetes research studying how cells regulate glucose uptake. Learning that glucose transport was elevated in cancer cells, she began collaborations around a decade ago that transitioned her to breast cancer research. Specifically, she focused on a protein that acts as a marker for triple negative breast cancer.  

Susan Frost, PhD

Susan Frost, PhD, is a emeritus professor at the University of Florida and a designated campus colleague at the BIO5 Institute with over 50 years research experience in diabetes and cancer research, focusing on cellular membranes.

In different ways, mother and son focus on chemical communication and regulation at the cellular level. They might have discussed biochemistry and biological processes in passing but didn’t formally work together.  

That was until Chris Frost learned about a specific plant compound, β-Caryophyllene (BCP). 

Son-mother collaborators  

BCP is a terpene found in clove oil, and while at a conference, Chris Frost learned more about how researchers had investigated potential anti-inflammatory properties 

After further examination of the compound, he wondered if BCP could have therapeutic value for treating cancer. So, he contacted an experienced medical researcher: his mother. 

“Growing up, we never talked too much science,” said Chris Frost. “It’s been refreshing to communicate this way.” 

Seven years later, their collaboration is still strong, even after Susan Frost formally retired in 2020. 

“Sometimes with collaborators, you might not speak your mind,” said Susan Frost. “We don’t have that problem.” 

They united their knowledge of biochemistry and cellular biology, conducting initial tests to see how BCP interacts with cells in tumor microenvironments. These preliminary results were informative, but undramatic. 

“But then we did a transcriptional analysis on the effect of β-Caryophyllene in breast cancer cells,” said Susan Frost. “Through that, we discovered this unbelievable observation related to cholesterol biosynthesis.” 

Understanding cell membranes for better drug delivery 

Found in cell membranes, cholesterol plays a role in the structure and function of membranes and in cell signaling pathways. The analysis by the Frosts and their team demonstrated that BCP affects the biosynthetic pathway, or the recipe that a cell uses to produce cholesterol.  

“If we can alter cholesterol composition, then we can potentially make that membrane more permeable to chemotherapeutic agents,” said Chris Frost.   

What makes this finding even more exciting for cancer research was how BCP acts in the hypoxic, or low oxygen environment, created by a tumor.  

Susan and Chris Frost discuss research in front of the BIO5 Institute

Collaborating for seven years, Chris and Susan Frost are now working to secure funding to continue to investigate how a terpene could be a tool for better cancer drug delivery.

Just as human behavior changes with little air, cellular behavior changes with the hypoxic conditions created by cancerous tumors. This includes the functioning of cell membranes, making it difficult to deliver therapeutic drugs. But because BCP affects the biosynthetic pathway, researchers might be able to gain more control in drug delivery. 

"BCP in some ways seems to reverse the hypoxic phenotype of breast cancer cells,” said Chris Frost. “If we can make a cell membrane look like a normal cell, then we can deliver chemotherapy more effectively and more precisely.” 

And that precision is crucial in cancer treatment, making the treatment less toxic to the patient and more deadly to the malignant cells. 

Next steps at the BIO5 Institute 

Chris and Susan Frost are using the tools and collaborative atmosphere to continue this line of research at the BIO5 Institute. Not only are they an example of a strong scientific relationship, but also an excellent case study of how BIO5 seeks to foster collaborative research that impacts the health of the Arizona community and beyond. 

“The BIO5 Institute and its director, Dr. Jennifer Barton, have really helped us with this project,” said Susan Frost. “With my DCC status, I’m able to use my cancer expertise to help Chris apply for grants.” 

They are capitalizing on BIO5’s shared-use space and facilities that aim to lower the cost and increase access to research. Plus, they have applied for mini grants through BIO5 that can provide critical preliminary data to then apply for larger funding opportunities.  

“I am in a fortunate position at BIO5,” said Chris Frost. “I’ve been not only encouraged, but almost given the directive to think outside the box of how I can use plant-based chemicals and ecology for the betterment of human health.” 

Ultimately, their hope would be for BCP, or perhaps a synthetic variation, to become a tool in the toolbox to treat cancer. 

“Our work has revealed some exciting new directions in breast cancer that may impact therapy through lipid metabolism, which I trained in many years ago. In a way, my scientific career has come full circle thanks to Chris,” said Susan Frost. 

For now, they are enjoying their time in the lab working side-by-side.

NIH grant will help researchers follow a virus on its path to the nucleus

Young man holds pipette while Sam Campos, PhD looks on
The work of BIO5 member and virologist Samuel Campos on human papillomavirus has been recognized by the National Institutes of Health for its enormous potential.
Anna C. Christensen, UArizona College of Medicine - Tucson
Human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause warts and certain cancers, and has been with us since the dawn of humanity. This tightknit relationship makes HPV an important source of information about our own biology, according to Samuel K. Campos, PhD, associate professor of immunobiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson and member of the BIO5 Institute. “These viruses take advantage of pathways the cell has and tweak them. What better cell biologists to teach us how cells work than the viruses that have evolved with us for eons?” Dr. Campos said about how HPV illuminates the innerworkings of our bodies. “Follow the biology of the virus, and we’ll learn some cool new cell biology.”

