In January 2015, Elizabeth Nance was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 scientists who are changing the world. Nance earned her Ph.D. in chemical and biomolecular engineering, and she is completing a postdoctoral fellowship in anesthesia and critical care medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Here, she talks about her experience and shares some of her thoughts about the power of nanoparticles.
How did you get interested in nanotechnology?
Originally, I had no background or experience with nanotechnology. I got interested in the brain early in life because of an undiagnosed neurodegenerative disorder that affected my grandmother and uncle. At the time, I felt like science and medicine were failing my family, because nobody was able to diagnose it, understand it or treat it. That’s when I got interested in trying to figure out how I could tackle these problems. At Johns Hopkins, I talked to Justin Hanes about doing research on engineering applied to neurology, and he gave me an opportunity to explore the area. We started using a nanoparticle system that he’s used with mucous surfaces in the body, and I focused on transitioning it to use it in the brain.
What were you able to do through this research?
We developed nanoparticles that could penetrate deep within the brains of mice. It was an important area, because many clinical trials on drugs for the brain have failed due to their inability to spread throughout the brain. Once the drugs got to the brain, nothing really moved. The particle system we made, however, stayed with the fluid flow inside the brain and moved wherever the fluid in the brain moved. The particles did not get stuck to anything along the way. The hope is that nanoparticles like this could help deliver drugs to treat diseases of the brain. The results were published inScience Translational Medicine in 2012.
What have you been working on since then?
I’m doing my postdoc research in critical care medicine with Sujatha Kannan, who is looking at using nanotechnology to treat pediatric brain diseases. When I started working with her, she had just published a paper showing nanoparticles could be used to deliver a drug to reverse the symptoms of cerebral palsy in rabbits. My role was to understand how much of the result was governed by the disease process in the brain and how much was governed by the characteristics of the nanoparticle.
I’m now researching cerebral palsy, autism, traumatic brain injury and stroke. In these conditions, drugs need to move through the brain, but only to areas with diseased tissues or cells. This means the particles might have to move much greater distances or to multiple regions to have an effect.
What do you hope to do next?
I’d like to research an approach I call disease-directed engineering. It’s looking at whether there are aspects of diseases that we can take advantage of using nanoparticles. For example, the blood-brain barrier is leaky in a lot of diseases, so there are spaces and holes that particle systems can potentially go through to get inside the brain. If the disease can tell us what aspects to take advantage of, we can reduce the engineering, reducing the complexity of our particle. This could make the particle better able to translate to people and treat brain diseases.