Discovery's Desert Home
Discovery's Desert Home
September 18, 2017
September 18, 2017
Editor's note: The following story was featured in the February 15 print edition of the journal Nature.
The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University was designed to foster multidisciplinary collaboration and solve the world’s great challenges. The results speak for themselves.
William Graves came to the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University (ASU) determined to change the world. The physicist had spent the past 13 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he had proposed the construction of a compact X-Ray free-electron laser (XFEL). An XFEL accelerates electrons that generate very bright photons at extremely short X-Ray wavelengths, enabling atomic-scale imaging. Existing XFELs require several kilometers of magnets to accelerate the electrons. Graves plans to do so in just 10 meters.
When ASU and Biodesign leaders offered to support the concept, Graves leapt at the opportunity. “The Biodesign Institute saw the possibility and was willing to invest in the technology,” Graves says.
Upon arriving at Biodesign in 2015, Graves began working with chemist Petra Fromme and physicist John Spence. While Graves had the instrument knowledge, he relies on their expertise to apply a compact XFEL to biological systems. A prototype of the device is still in the making, but when the actual X-Ray source arrives it will bring exciting opportunities. “We’ll be able to probe some exotic quantum phenomena, measure competing states of materials, penetrate deep into materials and even make stroboscopic movies of complex chemical reactions,” Graves explains.
Institute of the future
At Biodesign, Graves’s story is not unique. Michael Crow, ASU’s president, started the institute in 2003 as an experiment in academia. The vision was to assemble a diverse group of scientists and position them to work together to solve big problems in environmental sustainability, human health and security.
Located in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, the institute consists of 16 centers made up of groups of researchers who focus on big projects in a range of areas: biosensors and bioenergetics; environmental security and immunotherapy; and beyond. For example, geneticist Reed Cartwright and microbiologist Xuan Wang are guiding mutations in bacteria to increase the efficiency of biofuel production. Environmental engineer Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown found differences in microbial flora among individuals that could relate to autism. And physiologist Charles Arntzen has genetically altered plants to produce low-cost medicines; his invention led to ZMapp, a cocktail of three monoclonal antibodies produced in tobacco that has made it to clinical trials as an Ebola treatment.
In 13 years, scientists from Biodesign have produced 696 inventions, received 97 patents, licensed 53 technologies and spun out 22 startup companies. Biodesign even partners with Nature to publish the Nature Partner Journal Microgravity, for which Biodesign microbiologist Cheryl Nickerson is the founding editor-in-chief.
“The ASU Biodesign Institute is an example of a public university directly impacting its community by bringing together world-class researchers from a variety of disciplines to design nature-inspired solutions for challenges,” says Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development and chief research and innovation officer at ASU. “We foster an environment where researchers aren’t afraid to take risks.”
Biodesign also nurtures research commercialization. In 2012, for example, Stephen Albert Johnston, director of the Biodesign Center for Innovations in Medicine, spun out a startup, HealthTell, built around a new liquid-biopsy technology. In 2017, the Chinese company iCarbonX formed an alliance with HealthTell to make its ImmunoSignatureTM Technology available in China, Singapore and Taiwan.
In 2018, Biodesign will open its third building, which will expand the institute by nearly 200,000 square feet. This infrastructure expansion will open new research avenues. “We want to explore big problems,” Panchanathan explains. “For example, the food, water, energy nexus is a very important area and we want to come up with solutions for the world.”
An array of opportunities
One growing area of focus at Biodesign is proteomics, which is the large-scale study of proteins in cells, organisms and species. Biodesign executive director Joshua LaBaer is a pioneer in the field. Since he joined Biodesign from Harvard in 2008, he has grown the Biodesign Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics from six to 120 scientists. Going forward, his team is heavily concentrated on exploiting their Nucleic Acid Programmable Protein Array (NAPPA) technology, which displays thousands of high-quality, naturally folded proteins on microscopic custom arrays. “Our most advanced arrays resulted from collaborations among scientists here who are expert at molecular biology, biochemistry, photolithography, mechanical engineering and piezoelectric printing,” LaBaer explains. Plus, his group has assembled a resource for scientists called DNASU, of more than 250,000 plasmids, including more than 13,000 unique human genes, that can be used with the arrays. Those plasmids encode specific proteins, some of which can serve as early indicators of health issues. Provista Diagnostics, for example, licensed this technology to develop a blood-based test for breast cancer.
Biodesign scientists study about 100 widespread diseases. Under the leadership of Eric Reiman, director of the ASUBanner Neuroscience Initiative, the Biodesign team recently showed that increased levels of specific proteins drive the loss of neurons, which could be involved in neurodegeneration.
Biodesign is the right place to take on complex projects, LaBaer says. “Modern science needs a no-holds-barred culture where curiosity, creativity and credibility prevail. Our next-gen researchers aspire to accomplish the impossible.”