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Jina Ko, a PhD student in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, was among the 14 PhD candidates from the U.S., Canada, and Germany to be named to the inaugural class of Schmidt Science Fellows. The announcement was made on April 23 at the Apella Alexandria Center for Life Science in New York. Jina will receive a $100,000 to cover living expenses while working as a postdoctoral fellow under the auspices of the Rhodes Trust, which also administers the Rhodes Scholarships for student-athletes. The placement is preceded by a five-week orientation at the University of Oxford beginning this July.
An alumna of Rice University in Houston, Jina came to Penn in 2013 and has worked in the lab of Professor David Issadore, working on microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip technologies. “Jina is the ideal person for the Schmidt Fellowship,” Dr. Issadore said, “and I am very pleased that Eric and Wendy Schmidt agreed! Her work in my lab has brought together microfluidics with machine learning to develop diagnostics for diseases that do not have conventional biomarkers. By working with collaborators at Abramson Cancer Center and Presbyterian hospital, Jina demonstrated an ability to accurately diagnose pancreatic cancer at its earliest stages and prognose specific states of traumatic brain injury, both of which were not possible with previous technology. This fellowship will allow Jina to take a much deeper dive into machine learning and its application to next generation medical diagnostics during her post-doc, and I can’t wait to see what she develops.”
Pancreatic cancer remains one of the deadliest types of cancer, with one- and five-year survival rates of only 20% and 7%, respectively, according to the American Cancer Society. The mortality is so high because the disease does not typically cause symptoms until it is too late. Therefore, earlier detection could be the key to better survival rates.
In a new paper published by Lab on a Chip, a research team from the lab of David Issadore, assistant professor of Bioengineering, reports on its development of a micropore chip, callled the circulating tumor cell fluorescence in situ hybridization (CaTCh FISH) chip, that could detect circulating tumor cells (CTCs) from mice and patients with pancreatic cancer, even at very low, previously undetectable levels.
Jin A (Jina) Ko, who is a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering and first author on the paper, says that CTCs are a key mechanism underlying metastasis, which is another reason why pancreatic cancer has such a low survival rate. Not only can the chip that she helped design detect these cells, which circulate in the bloodstream, but more importantly, pancreatic tumors shed these cells even in their very early stages before any spread has occurred. Therefore, provided the test is performed early enough, the tumor can be detected and treated. Patients with family histories of pancreatic cancer or who have tested positive for certain gene mutations would likely benefit from this sort of test.
The study authors also tested the CaTCh FISH chip using blood samples from 14 patients with advanced pancreatic cancer and from healthy controls. They found that their micropore chip could detect several RNA markers of cancer in 10-mL samples — around 2 tsp. In addition, there were no false-negative results among the healthy controls, demonstrating a high level of reliability in that regard.
“We have developed a microchip platform that combines fast, magnetic micropore-based negative immunomagnetic selection with rapid on-chip in situ RNA profiling,” Jina said. “This integrated chip can isolate both rare circulating cells and cell clusters directly from whole blood and allow individual cells to be profiled for multiple RNA cancer biomarkers.”