Remembering Dr. Jonathan Widom: Tributes and Condolences

Following the sudden death of Dr. Jonathan Widom, the Physical Sciences-Oncology Center has received many messages of sorrow and support from across the Northwestern community, the PS-OC network, and beyond. Assembled below are a series of reflections on Jon’s life and passing. This collection will be updated as the Center receives new messages in remembrance of a visionary scientist, respected colleague, generous mentor, and loyal friend.


Dear Colleagues,

I am tremendously saddened to let you know that Professor Jon Widom passed away this afternoon following a massive cardiac arrest. His passing was quick and painless, and the doctors assure us that everything possible was done for him, but that the damage was just too severe.

This is shocking and terribly distressful news for all of us, and it will take a long time for us to come to grips with this loss. Our immediate thoughts and prayers are with Jon’s family and with his laboratory and close co-workers, and we offer them our condolences. I do not yet have any information on services or arrangements, and will hopefully be able to share more information about that with you tomorrow.

Jon will be remembered as an extremely creative and thoughtful scientist, able to seamlessly blend the biological questions he so passionately pursued with his broad background in chemical principles and quantitative analysis. His contributions to the fields of chromatin packaging and gene regulation are unquestioned, and are reflected in his outstanding international reputation and many awards and honors. I am certain that many accolades regarding Jon’s research contributions will pour in over the next days.

But to us, his colleagues, Jon was much more than an outstanding scientist. He will be remembered as a warm and caring friend, and as a dedicated mentor who always gave credit to his “troops”. He will be remembered for his love of opera, and travel, and good food and coffee, all best shared with the company of others. And for his gentle but sometimes very blunt humor. He will be remembered as a wonderful colleague who gave freely of his time, advice and expertise. And he will be remembered for serving the department and Northwestern with great distinction in many capacities, including his long tenure as chair.

At times like this, we are reminded that a department such as ours is truly a family, and that we must rely on one another and support one another under these difficult circumstances. I will be back in touch as I have more information.

With sadness,


Kelly E. Mayo
Department of Molecular Biosciences
Center for Reproductive Science
Northwestern University


Dear Colleagues,

It is with terrible sadness that I must inform you that Jon Widom passed away today.

Jon was an irreplaceable friend and colleague, and an intellectual tour de force, whose loss leaves an enormous hole in the graduate program and in the department.

This loss will be hard for all of us, but most of all for his laboratory – his troops as he lovingly called them – they were his family, and they meant the world to him.
Many of you have already been offering Jon’s lab what support you can – I thank you for this and I know that you will continue to do so in the coming days.

The graduate program and the department will support them, and all those touched by this loss, in any way necessary. There are clearly many hard days ahead for us all.

Kelly Mayo and/or I will let you know the details once there is information about a memorial service for Jon I paste a note from Kelly below as he speaks of Jon much more eloquently than I can muster at the moment.

Until then, I am very sorry to have to relay such terrible news via email


Carole B LaBonne
WCAS Molecular Biosciences
Northwestern University

Dear Weinberg Faculty and Staff:
It is with great sadness that I write to share with you the news that our colleague, Professor Jonathan Widom, passed away suddenly on Monday afternoon from an apparent heart attack. At his death, Jonathan was the William Deering Professor of Molecular Biosciences and Chemistry, as well as Director of the Keck Biophysics Facility.
Jonathan joined Northwestern in 1991 as Associate Professor in BMBCB and Chemistry. He subsequently served as BMBCB Department Chair for six years, from 1998 to 2004. His other service to the University included lengthy terms as Director of the Molecular Biophysics Training Program and as Director of the Center for Structural Biology. Jonathan’s distinguished research was focused on developing a concrete mechanistic understanding of gene regulation. His lab worked to understand how specific proteins or protein assemblies, acting in accord with the laws of physical chemistry, recognize and gain access to their DNA target sites in chromatin; and, conversely, to understand how the nucleosomal organization of chromatin and higher order chromatin folding modulate the action of these proteins and assemblies.
We will sorely miss Jonathan’s many contributions to the College and his field at large.
Please join me in expressing our deepest condolences to Jonathan’s family, friends, colleagues, and students. We will share additional information with you at a later time, including details about funeral/memorial arrangements.

Sarah C. Mangelsdorf
Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
Northwestern University


Dear Northwestern PSOC Trainees,

It is with great sadness that I write to inform that our leader and mentor, Professor Jonathan Widom, passed away suddenly on Monday afternoon from an apparent heart attack.

We have lost not only a scientist of great intellect and achievement but a most valued member of our community. Jon’s rigorous approach to questions of great importance has informed the ethos of our Center as has his passion for actually engaging in research and his impatience with bureaucracy and all its trappings.

I’m sure that you’ll join me and the PSOC staff in offering our support and condolences to Jon’s “troops”. Planning for a memorial service is underway and details will be posted on the NU-PSOC website as they become available.

