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Confronting Cancer in and beyond the Lab

Jessica Winter sits in front of her violinWhen Associate Professor Jessica Winter needs a break from her nano-biology research, she plays violin — a talent she has honed for 20 years. In her campus office, she is surrounded by reminders of her home in Texas; the painting in the background is the

By Katelyn Vitek

It’s a good thing Jessica Winter likes a challenge. An associate professor in chemical engineering, Winter entered her field as a way to try something new. She has ended up challenging health-related research and the field of medicine to create viable treatment options for cancer patients.

When she was diagnosed with cancer herself early this year, Winter changed her focus from conducting bench-top research to translating her findings into discoveries that could be tested clinically. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and working at Intel for two years, Winter explored other research topics in graduate school at the University of Texas-Austin and found her niche in the study of nanoparticles.

“I like challenges. I felt this was a little bit outside my field, but it was good because it would push me.” Winter says. “It turned out that was really the beginning of a whole new technology.”

Since then, Winter’s nanoparticle research has made major strides in cancer studies. In the case of brain cancer, for example, her work will aid surgeons in removing tumors. The brain moves around in a pool of fluid within the skull, so MRI images do not show the location of the cancerous tissues at the time of surgery. And an MRI cannot be used in the operating room to obtain instant images due to the surrounding metal equipment.

To solve the problem, Winter developed new nanoparticles that are both fluorescent and magnetic. These particles are injected into the blood and delivered to the cancerous tumor through the blood vessels. Their magnetic property permits traditional preoperative MRI to be performed, but their fluorescent property enables surgeons to easily see cancer matter without the assistance of an MRI during surgery. Surgeons can instead shine a light of a certain wavelength on the affected tissue, and the nanoparticles in the cancerous tissue will essentially glow in the dark. Because the same particle is responsible for both MR and fluorescence imaging, the results can be directly correlated.

Winter is developing more efficient medical diagnosis tests for prostate cancer by using her fluorescent and magnetic nanoparticles. Injected into a blood sample, the nanoparticles bind to cells expressing an antigen that indicates prostate cancer and emit the fluorescent signal. The antigen can be removed from the blood sample magnetically, allowing doctors to diagnose the presence of the prostate cancer.

Winter’s third project is to study glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive types of brain cancer. This type of cancer is difficult for surgeons to treat because even if they would, for example, remove an entire affected brain hemisphere, the malignant cells would migrate to the healthy hemisphere. Winter hopes to create a material that can mimic structures like white matter and blood vessels in the brain so researchers can study these cells’ migration.

While Winter entered this field as a way to test her mind as well as her own capabilities, she also is furthering cancer research to help patients. Currently undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, she has a prognosis of a 90 percent chance of a 10-year survival. With help and support from her family and colleagues, Winter is still conducting research and teaching during her treatment. She is collaborating with Jeffrey Chalmers, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Maryam Lustberg, assistant professor of medical oncology; and Ratnasingham Sooryakumar, professor of physics, to develop technology to isolate circulating breast cancer cells, which can then be characterized to guide treatment decisions. The team is ready to apply the technology to clinical samples.

“I could publish papers and I could build a career on that, but I wouldn’t help anyone because those papers don’t go that extra step,” Winter says. “We need to go the extra mile and make sure that we turn our findings into clinical diagnoses and treatment efforts.”