News: Travis scientist fights on the microscopic front lines in the battle against disease, injury
By Lt. Col. Robert Couse-Baker
349th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- From her tidy research laboratory, Sarah Torres, 60th Air Mobility Wing civilian and 349th AMW Reservist, contemplates big ideas by focusing on the microcosm of living matter.
Half a world away, a soldier on patrol in Afghanistan is briefly knocked unconscious by the blast of a roadside bomb. His buddies check him for signs of injury and there doesn't seem to be any. But the story might not end there.
"Damage to the nervous system may not be always apparent through obvious physical and behavioral signs, sometimes it only shows up in symptoms months after the injury," said Torres, a molecular biologist with the Clinical Investigation Facility at David Grant USAF Medical Center.
Torres is among the researchers at Travis looking for molecular signatures of injury or illness.
"When police investigate an automobile crash, they're going to measure the skid marks on the road to help them determine the cause of the accident. Certain bio markers are the skid marks of injuries."
The specific bio markers in this case are called MicroRNA. These double-stranded molecules of ribonucleic acid, are crucial in protein production and gene regulation.
"Inside the cells, there's a lot of cross talk tidbits of miRNA," she said. "When an injury takes place in the body, certain miRNAs from the site of injury tell other parts of the body, 'help, I've been damaged."
By developing means of detecting and measuring these molecular messages, Torres hopes to develop powerful diagnostic tools for health care providers.
"We're examining bio markers of injuries and disease we can test through minimally-invasive procedures, such as blood tests," she said.
In the case of a troop with traumatic brain injury, this could mean early, effective treatment of the underlying neurological damage, long before outward symptoms surface.
At least that's the idea. Moving an idea from concept to clinic is the tricky part.
"Sarah helps us operationalize ideas from academia," said Maj. Carlos Maldonado, CIF molecular diagnostics chief. "She understands the science, the clinical environment and the Air Force requirements, so she can see the processes that have to be put in place to go from idea to reality," he said.
"Our job is to research diagnostic tools for providers to treat illness and disease in the war fighter and military family members," Torres said.
The CIF's scientists don't develop drugs or therapies; they develop processes for prevention and early detection.
Much of the hard part of turning abstract academic concepts into practical battlefield treatments is figuring out how to measure and repeat results.
"In the military, we want simple, effective, repeatable and reliable processes," Maldonado said. "That's the beauty part: because of her military background and continuing Reserve duty, she understands the way the Air Force does things and how we get things done. She moves seamlessly between the (laboratory) bench and training others in the clinical environment."
After six years on active duty with the 60th MG, Torres took a break from active service and took a civilian laboratory position at Sutter Medical Foundation, Sacramento. Not wanting to let go of uniformed service, Torres transferred to traditional Reserve status with the 349th Aerospace Medicine Squadron.
All the while, she continued her studies towards a bachelor of science, involvement in her church, being a mom and earning Board certification by the American Society for Clinical Pathology. When the scientist day job opened up at CIF, she was ready to apply. Torres said it's a dream job, but she still makes time to serve in uniform.
"The Reserve duty helps give me the big picture," she said. If you're not careful, you can lose sight of the clinical work. On reserve weekends, we provide patient care. I draw blood every drill weekend,"
Torres' success came as a result of a lot of hard work and determination, said Senior Master Sgt. Melinda Schoch, superintendent of laboratory services for the 349th AMDS.
"She was going to school, Reserve duty, a full-time job and taking care of a little baby. I can only guess she needs very little sleep."
In the medical research field, seeking answers takes incredible patience and perseverance.
"Sometimes you find there are many different roads to find the answer," she said. "And sometimes you find a lot of dead ends. You don't always get warm fuzzies at the end of the day."
Yet she sees potential to save lives and improve the quality of others by what she does and it drives her. One of her projects aims to identify and defeat superbugs. Her quest is to find which genes are giving some pathogens antibiotic resistance.
"I like having a problem and taking it apart," Torres said. "I want to find answers."