PICTURE: Jess Gannon, PhD student in biomedical engineering. Photo by Peter Mittel of Virginia Tech. view More
Photo credit: Virginia Tech
Jessica Gannon, who recently graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, will continue her education and research as a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Tech’s School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences – Wake Forest University.
With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program, Gannon will explore alternative treatments for pancreatic cancer. She is one of six College of Engineering PhD students who received the prestigious scholarship this year. The research fellowship program recognizes and supports outstanding doctoral students who have demonstrated their potential for significant research achievements.
At the Therapeutic Ultrasound and Noninvasive Therapies Laboratory, Gannon is studying a form of focused ultrasound known as histotripsy in the treatment of pancreatic cancer, which, according to recent studies, is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States.
“I was thrilled to receive this prestigious award,” said Gannon, who also studied biomedical engineering as a minor. “I am incredibly grateful to have this opportunity to continue the research that I am very passionate about while being supported by the NSF. My research enables me to continue the fight against cancer, which sadly my father lost his life to. During my PhD, I hope to develop focused ultrasound as a non-invasive ablation modality as an alternative treatment option for pancreatic cancer. “
The term “histotripsy” was coined at the University of Michigan laboratory where Eli Vlaisavljevich, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics and Gannon’s mentor, received his graduate degree. The term “histotripsy” combines “histo” which means “tissue” and “tripsy” which means. means “dismantle.” Histotripsy uses high pressure ultrasonic pulses to create clouds of bubbles in a process called cavitation. As they rapidly expand and collapse, these clouds selectively break down 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 trials in liver cancer.
Its position in the body behind the stomach makes it particularly difficult to access the pancreas and treat cancer. Even with non-invasive treatments, such as histotripsy, there are limits to the treatment of cancerous tumors because of their location. Gannon’s research aims to overcome current limitations in the treatment of pancreatic cancer with focused ultrasound through real-time experiments.
Gannon’s father has always wanted to attend Virginia Tech and was able to live his dream vicariously through it, she said before he passed away at the end of Gannon’s freshman. 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 computational design and work on other engineering projects. Through her teaching projects, Gannon found that she has always enjoyed breaking down a complex system into its components to learn more about it and understand how each part works together to function flawlessly, she said. In addition, she realized that she was one of the few women in the classroom and wanted to change that. These two discoveries led Gannon to choose engineering as her profession.
Mechanical engineering would be her major, but she wasn’t sure where to study. After attending many schools, Gannon said that she immediately felt that Virginia Tech was the one for her when she walked onto campus.
“Virginia Tech was the only school I could imagine becoming an engineer at,” said Gannon. “I knew I could bridge the gap between engineering and people here. I struggled to fill that gap in my STEM-oriented high school, but knew almost instantly that my math and science talent came with my love for the People could combine here. “
In her freshman year, Gannon was part of Bioactivity, an interdisciplinary biomedical engineering design team focused on finding solutions to real-world medical problems. That year, the team worked on a paramedic hoist to help them lift and move bariatric patients. Many medical workers injure their lower back or other places while lifting, so the team developed a medical device to assist with lifting. At the time, Gannon said her device could lift up to 170 pounds.
Bioactivity is designed to provide students with hands-on learning, with the assistance of an engineering faculty member as a mentor if necessary. Students do most of the problem solving, designing, and building equipment themselves, Gannon said, although professors are more than willing to help when asked. Vlaisavljevich was the mentor of the team.
During the sophomore year, Gannon turned to Vlaisavljevich for help with her application for the Clare Boothe Luce Scholarship. They talked about research ideas, their desire to work in a laboratory, and their interest in medical device development and pancreatic cancer. He showed her around the lab and explained his research to her. When he mentioned that he is not just doing cancer research, but that his research is specific to pancreatic cancer, Gannon said that the match of interests was almost unreal. She was awarded the Clare Boothe Luce Fellowship, although she had the opportunity to work in Vlaisavljevich’s laboratory, whether or not she won the award. That was the beginning of her research on the subject.
Gannon’s recent NSF award will allow her to continue this research during her PhD. upon graduation in Spring 2021. Her work will be partnered with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to test her methodology on large animal models.
“We are very excited that Jessica will continue her studies here at Virginia Tech,” said Vlaisavljevich. “As an undergraduate student, she made important contributions to our research into developing histotripsy for multiple clinical applications, including conducting the very first study to detect histotripsy as a potential treatment for pancreatic cancer. Jess is successful in this interdisciplinary research environment.
“This NSF grant will give Jess the opportunity to conduct fundamental studies developing histotripsy as the first fully non-invasive, non-thermal, and non-ionizing treatment for pancreatic cancer, while pursuing her long-term goal of improving treatment options for patients suffering from this devastating Suffering from Illness The scholarship will also enable her to continue to develop into a leader in the field and build on the many outreach activities she is passionate about to serve the wider community. “
After completing his doctorate, Gannon plans to enter the industry and found her own start-up to develop medical products. Ultimately, Gannon said she would like to return to Virginia Tech, a place that has given her so much, and bring it forward by training the next generation of engineers.
“Whether I’m in a lab, office, or classroom, I’ll always strive to connect with people through technology,” said Gannon. “I look forward to bridging the gap between people and my discipline through the biomedical field in the years to come, particularly in advancing pancreatic cancer therapies in honor of my father.”
Gannon received not only the Clare Boothe Research Award in 2019, but also the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship Award in 2019 and the MAOP Summer Research Internship and the Paul E. Torgersen Leadership Scholarship in 2020. She was named Outstanding Senior by the Department of Mechanical Engineering awarded in 2021.