Nanomedicine Conference Draws Record Crowd

 

Keynote speaker Martin Chalfie, PhD, at the Nanomedicine for Imaging and Treatment Conference

Cedars-Sinai solidified its major role in nanomedicine, which holds the promise of reshaping healthcare, by hosting a March 13-14 conference on the nascent technology that attracted 350 researchers, clinicians, public officials and private biotech experts from around the world. In a sweeping keynote speech, Nobel laureate Martin Chalfie, PhD, urged attendees to embrace innovation and challenge convention.

Nanomedicine focuses on tiny particles from about 1 to 100 nanometers in size. (A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.) The technology typically involves re-engineering biological materials at the molecular level and using these materials to ferry chemotherapy agents into the interiors of cancer cells. But it also has potential applications in imaging, neurology and even surgery.

Cedars-Sinai is especially suited to nurturing this new science and advancing it toward the clinic, according to Shlomo Melmed, MD, senior vice president of Academic Affairs and dean of the medical faculty.

"As the largest freestanding, academic medical center on the West Coast, we have an outstanding intellectual and technical base for translating nanodrug and imaging agent discoveries to treat cancer," he told the biennial Nanomedicine for Imaging and Treatment Conference in Harvey Morse Auditorium.

Melmed congratulated Julia Ljubimova, MD, PhD, the conference's leading organizer, on convening a "terrific assemblage" of experts, who participated in two dozen lectures and panels and presented 30 scientific posters. A prominent researcher herself, Ljubimova is director of the Nanomedicine Research Center in the Department of Neurosurgery and director of the Nanomedicine Program at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute.

In introductory remarks, Ljubimova urged "bright young scientists" to strive to make nanomedicine a new clinical discipline. "The new generation has to overcome a number of barriers... to provide solid scientific arguments to break the regulatory walls and to convince conservative clinicians with the strongest evidence to use nanomedicine to treat their patients," she said.

Progress already is being made on moving nanomedicine into the marketplace, according to a top federal official who addressed the conference. At least 75 companies have been formed in the last five years to explore nanotechnology, said Piotr Grodzinski, PhD, director of the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, which the National Cancer Institute launched a decade ago to foster this evolving discipline. Potential applications, besides diagnostics and therapeutics, include real-time imaging that could help surgeons delineate tumor margins during operations, he said.

One of many conference highlights was the speech by Chalfie, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with two other researchers involved in the discovery and development of green fluorescent protein, or GFP, which revolutionized biomedical science. Found in a jellyfish species, the protein is widely used today to tag living cells and other materials, allowing scientists to view biological processes in real time. Previously, they could capture only static snapshots, he explained.

A major theme of Chalfie's talk was that scientific success can come in unexpected ways. As a result, "ignorance, stubbornness and a willingness to try" are helpful attributes for investigators, he said. Accidental events often lead to discoveries. Chalfie noted that fellow Nobel laureate Osamu Shimomura of Japan, who first isolated GFP, achieved a breakthrough when he tossed a jellyfish extract into a lab sink filled with aquarium overflow during routine cleanup. The sink glowed — a clue that seawater calcium was required to activate the GFP luminescence process.

Chalfie also defended basic science, in which the practical value may not immediately be known, as an essential "feeder system" for translational medicine. In an interview after his speech, he said, "Basic scientists are not ivory tower people. If we understand things, there will be applications."

Eggehard Holler, PhD, left, Cedars-Sinai professor of Neurosurgery, discusses his nature photography exhibit with Helen Makarenkova, PhD, from the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.

Besides attendance that was double the total at Cedars-Sinai's last nanomedicine conference, in 2013, this year's gathering was distinguished by a new one-day nanomedicine workshop for members of the Regional Cooperation for Health, Science and Technology (RECOOP HST) Consortium, which is led by Cedars-Sinai. The research organization includes 17 universities and other academic organizations in Europe and the Balkans region.

Also new this year was an exhibit of colorful nature photos by Eggehard Holler, PhD, Cedars-Sinai professor of Neurosurgery. The exhibit was "just for fun — to show scientists appreciate nature too," Holler said.

In an interview, Keith Black, MD, chair and professor of Cedars-Sinai's Department of Neurosurgery, said this year's conference confirmed that "we have the potential to be a major international center for nanomedicine."

The conference was presented by Department of Neurosurgery, Biomedical Imaging Research Institute and the Cancer Institute. It was supported by Arrogene, a biotech company licensed to develop the anticancer nanodrug engineered at Cedars-Sinai; Leica Microsystems, a company specializing in microscopes and scientific instruments; Beckman Coulter, a company that develops products for biomedical testing; and RECOOP HST.

The next conference will be in March 2017.