Oak Ridge National Laboratory fellow finds ways to make cancer treatments more effective

From her early roots in advanced high school science classes, to finding her research family in the lab, Ngozi Akingbesote is gaining valuable new skills and advancing cancer treatments along the way. 

Ngozi Akingbesote was entranced by her first laboratory experience as a 10th grade high school student, even though she lamented a lack of paternal support towards her advanced education. Two exciting weeks enrolled at George Washington University’s Go Girl Science Camp pushed her to enter an Independent Science Research course studying fungal pathogens. From that experience, she knew that she wanted to commit her life to further exploration in science.

After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in biology with distinction from the University of Virginia (UVA) she joined Mete Civelek, UVA assistant professor of biomedical engineering, at his laboratory as a paid researcher. Here she studied heart and metabolic diseases, such as atherosclerosis and diabetes. Civelek and his team became like her first research family, says Akingbesote, and his support would grow to mean a lot to her.

“I can proudly say that he has become a father figure in my life. I was, unfortunately, born to a father who glorified boys more than girls,” explained Akingbesote. “However, Dr.Civelek changed that perspective about myself. He showed me that I am more than capable of doing anything I set out to do. He has taught me never to let my gender or my skin color dictate my success.”

Civelek inspired her to continue her education through Yale University and was also the one who introduced her to the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).  She applied and became a GEM fellow at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

The GEM Fellowship at ORNL provides research and development opportunities to participants. The program is designed to complement academic programs by utilizing the unique resources of ORNL to enhance STEM education, encourage careers in science and technology, and improve scientific literacy.

Akingbesote joined ORNL’s Isotope Science and Engineering Directorate alongside her mentors Miguel Toro-González and Sandra Davern. At ORNL, Akingbesote’s  research project focused on novel radioisotope delivery methods to target cancer cells, also known as targeted radioisotope therapy (TRT).

In TRT, radioactive particles called radioisotopes are injected into the body of a patient to target their cancer or tumors. However, these particles can damage the healthy cells around their target. Toro-González and Daverns’ expertise with nanotechnology made it possible to package the radioisotopes within nano-constructs for enhanced retention at the tumor site. This is where Akingbesote’s assistance has been important.

“Radioisotope therapy is one of the most effective therapies for cancer due to its ability to prevent cancer recurrence and resistance,” said Akingbestote. “Making such therapy more targeted and less toxic to surrounding healthy tissue will allow cancer patients to be cured without suffering the toxic effects of their therapy.”

Finding more efficient ways for TRT to accurately treat a patient involves testing delivery methods and comparing their effectiveness to other traditional cancer treatments, particularly chemotherapy drugs. The ultimate goal is for radioisotopes to be appropriately retained at the tumor upon injection while minimizing the damage to healthy cells.

Akingbesote and the ORNL team are gathering their findings into a manuscript for later review, and Akingbesote was able to share details about their study at the third Annual GEM Tech Talk.

As a fellow, Akingbesote is pleased at the care ORNL takes with lab safety measures. She feels that her safety was priority during her fellowship, especially during experiments with radioisotopes. Akingbesote took note of a positive first experience with the radiological laboratory and the depth that nanotechnology can go.

“I would recommend the GEM program hosted at ORNL to others because it provided me the opportunity to not just delve into a new research field, but also to network with new mentors that helped provide perspective for career options for me,” said Akingbesote.

Though she didn’t always feel supported in her early interests with science, along her journey Akingbesote found encouraging mentors and inspiration through her undergraduate studies. Now, with a passionate team to collaborate with, she has been able to add to the ever-growing body of cancer treatment research that is helping to save lives. After her fellowship ends, she plans to use her new skills with particles to further study better ways to deliver chemotherapeutic drugs for cancer treatments as part of her doctoral degree thesis at Yale. –by Heather Gilliam

 The GEM Fellowship Program is a partnership between the National GEM Consortium and ORNL. The National GEM Consortium is a network of leading corporations, research institutions and universities that enables qualified students from underrepresented communities to pursue graduate education in STEM fields. The program at ORNL is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), which is managed by ORAU, for the U.S. Department of Energy.