Northwestern Grad Students Contribute to Novel, Networked Physical Sciences Approach to Cancer Research

Northwestern Grad Students Contribute to Novel, Networked Physical Sciences Approach to Cancer Research

dhwanil1.png
Dhwanil Damania

Two Northwestern graduate students, Dhwanil Damania (Biomedical Engineering) and Yolanda Stypula (Interdepartmental Biological Sciences) are co-authors on an important new paper just published in Scientific Reports. The paper is the outcome of a ground-breaking collaborative effort by a network of 12 National Cancer Institute-funded Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers (PS-OC).

The goal of this effort was to compare the molecular and biophysical attributes of non-tumorigenic (MCF-10A) cells and metastatic breast cancer cells (MDA-MB-231) in culture to determine the nature of physical changes in cell structure and activity associated with metastasis.  PS-OC investigators found dramatic differences in the capacity of the metastatic cells for migration and adhesion compared to non-metastatic cells.  Cell shape, oxygen stress response and protein profiles also differed markedly between these cell types.

Overall, the metastatic cells were found to be more physically flexible and stress-tolerant than the non-tumorigenic cells.  PS-OC investigators were able to model potential linkages between the molecular and physical characteristics of the cell lines using molecular network analysis. 

This pilot study, created by a large array of physical and life scientists and clinicians, demonstrates the potential of a large scale team approach, such as the Physical Science-Oncology Centers network, to address the “big questions” of cancer research.

Yolanda Stypula
Yolanda Stypula

Damania, who was recently awarded a doctorate in biomedical engineering and Stypula contributed to this work using a unique imaging technique developed in Professor Vadim Backman's lab (Biomedical Engineering), called partial wave spectroscopic (PWS) microscopy, to compare the nanoscale architecture of the nuclei of the two different cancer cell types which is otherwise invisible by traditional microscopy/histopathology.  They found that the nuclei of the metastatic cells were significantly more disorganized than those of the non-metastatic cells.    Previous studies by the Backman group have shown that these nuclear alterations are a marker for early stage carcinogenesis in solid tumors. 

According to Damania and Stypula “From a logistic perspective, it is exciting and rewarding to see how the final paper came together as an end-result of all the hard work of many researchers, coordinators and PSOC/NCI staff.  We believe that this manuscript would serve as an example for other groups to carry out multi-institutional studies.” 

Both Damania and Stypula have been supported by Northwestern PS-OC and have made significant contributions to the work of the Center.  Damania previously won a PSOC Young Investigator Trans-Network award in 2010 for a collaborative project with the Scripps Research Institute.  Their work intercalates with the efforts of the Northwestern PS-OC to determine the fundamental rules governing how DNA is configured, modified and expressed in normal and tumor cells.