Ted Simons: Science foundation Arizona named four Ph.D candidates and early career faculty for its prestigious Bisgrove Award, Scholars award, which are designed to attract and retain top science and engineering talent. Here to discuss the awards is William Harris, president and CEO of Science Foundation Arizona, and also joining us are two of the award recipients, Dr. Muhammad Murtaza, an Early Career Scholar with the Translational Genomics Institute, and Rachel Rowe, a Post-Doctoral Scholar at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Good to have you all here, thanks for joining us. Bill, start with you. This Bisgrove Scholar Program, what are we talking about here?
William Harris: We're talking about a program that I hope will be like the Rhodes Scholars in 20 years. Science Foundation Arizona started this program four years ago, named it after Jerry Bisgrove, the individual who made a major investment in science foundation to help us start. He wanted to help us attract real talent to Arizona, but he wanted it to be the best talent in the world.
Ted Simons: And to do this the awards do what?
William Harris: The awards support really outstanding people for two years in their career to get them started and hopefully planted in Arizona for the long-term, and make a difference in Arizona.
Ted Simons: And these are folks who might have started their scholarships and their intellectual careers, their careers period, elsewhere, or here in Arizona?
William Harris: Anywhere in the world.
Ted Simons: And it doesn’t matter?
William Harris: We want the talent.
Ted Simons: And you want to keep it here?
William Harris: You bet, and so we have two examples here.
Ted Simons: You sure do, Muhammad you’re now going to be working with TGEN talk about what you're going to be doing with TGEN?
Dr. Muhammad Murtaza: Sure, so what we're trying to do is really develop a new kind of blood test for cancers. This is different from every blood test you have seen so far because it doesn't look at the proteins that are excreted or shed into the blood but actually DNA fragments.
Ted Simons: I was reading up on this, this is a circulating tumor DNA analysis.
Dr. Muhammad Murtaza: Yes. Absolutely.
Ted Simons: What does that mean?
Dr. Muhammad Murtaza: Right. So we’ve known since about 70's or 80's now that cancer is a disease which is driven by genetic changes in the DNA. Now, every cell when it dies or divides sheds fragments of its DNA into the bloodstream. If it's a canner cell then it sheds the mutated cancer genome into the bloodstream. And so what we are trying to do is look at that DNA in circulation and try and see whether we can identify mutations from cancer directly by looking at that instead of biopsy.
Ted Simons: So basically looking at specific DNA to identify what's going on.
Dr. Muhammad Murtaza: Absolutely, and then if you can do it, if you can show you can do it from blood, the beauty of this is you can repeat it without the need for another biopsy later on.
Ted Simons: And this could lead to, what, like DNA-based cancer blood tests?
Dr. Muhammad Murtaza: Absolutely. That's what the eventual aim is.
Ted Simons: Wow I want to get back to that in a second here. Rachel, now you're working with Phoenix Children's Hospital. This sounds like traumatic brain injury which we have heard a lot of in the news recently. Talk to us about what will you be doing there at PCH?
Rachel Rowe: Yeah, so I was recruited with Dr. Jonathan Lifshitz. Arizona had a need for brain injury research in Arizona. They moved our entire lab came from the University of Kentucky, and we came here to start research. I work with the Children's Hospital but the project itself was identified in veterans. They found that veterans were coming in long term much later after their concussion and that they were having problems with hormones. Different hormone levels weren't where they needed to be. And so they identified us as a partner on this project, because it's also very under-studied and the pediatric population, which is where a majority of concussions occur, is in children. We're doing that together with the University of Arizona, College of Medicine in Phoenix. So all three institutions in Arizona have recognized that after brain injury there are changes in hormones. So your endocrine system, where your hormones are produced, there's problems with it and we're all going to come together to work on this project.
Ted Simons: I find this fascinating, endocrine dysfunction in post brain injury, I mean for us out here what exactly does that mean? Does that mean when you take a blood test you see certain hormones, does that suggest someone who doesn't know they have posttraumatic brain injury might have it?
Rachel Rowe: So what it is, is just long term, years after you have had a concussion. You have problems with weight gain or you have problems with cortisol, which is something that you produce as a stress response. So basically something that should be normally present, there's changes in it after brain injuries but it’s really long term.