Arizona community gets exclusive access at Behind BIO5 event

Felicia Goodrum speaks to a group on a tour at the BIO5 Institute
On April 3, the BIO5 Institute invited the community for an evening of intimate laboratory tours, captivating fireside chats, and engaging poster presentations by University of Arizona innovators.
Caroline M.M. Bartelme, BIO5 Institute

Over 100 community members received exclusive access to impactful research at the BIO5 Institute for the inaugural Behind BIO5: Meet the Scientists. 

From immersive research lab tours and research demonstration tables to engaging fireside chats and inspiring poster presentations, attendees learned about pioneering work driving progress in nutrition, cancer prevention, precision medicine, aging, and beyond.  

“This event gave us the opportunity to see labs, meet student scientists, and hear firsthand from the researchers about the many programs and groundbreaking research and development being accomplished at the University of Arizona,” said Bonnie Allin, Critical Path Institute board member. “BIO5 is a gem in which the community should take great pride." 

The goal of the evening was to provide a personalized journey through BIO5’s state-of-the-art facilities and allow guests to engage with BIO5 researchers directly. With 380 researchers from 18 colleges and over 70 departments across the university, the BIO5 Institute is a powerhouse of bioscience discovery and innovation. 

Meeting BIO5 scientists 

Attendees witnessed science in action with tours to over 18 labs and core facilities in the Thomas W. Keating Bioresearch and Biosciences Laboratory Building. While training the next generation of scientists, BIO5 focuses on moving innovations that improve human and environmental health out of the lab and into the community. 

“As the voice of business leaders in the region, the Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC) fully supports and appreciates the high-impact research and innovation occurring at the BIO5 Institute that contributes to a thriving knowledge-based economy,” said Allen Kinnison, SALC vice president. “BIO5’s contribution to scientific research is significant and can play an important role in the region’s economic development.” 

Fireside chats — including engineers, physician-scientists, and computational researchers — invited researchers from across the university campus. This series of focused conversations explored the people behind the core five disciplines represented by BIO5 — agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy and science. 

Our work not only pushes the boundaries of science but also fuels Arizona’s agriculture and healthcare sectors with improvements in crop resilience, disease treatment, and health monitoring,” said Jennifer Kehlet Barton, director of the BIO5 Institute. “Through events like Behind BIO5, we open our doors to the community and stakeholders, showcasing the groundbreaking research happening at the university.” 

Several research groups affiliated with BIO5 set up interactive tables to give one-on-one research demonstrations. For example, guests could better understand brain health from the Brain Imaging Center, learn about sequencing technology from the Arizona Genomics Institute, explore microbiology with Paul Carini, associate professor of environmental science, or see how plant root architecture can solve agricultural challenges with Alexander Bucksch, associate professor of plant science. 

Creating connection for researchers

Events like Behind BIO5 not only make research accessible to guests, but also fosters interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists.  

"Behind BIO5 was beneficial to me in that it quickly reacquainted me with both the richness and breadth of the tapestry of expertise at BIO5 that seamlessly interlinks what seem on the surface to be disparate disciplines,” said Joel Cuello, a fireside chat guest, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at the College of Engineering, and member of the BIO5 Institute. “And, indeed, I just found and met through this notable event a future key collaborator for a timely area of research I am initiating.” 

Over 20 alumni from the BIO5 Institute’s Keep Youth Engaging in Science (KEYS) Research Internship presented posters that showed the culmination of their 7-week summer research experience under the mentorship of UArizona faculty, many of whom are BIO5 members. This opportunity allows the community to meet the next generation of innovators while encouraging these aspiring scientists to network. 

“As a KEYS Research Internship alum, the event provided an immense perspective,” said Moses Foiryolo, a UArizona physiology major pursuing his MD/PhD who was among 20 alumni from the KEYS Research Internship presenting a poster. “I saw how far I have come, not only as a researcher but as a person. It was amazing to see how resilient and hardworking my fellow alumni are. It couldn’t have been any more inspiring.” 

Upcoming public events include the BIO5 Inspiring Women in STEM event on July 13 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. in the Thomas W. Keating Building and the KEYS Research Internship Showcase from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. on July 19 in the Health Sciences Innovation Building on the University of Arizona campus.  

To stay up to date on upcoming news and events, sign up for the monthly BIO5 Connection newsletter 

Taking advantage of the body’s electrical system to treat disease

Science Talks Podcast Episode 53 Featuring Dr. Christopher Banek
Dr. Christopher Banek discusses his journey from writer to scientist, and how manipulating the body’s nervous system is the next frontier for treating cardiovascular and kidney diseases.

