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ASU chosen for team developing radiation-absorption test

ASU team creating radiation exposure test that could save thousands of lives.
October 17, 2016

Device could test thousands of people quickly in event of nuclear explosion

Arizona State University has been selected for a team that will complete development of a test that could save thousands of lives in the event of a nuclear explosion.

The test is one of the first to be able to determine how much radiation has been absorbed by a person exposed to a radiological event. It is capable of testing thousands of people quickly.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response will fund the project.

“It’s a major piece of technology,” said William Pavlicek, chair of the Division of Diagnostic Physics in the Department of Diagnostic Radiology at Mayo Clinic. “This is an extraordinarily important development.”

In a large-scale nuclear emergency, hundreds of thousands of people will need to be assessed for injuries and illness caused by high doses of radiation. Doctors would need to know how much radiation each person has absorbed to determine what type of treatment to provide. People with toxic levels of exposure can go for days without showing symptoms, according to Pavlicek.

“This is specifically about a nuclear event,” principal investigator Josh LaBaer said. “It’s the kind of test you hope will never, ever, be used.”

Existing tests are only skin-deep. They measure only how much radiation is on a person’s skin, not much has been absorbed by their organs. 

“There would be no way (with existing methods) to determine who had been exposed to radiation and how much they had (absorbed),” said LaBaer, director of the Biodesign Institute’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics.

“This is specifically about a nuclear event. It’s the kind of test you hope will never, ever, be used.”
— principal investigator Josh LaBaer

The U.S. government is looking for a way to measure absorbed radiation in order to effectively treat acute radiation syndrome, he said. The ASU Radiation (ARad) Biodosimetry Test kits are configured to process 2,000 samples in 24 hours.

The ARad test could help save thousands of lives in the scenario it’s designed for, said Richard Besserman, operations executive for the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security (College of Public Service and Community Solutions). Besserman is a medical doctor with training from the United States Army Medical Research Institute for infectious Diseases and the Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense. He worked on 9/11 in New York and was part of a team that deployed to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Resources are limited in a disaster, Besserman said.

“This has the potential of saving lives by enabling the medical community to advise people who are contaminated or exposed and to (screen) them so that can identify who needs treatment,” he said. “You can have radioactive dust on your body that can be easily washed off so that it doesn’t get into your tissues.”

Exposure and contamination are two different things, Besserman explained. If radiation doesn’t get into the body, chances are nothing will happen.

“A good shower can wash it away,” he said. “Knowing about how much radiation entered the body is important and can guide treatment including when to perform lifesaving surgery. The test will provide more helpful information than our current methods.”

“One of the biggest parts of disaster preparedness is triaging people — putting the right people in the right place,” said April Hill, an emergency room nurse practitioner who also teaches in the College of Nursing. The ARad test would be used after triage to confirm the triage result and provide measurement to support treatment.

BARDA team at Biodesign
The ASU BARDA team (from left): Joshua LaBaer, Garrick Wallstrom, Shodhan Manda, Ian Shoemaker, Mike Fiacco, Kristin Gillis, Xin Guan, Vel Murugan and Merica Vorachitti. Not pictured: Jin Park and Paul Maranian. Photo courtesy of Biodesign Institute


It has been a six-year effort to put LaBaer’s team where they are now. Eleven teams — most of them academic and private companies — competed for the contract. Reviews by experts periodically down-selected teams.

“ASU managed to stay in all the way through,” LaBaer said. “We were kind of the exception there.”

The contract to the prime, MRIGlobal of Kansas City, Missouri, is worth more than $21.3 million over the first four years and three months and could be extended for up to $100 million over 10 years. ASU is a subcontractor to support transfer of the ASU technology and FDA submission.

The latest round of funding is for product development. Questions in the next round will revolve around product validation, FDA submission and assay production.

“The agency feels that the technology we developed under ASU’s guidance works and thus has a superior chance of reaching the final product stage that will be useful to the country,” LaBaer described final approval.

The parameter requirements were stiff, involving estimating dose per person with high resolution, the need to take blood samples for anywhere from one to seven days after the event, and the ability to process several hundred thousand samples and return reports in a very short time.

“When we began, I wasn’t sure this was doable,” LaBaer said. “Biological systems do not act in linear ways. ... It epitomizes ASU’s direction towards transdisciplinary science, because it required several disciplines (radiation biology, statistics and software engineering, among others) to come together. The fact we were able to pull this off is quite exciting.”

The test comes from a call from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. After test kits go into production, they will be stored at the National Strategic Stockpile or similar facility.

