Asst. Biomedical engineering professor Natasha Sheybani was honored at the Forbes 30 Under 30 list this year for his work on targeted ultrasound in relation to chemotherapy and immunotherapy for the specialized treatment of cancer.
The Forbes 30 Under 30 list highlights trailblazers under 30 in more than 20 different industries. Sheybani, 26, was included in the prestigious scientific category for her work on targeted ultrasound research.
Ultrasound is a wave most people are familiar with in terms of imaging an unborn baby, but taking those same sound waves and focusing them on a small area – the size of a grain of rice – causes changes cellular which can vary from mechanical to thermal. On a mechanical level, these waves can create holes and tear cells apart, while on a thermal level, they can generate heat that can be used for the treatment of hypothermia.
“We have this really versatile tool at our disposal right now,” Sheybani said. “The way my lab is interested in thinking about it is to improve cancer treatment.”
Sheybani’s research has focused on breast and brain cancers and the versatility of targeted ultrasound treatments. Although ultrasound waves can be used as modes of chemotherapy delivery, this research takes a more active approach to focused ultrasound technology in the context of immunotherapies.
Immunotherapies are a class of cancer treatments that study how the body’s immune system interacts with cancerous tumors and cells in the body. Because cancer comes from inside the body – unlike the common cold, which enters the body from the outside and can be identified by the immune system – it is able to hide from the body’s immune system as it can look like normal cells. The goal of immunotherapy is to turn the body’s immune system against the tumor or cancer cells.
“The way we envision sound waves is a non-invasive, non-ionizing tool to sensitize tumors to the amazing effects of immunotherapy,” Sheybani said. “We are trying to bring 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. Future goals for the Sheybani lab look to other non-invasive therapies and monitoring. Some examples of other noninvasive therapies include liquid biopsies — which use blood instead of tissue to assess treatment options for patients — and noninvasive imaging to identify key biomarkers that suggest the presence of cancer cells.
“It’s a bit of science fiction at times, but believe it or not, these are things we do in human patients too,” Sheybani said.
In addition to the Forbes honor, Sheybani was also a recipient of the National Institute of Health Director’s Early Independence Award. This award emphasizes high-risk, high-reward research conducted by young researchers. By winning this award, Sheybani received $2 million for his lab to continue research into immunoengineering and next-generation cancer therapies with focused ultrasound. The goal of this award is to help propel young researchers who are conducting groundbreaking research.
“For me, it’s less about my name making headlines and more about the science that we do…to be recognized at this level.” Sheybani said.
For now, Sheybani has her sights set on establishing her lab at the University, as well as mentoring students. She credits much of her accomplishments to the mentorship she herself has received from teachers and mentors, and wants to pass it on.
The Sheybani laboratory is always developing new applications for targeted ultrasound. Sheybani hopes to use the platform provided by the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and the NIH Director Early Independence Award as a launching pad to inform the public about his lab’s ongoing research.