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, affects nearly half of American adults and is the leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Researchers are working to better understand the role of the peripheral nervous system, the part of your nervous system that lies outside your brain and spinal cord, in the development of cardiovascular as well as renal diseases. Amy Randall-Barber from the BIO5 Institute was joined on Science Talks by Dr. Christopher Banek, BIO5 member and assistant professor in the Department of Physiology at University of Arizona College of Medicine - Tucson. Dr. Banek works in the nexus of cardio-renal-neural physiology, studying the causes of hypertension and polycystic kidney disease. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ARB: Let’s start with a couple of ice-breaker questions. What’s your favorite snack?  

Chips and salsa. 

ARB: What is your go-to karaoke song? 

I want to lean towards Radiohead songs, but I’ll just do a classic: “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra. 


ARB: Do you have a bucket list? And if so, can you tell us about one or two items on it?  

I feel like I’m young and naive enough to still think I’ll live forever. I haven’t given it too much consideration. Maybe jump out of plane at some point in my life – skydiving.  


ARB: What brought you to University of Arizona and BIO5? 

I started at the University of Arizona in 2019 after my postdoc in Minnesota. I was drawn to the Department of Physiology for its well-rounded approach, focusing on multiple systems rather than one. It allowed each of us to have our own niche without overlapping, which complemented the ongoing research. It was a great opportunity for me. 


ARB: How did you decide on the research area you are focusing on? What motivated you to pursue it? 

Honestly, I stumbled into it. During my graduate studies, I focused on cardiovascular disease. However, within pregnancy research, I grew fond of the methodologies and models. Over time, I transitioned to broader areas like heart disease, cardiovascular, and renal diseases due to their significant impact. To this day, I still love that work.  


ARB: Can you share a recent revealing or exciting moment in your lab or research? 

So, we have been exploring the use of surgery to treat hypertension, or high blood pressure, which shows promise. We are now aiming to apply this technique to address other cardiovascular and kidney diseases.  

Recently, we’ve found success in treating polycystic kidney disease with this neurosurgical treatment. And what that means is simply cutting the nervous system connection between the kidney and the brain, slowing down the progression of the disease. This novel application offers hope for patients with limited treatment options.  

Currently, there is only one FDA-approved drug on the market for this condition from 2018. Unfortunately, despite the effectiveness of the drug in slowing down disease progression, patients' lives are significantly impacted by constant thirst and frequent urination, making bathroom visits the center of their existence. Moreover, long-term use is associated with liver toxicity, further complicating their condition. This disruption to daily life can also affect sleep quality. We aim to provide these patients and their physicians with alternative treatment options.  

Exploring combinational therapies targeting different mechanisms could potentially yield better outcomes, which is the focus of our latest research endeavors, and it is incredibly exciting. 


ARB: So, I have one question on this. If you are disrupting the pathway, are there any other negative effects to it? 

At present, there are not any well-documented negative side effects of the renal denervation procedure. Although complications like renal artery stenosis were initially a concern, they haven't been shown to occur more frequently than they would naturally.   

The only potential drawback is the loss of vasoconstriction ability, which could affect blood flow regulation in cases of hemorrhage or blood loss. However, this is not a significant issue unless treating patients engaged in activities like professional knife fighting. 


ARB: What are some of your research goals, and why is it important to study the peripheral nervous system? Could you elaborate on the significance of understanding this aspect and discuss some of your laboratory's research objectives? 

We are really fascinated by the peripheral nervous system as opposed to the central nervous system, i.e., the brain.  

The brain is like this black box that is difficult to manipulate, but the peripheral nervous system offers more control with fewer side effects. We can achieve this by selectively cutting specific nerve populations to observe how it impacts disease progression. Another exciting area is electroceuticals or neuromodulation, where we can modulate nerve activity without disrupting it entirely. This involves changing the nerve's signature to signal to the body that certain pathological signals are unnecessary or no longer present, potentially halting the disease cycle.  

I believe the future lies in this field, moving towards neuromodulation rather than simply nerve cutting. Understanding the signals we are manipulating will be crucial for advancing the field towards more effective treatments. 


ARB: So, you could also target other areas, not just focus on the kidneys or cardiovascular system? 

That's correct. It doesn’t have to be kidney or heart centric. 

Neuromodulation therapies are emerging nationwide, beyond renal nerves. For instance, vagal nerve stimulation, which modulates ascending and descending signals to mitigate or even reverse disease progression. You’re taking advantage of the body’s electrical system like hacking a computer. 


ARB: We need more of this! So, you're at the intersection of cardiovascular and renal diseases. Can you talk more about the connection between the two, or is it primarily through the peripheral nervous system?    

