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If the shoe fits . . . Cassandra Smith, ENG professor and deputy director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology, is convinced that the best approach to successfully fighting the war against cancer lies with aptamers (from the Greek word meaning "to fit"). Smith is engineering small single-stranded nucleic acids to mimic antibodies so that they can carry therapeutics agents directly to solid tumor masses or to individual cells that may have metastasized to other locations.

Scientists have tried with little success to develop tumor-specific antibodies. Although they can attach to tumor cells, antibodies are large molecules, making it difficult for them to penetrate solid tumors. Additionally, it has been very difficult to get highly selective antibodies, and they tend to lodge in the kidneys, never reaching their target.

Like antibodies, aptamers attach themselves to a target, but because of their size -- 10 to 100 times smaller than antibodies -- aptamers circulate easily throughout the body, making it possible for them to deliver a lethal dose of medication just where it is needed. Because the targeted areas can be very specific, and the doses of therapeutic agents are small, the devastation of conventional chemotherapy and radiation therapy on the body is avoided.

With the support of a grant from the Provost's Innovation Fund at BU, Smith has been able to develop a library of aptamers that bind to carcinogenic embryonic antigen (CEA), an antigen closely associated with breast cancer. She is now working in collaboration with Rosina M. Georgiadis, a CAS assistant professor of chemistry, to determine which aptamers have the greatest affinity for CEA. Smith is also developing new techniques that she expects will increase the specificity of the aptamers and enhance their effectiveness.

The Provost's Innovation Fund supports applications derived from basic research in science and engineering that have commercial potential and are likely to lead to patent applications, royalties on licenses, products, and companies. Requests to the Provost's Innovation Fund are invited from all faculty on the Charles River Campus. This year's application deadline is February 16, 2001, for projects beginning May 1, 2001. For more information, see

It's all in the timing . . . Elliot Saltzman, an associate professor of physical therapy at Sargent College, has been studying how people coordinate, in space and time, the complex series of movements needed to say even the simplest word or phrase. Now, with a four-year grant totaling more than $1 million from the National Institutes of Health, he will extend that work to movements of the fingers, hoping to gain a better understanding of movement disorders, such as those associated with Parkinson's disease.

Thus far Saltzman has focused on speech gestures, the coordinated patterns of movement in the tongue, lips, larynx, and jaw needed to produce a particular sound. He has examined how these movements occur in time relative to one another by having subjects with sensors attached to their lips, jaw, and tongue repeat words and sounds. The movements are recorded to produce computational models of common speech processes.

"Studying speech is challenging," says Saltzman. "We can measure tongue movement only in two dimensions because the technology is not yet available to measure in three dimensions with temporal accuracy." Limb movements, on the other hand, are more visible and far easier to measure. By developing an analogous system to study the timing patterns that control finger tapping, Saltzman expects to uncover common patterns in how individual gestures relate to one another over time to produce both movement and speech. He also hopes to gain a better understanding of how these patterns are coded in the nervous system. Understanding these patterns may provide valuable information to aid in post-traumatic rehabilitation, such as after a stroke, and hold the key to understanding how a disease such as Parkinson's disrupts speech and movement.

"Research Briefs" is written by Joan Schwartz in the Office of the Provost. To read more about BU research, visit


15 May 2003
Boston University
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