AR-BIC 2018 Recap

The 4th annual meeting of the Arkansas Bioinformatics Consortium (AR-BIC) was successfully held March 23-24 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Attended by over 200 participants, AR-BIC 2018 was made possible through the generous support from a conference grant awarded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), sponsorships by the major Arkansas research universities in this field – University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), University of Arkansas (UA), University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA-Little Rock), University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), and Arkansas State University (A-State) – along with the Arkansas Biosciences Institute (ABI) and TriNetX. The Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA) acted as the lead organizer in addition to providing core sponsorship resources. This year’s overarching theme was “Data Analytics for Genomics and Beyond.”

AR-BIC was founded to foster a collaborative, Arkansas-based community in bioinformatics research and education among federal and academic institutions. Over the past few years, AR-BIC has gained tremendous momentum and popularity among the Arkansas scientific research community, which is evident by the increased number of participants each year.

The AR-BIC annual meeting has become the largest Arkansas bioinformatics gathering, which not only provides an opportunity for networking, collaborating and sharing ideas, but also a platform to highlight the excellent research conducted statewide. This year’s meeting was especially extraordinary as it announced the formation of the AR-BIC Governing Board and was heralded by a video greeting from Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who highlighted the contribution and impact AR-BIC has made on the improvement of the state’s economy and research environment.

The two-day event opened with a pre-conference workshop by TriNetX, which, in addition to being a network of academic medical centers and pharma companies who collaborate on clinical trials, provide a technology application to access clinical trial cohort data. Plenary talks centered on generalized data analytics of genomics data, textual data, business data, and chemical data by eleven internationally renowned scientists located in Arkansas, and by two visiting scientists from Argonne National Lab, Illinois, and East China Normal University, Shanghai, China.

Arkansas-based plenary speakers were graciously provided by NCTR, UA-Little Rock, UA, and UAMS. AR-BIC also hosted two speakers from the corporate sector – J.B. Hunt (logistics technology) and MISO (energy grid management). Each speaker shared data-analytics trends in their areas of expertise, along with strategies and methodologies they employ using a different range of data – from genomics and textual to chemical and business. Striking similarities were discovered in the underlying data analytics methodologies across all types of sectors, a promising segue for future collaboration among data scientists from state universities and business.

In addition, more than 30 posters were presented, predominantly by students from the partner universities, providing them an important training opportunity, and sparking continued conversations throughout the consortium. AR-BIC members hailed from all corners of the state, arriving from NCTR, UA-Little Rock, UAMS, A-State, UA, UAPB, and USDA. The full conference program can be accessed at www.aralliance.org/ar-bic.

With this success, we are now planning AR-BIC 2019, to be hosted February 25-26, 2019, at UAMS.

 

Dr. Alex Biris’ research inspires (and confounds) Arkansas columnist

You don’t have to be an ARA Fellow to appreciate Dr. Alex Biris’ work with nanomaterial-based bone regeneration. The fascinating research conducted at UA Little Rock is impressive dinner-table discussion. After all, whose eyes wouldn’t widen at the thought of healing broken bones with nanoscaled materials bearing bone-mimicking characteristics?

However, in a recent Democrat-Gazette article, noted columnist Rex Nelson admits his grasp of the tech is somewhat beyond his reach:

I don’t pretend to be smart enough to understand what it is that Biris is doing.

Indeed! Dr. Biris, Chief Scientist of the UA Little Rock Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences (CINS), explores the science of nanostructures that can be used to alter the properties of other substances at the atomic level. Such microscopic pursuits can have big commercial value, as Mr. Nelson soon discovers:

I do know enough to realize that this is exactly the kind of research that could move the central Arkansas economy forward once it’s monetized. As one UALR administrator told me: “Though the goal of the research is treatment for human injuries, the long Food & Drug Administration road to commercialization is shorter for animals than for human subjects. There’s potentially a big market for animals such as thoroughbred horses, prize breeding stock and beloved pets. The scaffold has enabled better healing of broken bones in some experiments than in any previous therapies. It’s exciting stuff. And it’s happening right here in Little Rock.”

And it’s happening right here in Little Rock. Research is a catalyst for economic growth in Arkansas, one that Mr. Nelson understands is undervalued in the Natural State. You can read more about Mr. Nelson’s discovery of research’s role in the future of Arkansas’ economy here, The Ol’ College Try.

 

RELEASED: The Official 2018 AR-BIC Schedule

On April 23-24, the 4th Annual Arkansas Bioinformatics Consortium convenes at Embassy Suites in Little Rock, bringing together the state’s bioinformatics community for a unique opportunity to network and exchange ideas.

This year’s agenda is packed, featuring speakers and presenters deeply connected to the present and future of bioinformatics. Download by clicking the link below.

AR-BIC 2018 Agenda

ARA Profile: Rebecca Lochmann Takes on the World

In the late 1990s, catfish farming was a $50M+ industry in Arkansas, with nearly 160 farms providing a good living to many hardworking people in the Mississippi Delta. But sudden competition from Vietnam and other Asian countries has cut Arkansas catfish sales half. Today, according to Catfish Farmers of America, two-thirds of the catfish sold in American restaurants and grocery stores are Asian sourced.