“It’s certainly something that in the event such a horrible thing could happen, this would give certainty and immediate understanding of how much of the population had no or trivial amounts of exposure,” Pavlicek said. “That gives enormous alleviation of any concern. ... I totally applaud this effort.”

BARDA infographic


Top photo by Carol M. Highsmith


Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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How to get voters to pay more attention to issues than cat videos? Read on.
Civics expert at ASU talk: “Elections focus on issues where values diverge.”
October 17, 2016

At ASU lecture, political scientist Arthur Lupia explores why so few seem fully informed (and whether to be cynical about the process)

The old close-your-eyes-and-point gambit might be effective for picking your next vacation spot on a map, but it’s less than advisable when it comes to choosing a name on a ballot.

The temptation is understandable, though. The time and mental commitment it takes to understand the number and complexity of all the issues at hand can be overwhelming. But we needn’t fret.

“No voters are fully informed,” said Arthur LupiaArthur Lupia is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has been a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Behavioral and Social Sciences, and is one of the inaugural Andrew Carnegie Fellows. His awards include the American Political Science Association’s Ithiel de Sola Pool Award, the American Association for Public Opinion Research's Mitovsky Innovator's Award, and the National Academy of Sciences' Initiatives in Research Award. on Monday night in Tempe.

The political scientist and University of Michigan professor brought a sense of humor and practicality when he spoke at Arizona State University’s Old Main Carson Ballroom as part of the School of Politics and Global Studies’ Kramer Lecture Series.

Lupia’s talk, titled “I’ll See It When I Believe It: How Voters Think and Learn About Elections,” was based on his extensive research on decision-making and learning, civic competence and legislative processes. His latest book, “Uninformed: Why People Know So Little About Politics and What We Can Do About It,” was recently published by Oxford University Press.

Assistant professor Mark Ramirez said the School of Politics and Global Studies saw an opportunity to meet a mounting student interest in the current election and wanted to provide a place where they and the community could learn more about how to become better informed in a nonpartisan format.

“Dr. Lupia’s new book provides concrete solutions to help improve voter competence,” he said. “People have genuine disagreements about core values and what they want from society. So in order to get them to learn more about certain issues, you have to motivate them and show them why they should care.”

Earlier in the day, Lupia met with the school’s Pi Sigma AlphaPi Sigma Alpha is a national honor society that recognizes scholarship and excellence for students in political science. members, where they discussed the Data Access and Research Transparency initiative, which he is spearheading.

“There has been a growing concern among political scientists about fraud and other issues related to the scientific process,” said Ramirez. “Professor Lupia is at the forefront of the movement to increase the transparency of what we do as scientists and promote data sharing, etc., so we wanted to introduce our students to this important aspect of academic research.”

At the evening lecture, Lupia set out to answer four questions: Why are so few voters fully informed? How much does a voter need to know? How do voters learn? Should I be cynical?

Again, the answer to the first question is simple: No voter is fully informed. But when you consider the answer to the second question, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Certain issues matter more to certain people based on what they’re trying to accomplish and what their situation is.

So how much does the average person need to know about every little political issue?

“The answer is different for different people,” said Lupia. “There’s no silver bullet.”

Of course, the more a person knows about an issue before they vote on it, the better. Which means it’s important to understand how people learn about those issues, and to cater to that. And in 2016, there’s plenty of competition for voters’ attention.

“If you want to get somebody’s attention over cat videos, you have to be able to tap into what they need at that moment,” said Lupia. The way to do that is to make the information you’re offering urgent, simple and direct.

An example of leaders getting that wrong is the Brexit decision earlier this year. As Lupia explained, those in power who wanted the UK to break with the European Union understood they needed to make the idea easily comprehensible. A catchy phrase that implied a simple consequence worked in their favor (Vote for Brexit and you’ll get cheaper health care!).

Whereas those in power who favored staying with the EU attempted to over-explain the consequences, losing people’s attention and, ultimately, their votes.

Knowing that leaders can and do manipulate voters might cause some to question the validity of the whole process. But Lupia pointed out one important truth: “Elections focus on issues where values diverge.”

“The current U.S. presidential nominees actually agree on a ton of issues,” he said. But, he added, just like no one wants to watch their favorite sports teams play catch, no one wants to watch a campaign that has no conflict; “it’s not TV-ready.”

According to Lupia, voters need to realize that media sensationalism takes away from the true purpose of the government: to enhance the quality of our lives.

“It’s so easy to be mesmerized by the national stage, but if that’s all you focus on, you miss the amazing work being done to better everyone’s quality of life,” he said. “And that’s what politics is about.”

Top photo: Arthur Lupia speaks about how voters think and learn about elections at Carson Ballroom in Old Main on the Tempe campus Monday evening. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

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