• Science Saturday: Beacon in inner space

Kah Whye Peng, Ph.D., holding a 3D printed mouse

The tools of molecular medicine are designed to work in remote regions of inner space — places in the body that aren't easy to see without invasive procedures. Think under a lung, inside a liver or behind an eye. There, within tiny cellular galaxies, gene therapies can turn faulty genes off or replace them with healthy copies, or introduce new, disease-fighting DNA. Cell therapies can use custom stem cells to repair damaged tissues and treat disease. These ideas didn't develop at a steady rate, but rather in stops and starts, thanks to 20 years of tandem efforts by researchers at Mayo Clinic and around the world. One of those researchers is Kah Whye Peng, Ph.D.

For Dr. Peng, holdups are not just obstacles to clear. They're opportunities to take stock of issues that will face health care professionals and patients.

Noninvasive monitoring of regenerative treatments is a case in point. Tracking a curative therapy is like following the voyage of a probe shot into outer space, heading to Jupiter. You want to know what's happening every day of its journey — not send it out into darkness.

To follow the fates of these treatments, researchers have tested many molecular imaging technologies. Bioluminescence imaging, for example, takes advantage of light emission genes from one of several organisms, including fireflies and sea pansies. But while it successfully casts some light on the subject, deep tissues remain hidden from sight.

To solve this meteoric problem, Dr. Peng and her colleagues, including Stephen J. Russell, M.D, Ph.D., the Richard O. Jacobson Professor of Molecular Medicine at Mayo Clinic, built a beacon bright enough to light the way. Their proprietary noninvasive imaging system makes it possible to monitor regenerative healing in patients in real time over a course of treatment in a nonharmful way.

"So now," Dr. Peng explains, " instead of putting your therapy into this black box and just hoping for a favorable outcome, now the box is clear glass, and there's a light on. You can see what's happening."

Read the rest of the article on the Discovery's Edge blog.


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