Tiny Solutions for Big Problems: A Visit to the Lab of Daniel Heller


Chemist and engineer Daniel Heller makes nanoscale materials that are specially designed to improve biological research or solve clinical problems. Using their diverse sets of expertise, members of his lab work closely together to speed developments in cancer research, diagnosis, and treatment.

The day we visited the lab, team members were busy developing carbon nanotube­–based sensors to detect early-stage cancers, as well as nanoparticles to target drugs that treat metastatic tumors — but they still made time to eat lunch outside on a sunny day.

What follows is the video transcript.

My name is Dan Heller. I am a lab head at Memorial Sloan Kettering in the Sloan Kettering Institute, and my lab focuses on nanotechnologies for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Here in the lab we’re trying to make nanoparticles that will actually target and stick to the sites of cancer. The goal here — after we make these nanoparticles — is to encapsulate drugs into them, and work with clinicians to move them to the bedside. There is a lot of potential in nanotechnology. If the particles can bring a drug to the site of a metastatic disease, people won’t feel as many side effects, and it could be a more-effective therapy.

I came from a physical chemistry background. Working with engineers, I was able to learn about optical properties of nanotubes and how we can make sensors out of them. I was able to come to Memorial Sloan Kettering and apply that in a very different and new way.

Nanomaterials are really exciting because at a very small scale, they have very different and exciting properties — like, carbon nanotubes can give off light that can penetrate biological materials like skin, and they can be used to make sensors. So our nanosensors can detect molecules in real time inside of living tissues — and inside of living cells — in animals.

Memorial Sloan Kettering has a critical mass of nanotechnologists who are applying nanomaterials to treat patient diseases and to understand the cancer biology. I’m surrounded by people who have biological and clinical problems to solve.

Coming to Memorial Sloan Kettering afforded me the ability to recruit a team with very different fields of expertise. I found a polymer chemist at the top of her field, making a very rare type of material; an engineer who understands nanomaterials; a pharmacology student who understands the biological interactions of drugs; and a physicist who builds fluorescence microscopes.

Members of the lab are working together very closely because each one has his or her own area of expertise, and together they are a lot more than the sum of their parts. What’s really rewarding is to see them all interact and see what really unique things they are able to come up with. Together we are able to make technologies do things that no one else can in the world, and that’s really exciting.

What I really love about my job is that I can do what I enjoy and get into the details and technical issues of my science, but then I can go home realizing that I’ve done something that might improve human lives.


Commenting is disabled for this blog post.

I have been recently diagnosed for endometrial cancer. After my surgery in mid- Mar 2014, I have now been advised chemotherapy. I am very scared of the side effects and was wondering if nanotechnology can be used as adjuvant therapy.

Dear Omi, we are sorry to hear about your diagnosis. This technology is still early and experimental. We would encourage you to go back to your oncologist to discuss what can be done to minimize any potential side effects expected with your upcoming chemotherapy.

For more information about managing the physical and emotional side effects of treatment, go to: http://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/survivorship/physical-effects

Thanks for reaching out to us.

It is now nearly two years since I last interacted with you can you please update me on the status of your research

Omi, thank you for reaching out again. The nanotechnology research discussed in this article is still in the investigative stages and has not yet entered clinical trials.

You can find a full listing of clinical trials for endometrial cancer here to see if there is one in your area:


You also can learn more about treatment for endometrial cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering here:


Otherwise, we recommend you consult with your treatment team for your best options.

If you would like to make an appointment with a Memorial Sloan Kettering physician, please call our Physician Referral Service at

800-525-2225 or go https://www.mskcc.org/experience/become-patient/appointment

Thanks for your comment.

As I understand one area of your research is the use of nano particles to target drugs that treat metastatic tumors. In my case the drug that has been effective is known. So instead of chemo therapy can nano particles be used to deliver the drug(s).

Thank you for your comment. These kinds of nanoparticles are still in the early stages of being evaluated, and it’s too early to say how they will be effective, and with which drugs.