Ted Simons: So is this the kind of idea where you can diagnose, make it easier to diagnose a posttraumatic brain injury, make it easier to treat, both?
Rachel Rowe: So the idea, what we're really interested in, is being able to treat it. So because it identifies itself so late, so long term, what they want to be able to do is see with our model, we're going to look at it, set a model up and be able to identify, when is the problem happening? We see it much later but when does the problem happen? Because if we can find when it happened, you can do hormone replacement therapy for instance, which would be a therapy that you could go in if you know when to start and where to start. So we're really starting from just the ground up. When this is happening, why is it happening, and what can we do to give better quality of life to individuals that have suffered from a brain injury?
Ted Simons: And Bill, I'll get to you in a minute, but we’re having a good conversation here.
William Harris: I think you're doing a good job. I'm learning a lot.
Ted Simons: Muhammad, what got you started in this line of work and specifically with this DNA analysis of tumors? Was there an aha moment?
Dr. Muhammad Murtaza: Right. So this is similar work from what I pursued during my Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in England, so that’s before coming here. I think there is just a lot of problems to be solved before this test can make it to the finish. There's a variety of different applications, but it's just very attractive to see that you can then somehow monitor cancers in a very personalized manner which is just very attractive feature of what we're trying to do.
Ted Simons: And I would imagine it’s somewhat attractive to see a facility like TGEN and know you can work in conjunction with them.
Dr. Muhammad Murtaza: Oh absolutely. The program I’m setting up is sort of based half at TGEN, and half at Mayo Clinic, and it’s in Scottsdale. It's really using the genomics facilities which are really state of the art at TGEN and working with patients from Mayo Clinic to make this happen.
Ted Simons: Do you see yourself staying in Arizona awhile?
Dr. Muhammad Murtaza: I think so, I mean things are going quite well at the moment. Why not?
Ted Simons: Alright, that’s what Bill wants to hear over here. As far as getting you interested in post-traumatic brain injuries, was this something that you had targeted? Something that interested you specifically? Or something you discovered along the way?
Rachel Rowe: I think that I just discovered it along the way. When I first started out, I was actually looking at sleep, whether or not you should sleep after a concussion. I did most of my doctorate degree on that, which is a very acute response to brain injury. After I got a look at something that happens immediately, changes in sleep, I wanted to grow in where I'm at in my career and start looking at something that’s a much more long term consequence. I think something that's really unique to Arizona is that all these institutions want to work together. As he said, he works with TGEN, and the Mayo Clinic, and I work with the V.A., the Children's Hospital, and the University of Arizona, College of Medicine, because for research science in particular to be successful it has to be collaborative, not competitive. So Arizona does a good job of letting everyone come together and work for one common cause.
Ted Simons: So with that in mind, you see yourself sticking around Arizona awhile?
Rachel Rowe: Absolutely.
Ted Simons: Okay, Bill she did mention this collaborative effort that is so important. Especially if it attracts folks like this, it's even more important.
William Harris: Yeah, well what I wanted to comment on is that Muhammad is already got a medical degree and is going to be getting his Ph.D. degree. Having that kind of educated person coming from Pakistan, Cambridge one of the best universities in the world, then over here, then you have a young scientist working on the brain who grew up in a very rural part of Kentucky. She’s got a little bit of an accent.
Ted Simons: A little bit, just a little bit.
William Harris: I understand that accent, I'm from the south. And she grew up, and many of the kids in Arizona grew up, in rural areas where you're not even expected to even go to high school. She beat the odds, and did everything.
Ted Simons: And so again, these are the kinds of folks that the Bisgrove Scholars are targeting, hoping will stay here, certainly while they are here will make a difference?
William Harris: Will make a difference and we have the universities, we’ve got TGEN, we’ve got the other laboratories helping to recruit and bring the talent and they compete for these positions. So this is a terrific thing that our board is very very heavily involved in, and they are excited about this as well.
Ted Simons: And real quickly, Bisgrove Scholars is every year?
William Harris: Every year. This is the fourth year.
Ted Simons: Fourth year. Alright well congratulations to all of you. Good luck as well with your research. This is important work, and it’s good to have you here, doing that work. Bill, good to see you.
William Harris: thank you very much Ted. Appreciate being here.