Lissett Bickford had been interested in cancer research ever since she was a teenager, when her brother’s best friend was diagnosed with leukemia. But when she got to college and decided to become an engineer, she assumed she’d have to abandon the idea of studying cancer.

Graduate school made her realize otherwise. Bickford, now an assistant professor in both the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics and the Department of Mechanical Engineering, earned her doctorate at Rice University, where she worked with clinicians at M.D. Anderson to optimize gold nanoparticles for the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

When she arrived at the University of North Carolina for a postdoc, she started working on a project designed to treat pancreatic cancer by delivering chemotherapy directly to typically difficult-to-treat tumors. The technique used a small device that, by generating an electric field, propelled chemotherapy drugs into targeted areas. The device could be implanted adjacent to a tumor or placed over the skin, delivering the drug exactly, and only, where it was needed.

Bickford, recalling her graduate research experiences, had an idea.

“I thought a local delivery strategy would be compelling for inflammatory breast cancer,” Bickford explained. Inflammatory breast cancer has a dismal prognosis and is hard to treat surgically, because the cancer cells invade the surrounding tissue, including the skin. A device placed directly on the skin could target those malignant cells directly.

At Bickford’s suggestion, the team added inflammatory breast cancer to its research platform in two studies. The first used nanoparticle fabrication technology developed by her principal investigator, Joe DeSimone, to create dissolvable microneedle patches for transdermal drug delivery. Those promising results were published about a year ago in Advanced Materials.

Results from the second study, published this week in Science Translational Medicine, were also encouraging: in mice with human inflammatory breast cancer, adding local drug delivery to IV delivery shrank tumors and extended survival time. And it didn’t substantially increase chemotherapy concentration in the blood plasma – a critical point, since chemotherapy’s side effects can force patients to postpone treatment or keep doctors from prescribing especially potent drugs.

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Bickford was involved in everything from painstakingly fabricating individual devices by hand to shadowing clinicians who were collaborating on the project—“a truly multidisciplinary effort,” she said.

Today, as the head of the Medical Devices and Drug Delivery Lab at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, Bickford continues to use her engineering skills and passion for translational research to make sure that her work focuses on the most promising cancer treatments. “My brother’s friend who had leukemia ended up with significant heart damage as a result of his treatment,” Bickford said. “My goal is to do whatever I can to help cancer patients by reducing or eliminating the toxic effects of existing treatments.”

By Eleanor Nelsen, communications manager, Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science