The work uses innovative microscopes and mathematics to unlock the innermost secrets of cells, said Bridget Wilson, a UNM pathologist.
Wilson directs a UNM center that has received a $12 million five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. The grant will allow the New Mexico Spatiotemporal Modeling Center to continue through 2015.
“As we dive down deeper and deeper into understanding biological processes, you realize just how complicated it is,” Wilson said.
The center studies ways that cells communicate and interact at sub-cellular levels to shed light on disease processes, such as how cancerous tumors develop or viruses attack cells.
“We have scientists here who actually follow single molecules around in real time,” Wilson said.
The work allows scientists to watch as viruses attack cells and drugs penetrate cancerous tumors, suggesting new ways to fight disease.
Scientists in recent years have developed new techniques for imaging and collecting data about the inner workings of cells.
The innovations won a Nobel prize in chemistry this year for two Americans and a German who contributed to a new technique called super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, which uses nanoparticles to illuminate structures within cells.
“You have specially built microscopes that use nanoparticles called quantum dots that are really, really bright,” Wilson said. Quantum dots are man-made particles that emit a bright, colored light, making them ideal for tracking molecules within cells.
The technique allows scientists to take photos and videos of cell function at the molecular level and has made possible a new field called systems biology, she said.
Researchers also are able to collect data that allow them to build mathematical models about cellular function, Wilson said. Those models can be used to make predictions, such as a drug’s effectiveness fighting a disease, she said.
Wilson’s own work at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center focuses on cancerous tumors, including ovarian, lung and colon cancer.
“We’re facing a large complex puzzle and we try to take them apart bit by bit,” she said, “but the systems biology approach is an attempt to put the puzzle back together.”