With sadness,

Sheila Judge


I had heard the terrible news this morning. I am very sad. He was a special man. Please do keep me current on memorial activities etc. He was supposed to come to a chromatin meeting at the NCI in November and I will make sure we will have a remembrance for him here on that occasion.

Best wishes,

Tom Misteli,
National Cancer Institute
PSOC External Advisory Committee


Dear Sheila

This is very sad news. Jon L told me this morning, and it is hard to believe. He was still young and in the most productive stage of his career. My condolences to his family, and to his extended family of students and colleagues.


Kevin White
University of Chicago
PSOC External Advisory Committee

I would like to add my deepest condolences and sadness on this tragic loss.


Noshir Contractor
Northwestern University
PSOC External Advisory Committee


This is shocking and sad news.
I saw Jon at lunch on Friday and he seemed full of vitality.
He will be sorely missed.


Uri Wilensky
Northwestern University
PSOC External Advisory Committee


Dear Sheila,

Please accept and extend my sincere condolences. What a tragic loss. It is difficult to believe.


Kathleen Cook
Northwestern University
PSOC External Advisory Committee


Thanks much Sheila,

I am in shock like many of us.
Where on the site are you going to post them?


Marcus Peter
Feinberg School of Medicine
Northwestern University


Dear Sheila,

I was shocked by this news. It’s so sad. In my eyes, Jon is a very kind, warm-hearted, and modest colleague and friend. I prayed for him this morning and want to pray for him in our Sunday service. Do you know what religion he has? I also look forward to hearing from you what we can do to help his family.

My thoughts and prayers are with you, his family and friends. Love.


Jindan Yu
Feinberg School of Medicine
Northwestern University


It was a profound privilege for the Hendrix laboratory to work with Jon on the PSOC project. His brilliant insights instigated novel scientific avenues of exploration. His humble, genuine demeanor is a legacy we shall all remember. Thank you to Jon for including us in his extended scientific family. We are forever grateful for the research time we shared together.

Mary Hendrix, Elisabeth Seftor and Richard Seftor

Children’s Memorial Research Center
Children’s Memorial Hospital
Northwestern University


I am so so sorry to hear that. He will be sorely missed. Please dont hesitate to contact me if there is anything at all I can help with.

Franziska Michor
Harvard University


Dear Sheila,

Sorry for not replying sooner as I’m out of the country. I was utterly shocked when I read the news this morning about the loss of Jon.

On behalf of the Office of Physical Sciences – Oncology staff, I would like to express our deepest sympathy to his family, his PS-OC team, and lab members. His contribution to science was tremendous and his latest venture to bring physical sciences to oncology will be truly missed. His love of science, deep insight, and ability to bring high quality people together has always been some of his hallmarks and something that all of us in the PS-OC Network strive to achieve.

Again our condolences to Jon’s family and please let know if we can assist in anyway.

With deepest respects,

Larry A. Nagahara
Office of Physical Sciences – Oncology
National Cancer Institute


Sheila, NU PS-OC Members, and Widom Lab,

I was shocked and saddened to hear of Jon’s passing. I have admired and been inspired by his science for years. His contributions to chromatin organization and gene regulation influenced my own work as a graduate student and postdoc. As I have worked with Jon over the past couple of years and come to know him personally I have gained an admiration for him as a person as well. He was kind and friendly, always taking the time to say hello or introduce me to colleagues when we crossed paths. He will be greatly missed. My thoughts and prayers are with all of you and with Jon’s family.

Warm wishes,


Dear Sheila and Jonathan,

This does indeed hit hard. It is impossible to express the sadness and shock that comes with the news of Jon’s passing. Please do send our condolences to Jon’s lab and let us know what we can do to keep his mission alive.

With kind regards
Peter and Kelly, for the Scripps team

Peter Kuhn and Kelly Bethel
The Scripps Research Institute PS-OC


Dear Sheila,

What a terrible loss! I knew Jon for several years. Please accept my most sincere condolences, and pass them to Jon’s colleagues.
Thank you for letting me know and please keep me posted as I’ll try to attend the memorial service.

— Leonid

Leonid Mirny
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Dear Sheila,

I too would like to express my deepest condolences to Jon’s family, laboratory and colleagues. It is clear from the remembrances that we all feel the tremendous loss of such an esteemed thinker, mentor and friend.
As being just a few years older than Jon and starting out in chromatin myself, I followed his work with great joy and anticipation for a good quarter of a century. He was one of my role models for the sheer beauty of his logic and execution of complex experiments. He was one of the true icons in the field. There are very few of us that can say science would be worse off in our absence. The scientific community has lost a rare hero and inspirational leader.

Kerry Bloom
Thad L. Beyle Distinguished Professor
Dept. of Biology
University of North Carolina


To all of those who knew Jon Widom,

I write with you all to express my most sincere and deep sympathy over learning yesterday of the tragic passing of Jon. My sadness and shock is beyond words. I will not be able to ease your pain; I write only as a chromatin biochemist who had the deepest respect for Jon as person, scientist and leader of our field. From my early interactions with Jon, I was taken back by his smarts and his deep insights into the biophysical properties of chromatin particles, arrays and beyond. As I got to know him better, I became equally impressed with his comfort and clear understanding of chromatin biology.

I have several fond memories of Jon that I would like to share with you. First, I bumped into Jon by accident on the Rockefeller campus shortly after I moved there. Surprised to see him, I invited Jon up to First Avenue to grab some lunch where I was surprised to learn that he was in New York City, working with Eran Segal on what went on to become landmark studies on nucleosome positioning. It was a fun lunch, and it was clear to me then how fun Jon was having in NYC; we had many good laughs, and as was typical, Jon asked me several great questions as to what we were doing in the lab. Second, Jon came back to NYC a couple of years later to be our chosen featured speaker at one of our Leukemia-Lymphoma SCOR grant annual meetings, lead by Jon Licht. It was a delightful lecture, packed with Widom chromatin insights, peppered with Widom humor. Finally, I was fortunate to give one of the opening-night lectures with Roger Kornberg at a wonderful Keystone Chromatin/Transcription meeting in Taos, NM in January, 2010, organized by Jon, Geeta Nalikar and Dinshaw Patel. I have attended many terrific chromatin meetings at various stages of the chromatin field’s history, but this meeting was one of my recent favorites. Why? It has a clear imprint of its organizers – it had lots of terrific biophysical, structural and enzymological talks and posters, and much less chromatin biology than I was used to. It was a wonderful meeting – in short, it had a ‘Widom feel’ to it. Unfortunately, I had not seen Jon since that meeting.

In closing, I will miss Jon – his many gifts and talents were clear; he will be missed by all of us, but not forgotten. I have a huge amount of respect for what Jon and his colleagues have done for our field; their scientific contributions have been enormous and remarkable. But the older I get, the more I recognize that Jon was a very special person — decent, fun and caring, a good mix for all of us to aspire to.

With genuine sadness and sympathy,

David Allis

Joy and Jack Fishman Professor
Head, Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics
The Rockefeller University


Dear Sheila,

This is truly terrible news, Jon will be tremendously missed within the field of chromatin biochemistry and in science as a whole. I cannot imagine the devastating impact this loss will have at the PSOC, NU, his lab, and for is family. My deepest condolences. If we can be of any assistance helping Jon’s lab through this difficult time, please let me know.



Alex Ruthenburg
University of Chicago


Sheila, Please let Jon’s family and his staff know of my great sadness and sympathy for their terrible loss.

Jon was a visionary. His work was so important to us as we shaped the concept for the PSOCs; and his subsequent leadership as a senior member of the PSOC network was exemplary. He was a man of great ideas and high standards – and we are all better for having known and worked with him. Jon made remarkable contributions to the PSOCs (and broadly to cancer research and science) and touched lives in ways that will be with us always. He will be greatly missed!

My condolences to Jon’s family – and please share any suggestions for where donations in his name might be directed.

Respectfully, Ann Barker

Anna Barker
NCI Center for Strategic Scientific Initiatives, NIH


Sheila and Jon,

I would like to echo Ann’s sentiments and apologize for not writing sooner as I am currently at our annual NCI Budget Retreat. I had a good phone conversation with your Cancer Center leadership and let him know how much Jonathan’s leadership and expertise meant to this Network. I am honored to have worked with him only on a few things and he will be missed.

Please convey my condolences to the Widom lab and family.


Jerry S.H. Lee
Center for Strategic Scientific Initiatives (CSSI),TCGA Program Office
National Cancer Institute, NIH


Dear Sheila,

Sean just informed me that Jon Widom has suddenly passed, and I am in shock and devastated. Please accept my deepest condolences. You and your entire team at Northwestern and Jon’s family are in my thoughts and prayers. May peace be with you during this difficult time.

Best wishes,

Nastaran Zahir Kuhn
Office of Physical Sciences-Oncology
National Cancer Institute, NIH


Thank you, Sheila. What a terrible shock (!), and how incredibly sad. We take pause to reflect and remember this loss.

Richard E.B. Seftor
Northwestern University
Children’s Memorial Research Center


Hello Sheila,

I am so shocked to hear the news. I want to share the deepest sadness to lose Jon. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to support and deliver our sympathy to his family and lab members. May your memories with him be your comfort.

