From left, Dr. Mitchell Gross, Dr. David Agus and Dr. Jonathan Katz
We have had many exciting developments within the CAMM research group. One of the difficulties in fighting cancer is that, in spite of similarities in appearance or tumor origin, the underlying cellular aberrations can vary tremendously, even within a single patient. Recognizing this, we have been focusing our efforts on novel methods of diagnosis and disease classification that treats each patient’s disease as unique -- even to the point of examining a disease at the single cell level. In the past year we have seen explosive growth in our projects in the physical sciences. In collaborations with MIT and the Viterbi School of Engineering here at USC, we have two projects that combine expertise in physics and engineering along with medicine. Using the single-cell analysis platform put into production here by Dr. Maryann Vogel-sang, Dr. Shannon Mumenthaler has been guiding a project using nanofluidics and rapid image processing technology to develop a process in which a collection of single cells can be isolated from a biological sample and directly analyzed. By incorporating a dual-laser based optical cell manipulator, we have added the ability to trap cells, apply force, and directly measure their plasticity and elasticity. This allows us to see, very rapidly, if a particular drug has an effect on the properties of the individual cells that make up a tumor.
Next, CAMM has been working under the direction of Dr. Mitchell Gross to develop a medical device that can characterize the molecular status of living tissues. Using micro-scale ultrasound and electronic sensors (“silicon chips”), we can examine and affect cells in a very small area. At low energies, we can use the device with a microscopic acoustic beam. Ultimately, we would like to incorporate these microprobes into existing medical devices that are used in minimally invasive surgery; such tools would become “smart scalpels” that would enable a surgeon to make more accurate and controlled incisions. These projects are excel-lent examples of how we are able to utilize our expertise in the physical sciences to advance the practice of medicine.
Our center has also been aggressive in our continuing research to identify protein biomarkers which are predictive of treatment response or indicators of therapeutic effectiveness. One of our success stories was guided by Dr. Kian Kani. He has been performing quantitative proteomic profiling of prostate tissue in order to identify novel proteins which may be used to monitor cancer progression. In one of the most ambitious proteomics experiments to date, we were able to hone in on several very promising proteins. A confluence of exciting laboratory and patient-based research has led us to one particular protein biomarker. We have identified that this biomarker is elevated in the blood and in circulating tumor cells in patients with advanced forms of prostate cancer. Currently, we are exploring how this marker may help us predict the effectiveness of standard therapies for prostate cancer, such as surgery or chemotherapy, and may help identify a subset of prostate cancer patients who should receive specialized forms of therapy. Further, other studies are exploring how this marker changes in aggressive forms of human prostate cancer modeled in the laboratory. We are currently compiling all this data to be used in several manuscripts headed for publication.