Accomplishments

The Biodesign Institute’s substantial success is a cornerstone of Arizona State University’s strategy to propel ASU into the top tier of the world’s research universities.

The State of Arizona and ASU’s administration have received a significant return on their investments in the Institute, generous backing that served as the key catalyst in advancing Biodesign’s goal of becoming a world-class, entrepreneurial research enterprise to improve human health and the health and security of our planet.

“We scientists and researchers have a privileged position in society — the opportunity to stand at the edge of knowledge and look forward to the future. The greatest reward comes when we can use that knowledge to improve the state of humanity.” 

—Joshua LaBaer, MD, PhD, Executive director, Biodesign Institute

Read a comprehensive legacy of global impact and a timeline of these discoveries. Some of our most recent achievements are described below. 

We’re determined to destroy disease

Biodesign researchers study 139 different diseases and disorders, from Alzheimer’s to Zika. They are united by a drive to determine what causes disease, to create technology that leads to early detection, and to discover treatments that can be deployed among all people — from those in the most sophisticated medical institutions to those in developing countries.

The gut-brain connection: Closing in on autism
Today about one in every 59 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism – a significant increase from one in every 150 in 2000. Arizona State University researchers are finding a strong connection between the microbes in the gut and the signals that travel to the brain. In a small trial, the scientists demonstrated physical and behavioral improvements in children diagnosed with autism after they were treated with microbial transplant therapy – or fecal transplants. The next step is a larger, placebo-controlled trial. 

Protecting space travelers
NASA pays careful attention to the health of its astronauts. When they became concerned about the effect of infections on flight crews, they turned to a Biodesign team to help them understand how pathogens behave in microgravity and how they might affect astronaut health. The studies are designed to help NASA chart how infectious diseases might occur during human exploration missions to the moon and Mars.

Faster UTI detection
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) cause one-fourth of all bacterial infections in humans, particularly in women. Global statistics predict that 60% of women have experienced a UTI. Diagnosing a UTI is a tricky business, usually taking more than 24 hours, so doctors typically send patients home with an antibiotic just in case. But overuse of these drugs contributes to antibiotic resistance. Researchers at Biodesign, in collaboration with Mayo Clinic, are creating a new tool that will help diagnose UTIs in 90 minutes, reducing unnecessary or ineffective treatments.

Tick sickness: improving Lyme disease diagnostics
Lyme disease is a mounting health concern, with estimates of more than 300,000 cases in the U.S. each year. The illness, which produces a constellation of symptoms, has been notoriously tricky to diagnose. Researchers at Biodesign are developing an early detection method that will pinpoint the molecular signatures of the disease with high accuracy. Further validation is needed before the new technique can find its way into clinical use, but a successful biomarker test for Lyme disease may open a new path for diagnosing a broad range of infectious diseases that are resistant to detection by conventional means. 

Detecting CTE before death
Former pro football players Brett Favre, Bernie Kosar and Jim McMahon have something in common: they have been diagnosed with “likely CTE.” Until now, CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) could only be detected through autopsy, leaving questions about who has it, when they get it and how it affects their lives. Researchers from the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center, Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine and Boston University have brought us a step closer to diagnosing CTE before death. The study demonstrates that an experimental PET scan can detect a hallmark of CTE — the accumulation of abnormal tau protein — in brain regions of living former NFL players who have cognitive, mood and behavior symptoms.

Comprehending cancer

Our researchers have 24 types of cancer in their sights, seeking to understand the root cause – and how to halt its progression in the earliest of stages. 

A non-surgical biopsy for breast cancer
Researchers from the Biodesign Institute, Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and Mayo Clinic in Arizona have developed a new type of blood test for breast cancer that could help patients and doctors avoid thousands of unnecessary surgeries and otherwise precisely monitor disease progression. The diagnostic precision can detect the presence of residual cancer to inform physicians and their patients if cancer has been successfully eradicated.

Are there answers to cancer in the cosmos?
Scientists at the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery are turning to outer space to understand the inner workings of a cancer-linked protein, known as Taspase 1. Working with NASA and the National Cancer Institute, the CASD team grew crystals in microgravity, with the goal of developing new, biologically based drugs to fight cancer with fewer side effects. 

Unveiling answers to Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease is projected to affect 14 million Americans and cost over $20 trillion in the next four decades. The ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center combines the strength of one of the nation’s largest public research universities, ASU, and one of the nation’s largest nonprofit health systems, Banner Health. In 2018, ASU built a new home in Biodesign C for what may well become one of the nation’s largest interdisciplinary assemblies of Alzheimer’s researchers. 
Choline may aid prevention 
Alzheimer’s disease causes harm to the brain long before clinical symptoms become evident, so early intervention is critical. In a new study, Biodesign researchers revealed that a lifelong dietary regimen of choline holds the potential to prevent Alzheimer's disease. Choline is a safe and easy-to-administer nutrient that is naturally present in some foods and can be used as a dietary supplement.

