Tech Talk

Illustration courtesy of NASA

Wih 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.

OSIRIS-REx gets a new NASA mission. Upon a successful landing back on Earth next year, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be the first American mission to retrieve a sample from an asteroid. But NASA announced last week that the story won’t end there. NASA has extended the University of Arizona-led mission, and after drop-off, the spacecraft will head back into space to study near-Earth asteroid Apophis for 18 months. 

In this second mission, OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) will be renamed to OSIRIS-APEX (OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer.) The extension adds another $200 million to the mission cost cap.

OSIRIS-REx, led by UA professor Dante Lauretta, launched from Earth in 2016 and headed toward the asteroid Bennu. In 2020, the spacecraft briefly touched down on the asteroid’s surface, collecting an estimated pound of extraterrestrial dust and rocks. OSIRIS-REx is expected to return to Earth orbit in September 2023 and deliver the capsule of samples, which researchers will study for information about our early solar system and potentially the origins of life. 

Now, the spacecraft is planned to head back into space on the Apophis mission only a month after returning the samples. 

“Apophis is one of the most infamous asteroids,” said OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator Dani DellaGiustina, who is also a UA assistant professor. “When it was first discovered in 2004, there was concern that it would impact the Earth in 2029 during its close approach. That risk was retired after subsequent observations, but it will be the closest an asteroid of this size has gotten in the 50 or so years… It gets within one-tenth the distance between the Earth and moon during the 2029 encounter. People in Europe and Africa will be able to see it with the naked eye, that’s how close it will get. We were stoked to find out the mission was extended.”

The university stated that OSIRIS-APEX will not collect a sample on this next mission, but when it reaches Apophis, it will study the asteroid for 18 months and collect data along the way. It also will make a maneuver similar to the one it made during sample collection at Bennu, by approaching the surface and firing its thrusters. This event will expose the asteroid’s subsurface, to allow mission scientists to learn more about the asteroid’s material properties.

“OSIRIS-APEX is a manifestation of a core objective of our mission to enable the next generation of leadership in space exploration,” Lauretta said.

Alzheimer’s Identification. A new study from University of Arizona Health Sciences found that the behavior of a specific gene may provide the path to personalized medicine for late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The paper, published in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia, discusses how a genotype of the APOE gene is able to “influence metabolic changes and override sex-specific differences between men and women with Alzheimer’s disease.” The study was led by Rui Chang, a member of the UA Center for Innovation in Brain Science. 

“One of the most interesting findings of our study is the identification of key drivers of metabolic pathways that discriminate between Alzheimer’s disease and cognitively normal individuals when patient groups were separated by sex and APOE genotype,” Chang said. “These patient-specific metabolic targets will shed light on the discovery of precision therapeutics for Alzheimer’s patients, which has not been done in previous studies.”

The research team identified biomarkers from the genotype that predict the state of the disease, often associated with mental decline in the patient. The Center states these findings have the potential to greatly accelerate drug development for Alzheimer’s disease while providing outcome measures for clinical trials.

“Dr. Chang’s research provides an initial but critical step toward the development of personalized and precision medicine for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Regents Professor of Pharmacology Roberta Diaz Brinton. “This study provides an operational strategy to achieve that goal by integrating clinical cognitive assessments, metabolic profiling and a computational network model to identify targeted therapeutics for patients.”