Tag Archives: Ariel Anbar


ASU, Mayo researchers develop real-time test for bone cancer

Are your bones getting stronger or weaker? Right now, it’s hard to know. But a new test for detecting bone loss, being developed by Arizona State University and Mayo Clinic researchers, offers the possibility of near real-time monitoring of bone diseases. The technique, which measures changes in calcium isotope ratios, has passed an important hurdle by being tested on urine samples from NASA space shuttle astronauts.

Our bones are largely built of calcium, and the turnover of calcium can indicate the development of bone diseases such as osteoporosis and the cancer multiple myeloma. Geochemists have developed extremely accurate ways of measuring calcium isotope ratios, for example for the study of sea shell deposits in sedimentary rocks. Now a group of geochemists and biologists have worked with NASA to put these techniques together to develop a new, rapid test of bone health.

“It’s a novel project in which we use geoscience techniques and concepts for biomedical research,” says lead researcher Ariel Anbar, President’s Professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The ASU team also includes Gwyneth Gordon and Steve Romaniello; collaborator Scott Smith works at NASA Johnson Space Center.

Using mass spectrometry, the relative ratios of the calcium isotopes 42Ca and 44Ca in bone can be discerned. The researchers found that lighter calcium isotopes, such as 42Ca, are absorbed from the blood into the bone during bone formation. Conversely, these light isotopes tend to be released into the bloodstream when bones break down. By measuring the ratios of the two isotopes in blood or urine scientists can calculate the rate of change of bone mass.

Anbar will be discussing this method at the Goldschmidt Conference in Prague, Czech Republic, August 16-21. He will also be recognized for being elected a Geochemistry Fellow by The Geochemical Society and The European Association of Geochemistry.

“The big advantage of these measurements is that they show what is happening in the bone, whereas traditional bone health measurements, such as DXA scans, show what hashappened. This means that we can have a real near-time view of what is happening in the bone, rather than comparing before and after, when damage may have already been done,” explains Anbar.

“Our goal is that these measurements will allow us to see bone breakdown in osteoporosis, but also can show us the progress of certain that affect bone, such as multiple myeloma.”

The research was piloted in bed-bound subjects (who lose bone mass), but the best way for the researchers to test whether the system worked was in an ambient and less controlled population who are known to experience rapid bone loss. In space, because of zero gravity conditions, astronauts experience very rapid bone loss. Working with NASA, the researchers measured calcium isotope ratios in urine from 30 shuttle astronauts, before, during, and after the flights. This allowed them to confirm that the test worked at high sensitivity (NASA partly funded the research).

Joseph Skulan, a member of the research team who first proposed the idea, said: “We were able to confirm that Ca isotopes in the sample from the shuttle astronauts shifted as expected, meaning that they we could see in more or less real time the ongoing bone loss. We did this with simple urine samples, taken at various points during their flights.”

In a collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, the researchers have also looked at a group of 71 patients who either had multiple myeloma (bone cancer), or were at risk of multiple myeloma.

“What we see with cancer patients is exciting,” said Anbar. “Samples from patients with the most active cancer tended to have lighter Ca isotopes. This means that the tests could theoretically feed into decisions on whether or not to treat a patient, for example if a cancer was dormant or growing very slowly, and to assess the effectiveness of treatments.”

He continued: “At the moment, this is still a test which is in development, but we’ve shown the principle is sound and the potential profound. The advantage for this methodology is that the patient doesn’t have to come to the machine; the measurements can be done with a blood or urine test. And from a scientific point of view, we are delighted that we have the chance to combine geochemistry, biology, and space science to benefit patients.”

Commenting, Scott Parazynski, MD, former NASA astronaut, currently University Explorer and Professor at Arizona State University said:

“It’s tremendous to see a sophisticated geochemical assay being translated into what could become a really significant medical diagnostic tool. Physicians treating osteoporosis and other calcium disorders of bone, including multiple myeloma, have very few tools at their disposal to quickly determine whether the treatments they’re providing are actually making a difference. By using calcium isotope ratios, healthcare providers may be able to optimize therapies for these debilitating illnesses in the future.”

