Teaming Up Against Cancer
Mihri and Cengiz Ozkan, faculty members in engineering, stay plugged into their research and their family life.
Raising children is no small feat. Add to that the rigors of successful careers in engineering, as well as the challenges of becoming involved in a
worldwide race to find cures for cancer, and you have the makings of a hectic life.
So how do Cengiz and Mihri Ozkan manage?
As faculty members at UC Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering, in mechanical and electrical engineering, respectively, Cengiz and Mihri take a decidedly rational — one might even say scientific — approach.
“We have to keep family first,” Cengiz says, to a knowing nod from wife, Mihri. “But we also have found ways to use our time most efficiently.”
With the advent of e-mail, text messaging, mobile smart phones and laptops, their research — and their research teams — is usually just a few keystrokes away, even as their sons, ages 12 and 7, engage in a full-court press, practice a Dvorak piece on the piano or angle for that perfect soccer goal.
So keeping work and home life separated is not an option for the hardcharging, career-driven academics. After all, they’re both working on a research project that, if successful, could reinvent the way that oncologists diagnose and treat cancers.
Listening for Cancer Cells
The Ozkans’ laboratories at the Bourns College of Engineering are collaborating to develop nanodevices — 100,000 times thinner than a human hair — that will listen for tell-tale signals from cancer cells and then deliver chemotherapy directly to the afflicted cells without harming surrounding healthy tissue.
Their projects are part of a $144 million National Cancer Institute (NCI)
effort that puts UC Riverside researchers front and center in a UC San Diego- (UCSD) based consortium known as the Center for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence. It’s one of seven similar NCI-established centers at colleges and universities nationwide.
In October 2005, the NCI awarded UCSD $3.9 million to establish the Center for Nanotechnology for Treatment, Understanding and Monitoring of Cancer, or NANOTUMOR. This is the first year in a fiveyear, $20 million funding cycle, and the first time UC Riverside has participated in such a study.
The technology the Ozkans are developing could lead to more forgiving treatments than conventional chemotherapy, which pumps toxic chemicals into the body, often with a broad, and sometimes violent, menu of adverse side effects.
Today’s technology can detect tumors as small as one million cells or the size of a pinhead. Advances in integrating nanotechnology with biology promises to decrease that to the 100,000-cell level, according to NCI’s cancer Nanotechnology Plan.
The work is critical to finding a way to deal with cancer, second only to heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that 1.4 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in 2006, with 138,700 of those cases in California.
The Ozkans are understandably serious as they apply nanotechnology to such a vital issue of national health. “Imagine having the ability to find the very first cancer cells in a patient’s body and kill them with targeted therapies,” Cengiz said. “We have a lot of capabilities in our nano-toolbox. It’s time to apply them to cancer therapy.”
Both of the Ozkans have been working for five years on the “listening” technology to detect and interpret microelectrical arrays, or the signals emitted by cells, and how those signals change when cancer cells are present. “We’ve developed a method to distinguish between different types of cells and how they respond to different chemicals,” Mihri said. “UCSD is happy because no one there is doing this type of research.”
The goal for Cengiz’s group is to use knowledge about the different signals sent by healthy cells and cancer cells to target only the diseased cells. His approach is seen as a more benign alternative to the common use of dyes to find cancer cells. “The stains are often toxic themselves and affect how cells react to their environment,” he says. “The use of dyes also sometimes compromises study results because you don’t know if a given cell died from cancer or from a reaction to the stain.”
Meanwhile, Mihri’s research group will develop a combination of virus capsids and nanoparticles to bioengineer a delivery vehicle that will zero in on cancerous cells and kill them. Virus capsids are the shells of the virus and contain the mechanism they use to infect cells.
“The quantity of drugs used is therefore far smaller than with standard chemotherapies,” she said.
The effort means long hours in the laboratory and in discussions with graduate students and colleagues at UCSD.
Priorities at Home
But it’s not all work for the Ozkans.
They take time to be parents. Their boys play basketball, take music lessons and attend school in Poway, near San Diego, about an hour’s drive south of Riverside.
“We’re very lucky,” said Mihri. “Both sets of grandparents live in San Diego and help out by picking up the boys and looking after them when we’re going to be late or out of town. They’re a great help.”
The couple has been married 16 years and met when Mihri was an undergraduate student and Cengiz a teaching assistant at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, in their native Turkey. The two have always coordinated their professional and private lives to allow each other to advance in their careers before the other takes the next professional step.
Both were accepted to graduate school at Stanford University where Mihri received a master’s degree and went to work until Cengiz received his Ph.D. Mihri received her doctoral degree from UC San Diego in electrical and computer engineering.
Throughout their busy professional lives, Cengiz and Mihri have managed to keep their focus centered on family. “As researchers, we have to give a lot from our personal lives to our work. There’s no time for movies and dinner parties,” Mihri said. “What time we have is spent with our children. We try to be with them and do things with them as much as possible.”
With laptop computers and mobile phones at hand, Mihri and Cengiz say they have become adept at juggling their professional and private lives. “I’ll take my sons to basketball practice and work on my laptop, with my books, while they’re having fun,” she says. “I’ll look up from a technical paper or a report from the lab and cheer the boys on, then get back to work.”
As for the perils that may potentially arise in working with a spouse, Cengiz says that, through the years, they have developed a very courteous professional relationship. He credits that relationship with helping them become part of today’s important national research effort.
“Here at the university, we’re colleagues,” he said. “We’ve developed these technologies together and the expertise from both our labs has made this possible.”