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New York trip is highlight of spring Global Studies class

November 27, 2012

Freshman and sophomore students who enroll in the Global Cities class offered by ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences will spend their spring break next March exploring the many facets of New York City, from its financial and fashion industries to its arts and cultural offerings, as well as issues ranging from immigration to air quality to global warming’s effect on the island ecology of Manhattan.

This is the second time the three-credit Global Cities course (IAS 294) has been offered by New College, the core college on ASU’s West campus. Last spring the focus was on London, and a group of students spent their spring break in England’s capital, accompanied by faculty members including Elizabeth Langland, dean of New College and vice provost of the West campus. London trip Download Full Image

“The London trip was an extraordinary educational experience and, without exception, the students returned eager to pursue more international travel in their futures,” said Langland, who will participate in the New York course and trip along with Jeff Kennedy, a faculty member in New College and events director for the West campus, and Robert Taylor, associate dean in New College, who also went to London.

The goal of the course is to expand the global awareness of New College students through intensive study of a major international city. Students spend the first several weeks of the course studying the city’s history, political system, economy, geography, architecture, arts and culture before visiting it during spring break. During their one-week visit, students build on what they have learned from the first part of the semester by exploring the city and experiencing its culture firsthand.

Upon returning, students spend the final weeks of the course putting together a project, typically an online portfolio, documenting through essay and image their understanding of the city and its role in the world today.

“My experience of traveling to London was not only breathtaking and memorable, but it was also a great learning experience,” said Adrianna Aguirre, a sophomore psychology major who is now assisting in providing information for students considering taking the class next spring.

“I wanted to travel to London, but I did not expect to fall in love with this beautiful global city and learn so much from Dean Langland and Dean Taylor,” Aguirre said. “New College professors really do practice what they preach in terms of the importance of looking at issues from the perspective of different disciplines. I have no doubt that students who participate in the New York course will gain an educational and fun experience that they will remember forever.”

When another of the students who went to London was asked what he learned, Langland reports that he had an eloquent answer. “He said he learned how to be comfortable with being lost. He developed confidence that he had the resources to figure out how to get where he wanted to go,” Langland said. “That’s a life lesson – being comfortable with not knowing exactly where you are, confident that you have the ability to find a productive path to your destination, whether a place or a rewarding career.”

Students planning to take the Global Cities course next spring should plan for approximately $1,500 in expenses associated with the New York trip. Students may apply for financial assistance to help cover the trip expenses.

Eligibility requirements include freshman or sophomore status and living in a residence hall on the West campus. Students wishing to take the course must submit an application by Dec. 7 at 2 p.m.

Interested students may attend an information meeting Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 4:30 p.m. in Casa de Oro’s Second Floor Academic Lounge. Students may also contact or (602) 543-7000 for additional details.

New collaboration targets rare, deadly malignancy

November 27, 2012

Desmoplastic small round cell tumor (DSRCT) is a devastating variety of cancer, predominately striking boys and young adults. The exact causes of this rare disease remain shadowy, though the prognosis is bleak. Fewer than 20 percent of those diagnosed survive for more than 5 years. 

Now Valentin Dinu, a researcher at Arizona State University and specialist in bioinformatics and Joshua LaBaer, two members of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics at the Biodesign Institute have teamed up with Pooja Hingorani, an oncology/hematology physician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, to explore the underpinnings of DSRCT with unprecedented precision. Their insights will hopefully pave the way for the design of novel therapeutic agents to treat this deadly disease. Download Full Image

The new project is funded by a 3 year, $250K grant from Hyundai Hope on Wheels, a nonprofit organization, committed to the fight against pediatric cancer. Since its inception in 1998, Hyundai Hope on Wheels has donated $48 million to fund pediatric cancer research nationwide.

The lion’s share of the new award will be used to conduct next generation sequencing of the genomes derived from DSRCT pediatric tumor samples and to perform bioinformatic analyses of the resulting data.  

