The annual Husky 100 list recognizes University of Washington undergraduate and graduate students who are making the most of their time at UW. In 2021, two trainees from labs affiliated with the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM) were celebrated for their contributions to scientific research, to human health, and to the lives of people around them. Congratulations to Eric Scott Nealy, PhD, and Kendan Jones-Isaac!
Eric Scott Nealy: Engineering New Treatments for Brain Cancer
What if there was a better way to treat pediatric brain cancer – and, just maybe, other cancers too?
That question has occupied Eric Nealy since 2015, when he joined the Olson Lab at Fred Hutch as a graduate student. Today, Nealy has a PhD in Molecular Medicine and Mechanisms of Disease, a spot on the 2021 Husky 100 list, and a real chance of helping patients live longer, healthier lives.
“I have always been interested in cancer research,” says Nealy. “My mother had breast cancer when I was in high school. My grandmother and others in my family also had various types of cancers. So I was really excited to get to a cancer lab for my graduate school studies.”
Together, Nealy and his adviser, Dr. Jim Olson, decided to follow a hunch. If finding and killing elusive cancer cells lurking in the highly protective and delicate environment of the brain was a barrier to better cure rates, maybe they could use the right combination of factors to draw the disease-causing cells out of their hiding places – like an oncological roach motel.
“Our goal is to come up with a better way than chemotherapy and radiation to get rid of the cancer tissue left over after surgery,” Nealy explains. “Our approach is to stimulate the white blood cells in the brain to recognize and destroy the remaining cells without causing neurological problems.”
That strategy requires a precise degree of control for use in a clinical setting. Injecting immune cells intravenously could lead to dangerous overreactions, much like the inflammatory storms that wreak havoc on COVID-19 patients. Nealy and Olson needed a platform to carefully calibrate the delivery of their therapeutic mix, which is made up of antibodies and proteins, known as chemokines, that attract immune cells to infections.
Nealy found a willing partner in Cole DeForest, PhD, an ISCRM faculty member and Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering. DeForest and his team specialize in the design of hydrogels, highly-tunable, polymer-based micro-environments that have a wide variety of potential applications in the lab and the clinic.
After a crash course in chemical engineering, Nealy developed a working system. “The idea is to mix all the therapeutic components, let them attach to the backbone of the gel, and then inject the package into the brain, where the liquid solidifies. Because the hydrogel stays malleable, it is more amenable to the tight confines of the brain.”
Outside the lab, another challenge awaits. Because pediatric cancers are less common than adult cancers, Nealy is focused on making his technology more universal, and therefore more appealing to investors. Since completing his doctorate, he has been researching other types of cancer that could be susceptible to the factors secreted by the hydrogel.
DeForest praised Nealy’s ability to triumph in the face of adversity. “Eric has demonstrated remarkable perseverance, both as a scientist and as a human being. During a period that has challenged everyone, he has thrived, recently completing a strong thesis on a topic that impacts far too many of us – cancer. I believe with his combination of compassion and determination, there is no limit to the good he can do for others.”
As Nealy looks to the future, he hopes to help steer the microgel therapy toward clinical trials and commercialization so that it can someday be used to treat cancer patients. In the meantime, when asked what it means to be on the Husky 100 list, he emphasizes that he would not be where he is now without the people who have supported him in the past.
“It’s validating to know that people believe in my goals and my path. But I owe everything to my parents,” he says. “I want to make them proud and I want others to know that they are responsible for me being. They put in the really hard work and they deserve just as much praise and recognition as I got.”
In true Husky Spirit, Kendan Jones-Isaac’s determination to help shape the future is boundless, reaching all the way from the shores of Lake Washington to the International Space Station.
Kendan Jones-Isaac traces his Husky roots back to childhood, when he would accompany his mother to campus as she worked on a Masters in nursing. Later, he earned his own UW degrees – first, a B.S. in Cellular, Molecular & Developmental Biology (2005), then a Masters from the Department of Pharmaceutics (2013). In 2015, he married his college sweetheart.
Today, Jones-Isaac is a PhD student in the lab of ISCRM faculty member Ed Kelly, PhD, an Associate Professor of Pharmaceutics in the UW Medicine School of Pharmacy. He is a key contributor to a multi-year effort to study the effects of microgravity on kidney health, an investigation that will help physicians treat patients more safely and effectively and prepare astronauts for the physical demands of deep space travel.
As a UW undergraduate, Jones-Isaac gained early experience with microfluidic devices in the Department of Electrical Engineering that helped prepare him for the multi-year effort to study kidney function and pathophysiology in microgravity environments.
In early June, Jones-Isaac and his fellow researchers were on the ground in Florida as SpaceX Cargo Supply Mission 22 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center. On board the Falcon9 rocket were 24 credit-card size chips containing human-derived kidney cells from six donors. The cells are housed in a micro-fluidic environment that closely mimics their natural habitat, allowing the Kidney-on-a-Chip team to better understand how kidney stones form. “Sending my research to the International Space Station is my greatest UW experience,” says Jones-Isaac. “This is an exciting achievement for myself as a scientist and as a mentor.”
Someday, the research Jones-Isaac is conducting could help an astronaut on a voyage to Mars stay healthy or help doctors take care of earthbound people suffering from kidney stones. In the meantime, he is already making a lasting impact as a mentor for other aspiring and rising scientists who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields.
Through programs like the Stipends for Training Aspiring Researchers (STAR), Alliances for Learning and Vision for Underrepresented Americans (GenOM ALVA), and FEEDBACK (Fostering Educational Excitement Designed for Bold Academically Curious Kids), Jones-Isaac provides laboratory training, academic support, advising on extra-curricular and career development, and connections to former UW classmates in advanced positions within relevant fields.
In 2019, his leadership efforts in the School of Pharmacy and Department of Pharmaceutics were recognized with the MLK Community Service Award. “When Kendan mentors a student, he becomes invested in their academic lives and professional futures and is generous with his time,” says Ed Kelly, his faculty advisor in the School of Pharmacy.
Jones-Isaac, who is also pursuing a certificate in Technology Entrepreneurship through the Foster School of Business, hopes to bring promising pharmaceutical products from the development stage to the end-stage, ultimately improving human health.