Interdisciplinary Research, Better Outcomes: Meet David Beebe

David Beebe, PhD, University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center researcherDisciplines collide on the 6th floor of the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research, where UW Carbone Cancer Center member David Beebe, PhD, and his team of scientists study how tumors grow outside the human body.


Here, engineers regularly work together with biologists and clinicians to answer unique questions about the behavior of cancer cells.


Beebe's research group uses a process called microfluidics to grow cancer cells in tiny channels the size of a single hair follicle to simulate the process of a tumor's growth. As one of the pioneers in the field, Beebe's cross-disciplinary approach is part of the culture of learning and discovery with many researchers in his lab.


Kyung Sung, PhD, started working with Beebe as a post-doctoral research associate 4 years ago. Like Beebe, she has a background in microfluidics – and like Beebe, she was drawn to biology through the lens of cancer research.


While completing her PhD in chemical engineering, Sung designed microfluidic systems quite complicated in nature – so complicated that only she could run them.


"They weren't practical for solving real-world problems," Sung says of her former creations in the engineering lab.


When she met Beebe, Sung knew she had found a match for her post-graduate work. Beebe himself started out engineering microfluidic systems – some of the first that ever existed. As his work progressed, though, Beebe found he was asking more questions about biology, and fewer about engineering.


"I reached an age when some of my peers were diagnosed with cancer," recalls Beebe. "I wanted the second half of my career to be more than pure academics."


Beebe's staff is finding ways to replicate how cancer spreads, something that wasn't possible just a few years ago.


Scott Berry, PhD, a research scientist in Beebe's lab, partners with oncologists Doug McNeel, MD, PhD, and Josh Lang, MD, MS, to isolate circulating tumor cells (CTCs). Employing a technique developed in Beebe's lab called IFAST (immiscible filtration assisted by surface tension), Berry and graduate student Ben Casavant look for CTCs in patient blood to predict how a cancer might spread.


Down the road, Berry sees how this technique could be used to individualize chemotherapy treatments on a patient-by-patient basis, targeting the specific tendencies of a person's cancer to spread to another part of the body.


"If we can isolate CTCs," he says, "we can learn how to determine which cells are likely to metastasize and which drugs could possibly prevent this outcome."


The IFAST technique has applications in other areas of medicine, too. Berry and others in Beebe's lab recently received a $2.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to apply the process to diagnose infectious diseases more rapidly in the developing world.


"Our hope is that these bold ideas lead to affordable, easy-to-use tools that can rapidly diagnose diseases and trigger timelier treatment in resource-poor communities," notes Beebe.


While Beebe's lab is growing – about 30 scientists currently work with him – he carefully chooses his new recruits. In fact, Beebe involves his current scientists in the selection process to ensure that new students fit into the philosophy he preaches.


And just what is that philosophy?


"I want people who are willing to go down a road and try something new," he preaches.


Learning the language of a new discipline involves taking chances and being willing to make mistakes. "Going from engineering to biology is not easy. There's no shortcut to learning."


"Ultimately, we're interested in moving things out of the lab and into products or medical practice," adds Beebe, who has started four companies based on the systems designed in his lab.


Beebe and researchers in his lab strive to make better treatments available for patients every day - and for them, collaboration leads to success.