Work of professors reflects ASU college's new name

February 27, 2015

The College of Public Service and Community Solutions is more than a new name. It’s a reflection of those who study, conduct research and teach at the Arizona State University college.

Home to more than 5,500 undergraduate and graduate students, the former College of Public Programs is the second largest on the downtown Phoenix campus. It features four schools and 17 research centers and institutes that tackle real-world problems. Over the course of the year, the college’s students, researchers and professors will be profiled to get a better understanding of work being done and the difference they’re making. professor Michael White, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice Download Full Image

The following is a snapshot of four professors who exemplify the college’s new name.

Michael White, professor, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice

Michael White is part of a task force assembled by the City of Phoenix to come up with a better way to support police officers and firefighters dealing with severe job-related stress. The panel was assembled after a police officer took his own life.

“I’ve been studying police use-of-force for well over a decade now and I’m intimately aware of the issue,” he said.

White is the co-author of the 2013 book "Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department." It’s the largest study ever done on officers who break the rules. But it’s another subject matter that has him in the news more frequently – the use of body-worn video cameras by police.

White is the author of a Department of Justice analysis of studies done on officer-worn video cameras. He was recently asked to speak on the matter to the President’s Task Force on 21st century policing. He and fellow criminology and criminal justice professor Charles Katz have also been asked by the Justice Department to create suggested guidelines for police agencies nationwide to use.

Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, associate professor, School of Social Work

As director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, Dominique Roe-Sepowitz supervises two major projects in January: a “drop-in” event for prostitutes who want helping getting “out of the life,” and a study of sex trafficking during the Super Bowl.

For the drop-in, her office is partnering with the City of Phoenix and 22 nonprofits to provide free food, clothing, medical help and other assistance, such as housing. Roe-Sepowitz even got a company to donate a couple of portable shower trucks. Research from focus groups revealed that the two things women who work as prostitutes want are a shower and items for their kids, like backpacks and notebooks. A total of 22 women show up for help during the pilot event.

Ten days before the Super Bowl, the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research begins tracking the number of escort ads placed on in Phoenix, Tucson, New York, San Francisco and San Jose. Research assistants are trained to spot ads that have a high likelihood of involving girls under the age of 18. They also place decoy ads to see how many men respond and where their calls and emails originate. The study found a 30 percent increase in ads in the Phoenix area from the year before and a 22 percent increase in responses to decoy ads. The office forwarded 21 Phoenix ads that could involve minors to authorities.

Dave White, associate professor, School of Community Resources and Development

Dave White teaches a fieldwork research methods class for doctoral students, but the subject matter he specializes in is water management. He recently welcomed about 50 guests to a panel discussion on climate change and extreme events, held at the Decision Center for a Desert City in Tempe, where he is the principal investigator and co-director. The event featured a computational engineer from Argonne National Laboratory, anthropology professors from Rutgers and ASU, and an ASU psychology professor.

The goal of the panel is to see what can be learned by studying how other cultures shared water and dealt with crises and disasters. It is part of an interdisciplinary approach that ASU and the College of Public Service and Community Solutions have become known for.

“We have a tremendous amount of flexibility to work across the university to take advantage of collaborations and connections,” White said. “There is not a strict rule to do everything in your own department. The university has made a lot of strides in the past decade to create a fluid environment for the faculty to be able to work in the ways that best advance the work.”

Chris Herbst, associate professor, School of Public Affairs

For the better part of the past decade, Chris Herbst has done extensive research on federally subsidized childcare- and welfare-related programs, pointing out what works and what doesn’t. One particular study involved scouring thousands of pages of government documents to construct detailed datasets to help analyze a World War II universal preschool program.

President Obama made reference to his research in the 2015 State of the Union address. Obama cited its success in calling for expanding preschool subsidies and a two-fold increase in the child tax credit to $3,000 a year.

“A lot of that is grunt work. It’s not sexy at all,” said Herbst. “And so when someone other than the researcher decides that it’s useful, particularly when that person is the president, it’s very gratifying.”

Paul Atkinson

assistant director, College of Public Service and Community Solutions


New study brings medicine closer to non-addictive painkillers

February 27, 2015

Powerful opiate drugs are a mainstay in modern medicine, alleviating pain in both acute and chronic forms. These charms however, bear a curse. Users quickly develop tolerance to their effects, requiring ever-increasing doses of the drug. Further, such opioid compounds lead to drug dependence, owing to their notoriously addictive qualities.

In a first-of-its-kind study, Petra Fromme, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, joins an international team using techniques of X-ray crystallography with high-speed lasers to home in on the detailed structure of opioid receptors and synthetic drugs that bind to these sites. Petra Fromme Download Full Image

Their efforts pave the way for the development of powerful new analgesics, capable of blocking pain without generating tolerance or dependency. Their research findings appear in the current issue of the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.

The international research group was led by Gustavo Fenalti (formerly of the Scripps Research Institute, now with Celgene Corporation, San Diego, California) and includes researchers from the laboratory of Raymond C. Stevens with the University of Southern California, as well as members of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; Center for Free Electron Laser Science; Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY)-Hamburg, Germany; and others.

Fromme, director of the Biodesign Institute’s newly established Center for Applied Structural Discovery, highlights the importance of the present study: “Serial femtosecond crystallography permits detailed examination of vital biochemical details that have long eluded proper study. In this case, revealing the subtle interaction of a human opioid receptor with a binding peptide is a critical step for understanding the pharmacological profile of opioid drugs. The research opens the door to a new generation of improved treatments for pain.”

Ancient friend and foe

Opioids figure among the oldest known drugs, their therapeutic uses dating to prehistory. Such compounds are structurally similar to morphine and other natural alkaloid derivatives of the opium poppy. They work by binding to various opiate receptors, located primarily in the central and peripheral nervous systems and the gastrointestinal tract. While this much is known, many mysteries remain regarding their precise mode of action (and their troublesome side-effects).

Opioid receptors belong to a large protein family known as G protein-linked receptors. These sensing molecules outside of cells trigger a cascade of cellular responses that affect the brain.

When an opioid binding agent, called a ligand, binds with a receptor, the result is a dramatic attenuation of pain, often accompanied by a sense of intense euphoria, (a fact accounting for the popularity of opioid drugs, including opium and heroin, for recreational use and abuse).

Fromme’s group has a led a major initiative to better understand this protein family using a powerful new X-ray laser technology.

Three primary opioid receptors are known to bind with various naturally-occurring opioids produced by the body. A more thorough understanding of these naturally-occurring opioids and their receptors is essential for drug discovery of new pain analgesics with more desirable properties.

Researchers hope to create synthetic opiate ligands, capitalizing on their powerful analgesic properties while reducing or eliminating side-effects. The current study examines a particular opioid ligand which has already shown considerable promise as a tolerance-free, dependence-free analgesic.

X-ray vision

X-ray crystallography has been a vital tool for revealing the structure and function of a wide variety of biological molecules, including drugs, vitamins, proteins and nucleic acids, such as DNA. The technique remains a primary method for characterizing the atomic structure of new materials and their properties – key ingredients in the eventual design and validation of new pharmaceutical drugs.

One shortcoming of traditional X-ray crystallography is that X-rays can damage or destroy the delicate crystal structures under investigation. The current study used a pathbreaking method known as serial femtosecond crystallography using a device known as an X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL).

The use of XFEL allows much smaller crystals to be used, capturing critical structural information before the sample is destroyed.

In the current study, the team used serial femtosecond crystallography to observe peptide-receptor interactions essential for developing a complete pharmacological profile of opioid peptides, and development and refinement of improved analgesic drugs.

The XFEL method provided unprecedented structural details revealing new molecular determinants of peptide interaction and identifying a key structure contributing to a particular ligand’s activity.

Analysis of that ligand presents a platform for the examination of numerous peptides with pharmacological properties, including new ligands for the management of pain.

In addition to her appointment at the Biodesign Institute, Fromme is a professor at ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU