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

 Personalized Cancer Vaccines. After promising preliminary tests, a study led by University of Arizona researcher Dr. Julie Bauman will be expanded to further investigate the safety and effectiveness of a personalized cancer vaccine. Bauman’s study uses a patient’s own cancer cells to develop a vaccine intended to teach their immune system how to recognize and destroy cancer cells. This personalized vaccine was used in combination with the immunotherapy drug Pembrolizumab. The preliminary test used both of these treatments on 10 patients with head and neck cancer, seven of whom were treated at Banner – University Medicine. According to the study, half of the patients experienced a clinical response to the personalized cancer vaccine, and two patients had no detectable disease present after the treatment. This 50% clinical response is much higher than the approximately 15% response rate in patients who receive Pembrolizumab immunotherapy alone. Moving forward, the study will expand to 40 patients with head and neck cancer. According to UA, to identify the patient-specific mutations of the cancer, mutated DNA from the patient’s tumor is simultaneously sequenced with healthy DNA from the patient’s blood. Computers then compare the two DNA samples to identify the unique cancer mutations.

“The data are preliminary and the sample size is small, but it is promising,” Dr. Bauman said. “A phase I trial is about safety first and foremost, and we now know this treatment is safe and tolerable. But, we also have a strong signal to point us to further study this in head and neck cancer. That is why we are excited to expand this trial.”

 

Virtual STEM Adventure. Every November, hundreds of fourth- through eighth-grade students gather at Pima Community College to learn about a wide variety of sciences with hands-on activities. As with many other events, this year’s Arizona STEM Adventure went virtual. The Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation, which facilitates the STEM Adventure, estimates 1,800 local students attended virtually. In addition, 50 local science teachers attended professional development seminars and walked away with a bag of classroom supplies worth $200. 

“We want to ensure every STEM Adventure student has access to the materials and guidance they need to make science not only exciting, but hands-on,” said Liz Bowman, CEO of SARSEF. “This has taken tremendous volunteer efforts to prepare, but will be worth it when students can participate, no matter where they’re learning or what resources they have on hand.” STEM activity videos are available at azstemadventure.org

 

Biotech Sponsored Startup. Biotechnology company TheraCea Pharma is the winner of the University of Arizona’s Center for Innovation Sponsored Launch Fueled by the Bioindustry Organization of Southern Arizona competition. The selection grants TheraCea Pharma a year’s admission at the new biotech incubator, UACI at Oro Valley, plus $5,000. A spot at the Oro Valley incubator grants TheraCea Pharma resources, facilities, services and expert guidance on how to grow their business. TheraCea Pharma is a research and development biotechnology company that develops “diagnostic positron emission tomography” imaging agents to detect cancer, cardiology, neurology and infectious diseases. Specifically, TheraCea Pharma is developing a novel chemical process to rapidly prepare Fluorine-18 biomolecules, thereby increasing accessibility and expanding the market for positron emission tomography, which can visualize and measure changes in bodily processes such as blood flow. TheraCea Pharma will be involved in the UACI incubation program starting this December, through Dec. 15, 2021.  

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