With deepest sympathies,
JooSang Lee
Northwestern University


Dear Dr. Judge and the Widom lab,

I want to express my heart-felt condolences at the tragic death of Jon Widom. I worked with Jon as a post-doctoral fellow shortly after his arrival at Northwestern. He was an extraordinary mentor who taught me not only the nuts and bolts of chromatin biochemistry but also invaluable lessons about being a thoughtful and generous scientist. He was a truly unique person in our field and he will be sorely missed. If I can be of any assistance in this difficult time, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Mark Parthum
Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
Ohio State University


The personnel of the Keck Biophysics Facility is devastated by the loss of its Director, Dr. Jonathan Widom.
Dr. Widom established the Keck Facility in 1997 with funding from the W. M. Keck Foundation, the NIH and the Rice Foundation. He was passionate about constantly bringing in new techniques and state of the art instrumentation; he viewed the facility as a unique academic resource where not only equipment but also expertise and ideas can be shared. Under his leadership the Keck Facility became one of the major core laboratories of the Lurie Cancer Center and was repeatedly recognized by the Office of Research as one of the outstanding core facilities at Northwestern.

We feel privileged to have had the chance to work with Jon and know him closely. His leadership and expertise were exceptional. His kind mentorship, wonderful advice, warm and caring personality will be thoroughly missed.

Arabela Grigorescu
Manager | Keck Biophysics Facility
Northwestern University


I just received word of Jon’s untimely death. He was a good friend dating back to our days at UIUC. There are undoubtedly a huge number of colleagues worldwide that are, or will be, shocked by his passing. He was very kind and funny, in addition to being incredibly intelligent. He has left an important scientific contribution to be sure. But in addition he was a good friend to many of us and we will miss him.

Cathy Royer
Directeur de Recherche
Centre de BiochimieStructurale
Montpellier France


I knew Jon for a long time, our paths crossed at many meetings and we shared common interests in biological physics. Jon had excellent taste in problems that had both strong physics content and biological impact, that is a rare quantity. I didn’t always agree with Jon, he was a strong personality and so am I, so we had our share of battles. In the end we were friends, and I was glad to see him become an important part of the Physical Sciences Oncology effort. He left us far too soon.

Assuring you of our best attention at all times, we beg to remain dear Madame or Sir, yours very truly:

Robert H. Austin
Department of Physics
Princeton University


Dear Sheila,

I was shocked, dismayed and deeply saddened to learn this terrible news. (I saw the ambulances and paramedics around Cook Hall Monday afternoon, but little did I realize what that was all about…)

So much is already said about Jon and I echo all our colleagues’ sentiments. Jon was a good friend and a learned colleague. He was also an “advisor” and confidant to me and our NUANCE staff on many fronts; particularly in our collective aspirations to develop bio-cryo microscopy capabilities to address emerging opportunities in ultrastructure analysis of “soft” matter such as DNA/Chromatin. Just as we are about develop some unique ways to image and analyze DNA and chromatin patterns, we will terribly miss his insights, advice and friendship. It is so sad and shocking that I am at a loss to express it in mere words. Alas..

Our most heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and his students/group members.

Warm regards,
Vinayak & NUANCE Center colleagues

Vinayak Dravid
Professor of Materials Science & Engineering
Director of NUANCE (Northwestern University Atomic and Nanoscale Characterization Center)
Northwestern University


It was a terrible shock to hear of Jon Widom’s premature death. Although I only met Jon a few times, he made a great impression on me, and I often mentioned him to others as a role model of excellence in science, both in terms of his work and the way he conducted himself. He presented a seminar in our ASU Biophysics Seminar series some years ago, and it still stands in my memory as the best talk we hosted over an eight year period. It is a tragedy that he has left us so soon.

Timothy Newman
Professor of Biophysics
University of Dundee


Please accept our condolences— although I did not really know Jon, I do know his father as a colleague here. Such events and times are always difficult. Best wishes to you and your colleagues in your PS-OC and at Northwestern through these difficult days

Mike Shuler
Physical Sciences-Oncology Center
Cornell University


I am deeply saddened to hear the news. Jon has been extremely supportive during the first years of my independent career, and I consider myself tremendously fortunate to have had the chance to collaborate with him. Jon has been, and will continue to be, an incredible role model. His generosity, humility, and scientific genius has touched my life in many ways, and his death will leave a void that will be felt for many years to come.

Marcia Levitus
Arizona State University


jw_corsica.jpgDear Colleagues,

It was with great sadness that I heard about the death of Jon Widom.

I wish to share with you in memory a photo taken in 2006 in Corsica, France where Jon came to give several lectures at a summer school on DNA and Chromosomes that I organized. The photo is not very good, but this is how I like to remember Jon, enjoying himself during a boating excursion whilst in deep discussion with his good friend, Bill Gelbart. Jon added a memorable contribution in 2006 to the success of the summer school, and his death affects us all.


