In August 2014 we announced an exciting new cancer nanomedicine research co-op program called CaNCURE, which gives scores of Northeastern students the opportunity to work in cutting-edge laboratories at the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center and Northeastern in the area of cancer nanomedicine. This month, the program’s first cohort of students will wrap up their co-ops, experiences that they say have been nothing short of career-defining.
All 15 of the undergraduates in the program, which is funded by the National Cancer Institute, recently gave presentations on their work. Chemical engineering major Jordan Harris, E’17, noted that a previous co-op at Selecta Biosciences Inc., a clinical-stage biotechnology company in Watertown, Massachusetts, piqued his interest in nanomedicine, which he further investigated through his lab-based CaNCURE co-op. He worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where he contributed to a project involving engineered nanoparticles that target prostate cancer cells.
“The nanofield is super innovative,” Harris told me, “and I want to be on the brink of new discoveries. Integrating different sciences together, like biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering, is really interesting to me.”
Health sciences major Linda Wiinberg’s previous experiential learning opportunities—an internship at a hospital in Sweden and a co-op at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital—mainly focused on the clinical side of medicine. Her CaNCURE co-op was her first foray into nanomedicine.
For the past six months Wiinberg, BHS’15, has worked in associate professor of chemical engineering Rebecca Carrier’s lab on a project aimed at validating Carrier’s predictive model for how ingested lipids, or fat molecules, change the way the body absorbs different compounds. It’s long been known that food digestion affects how the body absorbs drugs, but her work seeks to fill knowledge gaps around how doctors can fine-tune dosages, minimize side effects, and make drug delivery more efficient.
“It’s been a really great experience,” Wiinberg said in a phone interview. She noted that her co-op has inspired her to pursue a combined MD/PhD program while affording her the opportunity to sharpen her critical thinking lab skills and better understand the chemistry behind her research experiments. She also said the CaNCURE program’s professional development workshops and weekly seminars on translating research from lab to market have broadened her perspective on a career in research.
Biochemistry major Rachel Fontana, S’17, for her part, worked on co-op at Dana-Farber in a lab run by Mike Makrigiorgos, professor of radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School. There she studied the technologies involved in liquid biopsy, which is a means of detecting cancer biomarkers in the blood. Specifically, her work focused on circulating tumor DNA, which is DNA that’s been shed into the bloodstream.
“Through this co-op, I wanted to work on an interesting project and make progress that could give something back to the scientific community,” she said. “I was able to achieve that.”
Fontana added that her co-op experience increased her appreciation for the time and dedication it takes to master a skill in a scientific lab—in her case, that one thing was polymerase chain reaction, a fast and inexpensive technique that is used to copy small segments of DNA and is sometimes called “molecular photocopying.”
The CaNCURE program is a partnership between Northeastern and the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, and is supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute. The program’s goal is to train the next generation of cancer nanomedicine scientists and clinicians through research-based co-ops in leading scientists’ labs at both institutions.
The students’ presentations, which took place June 15, were part of Northeastern’s first annual Nanomedicine Day. The event featured talks and 40 poster demonstrations by all 15 of the undergraduates in the CaNCURE program; doctoral students in the IGERT program; and other graduate students conducting nanomedicine research at Northeastern.
“We have a solid base of nanomedicine research and education here at Northeastern,” said Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor Srinivas Sridhar, a faculty member in the Department of Physics and the director of the CaNCURE and IGERT nanomedicine programs.
Seven more students will begin their CaNCURE co-ops in July, and in September applications will be posted for the January-June 2016 co-op cycle.