Yes, and to add to that point, many perceive high blood pressure as primarily a heart disease. While the heart plays a role, the kidney is central to blood volume regulation, impacting overall blood pressure. So targeting the kidney in models of hypertension is crucial for long-term blood pressure regulation. 


ARB: Your lab website mentions the use of telemetry-based approaches and acute electrophysiological preparations to assess changes in nerve activity and their effects on cardiovascular and renal responses. Could you explain these methods in simpler terms?  

In simpler terms, the telemetry-based approach involves implanting a device in animals to monitor their blood pressure and nerve activity over extended periods, like several months. This helps us track how diseases progress over time.  

On the other hand, the acute electrophysiological approach is more short-term and involves a surgical procedure under anesthesia. We use it to carefully manipulate the nervous system to observe its effects on nerve activity, blood pressure, and cardiovascular responses. 


ARB: So, this is a fun question! I noticed your lab's website reflects a vibrant culture. Could you share how your team dynamics and culture influence the research environment and overall research experience? Additionally, I am curious to learn more about Bash. 

Sure, let’s start with Bash. He is a four-year-old Australian Shepherd and Catahoula Leopard mix, a breed I had not heard of until I got him during COVID. He has been my running partner and the lab mascot ever since! 

As for the team, I have been fortunate to have incredibly smart and awesome individuals in my lab, from the lab manager to postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates.  

What is unique about our department at the University of Arizona is the large undergraduate program. I enjoy bringing undergraduates into the lab. They are eager for knowledge and experience. I believe in fostering a team-based environment where everyone works together towards common goals because success in the lab is shared. Also, I'm passionate about involving undergraduates in research to encourage them to pursue academic and PhD training and equip those interested in medicine with analytical skills that will make them better physicians. Graduating my first PhD student last Tuesday was both exciting and bittersweet. 


ARB: What lesson did your mentor impart to you? As a mentor yourself, especially to undergraduates, what principles or insights do you hope to instill in your students, considering they are at various stages of their academic journey? 

I have been fortunate to have several mentors throughout my career journey.   

One particularly influential figure was my postdoctoral advisor, John Osborn. He has been incredibly supportive of my career and development. One of the many lessons that I’ve taken from him is the team-based approach.  

It is crucial to constantly refocus on the hypothesis. How am I addressing the question? If I'm not, maybe I'm veering off into this little rabbit hole that I shouldn't be going down? Keeping it focused on the science and the underlying question is key to any research program and ensure that every experiment and analysis serve to address the central question at hand. We constantly talk about this in our lab meetings and daily discussions. This principle helps students maintain a perspective on broader scientific goals, even during the more mundane tasks like pipetting or sample collection.  


ARB: Another question we like to ask is what is your "why"? What motivates you and keeps you going in this line of work? 

If I had to do it alone, I'd be miserable. So, the "why" is science and the questions. But the "why" also includes the people. I love my lab and the people I work with.  

Do it for the people, do it for the science, do it for fun. It's fun to get up and answer some unknown questions. That's why we're academics in the first place. 


ARB: So, what’s next for you? 

What's next is that we're going to dive deeper into this polycystic kidney disease, or PKD. We just got a Research Project (R01) grant funded in December and it focuses directly on how the nervous system—peripheral nervous system, specifically the renal nerves—are contributing to the progression of this awful disease. 

We can try to mitigate either the early stages of it developing to change the disease's trajectory, or more clinically relevant, can we treat patients already presenting in the clinic with PKD. Can we offer them some sort of reversal? That would be the best-case scenario. But even if we can delay the progression or rapid progression of these cysts in the kidney, that will buy them time. 


ARB: How long does it typically take from having the idea to conduct human trials for a treatment like this? 

That is an area that we want to further develop within our research program. In my lab and here at the university, I want to see more of the basic science connection into more of a translational approach in the clinic. So, we are working on that right now.  

We have the chance to leverage this new technique that is freshly FDA approved and on the market for the treatment of hypertension. It is a catheter-based system. In essence, it is a tube that can access your kidneys' blood vessels, and from within that blood vessel, they can perform this nerve ablation. You do not feel it and the procedure is quick. It is like a light switch; you can turn it from on to off. You do not have to worry about taking a pill every morning.   

We want to translate that to other patients who may be hypertensive to move us towards clinical trials. We want to see if this is indeed efficacious for people that have limited options. 


ARB: Can you tell us what brought you onto your path to become a PhD? 

Early in my education, even as just a high schooler, I was mostly interested in writing. I love nonfiction, even to this day. I don't read much fiction; I don't have the capacity for it. So, when I went to college, I had the idea that I was going to go into journalism or become a writer. But I decided I did not like those classes. I found a lot of joy in my science classes instead and I changed my path into more science-based fields. I ended up with a triple major—it sounds like a lot, but there was a lot of overlap—biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, and chemistry. 

