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TechStream looks at new technologies being developed at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. If you’re interested in knowing what tomorrow’s technology will look like, then check back here frequently.

Why I Care About Life Sciences, and So Should You.

OK, I’m not shy to say it…I’m a baby-boomer. So, what? Just simply means I’m getting to be middle-aged, and that means I’m getting more interested in my health.

When I came to Berkeley Lab in 2011 I didn’t really have a good grasp of what that meant in terms of life sciences or health research. Sure, Berkeley Lab was good at physics, nanotechnology, chemistry, etc. But, cancer research? Knew nothing about it.

But that was my own ignorance, naturally. Turns out Berkeley Lab is pretty good at knowing not just something about cosmological bodies, but our human bodies as well.

My first brush with life sciences research was through the Lab’s Mina Bissell. Mina spoke at our Science at the Theater event recently and dove into her research on cancer.

Over the past two decades, the pioneering research of Berkeley Lab Distinguished Scientist Mina Bissell has broadened the conversation about breast cancer beyond genetics to include the microenvironment and other factors. This expanded focus has had profound implications for breast cancer awareness and therapies. — Berkeley Lab Newscenter

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Watch Mina Bissell's Science at the Theater presentation.

Her recent work on the Early Detection of Metastatic Cancer Progenitor Cells includes a method to identify progenitor cells that we know are linked to highly aggressive metastatic cancers such as breast, colon, and gastric cancers, among others. Her group’s new method should allow for the ability to design novel therapies. Not just that, but allow for an earlier detection, better diagnosis, and treatment that could avoid some of the current side-effects that cancer patients have to suffer through.

The identification of CD44/RHAMM in vivo through imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), near-infrared (NIR) imaging, single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), or computed tomography (CT) marks the presence of aggressive cancer cells. Unlike conventional methods, the invention makes it possible to find aggressive tumors regardless of their size, therefore promising early and more effective treatment before aggressive cancers have spread to other parts of the body.

But Mina’s not the only one at Berkeley Lab in the Life Sciences Division. Obi Griffith and the lab of former Berkeley Lab researcher Joe Gray worked on trying to figure the post-surgical recurrence risk for breast cancer patients with certain types of tumors.

Specifically, the technology was developed to assess relapse risk for post-surgical breast cancer patients whose tumors are found to be estrogen receptor positive (ER+), node negative (LN-), and Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2 negative (HER2-).

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Berkeley Lab biophysicist Sylvain Costes is generating 3D time lapse of DNA repair centers in human cells to understand better how cancer may arise from DNA damage. (Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab)

The idea being that if you could identify who might, or might not, be at risk, then the physician would be better informed as to the next course of treatment, if any.

Patients at high risk of breast cancer recurrence can benefit from post-surgical chemotherapy, but low-risk patients can be spared the side effects of these treatments. Without a reliable way to determine a patient’s risk profile, however, patients are typically given chemotherapy regardless of whether they really needed it. Finding a reliable way to determine the recurrence risk for an individual patient is therefore a high priority in cancer research.

The research at Berkeley Lab isn’t limited to cancer. There are numerous groups working on health, radiation risk, as well as basic research that may help us gain a better understanding of neurological disorders such as Autism, Huntington’s disease, and Alzheimer’s.

William Jagust’s group recently acquired a new Siemens Biograph 6 combined PET and computed tomography (CT) scanner. The PET scans measure the uptake of the C-11 PIB radiotracer that targets beta-amyloid. The CT scans are used to assist in the reconstruction of the PET images.

William Jagust’s group recently acquired a new Siemens Biograph 6 combined PET and computed tomography (CT) scanner. The PET scans measure the uptake of the C-11 PIB radiotracer that targets beta-amyloid. The CT scans are used to assist in the reconstruction of the PET images.

One group is working on the markers for those types of disorders and, if we can find them, can we target our therapies to them? Until we know enough about the underlying mechanisms, drug therapies are likely to be too broad, often causing patients pain as they undergo trial-and-error.

Researchers from Berkeley Lab have discovered that the removal of a protein belonging to a novel class of gene-regulatory proteins (proteins that control gene expression) from the brain results in the appearance of symptoms associated with various neurological disorders, including seizures, cognitive deficiencies, and aberrant social behaviors such as increased aggression and abnormal fear and anxiety.

The work by Yoshinori Kohwi and Terumi Kohwi-Shigematsu has laid the groundwork for others taking it to the next step. In this case, the development of cell-based therapies to help heal or replace cells lost to neurological disorders.

As I get older, I realize how much more important it is for me to pay attention to this sort of research. And I continue to be thankful to the Bissells, Griffiths, and Kohwis of the world.

N.B.: These research efforts are all available for licensing through the Lab’s Technology Transfer department.

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