Shedding Light on Einstein's New Trans-Atlantic Collaboration

In an exciting development, the Gruss Lipper Biophotonics Center (GLBC) at Einstein and the Centre of Biophotonics (CoB) at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland are renewing their longstanding collaboration, marking a significant chapter in their trans-Atlantic partnership.

Michael B. Prystowsky, M.D., Ph.D.

Michael B. Prystowsky, M.D., Ph.D.

The renewed alliance is a testament to the dynamic field of biophotonics, which uses light to study and manipulate biological matter in various ways, from examining how cells function to diagnosing diseases. By combining the GLBC's focus on developing and applying novel microscopy techniques and pioneering biomedical research with CoB's innovative microscopic and instrumental technologies, the centers aim to bridge the gap between understanding fundamental biological processes and applying that knowledge in practical ways to improve human health. 

Building Upon an Established Collaboration

The roots of this collaboration stretch back over a decade when Michael Prystowsky, MD, PhD, a renowned head and neck cancer researcher, professor of pathology, and chair of the pathology department at Montefiore Einstein, delivered a lecture at St. Andrews' Biology department. His mention of Willin/FRMD6, a neuronal protein associated with Alzheimer's disease, captured the interest of Frank Gunn-Moore, BSc, PhD, FRSB, FRSE, a distinguished St. Andrews biology professor focusing on Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases. This initial connection led to the first step in their fruitful collaboration.

James M. Pullman, M.D., Ph.D.

James M. Pullman, M.D., Ph.D.

At the same time, Dr. Gunn-Moore teamed up with St. Andrews colleague Kishan Dholakia, PhD, a professor of physics and anatomy exploring laser and biophotonics, to find clinical partners for biomedical applications. This effort drew in Dr. Prystowsky and James Pullman, MD, PhD, a Montefiore Einstein expert in anatomic pathology with a background in physical optics who was researching renal disease.

This alliance yielded transformative clinical methodologies, such as structured illumination microscopy (SIM) – a higher resolution imaging technique than electron microscopy - to diagnose renal disease. The journal Biomedical Optics Express published the collaborative study's findings in 2016. 

Dr. Gunn-Moore, the visionary with Dr. Dholakia behind establishing St. Andrews' CoB and its inaugural director, emphasizes that beyond publications and grants, the true legacy lies in nurturing the next generation of researchers and fostering a culture of idea exchange and innovation. "As I always tell my students, the only thing that limits us is our imagination," he said.

Celebrating Collaboration

On March 15, 2024, the centers will host their first joint biophotonics webinar: Promoting Light-4-Life Alliances Across the Atlantic. This virtual half-day event will feature presentations highlighting research and educational initiatives between the two institutions, inviting participation from all interested individuals. See details below.

Drs. David Entenberg, Julio A. Aguirre-Ghiso and Vladislav Verkhusha
Drs. David Entenberg, Julio A. Aguirre-Ghiso and Vladislav Verkhusha

A Q&A with David Entenberg, PhD, Co-Director, Einstein GLBC

The Scope talked to David Entenberg, PhD, about the focus of the GLBC, its renewed trans-Atlantic collaboration, and the upcoming webinar. Dr. Entenberg, a trained physicist-turned-biomedical scientist who studies cancer metastasis and builds microscopes, is an associate professor of pathology, leader of the Computational Analysis of Biomarkers program within Einstein’s Integrated Imaging Program for Cancer Research, and a co-director of the GLBC along with Julio Aguirre-Ghiso, PhD, professor in the departments of Cell Biology, Oncology, and Medicine, and Vladislav Verkhusha, PhD, professor of genetics.

Can you describe your Gruss Lipper Biophotonics Center role and how your expertise complements your co-directors?

DE: Julio, Vlad, and I have collaborated for over a dozen years; we are a good trio. We have highly complementary sets of expertise. Julio's background is in metastasis, dormancy, and clinical and biological applications. Vlad's background is in fluorescent proteins, biosensors, and optogenetics. My expertise is the technology. I'm trained as a physicist and am skilled at building microscopes. Still, I became more interested in using my knowledge of biology to investigate mechanisms of cancer metastasis and translate basic science findings into clinical applications. I bring skills in computational analysis of patient samples for developing and validating biomarkers, machine vision, surgical engineering for intravital imaging, etc.

