About the OCSSB

What is Systems Biology? What is the OCSSB?

The study of medicine is changing from the old reductionist approach of looking at components of systems in isolation—individual cells or chemical pathways, for example—to a more global view of how the body works. The OHSU Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine was established in 2011 as a joint project between the Knight Cancer Institute and the School of Medicine with this newer approach—called a constructionist, or systems biology approach—in mind. 

We still want to measure and characterize DNA (genomics), RNA (transcriptomics) and protein profiles (proteomics)—to help us learn about differences between normal and diseased tissues, but we are gathering more information at both smaller and larger spatial scales—and watching this information as it changes over time. This multiscale systems biology approach, made possible through advances in measurement technologies, gives us much more context about what is happening in a healthy or unhealthy body. This, in turn, allows us to more fully understand how diseases develop, or, for example, how a normal, healthy person gets cancer. We believe that a spatial systems biomedicine approach will help us understand many areas of science and medicine. One key area we are focused on is solving how to prevent, treat, and cure cancers.

Facets of the OCSSB

Studies of Complex Systems

The OCSSB enables integrated omic and spatially defined studies of complex systems ranging in size from Angstroms to millimeters. This is accomplished by:

  1. Developing and acquiring new omic and multiscale analysis technologies and imaging chemistries
  2. Using these to characterize cancers and other complex biological systems 
  3. Developing new computational methods to visualize and interpret the resulting data.

Multidisciplinary Teams 

This requires multidisciplinary teams that the OCSSB has now assembled: 

Discipline Responsibility
Biophysicists and biomedical engineers Develop new measurement platforms
Biochemists and biologists Develop new staining reagents and engineer biological systems with reporter tags to make specific molecular features visible during imaging
Image analysts Manage, display and model multiscale images
Computational biologists Integrate and link omic and image data to identify functional molecular complexes and elucidate their operational behavior
Biologists and physician scientists Develop critical biomedical projects that apply OCSSB capabilities.
Business development and intellectual property experts Develop collaborations with private sector partners, identify and manage intellectual property and support spinoff businesses.
Project managers Define milestones and monitor progress.
Administrative support Manage complex multi-department, multi-institution, public-private sector projects

Recent Technology Advances 

Remarkable recent advances in both omic and imaging technologies enable the multiscale omic/imaging studies that OCSSB investigators undertake. Advances in the field of omics (DNA, RNA and protein profiling) are widely appreciated. Advances in multiscale imaging are less widely appreciated but no less remarkable. 

Imaging capabilities now available in the OCSSB allow resolution of features ranging in size from Angstroms to centimeters. 


The OCSSB has been developed with a significant focus on cancer. However, the analytical approaches also are being applied in neurobiology, cardiovascular research and immunology. Specific projects in cancer already established focus on elucidation of:

  1. Omic and multiscale biological architecture changes that enable the genesis and progression of cancer and other diseases
  2. The influence of omic aberrations on 3D multiscale cellular assemblies with emphasis on receptor tyrosine kinase cascades
  3. Mechanisms by which cancers escape treatment control
  4. Interactions between cancer cells and diverse microenvironment interactions that influence progression and therapeutic response
  5. Novel therapeutic approaches to treatment of drug-resistant advanced cancers. 
Neurobiologists have made especially good use of our highest resolution instruments to elucidate specific protein structures with emphasis on membrane proteins. Instruments and workflows also are made available to support research throughout OHSU and the Northwest – specifically to support fundamental studies of normal cell and developmental biology, cardio-vascular behavior and disease, immunology, neurobiology and dental materials. 

OCSSB startup 

The OCSSB was funded in two phases. Progress during the initial 3-year phase was reviewed by an external committee comprised of two members of the National Academy of Science and an internationally recognized expert in multiscale imaging. Based on that positive review, the OCSSB funding for recruitment of faculty, instrumentation acquisition and maintenance, support staff, advanced computing and administrative support was continued through 2020. Most OCSSB instruments are available as University Shared Resources through the Multiscale Microscopy Core and the Advanced Light Microscopy Core. The OCSSB is now one of the most comprehensive omic and imaging centers in the world.