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Cell by cell: Curing cancer at the nanoscale

Prof. Wu Lu and Lingqian ChangBy understanding and manipulating individual human cells, scientists are getting closer to one day ridding the world of countless incurable cancers and diseases.

For his research in this field, engineering student Lingqian Chang at The Ohio State University just won an Autumn 2015 Graduate School Presidential Fellowship.

His unique proposal for eradicating cancer by improving upon a process called electroporation is gaining attention, not just at Ohio State, but from within the industry at large. His work is set to appear on the front cover of the upcoming Nanoscale journal.

Chang built upon his training in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) toward earning a PhD in biomedical engineering at Ohio State. Working with ECE professor Wu Lu and L. James Lee in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, he focused his path on studying engineering at the molecular level. This team works with Professor R. Sooryakumar’s group in the Physics Department for research as well.

The process of cell reprogramming through electroporation is recognized as an important strategy for curing Parkinson and Alzeheimer’s diseases, as well as many cancers. Stem cell reprogramming researchers were even awarded the Nobel Prize in 2012.

Electroporation involves delivering probes to individual cell membranes, in order to apply a focused electrical field. This makes the cells permeable enough to place foreign molecules inside, like genes or drug treatments, without damaging the surrounding tissue.

However, Chang said, not only was controlling the electrical field proving difficult in electroporation, but the process was also causing serious cell damage. In another downside, he said, standard techniques could only handle several cells at a time – instead of millions, as medical trials usually require.

Through his research conducted at the clean room inside Dreese Laboratories and the Nanotech West Laboratory on Kinnear Road, Chang was able to solve these issues by developing the nano-scale electroporation platform (NEP) chip (pictured), which provides a more efficient and orderly channel for cell probe delivery.

“Each 4-inch single chip can handle up to a million cells each time,” he said. “NEP is a unique concept among all other physical methods as precise dosage control can be achieved in the process of delivering molecules into living cells.”

Chang said the NEP chip technology could have “great significance within the biomedical engineering and medical fields,” by finally allowing for a more controlled and safe dosage process across a vast number of cells.

“When compared to conventional bulk electroporation, this chip shows a 20-fold improvement in dosage control, uniformity, and high cell viability, even in cardiac cells, which are characteristically difficulty to transfect,” he said.

Before graduating, Chang said he hopes his research will ultimately make the NEP process more user-friendly within the medical industry and increase understanding of how dosage affects cells genetically.

Read his full research statement here:

 “3D Nanochannel Electroporation Systems for Precise Interrogation of Living Cells.”

The prestigious Ohio State Gradate School Presidential Fellowship recognizes outstanding scholarship and research ability, providing recipients the opportunity to devote full time to their dissertation research – including a taxable monthly stipend of $2,168 for up to three consecutive terms. The fellowship also pays academic tuition and fees, a $250 travel allowance to encourage presentation of dissertation research at professional meetings, as well as a contribution of 85 percent of the Student Health Insurance premiums and parking upgrades.