“High Risk, High Reward” | Penn State Biomedical Engineering Research Works to Solve Drug-Resistant Cancer | University Park Campus News

Every time a “dumb study” is published in a science paper, comedians point to it and say, “Okay, it’s cool that we found out that fruit flies like the color green, but do people do to cure cancer? Penn State graduate student Scott Leighow said.

Students working in Justin Pritchard’s lab focus on drug resistance to fight cancer problems – the reaction of resistant cancer to cancer drug treatment.

Pritchard, Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck, assistant professor of early career entrepreneurship and assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Penn State, alongside a team of students, said they used both the basic science and engineering to create a solution to drug resistant cancer. .

Pritchard’s research team, in collaboration with the University of Massachusetts, recently received a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, according to a statement.

“On some level, I think about that as we build the basic ideas of evolutionary biology and drug resistance, and we try to design something,” Pritchard said. “As long as we are very careful to understand when it fails and when it succeeds, we may learn something about basic biology that we didn’t know.”

Lung cancer is the current application, and the team is using mathematical models to build cells to understand how to change how tumors respond to drugs, Pritchard said.

“It’s definitely a pretty crazy idea, but it’s super cool and exciting,” Leighow said. “I thought there was a very good chance that one day this technology could help people. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean people don’t think of these therapies that way.

Zeyu Yang said the lab’s research is also working to create a safer treatment for cancer patients.

“One of the most conventional and widely used [treatments] is chemotherapy,” Yang (Senior Biomedical Engineering) said. “Obviously, there are well-known side effects because chemotherapy targets all rapidly growing cells, including hair cells, skin cells, and cells in the intestines and stomach.”

Yang said that due to the effects of chemotherapy, patients will face hair loss, damage to their endocrine system and damage to blood cell regeneration.


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A single cell resistant to cancer treatment drugs can cause cancer to come back, Yang said. The team is therefore focused on a product that produces the bystander effect – introducing cells that will become local treatment providers in the body and kill surrounding cancer cells. .

Targeted cancer therapy is the next generation therapy that targets specific cells, genes and proteins, which may be more effective in eradicating cancer due to fewer side effects and specificity of treatment, said Yang.

For Leighow’s research, he said he did a mix of engineering and research work in a lab. He writes software to model cancer, analyzes gene sequences and works with cells, drugs and DNA.

Leighow said he mixes them up in “fun and creative ways” in order to see what “cool evolution-guided therapies” they can come up with.

Yang said he is focused on verifying the concepts they are working on, but before the team can complete a clinical trial, a large number of trials must be tested.

Small-scale experiments should be done first, Yang said.

However, Leighow said he has started testing and verifying the concepts in mice, which he says is the “exciting next step in the process.”

Leighow said they were trying to build a system to solve the cancer treatment problem, which is a “different engineering scale.”

“It’s kind of an engineering paradigm. Rather than designing something for a particular purpose, you can also design something, build it, test it, and then use what you understand while designing it to understand the basic biology,” Pritchard said.

Pritchard said they were building a product they were interested in while learning new ideas about biology along the way.

The research is “a bit strange” and “high risk, high reward,” but Pritchard said they hope to learn a lot.

Lung cancer is a leading cause of death in the “Western world,” making it an important research application, Leighow said.

“It’s obviously a serious issue in terms of improving the lives of patients, but beyond that it means you’re not just improving the life of one person but of everyone who loves that person.” , Leighow said. “Cancer doesn’t just affect the person it inflicts – it’s a whole community of people.”


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