From Atlanta to Addis Ababa

Dr. Manu Platt, a professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, recently travelled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to conduct breast cancer research. In Ethiopia, breast cancer is very prevalent among young women in their 20s, and is characterized by very aggressive tumors which make treatment difficult. Alongside two of his graduate students, Dr. Platt visited Ethiopia in hopes of testing tissue samples and teaching Ethiopian graduate students how to use an assay developed by Dr. Platt during his first year as a professor at Georgia Tech.

Dr. Platt’s research focuses on proteases, which play an important role in tumor metastasis. Proteases are enzymes secreted by cancer cells which help break down the matrix around a primary tumor. Breaking down this matrix allows the cancer cells to migrate and possibly form secondary tumors elsewhere in the body. Dr. Platt and his team hoped to use a cheap and rapid assay to look for changes in protease activity between matched normal and tumor tissue samples. The goal of this research was to determine whether the tumors observed were either more aggressive than those observed in other countries or if the tumors were beginning to form earlier.

The assay Dr. Platt previously developed for use in HIV research was already low-cost and could be run with just a few reagents. However, after encountering some new challenges while conducting research in Ethiopia, Dr. Platt and his students identified ways to make the assay just as effective with fewer starting materials. Making this assay cheaper, faster, and more automated has the potential to give this research valuable clinical applications in low resource areas.

As Dr. Platt reflected on his journey to Ethiopia, he emphasized the importance of biomedical engineers who think outside of the box and create new technologies to circumvent old problems. He also noted the difference between developing technologies for low-resource settings in theory and using these technologies in practice. In order to make an impact, as Dr. Platt noted, the technology must function properly and add value in the environment for which it was designed; otherwise, the technology simply does not reach the people for whom it was designed help.