Biological and Medical Physics
Biological and Medical Physics has been a significant research concentration within the Physics Department for more than 25 years. In contrast to Biophysics, where understanding the underlying fundamental physics of living systems is the primary goal, Medical Physics generally focuses on anatomical (usually human) entities as a whole. Consequently, it often involves imaging studies or radiation treatments, usually in hospital or other clinical settings. The Physics Department at Northeastern offers a unique undergraduate degree in Biomedical Physics that that covers both areas and which can also be configured as an undergraduate pre-med major. The clinical applications of biomedical physics are taught via seminar courses in local venues and hospital settings.
Study and employment within this very broad concentration spans multiple areas. The Physics Department at Northeastern offers research projects to both undergraduate and graduate students that extend from the development and understanding of novel molecular-scale detection devices and structure-function-dynamics relationships (e.g., in DNA, RNA and proteins) to the larger scale dynamics and function of tissue and organisms (e.g., neural connectivity and signaling, heart muscle contractility, cellular motility, as well as cancer cell detection and eradication). Finally, studies taking place at the associated Network Science Institute include the regime of complex networks, where many interacting components work together to yield systems with novel emergent behavior and properties.
More specifically, within the Physics Department students can find potential biologically and medically related research projects that include:
Studies of biomolecular systems at the nanoscale (macromolecular and sub-molecular levels) and even the single-molecule level. New tools are developed for such studies, associated with bioelectronic and biomaterial applications. A wide variety of techniques are used in the lab, including micro- and nano-fabrication, organic and inorganic thin film deposition, and more.
Optical tweezers, which are used to manipulate single molecules (such as DNA) and measure the conformational and binding forces involved in their stability and their interactions with proteins. This approach provides unique insights into the function of these proteins in the cell.
Work at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory that reveals how low frequency motions in biomolecules participate in biological reactions. This work is also correlated with infrared spectroscopy measurements that take place at Northeastern.
Studies using femtosecond lasers that probe coherent oscillations of biomolecules. These measurements reveal protein specific motions that can be thermally excited and facilitate important biological reactions such as the quantum mechanical tunneling of protons and electrons at room temperature.
Efforts focused on the understanding of basic cause of “cardiac arrhythmias”, or irregular heart rhythms. One focus is ventricular fibrillation, a turbulent rhythm that stops the heart from pumping and is the leading cause of sudden death among industrialized nations. The cellular mechanism of calcium waves and triggered activity within the heart is elucidated using advanced computational methods.
Imaging analysis of neural circuits in the mammalian cerebral cortex. These studies are carried out using advanced computational methods that utilize the theoretical methods of statistical physics in order to probe the basic principles governing the neural circuit organization and function.
Studies that elucidate the organizing principles governing the complex emergence and behavior of a wide range of technological, biological, and social networks, which take place at the Network Science Institute. In the biological area, protein-chip and microarray gene expression data are used to study metabolic, signaling and transcription-regulatory networks that are the key for understanding the cell’s functional organization. Additional research involves the spreading of human infectious diseases and the design, implementation, deployment, and maintenance of computational infrastructures for epidemics research. This includes the network of interactions by human travel fluxes corresponding to transportation infrastructures and mobility patterns.
The nanotechnology revolution has enabled novel approaches to addressing the major problems of disease diagnosis and therapy, leading to the emergence of nanomedicine as a new paradigm for diagnosis and therapy. Nanoplatforms offer the potential for significant improvements in multi-modal imaging, targeted delivery of therapeutics, and monitoring of outcomes. Magnetic liposomal nanoplatforms for theranostics combine multiple functionalities including imaging, magnetic guidance to the disease site, and delivery of the drug payload. In vivo multimodal imaging using MRI, SPECT and FMT using these nanoplatforms has already been demonstrated.
The use of advanced optical imaging technology in tandem with new molecular-targeted probes for the optical biopsy of cancer to detect precancerous lesions, to guide targeted therapies, and to monitor the mechanisms of treatment escape by cancer cells related to tumor heterogeneity and drug-resistance at the molecular level.
Methods of theoretical and computational physics used to study the mechanics of tissues and collective cell migration. This work has applications to development, cancer metastasis and disease progression. The relationship between cell shapes and tissue-level mechanical response is analyzed along with the connection between heterogeneities in cancer tumors and their metastatic behavior.
Studies of the neurophysiology of C. elegans from its birth to adulthood, which reveals the detailed relationship between the developing nervous system and the animal behavior. Advanced neurotechnology and microscopy techniques are used to measure large populations of neurons in freely behaving animals, while simultaneously recording their movements and motor decisions.
Studies of the biomolecular dynamics of supramolecular biosystems and molecular machines using a combination of theoretical modeling and high-performance computing. Focus areas span from biomolecular order-disorder transitions and energy transduction processes in proteins and ribonucleic acid folding, to large-scale conformational rearrangements in molecular machines such as the ribosome.