New drug strikes at Alzheimer’s early
Plaques and tangles, considered classic hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, have been the objects of fierce debate, sustained research and many billions of dollars in drug development. Yet efforts to target these pathologies have met with failure after failure. Researchers at the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center and University of Arizona’s College of Pharmacy are exploring a small molecule drug known as DYR219. The promising new drug acts by inhibiting an early pathway believed to be critical in the formation of both plaques and tangles. The promising therapy, while still in the experimental stages, may succeed where other treatments have failed. 


It’s not nice to threaten Mother Nature

Access to safe drinking water, clean air, healthy food and renewable energy sources are some of the greatest challenges to human society. Biodesign researchers are harnessing the power of sustainable chemistry, microbiological systems and renewable bioenergy sources to help us maintain a clean, green planet.

How deep is our plastic?
Researchers from Arizona State University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute analyzed samples collected from the deepest parts of the ocean – and found the answers alarming. Microplastics were found as deep as nearly 2,000 feet below the water’s surface. The plastics were also found in the digestive systems of animals that ingested the water – sea life that could end up on a dinner plate. 

Laboratory-on-wheels will restore arid lands
In Arizona, particulate matter is the top source of pollution. As dirt flies away, it becomes dust that can cause problems ranging from triggering respiratory illness to reducing the capacity of solar panels by blocking out the sunlight. Researchers at the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics rolled out an answer in May, when they unveiled a mobile nursery – a laboratory on wheels where researchers will grow native strains of microbes to restore soil in areas threatened by erosion.

Collaborating around the world to recycle wastewater
Wastewater treatment and reuse are critical to global health and sustaining a world population predicted to reach 10 billion by 2050. Scientists at the Biodesign Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology have joined with scientists the world over to create the Global Water Microbiome Consortium as a way to strengthen international collaboration and communication on global research and education in order to improve our understanding of important microbial communities and how to maintain them. 


Our research is helping defend our nation

Advances in understanding biological forces can help – or when used unwisely, hurt. Biodesign scientists are developing ways to monitor threats and protect people in harm’s way, either from natural disasters or human conflict. 

Building a new weapon against weapons of mass destruction
The Biodesign Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Medicine, under the direction of Biodesign Institute Executive Director Joshua LaBaer, was selected by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build a field-deployable, point-of-care device that will determine in 30 minutes or less if a person has been exposed to weapons of mass destruction. The research builds on the university’s growing capabilities in developing molecular diagnostics for applications in defense and human health.

Detecting infectious disease in the field 
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security provided funds to the Biodesign Center for Innovations in Medicine to devise a diagnostic platform for identifying multiple infectious diseases using their lab-on-a-chip immunosignature device.

Thwarting Ebola and other epidemics
In 2019, officials from the World Health Organization and National Institutes of Health announced that new drugs had been discovered to treat and cure Ebola. The roots of the amazing Ebola cure can be traced back to Charles Arntzen’s groundbreaking research at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. Arntzen’s team created a “molecular toolbox” to transform tobacco plants into biological factories, ultimately producing anti-Ebola monoclonal antibodies.


Biodesign researchers are leading the field

Building on nature: Biodesign goes green
As of 2018, there were fewer than 7,000 buildings in the world crowned with the highest honor for maintaining the highest standards in building sustainability: LEED Platinum. Demonstrating “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design,” the newest structure on the Biodesign complex, Biodesign C, was honored with the LEED Platinum rating by the U.S. Green Building Council. Biodesign B was the first building in Arizona to earn the LEED Platinum certification. The three buildings on the Biodesign complex house nearly 1,200 researchers, staff and students.

Fast Company names Hao Yan to 'Most Creative People in Business 2019'
Citing his visionary leadership and his extraordinary work using nanobots to fight cancerous tumors by choking off their blood supply, Fast Company magazine recognized Professor Hao Yan as an inspiring leader who is shaping the future in creative ways. A widely hailed leader in the field of DNA origami, Yan attributes his ability to develop creative solutions in part to nature, in part to ASU President Michael Crow, and in part to being housed in a highly interdisciplinary research environment at ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

Space scientist Jennifer Barrila earns President’s Award
Jennifer Barrila, an assistant research professor in the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics, received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for her work on understanding how infectious disease risks may be altered during spaceflight missions. PECASE is the nation’s highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers.