Eye on Science: Six La Jolla researchers to watch in 2013
By Lynne Friedmann
1. Natasha Balac is the director of the Predictive Analytics Center of Excellence (PACE), a new initiative of the San Diego Supercomputer Center. PACE will lead a collaborative, nationwide education and training effort among academia, industry and government to create the next generation of data researchers. This also involves developing a comprehensive suite of integrated, sustainable and secure cyberinfrastructure services to accelerate research and education in “predictive analytics;” the process of using statistical techniques from modeling, data mining and game theory to analyze current and historical facts to make predictions, assess risks and identify opportunities involving future events. Predictive analytics is used in a wide variety of fields such as healthcare, pharmaceuticals, financial services, insurance, and telecommunications.
2. Phil Baran, professor of chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute, is using innovative chemistry to simplify the creation of existing and potential drug compounds for diseases ranging from cancer to heart disease. While breaking new ground in synthetic methods, his work addresses the real-life challenges of economically providing large quantities of complex natural products with a minimum amount of labor and material expense.
Baran is the recipient of the 2012 Distinguished Scientist Award by the American Chemical Society (ACS)-San Diego, in recognition of his “contributions in the area of synthetic organic chemistry, especially creativity in pushing its boundaries with innovative and thoughtful solutions to synthetic problems.”
3. Napoleone Ferrara, a molecular biologist credited with helping decipher how tumors grow, and developing new treatments for both cancer and age-related macular degeneration, joined the UC San Diego School of Medicine on Dec. 1 as a professor of pathology and senior deputy director for basic science at the UCSD Moores Cancer Center. He previously was a research fellow at the Bay Area-based biotechnology company Genentech.
Ferrara was named recipient of The Economist magazine’s 2012 Innovation Award for bioscience. The prize honors Ferrara’s work identifying the role of the human VEGF gene in promoting angiogenesis — the formation of new blood vessels that can feed tumor growth — and subsequent development of two major monoclonal antibody drugs.
4. Ramamohan Paturi is a professor of computer science and engineering at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering whose research includes complexity theory, digital libraries, medical data mining and evidence-based medicine. He is also founder and chairman of San Diego-based Parity Computing, which recently launched Clinical Vigilance for Sepsis, a software system for healthcare providers caring for patients at potential risk of deadly sepsis which strikes more than 750,000 American each year.
Currently, early detection of sepsis is complex and costly, requiring a high level of expert caregiver attention. Clinical Vigilance for Sepsis integrates with current clinical workflow to assess patient data already being collected as part of standard care. The software automatically and continuously monitors all patients in a hospital setting, issuing alerts that bring immediate attention to at-risk patients.
5. It’s better to detect a disease sooner rather than later, but if that condition is a developmental disorder like autism, which strikes at very young ages, how can you spot the first signs? Karen Pierce, assistant director of the Autism Center of Excellence, at the UCSD School of Medicine, is developing screening tests to identify children at autism risk when they are as young as 1 year old (most symptoms don’t appear until age 2.)
Her functional imaging and clinical tests could help parents and doctors intervene early enough to avoid some of the disorder’s most severe behavioral and cognitive problems. Her work has been highlighted by KPBS, KUSI, NBC, CNN, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and TIME Magazine where she was included in the “2012 TIME 100 List” of influential leaders, artists and innovators worldwide for her work to help identify autism risk at an early age.
6. Erica Ollmann Saphire, a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbial Science at The Scripps Research Institute, seeks to understand at the molecular level how certain pathogens overcome and even exploit the human immune system. Research targets include the notoriously deadly Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa viruses to the more common but less virulent pathogens.
In order to translate her research findings to the real world, Saphire has spent considerable time in African rainforest, caves and huts in order to “see where these viruses live.” Saphire is a recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government for young professionals at the outset of their independent research careers. President Obama presented her with the honor at a White House ceremony.
Scorecard: Individuals and Projects featured in 2012
■ Jessica Block, a staff research associate at Calit2, continues to use visualization technology to address environmental issues and natural disasters, particularly wildfires. She is part of a UCSD team, together with researchers from Australia’s University of Melbourne, who in 2012 received an Australian Research Council grant of $1.5 million to design, build, and install wireless streaming sensors that can withstand failures in the field. This leverages expertise developed at UCSD to allow emergency responders to access dynamic environmental data that were previously unavailable in real-time (such as where fire perimeters are traveling in firestorms).
■ Jennifer Burney, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography post doc and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, continues her work on agricultural solutions for struggling farmers. The past year has involved looking at different kinds of irrigation systems for smallholder farmers in dry climates around the world, and also looking at the ways air pollution affects the ability to grow food. She is trying to quantify the agricultural benefits of cleaning up our air. She is also working to understand and quantify all the different ways energy is used in food production, processing and consumption.
■ Since its debut at the San Diego Supercomputer Center in early 2012, the Gordon supercomputer has been helping to solve science problems (some 289 project awards to date) in a range of fields. This includes: developing detailed simulations of earthquake faults to improve forecasting capabilities; shifting through massive amounts of stock-market data to determine if traders are using high-frequency trading (HFT) to manipulate financial exchanges (findings important as SEC debates policy to curb this practice); and simulations and analyses of cloud microphysics, which greatly enhances the general-circulation models in climate change research to more accurately model historical and future climate studies.
■ Malene Hansen, an assistant professor at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, continues to advance the research frontiers on the molecular mechanisms that affect the process of aging and age- related diseases. In addition to a lengthy list of published research papers in 2012, she took on leadership roles as co-organizer of a major meeting on the research organism C. elegans; was session chair at a meeting on the Molecular Genetics of Aging; and was an invited speaker at 12 other meetings and venues.
Hansen was also invited to join the “Faculty of 1000,” a prestigious group of scientists selected by their peers to review, rank and recommend published papers in order to give other scientists the inside scoop on what they feel are the most important papers in a given field.
■ Michael A. Marletta can look back on his first year as president and CEO of The Scripps Research Institute at a string of accomplishments that include: 1) A new multi-year agreement with Bristol-Myers Squibb Company to pursue novel chemistry for drug discovery and synthesis, 2) recruiting more than a dozen principal investigators to Scripps Florida, meeting targets for expansion, and 3) laying the groundwork for successful fundraising by increasing community outreach and rebuilding the Department of Philanthropy, including positions in Planned Giving and Estates and Corporate and Foundation Relations. Gifts in 2012 included $2 million from the Esther B. O’Keeffe Foundation.
■ Steven Wagner, a project scientist in the UCSD Department of Neurosciences and principal investigator on a $1 million, five-year NIH grant, continues to advance research efforts toward finding a new drug to slow the brain cell death and dementia that characterizes Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
This past year, this included synthesizing and testing hundreds of analog compounds in the lab —including human neurons derived from AD patient stem cells as well as mouse models of AD — which led to identification of multiple promising drug candidates. Wagner’s research group’s next major goal is to have a pre-clinical candidate identified and ready for large animal testing by the end of 2013.
Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.
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