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Chemical engineering students win Pelotonia cancer research fellowships

They’ve all had friends or family members who have been afflicted by the disease, but as problem-solvers, this only intensifies their desire to apply their skills towards something meaningful: finding ways to combat cancer.

Donald BelcherDonald Belcher“I am constantly looking for ways to implement techniques or materials from my current research to increase the effectiveness of cancer therapeutics,” said Donald Belcher, a graduate student in chemical engineering who recently won a Pelotonia Fellowship to support his research, which could drastically improve chemotherapy.

Ivan Pires, an undergraduate student from Brazil who also won a fellowship, shared a similar viewpoint. “I really want to do something that can help others and have an impact on the world,” he said. “Cancer is one of the greatest problems that humans face. As life expectancy increases, so does the chance of people developing some sort of cancer.”

Chia-Wen ChangChia-Wen ChangThe truth of that statement was brought home to graduate student Chia-Wen Chang, another Pelotonia winner, when his grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago.

“I never thought I would work in the field of cancer research, since chemical engineering training focuses on transport, kinetics and thermodynamics, etc.,” said Chang.

"Fortunately, my grandma was cured, but the experience led me to further consider how a controlled application of engineering techniques could help to advance cancer research more effectively.," Chang said.

Belcher, Chang and Pires are among 42 students university-wide to win a fellowship from Pelotonia, an annual Columbus bicycling event founded in 2008 which has raised more than $130 million to fund cancer research at The Ohio State University.

Cancer research at Ohio State is wide-ranging and involves many different aspects. “Pelotonia is a community in which people from different training backgrounds can contribute to cancer research,” Chang said. “With everyone’s little steps forward, I hope that we can look forward to stopping cancer one day.”

With his fellowship, Chang will study the role of the lymphatic vessel in tumor microenvironments using biochemical and mechanical stimulations. Lymphatic metastasis is a crucial factor in a patient’s survival rate, because it is hard to discover and stop once it occurs. Chang hopes the insights he gains will inform further clinical studies to reduce or even cease lymphatic metastasis.

"We strive to create disease models that accurately recreate both the physical dynamics and the physiology of tumors to hopefully answer in a precise way important questions in cancer biology," said Chang's advisor, Jonathan Song.

Since it is still challenging to study lymphatic vessels in real animal models, Chang developed a lymphatic vessel microfluidic analogue to study lymphatic vessels in tumor microenvironments. Lymphatic endothelial cells are cultured inside a developed microfluidic device where he represents both biochemical and mechanical stimulations of cancer environments to study the changes of lymphatic vessels properties and functions. He is looking for the correlations between lymphatic vessels remodeling and the interplay of tumor microenvironmental cues.  

Ivan PiresIvan PiresIvan Pires’ research focuses on improving photodynamic therapy (PDT) for targeted treatment of triple-negative breast cancer. Pires is using a protein called apohemoglobin (apoHb) as a drug carrier to deliver photosensitizer molecules to cancerous cells. ApoHb is obtained by removing heme from hemoglobin (Hb). Hb is the protein responsible for the oxygen storage and transport properties of red blood cells. Because apoHb has no heme groups, apoHb is capable of binding a variety of drug molecules (in this case photosensitizer molecules). Ivan aims to study the binding of potent photosensitizers to apoHb to improve PDT of cancers. PDT relies on delivering photosensitive molecules to cancer cells and subsequently exposing those cells to light, which in turn destroys the cancerous cells.

Pires got the idea for his research while working in Professor Andre Palmer's Artificial Blood Research Lab, where he was purifying hemoglobin for use in synthesizing hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers for use as red blood cell substitutes. Through that work, he wrote his first research proposal and was granted the Undergraduate Research Office Summer Research Fellowship, which supported his research full time during the summer of 2016.

Meanwhile, Donald Belcher’s research takes a totally different tack.

“New therapies that can increase the response rate of chemotherapies represent an urgent unmet clinical need,” said Belcher, whose previous research under Dr. Palmer on the development of hemoglobin oxygen carriers (HBOCs) and artificial red blood cell substitutes also influenced the direction of his current research.

“During my work with Dr. Palmer developing HBOCs, we observed that an interesting side effect of the chemical modifications process used to synthesize the materials resulted in elevated oxygen delivery to oxygen poor-regions similar to those in the interior of a tumor,” he said.

However, one can’t design the best HBOC and dosing regimen based on HBOC knowledge alone. It must be done in context, but previous research on HBOCs in cancer oxygenation is sparse, and tumors themselves can significantly change the level and patterns of oxygen delivery to the surrounding tissue. In an effort to take these factors into consideration, Belcher is implementing novel computational models that will help researchers understand how and when the HBOCs they develop could best improve oxygen delivery to tumor tissue.