Alan Braslau


My condolences on Northwestern’s recent loss. I was honored to meet Dr. Widom and was completely floored by his warmth and intellectual tenacity. I distinctly recall one comment he made during our dinner conversation: when asked if he had any children, he responded with “My students are my children.” It was then that I realized how unique Dr. Widom really was. I am at a loss for words and dumbfounded, as others are, by the abrupt manner of his passing. I offer my deepest condolences to Dr. Widom’s family, the lab, and to his colleagues. He will be missed here at Caltech where he was a dear friend of the Phillips group.

Pradeep Ramesh
California Institute of Technology


It comes as a shock when the world loses one of its great scientists, this tragedy is compounded when this scientist was also a great human being- Jon Widom was both of these things. I first met Jon in 1987 when I spent a month-long rotation in his laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as part of an inter-departmental program in molecular biology. Jon himself was the epitome of the multi-disciplinary approach, at the time he held appointments in three different departments: Chemistry, Biochemistry, as well as Biophysics. Working in his lab, it soon became apparent to me that no single discipline could house Jon’s expansive ideas- it was also apparent that my search for a scientific mentor had come to a successful end.

Jon had all of the qualities one could ask for in an advisor- he had a seemingly infinite amount of patience as well as an infectious enthusiasm for science. Before joining his laboratory, I had thought very little about chromatin structure and function, but now it has become a life-long passion for me. I have also tried to emulate some of the qualities that I most admired in Jon- I think that I am an exceedingly patient person at least in part due to his influence. I have also tried to pass on an enthusiasm for learning to my own students in my role as a professor at a small liberal arts college. Although my own educational training did not take place at such an institution, I found that the multi-disciplinary approach emulated by Jon helped to prepare me to embrace a wide-range of subjects beyond the realms of molecular biology.

I never questioned Jon’s motivation for pursuing science. He wasn’t interested in fame or recognition, he wasn’t out to prove others wrong- he simply loved research for the thrill of discovery. When he accepted a position at Northwestern University, I, along with the other members of his laboratory at that time, knew that he didn’t have only himself in mind when making such career decisions. We trusted Jon’s inclination completely- none of us thought for long about not following him to Evanston, Illinois.

Jon put a lot of thought into everything that he did. When I asked him any question, even a seemingly innocuous one, Jon would pause (sometimes for a somewhat uncomfortable amount of time), while he formulated a precise answer. Jon’s research was impacted by this philosophy in life- he performed careful, meticulous work that he had thought deeply about before beginning. He claimed that he had obtained some of his propensity for careful thought during his postdoctoral studies with Aaron Klug at the MRC in Cambridge. He often spoke of long discussions that would take place with scientists from a number of disciplines over tea, followed by long evenings performing the experiments that had been vetted in this way.

One pet peeve of Jon’s was unnecessary verbosity; he taught me that being concise was always the best approach. He would tell me “The chance of someone reading something that you have written is inversely proportional to its length.” I hope to have put into practice everything that I have learned from Jon.

James Godde
Professor and Chair of Biology
Monmouth College

In Memoriam: Dr. Jonathan Widom

It is with profound sadness that the Northwestern University Physical Sciences-Oncology Center announces that our leader, colleague, and mentor, Professor Jonathan Widom, passed away suddenly on Monday afternoon following an apparent heart attack. At the time of his death, Dr. Widom was the William Deering Professor of Molecular Biosciences and Chemistry at Northwestern, the Director of the NU Keck Biophysics Facility, and the Principal Investigator for the PS-OC.

With Dr. Widom’s passing, we have lost both a major intellectual force and a valued member of our community. Jon’s rigorous approach to scientific questions of fundamental importance informed the ethos of our Center, and his passion for research served as an inspiration to his friends, colleagues, and students. A scientist of the highest caliber, Jon earned substantial international recognition for his work on chromatin packaging and gene regulation. Yet his personal modesty and exceptionally high standards prevented him from taking much credit for his outstanding contributions. Rather than seeking the spotlight for himself, he preferred instead to serve as a dedicated and generous mentor who enthusiastically praised the talents and contributions of all who worked with him.

Jon is survived by his parents, Ben and Joanne, of Ithaca, NY, and a brother and a sister. Burial will be private but condolences may be sent to: The Widom Family, 204 The Parkway, Ithaca, NY 14850.

Donations can be made to Northwestern University to endow the “Jonathan Widom Lectures in Molecular Biosciences.”  Checks should be payable to Northwestern University in honor of Jonathan Widom and mailed to Catrina Dagostino, senior director of development, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Northwestern University, 2020 Ridge Ave., Evanston, IL 60208-4308

Online donations may be made at Select “Make a Gift”, then under “My Designation” enter “In honor of Jonathan Widom”. For further information contact (847) 491-4583.

Donations can also be made to the Lyric Opera of Chicago
Please specify this is a commemorative gift in honor of Jonathan Widom.