The reason I got into research was because of my organic chemistry professor, Viktor Zhdankin. Despite being one of the harder classes, I found it fascinating. When I talked to him during office hours, he showed me some of the reactions they were doing in the lab, and I was hooked. I joined his lab, published two papers in organic chemistry, and then took a hard left turn in physiology. It all started when I saw surgery being done on a rat and was immediately fascinated. I followed that interest to the University of Oregon for my PhD, focusing on hypertension in pregnancy. During my PhD, I realized my passion for non-traditional treatments like exercise. This solidified my decision to pursue academia, as I love answering questions, conducting research, and working with students. The energy of young minds keeps me motivated, and I have not looked back since. 

It's funny how life works out—I originally thought I would become a writer but ended up in science. However, it has come full circle because writing is a huge part of my daily routine now. Despite mostly writing dry, nonfiction science articles, it has been an inadvertent success. I owe a lot to someone who gave me an opportunity during my undergraduate years, and that is why I find it so important to pay it forward and bring others into the field. 


ARB: That's phenomenal. I wish there were more people in this world like that. Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate learning about your work and your lab. And for you taking the time with us today. 

Revolutionizing liver tissue engineering and transplants

Science Talks Podcast Episode 52 Featuring Ekta Minocha
Dr. Ekta Minocha shares how her research on stem cells aims to provide hope and innovative solutions to people suffering from liver disease and cancer.

Induced pluri-potent stem cells (iPSC) are widely used in therapeutics for disease modeling, regenerative medicine, and drug discovery. Using patients’ cells, scientists can regenerate their cells into iPSC and recreate new organs for patients who need them. Amy Randall-Barber from the BIO5 Institute was joined on Science Talks by Dr. Ekta Minocha, a 2023 BIO5 postdoctoral fellow working in the Jason Wertheim lab at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson. Dr. Minocha's work focuses on the development of bioartificial liver tissues. She hopes that one day they can replace a failing liver in the human body and expedite the waiting time associated with organ transplants.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ARB: Let’s start with a couple of ice-breaker questions as usual. Do you have a hidden talent? If so, what is it?

Yes, I like doing embroidery and glass painting. I remember, when I was in school during my summer vacations, I used to do embroidery on cushion covers and pillow covers. I also gave my grandma a handkerchief which I embroidered as a gift. And gifted a few glass paintings to my friends and relatives.


ARB: So, now I know that you like embroidery! What other kind of designs do you like to make?

I like making flowers and embellishing items like cushion covers or pillow covers with mirrors and colorful threads. I enjoy adding different types of stitches to make them beautiful. 

ARB: Who is your favorite Disney character and why?

Mickey Mouse is my favorite Disney character. I like him for his cute smile, innocence, and kindness.


ARB: Would you rather travel to the past or the future?

I would like to travel to the future because I am a curious person. I want to know what is going to happen in the future.


ARB: So, what brought you to the University of Arizona and BIO5 Institute from India, where you attended Sanjay Gandhi Post Graduate Institute of Medicine?

Since my school days, I have always had a passion for science, particularly biology. The concept of how a single cell can develop into a whole individual has always fascinated me. So, I decided to pursue my passion for science by getting a doctorate degree in the field of stem cells and tissue regeneration.  

As I was nearing the completion of my thesis, I learned about Dr. Jason Wertheim's research at the University of Arizona, which aligned perfectly with my interests and expertise in stem cells and regenerative medicine. I applied for a postdoctoral position in his lab, went through the interview process, and was fortunate enough to be selected.  

I have found the environment here to be incredibly supportive, with people open to collaborations and exciting research happening at the University of Arizona and BIO5 Institute.


ARB: Ah, that is good to hear about stories of such exciting research happening. Can you tell us about your overall research goals? Or the overall research goals of Dr. Wertheim’s lab?

The overarching research objective is to create transplantable liver tissues capable of repairing or replacing failing organs, thereby reducing transplantation waiting times. To achieve this goal, I am focused on generating liver organoids, miniature organs in a dish that mimic the functions of a normal liver. Particularly, I am utilizing these organoids to model a liver disease known as non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and to investigate the underlying mechanisms of this condition.


ARB: Does Dr. Wertheim's lab only work on liver?

In addition to liver research, Dr. Wertheim's lab also works on kidney studies and is involved in bioprinting and the development of bioartificial scaffolds.


ARB: Can you tell us about your specific project in the lab and how you became a part of that project?

Yes, my main project is developing liver organoids. So, I am using these organoids to model liver disease called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. And I am also using them to understand the underlying mechanisms of how this disease is caused.  

So, the long-term goal is to see whether we can transplant them into patients. Right now, I am waiting to see whether these liver organoids have the potential to be transplanted into animals to assess their functionality and engraftment abilities.


ARB: Can you tell us what challenges you've had during some of your experiments over your time in science?

