BIO5 Research & Innovation:

From Functional Foods to Regenerative Science

By Mary Minor Davis

At any given time, there are hundreds of studies underway in the labs of the University of Arizona’s BIO5 Institute, with researchers tackling some of the world’s most important health and environmental challenges and resulting in promising discoveries and novel innovations.

“The BIO5 network has enabled collaboration across campus that has facilitated high impact interdisciplinary work,” said Carmala Garzione, dean of the UArizona College of Science. “Faculty and students have a supportive network of peers and research infrastructure that makes it easier to pursue valuable research and innovation.”

The following are just a few amongst the broad spectrum of current projects by BIO5 investigators:

Vascular DementiaMeredith Hay

Meredith Hay, a member of BIO5 and a professor of physiology leads a multidisciplinary research group that is studying the role of inflammation in dementia. 

“Specifically, we’re trying to understand how, as we age, chronic inflammatory diseases affect and contribute to vascular cognitive impairment and dementia,” she said. 

“When you have chronic inflammation, it results in the activation of cytokines or chemicals that drive circulation in the brain,” Hay explained. “When you have too much activity, this is called a cytokine storm, which is an increase in these chemicals. This affects the blood vessels, resulting in a decrease of neuronal function, which in turn leads to cognitive impairment.”

Hay said vascular dementia affects about 40% of the population. Her work has led to two patents that serve as the foundation for the development of a novel therapy to treat vascular dementia, now in clinical trials. Working with Tech Launch Arizona, Hay started ProNeurogen, a company based on inventions arising out of research in neuroscience and vascular neurophysiology at UArizona.

Alzheimer’s DiseaseRoberta Diaz Brinton

In 2019, Roberta Diaz Brinton, a leading researcher in Alzheimer’s disease, received one of the largest grants in UArizona Health Sciences history. Brinton is a BIO5 member, professor of pharmacology, and director of the Center for Innovation in Brain Science. Awarded by the National Institute on Aging, the $37.5 million grant supports Brinton’s clinical trial to research the first potential regenerative therapeutic for Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation is also a partner.

“Both organizations and UArizona were willing to support an incredibly bold idea – that the Alzheimer’s brain can regenerate itself,” Brinton said.

Brinton started her work more than 25 years ago as a graduate student at UArizona. Since then, research has consistently shown that allopregnanolone, a naturally produced neurosteroid, has the potential to promote neural stem cell regeneration. 

The five-year, national multi-site Phase 2 clinical trial to determine the steroid’s effectiveness as a treatment is set to begin later this year. 

Functional FoodsMonica Schmidt

Monica Schmidt considers herself the largest grower of soybeans in Arizona. With a focus on plant biotechnology, Schmidt, a BIO5 researcher and associate professor in the School of plant sciences, conducts ongoing research into how soybeans can be engineered to deliver more protein to consumers.

According to Schmidt, 85% of the world’s population derives its daily protein from plants, with soybeans the number one U.S. exported crop (surpassing corn). Add to that, the United Nations predicts the world population will increase by 2 billion in the next 30 years. With nutritionists recommending that 15%-25% of the average daily calorie intake be protein, Schmidt said it became clear that higher protein-producing soybeans were worth additional study.

“Soybean is on its way to global food domination because it is an excellent, sustainable high-protein food source,” she added. “Because the body doesn’t store protein, it is necessary to replace your protein levels every day.”

Along with population shifts, dietary changes will continue to add to the demand. More Westerners are turning to vegetarian diets, while Asian nations, including China, are seeing a shift to more meat intake, she said. At the same time, 15% of the world’s population is estimated to be at risk for protein deficiency by 2050.

“Based on these eyebrow-raising statistics, we know we’re going to need more soybeans, more food supplements, more everything,” she said. “We are trying to get more protein for the same amount of nutrients and land use.”

Schmidt works on modifying soybeans with team members in functional genomics (a field of molecular biology that attempts to describe gene functions and interactions using data) who can help her assess various mutations of proteins.

“I always have an end goal to my work, and my end goal is to see the results of my work on plates at the dinner table and in the feed buckets for livestock,” she said. “It’s taken 15-20 years, but I think I’ll see that in my lifetime.”

Asthma and Airway Disease – Dr. Fernando Martinez

Dr. Fernando Martinez, a BIO5 member, professor of pediatrics, and director of the Asthma & Airway Disease Research Center, has spent more than 20 years studying the relationship between microbiomes and their impact on human health and wellness, with a focus on pediatrics. What he’s discovered is that while some bacteria can be harmful and lead to infectious and chronic diseases, there is also helpful bacteria.

In the case of pediatric respiratory diseases such as asthma, before the rise of genomics – the study of all of a person’s genes, the genome, including interactions of those genes with each other and with the person’s environment – it was believed that certain bacteria were predictors of asthma in children who were exposed. His research has found the opposite. Children who were regularly exposed to certain environments, including daycare, who were raised in agricultural environments or had older siblings were less likely to experience asthma, even as they grew into adulthood.

“So, we came up with the idea that exposure to these kinds of bacteria helped to train the defenses of the body to learn how to recognize good from bad bacteria and thus train the immune system not to overreact when exposed to these bacteria,” Martinez explained.

Armed with years of data and a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Martinez is now engaged in a 10-year clinical trial that seeks to understand how bacteria can be used to prevent asthma and to stave off asthma attacks in those who have it. Babies 6-18 months are given powdered bacteria for two years and are then followed for five to six years. 

“If we are successful, we hope to develop a new product that will help in the prevention of asthma,” he added. 

Immunobiology and the Brain Dr. Anita Koshy

BIO5 researcher, Dr. Anita Koshy, is an associate professor of neurology.  Her work focuses on the molecular mechanisms that allow a common intracellular parasite, Toxoplasma gondii (toxo), to persist in and potentially change the human brain.

“Toxo affects 10-30% of people in the United States,” Koshy said. “The ability to persist like that in the brain is very unusual. If we can use the parasite to understand the brain’s immune response to toxo, we can learn some fundamental things about inflammation in the brain.”

Her research will provide new insights into how to manipulate the brain immune response which has been implicated in many neurodegenerative diseases. The long term goal of her lab’s work is to develop treatments or therapies for toxo and other disorders, from multiple sclerosis to Alzheimer’s disease and stroke, Koshy said. 

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