This is the first in an occasional series of research developments taking place on Penn's campus. The series is intended to give a glimpse of some of the many types of breakthroughs and collaborative efforts happening here at Penn.
New Breast Cancer Detection Technique
A detection technique for early-stage breast cancer that literally tracks and illuminates cancerous cells was announced recently by Dr. Britton Chance of PennMed, on behalf of a group of researchers from Penn, Harvard University and Washington University.
Dr. Britton Chance, emeritus professor of biochemistry and biophysics, discussed the technique in his report on current molecular beacon research at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society in Seattle. His work focuses on sensitive optical methods to detect those beacons, which are hidden deep in cancers inside breast tissue.
In searching for breast cancer cells, the procedure could offer advantages beyond being minimally invasive. Because the procedure does not have the limitations that mammography has in its capacity to examine dense breast tissue, it could be used on women under 40 who have a family history of breast cancer. Dr. Chance and Dr. Ata Akin, of Drexel, propose a hand-held sensor. "And the proposed hand-held unit has outreach possibilities for underserved populations of women who can't get to a clinic or hospital for an X-ray," Dr. Chance said.
The study was conducted in collaboration with Dr. Ralph Weissleder of Harvard; Dr. Sam Achilefu, of Washington University. Others who worked on the study are Dr. Ponzy Lu, Dr. Jerry D. Glickson, Dr. Alan M. Gewirtz, Dr. Vasilis Ntziachristos, Dr. Mitchell D. Schnall, and Dr. Joseph Culver, all of Penn, and Dr. Eva M. Sevick-Muraca, of Texas A&M. The work was funded by NIH through the Unconventional Innovations Program and other Cancer Institute grants. >>FULL STORY HERE.
$1.2 Million Grant to Prevent Transplant Rejection
Researchers at the Medical Center have found a way to control complement with Compstatin, a small molecule that blocks the reactions involved in a complement response. The National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) has awarded Dr. John D. Lambris, professor of pathology & laboratory medicine, a $1.2 million grant to continue the development of Compstatin into an effective drug.
The body's first line of defense can also be its worst enemy. The complement system is a series of biochemical reactions that activate in response to foreign molecules and is an important part of the immune system. When it is activated at the wrong time, complement is also responsible for organ transplant rejection and a long list of diseases.
"Among the compounds we have studied, I believe Compstatin holds real promise," said Dr. Lambris. "Until Compstatin, most complement inhibitors were either only marginally effective or actually toxic to humans." Part of the reason it has been so difficult to control complement is because of the complex nature of the human immune system. Complement proteins serve as a passive alarm system, watching for pathogens that may enter the blood system. When a complement protein finds something it does not recognize, it attaches itself to the invader, summoning the full wrath of the immune system, which attempts to destroy the invader.
"Compstatin has great potential as a complement inhibitor," said Dr. Mark Tykocinski, Chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. "Developing complement inhibitors with therapeutic potential has been a long-standing goal of medical science, and such agents could contribute significantly to the treatment of an array of human diseases." >>FULL STORY HERE.
$3 Million for Artificial Vision Systems
A team of researchers from three universities, led by Dr. Leif H. Finkel, professor of bioengineering, has won a $3 million grant for work toward artificial-vision technologies that might detect patterns as robustly as the human brain. The work could lead to satellite-based means of detecting environmental destruction, automated systems to detect abnormalities in mammograms and other medical images and computerized approaches to other tasks now possible only through the discretion of the human eye.
The five-year award comes via the Multi-University Research Initiative at the Office of Naval Research, which hopes to gain a means of better integrating infrared, visual and ultraviolet images from satellites.
The project aims to move beyond the current limitations of computer simulations of the brain's visual cortex, which have proven inept at the kinds of generalization and pattern recognition that underlie intelligence. Unlike a person, a state-of-the-art artificial neural network that has "seen" hundreds of different chairs often encounters difficulties identifying a new chair as part of the same category.
