USC researchers tackle medical issues at the Michelson Center

USC professor Peter Kuhn speaks about his motivation for researching cancer solutions and his hope to reduce conflicts between the patient and physician over performance status. Emily Smith | Daily Trojan

Since its opening, the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience has allowed USC professors and students to develop groundbreaking biomedical research.

The progress of their research was presented by the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and Viterbi School of Engineering at a workshop on the “Wicked Problem of Cancer and the Art of Convergence” on May 23.

The event, which was held at  Michelson Hall, included a cocktail reception, a lecture by Dr. Peter Kuhn and a tour of the building. USC alumni and several members of the Board of Trustees attended the event.

Following the cocktail reception, Assistant Vice President of Alumni Relations Danielle Harvey Stinson addressed attendees. In her address, Stinson shed light on the research being conducted and performed at the Michelson Center.

“Imagine researchers using metal detection techniques, like the ones used by mining companies and airport security, to view tumor cells on a molecular level not seen before or taking a simple blood test to tell whether or not you may have cancer,” Stinson said. “These are just two of scores of research projects in the works here in the Michelson Hall.”

Stinson explained that the different approaches to research,  taken by the Michelson Center, ranging from the fields of medicine to engineering, will have a profound impact on healthcare and spur innovation in the future.

“These scientists and engineers are coming together to fast track the development of new drug therapy, high tech diagnostics and biomedical devices,” Stinson said.

Once Stinson made her introduction, professor Peter Kuhn discussed how researching solutions to cancer would help make the future more transparent.

“We call this convergent science because we believe that cancer is indeed a wicked problem. . . a problem for which little amount of solutions currently exist,” Kuhn said. “The problem space is in fact not owned by a particular discipline. Because of this, the solution space is not yet well defined and it is certainly unclear.”

Kuhn began his address by thanking research sponsors as well as  USC faculty across the different schools whom worked with the Michelson Center. He went on to speak about his motivation for cancer research and the goals of his studies at the Michelson Center.

“Those of us not yet diagnosed with cancer will never really truly understand that upon diagnosis, the disease is with you for the rest of your life,” Kuhn said. “That simple fact is something that distinguishes cancer from breaking a leg. If you break a leg, you have this very simple, straightforward expectation that you will put a cast on it. The notion of curing cancer is not as simple.”

Kuhn explained that there were three things to consider regarding patient care: patient health, patient forecasting and disease status. According to Kuhn, patients and physicians  often disagree over performance status. The Michelson Center, along with its partners, has developed a tool called ATOM-HP to reduce this conflict.

“[ATOM-HP] will improve the interaction between the patient and the physician and it will improve the drug development process,” Kuhn said.

Based on the results of clinical trials, Khun said that the tool allowed researchers to discover that patients with a low activity rate are at higher risk of unexpected healthcare events.

Kuhn also addressed the audience about characterizing cancer over time and metastasis, the spread of a pathogenic agent from one location of the body to another.

Presenting data obtained from breast cancer patients, Kuhn stated that there is an issue of space and time due to the different probabilities with which cancer can reach organs in the body. Using a familiar metaphor to explain the concept, Kuhn compared finding cancer cells to looking for a needle in a haystack.

Kuhn ended his lecture by providing a brief description and analysis of a treatment product for prostate cancer, developed in conjunction with Epic Science Inc., a company that develops medical diagnostics on tumor cells

“We have dozens of therapies available,” Kuhn said. “It is really critical that we get it right every single time, not just the first time but every single time, because every patient will benefit the most if we have choice after choice available for them throughout this journey through cancer.”