2023 Recipient — Daniel Heller, PhD

Daniel Heller holding research equipment, smiling, wearing lab coat in research lab

Daniel Heller, PhD

Perception-Based Detection of an Ovarian Cancer Disease Fingerprint

Project Summary

Ovarian cancer is difficult to treat especially because it is usually diagnosed at later stages. A better detection method for early-stage ovarian cancer would markedly improve survival rates and the quality of life for many women. Serum biomarker measurements are widely used for diagnosis of ovarian cancer and many other diseases, but these methods provide low sensitivity and specificity, especially if used for screening. Therefore, innovative approaches to improve detection are needed. We believe that the differentiation of diseased from normal biofluids may be achieved by the detection of a “disease fingerprint” through the collection of large data sets of molecular binding interactions to a set of sensors. We are building sensor arrays comprising modified carbon nanotubes (called organic color centers, OCCs) to accomplish this. In preliminary experiments, we found that a library of our nanosensors, using machine learning algorithms, reliably identified late stage ovarian cancer substantially better than the established, FDA-approved methods. We propose to further develop and validate sensor platform to enable the accurate screening of ovarian cancer. If successful, this sensor technology would be game-changing. It would substantially lower the rate of ovarian cancer patient deaths, and it could be rapidly adapted to the detection of many other diseases.

This grant was made possible in part by a generous donation from The Edmée Firth Fund for Research in Ovarian Cancer (EFFROC).


Dr. Daniel A. Heller, PhD, is Head of the Cancer Nanomedicine Laboratory, Bristol-Myers Squibb/James D. Robinson III Junior Faculty Chair, Member in the Molecular Pharmacology Program of the Sloan Kettering Institute at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Professor in the Department of Pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medicine, and a member of the Graduate Field Faculty in the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering at Cornell University. His work focuses on the development of nanoscale technologies for the treatment, diagnosis, and research of cancer. Dr. Heller obtained his PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2010, working in the laboratory of Michael Strano. He completed a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in the laboratory of Robert Langer at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT in 2012. He is a 2012 recipient of the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award, a 2015 Kavli Fellow, a 2017 recipient of the Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research, a 2018 American Cancer Society Research Scholar, a 2018 recipient of the CRS Nanomedicine and Nanoscale Drug Delivery Focus Group Junior Faculty Award, a 2018 NSF CAREER Awardee, a 2020 awardee of the Weill Cornell Graduate School Pharmacology Teaching and Mentoring Award, and a 2021 American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) Fellow.