Bryan Smith
Bryan Smith (Photo: Derrick L. Turner)

Discovery has implications for understanding cancer cells, may eventually work as a diagnostic and treatment tool.

Bryan Smith, Ph.D., an associate professor of biomedical engineering within the College of Engineering at Michigan State University, has long had an interest in very small things, quantum mechanics, the human brain and working in the medical field.

Smith, who grew up in Ohio and moved to East Lansing about a year and a half ago, has been able to “mix and match” his interests. He, along with fellow researchers from Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities, has developed a new way of studying cells — for example how cancer cells change as they form a tumor in living subjects. This has implications for the biomedical and health communities to one day develop new ways of diagnosing and treating cancer.

“When I was younger … I thought the brain was a very interesting little machine and I always thought I would be a neurosurgeon,” Smith said. “I did a rotation in neurosurgery after my sophomore year (at Tufts University). I learned that it felt like a more mechanical profession. You often had to stand for very long periods of time as one gets into and out of the central nervous system, and the smells of cautery (the high heat used to stem bleeding) were off-putting.

“Most of the time, I was asking questions about what happens if you tweak this, cut that or connect an electrode there (in the brain). I was more interested in the questions than the surgery. That highlighted to myself my interest in research.”

At the end of April, Smith, along with Pei-Hsun Wu, Christopher Hale, Wei-Chiang Chen and Denis Wirtz, all from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins; and Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, chair of the Department of Radiology at Stanford University, published an article in Materials Today, explaining their development of a nanoparticle-based imaging technique that can for the first time quantify the mechanical properties of living cells within the body of a living animal.

Nanoparticles are much smaller than cells and are invisible to the naked eye. They can be embedded into cells and examined with high-powered microscopes to understand how a cell functions.

In the case of Smith’s work, these nanoparticles allow him and his colleagues to examine how cells — and cancer cells in particular — function in live animals. Understanding the mechanical properties of cells and how they change under diverse conditions has implications on understanding how diseases develop, including heart disease, inflammation and cancer.

This new imaging technique has been used in cell cultures and in mice. Using the new strategy, researchers found normal cells remained pliable over time while cancer cells stiffened as they formed a tumor.

“This is a fundamental finding which is ultimately likely to have implications for cancer spread (metastasis) and tumor lethality,” he said.

Smith, who is Modern Orthodox, did a post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford from 2006-2010. While at Stanford, he also worked as a senior research scientist and was a non-tenure track faculty member before coming to Michigan.

He noted that he and his colleagues must first better understand the mechanical properties of cells before they can begin to explore how cancer cells might be engineered to behave as non-metastatic or even normal cells.

Using nanoparticles for treatment “is certainly a goal in the future, but those drugs would most likely be different than the ones used today,” Smith said. “We’re talking about a completely different kind of cancer treatment than what we’re used to, (such as) chemotherapy and radiation.

“This would be a new kind of mechanical therapy. If you can normalize the mechanical characteristics of the cell, can you make it behave like a normal cell? There has been some evidence in petri dishes that this may be possible.”

Smith said he is excited about how bridging medicine and engineering can promote health.

“Biomedical engineering is a field filled with people who are very good with numbers and can use their unique box of tools” to help promote health, he said. “Getting answers to challenging questions by developing and applying our little box of tools in a new way is tremendously exciting. You not only get the thrill of scientific discovery, but it could also actually help humans and animals.”

Click here to read Smith and his fellow researchers’ article.

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