OHSU researchers receive Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award to unleash the power of imaging for cancer treatment

Dr. Gibbs

When doctors treat breast cancer patients with the latest targeted cancer drugs, many patients initially see an improvement but later relapse and develop a resistance to treatment. Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University believe that by developing better imaging technologies they will be able to see how molecules change and rearrange themselves in response to cancer treatment, ultimately allowing them to create more effective treatments with a lasting response.

Summer L. Gibbs, Ph.D., and Xiaolin Nan, Ph.D., both assistant professors in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine in the OHSU School of Medicine and members of the Knight Cancer Institute, have recently received a prestigious Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award that will allow them to pursue this exceptionally creative line of work. Drs. Gibbs and Nan will receive $450,000 over three years to develop an advanced high-resolution microscopy instrument that allows them to zoom in to see what’s happening at the molecular level in greater spatial and spectral detail. Specifically, they are looking at the HER2 signaling pathway in breast cancer cells and its response to drugs such as Lapatinib. The technology they are developing is a powerful extension to recently introduced high-resolution light microscopy—termed multispectral super resolution microscopy—which they hope will advance imaging capabilities of fluorescence microscopy to 10 nm spatial resolution in 20 colors on single sample.

Dr. Nan

“We anticipate that there will be numerous other applications,” said Dr. Nan. “Any biological research that is looking at molecular-level mechanisms will find this technology relevant.”

Researchers at the OHSU Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine, led by Joe Gray, Ph.D., are proponents of the concept that the spatial orientation of molecules within biological systems has profound impact on the behavior of the entire system. By learning more about the mechanisms by which these molecules work together with cells, there is great potential for improving the way we treat cancer and other diseases.

According to Dr. Gibbs, this work has never been done before because finding funding for this type of work is challenging. There are also many moving pieces coming together. Creating this new technology requires collaboration between the fields of physics, chemical biology and synthetic chemistry.

“We feel very fortunate that the Damon Runyon Cancer Foundation has recognized the power of this technology and decided to invest in our project,” Dr. Gibbs said. “The biomedical research community really appreciates the value of what we are working to develop.”

Drs. Gibbs and Nan have also received funding from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and FEI, Inc. to support this line of research.

View the Damon Runyon press release to learn more about the awards program.