Centre for the Physics of Medicine

The Grand Opening of the Centre for the Physics of Medicine marks a major development in bringing together researchers working at the interface of physical sciences, life sciences and clinical sciences.

As research groups develop within the Centre, and collaborations reach out across the University, a host of exciting new opportunities will be nurtured that will push boundaries in the physics of medicine as never before.

Medicine and biology have long benefited from fundamental advances in physics. Whether it’s the tools of diagnosis and treatment (from X-rays to lasers), or understanding the structure and organisation of biological systems, the association between the disciplines has broken new ground time and again. For Cambridge, this interaction holds a special, historical significance: the momentous discovery of the double helical structure of DNA by physicists at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in 1953 transformed our understanding of the building blocks of life. The breakthrough gave birth to the entirely new discipline of molecular biology and, in effect, the founding in 1962 of the Laboratory for Molecular Biology on what is now the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. In 2009, we stand once more at the dawn of a new era and witness the founding of a new laboratory, one that will give structure and direction to the interaction between physicists, biologists and clinicians.

Building a future

Over the past decade, an increasing crossover in goals, philosophy and techniques has been emerging between researchers in the Department of Physics and those in the many biomedical departments and research institutes across the University. Building on this, the vision of the Physics of Medicine initiative has been to draw physics more deeply into the life sciences by creating an environment where researchers from these different fields can work together.

The first step of the University’s investment in Physics of Medicine has just been completed with the building of a new research centre on the West Cambridge Site, adjacent to the Cavendish, and the appointment of four lecturers in experimental biomedical physics, Drs Jochen Guck, Pietro Cicuta, Ullrich Keyser and Julian Huppert. The new building, comprising state-of-the-art laboratory space and core facilities, was opened on 16 December 2008 and will house researchers from different disciplines alongside a core from the Department of Physics.

Diversity of science is expected to be associated with the enterprise. To underpin this, and to ensure representation from the different academic communities, the initiative is overseen by a steering committee comprising the School Chairs of Physical Sciences, Clinical Medicine, Biological Sciences and Technology.

Construction of a second phase of the building is planned. Currently awaiting funding, this will provide office and teaching space, as well as additional areas where researchers can meet, discuss and develop common terms of reference. An important dimension will be the training of a new generation of young researchers to be familiar with a broad range of approaches and capable of working at the interface of disciplines. As research groups develop within the Centre, and collaborations reach out across the University, a host of exciting new opportunities will be nurtured that will push boundaries in the physics of medicine as never before.

For more information, please contact the author Professor Athene Donald (amd3@cam.ac.uk), Director of the Physics of Medicine Initiative, or visit the Physics of Medicine website (www.pom.cam.ac.uk). Professor Donald has recently won the prestigious 2009 L’Oreal UNESCO Women in Science Award for Europe.

Research at the interface

<div>Although the Centre for the Physics of Medicine is still in its infancy, it is already creating new collaborations between researchers across the University. Projects are under way in the fields of stem cell research and pathogenic infection, and additional collaborations are constantly being instigated.</div> <div></div> <div><strong>Stem cells</strong></div> <div> <p> </p> <p><strong>Dr Jochen Guck </strong>(Department of Physics) is developing optical tools based on the use of laser beams that cause cells of any kind to deform. Different cells respond in different ways – it’s even possible to distinguish cancerous cells from healthy cells as they pass through the beam. Optical deformation is opening up an alternative solution to conventional methods of cancer diagnosis, and holds promise as a means of sorting stem cells using physical information derived at the single-cell level.</p> <p><strong>Professor Ben Simons </strong>(Department of Physics) and <strong>Dr Phil Jones </strong>(Hutchison/MRC Research Centre) are applying approaches in theoretical physics to analyse experiments studying stem cell fate during the maintenance of the epidermal skin layer. The modelling work has shown that the standard dogma about epidermal maintenance (involving the existence of so-called transit amplifying cells) is false, and provides an alternative framework that no longer requires ongoing stem cell proliferation.</p> <p>The process by which a ‘pluripotent’ stem cell commits to becoming a particular type of cell depends on the stiffness and three-dimensional structure of the substrate (or scaffold) to which it is attached. Several collaborating groups are working on the design of tissue scaffolds and the nature of cell–scaffold interactions: <strong>Dr Serena Best </strong>and <strong>Dr Ruth Cameron</strong> (Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials), <strong>Professor Wilhelm Huck </strong>and <strong>Dr Melinda Duer </strong>(Department of Chemistry), and <strong>Professor Eugene Terentjev </strong>and <strong>Professor Athene Donald </strong>(Department of Physics). Through collaboration with researchers within the Stem Cell Initiative, including <strong>Professor Fiona Watt </strong>and <strong>Professor Roger Pedersen</strong>, the possibility of control over the stem cell differentiation process using appropriately designed scaffolds can be explored.</p> <p><strong>Pathogenic infection</strong></p> <p>Bacterial interactions between cells and respiratory tissues are being studied by <strong>Dr Pietro Cicuta </strong>(Department of Physics) and <strong>Dr Clare Bryant </strong>(Department of Veterinary Medicine), and <strong>Dr Julia Gog </strong>and <strong>Professor Ray Goldstein </strong>(Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics), using a combination of mathematical modelling, optical tweezers and real-time imaging. Optical tweezers are used to manipulate beads coated with a variety of biologically relevant materials. By directly visualising how the cell engulfs the beads and how this process is affected by the nature of the coating, researchers hope to gain new insight about the infection process. Mathematical modelling is directed towards understanding fluid dynamics in the respiratory tract in the vicinity of the tiny ‘hairs’ that clear bacteria during infection.</p> <p><strong>Professor Athene Donald </strong>is collaborating with <strong>Professor Duncan Maskell </strong>(Department of Veterinary Medicine) to pioneer novel methods of imaging bacterial pathogens. Bacteria are being imaged using the new technique of environmental scanning electron microscopy, which permits imaging while the bacteria are still viable. The aim is to obtain higher resolution images of a living pathogen than is currently possible with conventional light microscopy and to analyse how bacterial shape may change during the life cycle.</p> </div>

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