How is Caltech advancing the science of medicine and health care?
That was the question posed at the Caltech's Alumni College, held on August 24th in Beckman Institute Auditorium. A number of the institute's leading researchers in the emerging field of translational medicine, the process of translating research into real-world treatments that help patients, presented the latest in their findings to more than 150 alumni and guests.
"I prefer to call it 'future medicine,'" said Ray Deshaies, professor of biology and investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, "because when researchers at Caltech make discoveries, they do not tend to be incremental. They're groundbreaking. This is what the future of medicine looks like."
That future could include nanoparticles designed to carry cancer medication precisely to a tumor, proteins that ignite the immune system to ward off the HIV virus, and microscopic laboratories implanted into a person's arm to monitor a range of vital signs.
"Caltech produces cutting edge research and trains some of the most accomplished scientists in the world," said Heather Dean (BS ’00, MS ’00), president of the Caltech Alumni Association, which hosted the event. "Alumni College is designed to bring these talented minds together around a topic so they can share and discuss their findings with the Caltech alumni community."
Translational medicine, generally understood to be the study of how to move discoveries from the lab to the patient, has emerged as the hot area in health care research. It's also a broad term—speakers at the event included investigators in biology, chemistry, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.
Many of the presentations focused on work at the smallest of scales. Mark Davis, Warren and Katharine Schlinger Professor of Chemical Engineering at Caltech, demonstrated how he and his team are able to design nanoparticles to treat cancer patients. Taking advantage of the fact that most tumor membranes are porous, Davis is able to size his particles to slip through the cracks and deliver treatment. Healthy cells, which don't have such openings, are bypassed.
"We have been able to move this fundamental research, begun at Caltech, from initial concept, to animal testing, and now to human trial," said Davis, whose work was published in Nature in 2010. "We think that this method has enormous application beyond just the treatment of cancer."
On the macro scale, Joel Burdick, Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering, described how an electrode array could stimulate the spinal cord of a paraplegic man, allowing him to stand and move his legs voluntarily.
"The brain is not really all that involved in the details of simple postural control, such as standing. It's really specialized circuitry in the lower spinal cord," said Burdick. "Our team has been working on a way to tap into a damaged spine and instruct it to take basic actions."
Robert Grubbs, Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry and Nobel Prize winner, spoke about the evolution of academic research in recent decades—particularly in regard to environmental and medical fields.
"Academic science is all about fundamental new discoveries," Grubbs said. "It's sometimes also fun to identify important environmental or medical problems to attack. And to do that, we have to identify scientists, engineers or medical clinicians who recognize problems associated with their expertise."
"The quality of the speakers is amazing," said Julie Vaughn, 15, a high school sophomore who attended with her father David Vaughn (BS ’96). "It's really interesting to see how other areas of science can affect medicine."
When asked if she'll be applying to Caltech one day, Vaughn answered without hesitation — "Definitely."