$1.5M grant supports interdisciplinary cancer research

June 16, 2010

If ever you have wondered how interdisciplinarity works, or if ever you have pondered its value, Peter Jurutka is about to demonstrate. In fact, he could give you a million-and-a-half examples.

Jurutka, an associate professor in the Division">http://newcollege.asu.edu/mns/">Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in Arizona State University’s New">http://newcollege.asu.edu/">New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, is part of a team that has been awarded a prestigious and highly competitive $1.5-million NIH R01 grant to examine important questions in cancer disease and prevention. Specifically, Jurutka and Elizabeth Jacobs of the Arizona Cancer Center will bring molecular medicine and human epidemiology together in a unique interdisciplinary approach to student-driven colorectal cancer research. Download Full Image

Most in the industry refer to the National Institutes of Health R01 award as the “gold standard” of grants, and Jurutka agrees, because, he says, it comes out of the most highly competitive and carefully reviewed granting process. The Research Project Grant (R01) is the original and historically oldest grant mechanism used by NIH and provides a stable source of funding to researchers through its five-year term.

The grant, “Vitamin D Status, Genetic Variation in Vitamin D Signaling and Metabolism, and Risk for Colorectal Neoplasia,” will be divided equally between ASU and the University of Arizona, with the Jurutka research team at the West campus taking the lead in carrying out the molecular biology studies, while the effort led by Jacobs will pilot the epidemiology portion of the investigation.

Molecular biology focuses on the formation, structure and function of macromolecules essential to life, such as nucleic acids and proteins, and especially with their role in cell replication and the transmission of genetic information.  Conversely, epidemiologists study the frequency and distribution of diseases within human populations and environments.  Specifically, they measure the incidence of disease occurrence and relate it to different characteristics of populations and environments.

“This is a very exciting collaboration,” said Jurutka, who received his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Arizona in 1993 and has been on the New College faculty roster since 2004. “In the past, epidemiologists and molecular biologists have not routinely combined forces to study the same questions at the same time.

“In this study, Dr. Jacobs and I will examine the effects of genetic variation in key enzymes in the vitamin D metabolism pathway, and if those differences lead to a differential risk for colon cancer. This will create a better understanding of vitamin/nutrient chemoprotection against colon cancer at both the molecular and population levels.”

The focus of the research in Jurutka’s lab will be to acquire molecular evidence for the functional effects of genetic variation in key enzymes in the vitamin D metabolism pathway. Jurutka says individual differences in the human population’s ability to synthesize or degrade vitamin D may lead to differences in the risk for certain disease states, including colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer is a disease in which normal cells in the lining of the colon or rectum begin to change, start to grow uncontrollably, and no longer die. Both genetic and environmental factors can cause the changes. Most colon and rectal cancers are a type of tumor called adenocarcinoma, which is cancer of the cells that line the inside tissue of the colon and the rectum.

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), nearly 150,000 adults in the United States will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2010, with almost a third of those cases resulting in death.

Jurutka will be bringing his students onto the research team, as usual. An active member of several scientific research societies, his lab provides undergraduate students with research opportunities that have led to more than a dozen published scholarly papers co-written by his ASU students and focused on such topics as the fight against cancer and a greater understanding of post-menopausal osteoporosis. He has received a number of prestigious honors, including the Norwich-Eaton Young Investigator Research Award for significant contributions to the field of bone and mineral research, and the John Haddad Young Investigator Award presented by Advances in Mineral Metabolism and the American Society of Bone and Mineral Research.

“Absolutely we will have our students involved in this important research,” he said. “Students have already been involved in the preliminary research leading up to this grant award, and student-driven research will continue to provide valuable contributions to this novel work throughout the funding period of five years and beyond.”

Zachary Hernandez is a New College senior who has done research in Jurutka’s lab. An ASU SOLAR fellow and a National Hispanic Scholar, he has been recognized nationally for his vitamin D research relative to heart disease.

