On the Cancer War Front Lines
It’s one of the most critical issues that medicine has yet to crack: how to stop cancers from spreading. As cancers develop, they can metastasize and overwhelm internal organs, ultimately leading to death. What causes them to do that, and to become resistant to drugs that try to slow their growth, are two questions that Madeleine Oudin has set out to answer.
Oudin joined Tufts as an assistant professor in January, the first cancer biologist hired in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. She grew up in France, studied biochemistry at McGill University in Montreal, and went on to earn a master’s in pharmacology and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from King’s College London. She recently finished a postdoc at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.
Tufts Now recently sat down with her to learn more about her research on cancer, why the School of Engineering is a great fit, and her hopes for attracting young women to careers in research.
Tufts Now: What attracted you to Tufts?
Madeleine Oudin: When it came time to start my own lab, I really wanted to be close to engineers and at a university that values the interdisciplinary aspects of science, and I found that at Tufts. I wanted to continue to explore using engineering tools to answer biological questions. That two-way communication makes research go much further; it enables new types of discoveries.
Your postdoctoral research includes looking at what micro-environmental factors in cells and tissues lead a cancerous tumor to spread or metastasize. How did you get to this line of inquiry?
I was on my way toward a Ph.D. in neuroscience when I heard a presentation on cancer cell migration—how cancer cells spread and ultimately take over the function of vital organs. I thought that was a great way to apply my knowledge of neuroscience to something that was more clinically relevant, and more impactful. That brought me to MIT, where I also became interested in cancer drug resistance. A lot of drugs work for a while, and then the tumor develops resistance to them. How do tumor cells metastasize and become drug resistant? If we could figure that out, it would be an incredible breakthrough.
How do biologists partner with engineers to help each other’s research?
I have questions about biology, and engineers have the practical and innovative technologies that allow us to get closer to answering those questions. At MIT, I repurposed a drug delivery device—which is about the size of a grain of rice— originally designed to release about twenty different drugs inside a tumor, to release cues that are known to attract tumor cells. I coupled that with imaging technology to be able to visualize the tumor’s response to these cues that we were artificially manipulating with these devices developed by engineers.
At Tufts, we’re connected with the incredibly exciting research into tissue properties and tissue engineering done here—that’s a good fit with my interest in tumor cell tissue environments. Tufts also has strong imaging capabilities. I have access to several high-end imaging platforms right next to me in the Science and Engineering Complex.
The excellent work already being done in optics and imaging will allow us to image tissue properties in a way that opens up new and better ways to understand how the tumor environment works. Bringing these different technologies to bear on what we know about tumor biology gives us a powerful tool to tackle cancer, and ultimately inform treatment.
At MIT you helped develop a workshop to teach middle and high schoolers about cancer and the kind of research done to try and tackle it, which you held at the Girl Scouts of America science fair and at the Cambridge Science Festival. Do you have similar plans for Tufts?
Yes, I’d like to develop something similar here. I hope that as a junior faculty member I can continue to help young girls and undergrads be inspired by the possibilities that are open to them in research. I don’t look like the stereotypical scientist, and I’m a bit more outgoing than your average science nerd. I like to leverage that when I can, and change peoples’ perceptions about what researchers look like or what it means to be a researcher. I hope that I can help them see that you can be a scientist and still be cool.
Laura Ferguson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.