Ariel Anbar and ASU graduate student Yun Duan inspect a sample of 2.5 billion-year-old seafloor.

ASU biogeochemist among 15 top scientist-educators

Biogeochemist Ariel Anbar has been selected as Arizona State University’s first Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor. This distinguished honor recognizes Anbar’s pioneering research and teaching.

He is one of 15 professors from 13 universities whose appointments were announced by the Maryland-based biomedical research institute on June 30. The appointment includes a five-year $1 million grant to support Anbar’s research and educational activities.

Since the inception of the HHMI Professor program in 2002, and including the new group of 2014 professors, only 55 scientists have been appointed HHMI professors. These professors are accomplished research scientists who are working to change undergraduate science education in the United States.

“Exceptional teachers have a lasting impact on students,” said HHMI President Robert Tjian. “These scientists are at the top of their respective fields and they bring the same creativity and rigor to science education that they bring to their research.”

Anbar, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Liberal Art and Sciences, as well as a Distinguished Sustainability Scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability, was named an ASU President’s Professor in 2013 in recognition of his pioneering online education efforts. He is deeply involved in using the medium to its fullest to help educate and encourage a generation that has grown up with the Internet.

A leading geoscientist with more than 100 peer-reviewed papers to his name, Anbar’s research focuses on Earth’s past and future as a habitable planet. This expertise feeds directly into his teaching in the highly successful class Habitable Worlds, developed through ASU Online. In Habitable Worlds, Anbar and course designer Lev Horodyskyj combine the power of the Internet, game-inspired elements, and the sensibilities of a tech savvy generation to teach what makes planets habitable and engage students in a simulated hunt for other habitable worlds in the cosmos. This innovative online course kindles student interest and learning. Beginning in fall 2014, it will be available outside of ASU as HabWorlds Beyond (www.habworlds.org), via a partnership with education technology company Smart Sparrow. Habitable Worlds has been taken by more than 1,500 ASU students and consistently receives outstanding student reviews.

The HHMI grant will enable Anbar to develop a suite of online virtual field trips (VFTs) that teach the story of Earth’s evolution as an inhabited world. The virtual field trips will be based on nearly 4 billion years of Earth’s geological record. These immersive, interactive VFTs will take students to locations that teach key insights into Earth’s evolution, fundamental principles of geology, and practices of scientific inquiry.

Anbar helped lead a multi-institutional team that developed a number of such VFTs for use in Habitable Worlds and elsewhere (vft.asu.edu), supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the National Science Foundation. Now, working with ASU education technologist and doctoral student Geoffrey Bruce, ASU professor and geoscience education specialist Steven Semken, and partners at other institutions, Anbar will build virtual field trips covering the sweep of Earth history. He and his team will take students to some of the most important places on Earth to explore how the planet came to be what it is today.

“The goal is to develop powerful and engaging new tools to teach about Earth’s evolution,” explains Anbar. “In the near term, we will create VFT-based lessons that can be incorporated into existing introductory geoscience courses. Right away, that can impact the roughly 2,000 majors and non-majors who take such courses each year at ASU, as well as thousands of students elsewhere. In the long run we aim to create a fully online course like Habitable Worlds – I’m calling it Evolving World for now – that covers the content of one of the most important introductory geoscience courses, historical geology.”

Anbar’s plan could re-invigorate instruction in historical geology, which is taught in nearly every geoscience program. In addition to being fundamental to the field of geology, it provides vital context for the search for life beyond Earth, and for the changes that humans are causing to the planet. However, historical geology is best taught through field experiences, which are logistically challenging at large universities. Even when they are possible, it is impossible to expose students to all the most scientifically important sites because they are scattered around the globe. While VFTs cannot rival physical field trips, they are a big advance over teaching this material only through lectures.

“Most science classes teach science as facts and answers,” says Anbar. “With VFTs, as with Habitable Worlds, we are trying to teach that science is really a process – a process of exploration that helps us first organize our ignorance about questions to which we don’t have answers, and then helps us narrow the uncertainties so that we can replace ignorance with understanding.”