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For nearly 20 years, Dr. Vadim Backman has been developing and honing a physics-based approach to understanding biological systems. The first outcome of this approach was nanocytology, which works by harnessing the power of light to examine the nanoscale structure of cells from easily accessible areas of the body to uncover very early stage malignancies in a nearby organ. A simple swab of cells from one area, such as the inside of a cheek, can show the presence of cancer in another, such as the lungs.

The technology behind this, called Partial Wave Spectroscopic (PWS) microscopy, is just one of many optical techniques developed by Dr. Backman. PWS uses light to understand biological, and particularly genomic, processes at the nanoscale. Biological structures smaller than the diffraction limit of light cannot be visualized, but their presence and organization can be sensed by analyzing the light they scatter.

When researchers shine light onto harvested cells, photons bounce off the nanostructures within them. The different angles of scattered light tell a story about the organization and dynamics - and thus the health  - of the cells, which can lead to an accurate diagnosis at even the very earliest stages of cancer risk development. Using these bio-optic techniques, Backman can thus detect signs indicative of “pre” pre-cancer, something that cannot be done with conventional microscopes.

Backman’s early detection technique could soon be available for physicians to use with their patients for a number of the most deadly cancers.

In 2016, Backman used PWS to image chromatin, a complex of macromolecules — including DNA, RNA, and proteins — within the nucleus of living cells that house genetic information and determines which genes get expressed.

In 2017, he showed that chromatin could be altered to make chemotherapy more effective in treating cancer. In both cell cultures and in animal models, the technique (when used in combination with chemotherapy) eliminated virtually 100 percent of cancer cells in seven different types of malignancies, with no effect on non-cancer cells.

This early example shows that developing the ability to reversibly engineer genome structure holds immense promise - from fundamentally addressing human diseases like cancer, atherosclerosis and Alzheimer’s to other societal issues ranging from agriculture to climate change management to biofuels. 

In 2019, the Center for Physical Genomics and Engineering was launched, paving the way for dedicated interdisciplinary research which will build the foundations of this new field of science.

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