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01/07/2008 08:00:00

Caltech and Partners Tackle Cancer through New Center

PASADENA, Calif.--With the aim of developing innovative ways to detect and treat cancer, researchers at the California Institute of Technology, UCLA, and the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) in Seattle have joined together to create the Nanosystems Biology Cancer Center (NSBCC).

James Heath, Gilloon Professor and professor of chemistry at Caltech, has teamed up with Michael Phelps, UCLA professor and chair of molecular and medical pharmacology and director of the Crump Institute for Molecular Imaging, and Leroy Hood, a Caltech alumnus, former Caltech professor and division chair, former chair of the department of molecular biotechnology at the University of Washington, and cofounder of ISB. The trio had been working together to translate models of cancer into clinical studies since around 2001, and decided to secure funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to start their own research center. In 2005, the NCI awarded Heath $18 million to establish NSBCC, one of seven such institutes that will be built over the next five years.

The consortium allows each research institute access to facilities it might not otherwise have. "We have a great connection between Caltech and UCLA," says Heath. "While Caltech doesn't have a medical school, it has amazing science and engineering capabilities. By combining the strengths of Caltech and UCLA, we can design state-of-the-art technologies that are focused on important problems in cancer biology and clinical care, and we can then harness the medical laboratories to test them out."

Five different projects are under way at the center, and the technology for them is being developed at Caltech. One new tool that highlights the center's collaborative effort is the "blood chip," which Caltech chemistry graduate student Ophir Vermesh is helping to develop. While the technology of the chip came from Caltech, the biological component--figuring out which proteins to look at--was done in Seattle, Heath says. With the technique, analysis of hundreds of proteins from a mere finger prick of blood can yield the fingerprint for a disease. Vermesh describes the procedure: "We monitor proteins in the serum that originate from specific organs as a way of monitoring the health of those organs. If the levels of those proteins deviate from normal, then that can indicate the presence of cancer within a particular organ." These diagnostic chips are currently in early-stage human trials.

In a second project, Caltech bioengineering graduate student Gabe Kwong is collaborating with colleagues in the working groups of Owen Witte and Caius Radu, professors in UCLA's department of molecular and medical pharmacology, to investigate immune cells called T-lymphocytes, or T cells. The efforts focus on finding ways to better harness the capability of the immune system to fight melanoma, or skin cancer. Melanoma is difficult to treat because it does not respond to normal chemotherapies. Kwong is trying to identify the many different ways in which T cells naturally fight cancers, and then augment and harness these "specialized killers."

Kwong credits much of the project's strength to the easy access to technically advanced facilities that the NSBCC provides. He visits the UCLA campus two or three times a week to work on his project. "I think the advantage of the NSBCC is that it includes so many investigators from such a breadth of disciplines, but with a common focus," says Kwong.

The other three projects tackled by the NSBCC include developing models of signal pathways for cancer in mice, and applying imaging techniques to detect tumors and determine their types. The imaging detection projects apply the positron-emission tomograph, or PET, scanners that were invented and developed by NSBCC codirector Phelps. PET scanners can track various metabolic changes that are associated with cancerous tissues, and are widely used in diagnoses. PET images can also track a drug as it moves through the body to attack the cancer.

In one NSBCC project, Mark Davis, Caltech's Schlinger Professor of Chemical Engineering, is collaborating with UCLA scientists to achieve a better understanding of his nanoparticle-based cancer therapeutics, some of which are already in human trials.

The ultimate objective of the center is to develop technologies that can apply the most modern models of cancer biology in the clinic. "These cancer models are tremendously complex," says Heath. "At the same time, physicians need simple and accurate tools to guide their decision making. Meeting this challenge really requires the integrated strengths of Caltech, ISB, and UCLA that we are able to harness through the NSBCC. Working together, we have a chance to make a profound impact on the worlds of cancer research and clinical care."

Written by Jacqueline Scahill