ASU research teams receive $3M in grants

Published On:
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
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The National Institutes of Health awarded ASU $3 million in federal stimulus funds for two groundbreaking projects in the areas of DNA sequencing and nanotechnology, the University announced Monday.

Biodesign Institute spokesman Joe Caspermeyer said ASU received one of the new “Grand Opportunities,” or “GO,” grants that are extremely selective, adding that about 90 percent of applicants don’t receive any funds.

“These were highly competitive projects,” he said. “NIH funding is very competitive, and with the stimulus funds, there was even greater competition than usual.”

While the University announced the grants this week, they were awarded two weeks ago, Caspermeyer said.

One of the projects, which received $1.7 million, focuses on DNA sequencing.

“If we’re ever going to get toward the mission of personalized medicine … we need to have a better handle on everyone’s genetic information,” Caspermeyer said.

The research team of the DNA project, headed by Stuart Lindsay, director of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Single Molecule Biophysics, aims to focus on developing innovative approaches to reading DNA strands.

Currently, it is expensive and time-consuming for scientists to sequence DNA information, Lindsay said.

“The first DNA human genome was sequenced for about 10 years and cost many millions of dollars,” he said. “[Our technique] could bring that time to one day or less and cost $1,000.”

This research could have implications not only from an economic standpoint, but in the medical industry as well, Lindsay said.

“DNA sets up the genetic code for all aspects of life,” he said. “It’s the software that drives the hardware that is our body.”

Developing new ways to read this code could radically change medicine, Lindsay said.

“We will have a new molecular understanding of disease,” he said.

Lindsay said his work can be a risk for organizations like the National Institutes of Health to fund, but can reap potentially high benefits.

But the potential benefits ASU research teams could give to the medical industry go beyond DNA studies. Another project, which received about $1.2 million in funding, focuses on nanotechnology and is headed by Paul Westerhoff, interim director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

The research, which includes participation from co-investigators Pierre Herckes and Rolf Halden, plans to look at the exposure levels of nanomaterials in consumer products.

Halden, an associate professor who conducts research in the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Environmental Biotechnology, said the concern with nanomaterials is that they could have unique health and mental impacts.

“We’ve been producing these chemicals and materials for years now … in products such as sunscreen and socks,” he said. “We have a wide array of consumer products that contain nanomaterials.”

These materials ultimately end up in the environment or may absorb into human skin, but how they behave is not well understood, Halden said.

“We distinguish materials made of metals and carbon,” he said. “The art is to extract them from the environment or from biological samples and identify them.”

Nanomaterials come in different shapes and sizes, Halden said.

Currently, the ASU team is working in collaboration with other teams across the country to identify nanomaterial properties and what they mean for human and environmental health.

“The bottom line is that nanomaterials are penetrating our society and in order to properly manage them, it is mandatory we have techniques to monitor them,” he said.

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