We know it’s spelled Convergent Bioscience. But USC Dornsife sees the urgency in this heads-up rather than heads-down research mentality.
By Pamela J. Johnson • USC Dornsife
May 29, 2014 (Spring / Summer 2014 Print Issue)
“Maybe because the questions were strange to them. I had these problems and had to develop the methods to solve them myself. [My ideas] were too different in the way they thought about it.”
But after Warshel already had a good handle on the problem, collaboration with researchers in diverse fields proved extremely useful. “Exploiting what you already know is very helpful in productive collaboration,” he said.
Warshel is looking forward to collaboration at the Michelson Center, where he will continue his research on G protein-coupled receptors, which can lead to clinical treatment for everything from cancer to heart disease to type 2 diabetes.
“In this type of problem the direct collaboration with experimentalists who are studying the same system is indispensable,” he said.
Tear Down That Wall
Moh El-Naggar, an assistant professor of physics at USC Dornsife who has received the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, likes where all this is going. His research combines biology and physics.
“When we talk about removing boundaries, sometimes we’re talking about removing actual walls that separate labs,” El-Naggar said. “We already work like that here. Our graduate students in physics work with graduate students in chemistry, biology, engineering and earth sciences.
“Many of the faculty have joint appointments and we’ve been doing that for a while. The one thing we’ve been lacking is an actual home for that kind of attitude. So in concrete terms, convergent science is about removing actual walls.”
El-Naggar’s research involves tapping into anaerobic bacteria found in plain dirt to create energy. His research revealed how the bacteria grow protein nanowires to move electrons around in their surroundings.
Using this bacteria, he aims to harness the microbes’ metabolism to power electronic devices from cell phones to car chargers. The bacteria’s metabolism may also result in new nanostructures and semiconductors for clean-energy technologies such as solar cells. This can all lead to a cheaper and more versatile energy source.
“The more we understand about charge flow and energy transfer in cellular systems, then we’ll be able to control them and maybe reach the level of sophistication with biological systems that we’ve already reached with metals and semiconductors and computers and so on,” El-Naggar said. “But that requires developing some fundamentals that are unknown, because we’re starting pretty much from scratch.
“In order to actually develop applications based on energy and charge transfer in biological systems, we have to be able to collaborate with people who think in a more applied context, like applied physicists and engineers.”
Richard Roberts, professor of chemistry, chemical engineering and biological sciences with joint appointments at USC Dornsife and USC Viterbi, is like-minded. He uses the tools of chemistry to understand and control biological processes. Roberts designs peptides and proteins using in vitro selection experiments. He conceived the messenger RNA (mRNA) display, a technique he uses for polypeptide design.
His team has re-engineered the protein synthesis machinery to create unnatural mRNA display libraries. This project, a nanoscale engineering effort, merges the power of display selections with the flexibility of combinatorial chemistry.
To do this, the scientists have worked to extend mRNA display beyond the natural genetic code. Their effort has created new and richly diverse compositions of matter for ligand design, drug discovery — and beyond.
The beyond involves analytic tests used for screening diseases such as pancreatic cancer, which is typically diagnosed late in its development.
“It’s not like your lungs, where if you start having problems you will cough and blood will come up and you’ll have overt problems,” he said. “If you have cancer developing in the pancreas, there really is no outward sign.”
Roberts is developing techniques to diagnose early and even before a disease manifests.
“In the next 20 years, you will be able to go in, get a test, and the doctor will say, you’re high in this, this and this,” he said. “You have a very good chance of having prostate cancer, or lung cancer, or another disease. Right now, there are very few analytic tests that are used for screening.”
For inspiration, Roberts keeps on his desk a replica of the Rosetta Stone, an ancient discovery showing writing in two known languages, but one mysterious script — Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Using clues from the two known languages, linguists were eventually able to decode the hieroglyphics. Roberts is doing something similar — he’s working to decode proteins to create drugs and diagnostic tools to fight diseases.
It could be argued that convergent bioscience is an extension of decoding the Rosetta Stone, using what we know to harness the unknown. Roberts and others at USC understand the urgency.
Coloring Outside the Lines
With an emphasis on convergent bioscience research, Dr. Gary K. Michelson hopes to see real world medical breakthroughs.
By Pamela J. Johnson – April 28, 2014
For Dr. Gary K. Michelson, the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, made possible after his and his wife Alya’s $50 million donation, has never been about a name on a building.
“I never named anything after myself, there’s no Michelson anything,” said the retired orthopedic spinal surgeon and inventor of hundreds of instruments, implants and procedures that make spinal surgeries faster and safer.
“For me, it’s all about the science,” said Michelson, who holds, or has pending, nearly 1,000 patents worldwide.
Michelson cares deeply about his causes, beginning with his desire to study orthopedic surgery.
His mother was about 20 when she gave birth to Michelson, who has three brothers. Growing up in Philadelphia, he was close to his grandmother, a former tennis champion, who lived near his grade school. He often went to his grandma’s for lunch and would see her in pain.
“My grandmother was still a young woman, but she couldn’t stand up straight,” Michelson said. “She was in constant back pain, all the muscles were gone out of her hands so her hands were like garden tools.”
Her crippling spinal deformity made an indelible imprint on a young Michelson, sparking his belief in research that improves lives.
After spending 35 years devoted to improving the lives of those with spinal problems, Michelson retired from private practice in 2001. He turned much of his attention to building foundations for causes such as animal welfare, textbooks and medical research.
Michelson recalled receiving the call from USC about a possible collaboration.
“This was the first time anyone had approached me about convergent bioscience,” said Michelson, who grew intrigued by the proposal.
He recalled the initial meeting with Dean Steve Kay, Provost Professor of Biological Sciences and Biomedical Engineering Scott Fraser, and Executive Vice Provost Michael Quick. All three professors are scientists.
“All we talked about for an hour was science,” Michelson recalled. “In particular, I thought USC presented a visionary, daringly bold overarching architecture for how to conduct science at a university.”
A longtime philanthropist for research at universities, Michelson noted that “most universities take pride in the fact that they’re ivory towers and do ‘heads down’ research, research for research’s sake.”
“And this sure wasn’t that,” he said. “This was the idea of doing convergent research to produce real-world breakthroughs in real time.”
The Michelson Center will be the cornerstone of a new collaboration between USC Dornsife and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering meant to transform how research is conducted at the intersection of engineering and the life and biomedical sciences.
“You need to do science for some greater purpose, for humanity’s sake,” said Michelson, a devoted family man. He and his Russian-born wife Alya, an artist and musician who speaks four languages, including Japanese, have two children, Sasha and Isaiah.
As he spoke in the couple’s West Los Angeles home, the conversation ranged from the ever-shrinking subsections of scientific specialties to Eric Lander, a mathematician who made one of the most important contributions to the unrelated field of genetics: the Human Genome Project. Michelson also brought up one of his favorite books, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
“When the kid gives the parents his coloring book and the parents say, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful, but I don’t think the sky is purple and you must keep the crayons inside the lines, the parents may mean well, but that’s a very damaging response,” he said.
“Coloring outside the lines is the beginning of thinking outside the box.”