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Cutting-Edge Cancer Scientist Dr. Bruce Horten Enlists Engineering Students to Help Target Medical Solutions

December 5, 2012

By Dale Long

      Horten Presentation
  Insight On Scientific Discoveries: Dr. Bruce Horten, M.D., answers questions from students and Vice President for Rose-Hulman Ventures Elizabeth Hagerman about future prospects of targeted treatment for cancer.

Looking into the eyes of Rose-Hulman students before him in a genetic engineering classroom, cutting-edge cancer scientist Dr. Bruce Horten, M.D., could see the future of scientific discovery in the fields of  chemistry, medicine, biomedical engineering, and chemical engineering.

"Oh, to be young again," exclaimed Horten after speaking to the students. "These students are going to see dramatic change in the health care field, possibly at a pace that's impossible to comprehend right now."

Then, he stated, "These are great times to be entering medicine, science, and engineering."

Horten, national medical director for the Integrated Oncology Laboratory at LabCorp, is an advocate for the relatively new concept of targeted therapy to treat a variety of cancers. A campus presentation, "Targets: Transforming the Assault on Cancer," examined how the science of pathogenesis-investigating the genetic variations underlying tumor development and progression-has classified and targeted specific cancers.

By studying these abnormalities through Fluorescent in Situ Hybridization (FISH), Horten and others have become more adept at identifying specific forms of cancer and targeting drugs that are disease specific to weaken the cancer without also weakening the health of the individual cancer patient.

"The targets we're looking for are incredibly small, tiny in fact," he stated while explaining his work with nucleotides. "At this stage, we are in the infancy of targeted therapy."

One success story in targeted treatment is the case of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), once considered a diagnosis with terminal consequences. Medicine has been developed to convert the disease into a chronic condition, with continued drug usage.

Horten in Class        
Guest Teachers: Dr. Bruce Horten, M.D., national medical director for the Integrated Oncology Laboratory at LabCorp, discussed current topics in the science of pathogenesis while attending a class in genetic engineering.

 

"That's just phenomenal," he said.

However, that CML drug is effective by controlling just one gene. How does targeted therapy control a cancer with as many as 15 genes, all interacting with others? Going forward, Horten asserted that researchers are working on "multi-targeted" drugs. However, the technology required to study those dynamics at the molecular level is limited.

That's where Rose-Hulman students and alumni can come to the rescue.

For instance, Ross Weatherman, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and senior chemical engineering student Katherine Moravec have conducted research on targeted therapy in light of estrogen receptor proteins in breast cancer therapy, focusing on the drug Tamoxifen.

"It's a pretty common breast cancer drug," Weather told The Terre Haute Tribune-Star. His group is working to replicate and test those replicas.

Horten's presentation was well attended by the campus and community, nearly filling the Hatfield Hall Theater. It was sponsored by Christa Percopo, wife of the late Rose-Hulman graduate and trustee, Michael Percopo.

Rose-Hulman President Robert Coons credited Percopo's generosity as important in helping foster important campus discussions on a variety of strategic issues.

"Unfortunately, cancer has probably touched the lives of many here," the president said in his introductory remarks.

          Horten Reception
  Loyal Supporter: Christa Percopo, wife of the late Rose-Hulman graduate and trustee, Michael Percopo, talks with students and guests at a reception following Dr. Horten's presentation.

Engineering better medicines is one of the Grand Challenges of Engineering, as identified by the National Academy of Engineering. One area of interest is having engineers develop new systems to use genetic information, sense small changes in the body, assess new drugs, and deliver drugs to address medical conditions.

That is why Rose-Hulman brought Horten to speak to its students, faculty and staff members at the presentation and other educational activtiies, according to William Kline, Ph.D., Rose-Hulman's Dean of Innovation and Engagement.

"Engineers are becoming ever more important in the field of medicine," Kline acknowledged. "Biotechnologists, computer and software engineers, and chemical engineers are just a few of the specialties involved in helping medical doctors make these astounding breakthroughs."