Caltech-City of Hope Biomedical Research Initiative marks 10th year of ‘big ideas’

November 12, 2018 | by Michael Easterling

Mortimer-Joanne Joanne Mortimer, M.D.
Ten years ago, City of Hope and Caltech decided to bring together the best and brightest from both institutions and give them the space, time and resources to innovate, ignoring any boundaries or limitations.
What resulted is the genius that is the Caltech and City of Hope Biomedical Research Initiative, established in 2008 through a generous endowment by the same visionary who conceived the idea. A decade later, 52 research projects have been fueled by the initiative, with discoveries that are changing the future of science and medicine.
The annual symposium took place recently to present some of the latest research the initiative has produced. “Partners in Innovation” showcased the work of two partnerships in presentations moderated by City of Hope Provost and Chief Scientific Officer Steven Rosen, M.D., the Irell & Manella Cancer Center Director’s Distinguished Chair.

Pulse Power

“Pulse Power” was presented by City of Hope’s Joanne Mortimer, M.D., the Baum Family Professor in Women’s Cancers and vice chair in the Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research, and Caltech’s Danny Petrasek, M.D., Ph.D., a visiting associate in medical engineering and lecturer in biology and biological engineering.
The team explained their research to simplify the detection of possible metabolic syndrome in vulnerable populations. Metabolic syndrome is a common problem in the general US population and can caused by chemotherapy.  
Individuals diagnosed with metabolic syndrome are at increased risk for cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. What Mortimer, Petrasek and Morteza Gharib, Ph.D., also from Caltech, did in a unique bench-to-bedside collaboration was test a handheld device to determine resistance to insulin (a characteristic of metabolic syndrome) by measuring pulse wave dynamics in the carotid artery. The diagnosis of metabolic syndrome requires blood work for lipid profile and glucose, an assessment of blood pressure, and waist circumference.  Their device could be used at home and provides an instantaneous assessment. The device’s algorithm also appears to be able to correlate its results with established markers of inflammation and aging, making it the only non-invasive medical device that can continuously track such information.
“What we’ve done is create the first non-invasive portable diagnostic tool for metabolic syndrome that is giving us better results than the current standard,” Mortimer said. “It has the potential to have a significant impact as a clinical tool to address the obesity epidemic in America, and it can be used remotely. Our early work also suggests that we may be able to create a new Clinical Index tied to metabolic age.” The team identified 150 men and women undergoing an echocardiogram to test their hypothesis that the device they had developed could in fact diagnose metabolic syndrome in patients.
And it did.
“This device predicted metabolic syndrome accurately, in real-time, safely, more cost effectively and without the need for a hospital visit,” Petrasek said. Their research discovery also has the potential to replace HbA1c blood sugar level screening, and improve chronological versus functional age determination and tolerance to therapies.

Tracking Tumors

Being able to keep an eye on organ and tumor movement during surgery and radiology from inside the body without the use of large invasive equipment like MRI machines could result in more precision at a lower cost to both patients and hospitals. City of Hope’s Yuman Fong, M.D., The Sangiacomo Family Chair in Surgical Oncology, and Caltech’s Yu-Chong Tai, Ph.D., the Anna L. Rosen Professor of Electrical Engineering & Medical Engineering, have found a way to do just that.
They, along with Caltech professor Julia Greer, Ph.D., partnered to develop tiny surgical beacons made out of natural magnets that can be implanted directly into the body through a procedure that is minimally invasive. When paired with an electromagnetic compass, the team was able to navigate inside the body with accuracy within 1 millimeter. They are now testing the surgical navigation instrument to track and target small breast cancer tumors, and they have applied for a patent for their invention.
“This project started when Yuman said to me, I have a technical challenge for you,” Tai said. “A Caltech scientist cannot say no to a challenge.”
“Our vision is this,” Fong explained. “There are 266,000 new breast cancer cases in the U.S. each year. Mammography allows detection of early-stage cancer, but the problem is locating the nonpalpable area seen on the mammogram once you are in the operating room.” Nonpalpable tumors are too small to be felt by hand.
“So we asked ourselves, ‘What if we make tools that have sensors?’ ‘What if we make an array to go around the patient with magnets and sensors that could mean in some instances that we do not need to do surgery at all?’” Fong said. “That’s what we’re studying, to see how the future of breast cancer treatment will improve.”
Fong and Tai agree that the Caltech-City of Hope research initiative is much more than the grants given to support research. It truly is a partnership in innovation.
“Putting together the clinical knowledge of a major medical center with the engineering expertise of the very best school for engineering in the world allows us to take the clinical needs we define and then invent new clinical tools and improve health care,” Fong said. “The success of this program is the relationships that are formed. From the projects we’ve seen in the last decade from this Caltech-City of Hope collaboration, many relationships have been formed to produce many projects that are changing the face of medicine.”
“This initiative is a testament to the power and potential of working together,” City of Hope President and CEO Robert Stone said to the crowd at the symposium. “People say you never know where the next idea will come from. We say collaboration improves the odds.”
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