Composing jazz for cancer detection research


  • Daniel Heller (Nanotechnology, Biomedical Engineer) 
  • Nick Dunston (Music / Jazz / Bass)


Combining materials science, nanotechnology, and biomedical engineering, the Heller lab works on tiny solutions to big problems. The focus of the lab is the development of new types of nanoscale (extremely small!) materials that are designed specifically to solve clinical problems. For example, the lab is developing carbon nanotube-based sensors to detect early-stage cancers, as well as nanoparticles to target drugs to metastatic tumors. Working at the intersection of researchers who are striving to understand the causes of cancer and with physicians who understand the clinical realities of the disease, the Heller lab stands to develop therapies that improve patient survival and quality of life.

“Subtle Treatment” is Dunston's first commissioned composition. Dunston describes his work as being "modeled with the mindset of the score to a short film. The short film being what I envisioned when examining Dr. Daniel Heller’s work."


Nick Dunston

Music / Jazz / Bass

Nick Dunston was born in Washington D.C. and raised in New York City, Nick’s musical training started formally on the cello at age 5, then the trombone at age 13. He started playing the electric bass in middle school, playing in various school ensembles and in bands with classmates. This eventually led to taking classical bass lessons at the Juilliard MAP program, and playing in school and community jazz ensembles. Nick has received outstanding soloist awards from the Charles Mingus High School Jazz competition, as well as the Essentially Ellington Regional Jazz competition. He is also a recipient of the LaGuardia Arts High School Composer’s award. Nick has performed with musicians such as Bruce Barth, Don Sickler, Mark Sherman, Terrell Stafford, and Scott Robinson. He currently studies privately with Linda Oh, and will be attending The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in the fall of 2014. As a bassist, Nick is extremely versatile. While he is rooted in jazz and contemporary music, he has a strong foundation and interest in other types of music, such as pop, folk, alternative rock, funk, and hip hop. He strongly believes that whether it comes to playing or composing, all musicians should strive for honesty, thoughtfulness, individuality, and innovation.

Daniel Heller

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; Molecular Pharmacology & Chemistry Program

Daniel Heller’s research focus is rooted in Nanotechnology. Nanotechnology can be defined as manipulation of matter and/or molecules with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers – so, extremely (!) tiny. Nanotechnology as defined by size is naturally very broad and as such nanotechnology has the potential for a variety applications for research, industrial, and military use. Advances in nanotechnology may be able to create many new materials and devices with a vast range of applications, such as in medicine, electronics, biomaterials and energy production. Nanotechnology offers some of its greatest potential contributions in the precise control of molecular binding events and the transduction of binding phenomena – for example, such as that occurs when two cells in your body are communicating with each other – often through a chemical mediator that physically binds to the surface of the cell, also referred to as signaling.

The Heller lab is committed to employing the potential of nanotechnology for two crucial pursuits: the early detection of cancer, and the innovative treatment of metastatic disease. With a background in materials science, nanotechnology, and biomedical engineering, Daniel and his lab develop different nanomaterials that are able to target metastatic cancer in order to deliver crucial therapies. By collaborating with researchers who are striving to understand the causes of cancer, and with physicians who understand the clinical realities of the disease, we have a great chance to solve real clinical problems and develop therapies that improve patient survival and quality of life.

The Heller lab is also developing nanoscale sensors to detect cancer at its earliest stages. Using novel nanomaterials with unique optical (visual) properties, the lab is improving the ability to detect cancer biomarkers in the body, permitting detection before symptoms arise. In addition, these nanotechnologies allow cancer biologists to measure important biological molecules within live cells, allowing them to ask unprecedented questions and offering new tools to potentially accelerate biomedical research in many areas.