Biodesign wraps up successful academic year with major accolades, eye toward expansion

Biodesign wraps up successful academic year with major accolades, eye toward expansion

July 29, 2016

July 28, 2016

Valley weather perhaps can best be described simply as either heaven or hell. Now, with the truly Sun Devilish, summer cauldron upon us, most central Arizonans ----ASU faculty and staff included---have an eye toward fleeing the iconic saguaro-dotted Sonoran desert landscape for vacation ----and preferably, a welcome respite in cooler climates.

But summer also represents an increasingly brief time to catch a breath in academia, with the turning of the calendar in July to a new fiscal year and growing anticipation of the upcoming fall semester. With that in mind, we take an opportunity to look back at some of Biodesign’s major accomplishments from the past academic year, with a glance to the exciting year ahead.

Bright new stars

Nicholas Stephanopoulus, Ph.D., and Ximin He, Ph.D., a pair of recent faculty recruits into Hao Yan’s Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics, garnered prestigious U.S. Air Force Young Investigator Awards. Both will work on self-assembled nanostructures, including developing new building blocks and autonomic adaptive structures for biomedical and bioelectronics applications. 

BioXFEL Researcher Richard Kirian received the Fonda-Fasella award. The annual Fonda-Fasella award ceremony was held on December 11, 2015, during the Elettra Users' Meeting, Kirian presented on the "Multicolor FEL pulses and coherent control on the attosecond time scale opening new science perspectives", which pushed the boundaries of using the world's most powerful laser to help solve protein structures for biomedical and bioenergy applications.  The Fonda-Fasella prize is awarded to a young researcher who has obtained important results while working at Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste.

All total, more than a dozen new faculty joined Biodesign during the past year, recruited from Harvard, MIT and other academic powerhouses. They were attracted in part by the unlimited opportunities, and high-risk, daring optimism ASU has to offer over more traditional academic institutions.  

Key initiatives

With a difficult flat federal funding environment (the federal success rate for funding grants averaged about eight percent), Biodesign faculty’s ability to win their fair share of major awards among some stiff national competition represents a major achievement. Biodesign faculty outcompeted peers to garner more than $31 million in new federal awards, which will fuel new science discoveries as well as provide high-paid jobs and train the future Valley bioscience workforce. This is federal money and workforce development that would simply go elsewhere without the ability and reputation of Biodesign’s talented faculty.

Biodesign has been a key catalyst in the long-term expansion of ASU’s research portfolio, particularly for NIH funding. Fresh on the heels of the investment toward establishing an Banner-ASU Neuro initiative, the Neurodegenerative Research Center at Biodesign is already paying dividends. The eight new NDRC faculty, including world-renowned Alzheimer’s research leader Dr. Eric Reiman, were recruited to the center.  Researcher Salvadore Oddo is hard at work with a new $1.8 million award from the NIH to study the possible role of the drug rapamycin in the prevention of Alheimer’s disease.

Other recently funded Biodesign initiatives included:

  • The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced  a new National Microbiome Initiative (NMI) to foster the integrated study of microbiomes across different ecosystems. Helping lead the initiative is Dr. Ferran Garcia-Pichel, dean of natural sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University and founding director of the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics, which launched today in concert with OSTP’s new commitment.
  • Interim Biodesign executive director Josh LaBaer, MD, PhD, who also directs the Biodesign Center for Personalized Medicine, received a $7 million contract extension from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to produce a diagnostic test to measure an individual’s level of absorbed radiation in the event of an unplanned radiological or nuclear event. Currently, there is no U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared or approved, high-throughput system to measure the radiation dose absorbed by individuals within a large population.
  • Matthew Scotch, PhD, of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Security, was awarded $1.8 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease to track the evolution and spread of viral genomes by geospatial observation error.
  • Marco Mangone, PhD, of the Biodesign Center for Personalized Diagnostics was awarded $1.5 million from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The funding will support his study of genetics and genomics of alternative polyadenylation and miRNA regulation in the nematode C. elegans.
  • Phillip Stafford, PhD, of the Biodesign Center for Innovations in Medicine was awarded $1.2 million from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to pursue multiplexed blood screening using immunosignatures. 
  • Under a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy, Bruce Rittmann and physicist Klaus Lackner explore new ways of supplying microalgae with COin order to boost production. The photosynthetic organisms are useful for biofuels and a broad range of consumer products.

