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Convergence of Biology and Physics in Cancer War


Barb73

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http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid= ... c&refer=us

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Aug. 7 (Bloomberg) -- Angela Belcher, a materials engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, didn't plan on joining the war on cancer. That is, until she was drafted to work alongside the school's biologists.

Belcher, 40, a 2004 winner of a MacArthur Foundation genius award, tailors viruses that build microscopic electronic parts such as transistors. She was recruited by MIT's cancer scientists to uncover new ways to detect tumors early and deliver drugs more safely.

Biologists at MIT, in Cambridge, helped discover the genes that have led to a new generation of so-called targeted cancer medicines. MIT -- like Stanford University in California and Emory University in Atlanta -- now is deploying engineers for the first time to build on those successes. The approach is spurring interest from biotechnology company backers, said Terry McGuire, co-founder of Polaris Venture Partners, an investment company in nearby Waltham, Massachusetts.

``Investors are realizing that a combination of engineering and biology is going to yield greater products,'' McGuire said a telephone interview on July 28.

McGuire is an adviser to MIT's David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, funded partly with $100 million from Koch, a 68-year-old billionaire who has been under treatment for prostate cancer for 16 years. The Koch Institute is constructing an over-$200 million building, with 25 laboratories, scheduled to open in December 2010.

Cancer Survivor

``One only has to experience cancer personally to become a crusader for curing the disease,'' Koch, from the founding family at Wichita, Kansas-based Koch Industries Inc., said in a telephone interview on July 22. The partnership between biologists and engineers, he said, ``is incredibly powerful.''

Each of the seven floors will have biologists and engineers, ``equal partners in the battle against this disease,'' MIT President Susan Hockfield, a 57-year-old neuroscientist, told a gathering at the school in June. ``The building is explicitly designed to help people bump into each other --intellectually, that is.''

Biologist-engineer collaborations against cancer have also been initiated at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Washington University in St. Louis, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the University of California, San Diego.

Billions for Research

The U.S. government will spend $4.8 billion on cancer studies in the year ending Sept. 30, almost twice the $2.5 billion a decade earlier, according to the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. About 75 percent of the Koch Institute's $50 million annual science budget comes from federal grants, said the center's director, Tyler Jacks, in a July 15 interview.

MIT biologists were involved in the original gene discoveries that led to the cancer drug Herceptin, made by South San Francisco-based Genentech Inc., and Gleevec, from Novartis AG in Basel, Switzerland. Herceptin, for breast cancer, generated $4.6 billion in revenue, according to Roche Holding AG, the Basel-based drugmaker that also markets the medicine.

The Koch Institute has an even split of biologists and engineers among the 24 faculty members. By comparison, no more than 5 percent of the 28,000 members of the American Association for Cancer Research, based in Philadelphia, specialize in the physical sciences, said Margaret A. Foti, the group's chief executive officer, in a telephone interview.

`Ahead of the Curve'

``We desperately need both physicists and engineers in the field of cancer research right now because of all the new delivery systems,'' Foti said. ``Centers like the one at MIT are really ahead of the curve.''

Belcher, a Texas native who won a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, was recruited by MIT's Robert Langer, the drug-delivery pioneer who runs the world's largest academic biomedical-engineering lab.

``She's one of the most imaginative, creative researchers I've ever seen, and really one of the young superstars at MIT,'' said Langer, 59, who formerly headed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Science Board, in an interview on July 14.

Belcher's goal is to create viruses that when injected into the body can hone in on tumors, she said in a June 3 interview. The viruses can act like freight delivery agents, carrying chemicals that can make otherwise unseen tumors more visible to imaging scans, or conveying chemotherapy directly to malignant cells.

Earlier Detection

The idea is to create diagnostics that detect cancer early enough for treatment to be more effective, Belcher said. The viruses' drug-delivery would be more accurately targeted than standard chemotherapy, which releases toxins throughout the body, harming healthy tissue in addition to the tumor.

She is also investigating how fluorescent tags called quantum dots might piggyback on viruses, highlighting the size, shape and location of a malignancy. While quantum dots are currently made from cadmium, which is toxic to humans, Belcher is trying to make a safe version from gallium nitride.

Belcher, who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has genetically engineered viruses that assemble microscopic electrode wires by combining molecules of cobalt oxide. The wires, which are one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair, could provide power for implantable medical devices or for tiny, unmanned flying vehicles that measure air quality, she said.

`Check Your Ego'

Now Belcher devotes about 20 percent of her time to the viruses' cancer-related applications, an area where she said she hadn't thought she had anything to contribute.

``Part of it was just out of ignorance -- not knowing the field, not knowing the people, and what was happening,'' she said. ``So I didn't run to it, I got pulled into it.''

The experience can be humbling.

``You have to check your ego at the door,'' she said. ``You have to walk in and say, `What does that mean? Back up.' I have no problem admitting that I don't know anything, and learning.''

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(Bloomberg News, By Brian Kladko and John Taddei, August 7, 2008)

Disclaimer:

The information contained in these articles may or may not be in agreement with my own opinions. They are not posted as medical advice of any kind.

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