Dr. Finkel said that enabling automated systems to recognize such visual patterns could eventually take the pressure off skilled clinicians to scan endless medical images for irregularities. Mounted in satellites, the technology could survey patterns of land use or monitor the transformations wrought by global climate change. At Penn, the award will support four graduate students and one postdoctoral researcher annually. >>FULL STORY HERE.
Updating Fingerprint Technology
Dr. Madeleine M. Joullié, Class of 1970 Professor of Chemistry, and her colleagues have developed a new technology relating to fingerprinting that recently received a U.S. patent and a European company has obtained a nonexclusive license to the technology.
The group has developed a process for fingerprints at crime scenes that's less damaging to evidence, more sensitive and less expensive for law enforcement agencies. The class of chemicals the team identified is known as indanediones.
Dr. Joullié and her colleagues in the Secret Service agreed methods used to detect fingerprints must be gentle and sensitive--the smudge left on a surface by a passing finger contains, on average, just one millionth of a gram of amino acids, fatty acids, glycerides, urea and salts--and yet inexpensive enough to be dusted on evidence at crime scenes. Indanediones appear to fit the bill better than any of the various fingerprinting compounds now available.
Another fingerprint-finding compound now used by some police departments, diazaflourenone, comes in at roughly $40 a gram, a real budget buster for most police departments. The indanediones developed by Dr. Joullié can be produced for a fraction of that cost via a relatively straightforward, reliable sequence of reactions.
Dr. Joullié was joined in the development of indanedione fingerprinting compounds by Dr. Diane Hauxe and Dr. Olga Petrovskaia, both of whom received their doctorates from Penn, and Dr. Bruce Taylor, formerly a postdoctoral researcher at Penn. >>FULL STORY HERE.
BREAST CANCER | PREVENTING TRANSPLANT REJECTION | ARTIFICIAL VISION SYSTEMS | FINGERPRINT INNOVATION | THE UNIVERSE
The Universe: A Strange Cosmic Cocktail
In the most accurate picture yet of the makings of our universe, astronomers have determined that a measly five percent of its mass comes from the ordinary matter that makes up planets, stars and gases. The finding, by scientists at Penn, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and the University of Colorado at Boulder, was published in the February issue of the journal Physics Review D.
"Our universe is a very strange cosmic cocktail," said lead author Dr. Max Tegmark, assistant professor of physics and astronomy. "The 95 percent of the universe that's not matter like we see around us is matter that can't be seen at all--matter of a type that still mystifies astronomers and cosmologists."
The report by Dr. Tegmark and his colleagues draws upon careful readings of light emanating from the cosmic microwave background, the faint afterglow of the Big Bang. This light comes from an opaque, ever-expanding wall of hydrogen and other matter spewed forth by the Big Bang, which delineates the observable universe and has been racing inexorably outward ever since our universe's birth 14 billion years ago. The glowing inner surface of this wall of primordial matter holds many clues to the universe's origins.
The 95 percent of the universe's mass that's not ordinary matter is a stew of curious ingredients, all of it dubbed "dark" because astronomers can't yet see it. Dr. Tegmark and his collaborators suspect that roughly 33 percent is cold dark matter, a class of slow-moving matter that can be detected at this point only by the presence of its mysterious gravitational pull. Hot dark matter, primarily neutrinos--speedier, chargeless particles that also pass right through ordinary matter appears to contribute a scant 0.1 percent of the universe's mass.
Most of the remaining 62 percent of the universe is apparently an even more puzzling type of matter known as dark energy. Like the two types of dark matter, dark energy can't be seen or touched and is known only by its gravitational pull, but unlike dark matter, which is thought to appear haphazardly throughout the universe, dark energy is believed to be uniformly distributed and is thought to be responsible for our universe's accelerating growth.
The first evidence of dark energy came only two years ago, when the behavior of certain supernovae suggested this accelerating expansion of the universe. This latest work is the strongest independent suggestion that dark energy actually exists.
The research was funded by NASA, the NSF and the Penn Research Foundation. >>FULL STORY HERE.
Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 26, March 20, 2001