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Technology expert joins the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute’s center for cancer early detection

Mike Heller, Ph.D., brings a breadth of academic and industry experience to lead the center’s technology pillar
Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research Center
Mike Heller, Ph.D. (left) and Sadik Esener, Ph.D., meet with members of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute's Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research Center, or CEDAR. Heller is the new technology lead for CEDAR. (OHSU)

Today the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute announced that internationally renowned bioengineering and technology expert Mike Heller, Ph.D., will join the institute’s Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research Center, or CEDAR, to lead its technology efforts.

Mike Heller, Ph.D.
Mike Heller, Ph.D., technology lead for the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute’s Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research Center, or CEDAR. (OHSU)

A proven leader with more than 53 issued patents, Heller comes to OHSU from the University of California San Diego, where he established a laboratory centered in the university’s bioengineering and nanoengineering departments. He is credited with developing biochips to analyze blood for cancer biomarkers. As a Distinguished Scientist in CEDAR, he will continue to develop techniques and instruments to find the earliest signs of cancer in blood or other body fluids.

“A leader steeped in technology is crucial for the growth of our early detection initiative,” said Brian Druker, M.D., director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. “Early detection is a nascent field, which requires us to extend the limits of what we think is possible. Dr. Heller brings a wealth of leadership, industry and technical experience to this vitally important role.”

In addition to his academic experience, Heller previously served as chief technical officer at Nanogen, a company he co-founded with Sadik Esener, Ph.D., director of CEDAR. While at Nanogen, the two partners came up with the idea to use electro-kinetic devices to screen blood for early signs of cancer. Esener says Heller’s in-depth expertise in sample preparation and point of care instrumentation, along with his seasoned mentorship abilities, will be advantageous to CEDAR.

“Dr. Heller is unique in that he’s been highly successful in academia as well as the biomedical industry,” said Esener. “Because he is at the forefront of technology, his inventions have been innovative and easily made the transition to the industry. A leader with this range of experience will be invaluable to our team.”

Heller says he is looking forward to taking on one of the biggest unmet needs in cancer care today.

“Early detection is one of the biggest cancer challenges,” said Heller. “There’s an enormous amount of work going on in cancer—research, therapeutics and diagnostics — but not many people are focusing on early detection research. This is what drew me to OHSU. It’s the right approach, the right team, the right time — and there’s excitement here that I haven’t seen anywhere else.”

To date, more than 20 people with expertise in engineering, cancer biology, informatics, and computer science have been recruited to the CEDAR team.

Esener and colleagues have outlined six key areas of focus for CEDAR, including:

  • Early technology: to provide innovative tools to support early detection in all focus areas
  • Early biology: to study the essential characteristics of cells and their microenvironment to determine what creates cancer
  • Population health: to focus on studying genetic predispositions and high-risk phenotypes to identify high-risk individuals and create effective cancer screening strategies
  • Individual risk assessment: to better understand cancer from a population level and determine the underlying causes of cancer risk.
  • Prognosis assessment: to prevent overdiagnosis and treatment that might lead to a reduction on quality of life
  • Early therapeutics: to develop precision therapies that can be applied at the onset of lethal cancers with the goal of turning them into chronic diseases

The recruitment of Heller is made possible through OHSU’s successful completion of the $1 billion Knight Cancer Challenge by Nike co-founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny. Heller’s recruitment signifies an important step in the Knight Cancer Institute’s goal to recruit 20 to 30 top researchers and their teams.

Heller’s official start date is July 3.

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