Virginia Tech graduate student receives NSF grant to examine new treatments for pancreatic cancer
Jessica Gannon, a recent Mechanical Engineering graduate from Virginia Tech, will continue her education and research as a PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering through Virginia Tech – Wake Forest University’s School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences.
With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program, Gannon will examine alternative treatments for pancreatic cancer. She is one of six graduate students from the College of Engineering who received the prestigious scholarship this year. The Research Fellowship program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who have demonstrated their potential for significant research achievements.
In the Therapeutic Ultrasound and Non-Invasive Therapies Lab, Gannon studies a form of focused ultrasound known as histotripsy in the context of treating pancreatic cancer, which is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the States. United, according to recent studies.
“I was delighted to receive this prestigious award,” said Gannon, who also has a minor in biomedical engineering. “I am more than grateful to have this opportunity where I can continue to conduct the research that I am so passionate about, while being supported by the NSF. My research allows me to continue the fight against cancer, which my father unfortunately has lost his life. During my doctoral studies, I hope to develop focused ultrasound as a non-invasive ablation modality as an alternative treatment option for pancreatic cancer. “
Invented at the University of Michigan lab where Eli Vlaisavljevich, assistant professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering and mentor to Gannon, completed his graduate studies, the term “histotripsy” combines “histo”, which means “tissue” and “tripsie”. , which means “failure.” Histotripsy uses high pressure ultrasonic pulses to create clouds of bubbles in a process called cavitation. As they rapidly expand and collapse, these clouds disintegrate targeted cells and tissues.
As a form of cancer therapy, histotripsy uses ultrasound imaging to monitor treatments in real time, making it non-invasive with minimal side effects. So far, histotripsy has shown promising results in clinical studies of liver cancer.
It is particularly difficult to access the pancreas and treat cancer because of its position in the body, behind the stomach. There are limits to targeting cancerous tumors even with non-invasive treatments, such as histotripsy, due to its location. Gannon’s research aims to overcome the current limitations of targeting pancreatic cancer with focused ultrasound through real-time experiments.
Gannon’s dad always wanted to date Virginia Tech and was able to live his dream vicariously through her, she said, before she passed away at the end of Gannon’s freshman year. After attending a STEM high school in New Jersey, she already knew engineering was the field for her, but that experience fueled her passion for finding solutions – through engineering – to help people.
In high school, Gannon had the opportunity to learn computer-aided design and work on other engineering-related projects. Through her class projects, Gannon realized that she had always enjoyed breaking down a complex system into its components to learn more about them and understand how each element works together to function perfectly, she said. More than that, she recognized that she was one of the few women in the class and wanted to change that. These two discoveries led Gannon to choose engineering as a career.
Mechanical engineering would be her specialty, but she did not yet know where she would be studying. After visiting many schools, Gannon said she immediately felt Virginia Tech was the right one for her when she set foot on campus.
Virginia Tech was the only school where I could imagine myself becoming an engineer. I knew I could bridge the gap between engineering and the people here. I struggled to bridge this gap in my STEM-focused high school, but I knew, in almost an instant, that I could combine my math and science skills with my love of the people here. “
Jessica Gannon, Mechanical Engineering Graduate, Virginia Tech
In his first year, Gannon was part of Bioactivity, an interdisciplinary design team in biomedical engineering that focuses on finding solutions to real-world medical problems. That year, the team was working on a lifting device for emergency medical technicians, helping them lift and move bariatric patients. Many medical workers injured their lower backs or other areas from lifting, so the team created a lifting assist medical device. At the time, Gannon said their device could lift up to 170 pounds.
The bioactivity was designed to give students hands-on learning, with the help of a member of the engineering faculty as a mentor when needed. Students solve most problems themselves, design and create devices, Gannon said, although professors are more than willing to help, if asked. Vlaisavljevich was the team’s mentor.
In sophomore year, Gannon turned to Vlaisavljevich for help with his application for the Clare Boothe Luce Scholarship. They talked about research ideas, his desire to work in a lab, and his interest in medical device development and pancreatic cancer. He gave her a tour of the lab while explaining his research. When he mentioned that he was not only doing cancer research, but his research was specific to pancreatic cancer, Gannon said the alignment of interests seemed almost unreal. She was awarded the Clare Boothe Luce Fellowship, although she had the opportunity to work in Vlaisavljevich’s lab whether or not she won the award. This was the beginning of his research on this subject.
Gannon’s recent NSF Prize will allow her to continue this research as she pursues her doctorate. after graduation in spring 2021. Her work will complement a partnership with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to test her methodology on large animal models.
“We are extremely happy that Jessica is continuing her graduate studies here at Virginia Tech,” said Vlaisavljevich. “As an undergraduate student, she has already made significant contributions to our research by developing histotripsy for multiple clinical applications, including performing the very first study demonstrating histotripsy as a possible treatment for pancreatic cancer. . Jess thrived in this interdisciplinary research environment.
“This NSF Fellowship will provide Jess with the opportunity to perform fundamental studies developing histotripsy as the first completely non-invasive, non-thermal and non-ionizing treatment method for pancreatic cancer as she pursues her long-term goal. to improve treatment options for patients suffering from this devastating disease. The scholarship will also allow her to continue to become a leader in the field and expand the many outreach activities that she is passionate about engaging in to support the community at large.
Gannon aims to enter the industry after completing the doctoral program and launch his own startup to develop medical devices. Ultimately, Gannon said she would love to return to Virginia Tech, a place that has given her so much, and give it to the next by teaching the next generation of engineers.
“Whether I’m in a lab, office, or classroom, I always aspire to connect with people through engineering,” Gannon said. “I look forward to continuing to bridge the gap between people and my discipline across the biomedical field in the years to come, particularly in advancing pancreatic cancer therapies in honor of my father.”
In addition to receiving the Clare Boothe Research Fellowship in 2019, Gannon received the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship in 2019 and the MAOP Summer Research Internship and Paul E. Torgersen Leadership Fellowship in 2020. She was named outstanding senior by the department of mechanical engineering. in 2021.