Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh announced plans Monday for a joint research center aimed at studying diseases and potential therapies within living cells.

Researchers said the new National Technology Center for Networks and Pathways, which is to receive a $13.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health over the next five years, will pioneer new imaging technologies using fluorescent dyes.

"With these tools, we can study in detail how all the proteins are interacting with each other in real-time in the 3-D space of a living cell," said Alan Waggoner, a Carnegie Mellon professor and director of the new center.

The technology could be used to treat a wide variety of diseases, including cancer, dementia and stroke, said Dr. Norka Ruiz Bravo, deputy director for extramural research at the NIH.

She said it could allow for more "predictive, personalized, pre-emptive medicine."

The research could also lead to faster detection and diagnosis of diseases and help doctors prevent or treat them with drug therapies targeted to individual cells or molecules within the cells, researchers said.

Multicolored fluorescent dyes, or biosensors, developed by Waggoner, and laser imaging technologies designed by Simon Watkins, director of the Center for Biologic Imaging at the University of Pittsburgh, will be used to track specific cells and even proteins or molecules as they move through the body. Information technology designed at Carnegie Mellon helps to process the data.

Waggoner said the technology allows researchers to tell whether a specific protein is active or not. In the early stages of some cancers, a cluster or protein cells may be too active or not active enough, so the new technologies might one day allow drugs to be targeted to the affected molecules.

Neither the dyes nor the lasers harm the cells, researchers said.

About 40 researchers have been hired to work at the center.

Four other research centers have received NIH money for research into the molecular interaction between cells: the Burnham Institute, in La Jolla, Calif., received $18.3 million; Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, $17 million; Rockefeller University, in New York, $12.5 million; and the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, in Farmington, Conn., $12.3 million.