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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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The Next Wave
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Fall 2004
The Next Wave
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Mike Teitell, Chief, UCLA's Division of Pediatric and Developmental Pathology
“The big questions — how to control a cell’s function, how to interfere with a cell becoming a cancer, how to stop heart disease — are still out there to be answered. The key is bringing fresh ideas along with new tools and technologies to the same old problems.
—Mike Teitell

Teitell has made some progress along that path. In 2002, his lab created the first genetic animal model, by modifying specific genes in a specific way, for two of the major forms of white-blood-cell cancers. Lately, his work has revolved around the most high-tech tools for the detection, treatment and prediction of cancers. One of these is the atomic-force microscope (AFM), a kind of celebrity scientific instrument whose development in the 1980s coincided with the widespread adoption of the personal computer worldwide. The AFM is credited with boosting nanotechnology, an umbrella term for a variety of rapidly developing engineering techniques used to manipulate materials one-millionth the size of a pinhead.

The AFM is based on the scanning tunneling microscope, which was designed at IBM and recognized with a Nobel Prize in 1986, around the time when Jim Gimzewski, a professor in the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, was beginning his career at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory in Switzerland. Gimzewski is one of the pioneers of AFM technology. Since coming to UCLA in 2001, he has teamed up with Teitell to advance cancer research, mainly by using the AFM to analyze the mechanical properties of cells on a nanoscale (one nanometer is a billionth of a meter). “It’s a brand-new method we’re developing for the diagnosis of cancer cells,” says Gimzewski.

The AFM works by detecting a projected laser beam that is reflected off a highly sensitive cantilever that ever-so-lightly probes whatever is being studied — suspected cancer cells in Gimzewski’s and Teitell’s case. When the cells move — or more precisely, vibrate — the laser beam also moves, and this movement is recorded and analyzed to determine whether the cells are healthy, diseased or responding to treatment. Teitell and Gimzewski are trying to link this motion of cells to the prediction, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. They can, for example, assess a cell’s responses to various drugs by dousing them with a chemical and watching their movement. That’s a big advance over a typical pathologist’s light microscope that only provides a static picture of dead, dehydrated cells, says Teitell. “With the AFM, you get an integrated picture of how cells look and respond to treatment.”

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