Dr. Kieng Bao Vang-Dings has always been passionate about combating disease. Though she nearly became a medical doctor, her love of science persuaded her to forge her own path as a researcher. Now, she’s the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences’ first immunology specialist, investigating how tiny materials can solve giant health problems. Vang-Dings’ journey as a scientist started when she was just 11 years old. Her science teacher would fill giant glass jars with pond water and keep them on a windowsill. Sitting over the summer, the pond water would develop a cacophony of microbes and bacteria.
“That was mind-blowing to me,” Vang-Dings said. “To see a paramecium just running around the slide–the things that you normally couldn’t see with the human eye, but were living in this pond water. That was actually the beginning of my interest in science.”
In college, as she questioned her academic direction, Vang-Dings knew she wanted to combine her love of science with her desire to heal the sick. She received her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Minnesota and her doctorate in microbiology, immunology, and cancer from the University of Minnesota. After completing her post-doctoral work, she was hired by the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences and found nanoscience to be the bridge between her two passions.
Tiny Tools, Big Immunities
Nanoscience is the study of tiny materials (less than 100 meters) that can be used in various scientific and engineering applications.Immunology is the study of the immune system. Thanks to a nearly $50,000 award from the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Advanced Surface Engineering, Vang-Dings will combine the two fields at UA Little Rock, investigating how tunable nanosystems can impact and enhance the immune system.
Joined by Center director and chief scientist Dr. Alex Biris, Vang-Dings will focus on gold nanorods coated in silver, as these are a popular nanosystem in biological applications.
“When you hit these tunable nanosystems with a laser, they emit a surface plasmon resonance that’s much stronger than that of just the gold nanorods by themselves. In turn, this allows for enhanced detection of the nanorods in cell systems,” Vang-Dings said.
While this process may sound decidedly unmedical, scientists have been interested in the concept of using nanomaterials to aid the immune system for some time. The immune system is an intricate network that recognizes disease-carrying cells in the body. A strong immune system identifies and hunts down these infected cells quickly. However, a weakerned immune system, perhaps due to disease or chemotherapy, struggles to fight off diseased cells, increasing the chance that your body will catch an infection and stay sick longer. Vang-Dings and Biris’ research will study if, and, most importantly, how, nanosystems can make the immune system stronger.
“My interest is in understanding how both gold nanorods by themselves and nanorods with the silver, which are the tunable nanosystems…can fully impact the immune system. By understanding how the tunable nanosystems can fully impact the immune system, we can begin to better design and functionalize them to enhance immune system responses.”
Currently, scientists believe that nanoparticles can work as adjuvants, substances given to patients to enhance the immune system’s response to infections or cancer. However, the optimal types of nanoparticles–and how they work–for this purpose are unknown.
“That is something I’m deeply interested in finding–how these nanoparticles are inducing this immune response and trying to tease out the pathways,” Vang-Dings said.
Currently, Vang-Dings’ team is characterizing the nanomaterials and gaining a better understanding of how they enhance the immune system. Vang-Dings would like to eventually see the nanosystems used in clinical settings, but the preliminary research will take significant time.
Contributing to Cancer Research
Vang-Dings is also passionate about finding immune system-supported cancer treatments. Even though cancer research has significantly grown and developed, it is still a complex issue that requires a vast amount of intricate pieces to find a complete solution. Biologists, immunologists, and clinicians work in various ways in their own unique fields to uncover the questions and unknown variables that lie in cancer research. She wants to contribute her expertise to that field and eventually influence how the pieces form together to eradicate cancer.
“It’s one of those conundrums that nobody has quite been able to crack…there’s so much that is unknown and so many questions that we still have to answer, so I’m just going to jump right into the mix and see if I can get my ideas out there.”
This project is sponsored by the National Science Foundation under award number 1457888. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.