With a major research university in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies throughout the metro area, there is often a plethora of interesting scientific, medical, and technology news in southern Arizona. Below is a breakdown of the latest interesting developments.
OSIRIS-REx gets a new mission for NASA. After a successful landing on Earth next year, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be the first US mission to retrieve a sample from an asteroid. But NASA announced last week that the story would not end there. NASA has extended the mission led by the University of Arizona, and after landing, the spacecraft will return to space to study the near-Earth asteroid Apophis for 18 months.
In this second mission, OSIRIS-REx (Assets, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, and Regolith Explorer) will be renamed OSIRIS-APEX (OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer.) and the extension adds another $200 million to the mission’s cost ceiling.
OSIRIS-REx, led by UA professor Dante Loretta, was 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 rock. OSIRIS-REx is expected to return to Earth’s orbit in September 2023 and deliver the sample capsule, which researchers will study for information about our early solar system and possibly the origins of life.
Now, the spacecraft is set to return to space on the Apophis mission just one month after returning the samples.
“Opophis is one of the most well-known asteroids,” said Danny Delagostina, deputy principal investigator at OSIRIS-REx, who is also an assistant professor at UA. When it was first discovered in 2004, there was concern that it would impact Earth in 2029 as it made a close approach. This danger was stopped after later observations, but it will be the closest asteroid of this size in 50 years or so… It is located at a distance of one tenth of the distance between Earth and the Moon during the 2029 encounter. People in Europe and Africa will be able to see it with the naked eye, and that is how close it is . We were surprised to find out that the mission was extended.”
The university said that OSIRIS-APEX will not collect a sample on this next mission, but that when it reaches Apophis, it will study the asteroid for 18 months and collect data along the way. It will also perform a maneuver similar to the one it performed while collecting samples at Bennu, by approaching the surface and launching thrusters. This event will expose the interior of the asteroid’s surface, to allow mission scientists to learn more about the properties of the asteroid’s material.
“Osiris-Apex is a manifestation of our mission’s primary goal to empower the next generation of leadership in space exploration,” said Loretta.
Defining Alzheimer’s disease. A new study from the University of Arizona Health Sciences has 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 Alzheimer’s and Dementia, discusses how the genotype of the APOE gene is able to “influence metabolic changes and bypass 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 Sciences.
“One of the most interesting findings in our study is the identification of key drivers of the metabolic pathways that differentiate Alzheimer’s disease from cognitively normal individuals when patient groups are separated by gender and APOE genotype,” Zhang said. “Patient-specific metabolic targets will highlight the discovery of accurate treatments for Alzheimer’s patients, which has not been done in previous studies.”
The research team identified biomarkers from the genotype that predict disease status, and are often associated with mental decline in a patient. The center states that these findings have the potential to significantly accelerate drug development for Alzheimer’s disease while providing outcome measures for clinical trials.
“Dr. Zhang’s research provides an initial but crucial step toward developing personalized and precision medicine for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Regents Professor of Pharmacology Roberta Diaz-Brenton. “This study provides an operational strategy to achieve this goal by integrating clinical cognitive assessments, metabolic characterization and a computer network model to identify targeted therapies for patients.”