What is the focus of GLBC, and what does it bring to the collaboration with St. Andrews?

DE: When Drs. John Condeelis and Rob Singer first established the GLBC its focus was on developing hardware and instrumentation to use light and investigate biological samples. With that focus, I've worked in the center to build several laser-based microscopes, including a multi-photon microscope that allows us to view cell-to-cell interactions inside living animals. That development continues today, but the center's focus has shifted. Many companies and centers have become very good at developing hardware and instrumentation. One major strength of the GLBC is its integration of imaging, microfluidics, and molecular technologies to advance our mechanistic understanding of biological systems through what we call functional imaging. What's also unique about the GLBC is its real vertical integration—from molecules to people. So, we've created six interconnected programs that are all closely linked and interrelated, each addressing a different scale of biological organization. We'll present these six programs in the webinar. Included in these six are new efforts we're putting forward to build new computational methods for image acquisition and analysis using machine learning and artificial intelligence.

What makes St. Andrews an attractive collaborative partner?

DE: The researchers at St. Andrews have wide-ranging expertise. They bring a strong physics background and a focus on building scientific instrumentation, which complements our application-focused research at Einstein. They can contribute significantly to our efforts by developing new technologies that further what biological research can achieve. 

How did this renewed collaboration with St. Andrews come to fruition?

DE: A change in the leadership at the GLBC presented an opportunity to build upon Dr. Prystowsky's longstanding relationship with St. Andrews. Toward the end of the COVID pandemic, Dr. Prystowsky put me in contact with the people he knew there, and the leadership of both centers met by Zoom. We discussed how we could interact and foster this partnership more broadly. The driving motivator for the joint symposium is to give exposure to the various members of the biophotonic centers, learn about the other activities and research programs, and identify areas where we can collaborate across the Atlantic.

What are the short-term and long-term expectations from the St. Andrews collaboration?

DE: In the short term, we aim to share techniques and research approaches. For the long term, we're looking to establish robust collaborations that could lead to trans-Atlantic funding opportunities for sustained research endeavors, focusing on shared challenges in biophotonics and its health applications. 

Have collaborations like these led to significant discoveries in the past?

DE: Yes, collaborations have been instrumental in our center's research. For example, our collaboration with Dr. Aguirre-Ghiso when he was at Mount Sinai revealed that tumor cells can metastasize at much earlier stages than previously believed. It took some time for the community to accept the discovery. When a patient is diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, it's generally thought that it's a completely curable disease. However, our collaborative research found that it is possible, even at that early stage, for the cells to spread and lie dormant in secondary sites like the bone marrow and the lung for many years. We recently submitted a joint Program Project Grant proposal to NCI, their largest basic research team grant system, with several other institutions, with Dr. Aguirre-Ghiso at Einstein as the lead.  

Will there be opportunities for trainees or students through this collaboration?

DE: We are very much open to that possibility. We would love to establish exchange opportunities for trainees and students. It will hinge on securing the necessary funding to support such initiatives.

Will there be interactive components during the symposium?

DE: Absolutely. We plan a structured yet interactive seminar with an introduction, talks, question sessions, and a concluding open discussion to encourage engagement and potential new collaborations.

What do you hope to gain from the upcoming joint symposium?

DE: We want to offer participants exposure to the different members of the biophotonics centers, as well as the opportunity to learn about the range of activities and research programs that are taking place in each center. And to identify areas where we could collaborate across the Atlantic.

Who should attend the half-day virtual webinar?

DE: It's open to everyone – students, faculty, clinicians, basic scientists – anyone interested in learning unique ways of investigating biological phenomena.

Join the Einstein GLBC and St. Andrews CoB for:

The First Joint Biophotonics Webinar: 
Promoting Light-4-Life Alliances across the Atlantic
Friday, March 15, 2024, 9 am -12 pm (NY); 2 pm -5 pm (Scotland)
Via Zoom.
Presentations will highlight research and education between these two centers. Students, postdocs, staff, and faculty are welcome to attend. See the flyer for webinar details, including speaker bios and agenda.