ASU director advances disease research, claims important award

Josh LaBaer receives 2016 Translational Proteomics Award

July 18, 2016

Josh LaBaer, a leading researcher in the rapidly expanding field of proteomics, has just been awarded the 2016 Translational Proteomics Award from the Human Proteome Organization (or HUPO). The prestigious award recognizes professor LaBaer’s distinguished scientific achievements in the field of translational proteomics science.

HUPO is an international scientific organization promoting proteomics through international cooperation and collaboration, fostering the development of new technologies, techniques and training. Josh LaBaer is interim director of the Biodesign Institute at ASU. He also directs the Biodesign Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics Download Full Image

The group’s flagship project is known as the Human Proteome Project — an ambitious undertaking modeled on the Human Genome Project, which seeks to map the entire complement of human proteins, which may number as high as 1 million (including protein changes over time and variants in their basic form).

LaBaer directs the Virginia G. Piper Biodesign Center for Personalized Diagnostics at Arizona State University. His innovative work focuses on the discovery of biomarkers — diagnostic factors found in the bloodstream that can provide early warning indicators of disease.

Such pre-symptomatic markers of illness represent a major shift in the landscape of disease diagnosis and treatment, and are part of a new wave of precision medicine. Here, diagnosis and treatment of disease are custom-tailored based on a patient’s genetic variability, environment and lifestyle.

“One of the challenges facing proteomics is being able to get from discovery all the way to validated markers that are useful in the clinic,” LaBaer said. To this end, his research center uses a variety of cutting edge tools.

LaBaer is one of just five HUPO winners this year, drawn from the among the most gifted researchers around the globe. In addition to the Translational Proteomics Award won by LaBaer, awards will be given for Distinguished Achievement in Proteomic Sciences, Discovery in Proteomic Sciences and a Science and Technology award.

LaBaer will receive his award and deliver a presentation at HUPO’s annual congress, slated for Sept. 18-21, in Taipei.

Multi-purpose molecules

Proteins are central actors in life processes. These large, complex molecules perform most of the work inside cells and are critical for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs. They are composed of smaller units — the amino acids, which are attached to one another in long chains. There are 20 amino acids that can combine in different sequences to form a protein. The precise amino acid sequence defines a protein’s unique 3-dimensional shape as well as determining its specific function in the body.

Among the important proteins are antibodies — central components in the immune system, which bind to specific foreign particles, including viruses and bacteria; enzymes, which carry out thousands of chemical reactions within cells; messenger proteins including hormones, which transmit signals and coordinate activities between cells, tissues and organs; structural proteins that provide support for cells and facilitate bodily movement and transport/storage proteins that carry atoms and small molecules within cells and throughout the body.

While the human genome contains roughly 21,000 protein-coding genes, the actual number of proteins in human cells is much higher, as individual genes are known to sometimes code for multiple proteins. Unlike the genome, which is relatively static, proteins are highly dynamic entities, continually changing, binding with cell membranes, forming complexes with other proteins and undergoing synthesis and degradation. 

A more detailed understanding of the proteome will have a profound effect on the diagnosis and treatment of a host of deadly illnesses from autoimmune diseases to cancer. Due to their many essential functions in the body, proteins are primary targets for a host of therapeutic drugs. The LaBaer lab studies proteins using a variety of leading edge techniques and develops new technologies for protein investigation and biomarker discovery.

Proteins on demand

LaBaer, founder and former director of the Harvard Institute of Proteomics, was recruited to ASU’s Biodesign Institute as the Piper Chair in Personalized Medicine and Director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics in 2009.

To probe the universe of proteins, LaBaer and his team rely on an innovative technique known as the Nucleic Acid-Programmable Protein Array (NAPPA).  This technology replaces the complex process of spotting purified proteins — a labor intensive and unstable method — with the simple process of spotting circular segments of DNA known as plasmids. The NAPPA slide is a storable diagnostic template, ready for protein expression at the time of each experiment.