“We are very grateful to the Hyundai Hope on Wheels organization for financially supporting this research project,” Dinu says. “We look forward to working closely with our collaborators from Phoenix Children’s Hospital and the Biodesign Institute to study the biology of DSRCT by applying some of the most advanced genomics sequencing and informatics techniques. Our ultimate goal is to develop improved diagnostic and treatment options for this devastating malignancy that affects young adolescents.”  

The Department of Biomedical Informatics (BMI) at ASU is engaged in a number of significant area partnerships, uniting academic researchers, clinical practitioners and regional health care providers. The department recently moved to its new home on the Scottsdale campus of Mayo Clinic as part of the university’s deepening ties with Mayo in health care, medical research and education. Here, Dinu will carry out the informatics and data analysis work. 

LaBaer will perform the genomic sequencing at the Center for Personalized Diagnostics at Biodesign, an institute devoted to developing new diagnostic tools to pinpoint the molecular manifestations of disease based on individual patient profiles. 

Using their combined expertise, the researchers hope to open a new window onto the particular genomic aberrations linked with DSRCT. “We are very excited about the opportunity to study the underlying genomics of this difficult disease that affects children,” LaBaer says. “The power of these new genome scale sequencing methods will fundamentally alter our understanding of how these cancers begin and how they change over time.”

Desmoplastic small-round-cell tumor is an aggressive, soft tissue sarcoma, typically causing the formation of masses in the abdomen, though affected areas may also include bone, soft tissue, lung, ovary, kidney and central nervous system. The cell origin for the disease is still unknown though it is believed to arise from the mesenchyme. 

The malignancy may metastasize from its original site to the liver, lungs, lymph nodes, brain, skull, and bones. DSRCT is 4 times as likely to occur in males and its occurrence in females may be mistaken for ovarian cancer. The incidence of DSRCT is also higher in African-Americans than Caucasians. 

The researchers explain that the rareness of the disease has thus far precluded comprehensive studies of DSRCT biology, hence a lack of clinically relevant targets on which to base an effective therapy. The goal of the proposed study is to identify novel genetic aberrations in DSRCTs through the use of next generation genomic sequencing (NGS) technology. 

Since the first successful draft of the human genome was released in 2000, the race has been on to find cheaper and more rapid techniques. The new armament of technologies involves strategies to parallelize the sequencing process, enabling researchers to concurrently sequence hundreds of millions of genomic fragments at a time, generating tens of billions of base reads per experiment.

NGS will allow Dinu and LaBaer to mine vital information from the genomes derived from DSRCT-positive samples, revealing copy number changes, allelic aberrations, somatic rearrangements and base pair mutations, producing an enormous quantity of genomic sequence data. Costs associated with whole genome sequencing have recently plummeted, permitting the design and execution of studies capable of rapidly pinpointing potential disease-associated genetic variants. The technique has been used successfully to identify genetic abberations in such diseases as pancreatic cancers, glioblastoma multiforme, lung cancer, ovarian cancer and breast cancer.

Dinu and LaBaer insist the time is ripe to apply such methods to less common (yet lethal) forms of cancer, including DSRCT in order to uncover therapeutic candidates and improve the chances for patients stricken with such diseases. The team will perform whole genome DNA and RNA sequencing on tumor samples and their corresponding matched normal samples, in order to identify novel mutations, single nucleotide polymorphisms or other genomic aberrations associated with these tumors. 

The researchers stress that while the sample size used for the current project is small, the enormous volume of genomic data acquired should allow a positive identification of variants implicated in the disease. A collection of these variants – identified in DSRCT samples but absent in normal tissue – will act as biomarkers for the disease and may be applied for earlier and more accurate diagnostic purposes, as well as to provide plausible targets for future treatment. The group’s results will be cross-checked and validated using additional testing methods, such as Sanger sequencing or quantitative PCR. 

Valentin Dinu is assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at ASU and faculty member of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. 

Joshua LaBaer directs the Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics at ASU’s Biodesign Institute and is a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU