Science & Engineering

Laboratory image of a multichannel pipette injecting liquid into a microtiter plate.

UArizona researchers are part of a cross-border effort to develop new treatments for envenomation.

April 24, 2020

Venomous snakes bite up to 5.4 million people each year, resulting in 2.7 million cases of envenomation and up to 138,000 deaths, according to 2018 data. The grim statistics led the World Health Organization to class snake bites as a neglected tropical disease.

At the same time WHO decided to focus efforts on both prevention and increasing access to effective treatments, there are critical shortages in the global supplies of anti-venom.

Several companies, including a U.S. manufacturer of coral snake anti-venom, stopped making the medications because it was no longer cost effective, explains Leslie Boyer M.D., founding director of the Venom Immunochemistry, Pharmacology and Emergency Response (VIPER) Institute at the University of Arizona. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, concerned about lack of access to the lifesaving medications, put out a call for help.

The UArizona received a $1.6 million FDA grant to work with a Mexico-based drug manufacturer to research new coral snake anti-venom. It was not the first time the VIPER Institute, in conjunction with researchers in Mexico and around the world, came together to develop innovative biologics. A collaborative that included researchers from the Institute of Biotechnology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) developed scorpion anti-venom, also in response to a critical shortage.

“Even though the U.S. pharmaceutical industry took off, we abandoned biologics, and, when that happened, Mexican biotech surpassed us,” Boyer says. “[With the anti-venom work] we did something together that neither of us could have done on our own: We took Mexican biotechnology and proved that it worked.”

The team imported anti-venom from Mexico and launched clinical trials in Arizona. Their 12-year collaboration led to an FDA approved anti-venom to treat scorpion envenomation and their research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Trials for the coral snake anti-venom are complete and the product is now an investigational new drug, according to FDA standards. A private entity holds the Investigational New Drug Application and will make the decision about pursuing further FDA approvals needed to commercialize the anti-venom.

Focus on the Future

After completing her doctoral degree at UNAM, Dayanira Paniagua received a Fulbright scholarship and joined the UArizona-based research team to assist with the clinical trials for coral snake anti-venom. Paniagua notes that the research has been translated into the market in Mexico and has spearheaded additional research projects to address an ever-increasing need for novel anti-venom.

“The importation of exotic snakes [into the U.S.] is a big problem…Before the internet boom, envenomation was from local snakes but now people are arriving at the hospital with envenomation from snakes from Australia or Africa … and there is no anti-venom available [to treat] snake bites from around the world,” she explains. “We need to work with the FDA to find ways of managing this new issue.”

The research has the potential to have a ripple effect across the globe.

Researchers at VIPER Institute and around the world are also engaged in exploring new treatments. The process used to make anti-venom is ancient: Small amounts of snake venom are injected into horses or ruminant animals like sheep that build up antibodies and their blood serum, when collected and processed, works like a drug. Anti-venom is species-specific, which means multiple products must be kept on hand to treat all manner of domestic and exotic snake bites.

“There are many international forces trying to combine different anti-venoms to make an anti-venom for a wide spectrum but, until that happens, the [formulations] are quite specific,” Paniagua says.

Paniagua attended a symposium in Kenya with Anne Wertheimer, Ph.D., the director of the VIPER Institute, to learn about efforts to renew the technology with new recombinant technology that could be both superior and more cost competitive than current therapies. Her next project, funded through a fellowship from the Mexican Council of Science and Technology, will focus on applying complex system science to envenomation, using databases of information about toxins to better understand its biochemical processes.

These kinds of cross-border collaborations, Boyer says, are going to facilitate discoveries that will lead to the next generation of anti-venom.

“We have come a long way and the next step is focusing on ways to improve our understanding of how the biotechnology works and using the science for the unique anti-venoms of the future,” she explains. “We must also take what we have learned from the science and applying it to policy so the mechanisms [to treat envenomation] are not so expensive and time consuming to put into effect.”

Aerial view of the U.S. and Mexico border.

Teams on both sides of the border are fostering binational solutions to address climate change in the Southwest.

April 24, 2020

The Sonoran Desert is ground zero for climate change.

The 100,000-square-mile area along the United States-Mexico border has experienced drought, ravaging floods, wildfire and dust; climate change is expected to make the region hotter and drier, triggering irreversible changes to the ecosystem. Both countries are also experiencing rapid growth and pressing social problems that are made worse by a rapidly changing climate.

Researchers on both sides of the border are engaged in efforts to better understand how a warming planet would impact plants, animals, water resources and natural disasters. In 2014, the Consortium for Arizona-Mexico Arid Environments, or CAZMEX, was created to bring together researchers from both sides of the border to monitor physical, biological and social dynamics in the Sonoran Desert; create sustainable strategies to adapt; and promote partnerships between the public and private sectors to achieve the goals.

“In any regions where there are borders, but especially along the United States-Mexico border, the landscape does not adhere to political boundaries,” says Benjamin Wilder, CAZMEX coordinator and director of the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill in Tucson, Ariz. “We share deep connections physically, biologically and culturally and there is inherent traction within the research community when we cross borders and work together.”

A field of solar panels in the desert.

Enhancing the Sustainability of Arid Environments

CAZMEX, also known as the Binational Consortium for Regional Scientific Development and Innovation, is housed at the University of Arizona. It aims to strengthen existing partnerships and forge new collaborations between researchers at UArizona and universities across Mexico, and address shared challenges associated with rapid growth and social problems, both of which are exacerbated by climate change.

In tackling the issue of climate change in the Sonoran Desert, researchers have the opportunity to make a bigger impact on U.S.-Mexico relations, according to CAZMEX director Christopher Scott.

“CAZMEX is all about building and strengthening communities of practice and impact through science crossing borders, particularly at a time when barriers and distrust seem increasingly common in our shared borderlands region,” Scott says. “Solutions and responses to climate and other challenges need to be multi-national and interdisciplinary; CAZMEX supports both.”

The strategic themes for these research cohorts are drought and other climate extremes, water resources and management, ecosystem processes, food systems, renewable energy, social and institutional dynamics and governance, and economic development.

Funding from the Mexican Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT); Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice; UA; and the Brown Foundation allow scientists to study the socio-ecological region. 

The funding requires a 50/50 match between CONACyT and UArizona partner institutions and provides seed money to support important climate change projects; scientists are expected to seek out other funding to support their research.

A closeup of a Saguaro cactus.

Sequencing the Saguaro

Over the last five years, CAZMEX has supported scientists exploring a range of climate-related topics; their research ranges from using solar power for desalination in remote rural areas to mimicking future atmospheric projections to assess the impact of carbon levels on tree populations.

One landmark project brought together researchers from UA, Arizona State University and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México to map the genome of the saguaro cactus. Using next generation sequencing methods to decipher the saguaro was essential to understanding the evolution of the iconic cactus species and how it adapts to extreme environments. Their research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provided the first step for using the saguaro as a model to better understand how both the saguaro and other columnar species of cacti might adapt to climate change.

Image of Biosphere 2, a large white domed building.

Biosphere 2 at the University of Arizona.

Fostering Science-based Solutions

The findings coming out of CAZMEX continue to contribute to the growing field of knowledge about the impact of climate change in the Sonoran Desert. To further ensure that science-based solutions continue gaining traction, CAZMEX is also working to equip emerging scientists to address climate change.

An annual binational Integrated Arid Environments winter school provides hands-on training to 30 graduate students and junior scientists based on CAZMEX strategic themes; the locations for winter school rotate between Arizona and Mexico. The consortium also established a grant mechanism to leverage CONACyT-supported research projects and post-doc fellowships.

“Programs like this are responsive to what students want to learn,” Wilder says, “and teach them to better explain their science while providing a mechanism for them to experience different cultures and engage in cross-border scholarship.”

Rows of solar panels in the desert.

The possibilities for solar, which is under-utilized in Mexico, have started to shine brighter.

April 24, 2020

Although the Sonoran Desert has an abundance of sunshine and vast expanses of open land—the essential elements for a successful solar installation—renewable energy has historically been underutilized in the region. Fortunately, Mexico’s renewable energy future looks vastly different than its present.

Until 2013, when then-president Enrique Peña Nieto succeeded in amending the constitution to open up the energy market to private companies, two state-owned utilities, Petroleos Mexicanos (oil) and the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (electricity), powered the entire nation. The reform led to the creation of an independent utility, Centro Nacional de Control de Energía and provided transmission rights to private companies.

Energy reform is a key element in achieving renewable energy targets in Mexico. Currently, the country generates an estimated 23 percent of its power from renewable energy such as wind, hydropower, geothermal and solar power, according a 2018 report.

With the 2012 adoption of the General Climate Change Law, the nation committed to sourcing at least 35 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2050, which still falls far below the current average of 50 percent across Latin America.

“Solar is a big thing right now but it’s not up to its full potential,” says Christian Davila-Peralta, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona. “We have a lot of resources, especially in solar, that [are not being used]; we have to exploit the fact that we have a single utility line so we could produce enough [solar] energy in the north for all the country.”

Davila-Peralta blames both infrastructure and red tape for slow adoption. CENACE, he explains, requires all solar installation sites to have internet access with a fixed IP address, which is expensive and unavailable in certain areas; licensed technicians are required to certify installations for entities, like businesses, and the wait times are long. There is also a perception that solar installations required complicated paperwork to establish.

Shining a Light on Solar

Despite the struggles, solar power is becoming more common. The trade war between the United States and China has diverted cheap solar panels to Mexico, making solar more affordable. There is also a growing awareness that solar provides energy independence and bolsters national safety.

“Right now, the government has been investing in a lot on natural gas…which is good because they are greener than the ones that we used to have with direct oil or carbon,” Davila-Peralta says. “The problem is that Mexico is not a huge producer of natural gas so we depend on the natural gas sale with the U.S. and [if those lines are closed], we only have three days of [electricity] storage. Our economy can collapse in three days if you just close the lines.”

Advanced solar technologies could bring new opportunities to Mexico and researchers on both sides of the border or laying the groundwork to develop the future of solar.

At the UA, Roger Angel, a professor and founder of REhnu, a corporation developing solar power generators, is exploring how mirrors can be used to collect light as an alternative to conventional photovoltaic panels. The idea, he explains, is that light could be concentrated, making solar power less expensive and more powerful than silicon.

Angel is also conducting research to determine how to generate electricity after the sun goes down. The mirrors can be directed to heat up a substance like liquid salt that is stored at 500-600 degrees in a tank and, in the evenings, a turbine drives an electric generator to produce power.

The research is being conducted in conjunction with the Consortium for Arizona-Mexico Arid Environments (CAZMEX) and the University of Sonora and carried out in a test facility near Hermosillo, Mexico.

“The need gets ever stronger to do something to get off carbon,” Angel says. “We have this joint project to make what should fundamentally be a cheaper way to … get more solar energy into the system; if we want to meet the 2050 targets for CO2 … we need to get solar energy use up to 20 percent during the day and an additional 10 to 15 percent of power coming from stored solar energy at night. Sonora has this incredible resource and we need to use that.”

Thanks to long-awaited progressive energy reform in Mexico and cross-border collaborations to develop new technologies and bolster national energy security, Davila-Peralta believes the future of clean energy in Mexico is bright.

“A lot of research in solar at the University of Arizona can be applied directly to create value down in Mexico by means of technology transfer, business development and professional development,” he says. “Sonora is the place to develop proof of concept.”

Tucson skyline cityscape and Santa Catalina Mountains at sunset.

International partnerships help position the Arizona-Sonora region as a tech hub.

April 28, 2020

California has Silicon Valley, New York has Silicon Alley and Tucson is gaining a reputation as Optics Alley thanks to the number of high-tech companies developing products such as cameras, sensors and lasers in the Arizona-Sonora region.

It’s not just optics companies thriving in the region. A recent report found that technology contributes $25.8 billion to the Arizona economy and wages in the technology industry are 89 percent higher than the median national average, which is no surprise to Carol Stewart, associate vice president of Tech Parks Arizona.

“The Tech Park is the link between three academic institutions: University of Arizona, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, to create this technology traffic between the countries and provide new market access for these projects once they go beyond the commercialization phase,” Stewart explains.

The Tech Park, which houses 50 companies that employ almost 6,000 people, is a significant economic driver for the region, generating an economic impact of $2 billion statewide. Several high-tech tenants are focused on disrupting the optics industry, which puts the Tech Park at the heart of the growing Optics Valley in Tucson.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted a spectrum of industries, tech included, companies from both the Arizona-Sonora region and abroad are still looking for support to foster tech innovation in the region.

Companies from both the Arizona-Sonora region and abroad are looking for support to foster tech innovation in the region.

 “Southern Arizona shares both opportunities and challenges with other regions in the world and we have best practices we can share, but we can also learn from best practices in other regions, too,” says Justin Dutram, senior director of UArizona’s Mexico Initiatives, a university-wide collective of partnerships and collaboration with institutions in Mexico. “Research and the creation of new knowledge doesn’t happen in silos; most research is connected through global networks of researchers and research centers.”

Taking Initiative

Rather than wait for companies to reach out for resources and support through Tech Parks, Center for Innovation, Campus Research Corporation and Tech Launch Arizona, UArizona took the lead, launching a global partnership with other research institutions to develop commercial solutions to complex problems.

Research teams at the University of Arizona, UNAM and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel are all working on similar technologies in sectors ranging from digital healthcare and robotics to smart vehicles. The similarities in the climates in all three countries informs their research efforts, Dutram says.

“If we look at our natural environment, all three regions are dealing with water issues, sustainable agriculture and renewable energy, and the need to develop technologies around them is very important,” he adds. “Our original thought was, ‘How can we complement each other and create some new synergies that make us all stronger and create new markets for companies in each of our regions?’”

Representatives from all three universities recognized that robust opportunities for collaboration existed. After extensive conversations to gauge interest and discuss goals, the tri-national partnership kicked off with a visit to Israel in 2017 and trips Mexico and Arizona the following year.

The researchers wanted to better understand the innovation ecosystems in each nation, look at the existing research and identify projects in the tech sector that were most suitable for commercialization. Conversations about which projects to pursue and how to fund them are ongoing.

A Foundation for Innovation

Doug Hockstad, assistant vice president of Tech Launch Arizona (TLA), an office of integrated teams overseeing the commercialization of innovations to ensure technologies find meaningful applications, explains that research, both in the United States and abroad, provides significant value as a foundation for innovation.

“That is our goal,” he says. “To take the reach and innovative discoveries and find a way for them to have an impact on the region, the state and the world.”

“Over the last five years, we’ve had double digit compound annual growth in all of our major technology commercialization metrics, including invention disclosures, patent filings and issues, and the number of startups we’ve launched,” Hockstad adds. “It’s all about trying to create startups that have a strong potential for success and [with these partnerships] our goal is to focus the attention of the United States and the world on Southern Arizona as a leader in commercializing technology.”

Pursuing Global Growth

During a trip to Israel, a team from Tech Parks Arizona, which includes a business incubator, center for innovation and research park, met with representatives from 34 companies and connected with Israel-based business accelerators and venture capitalists to promote Global Advantage, their business development program to attract fast-growing tech companies to Arizona.

The visit generated a lot of buzz and several startups expressed interest in expanding to the United States. Stewart believes international companies want to establish a presence in the Arizona-Sonora region to access broader markets.

In smaller countries like Mexico and Israel, she explains, the markets are too small for companies or technologies to scale; expanding into U.S. markets provides essential access the explosive domestic market potential. Tech Parks Arizona ensures new market access for projects and partnering with UNAM and Ben-Gurion University could have a significant impact on the local startup ecosystem.

“As these inventions start to [seek commercial success], the inventors are going to start looking at their own markets and then thinking about international expansion; we provide that soft landing, that place that helps companies move past invention and into existence,” she says. “The University of Arizona is perfectly poised to work globally and be very impactful to Southern Arizona, Mexico and Israel with this project.”

Migrants building shelters made of trash in a canal near the border line between the U.S. and Mexico.

Researchers on both sides of the border are committed to conducting data-based social science research to safeguard human rights and human security. A new binational Consortium could help.

April 29, 2020

For the estimated 1.3 million people who arrive at border crossings between Mexico and the United States each year, migration is a perilous proposition. Those who reach the border face long waits to make asylum claims and risk being detained or sent back to their countries of origin where some face certain death.

Researchers on both sides of the border are studying migration and its threats to human rights and human security, but Anna Ochoa O’Leary worries that working in silos increases the risks that critical information will be lost.

“There are a lot of us doing this work, but we need to collaborate across the borders or we’re only studying half of the story,” says O’Leary, head of the Mexican-American Studies department at the University of Arizona. “We cannot really understand what is going on—or what needs to be done—unless we are collecting and sharing information from both sides of the border.”

Seeking Multicultural Solutions

In 2018, UArizona and National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) established the Binational Research Consortium on Migration, Human Security and Human Rights. The Consortium formalized an agreement between the institutions to collaborate on social sciences research to strengthen data on migration, human rights and human security. The goal is to develop interdisciplinary, multicultural solutions that could inform policy, explains Luis E. Coronado Guel, director of SBS-Mexico Initiatives
 at UArizona.

“The issues are common to the two countries,” Guel says, “and it was important to construct shared solutions through binational collaborations.”

UNAM has sites on campuses across the U.S., but O’Leary believes researchers wanted to partner with UArizona because of the number of Tucson-based researchers committed to studying migration between the United States and Mexico. The Consortium is focused on fostering those collaborations, supporting the mechanisms and funding to engage in joint projects, promoting mobility between universities for academic staff to conduct research; establishing and promoting alliances between academic degree programs; and supporting the permanent exchange of resources, including teaching materials. The co-publication of research on migration, human rights and human security is also a key Consortium goal.

“We want science on our side,” O’Leary says. “We want to send peer-reviewed research that has been conducted in a systematic way and controlled by logic, rationale and reason [and] use that research to affect policy.”

A Growing Endeavor

The Consortium is a new endeavor and researchers are still discussing initial research projects and academic partnerships, but stakeholders are passionate, committed and eager to capitalize on their unique binational agreement, according to Guel.

In 2019, the Consortium (in conjunction with the UArizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences) announced its first travel grant opportunities to support research partnerships between UArizona and UNAM. Up to 10 grants are available during the 2019 fiscal year to support travel between Tucson and Mexico City for up to five research proposals. While these projects are currently on hold due to coronavirus restrictions, Guel believes that researchers who participate in Consortium projects in the future will gain a broader understanding of the situation both at the border and on the ground in U.S. and Mexico, and places the universities at the forefront of important political conversations. It is the hope, according to Guel, that collaborations could, “Green light the complexities of the issue and reach out to larger audiences to construct real, national solutions and approaches to these issues.”