Force Multipliers

GW’s interdisciplinary research teams soar to new heights.

-- by Kathleen Kocks
in GWU Research Interdisciplinary, Winter 2007

“While this research project is only focusing on breast cancer, successful development of our biosensor would have a much larger applicability.”

— Patricia Berg, associate professor,
biochemistry and molecular biology

Breast Cancer Biosensor Team:

  • Patricia Berg: Associate Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
  • Robert Siegel: Professor, Medicine Samuel Simmens: Interim Director, Biostatistics Center Medical Center Unit
  • Akos Vertes: Professor, Chemistry, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
  • Mona Zaghloul: Professor, Engineering and Applied Science
  • Clearly, interdisciplinary research is a force multiplier. It joins diverse scientific disciplines in collaborative efforts that multiply the effectiveness of research. The results are often developments that otherwise would be impossible.

    “Each discipline brings a different culture, ways of thinking and analyzing problems,” explains one collaborator involved in several interdisciplinary projects at GW, James Hahn, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science. “By working together in an interdisciplinary environment, not only do we learn about and appreciate the other disciplines, but we learn to look at our own disciplines with a wider perspective.”

    Many opportunities exist for interdisciplinary research within GW’s numerous schools and institutes. Such research also has a strong proponent in Chief Research Officer Elliot Hirshman.

    “Contemporary research universities must discover the knowledge and create the technologies necessary for our society to advance and prosper,” Hirshman says. In this context, researchers are attempting to ensure that we have sufficient energy resources, a sustainable environment, homeland security, a productive, competitive economy, and innovative and affordable health care. Solving these complex problems requires researchers from multiple disciplines to work together, making interdisciplinary research central to the contemporary research university.

    “GW’s researchers have recognized the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and have formed multidisciplinary teams including engineers, scientists, and clinical researchers,” he continues. “This substantial grassroots movement represents our greatest strength.

    “Working with the deans and the associate vice president for health research, the central administration has two roles. The first role is to support the extant teams on campus—providing them with the financial resources and administrative support they need to prepare competitive proposals and carry out their scientific projects. The second role is to identify external funding opportunities and to facilitate the formation of interdisciplinary teams to respond to these opportunities.”

    Attesting to Hirshman’s support is Patricia Berg, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, who is co-leading an interdisciplinary project to develop a blood test to detect breast cancer. “The existence of our project owes much to Elliot Hirshman, who has the vision to understand the importance of collaborative research,” Berg states. “He is actively fostering interdisciplinary research throughout GW and obtained the seed money we needed to give our project a real boost forward.”

    Berg’s project and three others featured here are excellent examples of the power of interdisciplinary research at GW.

    In 2003, GW Medical Center’s Berg led a team from four institutions to discover that a gene she had studied for 16 years—BP1, for beta protein 1—is activated in the tumors of 80 percent of women with breast cancer. Subsequently, she discovered the same gene plays a role in 70 percent of prostate cancer cases and in 63 percent of acute myeloid leukemia cases. This discovery indicates that BP1 may figure prominently in other types of human cancer.

    Berg also discovered that the presence of BP1 increases as breast cancer progresses, and it is activated in breast tumors that no longer have a certain protein, called an estrogen receptor. Furthermore, breast cancer patients lacking this protein have a poor prognosis.

    Today, Berg is building upon those discoveries and banking on interdisciplinary research to develop a blood test to detect the presence or lack of this protein and many others. The project teams Berg’s expertise in biochemistry and molecular biology with expertise in engineering, microelectro-mechanical systems (MEMS), oncology, and biochemistry.

    “The goal of our research is to develop a blood test that uses a MEMS-based biosensor to detect BPI, as well as other proteins that are released from breast tissue in the earliest stages of cancer,” Berg says. “Such a test would have three distinct benefits: extremely early detection of new cancer cells, monitoring the progress of breast cancer treatment, and early detection of recurring cancer. Today, no blood test does this.”

    Contributor of the engineering expertise and co-leader of the project is Mona Zaghloul, professor of engineering and applied science, who previously produced a sensor that was deemed appropriate for this project. It was originally developed to detect trace amounts of chemicals — something of interest to government agencies fighting terrorism.

    “We are also working with Professor Akos Vertes, who is helping us with the chemistry we need to develop the biosensor,” Berg says. “The plan is to coat the biosensor microchip with gold, then attach to it various molecules, including antibodies specific for the proteins we are trying to detect.”

    “If a protein is present,” Berg explains, “it will bind to its antibody and cause a change in the frequency of the biosensor’s current. The biosensor will produce an electronic readout showing the level of the various proteins in the blood.”

    The team is hoping to eventually attach antibodies for numerous different proteins to the biosensor. However, the work is beginning with antibodies to one well-known protein called mammaglobin, which is detected in the blood of women who have metastatic breast cancers. Robert Siegel, professor of medicine and a hematologist/ oncologist, will provide blood samples from breast cancer patients.

    “This will be our model system to determine if the biosensor is able to detect the protein,” Berg explains. “Two advantages of the biosensor are its small size and high sensitivity, so we only need a very small amount of blood to get results. The biosensor is also capable of multiplexing, so it can simultaneously detect different proteins. This will facilitate testing and also could help us further understand the interaction among proteins—that is, how one protein may work with or against another protein.”

    The project began in October 2005. One of Zaghloul’s students, Onur Tigli, is creating the gold microchips. Cynthia Chatterjee and Lou Bivona, researchers in Berg’s lab, have successfully attached the first antibody to the gold surface.

    The project is taking a building-block approach, starting by using a purified protein with a purified antibody to see if the sensor performs as anticipated. Next will come testing of a mix of purified and normal materials, then finally testing of patients’ blood. Samuel Simmens, interim director of the Biostatistics Center Medical Center Unit, and another member of the team, will perform statistical tests for significance of the data after analysis of the blood samples.

    “While this research project is only focusing on breast cancer, successful development of our biosensor would have a much larger applicability,” Berg concludes. “Scientists could develop a biosensor for any condition in which one wanted to detect a protein in the blood.”