Yiqi Cao, University of Virginia, Class of 2015
Major: Biomedical Engineering
Summer project: Investigating the potential of sonodynamic therapy

“I was interested in working with the Focused Ultrasound Foundation because of its unique business model that sits at the nexus of scientific research and clinical application. As an engineering student, I am passionate about not only technology but also the responsible and effective integration of it in society. Therefore, I am interested in translational medicine to help produce tangible benefits for patients in the clinical setting.”

Summer program projectTo expand the treatment envelope of focused ultrasound in the brain through investigating the potential of sonodynamic therapy, an emerging technology for cancer treatment that is based on the synergistic effect of low-intensity focused ultrasound and tumor-targeting sonosensitizing agents.

Goal:I set out to design a study to bring the technology of sonodynamic therapy closer to clinical studies.

Results: I composed a literature review of the current progress in sonodynamic therapy, with the hopes of catalyzing further interest and research in this field. I also designed an in vivo study investigating the time-course of the histological effects of sonodynamic therapy using porphyrin derivatives.

Sonodynamic therapy is very much a nascent technology, so the nature of my project was open-ended and exploratory. It was thrilling to me because I love the challenge of tackling ambiguous problems. Therefore, I had the opportunity to take the steering wheel in this design process. I contacted researchers throughout the world for help and grappled with questions that sometimes no one in the world can answer. It was a rewarding experience for me to conduct experimental design at such a higher level, and go through the problem-solving process from the very first and very crucial step of identifying the problems—why hasn’t sonodynamic therapy been clinically studied? What stands in the way, and how can we change that? It was interesting for me to conduct a scientific research project and learn to seriously take into account regulatory and social factors in the design process, with the goal of eventually gaining regulatory approval.

What was the most important learning point of your internship experience?An important takeaway for me was the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration across industries and cultures. One of the most salient ones is that between academia and industry. Their fundamental different natures contribute to the so-called “death valley” in the rift. The majority of healthcare technologies, despite demonstrated successes in research settings, do not reach market penetration or widespread adoption. This undercuts the potential of the technology truly to improve the healthcare field. Therefore, I enjoyed learning about how the Foundation works with research institutions, manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, and philanthropists to work together toward the goal of accelerating the adoption of focused ultrasound. Such an approach is critical in today’s globalized world, where interdisciplinary and cross-cultural collaboration are central to success.

How will your accomplishments impact the field of focused ultrasound? It’s definitely hard to tell at this point! The protocol for the in vivo histological study that I designed will be one step in this direction to elucidate the mechanism of sonodynamic therapy in terms of its time-course tissue effects. I also hope that by synthesizing relevant information in the field in a review paper, there will be more interest and studies from other institutions and researchers to further the understanding and development of the therapy, whether it is to validate or challenge its potential for clinical adaptation.

How has your internship affected your career plans?There’s no way to predict how the future will unfold for me, but I want to fulfill my purpose in the world of improving the quality of life for people, by capitalizing on my interest in medicine and love for fostering connections and collaborations between people and ideas to produce real impact. During the internship, I gained a better understanding in the role that businesses can play in effecting social change in the healthcare world, which was inspiring to me. 

Written by Ellen C., McKenna

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