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February 1, 2017

Innovation is part of $400 million international Digital Life Alliance aimed at producing a personalized health guide

What if your smartphone could tell you that a potential disease or illness is lurking in your immune system? What if instead of contracting diabetes, you were able to stop it before it compromised your health — maybe even before you or your physician see any outward signs? This is the driving idea behind an international group of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs that will soon change the way we understand our health.  

An Arizona State University discovery is central to the launch of this invention that “will give people a deeper understanding of the medical, behavioral and environmental factors that can accelerate disease or optimize health,” according to a recent announcement by Jun Wang (pictured above), iCarbonX founder and creator of the Digital Life Alliance, based in Shenzhen, China.

ImmunoSignature, the diagnostic platform developed by ASU Biodesign Institute research scientists Stephen Albert Johnston and Neal Woodbury, was the final piece needed to complete this potentially revolutionary approach to health care. With a single drop of blood, this diagnostic powerhouse can detect diseases that involve an immune response (autoimmune, cancer, infectious disease, metabolic and neurologic diseases).

“My goal has always been to detect illness before it begins,” said Johnston, who is also a professor in the School of Life Sciences. “In other words, I would like to see the concept of the patient become extinct. That is the only way we can truly stop the relentless increases in the cost of health care. With this new alliance, we are closer than ever.”

Johnston predicts that the technology to track and report disease biomarkers directly to patients could be available within five years.

 

Backed by a $400 million investment, the Digital Life Alliance, which includes HealthTell as one of seven core companies, will “merge genetic, biological and patient-generated data with sequencing and AI (artificial intelligence) technology to instantly detect meaningful signals about health, disease and aging, and deliver a personalized guide for living a healthy life,” according to Wang.

“Who could have imagined 10 years ago that with the right diagnostic, a single drop of blood could detect 50 different diseases?” said ASU President Michael Crow. “Scientists with expertise, imagination and boundless aspiration are who we recruit to Arizona, ASU and Biodesign. Today, we are being recognized as a powerhouse in the world of innovation and for generating use-inspired solutions. iCarbonX’s significant investment in technologies conceived at ASU is a real demonstration of what can happen when public and private enterprises bring their best minds together.”

It is estimated the U.S. alone spends $3.2 trillion for health care. Organizers say this new innovation to catch diseases early will result in not only in mammoth cost savings, but most importantly, will save lives and help eradicate the challenges faced by those who suffer from illness.

The Biodesign Institute represents the state’s largest single investment in research infrastructure in the history of Arizona. The Biodesign Institute launched in 2004 with $69 million from the state’s Technology and Research Innovation Fund.

According to Johnston, HealthTell’s high-density peptide array platform is the first real-time assessment that will be simple, inexpensive and comprehensive. The HealthTell technology, particularly when combined with data from the other Digital Life Alliance partners, has the potential to enable health monitoring using a single drop of blood that is analyzed on a regular basis. The route to this discovery has been published in Nature Communications and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It turns out that some of the leading causes of death — both infectious and chronic diseases such as cancer — give rise to immune responses fairly early in the course of a disease. These snapshots of the immune system, called immunosignatures, provide an in-depth picture of a person’s health. 

“The idea is to change medicine from post-symptomatic to pre-symptomatic. To do that, you have to monitor healthy people and figure out early what’s happening to them,” said Johnston, who directs the Biodesign Center for Innovations in Medicine at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. With our rapidly aging population and collaborative spirit, Johnston envisions Arizona as a possible “R&D proving ground,” where we can get ahead of disease and its costs.

Johnston has already successfully demonstrated the potential of immunosignature profiling for diagnosing people suffering from more than 50 different diseases, including diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s. In addition, the versatile technology could be used to safeguard the security of our nation’s blood supply or give early warning of a disease epidemic.

“We can only reach this audacious goal if we successfully integrate traditionally separate fields of expertise into one collaborative ecosystem,” Wang said. As former CEO of the Beijing Genomics Institute, Wang has built the world’s largest DNA sequencing hub, which aims to make genomic information a routine part of every medical checkup. His iCarbonX ecosystem includes HealthTell, SomaLogic, PatientsLikeMe, AOBiome, GALT, Imagu and Robustnique.

“We have developed a state-of-the-art core research facility here at Biodesign and welcome like-minded collaborators who will continue to push the envelope on what health and disease information we can glean from immunosignatures,” said Johnston. “Just recently, we were able to use the technology to successfully detect chronic fatigue syndrome, which even I didn’t think was possible. Now, there is a clinical trial underway in Norway based on these results.”

