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Science Translational Medicine: The story behind the story

Today marks the launch of Science magazine’s spinoff journal, Science Translational Medicine. One of the papers in the inaugural issue is by a group of Canadian researchers who have developed a “lab on a chip” device that can measure levels of the hormone estrogen in a tiny sample of blood or tissue. The researchers hope that this device can be used in the future to measure the risk of breast cancer–which is closely linked to estrogen levels–or the effectiveness of certain therapies that affect estrogen levels.

I heard about this paper on Tuesday in a teleconference for reporters. What struck me as the most interesting part of the research is the group of researchers themselves. The paper is the result of a collaboration between two research groups: A group of chemists and engineers, headed by Aaron Wheeler at the University of Toronto; and a group of clinical researchers, headed by physician-investigator Robert Casper at Mount Sinai Hospital.

The lead author of the paper is Noha Mousa, a Ph.D. student working with Casper. She’s also a physician. It was her initiative that got the collaboration going: “Me and Dr. Casper … have many patients on aromatase inhibitors as a preventive therapy, and we wanted to measure [estrogen levels],” Mousa said in the teleconference. “I contacted Aaron and I told him about the idea, and he said, we can give it a try. So we got together and made a diagram of the device.” They brought in more collaborators and people from both labs to fine-tune the idea,  build the device, and eventually test it. “We developed it gradually, step by step,” Mousa said. “I was in Dr. Wheeler’s lab all the time, and really enjoyed that and learned a lot from it.”

I think this paper illustrates a key goal of translational research: To bring together research groups who normally wouldn’t work together to solve critical questions to improve human health. Indeed, Wheeler summed it up nicely: “We live in completely different worlds, and I’ve learned so much
working with this other group,” he said in the teleconference.
“This has been the most fun I’ve had in science.”