UA Little Rock student wins awards for research into treatment of pancreatic cancer using nanomedicine

Photo of Emilie Darrigues by Ben Krain.

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock doctoral student is receiving accolades for her research studying 3D models for the treatment of pancreatic cancer using nanomedicine. 

Emilie Darrigues, a doctoral student in applied science-chemistry, studies how plasmonic nanoparticles, some designed to deliver medicine targeting cancer cells, interact with cell cultures in a 3D model through her work as a graduate research assistant in the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences.

Since the center receives funding through the Arkansas EPSCoR program, the center’s researchers participated in the Center for Advanced Surface Engineering (CASE) conference, where Darrigues received the first place award in the graduate student poster competition. In addition to the award, Darrigues received a $1,500 travel grant to attend the national EPSCoR conference in South Carolina in October.

The Arkansas National Science Foundation (NSF) EPSCoR program is a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary, statewide grant program leveraging $24 million over five years to expand research, workforce development, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educational outreach in Arkansas. The Center for Advanced Surface Engineering (CASE), is designed to strengthen research in Arkansas with national significance and major economic development.

Darrigues received bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and rheology/functional materials in France, followed by four years of industrial work in research and development and lean manufacturing. While pursuing a master’s degree in engineering in France, Darrigues interned at the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences in summer 2013. She was so impressed with UA Little Rock that she knew she wanted to pursue a doctoral degree here, which she began in 2015.

“You have very skilled people here with a lot of knowledge,” she said. “I have a lot of support that allows me to build a very good research project, but I can also be very independent. I was very happy to discover that with UA Little Rock. I am very lucky to work at UA Little Rock and the nanotechnology center, and I was lucky to find a mentor like Dr. Alexandru Biris (director of the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences). He trains us to be researchers, not just Ph.D. students.”

Darrigues also presented her research project, “Interaction of Drug pH-Responsive Gold Nanorods in ‘Big’ 3D Pancreatic Microtumors Using Fluorescence, Photoacoustic and Photothermal Microscopies,” at UA Little Rock’s Research and Creative Works Expo on April 18. She received first place in the graduate life sciences category.

Darrigues plans to graduate in May 2020. Afterward, she plans to find a postdoctoral research position where she can continue her research using nanoparticles to treat cancer.

She is inspired to improve treatment for pancreatic cancer since the disease has low survival rates. According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer is considered largely incurable with a five-year survival rate of just 5 percent.

“The goal of 3D models, spheroids, or organoids mimicking the human body or real cancer tumors is really to try to have an additional ex-vivo step before we go to in-vivo; 3D might support ‘precision medicine’ or personalized therapy,” Darrigues said. “Our next job will be focused on the functionalization of the nanoparticle to increase its interaction with the 3D cancer system in order to optimize our therapeutic approach to treat efficiently the pancreatic cancer cells.”

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