Yes, working with induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, is quite challenging, as everyone knows. We come to the lab every day to change the media. Plus, iPSCs are like spoiled children! They behave differently, sometimes, you do everything in an analogous way, following the same pattern. But the next day, you come to the lab and see that all the cells have died. There is no apparent reason for this, but iPSCs behave that way. So, the major challenge is culturing iPSCs and working with them. Since our starting material is iPSCs, we must depend on them. They must grow better so we can make the organoids to progress our research.


ARB: So where do you get these IPSCs from?

We acquired some iPSCs from a stem cell bank in California. Additionally, we reprogram some of them from patients with NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis). For this, we collect peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) from NASH patients or patients undergoing liver transplantation. The reprogramming of PBMCs into iPSCs is conducted at Northwestern University, where we collaborated with Dr. Richard Green.  

Once we obtain the stem cells, we perform experimental work here at the University of Arizona.


ARB: You were a 2023 BIO5 postdoctoral fellow. Can you share how you first discovered this opportunity and discuss how the fellowship supported your project?

I learned about the BIO5 postdoctoral fellowship opportunity through my mentor, Dr. Wertheim. He encouraged me to apply for the grant.

The specific aim of the fellowship was to investigate the interrelationship between innate and environmental factors in non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). To achieve this, I used IPSC-derived hepatocytes and cultured them under various stiffness conditions to explore how the environment influences their behavior. This research focused on understanding the connection between innate biological factors and environmental drivers in the development of NASH. We observed that changes in stiffness altered the lipid species and influenced the gene expression levels of genes responsible for lipid production.


ARB: Can you tell us how close we are to being able to use the tissues that you have developed for organ transplants in place of traditional organ transplants?

Currently, we are still in the preclinical trial phase, so there is still a long way to go before we can proceed to clinical trials for transplantation. Induced pluripotent stem cells offer numerous benefits but also come with limitations. One significant challenge is their inherent heterogeneity and the variability observed from batch to batch. For example, in liver organoids, we expect the major cell population to be hepatocytes, but sometimes we observe an abundance of non-parenchymal cell types instead. Overcoming this batch-to-batch variation is crucial before considering transplantation into patients.


ARB: Thank you for doing this important work. Eventually, you will nail this and be able to heal many people hopefully. So, do you have a mentor that has impacted your life?  

Yes, certainly, I have been incredibly fortunate to have had outstanding mentors throughout my life. My parents have been my biggest mentors, providing unwavering support, encouragement, and motivation every step of the way. I owe a great deal of gratitude to them for their constant guidance.  

Additionally, during my educational journey, I have been privileged to have mentors like Dr. Soniya Nityanand, Dr. C.P Chaturvedi, Mr. Vinod Pandey, and Leena Chatterjee, who have played pivotal roles in shaping my path. Here at the University of Arizona, Dr. Jason Wertheim has been a remarkable mentor. His guidance, motivation, and inspiration have been instrumental in my growth and development. Working under his mentorship has truly helped me refine my skills and abilities.


ARB: Yeah, I can only imagine what it must be like to be in your shoes, pursuing a PhD and then working for Dr. Wertheim. His work is renowned, and he is known to be a brilliant and wonderful man! Do you think you will stay at the University of Arizona, or you will go elsewhere?

I'm a J1 scholar, so I am subject to a two-year home residency rule after completing my current program. Therefore, I will be heading to India for the next two years. During this time, I will be seeking job positions in India while also applying for grants here. My long-term plan is to pursue faculty positions in India.


ARB: Do you already know who you would like to work with in India?

I will see, there are positions, I will apply for them, but they are extremely limited.


ARB: Well, I'm sure they will be glad to have you and everything you have learned while you were here. Can you elaborate on why you do what you do? What got you into it?  

Liver cancer is a significant cause of mortality, and currently, transplantation is the primary therapeutic option available to patients. However, this approach has limitations, particularly the need for a matched donor.  

Therefore, my focus is on developing transplantable liver tissues using the patient's own cells to avoid rejection. If successful, this could revolutionize treatment by providing alternative therapeutic options and significantly reducing transplant waiting times.  

This is the driving force behind my work—to offer hope and innovative solutions to patients suffering from liver cancer.


ARB: Well, thank you so much for being here with us today and telling us about your work. Do you want to share anything about your work or time here at the university?

It has been an incredible experience collaborating with some amazing researchers. Dr. John Purdy has been instrumental in our lipidomics work, while Dr. Nathan Cherrington, a mentor during my postdoc, has been invaluable for our studies on drug metabolism.  

Additionally, we are exploring the impact of flow on organoids through microfluidics research, with assistance from Dr. Yitshak Zohar from the aeronautical and mechanical engineering department.  