The new Digital Life Alliance will further the business development growth of HealthTell, which has its manufacturing hub located in Chandler, Arizona, as well as bring investments to spur further research advancements at ASU’s Biodesign Institute through the spinout agreements made possible by Arizona Technology Enterprises, the intellectual-property arm of ASU.

A 2014 report by the Seidman Research Institute reported that the Biodesign Institute has made an economic impact of $1.5 billion since it was established 10 years ago. Its annual direct economic impact is the highest for any single bioscience research institute in the state. Biodesign operations have created and supported more than 1,600 high‐paying jobs and generated $10.5 million in state and local tax revenues.



Top photo: Jun Wang, founder of digital biotechnology firm iCarbonX, showcases the Meum app that will use reams of health data, including technology first developed at ASU, to provide customized medical advice. Backed by a $400 million investment, the Digital Life Alliance, which includes ASU spinout HealthTell as one of seven core companies, will “merge genetic, biological and patient-generated data with sequencing and AI (artificial intelligence) technology to instantly detect meaningful signals about health, disease and aging, and deliver a personalized guide for living a healthy life,” Wang said.

Joe Caspermeyer

Managing editor , Biodesign Institute

480-258-8972

 
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ASU researcher says negative social behaviors can spread like diseases.
February 1, 2017

ASU researcher uses mathematical modeling to show how much friends affect success for high school students

An ASU researcher has used math in an effort to reduce dropout rates by plotting the exact point where negative peer influences overwhelm positive parenting. 

Anuj Mubayi, an assistant professor with ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and ASU’s Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Centersays this research could help correct “a big gap in research-funded education policies,” which “have fallen short in many neighborhoods.” 

ASU assistant professor

Anuj Mubayi

Mubayi initiated the mathematical modeling research after he and a colleague visited a Chicago high school with one of the worst dropout rates in the city.

“The underlying premise of this study,” Mubayi said, “was that social behaviors can spread interpersonally through social interactions and influences, as well as through contextual influences in high-risk settings, just like infectious diseases can.”

The raw data for the new mathematical modeling from Arizona State University, Northeastern Illinois University and the University of Texas at Arlington came from a 2013 survey of 125 students at the struggling Chicago school. Areas of focus included teaching effectiveness, the role of school demographics, the impact of peer and parental influences, and academic performance.

Based on these factors, variables such as parental involvement were categorized as high, medium or low, while academic involvement was rated as passing, vulnerable or failing.

Peer influence also was measured on a sliding scale, determined by asking students to identify their friends’ academic performance and interest levels, as well as their exposure to previous dropouts.

“In this instance, more than 50 percent of students reported their friends thought that school was a ‘waste of time,’” Mubayi said.

 So, can parents keep children from dropping out just by being more involved in their education? Yes, but only to a point, the study shows.

 

Infographic charting the effect of parental guidance

Image courtesy of Royal Society journal Proceedings A

 

It highlights the importance of positive peer groups. If a student with high parental involvement hits a moderately high range of negative influence from peers, their risk of failing and dropping out begins to trend upward on a similar trajectory as those students whose parents display much lower levels of engagement.

If any student begins to falter academically as a result of either or both influences, time is really of the essence, Mubayi added.

“Our study showed that once performance drops to a certain point, later increases in positive parental influence are no longer enough to reverse the trend and may even make things worse as the student rebels,” he said.

While providing some initial insights into the importance of positive parent-child interactions and early encouragement for vulnerable students, the question of how to more broadly protect and grow academic success remains complex.

For now, Mubayi’s team, which currently includes Bechir Amdoni (Northeastern Illinois University), Marlio Paredes (University of Puerto Rico at Cayey), and Christopher Kribs (University of Texas at Arlington), plan to expand their study to more schools in order to understand these influences in a wider spectrum of educational environments.

“Our study also revealed more half of dropouts do not live with their parents, so there are also social, economic and emotional factors that we must consider to address these issues more holistically,” Mubayi said.

Mubayi is also working the problem from another angle as the co-director of a renowned undergraduate summer training program called the Mathematical Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI). This ASU program, which has received two presidential awards, was initiated by mathematician Carlos Castillo-Chavez 21 years ago and focuses on improving dropout rates for college students while promoting graduate programs in STEM disciplines. 

The full study “Why do students quit school? Implications from a dynamical modelling study” can be viewed here in the Royal Society journal Proceedings A.

Aaron Pugh

Communications program coordinator , School of Human Evolution and Social Change

480-727-6577