Marc Ostermeier, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the Whiting School, built a deadline into his summer. He needs to finish his parts before mid-July, when Tanya Maus, an assistant professor of history in Wittenberg University’s East Asian Studies Program, comes to town. They’re working on the next installment of a collaboration that started when both were in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1990s. Ostermeier’s research involves engineering proteins to have new properties. Maus explores the history of the Okayama Orphanage in 19th-century Japan and child relief activism. Together they make plush rock music as the band Should—blending symphonic, noisy guitar melodies into moody rhythms—that’s a lovely example of a genre called shoegaze.
“It’s like a hobby,” Ostermeier says, though his long history of music making sounds more like a labor of love.
Targeted cancer therapies are a kind of biological manhunt: they find and kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone, thus lessening the unpleasant and often dangerous side effects of cancer treatment. A research team led by Marc Ostermeier is turning this mission inside out. They are developing a new way to cause cancer cells to kill themselves—from within. Their work, which appeared last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was cited in Discover Magazine’s “Top 100 Stories of 2011.”
Johns Hopkins researchers have devised a protein “switch” that instructs cancer cells to produce their own anti-cancer medication. In lab tests, the researchers showed that these switches, working from inside the cells, can activate a powerful cell-killing drug when the device detects a marker linked to cancer. The goal, the scientists said, is to deploy a new type of weapon that causes cancer cells to self-destruct while sparing healthy tissue.
This novel cancer-fighting strategy and promising early lab test results were reported this week in the online early edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Although the switches have not yet been tested on human patients, and much more testing must be done, the researchers say they have taken a positive first step toward adding a novel weapon to the difficult task of treating cancer.
One key problem in fighting cancer is that broadly applied chemotherapy usually also harms healthy cells. In the protein switch strategy, however, a doctor would instead administer a “prodrug,” meaning an inactive form of a cancer-fighting drug. Only when a cancer marker is present would the cellular switch turn this harmless prodrug into a potent form of chemotherapy. “The switch in effect turns the cancer cell into a factory for producing the anti-cancer drug inside the cancer cell,” said Marc Ostermeier, a Johns Hopkins chemical and biomolecular engineering professor in the Whiting School of Engineering, who supervised development of the switch.