Interface between Physics and Medicine: new interdisciplinary center
Interface between physics and medicine: new interdisciplinary center
Interview with Professor Vahid Sandoghdar, Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light, Alexander-von-Humboldt Professorship, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg
Physics has always supported medical science, especially when it comes to practical implementation. Now physicists and health professionals join in collaborative research at an interdisciplinary Center in Erlangen and incorporate fundamental principles of theoretical physics in their studies of diseases. From now on, not only the chemistry of disease but also the forces involved and other physical factors like electrical charges or temperature will be included in considerations.
Prof. Vahid Sandoghdar
In this interview with MEDICA-tradefair.com, Professor Vahid Sandoghdar, one of the initiators of the Center for Physics and Medicine in Erlangen (ZPM), explains the primary objectives of the interdisciplinary interface and which researchers are meant to communicate with each other and details what the inclusion of biomechanical factors in medicine can accomplish in this setting.
Professor Sandoghdar, what insights do you hope to gain from the new Center?
Prof. Vahid Sandoghdar: We want to incorporate physical concepts and methods into basic medical research. Medical science has always collaborated with physicists to create diagnostic or imaging devices for example, which nowadays can be found in every hospital. Every operating and examination room is armed with technology, thus aspects of physics. In other words, physics has always had a big share in medical practice.
Our goal is for basic medical research to also take in the concepts of physics. At the moment, we tend to study diseases with biochemical, cell biology, or genetic methods. These are the types of laboratory processes and techniques we know from biology or medical studies. We believe that methods of physics or mathematical modeling can also play an important role in this setting. The ways of measuring and thinking in physics can also be applied in medical science.
Physicists are used to developing a whole array of equipment and machines to obtain a specific measurement, allowing them to measure with high accuracy – when measuring sugar content, pH levels or ion concentration in tissue for example. All of these methods can be enhanced to where we could also accurately measure at a microscale level. For example, this would allow us to identify individual proteins and their distribution in cells or tissue.
What does this implyfor the early detection of diseases for example?
Sandoghdar: We want to develop methods that allow us to conduct highly sensitive measurements as we know them from biophysics in a medical context. You obtain new information when you measure, distinguish and understand everything at the molecular level down to the smallest detail. This can provide new input for people who develop drugs or try to cure diseases. The idea behind this is to use all the methods we know from microelectronics, nanotechnology, optical microscopy, microfluidics and nanofluidics to perform highly sensitive in situ analysis. For example, you can detect molecules with the help of fluorescence, yet there are also methods that work without fluorescent markers. There is a connection to methods like lab-on-a-chip.
Processes like for example protein detection via interferometric detection of scattered light will be carried out in the ZPM.
Can you give us a specific example of when the inclusion of biomechanical processes can result in a greater understanding of disease patterns?
Sandoghdar: There is one prominent example that pertains to cancer cells. It has occupied the minds of both physicists and physicians for the past thirty years. Tumor cells become active and spread throughout the body in metastases. Many studies showed that this phenomenon is strongly connected to the elastic properties of cells. Therefore, illness changes the stiffness and mechanical properties of cells. This might also be one reason why they are able to easily spread through pores and the tiniest of openings. The conventional approach does not factor in mechanical processes but rather tends to look at the chemical processes. It is determined that molecules or proteins send signals and in doing so activate things. The objective is to show that in this context, basic physical laws of motion, diffusion and statistical mechanics also play a key role.
Who will work and research at the ZPM?
Sandoghdar: It is designed to be an interdisciplinary center, and our hope is to mainly hire physicists and mathematicians. In conversations with medical researchers and cell biologists, their task is to choose the issues that should be studied and subsequently introduce all of their knowledge to come up with a solution. There needs to be a constant dialogue. This is also why we want to build the Center right in the middle of the medical campus at our Clinical Center in Erlangen so that the physicists are able to work in close proximity of physicians and medical researchers. This is not without its own complications because physicists pursue different issues and have a different background compared to health professionals. Our goal of teaming up two entirely different disciplines can only be achieved in a multi-year process.
What should the dialog between the two disciplines look like exactly? Are both disciplines fully inter-translatable?
Sandoghdar: We envision for the issue to originate in the medical realm. For all intents and purposes, it has to account for the problem and thus also provide us with information about the background, already available knowledge, findings, and possible challenges. During this conversation, the physicists are subsequently able to select the measurement procedures they intend to use. Physicians are not yet familiar with the items in a physicist’s “tool kit". When biologists or physicians usually require physical technologies, they rely on commercially available devices – for example, microscopes or spectrometers. Having said that, many methods cannot be obtained commercially, yet physicists are able to custom-build them for a particular experiment. Things that are already well established in one field could still have a great impact in another field.
The interview was conducted by Julia Unverzagt and translated by Elena O'Meara. MEDICA-tradefair.com