Virginia Tech graduate student receives NSF grant to examine new treatments for pancreatic cancer

Jessica Gannon, a recent graduate in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, will continue her education and research as a doctoral student in biomedical engineering through Virginia Tech - Wake Forest University's School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program award, Gannon will examine alternative treatments for pancreatic cancer. She is one of six graduate students in the College of Engineering who received the prestigious fellowship this year. The research fellowship program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who have demonstrated their potential for significant research achievements.

In the Therapeutic Ultrasound and Noninvasive Therapies Laboratory, Gannon studies a form of focused ultrasound known as histotripsy in the context of treating pancreatic cancer, which is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, according to recent studies.

"I was ecstatic to receive this prestigious award," said Gannon, who also minored in biomedical engineering. "I am beyond grateful to have this opportunity where I can continue to conduct the research I am extremely passionate about, while being supported by the NSF. My research allows me to continue the fight against cancer, to which my father unfortunately lost his life. During my doctoral studies, I hope to develop focused ultrasound as a noninvasive ablation modality as an alternative treatment option for pancreatic cancer."

Coined at the University of Michigan laboratory where Eli Vlaisavljevich, assistant professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics and Gannon's mentor, completed his graduate studies, the term "histotripsy" combines "histo," which means "tissue," and "tripsy," which means "breakdown." Histotripsy uses high-pressure ultrasound pulses to create bubble clouds in a process called cavitation. As they rapidly expand and collapse, these clouds disintegrate targeted cells and tissue.

As a form of cancer therapy, histotripsy uses ultrasound imaging to monitor treatments in real-time, making it noninvasive with minimal side effects. Thus far, histotripsy has shown promising results in clinical studies for liver cancer.

It is particularly tough to access the pancreas and treat for cancer because of its position in the body, behind the stomach. There are limits to targeting cancerous tumors even with noninvasive treatments, such as histotripsy, because of its location. Gannon's research aims to overcome the current limitations of targeting pancreatic cancer with focused ultrasound through real-time experiments.

Gannon's father had always wanted to attend Virginia Tech and was able to live his dream vicariously through her, she said, before he passed away at the end of Gannon's freshman year. After attending a STEM high school in New Jersey, she already knew engineering was the field for her, but this experience fueled her passion to find solutions - through engineering - to help people.

In high school, Gannon had the opportunity to learn computer-aided design and work on other projects related to engineering. Through her class projects, Gannon realized she had always enjoyed breaking down a complex system into its components to learn more about them and understand how each piece works together to function flawlessly, she said. More than this, she recognized that she was one of only a few women in the classroom and wanted to change that. These two discoveries led Gannon to choose engineering as her career.

Mechanical engineering would be her major, but she wasn't yet sure where she would study. After touring many schools, Gannon said she immediately felt that Virginia Tech was the one for her when she stepped foot on campus.

Virginia Tech was the only school I could envision myself becoming an engineer. I knew I could bridge the gap between engineering and people here. I struggled to bridge that gap in my STEM-focused high school but knew, in almost an instant, I could combine my aptitude for math and science with my love of people here."

Jessica Gannon, mechanical engineering graduate, Virginia Tech

During her first year, Gannon was part of Bioactivity, an interdisciplinary biomedical engineering design team that focuses on finding solutions to real-world medical problems. That year, the team was working on a lifting device for emergency medical technicians, assisting them in lifting and moving bariatric patients. Many medical workers hurt their lower backs or other areas because of lifting, so the team created an assist lift medical device. At the time, Gannon said their device could lift up to 170 pounds.

Bioactivity was designed to give students hands-on learning, with the assistance of an engineering faculty member as a mentor when needed. Students do most of the problem-solving, designing, and creation of devices on their own, Gannon said, though the professors are more than willing to help, if asked. Vlaisavljevich was the team's mentor.

As a sophomore, Gannon looked to Vlaisavljevich for help with her application for the Clare Boothe Luce Fellowship. They talked about research ideas, her desire to work in a lab, and her interest in medical device development and pancreatic cancer. He gave her a tour of the lab while explaining his research. When he mentioned that he not only does cancer research, but his research is specific to pancreatic cancer, Gannon said the alignment in interests felt almost unreal. She was awarded the Clare Boothe Luce Fellowship, though she was given the opportunity to work in Vlaisavljevich's lab whether or not she won the award. That was the beginning of her research on this topic.

Gannon's recent NSF award will allow her to continue this research as she pursues her Ph.D. following her graduation in spring 2021. Her work will add in a partnership with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to test her methodology on large animal models.

"We are extremely excited that Jessica will be continuing her graduate studies here at Virginia Tech," Vlaisavljevich said. "As an undergraduate student, she has already made important contributions to our research developing histotripsy for multiple clinical applications, including performing the first-ever study to demonstrate histotripsy as a possible treatment for pancreatic cancer. Jess has thrived in this interdisciplinary research environment.

"This NSF fellowship will provide Jess with an opportunity to perform fundamental studies developing histotripsy as the first completely noninvasive, nonthermal, and nonionizing treatment method for pancreatic cancer as she pursues her long-term goal of improving treatment options for patients suffering from this devastating disease. The fellowship will also allow her to continue growing into a leader in the field and expand on the many outreach activities that she is passionate about engaging in to support the broader community."

Gannon aims to go into industry after completing the doctoral program, and to launch her own startup to develop medical devices. Ultimately, Gannon said she would love to return to Virginia Tech, a place that has given so much to her, and pay it forward by teaching the next generation of engineers.

"Whether I am in a lab, office, or classroom, I will always aspire to connect with people through engineering," Gannon said. "I look forward to continuing to bridge the gap between people and my discipline through the biomedical field in the years to come, especially in the advancement of pancreatic cancer therapies in honor of my father."

In addition to receiving the Clare Boothe Research Award in 2019, Gannon received the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship Award in 2019 and the MAOP Summer Research Internship and Paul E. Torgersen Leadership Scholarship in 2020. She was named an Outstanding Senior by the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2021.

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