Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland are working with tiny "smart particles" that are yielding significant information about how cells in the body work, and it's one of only five labs in the world doing this kind of research on the brain.
Inside Dr. Tania Vu's office on Portland's South Waterfront, she's able to analyze a brain cell like never before. Her computer screen depicts a cell with red markings that show the path of proteins around the cell.
"Understanding where these proteins go over time is important," said Vu. "It's kind of like you've got blocked traffic, and you want to understand what happens when you've got blocked traffic."
Vu and her team of researchers are analyzing the traffic of cells thanks to nano-particles – tiny pieces of metal that are attached to proteins in their lab at OHSU.
"It actually blows my mind sometimes. I forget how small these things are," Vu said.
They are so small, Vu said they can place 1,000 of them on just one cell, but researchers need only standard equipment to see them in action.
"The reason that you can see them is because it's kind of like a star from far away: they're so bright," Vu said.
So is the future for this realm of study. Vu said "smart particles" could make it possible to prevent and cure diseases like Alzheimer's, and the possibilities reach far beyond the brain.
"I think that cancer is actually where we can make very rapid progress, and we're looking to do that," Vu said.
Vu said medicine could be attached to the nano-particles to treat cancer cell by cell – making it simpler to determine the drug's effectiveness.
"I think the possibilities are actually hard to completely fathom," Vu said.
What's easier to measure is her progress and she hopes to have concrete answers about so-called cell traffic in a year or two.
"Now that we know that we could get it to work, it's kind of like making the hammer, and now we're going to hit the nail, and that's where we are at this point," Vu said.
Some of Vu's research on the brain is partially funded by the Department of Defense. She said she's attaching "smart particles" to serotonin receptors to try to find a more effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers.
Vu said the cooperation between departments at OHSU has been key to the success of her research and said the collaboration will yield more meaningful results.
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