Engineering cures for cancer

Posted: October 7, 2020

That Ohio State is a world leader in cancer care and innovation is not breaking news. But what may surprise some is the important role engineering can play in the fight against cancer. From conducting fundamental research on how cancer spreads to creating new diagnostic technologies, Buckeye engineers are working diligently to be part of the cure.

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[photo taken prior to pandemic]

In early 2018, leaders from the College of Engineering and The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center (OSUCCC) began synthesizing research activity across the medical and engineering campuses to establish teams that together develop solutions and technologies leading to meaningful discoveries. The new, collaborative Center for Cancer Engineering serves as a nexus for high-impact research, innovative training opportunities, collaborative cross-disciplinary funding, as well as technology development and commercialization.

An April 2018 article in Nature, “Collaboration is the key to cancer research,” the author asserts that the complexity of cancer demands a multidimensional arsenal of expertise. The Ohio State University is among the best locations on the planet to fight cancer in this fashion. One of the world’s finest comprehensive cancer centers, the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, is a 10-minute walk from our engineering campus, home to 12 specialties. Colleges of Medicine, Pharmacy, Nursing, Veterinary Medicine, Optometry, Dentistry and Public Health are also only steps away.

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Associate Professor Jonathan Song is co-director of the new Center for Cancer Engineering, along with Matthew Ringel, Ralph W. Kurtz Professor of Medicine and co-leader of OSUCCC’s Cancer Biology Program. Song is also a faculty member of the Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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Jonathan Song

“Cancer is certainly a very challenging problem in our society,” he said. “It is also an area of research that benefits from sustained and fruitful collaborations among biologists, clinicians, quantitative scientists, and engineers. Collaborative research not only leads to great science but can also be a great training vehicle for our student researchers as they strive to address the new and emerging questions in cancer research, diagnostics, and treatment.”

Even before this co-managed and jointly funded effort launched, engineers and medical experts gravitated toward each other at Ohio State, collaborating on dozens of research studies. The following provide just a few examples.

Breast cancer metastasis to the brain is known to be a significant clinical problem and yet it is a surprisingly understudied issue. Song and Radiation Oncology Assistant Professor Gina Sizemore are investigating the role of blood vessels in brain metastases. Their work will inform future drug development.

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Eduardo Reátegui

An assistant professor in the William G. Lowrie Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Eduardo Reátegui’s research focuses on analyzing cancer biomarkers, such as circulating tumor cells (CTCs) or tumor extracellular vesicles (tEVs). Reátegui and clinicians from The James are using CTCs and tEVs to develop a liquid biopsy, a less invasive procedure that could eventually replace traditional methods. Early results have been very promising.

Jen Leight is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and a member of Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. She is collaborating with physician-researchers to develop a 3D hydrogel cell culture platform to grow a patient’s tumor in the lab, enabling new drug screening and personalized medicine applications. The vast majority of druggable targets identified by in vitro screening using traditional cell culture methods on plastic plates do not translate to clinical success.

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Jen Leight

“There are very few universities as comprehensive on one campus where there's already collaboration going on,” commented Ringel. “We have investigators on campus in cancer working with people in engineering or chemistry and other physical sciences. But by having a program that supports and enables expansion of those efforts strategically, we can do this in a much more unique way than most places.”

But winning the fight against cancer requires research horsepower above and beyond brilliant engineers and clinicians, such as the latest imaging technology. The Colleges of Engineering, Arts & Sciences, Medicine, Pharmacy and Veterinary Medicine joined with OSUCCC, Institute for Materials Research, Office of Academic Affairs and Office of Research to fund two Thermo Scientific cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM, instruments at the Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis (CEMAS) on Kinnear Road. The financial collaboration was spurred by dozens of letters of support from research faculty throughout the university. Not many universities have their own cryo-EM facility.

Using cryo-EM, researchers can determine the structure of proteins and other biological macromolecules associated with cancer and potentially visualize them at different interaction points. Because it uses flash-frozen samples in solution, the molecules remain in a very similar state to how they would appear in their native environments. It has become a crucial tool for researchers discovering and developing targeted drugs for cancer.

To develop the next generation of cancer engineering researchers, the new center also launched a joint initiative to support postdoctoral scholars leading innovative studies.

The Cross-disciplinary Postdoctoral Scholars Program recognizes outstanding young researchers at Ohio State and facilitates recruitment of highly-qualified postdoctoral researchers, who will become leaders in the research fields bridging medicine and engineering. The program’s first four postdocs and support teams were announced this past spring.

With the help of an external advisory board, Song and Ringel are refining the Center for Cancer Engineering’s strategic plan. In the near-term, goals include more collaboratively published papers and proposals for external funding, new training and education programs, and a focus on translating research discoveries from the lab bench to the patient’s bedside.

“The premise is that there are clinical issues for which engineering solutions might be particularly helpful,” said Dr. Raphael Pollock, director of the OSUCCC, “and bringing this together under one tent is going to be a remarkable opportunity.”


If you would like to support engineering-medicine research collaborations at Ohio State, consider making a gift today: go.osu.edu/cancercollaboration.

Categories: ResearchFaculty