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Health collaboration to harness expertise of scientists across Arizona

ASU a key player in new statewide initiative to tackle complex diseases.
September 6, 2017

ASU a key player in Arizona Wellbeing Commons, an umbrella group that aims to tackle complex disease issues

Arizona State University is a key player in a new health research initiative designed to harness the expertise of scientists across the state to treat diseases like cancer and address such problems as unequal access to health care.

The Arizona Wellbeing Commons is a statewide collaboration of the three public universities, health providers, practitioners and community partners such as the Mayo Clinic and TGen.

The main goals of the project are to provide opportunities for experts around Arizona to align their research, share resources, mentor young researchers and get the word out.

“Collaboration is an advantage in Arizona, where biosciences research is still growing,” said Joshua LaBaerLaBaer also is director of the Biodesign Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics and is a professor in the ASU School of Molecular Sciences and an adjunct professor of medicine at the College of Medicine, Mayo Clinic., who is leading the umbrella group. LaBaer is  executive director of the Biodesign Institute at ASU.

“What makes a good collaboration is having people from different backgrounds and different approaches come together. That’s where a clinician might note an unmet need that a basic researcher might not be aware of.”

LaBaer (pictured above) spoke at the kickoff meeting for the Arizona Wellbeing Commons, held Wednesday at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The group will meet every year, and the six specialty divisions also will meet. Those are:

  • neurobiology, aging, dementias and movement disorders, led by Salvatore Oddo, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU
  • cancer prevention, detection, management and treatment, led by Karen Anderson, an associate professor at ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics, in the Biodesign Institute
  • viruses, immunity, microbiomes and infectious disease, led by Grant McFadden, the new director of the Biodesign Center for Immunology, Vaccines and Virotherapy at ASU
  • nutrition, obesity, exercise and lifestyle, led by Steven Hooker, associate dean for research and professor in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion in ASU's College of Health Solutions
  • mental health, substance abuse, crime and behavior change, led by Michael Shafer, director of the Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy at ASU and a professor in the School of Social Work in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions
  • public health and health-care services, law, policy and equity, led by James Hodge, director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU

Each division will include an array of specialists, from basic researchers to practitioners, and the categories are intentionally broad, LaBaer said.

“Viewing well-being through multiple perspectives allows fresh approaches to any number of health issues, including those that are grand challenges in Arizona, like heart disease and diabetes,” he said.

This type of collaboration can potentially lead to funding sources, Oddo said.

“Often we don’t even know within our institutions what the people on the floor below us are working on,” said Oddo, who studies the molecular mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease.

He said that the most impactful research will happen only when the research is complementary.

“We are in a unique position to do that,” he said. “This is a critical moment. There are many centers, from NIH to NSF, that have brain programs and are contributing large amounts of funds to this. They are looking for synergy across different disciplines and institutions.”

Complex diseases such as cancer and diabetes have complex origins and will require a multi-layered approach to research, Anderson said. For example, some cancers are related to obesity and others are linked to viruses.

“All of these efforts nationally and locally are starting to show improvements in the number of lives saved,” said Anderson, who also is an associate professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic Arizona. “But it’s happened as a result of collaboration and of large-scale implementation projects.”

ASU already has some high-impact collaborations, whose participants are part of the Arizona Wellbeing Commons initiative.

Anna Barker, co-director of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative at ASU and a professor in the School of Life Sciences, speaks at the kickoff meeting of the new Arizona Wellbeing Commons. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

For example, the Adaptive Global Innovative Learning Environment Clinical Trial had its roots in a think tank developed at ASU several years ago, according to Anna Barker, the director. The think tank evolved into AGILE, which is creating a new way of producing clinical trials for the most common form of adult brain cancer. Starting with 30 people, AGILE now includes neurosurgeons, oncologists, researchers and advocacy communities. The clinical trial will begin next year with 50 patients.

“We had hundreds of meetings. Nobody gave up, nobody walked away and everyone is still engaged,” said Barker, who also is co-director of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative at ASU and a professor in the School of Life Sciences.

“It’s a remarkable crowd-sourcing effort of the knowledge we needed to do this trial, and it’s an example of what can happen when we brought the right people to the table, supported the process and celebrated the victories.”

Another example is the REACH Institute, in the Department of Psychology, which bridges the gap between research and practice and includes several units at ASU.

“This group of scientists has been engaged in research for more than 25 years, studying what promotes resiliency in families and children,” said Anne Marie Mauricio, an assistant research professor and implementation scientist in the institute. The team developed successful interventions including Bridges to High School, a school-based prevention program shown to reduce high-risk behaviors such as substance use, and the Family Bereavement Program, which addresses the complex needs of children after the death of a parent.

“We had all of these great programs, but the communities weren’t using them. So how do we get them out there?” said Mauricio. “We work with community partners to understand from the users’ perspective how the programs need to work to fit the community.”

McFadden, who recently came to ASU from the University of Florida, said he’s planning a symposium of virologists in the state for November.

