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ASU a key player in new statewide initiative to tackle complex diseases.
September 6, 2017

ASU a key player in Arizona Wellbeing Commons, an umbrella group that aims to tackle complex disease issues

Arizona State University is a key player in a new health research initiative designed to harness the expertise of scientists across the state to treat diseases like cancer and address such problems as unequal access to health care.

The Arizona Wellbeing Commons is a statewide collaboration of the three public universities, health providers, practitioners and community partners such as the Mayo Clinic and TGen.

The main goals of the project are to provide opportunities for experts around Arizona to align their research, share resources, mentor young researchers and get the word out.

“Collaboration is an advantage in Arizona, where biosciences research is still growing,” said Joshua LaBaerLaBaer also is director of the Biodesign Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics and is a professor in the ASU School of Molecular Sciences and an adjunct professor of medicine at the College of Medicine, Mayo Clinic., who is leading the umbrella group. LaBaer is  executive director of the Biodesign Institute at ASU.

“What makes a good collaboration is having people from different backgrounds and different approaches come together. That’s where a clinician might note an unmet need that a basic researcher might not be aware of.”

LaBaer (pictured above) spoke at the kickoff meeting for the Arizona Wellbeing Commons, held Wednesday at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The group will meet every year, and the six specialty divisions also will meet. Those are:

  • neurobiology, aging, dementias and movement disorders, led by Salvatore Oddo, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU
  • cancer prevention, detection, management and treatment, led by Karen Anderson, an associate professor at ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics, in the Biodesign Institute
  • viruses, immunity, microbiomes and infectious disease, led by Grant McFadden, the new director of the Biodesign Center for Immunology, Vaccines and Virotherapy at ASU
  • nutrition, obesity, exercise and lifestyle, led by Steven Hooker, associate dean for research and professor in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion in ASU's College of Health Solutions
  • mental health, substance abuse, crime and behavior change, led by Michael Shafer, director of the Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy at ASU and a professor in the School of Social Work in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions
  • public health and health-care services, law, policy and equity, led by James Hodge, director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU

Each division will include an array of specialists, from basic researchers to practitioners, and the categories are intentionally broad, LaBaer said.

“Viewing well-being through multiple perspectives allows fresh approaches to any number of health issues, including those that are grand challenges in Arizona, like heart disease and diabetes,” he said.

This type of collaboration can potentially lead to funding sources, Oddo said.

“Often we don’t even know within our institutions what the people on the floor below us are working on,” said Oddo, who studies the molecular mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease.

He said that the most impactful research will happen only when the research is complementary.

“We are in a unique position to do that,” he said. “This is a critical moment. There are many centers, from NIH to NSF, that have brain programs and are contributing large amounts of funds to this. They are looking for synergy across different disciplines and institutions.”

Complex diseases such as cancer and diabetes have complex origins and will require a multi-layered approach to research, Anderson said. For example, some cancers are related to obesity and others are linked to viruses.

“All of these efforts nationally and locally are starting to show improvements in the number of lives saved,” said Anderson, who also is an associate professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic Arizona. “But it’s happened as a result of collaboration and of large-scale implementation projects.”

ASU already has some high-impact collaborations, whose participants are part of the Arizona Wellbeing Commons initiative.

Anna Barker, co-director of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative at ASU and a professor in the School of Life Sciences, speaks at the kickoff meeting of the new Arizona Wellbeing Commons. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

For example, the Adaptive Global Innovative Learning Environment Clinical Trial had its roots in a think tank developed at ASU several years ago, according to Anna Barker, the director. The think tank evolved into AGILE, which is creating a new way of producing clinical trials for the most common form of adult brain cancer. Starting with 30 people, AGILE now includes neurosurgeons, oncologists, researchers and advocacy communities. The clinical trial will begin next year with 50 patients.

“We had hundreds of meetings. Nobody gave up, nobody walked away and everyone is still engaged,” said Barker, who also is co-director of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative at ASU and a professor in the School of Life Sciences.

“It’s a remarkable crowd-sourcing effort of the knowledge we needed to do this trial, and it’s an example of what can happen when we brought the right people to the table, supported the process and celebrated the victories.”

Another example is the REACH Institute, in the Department of Psychology, which bridges the gap between research and practice and includes several units at ASU.

“This group of scientists has been engaged in research for more than 25 years, studying what promotes resiliency in families and children,” said Anne Marie Mauricio, an assistant research professor and implementation scientist in the institute. The team developed successful interventions including Bridges to High School, a school-based prevention program shown to reduce high-risk behaviors such as substance use, and the Family Bereavement Program, which addresses the complex needs of children after the death of a parent.

“We had all of these great programs, but the communities weren’t using them. So how do we get them out there?” said Mauricio. “We work with community partners to understand from the users’ perspective how the programs need to work to fit the community.”

