Although 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.