A PhD candidate in the University of Arizona biomedical engineering department who is quietly helping lead the way on early cancer detection at the chemical and cellular levels will be able to continue her beneficial research here, thanks to support from a program designed to attract and retain key researchers in the state.
Biomedical engineering researcher Sarah Leung now gets the chance to work with professionals in both the biomedical and medical industries within the state, because she has been named a Bisgrove Scholar by the Science Foundation of Arizona.
"She's brilliant," said Jennifer Barton, head of the department of biomedical engineering at the University of Arizona, BIO5 Institute assistant director, and Leung's primary mentor for the scholarship-funded research. "She has strong ties to Arizona, and she's the type we want to keep here in the state," she said.
Sarah J. Leung, University of Arizona PhD candidate and biomedical engineering Bisgrove Scholar. UA College of Engineering photo/Steve Delgado
The Bisgrove Scholar Program was established in 2011 by SFAz to attract and retain top science and engineering talent in Arizona who have demonstrated substantial achievements in their field, and have the potential to improve quality of life. Leung, who is 26 years old and a Tucson native, certainly qualifies.
Thanks to the Bisgrove support, Leung will continue her work in early cancer detection, investigating early physiological indicators of colon cancer and different preventative and treatment strategies for the disease. She'll be working on the development of advanced imaging systems, and the nanoparticle contrast agents needed by these systems to visually detect the earliest stages of colon cancer.
"Up to this point, Sarah has been working mostly in chemistry- and cell-based research, with not much exposure to in vivo or working with patients at the clinical level," Barton said. "She'll gain more experience with in vivo systems because of this funding."
The scholarship will allow Sarah to focus on biomedical training as well as on research, Barton said.
Leung's doctoral research was performed under the direction of biomedical engineering associate professor Marek Romanowski, who leads the UA team that invented a new drug-delivery system involving nanoparticles that respond to stimuli. These nanoparticles -- composite materials in the form of liposomes or minute spheres -- are made with gold shells capable of encapsulating molecular cargo and releasing it upon illumination with infrared light.
This nanotechnology is being designed for both drug delivery and diagnostic applications, with the overall goal of improving cancer prognosis.
"A new type of microscopic manipulation developed by Sarah allows for performing experiments with individual cells, so we can better understand how diseases progress and how new treatments work," Romanowski said. "It is a spectacular example of a nanotechnology-enabled biomedical research technique."
"It is all very exciting work," Leung said. "If I had to choose something I was most proud of, it would be the use of these nanoparticles with a technique called 'optical trapping,' to control the release of molecules with very high precision.," Leung said.
"Working in Dr. Barton's lab will provide me with extensive diagnostic imaging and preclinical research experience," she said. "In combination with my graduate work in nanoparticle and technology development, I look to have the technical foundation for translating research to a clinical setting." Leung also hopes to have the time to further develop her ties within Arizona's academic and bioindustry environments.
Leung's Bisgrove-funded work began July 1.
"The Bisgrove Scholar recognition illustrates the outstanding quality of our program and students, who are prepared to compete in such a highly selective scholarship contest," Romanowski said.
When she's not working on leading bioindustry research in the state, Leung loves sports. She played volleyball from middle school through her senior year of high school, and pole vaulted during her freshman and junior years. She's still an avid comic book reader, and she enjoys art.
Leung is one of five new Bisgrove scholars selected by SFAz that will begin work in the fall of 2012. The other four are Melanie B. Channon, PhD candidate; Deborah N. Huntzinger, PhD; Wade D. Van Horn, PhD; and Xi Zhang, PhD candidate currently completing his graduate work in planetary science at the California Institute of Technology who is starting his post-doctoral work at UA. Each of the five will begin work at one of the three Arizona research universities by fall 2012.
More information on the UA invention that could improve cancer drug delivery and lessen the harmful effects of chemotherapy can be found here http://www.uanews.org/node/36322
More information on this year's SFAz Bisgrove scholars can be found here http://www.sfaz.org/live/collection/press/114305?subid=114654
and more information on the UA biomedical engineering department can be found here http://bme.engr.arizona.edu/
Jennifer Barton, center, head of the department of biomedical engineering at the University of Arizona and primary mentor for Bisgrove Scholar Sarah Leung, far right. UA College of Engineering photo/Steve Delgado