University of Virginia biomedical engineer Kevin Janes investigates how cells "make decisions" for good or ill. His research could lead to new ways to diagnose, prevent and treat cancers.
Inside cells, there are a number of pathways involving proteins that together tell a cell what to do. Cancers arise as a result of malfunctioning signals, which "turn on" to instruct cells to grow abnormally, evade cell death or spread to other sites in the body. Janes investigates how these networks function and how they coordinate cell decisions.
Recently, his research has earned him a lot of money in research grants. In June '09 he was named a Pew Scholar, which came with a $240,000 award for four years. In September '09, the National Institutes of Health awarded him a $1.5 million, five-year New Innovator Award. In October '09 he earned a Packard Fellowship with an unrestricted grant of $875,000 over five years.
Why is his research seen as so innovative? "I think it's because I'm bringing a different perspective, as an engineer, to biological research," he said. "I use an engineering-systems approach, like an electrical engineer or a chemical engineer would use for studying a circuit board or a refinery, to
"Cancers are examples of abnormal signal processing — it's as if the circuits have suddenly become hardwired to be on all the time — where something says 'proliferate, proliferate, proliferate.' We want to understand why this happens so we can learn how to instruct the cell to say 'no' and behave normally."
Janes holds a doctorate in biomedical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and did his postdoctoral fellowship in cell biology at Harvard Medical School. He becamse assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia in 2008.