McFadden, who recently came to ASU from the University of Florida, said he’s planning a symposium of virologists in the state for November.

“One of the things I learned in moving here is that there is no repository of information,” he said. “Who are the scientists in the state, and what are they working on?

“This is a remarkable idea, and there’s nothing like it in Florida.”


Top photo: Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute at ASU, is leading the new Arizona Wellbeing Commons, a statewide health-research collaboration. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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September 7, 2017

In the wake of Harvey and Irma, ASU's Charles Redman talks about how to make cities more able to weather calamities

The flooding in Houston was exacerbated by how the city was built. Like many cities, Houston basically paved over the existing landscape, a grassy plain that evolved to handle large rainfalls by acting like a sponge.

New ideas on how to build more resilient cities focus on working with nature, rather than trying to master it, says Arizona State University Professor Charles Redman, the founding director of ASU’s School of Sustainability and a distinguished scientist in ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

What this means, Redman says, is building infrastructure systems that are safe-to-fail, rather than fail-safe, and recognizing that the city should be able to take advantage of natural features of the land rather than to solidify it with concrete.

Redman leads a group of researchers from 15 institutions in a National Science Foundation-sponsored project called the Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather Related Events Sustainability Research Network (UREx SRN), which focuses on ways to make cities more resilient to natural calamities.

Here, he talks about how cities can be better prepared to withstand natural calamities.

Question: What can cities do to be better prepared for events like Harvey and Irma?

Answer: There are two areas of improvement, the first being altering the nature of the “hard” infrastructure, and second to enrich and make more effective the “soft” infrastructure of organization, cooperation, information flow, etc.

The overarching problem with cities like Houston is that they have built over the natural landscape with impervious surfaces, and with impediments to the natural flow of surface runoff. A more effective approach may be to implement infrastructure systems that work with the land to facilitate runoff rather than try to control it, but acknowledge and plan that if a specific threshold is exceeded and the system “fails” in some sense there are backup plans in place that minimize the adverse impacts.

Q: How does a safe-to-fail system operate vs. a fail-safe system?

A: This is about managing risk in an increasingly uncertain world. The fail-safe system assumes you know what is coming and that it can be handled if we build a big enough dam, levee, pipe, sea wall, etc., for protection. The problem is that many extreme events such as Katrina, Fukushima, Sandy and now Harvey go beyond the expected and result in disaster. A fail-safe approach seeks to totally prevent harm related to the weather event; however, if the event does exceed the design of the infrastructure there is little back up protection and disaster ensues.

In each case, much of the disaster might have been avoided or at least minimized through more effective awareness of the threats, better planning and well-thought-out responses. This is at the heart of the safe-to-fail approach that accepts the possibility that the hard infrastructure might be insufficient and has multiple back-up plans to ameliorate the impact. Using green infrastructure with secondary benefits, relying on multiple approaches, and moving people out of harm’s way are among the approaches to minimize negative impacts.

Q: What are some of the “soft” infrastructure approaches to becoming more resilient?

A: Short of changing the physical structure of the city, “safe-to-fail” strategies would focus on how the city prepares and responds to weather-related extreme events. The first is to map the relative vulnerability of people in different locations of the city, and as the event approaches the rescue teams don’t have to wait for 911 calls but can focus on the most likely areas to flood before the disaster develops. 

The second is to develop a system of refuge centers that are appropriate to the scale of the potential dislocation and pre-plan strategies for getting people there. In Houston planned shelters were a fraction of the size needed. A separate issue is that two of the Houston’s reservoirs threatened to overtop their embankments. It is a common mismanagement problem that reservoirs are kept too full in order to maximize available water when they should be kept lower during hurricane season.

Q: What are some of the tools being developed in the UREx SRN program?

A: We are focusing on a variety of tools, and more, to build a method of bringing together the diverse elements of city government with relevant citizen groups to plan for future hard and soft infrastructure. Primary among the tools are a variety of green infrastructure constructions that take advantage of natural ecosystem services to ameliorate the impact of extreme weather events and then, in between events, to provide desired amenities like greenbelts and recreation fields. We are also constructing maps of populations most vulnerable to various types of extreme events and systems to minimize the impact on these populations.

Q: How does the program make cities more resilient?

A: We believe there are basic steps in gathering information, planning for the scale and intensity of events that were not common in the past, but are expected more today and in the future. We want to create planning templates that will ensure that cities are more “resilient-ready” to floods, heatwaves, droughts and other weather-related extreme events.

Another category of action that will enhance the capacity of a city to handle extreme events is to build the cooperative attitude of helping each other and working together to face the challenge rather than relying totally on outside interventions. Community members working together is the best line of defense to extreme events and can leverage and fill in with the outside interventions.


Top photo: Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard move through flooded Houston streets as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continued to rise Aug. 28. More than 12,000 members of the Texas National Guard were been called out to support local authorities in response to the storm. Photo by U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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