Rethinking the War on Cancer

jones for web.jpgA two-day symposium taking place today and tomorrow at Northwestern University, June 6 and 7, is bringing together internationally renowned scholars working at the intersection of the physical sciences and oncology to share insights about rethinking the War on Cancer.

Sponsored by Northwestern’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, the events are taking place in the auditorium of the Pancoe Life Sciences Building, 2200 N. Campus Drive.

A standing-room-only crowd gathered early on Monday to hear talks by Alexander Ruthenburg from the University of Chicago, Peter Jones from the University of Southern California and Northwestern’s Richard Carthew. Later sessions will feature presentations by Lucy Godley and Chuan He from the University of Chicago, Leonid Mirny of MIT, Frank Pugh of Penn State, Olivier Elemento of Cornell University and Ji-Ping Wang of Northwestern.

“Experienced and aspiring investigators are coming together inspired by the knowledge that a new understanding of cancer is necessary,” said Jonathan Widom, the principal investigator of Northwestern’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Center. “The center is based on the belief that such an understanding will help secure a conclusion to what has been a difficult and prolonged war.”

Supported by a five-year, multi-million dollar grant from the National Cancer Institute, the Physical Sciences-Oncology Center represents a dramatic attempt to fundamentally rethink approaches to fighting cancer.

The center operates under the leadership of Widom, who holds the William Deering Professorship in Biological Sciences in the department of molecular bioscience, is a member of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute and holds appointments in the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center and the departments of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology; and Jonathan Licht, the center’s senior co-investigator, chief of the division of hematology/oncology in the Feinberg School of Medicine and associate director for clinical sciences at the Lurie Cancer Center.

By importing techniques, ideas and methods from the physical sciences into the unfamiliar terrain of tumor biology and oncology, the center and its eleven sibling research centers are creating new insights into cancer by revealing the physical and chemical forces shaping the emergence and progression of the disease at all levels.

“Breaking from the orthodoxy of established thought, the center is eschewing cell- and organ-specific studies to develop a systemic or global understanding of how cancer functions from carcinogenesis to metastasis,” the center’s senior co-investigator Licht said.

The reappraisal underway at the center is undergirded by a series of analytical approaches, including nano- and sub-atomic microscopy, advanced optics, mathematical modeling and high-level computational power that will generate the raw data necessary to solving perplexing and lethal riddles.

“The importance of the center’s work is best highlighted by the elusive nature of cancer itself,” said Will Kazmier, education, training and outreach coordinator in Northwestern’s Chemistry of Life Processes Institute.

“Forty years after President Richard Nixon famously opened a “war on cancer” that has required the commitment of enormous financial and scientific resources, survival rates for most forms of the disease remain largely unchanged,” he added.–Pat Vaughn Tremmel

Dhwanil Damania Wins PS-OC Young Investigators’ Award

Dhwanil_web.jpgAlthough the Northwestern University Physical Sciences-Oncology Center (PS-OC) was established only last fall, Dhwanil Damania, a PhD student in the university’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, believes his experience as an NU PS-OC trainee has already had a significant impact on his research  skills. As Damania explains, both the NU PS-OC and its eleven sibling research centers, which rely on physical sciences-based approaches to understand and control cancer, strongly advocate “interdisciplinary collaboration” to achieve their goals. This emphasis on collaborative science, he says, has helped him think “more creatively” both in his approach to problem-solving and in the way he envisions future paths for his work.

Over the next twelve months, he will have a new opportunity to apply this creativity. At the recently held PS-OC National Investigators’ Meeting in Bethesda, MD, a team comprised of Damania and two trainees from the Scripps Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, Kevin Phillips and Joseph Aslan, won a one-year, $10,000 Young Investigators’ Research Award for their proposal to develop a novel method for characterizing the pathophysiological features of circulating tumor cells (CTCs). CTCs have long been known to play a key role in the metastasis of cancer by detaching from existing tumors, traveling through the bloodstream, and forming secondary tumors in new locations.

Funded by the National Cancer Institute, which is  supporting the PS-OC network through a series of five-year, multimillion-dollar grants, the Young Investigators’ Award was created to help cultivate innovative cancer research among a new generation of interdisciplinary scientists working in the laboratories of senior PS-OC investigators. The most notable feature of the competition was its collaborative focus. To be eligible to compete for one of three grants, trainees from across the network were required to work in teams by developing proposals that incorporated at least two students or postdoctoral fellows from separate PS-OCs. By encouraging trainees to grapple with and overcome the institutional and disciplinary barriers frequently impeding scientific progress, competition organizers hoped the application process would function as a catalyst for sustained partnerships and, eventually, meaningful scientific advances. These aspirations, in turn, guided the award selection process.