The collaborative atmosphere here is truly remarkable. People are helpful and open to collaboration, which makes it more enjoyable. Science thrives on collaboration, doesn't it? I would also like to add that Dr. Wertheim always encourages collaboration. He is consistently open to collaborations and promotes me to take on leadership roles during collaborative meetings, encouraging me to explain my work and contribute actively.


ARB: That's wonderful. Well, thank you again for being here. We really appreciate your time and you for sharing your information about your project and your story.

Pioneering technologies in nanoscience and medicine

Science Talks Podcast Episode 51 Featuring Frederic Zenhausern
Dr. Frederic Zenhausern shares his long and fascinating scientific journey, from rapid DNA testing to organoid-based drug discovery, that spans the ever-evolving landscape of scientific innovation.

See how an interdisciplinary scientific approach shaped the future of molecular diagnostics and personalized healthcare on a global scale. Amy Randall-Barber from the BIO5 Institute was joined on Science Talks by Dr. Frederic Zenhausern, director of the Center for Applied NanoBioscience and Medicine (ANBM) at the University of Arizona College of Medicine - Phoenix, among many other appointments in the college including in Basic Medical Science, Radiation Oncology, Biomedical Engineering, and Clinical Translational Science. Prior to coming to the university, Dr. Zenhausern co-founded and directed the Flexible Display Center at ASU MacroTechnology Works. He received his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Geneva, an MBA in finance from Rutgers University, and his doctorate in applied physics from the Department of Condensed Physics Matters at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Dr. Zenhausern is an inventor, mastering interdisciplinary work in science, technology and healthcare, to drive clinical translation.  


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


ARB: Let’s start with a couple of ice-breaker questions to lighten up the mood. What was your dream job as a kid? 

When I was a kid, I loved animals and I wanted to be a vet. 


ARB: What would you like to be known or remembered for? 

What I think is interesting is in my training and professional career, I call myself a true interdisciplinary scientist.  

I think I demonstrated how interdisciplinary science brings ideas across many different areas of scientific and engineering technologies. I developed some basic optical sciences while I was at IBM, a product platform at Motorola labs. Even now at the University of Arizona, we have developed a technology that goes through the FDA and brings practical solutions in life sciences, bio defense and healthcare. We have a very broad portfolio of technological impact. 


ARB: You started off in Switzerland, and you ended up in Arizona. Can you tell us how you ended up here?  

That’s a long story. When I was in Switzerland, I did my PhD thesis in partnership between the University of Geneva and University of Lausanne, but also IBM Research in Zurich. And after my PhD, I was looking for a postdoctoral position. I got a beautiful location at UC Santa Barbara with a nice beach and my wife was happy! We were ready to move to California, but IBM twisted my arm and said you should come and work for us at the IBM Research Lab, located in Bronx. And it was a difficult sell, but ultimately a great experience for us. 

In the years that the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab would develop different technology platforms, including DNA sequencing, I was the first to bring a real virus for IBM to look at using high resolution microscopy techniques. We made a lot of different discoveries which then led me to develop all kinds of technologies.  

In a move to Princeton, New Jersey, I was a part of a Swiss chemical company developing new technology mimicking the human nose and looking at electronic nose technology. I also joined a photonic center at Princeton University as an industry member, which led me to start a new startup company in Princeton that was a subsidiary of a French startup, commercializing electronic nose technology. At the time, we were also discussing with David Wald at Tufts University the technology that started Illumina, that we all now know in the field of DNA sequencing.  

Also, I was recruited as one of the advisory board members in the Motorola Company. They were establishing a new biosystem in Arizona to start DNA microarray technology, and I got recruited to come to Arizona. 


ARB: You were inducted into the National Academy of inventors as a fellow in 2013, for the invention of a rapid DNA processor. Since you mentioned working with the inventor of Illumina, can you explain how we use the DNA processor today and how it has evolved since then? 

The goal for us has always been to try to do molecular diagnostics. When we started the technology using microfluidic devices to automate and simplify the workflow processes for preparing a specimen, we realized that any application in medicine would be a long project for us since we needed to go to the FDA for regulatory compliance.  

We also looked at other applications, where there were some elements of regulations but not as stringent. At that time, there was a big backlog of DNA fingerprinting. It was taking years until a sample could be processed. So, the Department of Justice decided to promote a new technology to solve the backlog. We came up with that technology focused around reducing work through laboratory processes and put it into a small machine.   

And that’s what we did initially with our contract with the FBI. The FBI introduced us to other countries and police forces, including the UK Forensic Science Services, or FSS. They were the leading inventors of the technology with a group at a university in the UK. They had the vision of bringing technology closer to the crime scene. Initially, we developed a technology that would go into a police van. But that scenario changed and ultimately, that technology was deployed at a police station instead. That allowed the screening of potential offenders and finding a sample much easier.  

