Asst. Biomedical Engineering Prof. Natasha Sheybani has been honored on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list this year for her work in targeted ultrasound in relation with chemotherapy and immunotherapy for cancer specialized treatment.
The Forbes 30 Under 30 list spotlights trailblazers under the age of 30 across more than 20 different industries. Sheybani, 26, has been included in the prestigious science category for her work on targeted ultrasound research.
Ultrasound is a wave that most people are familiar with in terms of the imaging of an unborn baby, but taking these very same sound waves and concentrating them onto a small surface area — the size of a grain of rice — causes cellular changes that can range from mechanical to thermal. On a mechanical front, these waves can create holes in and tear apart cells, whereas, on a thermal front, they can generate heat that can be used for hypothermia treatment.
“We have this really versatile tool at our disposal right now,” Sheybani said. “The way that my lab is interested in thinking about that is for improving treatment of cancer.”
Sheybani’s research has focused on breast and brain cancers and the treatment versatility of targeted ultrasound therapies. While ultrasound waves can be used as chemotherapy delivery modes, this research takes a more active approach to targeted ultrasound technology in the context of immunotherapies.
Immunotherapies are a class of cancer treatment that delve into how the body's immune system interacts with cancer tumors and cells within the body. Because cancer is from within the body — unlike the common cold, which enters the body externally and the immune system can identify— it is able to hide from the body’s immune system because they can seem like normal cells. The goal of immunotherapy is to turn the body's immune system against the tumor or cancerous cells.
“The way we're thinking about sound waves is as a non-invasive and non-ionizing tool for sensitizing tumors to the amazing effects of immunotherapy,” Sheybani said. “We are trying to advance focused ultrasound into the era of precision immuno-oncology.”
Looking to the future, there is great potential for targeted ultrasound in the world of precision medicine. The Sheybani lab’s future goals look towards other noninvasive therapies and surveillance. Some examples of other noninvasive therapies include liquid biopsies — which use blood instead of tissue to assess treatment options for patients — and non-invasive imaging to identify key biomarkers that suggest the presence of cancerous cells.
“It is a little science fiction-y at times, but believe it or not, these are things we're also doing in human patients as well,” Sheybani said.
Along with the honor of Forbes, Sheybani has also been the recipient of the National Institute of Health Director Early Independence Award. This award focuses on high-risk and high-reward research from young early researchers. Through winning this award, Sheybani received $2 million for her lab to continue their research on immuno-engineering and next generation cancer therapies with focused ultrasound. The goal of this award is to help propel young researchers who are leading groundbreaking research.
“For me, it's less about my name being in the headlines and it's more about the science that we do … being recognized at this level.” Sheybani said.
For now, Sheybani has set her eyes forward on establishing her lab at the University, as well as mentoring students. She credits much of her accomplishments to the mentoring she herself received from professors and mentors, and wants to pay it forward.
The Sheybani lab is still developing new applications for targeted ultrasound. Sheybani hopes to use the platform provided by the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and NIH Director Early Independence Award as a launching pad to inform the public about her lab’s ongoing research.