For his part, Damania is confident that his project with Phillips and Aslan has the potential to realize the competition’s objectives. “What is most exciting to me about the work with Scripps is that it will help us understand the varying tumorigenic capabilities of different classes of CTCs—or their uneven capacity to cause metastasis in cancer patients,” he says. From a clinical perspective, identifying the CTCs capable of causing metastasis is particularly important because doing so could potentially help physicians provide early and effective care to cancer patients possessing the most virulent kinds of cancer-spreading cells. In other words, “this is something that could potentially improve current methods for understanding–and eventually treating–the spread of cancer,” Damania concludes.

To carry out its work, the team will synthesize important advances made in the labs of senior researchers at Scripps and Northwestern. As Damania explains, his collaborators “have been involved with pioneering research to isolate and tag CTCs in the bloodstream using fluorescent microscopy.” This feat, accomplished in the laboratory of Dr. Peter Kuhn, is particularly impressive, he continues, “because CTCs can be found in the bloodstream only in very small concentrations, roughly at the level of one per thousands or more normal blood cells.” Consequently, the extensive CTC samples obtained by the Scripps team occupy the status of rare commodities in the world of cancer research.

But while Scripps researchers have been able to isolate CTCs, they have yet to identify the physical characteristics that reveal their metastatic potential. To help accomplish this goal, Damania and his colleagues at Northwestern will assist his Scripps teammates in constructing a partial-wave spectroscopic microscopy system. An innovative optical technique developed in the Northwestern laboratory of Professor Vadim Backman, one of Damania’s faculty advisors, partial-wave spectroscopy (PWS) has been used to identify subtle tumorigenic changes in human cells even when those same cells appear normal using conventional microscopy. Because Backman’s research group has shown that these changes are linked to the degree of disorder present within cell nano-architecture, a quantifiable PWS marker obtained by translating backscattered light from human cell samples, Damania believes that a similar approach can be used on CTCs. The goal here, then, will be to correlate cellular disorder strength among CTCs with their metastatic potential. If that work can be accomplished, his team will have established a novel approach for characterizing CTCs and, potentially, a new way of understanding cancer.

While Damania is extremely excited to begin making progress on his collaborative project, he is also grateful for the lesson he learned while preparing his proposal with Aslan and Phillips at the National PS-OC Meeting. Due to the team emphasis of the Young Investigators’ competition, Damania concedes that for the first time in his academic career, he attended a professional meeting while “considering the possibility that the event’s other participants could be potential collaborators rather than potential competitors.” Yet when he did so, he realized how much could be learned “from ordinary attendees instead of just the meeting’s official speakers.” It was instructive to realize, he adds, how important “a change in perspective can be. I immediately began to have new ideas about how to advance my research and consider new possibilities for the directions in which my research could progress.” Damania has already begun to realize the benefits of such a change in perspective through the Young Investigators’ Award. In the future, it is possible that the broader cancer research community will benefit from this change as well.

Center Funds Important New Pilot Studies

The Northwestern Physical Sciences-Oncology Center (NU-PSOC), under the leadership of Prof. Jonathan Widom, recently awarded a total of nearly$300,000 to NU investigators for one-year pilot studies related to the Center’s theme of “Coding, Decoding, Transfer and Translation of Information in Cancer.”  The Center awarded an additional $100,000 to support the incorporation of needed expertise into existing Center research projects.

The NU PS-OC is one of 12 such Centers established by the National Cancer Institute in 2009 to apply concepts and methodologies from the physical sciences and engineering to the study of cancer biology. Under the terms of its $12.5 million award from the National Cancer Institute, the NU PS-OC must devote some of these funds each year to support  pilot projects that complement and expand the Center’s five main projects.  In its second round of underwriting these studies, the NU-PSOC selected three promising pilot projects for support.  Marcus Peter, Dept. of Medicine/Hematology-Oncology, received $100,000 for his project “Development of Novel Tools to Detect and Inhibit MicroRNAs.  MicroRNAs, a recently discovered species of non-coding RNA, play an important role in the mis-regulation of gene expression in cancer cells, and agents that can block microRNA action may have therapeutic benefit in cancer. However, there are many closely related microRNAs whose actions and targets are very hard to distinguish, complicating the development of effective blocking agents. Dr. Peter proposes a novel approach using antibody fragments that may allow individual microRNAs in a family to be detected and inhibited, with the ultimate goal of developing these antibody fragments as cancer therapeutics.

A second $87,500 award was given to Dr. Carol LaBonne, Dept. of Molecular Bioscience, for her project “Epigenetic Regulation of the Stem Cell State, and Relation to EMT and Invasiveness ($87,500).  In these studies, Dr. LaBonne will use a model organism, the zebra fish, to examine the epigenetic marks that accompany and may contribute to a critical embryological transition, the establishment of the neural crest stem cell population.  Neural crest cells exhibit migratory and invasive behaviors, which are required for their normal function during embryogenesis.  Importantly, metastatic tumors cells reacquire these motile and invasive behaviors that are normally confined to embryological development, with deadly consequences for cancer patients.  Epigenetic marks are modifications to either the DNA or the protein components of chromatin.  These modifications are heritable and can alter gene expression, but they do not involve changes to DNA sequence and are therefore not classified as mutations.  In this project, Dr. LaBonne will examine specific modifications to histones, proteins that form a core around which DNA is wrapped in the nucleus.

