As we enter a new year, we’re taking time to look back at some of the biggest local science stories that came out of the University of Arizona in 2020. Because there’s already so much news about COVID-19, we’re excluding any pandemic science stories, and instead focusing on research developments coming out of the university. 


OSIRIS-REx successfully retrieves asteroid sample. More than four years after launching from Earth, the University of Arizona-led OSIRIS-REx spacecraft captured a sample of an asteroid’s surface on Oct. 20, 2020. The NASA spacecraft actually arrived at its destination, the asteroid Bennu more than 200 million miles away, in December 2018, but spent nearly two years orbiting and mapping its surface. The OSIRIS-REx team announced several crucial steps leading up to the sample collection. Close-up imaging showed that the asteroid’s surface was far rockier than originally expected. Scans revealed Bennu is “packed with more than 200 boulders larger than 33 feet (10 m) in diameter and many more that are 3 feet (1 m) or larger.” This meant the spacecraft only had an area the size of a few parking spots from which to collect the samples. The sample process took more than four hours, with the spacecraft slowly descending 2,500 feet from orbit toward the asteroid. While the spacecraft came in contact with the asteroid, it didn’t land. Instead, it extended a robotic arm and fired a jet of pressurized nitrogen to kick up dust and rocks from the asteroid’s surface. Some of the agitated material was captured in OSIRIS-REx’s collector head, and the spacecraft then used thrusters to move away from the asteroid. Scientists believe the spacecraft touched the surface only three feet from where they originally planned. OSIRIS-REx is expected to return the captured dust and rocks to Earth in 2023. With this carbon-rich material, scientists hope to better understand the formation of our early solar system, and even the origins of life on our planet. 


Quantum Computing. Three researchers from the University of Arizona’s College of Engineering are part of the newly established Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems Center, led by the U.S. Department of Energy. The $115 million center aims to “build a quantum computer and develop quantum sensors that could lead to discoveries about dark matter and other elusive subatomic particles.” The involved local researchers are professor of electrical and computer engineering Bane Vasic, assistant professor of materials science and engineering Zheshen Zhang and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering Quntao Zhuang. Whereas standard computers operate on a binary system of 0s and 1s, quantum computers operate with “qubits” which can exist as 0 and 1 simultaneously, making them exponentially more powerful. However, this superposition makes quantum computers far less stable. One of the primary goals of the new Center – and the local researchers – is to increase quantum computers’ stability. According to Vasic, designing good “quantum error correction” codes and decoders is arguably the most important theoretical challenge facing practical realizations of quantum-enabled information processing systems. Zhang argues that quantum computing is going to completely transform our current technology and become a driver for the economy. The researchers expect the Center to play a major role in changing the next generation of our workforce.


Personalized Cancer Vaccines. After promising preliminary tests, a study led by UA 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.


Safer Opioids. Researchers at the UA’s College of Medicine have found a way to enhance the effectiveness and presumably decrease the side effects of opioid therapy. While opioids are one of the most effective and common treatments for chronic pain, their dangerous side effects and addictive qualities have caused an epidemic in the US resulting in nearly 50,000 deaths annually. But a potential solution to this high-risk usage was recently found by local researchers, who found that inhibiting the “heat shock protein 90” in the spinal cord can improve opioid use. According to researcher John Streicher of the UA’s Department of Pharmacology, “it seems like heat shock protein 90 is inhibiting one of those pathways in the spinal cord and preventing it from being activated. When we give this inhibitor in the spinal cord, it unblocks that pathway, which provides another route to greater pain relief.” The findings suggest that inhibiting heat shock protein 90 could give doctors the opportunity to “implement a dose-reduction strategy for patients. Less opioid drugs could be prescribed, but patients would get the same levels of pain relief while experiencing reduced side effects.” 


Technology in the Brain. Researchers at UA, George Washington University and Northwestern University have created an ultra-small, wireless, battery-free device that uses light to record individual neurons so neuroscientists can see how the brain is working. The goal is to better understand the brain, specifically how individual neurons interact with each other. The process first involves “tinting select neurons with a dye that changes in brightness depending on activity. Then, the device shines a light on the dye, making the neurons’ biochemical processes visible. The device captures the changes using a probe only slightly wider than a human hair, then processes a direct readout of the neuron’s activity and transmits the information wirelessly to researchers.” The devices in use are smaller than an M&M and only one-20th of the weight. They can afford to be so small and flexible because they do not need a battery, instead harvesting energy from “external oscillating magnetic fields gathered by a miniature antenna on the device.” Ultimately, the technology is planned to help the fight against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and perhaps even help us better understand the brain’s biological mechanisms, such as pain and depression.