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Anything But Sluggish

news_2UC Santa Cruz’s Research Review Day highlights notable developments

From identifying the amino acids that cause cancer in specific cells to influencing city designs through video games, there is no problem too small or too large for UC Santa Cruz faculty to tackle. They showcased examples of how they are shaping the future from their labs in the forest at Baskin School of Engineering’s Research Review Day on Thursday, Oct. 20.

“The mission of a research university is to engage in cutting-edge research ... and impact society through production of technology,” says associate professor of computer science Michael Mateas, who also leads the school’s Center for Games and Playable Media research group. His work in computer game design was among that highlighted at Research Review Day.

Mateas spelled out how the games they are writing simulate the social interactions between individuals and whole societies—in games like Cityville and Prom Week—just as Pong modeled physical objects bouncing off each other in the 1970s.

“You take understandings from other disciplines—media studies, philosophy, anthropology and psychology—and apply those to games,” he says.

Mateas hopes these games will give people a better understanding of how individuals affect society. Not only are his students writing code that will push graphics technologies further; he says the code they are writing predicts such specific things as the facial expression and likely response of a teenager who is asked to the prom by someone who isn’t exactly their first choice for a date.

“As we build more and more rich simulations of social interactions, like in Prom Week, the real promise of games is that it allows players to develop these rich intuitions for how complex systems operate,” he says. “Someone who is trained in this way or was a gamer in teenage years may have a more intuitive understanding of complex systems than previous generations.”

Mateas says it is likely that games will soon compete with books and paintings as mediums to convey viewpoints on issues and situations. This will allow the audience to not only take in the artist’s ideas, but also to interact with them and add their own to the work.

The Biomolecular Engineering department is using the same collaborative approach in groundbreaking cancer research, as spotlighted at Research Review Day. Associate professor Josh Stuart says the more the patient and doctor know about the human genome, the easier it is to pinpoint the most effective treatment options. Led by Professor David Haussler, researchers are designing fat cells packed with compounds that make cancer causing amino acids self destruct without destroying the entire gene. This alternative would be a leap forward from chemotherapy which attacks the entire body.

Currently this can only be attempted if standard radiation treatments have failed. UCSC, in partnership with the National Institute of Health in Washington, D.C., is the main data collector for these experiments, which are being run at universities across the country. Their Genome Browser website is getting 17 million hits every month from people seeking knowledge for how to treat cancer by targeting selected cells.

Haussler hopes that once they show their results are consistent by posting millions of decoded genomes, the Food and Drug Administration will approve the techniques as a primary treatment. This will allow patients to avoid enduring the risky radiation treatments used today that shrink cancers to be removed surgically.

Haussler is proud of his department's work, but insists that they are just a piece of a worldwide effort working toward the same goal. In the past, work done by individual groups isolated from each other created conflicting results. He says that maintaining a collaborative spirit between patients, doctors and scientists is the best way to root out fluke results.

“I have been anxious to work with anyone who is willing to share the data. The first question I ask is 'are you willing to share the data with other researchers?' If the answer is 'no' I hang up,” says Haussler. “If all the best minds are looking at the data inconsistencies won't last.”

The ability to view the entire genome of the patients could also revolutionize follow up treatments to prevent the reemergence of cancers. Haussler says that soon a blood test will tell doctors whether the unique proteins in that patient’s tumor are replicating again.

Gathering information on lifestyle and background on patients is the one area he says is researchers wish they had more access. There simply isn't enough time for doctors to interview patients about how they have lived that may have caused their tumors. Professors say they would like to have more background data on the 10,000 patients they have decoded the genomes of, but it is just not possible with the workload of the average doctor.

“Seldom do we have lifestyle information associated with these data,” Haussler says. “Genome sequencing is now cheaper than collecting clinical information. It's unbelievable. That's reality.”  Photo: Keana Parker

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