A Different Side of SXSW: Fighting Cancer

Dr. Preethi Gunaratne's research could one day lead to customized treatments for dozens of types of cancer.
Dr. Preethi Gunaratne's research could one day lead to customized treatments for dozens of types of cancer.
Photo courtesy of UH Media Office

Music, film, technology -- the three engines that drive SXSW each year all have something in common: each thrives on collaboration. What keeps the week-long festival going and growing is not the individual performances or gadgets on display, but the exchange of ideas. When people who might have otherwise never been in the same room together suddenly are, magic can happen -- no matter if it's a band getting signed, a film getting a distribution deal, or a new app seizing the public's imagination in a matter of hours.

Or, this year, a new approach to fighting one of humanity's deadliest and most confounding diseases. Among the whirl of activity already going on in Austin is the debut of the SXSW Health and MedTech Expo, two days of panels and networking where scientists, surgeons, government officials and more come together to discuss issues and policy that could have a much more profound impact on society than a hit single or an Oscar.

One panel, "Personalized, Predictive Outcomes Empower Patients," can trace its origins all the way to the White House. In his State of the Union address in January, President Barack Obama called for a way to "give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier." Now labeled the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), the $215 million program rests largely under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health, and aims to use breakthroughs in both genetic research and medical technology to customize each patient's treatment to his or her individual disease as much as possible.

Among the speakers on the panel, scheduled for 5:15 this evening at the JW Marriott in downtown Austin, will be Claudia Williams, a Senior Advisor in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy; as well as Dr. Preethi Gunaratne, the University of Houston professor whose research helped make the president's PMI happen. Dr. Gunaratne, an Associate Professor of Biology and Biochemistry at UH, is an alumna of the Human Genome Project -- which, as of 2003, mapped out an entire set of blueprints of the genetic material carried by every human being on Earth -- during her days at the Human Genome Center at Baylor College of Medicine, where she led the gene-sequencing effort.

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Back then, she explains, what originally tripped the researchers up was the discovery that humans carry about 30,000 genes total -- and so do animals a number of steps down the evolutionary ladder, such as garden-variety earthworms. She was expecting the number of genes to be closer to the hundreds of thousands, Dr. Gunaratne admits.

"That was a puzzle because [humans] are substantially more complex," she says. "The NIH requested our group, because the single largest contribution to the mammalian gene collection came from Houston; I'm proud to say that."

Where the breakthrough that will allow the kind of treatments imagined in the new PMI came, she says, is when scientists realized that only a fraction of human RNA (the genetic material that carries out essential functions within the human body's individual cells) was imprinted with the instructions for protein coding, or synthesizing the various molecules without which a body cannot function, from enzymes and antibodies to hemoglobin and collagen. Many of her colleagues wanted to dismiss the rest of this ostensibly useless RNA as junk, but Dr. Gunaratne says she thought, "It's not likely we're going to carry this stuff for millions of years for nothing."

Eventually Dr. Gunaratne's team discovered an especially small type of RNA they dubbed "micro RNA." When matched up with an individual cancer patient's genomic footprint, these tiny organisms have the potential to be devastating to the disease. It works by acting as a kind of "circuit breaker" to the patient's network of cancer cells, Dr. Gunarate says, flipping a switch that could shut down the entire grid. She calls it a "new era" in cancer treatment.

"We're going from drug therapy to where once we figure out all the networks that have gone out of control, each patient will come in, [and] the tumor will get sequenced," she says. Then, she adds "we'll figure out the common mutations, and I think one day in real time the patient's tumor will get dissociated."

Dissociated as in severed from the host, or destroyed. Dr. Gunaratne says her research has already led to advancements such as recreating certain tumors in 3-D cultures that can be recreated in liquid cultures and then subjected to a battery of drugs. It also landed her and a few of her colleagues a pass to SXSW this year.

Even though her panel is up against this evening's taping of Jimmy Kimmel Live across town at the Long Center, where the musical guest is hometown heroes Spoon, Dr. Gunaratne says she thinks her appearance at SXSW will draw some welcome exposure to her research. (In that respect, it seems to have already worked.) Furthermore, her invite to the conference has already scored some cool points within her own family.

"The only time I've ever wanted to go was to see, like, Taylor Swift or something," she laughs. "I never knew that there was a technical [side]. I have a son who's an aspiring musician, so I got to tell him, 'Hey, I got the invite before you.'"

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