Key discoveries

The core of ASU’s transformation as a New American University is its view of research as a knowledge enterprise; responsible for the wellbeing and advancement of the communities it serves. Here are some of the discoveries made recently at Biodesign that are the first steps to making our lives better:

  • Athena Aktipis prepared a “cheat sheet” describing how cancer cells violate the five foundations of multicellularity. Her contributions were part of an interdisciplinary, multi-institute research project for the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. The work was the focus of an article in the NY Times.
  • In research supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Joseph Blattmann modeled the functioning and exhaustion of CD8 T-cells in response to viral infection by lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV).
  • Using new tricks of the trade, Hao Yan describes nanoscale architectural forms including star shapes, elaborate tiling patters, 8-fold quasicrystalline shapes, fishnet arrays, flower and bird designs and an Archimedean solid with 60 edges, 24 vertices and 38 faces—constructed with DNA origami technique. The research appeared in Nature Nanotechnology.
  • In widely publicized research, Carlo Maley deciphered a key ingredient responsible for Peto’s paradox, showing that the impressive cancer-fighting ability of elephants is due to multiple copies of the cancer-suppressing gene p53.
  • Coming soon to the Biodesign building C: a free electron laser reduced from several miles in length to benchtop size, thanks to path breaking research by William Graves. When the instrument is complete, it will cause a paradigm shift in fields as diverse as protein structure investigation, leading edge medical imaging, oil exploration and even painting analysis.
  • In work appearing in Science Advances, Nongjian (N.J.) Tao and his colleagues describe a new method for examining small molecules and their communication with membrane proteins. The research will allow scientists and clinicians to study these interactions at an astonishingly minute scale with unprecedented precision.
  • In research appearing in the Nature Publishing Group journal Scientific Reports, Debra Hansen outlined an innovative means of investigating membrane proteins produced by a pair of highly pathogenic organisms. Her team showed that DNA-based genetic immunization—using a device known as a gene gun—could successfully express membrane proteins in mice and induce the animals to produce a range of critical antibodies to bacterial and viral targets.
  • Mischievous fetal cells can migrate from the placenta, affecting maternal health for both good and ill, as Athena Aktipis (along with Angelo Fortunato, Melissa Wilson Sayres and Amy Boddy) describe in a much-publicized study featured in the New York Times and published in the journal Bioessays.
  • Rolf Halden showed off the IS2B, a mobile laboratory capable of performing precision analysis of sampled water and sediment. In research appearing in the Nature Publishing Group journal Scientific Reports, Halden analyzed halogenated chemicals known as fiproles, which have been linked with environmental hazards and may be involved in the collapse of honeybee colonies.
  • In a study appearing in ACS Chem Neuroscience, Biodesign NDRC members Diego Mastroeni and Paul Coleman teamed up with Sid Hecht to investigate novel antioxidant compounds that may reverse the effects of amyloid beta on mitochondrial function in Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Bad news in Brooklyn: Rolf Halden examined cord blood samples from pregnant women in Brooklyn and found the highest worldwide levels of paraben chemicals, which are used in cosmetics. The study appeared in the journal Environment International.
  • Genetics researcher Marco Mangione has assembled the first working catalog of the non-coding regions found at the ends of genes. Known as untranslated regions or UTRs they are believed to subtly regulate gene function. He described the new resource for the international scientific community in a paper appearing in BMC Genomics. 
  • Thanks to John Spence and others, ASU—already an outstanding leader in atomic resolution electron microscopy—is about to add another jewel to its crown, when a Cryo-electron microscopy facility is installed this fall. The instrument can image biological molecules in astounding detail at the atomic scale.
  • X-ray crystallography took another major step forward with a pioneering new technique that uses continuous diffraction to extract much more information from imperfectly ordered crystals. Petra Fromme and colleagues used the method to home in on photosystem II, the protein complex responsible for photosynthesis, describing their results in the journal Nature.
  • With funding from the Bezos Family Foundation, Annie Warren, director of research and development at ASU’s Biodesign Institute; Leanna Archambault, associate professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College; and Lee Hartwell, ASU-affiliated faculty, and Nobel Prize recipient (in physiology), are leading a team in developing an online tool kit for educators focused on sustainability education. The grant supports development of a Teaching Time Capsule, a tool for K–8 teachers to weave sustainability into existing course materials.

Bench to bedside…and beyond

In a newly released patent report, ASU ranked higher --- 38th among worldwide institutions in earning utility patents, according to the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association----than Seoul National University, in 39th place, as well as Duke, the University of Southern California, Princeton, Ohio State, Penn State and Yale. The University of California system, with 10 campuses, ranked first with 489 patents. 

It underscores the university’s effort to ease the process for acquiring patents. Ninety-six companies have been launched based on ASU innovations, and more than $600 million has been raised — including a record $96 million in fiscal year 2016. A patent is important because it protects the work done by ASU’s faculty and shows that research done in a lab turns into something tangible.

The discoveries Biodesign scientists make are often with an eye toward applications and commercialization. Working hand in hand with ASU’s intellectual property arm, Arizona Technology Enterprises, or AzTE, Biodesign scientists have filed more than 600 invention disclosures and 75 patents issued since inception.