“The opportunities Dr. Jurutka provides in his student research lab have allowed me to get a better feel for what basic science research is like,” said Hernandez, whose recent research presentation at the annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) was good enough to earn him the only honors awarded in the endocrinology research section at the Dallas conference. “As I move on to medical school I am interested in possibly branching out to clinical research, and the interest has been sparked by the research experience here in New College and with Dr. Jurutka; it has made me a more attractive applicant for medical school.”

Jurutka said that the interdisciplinary nature of the research makes this particular project unique; few such studies have been conducted with a focus on both the molecular and epidemiological effects of genetic variation in two key enzymes. He said compelling evidence exists that active vitamin D metabolites play a role in reducing the risks for colorectal neoplasia – the abnormal proliferation of cells.

The eventual applications of the research are important. Jurutka zeroes in on a mind-boggling statistic.

“Given that colorectal cancer is one of the few preventable cancers, and that one in 17 people in this country will develop this disorder in their lifetime, we believe that the results of this research will lead not only to a greater understanding of the molecular aspects of the disease, but also it will allow us the potential to offer a cost-effective preventative regimen for colorectal carcinogenesis by understanding and establishing optimal vitamin D intake/consumption.”

Steve Des Georges

Engineering education goes above and beyond

June 16, 2010

Cultivating ‘Renaissance engineers’ to tackle the world’s most critical challenges

Arizona State University’s http://engineering.asu.edu/" target="_blank">Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering are among the first of several leading engineering schools to adopt an undergraduate education program guided by goals set forth in the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges for Engineering. Download Full Image

In 2008, the Academy identified 14 ">http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/">“Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century,” detailing technological progress that engineers must help achieve to improve quality of life throughout the world.

The NAE Grand">http://engineering.asu.edu/grandchallenges/scholars/information">Grand Challenge Scholars Program combines course studies with extracurricular opportunities designed to prepare students to join the next generation of engineers with the specific skills to help meet many of modern society’s most critical needs.

ASU’s engineering schools join those at other top-ranked universities and colleges as NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program partners – including Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering near Boston, the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, Louisiana Tech’s College of Engineering and the University of Tennessee College of Engineering.

Going beyond technical knowledge

Six engineering students have joined the program at ASU. Plans are to enroll an additional 15 to 20 students each academic year.

Grand Challenge Scholar students will be given guidance in selecting the courses of study that best educate them in the areas of engineering relevant to the NAE’s Grand Challenges goals.

They also will have opportunities outside the classroom to conduct research, attend professional conferences, learn the basics of developing market ventures, and put their education to use in community service projects. 

An overriding aim is to produce “renaissance engineers” who have knowledge that spans across multiple disciplines. So the program strives to provide students an education beyond engineering, science and technology. They will also be schooled in many of the fundamentals of business, public policy, law, ethics, social sciences and the humanities.

Upon graduation, the students’ names will be added to an official NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Registry.

“It’s an endorsement by the academy that will make these students more attractive to employers, or to leading graduate schools where they may want to pursue advanced studies,” said James Collofello, associate dean of Academic and Student Affairs for ASU’s engineering schools.  He’s also the program director for the schools’ Grand Challenge Scholars Program.

“This will certify that these students have received an education that provided them entrepreneurship and leadership training, along with skills tailored to creating innovative ventures in a global economy, and bringing a global perspective to confronting our major technological problems,” Collofello said.

Looking for leadership potential

ASU’s engineering education goals closely reflect the objectives of the academy’s Grand Challenges, said Deirdre Meldrum, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“The NAE was developing its Grand Challenges at about the same time that we began realigning engineering education to better prepare our students for the job market and the technological challenges the world will face in the coming decades and beyond,” Meldrum said

These include such objectives as engineering better medicines and more advanced tools for scientific discovery, improving urban infrastructure, providing energy from fusion, defending against threats of nuclear terrorism, securing cyberspace, making solar-energy generation more economical and developing innovations in personalized learning.

For the scholars program, Collofello said, “We will be looking for students who have the potential to be successful engineers from a technical standpoint, but who also possess the drive and motivation to be involved in community service, lead student organizations, pursue entrepreneurial opportunities, and want be engaged in these global-scale challenges in their careers.”

