Nanotechnology at Northwestern

Meet Jacqueline Burke, a PhD candidate in the Ameer and Scott Research Groups

April 16, 2021

Jacqueline Burke is a PhD candidate in the Ameer Group, which develops biomaterials and nanotechnology for regenerative engineering, tissue engineering, medical devices, drug delivery, and cell delivery applications; and the Scott Research Group, which applies principles from biomaterials science, nanotechnology, and tissue engineering towards the development of translational immunotherapies.

Where are you originally from?

I am from southeast Michigan. I was born in Dearborn and lived in downtown Detroit for my elementary years. My family moved to the suburb of Troy where I attended middle school and high school.

Where did you complete your undergraduate degree?

I studied biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

When did you first become interested in biomedical engineering, and how did that lead to your current work on immunoengineering and regenerative biomaterials?

At age 9, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D). Since then, I knew I wanted to have an impact on patient treatment. However, having spent much of my childhood and doctor’s offices and hospitals, I knew I did not want to be a doctor. This notion was furthered when I attended a workshop at the local hospital for girls interested in medicine. During the first session, I passed out after watching a doctor suture a pig’s arm. By happenstance, the person who helped me to the emergency room was a biomedical engineer. After getting to know her (and getting some IV fluids), she offered to let me work with her during the summer. During the summer, I analyzed patient data to determine if cadaver meniscus tissue could be used to cushion painful wear and tear to the metatarsophalangeal joint of the great toe. I loved working with the data, learning about various outcome measures, and analyzing patient surveys to assess reductions in pain. When I applied for collage, I knew I wanted to major in biomedical engineering.

At Hopkins, I had the opportunity to work on diabetic wound healing research under Prof. Sharon Gerecht. Diabetic foot ulcers and festering wounds tend to be the result of poorly managed diabetes, often leading to lower limb amputation. I was excited to take part in translational research that could help to better treat diabetes complications. In the Gerecht lab, I learned about biomaterials-based strategies such as using hydrogels containing a T1D patient’s own stem cells to promote a rapid wound closure. I was introduced to polymer synthesis to fabricate these materials and animal models to test the therapies.

How do you explain what you study to non-scientists?

My current work revolves around using nanostructures for targeted delivery of small molecule therapeutics. I like to use an analogy to help people understand: think of a common infant toy, a large cube with holes of various shapes and small colored blocks matching the shapes of the holes in the cube. The child must match the shapes of the blocks and holes in order to fit the blocks into the cube.

In a very general sense, when you give a small molecule drugs, the drug is distributed everywhere in the body. The drug can act on both target and non-target cells. If you imagine a cell as this large cube and the drug as confetti, it is easy to see that if you tried to get the confetti inside the cube, the confetti would go through every hole without objection.

My work involves loading that drug (or confetti) into different shaped nanostructures (or shaped blocks). These structures have specific shapes allowing them to target certain cell types. The blocks can only fit through a specific hole (and cannot go into any other hole) in the large cube, making targeting more specific.

For example, if we want to target the dendritic cells of the liver and we know that these cells (large cubes) have holes that are in the shape of a sphere, we can load our drug (confetti) into sphere-shaped nanostructures (small blocks). The drug will be able to get into only these cells. Therefore, we can avoid unwanted side effects and deliver therapeutics in a more targeted manner.

You’re developing strategies to prevent transplant rejection. What inspired you to focus on that? What are you excited about in your current research?

After studying the terrible complications of living with diabetes at Hopkins, I wanted to do something to improve glycemic control in these patients and prevent these adverse effects. Islet transplantation is a promising therapy for T1D in which beta islet cells are isolated from a cadaver’s pancreas and transplanted to the liver via the portal vein. This therapy restores normal blood glucose concentrations without the need for insulin injection, essentially curing the disease. However, anti-rejection (immunosuppressive) drugs are required for maintenance of the transplant. These drugs are accompanied by a host of serious and potentially life-threatening side effects, which prevents this therapy from becoming the standard of care for all T1Ds. My research focuses on methods to deliver these immunosuppressive drugs to targeted cells while avoiding others, thereby increasing efficacy and mitigating side effects.

We primarily use mouse models for our work. We induce diabetes, perform islet transplantation, and give our nanostructure therapy. We monitor blood glucose to assess if our therapy has allowed for the survival of the transplanted cells.  I am filled with joy every time I test a previously diabetic mouse’s blood glucose and see normoglycemia. I am hopeful that one day this therapy can be translated to patients.

What has been a highlight of your time at Northwestern?

The highlight of my time at Northwestern was traveling to Lyon, France for the 17th World Congress of the International Pancreas and Islet Transplant Association. I had the honor of sharing my research on the same stage as some of my diabetic scientific idols, such as Dr. Camillo Riccardo. I was awestruck and extremely inspired by the remarkable work that is being done in order to help type 1 diabetic patients like me.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your work or your time at Northwestern?

Although it is extremely motivating, the most challenging aspect of my work is being diabetic and doing diabetes research. It can be hard to separate experimental failures from personal failures when the outcome of the work is so close to home. Thankfully, I have very good advisors who keep my expectations in check and remind me that science is a process.

Can you tell me about your experiences either being mentored or mentoring others?

I am extremely thankful for the many mentors that I have had at Northwestern. I have had the wonderful opportunity to be co-advised by Prof. Guillermo Ameer and Dr. Evan Scott. Having two mentors has allowed me to have a broader range of expertise at my disposal. Prof Ameer is an expert in regenerative engineering and citric acid-based materials, while Dr. Scott specializes in immunoengineering and targeted drug delivery. Using their combined know-how, I have been able to expand my thinking beyond the obvious. Additionally, dual mentorship has given me multiple perspectives on a problem. Prof. Ameer always thinks big picture, while Dr. Scott is focused on mechanisms. This is a great balance for a PhD student because I am able to make connections between the two and develop more impactful technology.

In the area of islet transplantation, Dr Xiaomin Zhang has been my most vital mentor. Dr. Zhang is one of the few people in the field that has both an immense research and clinical knowledge, which has been vital to ensure that my work is translational. We jokingly say that we speak our own islet transplantation language. There is no other person than Dr. Zhang that I would rather be locked in a surgical suite with for a 12-hour day. Furthermore, I have found it extremely helpful to have the perspective of a female mentor.

As for my mentees, my team consists of a group of female undergraduate researchers. I like to run my research team like a mini lab. We call the group the Burke Beta Biomaterials team. In the competitive field of academia, I am hoping to provide a rigorous research curriculum. I want to provide the individually tailored support, mentorship, and educational experience that I wished I had during my undergraduate research experience. A focus of the curriculum is to ensure that students are able to read and understand the latest scientific literature, prepare abstracts, present work at conferences, and write their own grants. As a result, my students have authored review papers, presented their work at domestic and international conferences, and been awarded numerous fellowships. Thus, they are very well prepared to take on the challenges of the research world beyond their undergraduate experience.  I am extremely proud that my students are going on to attend top medical, nursing, and PhD programs.

What are your hobbies outside of the lab?

My hobbies outside of lab include baking, pilates, knitting, volunteering with the Chicago dog rescue community, and spending time with my dog Nashi. We love to work on new tricks and spend time playing fetch along Lake Michigan. I also enjoy my role as Outreach Chair for the Illinois Chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Young Leadership Committee. In this role, I am able to meet other young adults with T1D in the Chicago area and host mentoring events for teens with T1D.