Eye on Science: Six local researchers to watch in 2013

By Lynne Friedmann

1) Natasha Balac is director of the Predictive Analytics Center of Excellence (PACE), a new initiative of the San Diego Supercomputer Center. PACE will lead a collaborative, nationwide education and training effort among academia, industry, and government to create the next generation of data researchers. This also involves developing a comprehensive suite of integrated, sustainable, and secure cyberinfrastructure services to accelerate research and education in “predictive analytics;” the process of using statistical techniques from modeling, data mining, and game theory to analyze current and historical facts to make predictions, assess risks, and identify opportunities involving future events. Predictive analytics is used in a wide variety of fields such as healthcare, pharmaceuticals, financial services, insurance, and telecommunications.

2) Phil Baran, professor of chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute, is using innovative chemistry to simplify the creation of existing and potential drug compounds for diseases ranging from cancer to heart disease. While breaking new ground in synthetic methods, his work addresses the real-life challenges of economically providing large quantities of complex natural products with a minimum amount of labor and material expense.

Baran is the recipient of the 2012 Distinguished Scientist Award by the American Chemical Society (ACS)-San Diego, in recognition of his “contributions in the area of synthetic organic chemistry, especially creativity in pushing its boundaries with innovative and thoughtful solutions to synthetic problems.”

3) Napoleone Ferrara, a molecular biologist credited with helping decipher how tumors grow, and developing new treatments for both cancer and age-related macular degeneration, joined the UC San Diego School of Medicine on Dec. 1 as a professor of pathology and senior deputy director for basic science at the UCSD Moores Cancer Center. He previously was a research fellow at the Bay Area-based biotechnology company Genentech.

Ferrara was named recipient of The Economist magazine’s 2012 Innovation Award for bioscience. The prize honors Ferrara’s work identifying the role of the human VEGF gene in promoting angiogenesis – the formation of new blood vessels that can feed tumor growth – and subsequent development of two major monoclonal antibody drugs.

4) Ramamohan Paturi is a professor of computer science and engineering at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering whose research includes complexity theory, digital libraries, medical data mining, and evidence-based medicine. He is also founder/chairman of San Diego-based Parity Computing, which recently launched Clinical Vigilance™ for Sepsis, a software system for health-care providers caring for patients at potential risk of deadly sepsis which strikes more than 750,000 American each year.

Currently, early detection of sepsis is complex and costly, requiring a high level of expert caregiver attention. Clinical Vigilance for Sepsis integrates with current clinical workflow to assess patient data already being collected as part of standard care. The software automatically and continuously monitors all patients in a hospital setting, issuing alerts that bring immediate attention to at-risk patients.

5) It’s better to detect a disease sooner rather than later, but if that condition is a developmental disorder like autism, which strikes at very young ages, how can you spot the first signs? Karen Pierce, assistant director of the Autism Center of Excellence, at the UCSD School of Medicine, is developing screening tests to identify children at autism risk when they are as young as 1 year old (most symptoms don’t appear until age 2.)

Her functional imaging and clinical tests could help parents and doctors intervene early enough to avoid some of the disorder’s most severe behavioral and cognitive problems. Her work has been highlighted by KPBS, KUSI, NBC, CNN, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and TIME Magazine where she was included in the “2012 TIME 100 List” of influential leaders, artists, and innovators worldwide for her work to help identify autism risk at an early age.

6) Erica Ollmann Saphire, a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbial Science at The Scripps Research Institute, seeks to understand at the molecular level how certain pathogens overcome and even exploit the human immune system. Research targets include the notoriously deadly Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa viruses to the more common but less virulent pathogens. In order to translate her research findings to the real world, Saphire has spent considerable time in African rainforest, caves, and huts in order to “see where these viruses live.” Saphire is a recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government for young professionals at the outset of their independent research careers. President Obama presented her with the honor at a White House ceremony.

— Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.