In addition, eighteen start-ups have been launched at Biodesign alone, with four in the past year.

Start-ups that drew investments last year included HealthTell, a diagnostic platform that can assess real-time immune system responses and came out of the Biodesign Institute with company founders and ASU professors Stephen Johnston and Neal Woodbury. HealthTell recently completed a $40 million capital campaign and is poised to enter the big leagues as “one of the top 5 startups to watch” in the highly competitive health care diagnostics arena. The technology allows a detailed portrait of the body’s immune response to be generated from a tiny sample of blood.

Among those helping Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE) celebrate a record-breaking year of inventions, patents and start-ups, were efforts including Stuart Lindsay and Peiming Zhang, who developed a next-generation DNA sequencer based on carbon nanotube technology, and along with Brian Ashcroft, founded a new start-up called Recognition Analytix LLC; and Tsafrir Mor, who used plants to produce a new therapeutic, called human butyrylcholinesterase, that can rapidly reverse paralysis of the airways (or apnea) caused by succinylcholine.

Rolf Halden works on improving human health by studying exposure to toxic chemicals and inventing ways to clean up contamination in soil and groundwater. He has developed several diagnostic devices and methods.

His start-up company, launched after he came to the Biodesign Institute, is called In Situ Well Technologies and commercializes his “In Situ Microcosm Array” technology, a pod-like device that gets sent into a groundwater monitoring well and can conduct multiple experiments simultaneously.

In a new endeavor, Halden also has patents pending on a technology that measures indoor air contamination by examining the condensation water that leaks outdoors from an air-conditioning unit.

More recently, tech transfer efforts at Biodesign have focused on a response to two global health crises: bringing a Zika diagnostic and a better condom to prevent the worldwide spread of HIV and other STDs to commercialization. Alexander Green, Ph.D., of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, has been selected as one of three finalists for the Phoenix Business Journal’s Health Care Hero award in the research/innovator category for his new Zika diagnostic. Shengxi Chen, who received a $100,000 Grand Challenges grant from the Gates Foundation in 2014, has created a material that mimics human skin, resulting in a condom that is more comfortable and thus more likely to be used. With his patented condom, Chen has registered a start-up company called Joys LLC and is seeking investors to launch a clinical trial.

Nationally and internationally renowned faculty

  • A year of impressive distinctions was bestowed upon Biodesign co-founder and Ebola researcher Charlie Arntzen, who won the Judges Award for the Governor’s Celebration of Innovation, was named Fast Company’s Most Creative Person in Business, Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and honored as the inaugural Rodale 100 recipient.
  • Josh LaBaer and Karen Anderson identified three promising autoantibody biomarker candidates for ovarian cancer, reporting their findings in the Journal of Proteome Research. (Anderson was named Healthcare Hero and presented with the top doctor honor, the 2015 Physician Award by the Phoenix Business Journal). LaBaer, who is the interim Executive Director and director of the Biodesign Center for Personalized Diagnostic was awarded the Hospital 301 Award, a prestigious and an honorary professorship for five years at the Chinese People’s Liberation Army General Hospital and Medical School. In addition, LaBaer has just been awarded the 2016 Translational Proteomics Award from the Human Proteome Organization (or HUPO).
  • Bruce Rittmann recently presented "Detoxifying Oxidized Contaminants" at the National Water Research Institute's (NWRI) Clarke Prize Conference.  Check out the video here!  By the way, Dr. Rittmann received the first NWRI Clarke Prize in 1994.
  • At ASU, Biodesign researchers Neal Woodbury and Bert Jacobs were promoted to lead academic programs into the 21st century. Woodbury became the director of the new ASU School of Molecular Sciences and Jacobs was appointed director of the School of Life Sciences.

Research expansion

Finally, a literal groundbreaking event has occurred at Biodesign. The Arizona Board of Regents recently approved the first expansion of Biodesign in a decade. The 14-acre site has been master-planned for almost a million square feet of state-of-the-art research space, with its first two building, Biodesign A and B, accounting for 350,000 sq. ft. of research infrastructure. Already Biodesign is the largest bioscience facility in Arizona, with a 10-year, $1.5 billion dollar impact on the Arizona economy.  

Now, we are about to grow again. The ground has broken and the bulldozers are fast at work. The new 193,000 sq. ft., five-story, workhorse research facility, Biodesign building C, is expected to open during the spring of 2018. It will house researchers from Biodesign, Engineering and CLAS as well as academic superstar recruits. Construction management has set up a webcam where anyone can have a bird’s eye view of the new building taking shape. CLICK HERE to SeeBioC! An official groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for Oct. 18. Stay tuned for more details.