A third pilot project award of $87,500 was made to Dr. Neil Kelleher, Dept. of Molecular Biosciences,  for his project “Combining CHIP-Seq and Mass Spectrometry to Measure the Effects of Histone Methylation on Nucleosome Positioning and Aberrant Methyltransferases in Lymphoma.”    Dr. Kelleher is a recognized expert in the technique of mass spectrometry, a method to identify proteins based on precise measurements of the masses of charged peptides that are generated by ionizing the proteins.   This technique can be used to measure histone modifications.  In this pilot project, Dr. Kelleher will collaborate with the laboratory of Dr. Widom, which has demonstrated that the position of nucleosomes in the yeast genome is largely determined by DNA sequence.  Dr. Kelleher will now ask whether epigenetic changes, and in particular, the presence or absence of a particular histone modification, also affects nucleosome positioning.

These investigators will join the Center’s 27 faculty members in participating in quarterly Center research meetings, symposia, workshops, and annual NCI site visits.  Support for the NU-PSOC Pilot Project program comes from NCI grant 5U54CA143869-02, cost shared support from Northwestern University, and a generous contribution from the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center.

In addition to funding pilot projects, the NU-PSOC also supports activities and small projects  designed to foster collaborations between Center investigators and investigators outside of the PS-OC network.  These smaller awards (ranging from $10,000 to $25,000) allow Center researchers to send students and postdoctoral researchers to labs outside of the PSOC network for additional training and to sponsor visits from researchers who will enable them to expand their current projects.  Outreach project funding has been awarded to:  Elizabeth Eklund, “Role of Transcriptional Accessibility of Hox Loci in Poor Prognosis AML” ($25,000); Alexandre DeLuna, (Center Collaborator: Adilson Motter)  “Understanding how Genes, the Environment, and their Interactions Determine Synthetic Rescue” ($25,000); John Marko, (Collaborator: Kazuhiro Maeshima),  “Technique Development for Isolation and Visualization of Mitotic Chromosomes” ($10,000); Milan Mrksich, (Center Collaborator: Jonathan Licht), “The Chemical Biology of MMSET” ($12,500); and Igal Szleifer, (Center Collaborator: Vadim Backman)  “Microscopic Modeling of Nanoarchitecture Changes in Cancer Cells” ($25,000).


PS-OC Kickoff Reception


PS-OC investigators William Kath, Dirk Brockmann, Adilson Motter, and Jonathan Widom discuss their work at the Center’s kickoff reception.

A broad array of physical scientists, cancer researchers, university administrators, students, and staff gathered in Pancoe Hall on November 6th to celebrate the establishment of the Northwestern University Physical Sciences-Oncology Center. The event provided Center faculty and trainees with the opportunity to share some refreshments as they mingled and exchanged ideas about their work.

PS-OC  members are eagerly awaiting their next general meeting on May 10th, the date for the Center’s spring quarter “Science Jam.”  A day-long event comprised of research presentations, scientific dialogues, and a poster session, the Science Jam will allow researchers to share preliminary results and discuss obstacles and opportunities in their work as they move forward.

Center to Open New Directions for Cancer Research

EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern University has been awarded a $13.6 million five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to establish an interdisciplinary research center for the study of genes and their role in cancer. A better understanding of the mechanisms could lead to better diagnostics and therapeutics and open up new directions for research.

Northwestern’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Center (PS-OC), one of 12 established nationwide by the NCI, brings together physical scientists and cancer biologists to use non-traditional, physical-sciences based approaches to understand and control cancer.

“Our center will be studying the regulation and expression of genes in both normal health and development and in cancer,” said principal investigator Jonathan Widom, the William Deering Professor in Biological Sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “We need to understand healthy cells to understand and control cancer.”

The PC-OS initiative is expected to generate new knowledge in order to identify and define critical aspects of physics, chemistry and engineering that shape and govern the emergence and behavior of cancer at all scales.

“By bringing a fresh set of eyes to the study of cancer, these new centers have great potential to advance, and sometimes challenge, accepted theories about cancer and its supportive microenvironment,” said NCI Director John E. Niederhuber, M.D. “Physical scientists think in terms of time, space, pressure, heat, and evolution in ways that we hope will lead to new understandings of the multitude of forces that govern cancer — and with that understanding, we hope to develop new and innovative methods of arresting tumor growth and metastasis.”

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