It was a complex regulatory validation. We were a part of a larger European program called MIDAS consortium, where we validated the technology between the police forces in the UK, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, which proved successful. In 2017, the DNA Act was modified to include rapid DNA Act to court proceedings. This marked the commercial development and widespread adoption of our technology within the Justice Department. 


ARB: Wow, I’m just blown away. You are currently the director of the Center for Applied Nano Bioscience here at the University of Arizona. Can you briefly tell us about the research there? 

We have a large portfolio of activities. The center consists of a group of 15 members, including mechanical engineers, physicists, MDs, PhDs, and molecular biologists. Our goal is to identify medical needs in healthcare delivery by applying engineering principles to find solutions. Collaboration is at the heart of our approach, as we work with various agencies and industry partners including NASA, NIH, and DOD.   

Typically, our projects are early-stage discovery projects.  For example, we are exploring novel drug delivery systems, using plant-derived lipids, an intrinsic agent with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Loading these lipids with different drugs or utilizing these plants for gene delivery, represents a promising avenue for drug development. 

Furthermore, we have developed an invitro system that could potentially replace animal models for testing drugs. On this platform, we combine organic chips with organoids for 3D cell culture. Under a partnership with Mitsubishi Gas Chemical company in Japan, we are scaling up the production of this technology for commercialization as it holds potential for drug testing and personalized treatment.  

We are exploring personalized medicine using organoid-based techniques to analyze genomic signatures of tumors and adapting therapies. For example, if at a hospital consultation you extract tumor cells and treat that tumor in a model, you can look at different combination of therapies that might be more appropriate for that person. By integrating these technologies, we are trying to improve patient outcomes. 


ARB: How long does it take for something like this to come into use? 

So, it depends. For example, when we talk about rapid DNA testing, it took about 15 years from development to implementation. On the other hand, the COVID test we developed, approved by the FDA and available on Amazon, was developed in less than a year. Now, these kinds of platform technologies for organoids will take a few years, about five years, until they can be deployed in the marketplace, because they will still be in the research platform phase. 



ARB: Thank you. Just curious because this is such amazing technology, and it is needed. 

It is a good point. Sometimes we think about getting a grant for five years, but most of the time, it's not enough time to mature technology.  

So, what are the mechanisms in academia that allow us to keep going and be part of its development, until a new company can take it? There are a few mechanisms that the government is offering. And that is why I think getting to the university's vision and sustainability of developing those kinds of technology is crucial. 


ARB: Absolutely. Can you share what inspired you to pursue this interdisciplinary work? Was it something you always wanted to do, or did you find your way here unexpectedly? 

That's a good question. My journey began with a background in biochemistry during college. When I reached my senior year, I embarked on a research project. Coincidentally, IBM Research in Zurich had just seen two of their scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the scanning tunneling microscope. This device could profile surfaces and see atoms, which fascinated me. I saw the potential for its application in molecular studies.   

So, I reached out to those scientists at IBM for a summer internship. They said, ‘we don’t do biology, we do physics.”  However, I secured the internship and, although we didn’t know what to do, we started to look at molecules using the technology. I was so excited by the experience that I decided to pursue a PhD in physics. That's how I found my passion for interdisciplinary work and everything else fell into place. 



ARB: You have focused on various scientific arenas throughout your career. However, you also pursued an MBA in finance. How do you believe that has influenced your professional journey? 

Yes, indeed. Let me provide some context first. It was back in the year 2000 when I was residing in the bustling New York area amidst a booming economy. There was this prevailing notion that Wall Street held the promise of substantial wealth creation, attracting scientific talent like mathematicians and physicists from esteemed institutions such as Princeton into venture capitalist circles.  

I was influenced by this trend. However, I also recognized that one day I wanted to have a startup company, and adding financial and managerial skills would be helpful. That’s why I enrolled in a finance-focused MBA program. Finance, with its heavy emphasis on mathematics, seemed conducive to the scientific mindset.  

The program not only equipped me with financial acumen but also enhanced softer skills crucial for effective people management and interaction. In retrospect, it proved to be an asset, and I found myself applying those principles right from the outset of my career. 



ARB: What are you currently looking forward to in your academic or personal life?  

On a personal level, I feel incredibly privileged to have two outstanding adult children who are now embarking on exciting ventures in medicine and engineering. It is a great source of immense joy for me, especially as our family continues to grow, welcoming our first grandchild.  

Professionally and academically, my focus remains on serving the community and addressing some of the grand challenges in our society. I am deeply committed to continuing this work and exploring innovative solutions.  With the rapidly changing economy, we find ourselves at the intersection of cleantech, biotech, and space tech. This convergence presents exciting opportunities as we explore and venture into new frontiers. It’s a very exciting time for us. Oh, and on a different note I love mountain biking and would like to start a new club here in Phoenix for biking enthusiasts. 



ARB: That would be so cool. We thank you again for being here with us today and sharing about your journey, your inventions, and everything that you are doing now. 

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.