Protein microarrays display proteins in high spatial density on a microscopic surface.  They can be used to examine the functions of many proteins simultaneously, revealing their interactions with other macromolecules and exploring their functional activity.

NAPPA has been a vital tool for investigations of type I diabetesbreast and lung cancer, and  infectious pathogens — all of which are topics of study in the LaBaer lab. The powerful field of Proteomics allows researchers to analyze protein production, degradation and post-translational modifications, which are critical for biomarker discovery.

LaBaer’s center at Biodesign, made possible through a generous endowment from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, also offers its advanced proteomics tools to the wider scientific community, through its extensive plasmid repository known as DNASU, sequencing services and NAPPA protein array core, accelerating the pace of proteomic research in hundreds of labs worldwide.

LaBaer is optimistic about the advances in store as powerful new approaches to proteomic science are brought to bear.

“Hopefully, some of the biomarkers that we discover will be useful for identifying diseases early and helping doctors identify the best prognosis for patients.”

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU


Not all talk is equal: Promoting discussion with swipe of finger

July 18, 2016

A new generation of national education standards emphasizes the importance of class discussions when students are learning science, but engaging students in critical, equitable and collaborative interactions is no easy task.

New technology developed by Bryan Henderson, assistant professor in Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, provides teachers with real-time feedback on how to support students in using empirical evidence to argue in a productive and respectful manner. Students share in group discussion at a desk Students share in a group discussion at school. Download Full Image

Henderson is a principal investigator on the ASU portion of a $3 million collaborative grant shared by Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley. This four-year grant from the National Science Foundation will fund development of an innovative science argumentation curriculum. While teaching that curriculum, teachers will use Henderson's new technology.

Henderson and co-principal investigator Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, associate professor at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, are overseeing both the continued development of the program he created, as well as all statistical evaluations throughout the study. They are collaborating with Eric Greenwald at the Lawrence Hall of Science, UC, Berkeley.

Henderson’s technology, abbreviated DiALoG for Diagnosing the Argumentation Levels of Groups, is a tablet-based instrument that allows teachers to assess multiple dimensions of argumentative speaking and listening skills with quick swipes of their fingers on screens.

When teachers use DiALoG, a tablet prompts them with questions such as, “Are the students building off the ideas of other students?” or, “Are the students accurately representing the contributions of their peers?” Then, by moving their fingers back and forth across the touchscreen, teachers can quickly dial in the degree to which they believe the classroom argumentation they observed agrees with each question posed by DiALoG.

DiALoG instantly generates scores based on teacher responses. When scores are low, DiALoG prompts the teacher to take action to improve discussions. That action could be re-arranging students’ seats or asking students to repeat and paraphrase what another student said before responding.

Henderson said, “We are running a multistate, randomized controlled trial where 100 middle school teachers will receive the same three science units, each requiring one or two weeks to complete. Half of the teachers also will be given the DiALoG instrument, which provides instant feedback and suggestions on how to stimulate effective arguments among their students.”

The guiding principle of the study, according to Henderson, is that teachers who are using DiALoG will develop a specific set of skills to orchestrate an effective classroom discussion.

“Classroom speaking and listening is very messy to assess, and not all talk is created equal. Just because students are talking doesn’t mean that they are truly listening and building off the contributions of their peers. If teachers are regularly using DiALoG to assess multiple important facets of what makes for a critical and equitable conversation, it stands to reason that they will become more adept at identifying and supporting what makes talk truly interactive and co-constructive,” Henderson said.

“There will be ample opportunities for teachers to receive feedback on their own practice, as well as to provide feedback on the functionality of the DiALoG instrument,” Henderson said. This is an early-stage development grant, and the research team plans to refine the instrument based on teacher feedback. Henderson said that careful attention will be paid to how teachers use the instrument for different class sizes, as well as how much time is needed to observe the groups in order to obtain a reliable score.

Henderson added that he hopes to use information from this study to ultimately launch a follow-up, late-stage study that explores the potential benefits of DiALoG on an even broader scale.

Copy writer, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College