Summer 2015 Newsletter
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Cancer, Cultures, and Personalized Medicine

A conversation with Professor Sanjay Kumar about the technologies still needed to enable the future of medicine


This is the first in a series of interviews with faculty members about the hot developments and unmet needs in their fields.

What is the main focus of your lab, and why?
Everything we do in my lab is focused on trying to understand how living systems process physical signals they receive from non-living systems, such as the materials found within tissue or in medical devices.
This is important because if we want to understand and interfere with, for example, how a tumor invades living tissue -- which is ultimately what drives the progression of a tumor and kills people -- then it's really critical to understand something about how a tumor cell shapes and is shaped by those tissue surroundings.
What is a major potential application of your research?
We feel that this is an important problem to solve for the development of personalized medicine in cancer treatment. Moving beyond the era of one-size-fits-all therapy, not just in cancer but in a lot of other diseases as well, is at the heart of personalized medicine. It will mean trying to develop therapies that fit the person. The notion that every tumor is exactly the same is now widely regarded as incorrect, and even within a tumor there is quite a lot of heterogeneity.
In cancer especially, where heterogeneity within and between patients is a huge part of the problem, we'd like to take tumor cells from a patient, learn something about it in culture -- what it responds to, what drugs kill it, what halts invasion -- and then use that information to design rational therapies that we can deploy in patients. To do all of that we need to know how to design culture systems so that what we see in the laboratory has predictive value for what will happen in the body. 
Is there a specific need you're trying to fill?
There is an enormous unmet need for scalable culture technology that allows you to go from a patient sample to a patient therapy. I would argue that a critical stepping stone in the development of this technology is having culture platforms that can accurately capture defining structural and mechanical features of tissue.
Right now the standard for culturing cells is still to use flat, two-dimensional cell substrates. You put cells on pieces of plastic that are relatively stiff and bathed in soluble factors at very high concentrations, which is not what tissue actually looks like. Tissue is three dimensional, often with a consistency close to soft rubber or Jell-o, and it's a living system. It can be remodeled by the cells: they can chew it up, they can change it. In fact, even the signals we think of as freely soluble, like growth factors, are anchored to scaffolds within tissue. None of that can happen on plastic.

Mark your calendars for this year’s BioE Graduate Program Retreat, October 2-4, Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds along the Monterey coast in Pacific Grove, CA.

Alumni startup spins out success

Bolt Threads, a startup company founded by BioE PhD David Breslauer with UCSF alum Dan Widmaier and Berkeley alum Ethan Mirsky, is planning to revolutionize the clothing industry by spinning spider silk from engineered yeast. Bolt was profiled this spring by Business WeekMedium and UC Berkeley Engineering.

Cardiac microchamber

Healy Lab grows beating human heart tissue from stem cells

Professor Kevin Healy’s lab has developed a template for growing beating cardiac tissue from stem cells, creating a system that could serve as a model for early heart development and as a drug-screening tool to make pregnancies safer.
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UCSF Leads Nation In NIH Research Funds

In 2014 UC San Francisco’s four schools topped the nation in federal biomedical research funding in their fields, for the second year in a row.
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Top Rankings all around

The Bioengineering Graduate Program was once again ranked 7th in the nation by US News and World Report. UCSF is the only school of medicine in the nation to rank in the top five in both research and primary care, and the UC Berkeley College of Engineering was once again ranked third in the U.S. 
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Smart bandage

‘Smart bandage’ detects early bedsores

A team of UCSF and UC Berkeley researchers, including professors Michel Maharbiz and Shuvo Roy, have developed new sensor-packed “smart bandages” that detect damage to the skin before it becomes visible, allowing caregivers to prevent the formation of infection-prone bedsores.
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