A New Dimension in Biomedical Research

human tooth magnified with an electron microscope

OHSU Extra, Winter 2012

Welcome to hyperspace, the latest – and possibly the final – frontier in cancer research. Here, investigators invent and use one-of-a-kind laboratory instruments to expose the hidden clues in our cells that will help us control cancer. It’s a totally new way to observe cancer’s deadly progression, and – thanks to the power of philanthropy – it’s taking shape today at OHSU.

An exciting new university-wide research resource, the OHSU Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine (OCSSB), is developing the scientific tools that will enable scientists to observe the behavior of both diseased and healthy cells and tissues from every angle and over time. Part of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, the OCSSB will help OHSU’s experts be among the first in the world to understand the underlying genetics of these structures, and to discern how genetic defects lead to cancer and other diseases.

What puts the “hyper” in hyperspace? It’s the ability to study cancer cells in four dimensions: the three dimensions of physical space plus the added element of time. One day researchers will use four-dimensional measurement to profile every important trait of an individual patient’s cancer: the gene mutations that caused it, the speed at which it’s growing, the likelihood that it will spread and – most importantly – the treatments that will most effectively stop it. OCSSB’s director Joe Gray, Ph.D., is a pioneer in the field. Gray, who came to OHSU in 2011 from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has a talent for breaking down complex concepts into down-to-earth terms.

“Think of what we’re doing as a molecular ‘assembly manual’ for cancer,” said Gray. “We’re taking the cellular processes apart, piece by piece, and describing the structure and function of each component in a level of detail that’s never before been possible. We’re learning how those parts work together in individual patients – that’s the key to more effective and durable treatments.”

Gray is one of the nation’s most respected cancer researchers, with a long list of achievements. His diverse research interests are reflected in the many hats he wears at OHSU. As the Gordon Moore Endowed Chair, he leads the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the OHSU School of Medicine, serves as associate director for translational research at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and has a joint research appointment in the Department of Radiation Medicine.

Gray’s team uses a suite of advanced biological and structural analysis instruments that generate mountains of data. It takes a special kind of scientist to collect and make sense of it all. That’s why Gray’s first move was to persuade his Lawrence Berkeley colleague Paul Spellman, Ph.D., to join him at OHSU. Spellman is an internationally regarded genome scientist who uses high-performance computational tools to develop a systematic understanding of cancer’s genetic underpinnings, and to design effective treatments for individual patients. He is the first of seven new recruits who will join the multidisciplinary, multi-institutional faculty already tapped to drive four-dimensional medicine forward.

The collaborative environment will be further fueled by the center’s physical location – a customized, vibration-free laboratory space in the basement of the Oregon University System/OHSU Collaborative Life Science Building now under construction on OHSU’s Schnitzer Campus. It’s the perfect setting for a team with members working at Portland State University, Oregon State University, and a growing roster of academic, government and industry partners.

OHSU’s ability to bring people like Gray and Spellman to Portland, and to make investments in world-class research resources in the Knight Cancer Institute, is the latest example of the transformative power of philanthropy.

“There is always a huge demand in academic research for people of Joe Gray’s stature. A scientist with that kind of track record can work just about anywhere he or she wants to,” said Allan Price, president of the OHSU Foundation. “The exceptional support of OHSU’s donors and volunteers is a significant factor in the institution’s ability to compete nationally for the best of the best.”

“The Knight is proud to have Joe join our team, and we look forward to the progress and discovery that his talents will help foster as we continue to ease the burden of cancer.”
- Brian Druker, M.D.
  Director, OHSU Knight Cancer Institute

Please contact Tim Coffey for more information on how you can make a philanthropic contribution to this exciting work. 503 494-3686 or coffeyt@ohsu.edu.