Gaining global perspective

ASU junior bioengineering major Elysar Mougharbel, a graduate of Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee, is intrigued by the Grand Challenge to "reverse-engineer the brain.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by how the brain works,” she said. The NAE sees unlocking mysteries about brain functions holding significant promise for advances in pioneering artificial intelligence and treating human brain disorders.

Mougharbel said she hopes a focus on this area of study through the Grand Challenge Scholars Program will give her a solid preparation for a career in medicine or neural engineering.

She’s also attracted to the program “because I like the approach of getting a global perspective on what engineers can do to solve big problems,  and I like the focus on making a positive impact on society through your work. I think that raises the level of my education in a way that will help open doors in whatever career I go into.”

Her academic performance so far has earned her a student-worker position in the SensoriMotor Research Group Lab at ASU, assisting in neurological research.

Outside of the lab and classroom, Mougharbel works with ASU’s Success Coaching program in which experienced students counsel their peers to help them achieve their academic goals.

She’s also the vice president of Circle K International, a student organization affiliated with Kiwanis International, the community service and leadership development organization.

Striving for extraordinary

ASU junior mechanical engineering majors Billy Walters and Josh Winterstein, graduates of Arizona Lutheran Academy in Phoenix, say the range of learning opportunities offered by Grand Challenge Scholars Program lured them to join.

“It’s really cool how [the NAE] is giving these direct challenges to engineers” to help solve the world’s biggest problems, said Walters, who grew up in Glendale.

“That’s why I decided to become an engineer, to think about the big picture and do something beyond the ordinary,” he said.

Walters also is attracted to the emphasis on entrepreneurship. He is working toward a degree that will include a minor in business and is considering pursuit of a master’s of business administration degree in the future.

The program’s community service focus fits into his current pursuits.

He is working with the ASU student chapter of the international Engineers Without Borders, which helps communities in developing countries build modern infrastructure systems.

He’s also involved in the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program at ASU. It enables students to collaborate with local nonprofit groups on civic and environmental improvement efforts.

Winterstein, whose family lives in Mesa, is involved in a project to develop website tools to help manage a national program, called Recycled Rides, that restores old and damaged cars and donates them to needy families.

“I think the training in community service and entrepreneurship you get [in the scholars program] is going to help us stand out” among engineering graduates, he said.

By completing a degree program certified by the NAE, Walters said, “I think employers will recognize that you have been educated to think about how to solve complex problems, that you know something about the business side of things and you also have hands-on experience collaborating with people to solve problems and meet real needs.”

The National Academy of Engineering
http://www.nae.edu/http://www.nae.edu/">http://www.nae.edu/ />The NAE is an independent, nonprofit organization that advises the federal government through the National Research Council (NRC), providing leadership and expertise for numerous projects focused on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. It also conducts independent studies to examine important topics in engineering and technology. The NAE is a member of the National Academies, which includes the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine.

Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
http://engineering.asu.edu/http://engineering.asu.edu/">http://engineering.asu.edu/ />The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University serves more than 4,000 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students, providing skills and knowledge for shaping careers marked by innovation and societal impact. Ranked nationally in the top 10 percent among accredited engineering programs, the schools engage in use-inspired research in a multidisciplinary setting for the benefit of individuals, society and the environment. The school’s 200-plus faculty members teach and pursue research in areas of electrical, chemical, mechanical, aerospace, civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, as well as bioengineering, computer science and engineering, informatics, decision systems, and construction management. The schools of engineering also work in partnership with the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and faculty work collaboratively with the Biodesign Institute at ASU, the School of Sustainability and the Global Institute of Sustainability.

Deirdre Meldrum, mailto:deirdre.meldrum@asu.edu" target="_blank">deirdre.meldrum@asu.edu
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
(480) 965-2147

James Collofello, mailto:james.collofello@asu.edu" target="_blank">james.collofello@asu.edu
Associate Dean
Academic and Student Affairs
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
(480) 965-3733

Joe Kullman, mailto:joe.kullman@asu.edu" target="_blank">joe.kullman@asu.edu
(480) 965-8122 direct line
(480) 773-1364 mobile

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering