University of Arizona

With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science, medical and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments.

Infection Benefits. New research from UA Health Sciences shows how infections may counteract the negative effects of aging on the immune system. T cells are used by our immune systems in the adaptive immune response. However, both the number and function of naïve T cells are negatively impacted by aging. But new research indicates that infections boost the production and function of naïve T cells.

“The main population of cells that we lose in the process of aging are naïve T cells,” said professor and head of the UA College of Medicine Dr. Janko Nikolich-Žugich in a press release. “This study showed that both the maintenance of naïve T cells over time and their function were improved by the presence of an infection, which aligns somewhat with the hygiene hypothesis that basically says if you allow your kids to be exposed to everyday germs, it’s going to be better for them.”

According to UA, it was previously thought infections primarily affected the creation of memory T cells. When exposed to a pathogen, some naïve T cells learn and remember, becoming memory T cells that prevent reinfection when they encounter the same pathogen again. Eventually, the UA Health Sciences research team wants to develop therapies that “boost the immune system to fight disease by using naïve T cells that are in a heightened state of alertness to target things like cancerous tumors.” They also hope to examine the feasibility of using the mechanism that maintains naïve T cell production to strengthen the aging immune system.

“Now we know that when you have these fairly substantial infections, interferon type 1 molecules are making the MHC and Interleukin 7 signals stronger, more abundant and more available to naïve T cells. It has never been shown that an infection can do something like this,” Nikolich-Žugich said. “This study showed that an infection not only better maintained the number of naïve T cells, but it put them on a slightly higher state of alertness.”

Hypersonics Research. Researchers at the University of Arizona are part of a new collaboration focused on technology that travels more than 3,830 mph, or at hypersonic speeds. The University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics, a network of national laboratories, government, industry, and research universities, recently awarded its first round of funding totaling more than $25 million. Among the recipients was UA professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering Samy Missoum, who was awarded $1.5 million to lead the development of a “surrogate aerodynamic database,” an essential tool in the design of next-generation hypersonic systems.

According to UA, vehicles traveling at hypersonic speeds experience tremendous heat and pressure. To test how a vehicle responds under specific conditions, such as speed and angle of attack, engineers and researchers typically set the desired parameters and run wind tunnel experiments and simplified computations. The results are used to form an aerodynamic database that indicates what forces a vehicle will experience in that configuration. Missoum is taking this one step further by working with machine learning to develop such a database.

“Hypersonics is an area of strategic priority for the University of Arizona, and this funding reflects our position as a national leader in the field,” said UA president Robert Robbins in a press release. “We are proud to have a strong team of faculty members working closely with Raytheon and partner institutions to further advance this fast-growing field of critical importance to national security.”

Established in 2020, the University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics works with 87 universities and 90 industry partners, including Raytheon Missiles & Defense, which operates in Tucson.

“The multidisciplinary nature of this work is remarkable,” Missoum said. “Skills from the computational design and machine learning communities migrate to the field of hypersonics to deliver techniques and tools useful to researchers and practitioners alike. I’m really excited because it has the potential to be transformative for the hypersonics community.”

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