“One of the things I learned in moving here is that there is no repository of information,” he said. “Who are the scientists in the state, and what are they working on?

“This is a remarkable idea, and there’s nothing like it in Florida.”

Top photo: Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute at ASU, is leading the new Arizona Wellbeing Commons, a statewide health-research collaboration. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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HEALab to offer entrepreneurial services to downtown, health-centric community

Health-centric entrepreneurs have a new resource in downtown Phoenix: HEALab.
September 6, 2017

Recently launched initiative to provide mentoring, workshops, physical space and more to ASU students and the public

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2017, click here.

Arizona State University has a reputation for innovation, so it’s no surprise that its schools are brimming with resources to support entrepreneurial and solutions-based endeavors.

There’s the Center for Entrepreneurship at the W. P. Carey School of Business for enterprising businesspeople, Entrepreneurship + Innovation @ the Fulton Schools for aspiring rocket scientists and the New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication for go-getting journalists.

But when it came to budding health-care professionals, there was a gap. Healthcare Innovation Program Director and Clinical Professor Rick Hall filled that gap Wednesday with the soft launch of HEALabHEALab stands for Health Entrepreneurship Accelerator Lab. on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campusHEALab occupies the same space as Taylor Place Kitchen, on the south side of Taylor Place..

Hall pitched the idea of a health- and wellness-centric entrepreneurship lab six months ago to leaders at the College of Nursing and Health Innovation (CONHI) because, he said, “There was a little bit of a vacuum on the downtown campus for entrepreneurial activity. There are great colleges that have students with entrepreneurial aspirations, but we didn’t really have the resources that you see on some of the other campuses.”

There were times when Hall, who teaches entrepreneurial courses for CONHI, was approached by such students and had to refer them elsewhere.

“So now,” he said, “instead of sending students away to SkySong or somewhere else, we have our own lab on campus where we can encourage students to come in, work together to ideate solutions to problems related to health and take the next step, and help them work on things like business plans and marketing, things that they need to start up their solution.”

At Wednesday’s soft launch, Hall was working with dietetics undergraduate Erin Washbon on a business model for her diabetic meal-kit company, which she hopes will help recently diagnosed diabetics adjust to the lifestyle change by providing well-balanced meals along with educational information.

The way Hall and Washbon have approached the business plan — fluidly, by writing, erasing and rewriting lists under headers with labels like “resources,” “value proposition” and “costs” on a whiteboard instead of typing up a more traditional, fixed 10-page document — allows for flexible thinking and the ability to adapt as customers, markets and needs change.

It’s a brainstorming process Hall foresees all mentors and mentees at HEALab employing, followed by building a prototype and testing it out. Washbon, a junior, hopes to have a solid enough plan to pitch at one of the many ASU startup competitions before she graduates.

“There are so many invaluable resources at ASU, it would be silly not to take advantage of them,” she said.

And you don’t even have to be a student to do so.  

Drew Saenz, a former student of Hall’s who graduated in 2015 with a degree in exercise and wellness, started a successful company called Team Up that focuses on providing fitness training to special-needs kids. He’s looking to branch out into corporate wellness and visited HEALab on Wednesday to brainstorm with Hall on ways to do that.

Hall immediately introduced Saenz to Washbon and urged them to exchange contact information. It’s clear he relishes these kinds of moments, opportunities for like-minded individuals to connect, share and perhaps create something new.

“A year from now, they could have a business together,” Hall said.

There are a handful of other projects Hall has been working with that he hopes to bring into the fold at HEALab, including a fitness app that uses an avatar to show people how their body will change; a nonprofit that hopes to provide detox services to infants of opioid-addicted mothers; and a business that would provide insurance for preventative health rather than treatment.

As it evolves, HEALab plans to offer a monthly speaker series (beginning Oct. 11); weekly networking and idea-generation meetings; pitch competitions; mentoring and office hours; a space in which all that can happen; and more. And it’s all available to students, faculty, staff, alumni and the general public. 

“That’s really unique and smart because if we’re helping the community, it just helps us, and it helps with ASU’s mission of social embeddedness in the downtown area,” Hall said.

HEALab will also provide services to participants of Prepped, a free six-week program offered by ASU’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation that began last year as a way to support entrepreneurs from underserved communities start food businesses.

The official grand opening of HEALab will be in October, but Hall encourages anyone interested in what it has to offer to stop by and check it out on the ground floor of Taylor Place, a residence hall on the Downtown Phoenix campus.

“Our goal,” said Hall, “is to connect the dots between these enormous opportunities for innovation and the resources to make them happen.”

For more information about HEALab, visit its webpage at

Top photo: Erin Washbon meets with the director of the HEALab, Rick Hall, at Wednesday's soft launch of the entrepreneurial space. The startup incubator is geared toward health and wellness students on the Downtown Phoenix campus but is open to students of any major, as well as faculty, staff, alumni and the general public. Photo by Anya Magnuson/ASU Now