The Right Chemistry: Collaborating Across Multiple Disciplines
When it comes to collaborating in cancer research, two heads are better than one. In fact, a single study can traverse dozens of different disciplines, requiring many specialists.
Steven Soper, Ph.D., a bioanalytical chemist and biomedical engineer, joined the University of Kansas after several years at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Here, he hopes to bring the same spirit of collaboration he fostered at North Carolina.
“Since joining the KU system, I’ve been looking at generating new collaborations, as well as drawing on existing ones with KU Medical Center, in particular, the Cancer Center,” Soper said. “When it comes to advancing cancer diagnostics and therapies faster and more efficiently, why wouldn’t you pool resources?”
Prior to joining KU, Soper tapped Andrew Godwin, Ph.D., deputy director of The University of Kansas Cancer Center and director of molecular oncology for KU Medical Center.
“On a visit to Kansas, I had the opportunity to meet with Andy. We found we were united by a common goal: using biomarkers from blood samples that may serve as a foundation for generating innovative diagnostic tools for different types of cancers,” Soper said.
The combination of Soper’s biomedical engineering background and Godwin’s experience in oncology precision medicine research make for an ideal partnership. Biomedical engineering is a relatively new engineering sub-discipline gaining a lot of attention in the medical research field. In fact, the National Institutes in Health recently established a new institute in which one of its major themes is biomedical engineering.
“Biomedical engineers are here to help physicians, clinicians and biologists. They pose the research questions, and we introduce new tools to help them answer those questions,” Soper said. “It brings an engineer’s perspective to clinical work.”
Developing a tool for earlier cancer diagnosis
One of the tools that Soper and Godwin are collaborating on is the “lab-on-a-chip,” a testing platform that captures and performs analysis of various biomarkers, which are actively released by tumor cells into blood. Rather than the usual invasive and costly biopsy, the credit-card size devices will screen for circulating markers that are released from cancer cells within patients’ blood.
Extracellular vesicles, or exosomes, for example, are rich with information. No more than about one-thousandth of a human hair’s width, exosomes accumulate in the blood and other body fluids of cancer patients and can provide information early in the evolution of a cancer disease.
“Cells have their own miniaturized postal service in the form of these vesicles. Exosomes released from cancer cells carry molecular cargo that can be received by surrounding cells and promote signals to help the tumor grow and spread,” Godwin said. “These extracellular vesicles are full of biomarkers, including RNAs and biologically active proteins, which can be used to detect the presence of cancer early and track the disease state during treatment.”
"The findings from a lab-on-a-chip screening allow us to hone in on the right therapy for a particular patient. "
Andrew Godwin, PhD
In addition to increased efficiency and reduced cost, lab-on-a-chip devices offer unique capabilities that currently can’t be performed in the lab. As another example, Soper and Godwin are working on isolating cancer tumor cells from whole blood. In just one cubic centimeter of whole blood, there are 1 billion red blood cells, 1 million white blood cells and one to 10 cancer cells.
“Our technology extracts these rare tumor cells from blood. This has provided opportunities for clinicians and cancer biologists to understand cancer metastasis, uncover new mutations and guide therapeutic decisions,” Soper said.
Godwin added that the lab-on-a-chip helps advance precision medicine, an emerging approach in which disease treatment and prevention are tailored to an individual’s genes, environment and lifestyle. Before precision medicine, most treatments were not personalized, i.e., the one-size-fits-all approach.
“The findings from a lab-on-a-chip screening allow us to hone in on the right therapy for a particular patient,” Godwin said.
Several of the instruments Soper and his team have developed, once taken through the developmental cycle, will be transitioned to more labs at KU Cancer Center, allowing researchers to take advantage of the latest technology.
“This will not only benefit the various research projects going on across KU Medical Center, but will also advance clinical validation of the technology, which in turn helps us obtain FDA clearance to move these technologies into the clinical lab to help patients,” Soper said.
When it comes to collaborating for the benefit of cancer research, reaching across different laboratories and institutions helps propel that critical research forward. More often than not, collaborations are not just an opportunity, but a necessity.
“The synergy is important because a single researcher can’t do it alone. In a world where more and more tools and resources are available, we want to make sure we are capitalizing on them all,” Soper said.