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Heller Named New Head of Reidy Center

Richard Heller, the renowned cancer researcher and pioneer in the use of electrogenetherapy who was recruited earlier this year to the Old Dominion University faculty, will become executive director of the university's Frank Reidy Research Center for Bioelectrics on July 25.

"An important strength of the Frank Reidy Research Center for Bioelectrics is that it includes both engineers and biologists working side by side," said Heller. "This structure affords us a tremendous opportunity to develop approaches and instrumentation that would be effective in treating, preventing or diagnosing several types of diseases including cancer. The center will also play an important role in the training of the next generation of multidisciplinary scientists."

Heller will succeed the center's founder, Karl Schoenbach, eminent scholar and Batten Endowed Chair in Bioelectric Engineering, said Mohammad Karim, vice president for research. Schoenbach, who is recognized worldwide as one of the founders of the field of bioelectrics, will continue to be a researcher at the Reidy Center.

"Professor Schoenbach was literally the first to cultivate the field of bioelectrics from ground up by developing and anchoring analytical, theoretical and experimental aspects of cold plasma for use in many significant applications," said Karim. "Because of his leadership, the bioelectrics center brought together the brightest minds from universities across the globe and now serves as a model for similar institutes across the country and in China, Germany and Japan."

Karim announced in April that Richard Heller and his wife, Loree, both of whom do research in electrogenetherapy, would be joining the ODU faculty as researchers at the Reidy Center. Their expertise promises to advance the center's already groundbreaking research in cancer therapies that utilize ultrafast pulses of electricity.

Schoenbach welcomed his new colleague, and said he was looking forward to spending more time doing hands-on research.

"I am glad that I will have an opportunity to devote more time to spend on hands-on research in the lab, particularly on an exciting and newly developing project," he said. "I will, of course, continue to support my colleagues in our collective bioelectrics research."

The Hellers are moving from faculty positions at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. In addition to the Bioelectrics Center appointment, Richard Heller will assume a position as professor in the ODU College of Health Science's School of Medical Laboratory and Radiation Sciences.

"We are very fortunate to have Richard and Loree Heller joining us," Schoenbach said in April. "Their research will allow us to greatly expand our efforts to develop new electrotherapies for cancer treatment."

Karim has called the Hellers' recruitment a "major coup" for ODU. An article June 5 in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times named Richard Heller as one of the notable scientists leaving Florida as a part of a so-called "brain drain."

The Hellers are known in the field of bioelectrics for their success with the delivery of molecules into live, target cells by means of electroporation. Pulses of electricity, in effect, open the membrane of live cells-tumor cells, for example-temporarily, allowing the delivery of molecules to the cells. The deliveries could be of genetic material or drugs, both of which can serve as pinpoint applications of therapies against cancer or other maladies. This procedure allows tumors to be targeted for treatment without the broad damage to healthy tissue caused by most chemotherapies today.

In gene therapy via electroporation, the deliveries might be of anti-tumor agents such as the so-called "suicide" genes, or of genes encoding toxins. Still other deliveries might be of immune modulators that reduce the immunity of cancer cells to the body's own defenses. The Hellers have reported significant tumor regression from their gene therapies.

Richard Heller currently is supported by $5 million in research funding, mostly from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Previous support from the NIH, National Cancer Institute and many other public and private sources totaled another $5 million. In 2004 he received the Iwao Yasuda Award from the Society for Physical Regulation in Biology and Medicine, and the Fellow Award of the Society for In Vitro Biology. The next year he won the latter society's Distinguished Service Award.

Most recently he has been professor of molecular medicine and chemical engineering and co-director of the Center for Molecular Delivery at USF. He received his Ph.D. in medical sciences with specialization in medical microbiology and immunology from the USF School of Medicine in 1989.

Loree Heller is currently supported by a $400,000 NIH grant, and has completed another $500,000 in supported research. She leaves positions as an assistant professor of molecular medicine at USF and a clinical scientist for Tampa General Hospital.

Research by the couple complements the advances made by Schoenbach and other ODU researchers. Two years ago, a team at the Bioelectrics Center reported research showing that millionth-of-a-second pulses of electricity alone will destroy tumor cells and bring complete remission of melanomas on the skin of mice. The researchers also have reported the development of strategies using antennas to zap tumors inside the body.

The formal mission of the Bioelectrics Center is to increase scientific knowledge and understanding of how electromagnetic fields interact with biological cells, and to apply this knowledge to the development of medical diagnostics and therapeutics, as well as environmental decontamination. The mission has been supported by numerous grants, including substantial support from federal agencies. The largest such award was $5 million from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to establish a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative in bioelectrics.

The center is named for Frank Reidy, a Hampton Roads-based entrepreneur who has been the facility's chief benefactor.

The Bioelectrics Center and Schoenbach, via ODU, led the research initiative that brought together bioelectrics and related researchers from the Harvard/MIT Health Science Center, University of Texas Health Sciences Center, Washington University, the University of Wisconsin and Eastern Virginia Medical School.

In addition, the center has leveraged the increasing interest in bioelectrics outside the United States. An international research consortium for bioelectrics formed in 2005 had ODU, Kumamato University in Japan and Universitaet Karlsruhe in Germany as founding members. In 2006, the University of Missouri and the Institute for Low Temperature Plasma Physics in Greifswald, Germany, joined the consortium.

This article was posted on: June 11, 2008

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