Dr. Rebecca Lochmann, Interim Center Director for the Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, has worked closely with area catfish farmers for more than two decades, developing feeds that not only reduce operating costs, but also help farmers produce healthier, higher quality catfish.

By experimenting with different oils and fatty acids, Dr. Lochmann can actually change the lipid composition of fish by altering the composition of the diet.

“We want to make the fish have the characteristics we want to eat,” says Dr. Lochmann, “Make it have healthy fatty acids, make it taste good, make it fresh and looking good in the market.”

Changing the composition of catfish not only makes the fish more aesthetically pleasing to consumers, it also makes it a healthier meal. Unlike other popular dinner fish (like trout and salmon), catfish produce relatively low amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which lower certain risks of cardiovascular disease and improve some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

Simply put, a catfish infused with omega-3 fatty acids could provide a healthy benefit to consumers, and can also provide an intriguing selling-point for Arkansas farmers looking to compete with cheaper Asian imports.

Still, the research is not without its challenges. Dr. Lochmann was successful in changing the fish composition, but initial tests revealed that consumers were not fond of the taste.

“I then collaborated with a researcher at Fayetteville who provided me with a modified soy bean oil,” said Dr. Lochmann. “With it, we achieved the same composition, but people couldn’t taste a difference.”

Arkansas is second in the country for total aquaculture production, with catfish and bait-fish like bass generating tremendous revenue for the state. Dr. Lochmann’s work ensures that aquaculture continues to be an important driver of the state’s economy.

A 2017 ARA Fellow, Dr. Lochmann and her team evaluate the efficacy of alternative dietary protein and lipid sources, prebiotics and probiotics, and other feed additives on the growth, health, product quality and reproductive performance of baitfish, catfish, largemouth bass, hybrid striped bass and tilapia. Cost-effectiveness of these ingredients is assessed where possible, to estimate the effects of diet manipulations on production profitability of these species.

ARA president Jerry Adams sits down with Roby Brock and Talk Business

Arkansas Research Alliance was founded in 2008, and according to president Jerry Adams, the mandate for the hardworking agency has evolved over the decade.  “Originally I thought I’d be sitting in the tech licensing office for our five research universities, watching intellectual property go across,” mused Jerry Adams, speaking with Roby Brock and Talk Business, “but it’s turned into us being much more focused on talent recruitment, recognition and retention.

While “intellectual property” is still a focal point, ARA has become a major conduit between Arkansas’ research campuses, the state’s science community and economic decision makers. During the interview, Mr. Adams highlighted some of the compelling research conducted in Arkansas, which includes advancements in bacteria-resistant artificial bone from Dr. Alex Biris (UA Little Rock) and Dr. Mark Smeltzer (UAMS), developing electric energy solutions from Dr. Alan Mantooth (University of Arkansas) and efforts to genetically strengthen rice against global warming from Dr. Argelia Lorence (Arkansas State).

“There’s a lot of collaboration, a lot of unique innovation, going on between the state universities,” said Mr. Adams, who also touches on ARA’s unique relationship with the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) and the ARA Academy.

“I think the Academy is how we’re going to be identified going forward,” said Mr. Adams. Watch the interview in its entirety here.

 

 

$1 Million to Energize One Billion: 7 Questions for Dr. Alan Mantooth

Dr. Alan Mantooth, ARA Fellow and professor of electrical engineering at the University of Arkansas, is a man of many talents – and endeavors. As head of an award-winning, electronic research program at UA, Dr. Mantooth has founded three startup companies in Arkansas, contributing an estimated $4 billion to the state’s economy.

As president of the Power Electric Society (PELS), Dr. Mantooth is leading another high-stakes project: one that could bring reliable power to a billion energy-impoverished people worldwide.

IEEE Empower a Billion Lives and its $1,000,000 prize is meant to spur interdisciplinary innovation in the global community, and to develop and demonstrate solutions to provide power to impoverished regions of the world. We caught up with Dr. Mantooth to learn more about this intriguing initiative.

Q: “Empowering A Billions Lives” is a worldwide competition. Is there enough knowledge and talent in the state for an Arkansan-based team to compete for this $1M prize?

 [AM] Absolutely. In fact, the organizers at the PELS level specifically asked if we would have a team. To be clear though, the purse is $1M. There are 5 regional competitions and a global grand prize winner. The prize amounts are being finalized within the $1M purse. For example, maybe each region wins $150k, so that is $750k and the grand prize is another $250k on top, so that team wins $400k. We are still finalizing that particular detail.

 Q: Arkansas didn’t see statewide availability of electricity until as late as the 1950s. As users of plentiful, consistent energy, what are we taking for granted? 

[AM] First, a federal government that was committed to electrifying its population and setting up businesses to operate the grid – rural electric coops. These are non-profits that transformed rural America. Currently, they are leading the charge to bring broadband to rural America because others won’t and they own the poles to string it on!

Second, our way of life and standard of living is directly proportional to the availability of relatively inexpensive, reliable electric power. Take that away and see how life changes dramatically in a heartbeat.

Q: What alerted you to the plight of energy impoverished regions?

 [AM] That’s a hard question to answer. I guess I’ve been aware of it for a very long time, and I was even aware that some attempts were being made at various times to address the issue. What brought this to the point of taking action was when several in our professional Society made the commitment to utilize the things we do well as a Society and have them brought to bear on the problem. Examples include: technical expertise in the power electronics and energy field, running innovation competitions, vetting ideas through peer review, entrepreneurship related to our technologies, and organizing events to disseminate knowledge.

 Q: Are alternative energy sources, like wind and solar, the future to providing adequate power to energy impoverished regions? Or do we have to think beyond those boxes? 

 [AM] You have to think beyond those boxes. I believe that renewables is a big part of the solution, yes. But, again, we have to think beyond technology. We can probably mate technologies to regions of the world, but it has to be cost effective and the local population needs to be able to install and use it and make a business venture out of it for it to sustain. See my answers referring to the rural electric coops. They run themselves now, but they needed a kickstart.

Q: Is a $1M prize enough incentive to provide a solution to this problem, or is the challenge enough motivation? 

[AM] It’s not enough. We intend to run the competition every 2 years for several rounds. We feel that this first round may not produce solutions that adequately scale to hundreds of millions of people and more. We have to be open to that possibility anyway. So, we feel that by consistently continuing, we will get there. Further, we are attempting to define “earn outs” whereby winners that go forth with their efforts to scale, can receive additional awards as they scale. 

 Q: How common are these contests within the research and innovation community?

 [AM] We see business plan competitions that are technology-based all the time. That is actually the closest to what this is. But, PELS has run the International Future Energy Challenge (IFEC) since 2000 and it has led to three successful startup companies that have had a significant influence on the field of renewable energy. IFEC is more of a student-based technical challenge type of competition and is not business oriented. And yet, it still led to these ventures. This competition is focused on business models and technology combined to achieve scalable solutions.

Another example is the Google Little Box Challenge that PELS co-sponsored with Google in 2014.

Q: You and your team at the University of Arkansas are responsible for a number of electric innovations. Any chance that you lead a team to the $1M prize?

 [AM] Well, you never know! We’d want to partner with a company perhaps in a teaming situation, but there is a distinct possibility that we might take this on.

 

 

Dr. Alan Mantooth was named an Arkansas Research Alliance Fellow in 2015. He and his University of Arkansas research team have developed technologies designed to withstand extreme temperatures, such as those found in deep well drilling, vehicular engine compartments and even the International Space Station.

Breakthrough: 3 Ways Liquid Biopsy Can Revolutionize Treatment for Lung Cancer

Each year, 215,000 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer. The epidemic is especially burdensome to Arkansas with death rates far higher than the national average. A lung biopsy – an invasive procedure needed to diagnose lung cancer – is both uncomfortable, risky for the patient, and expensive. But promising research conducted by in-state institutions is changing the game.

Through a partnership between UAMS, UA Little Rock, UAPB, UA, Arkansas Research Alliance, and the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), a new technique is being developed for diagnosing lung cancer – liquid biopsy. Unlike traditional biopsies, liquid biopsy is non-invasive, performed through a routine blood draw.

How does this pioneering medical research impact Arkansas? We’ll give you three reasons.

  1. A significant cut in medical costs. Nearly 2,800 Arkansans are diagnosed with lung cancer each year. The average cost of a traditional lung biopsy is $3,700. A liquid biopsy, which is not a surgical procedure that requires anesthesia, is far less expensive.
  2. Treatment (and outcomes) will improve. Liquid biopsies grant caregivers the unique ability to regularly monitor a patient’s response to therapy. In addition, disease recurrence is detected much sooner by a liquid biopsy versus conventional medical imaging.
  3. Arkansas receives an economic shot in the arm. The state is just scratching the surface of medical innovation and drug discovery, a multi-billion dollar industry. Innovations like liquid biopsy position Arkansas as an emerging med-tech hot spot.

Arkansas Research Alliance collaborates closely with in-state research institutions like UAMS, NCTR and the state’s other research universities so that science is allowed to flourish. Supporting research like liquid biopsy is crucial to Arkansas’ economy, reputation and health.

Arkansas State University pays a visit to NCTR

On February 5, a research contingent from Arkansas State University dropped in for an official visit to the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR). Located in Jefferson County, AR, NCTR is the only FDA center located outside of Washington D.C, playing a critical role in the missions of FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services to promote and protect public health.

Dr. Angel Paredes demonstrates one of five electron microscopes used at NCTR.

Visiting from A-State was Dr. Mohammad Abrar Alam, assistant professor of chemistry and Dr. Jonathan Merten, assistant professor of chemistry. The two professors wished to foster valuable collaboration between Arkansas State’s research programs and the host of resources available at NCTR.

Arkansas Research Alliance works diligently to facilitate meaningful collaborations between the state’s scientists, research facilities and government agencies. ARA’s efforts not only strengthen the state’s scientific profile, but helps to aid Arkansas’ economy through innovation and talent retention. Keep updated on ARA projects by joining our LinkedIN page.