UF Biomedical Engineer Pursues Understanding of Natural Killer Cells

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Blanka Sharma, Ph.D.

Blanka Sharma, Ph.D.

Blanka Sharma, Ph.D., receives Early Career Award from National Science Foundation to study ways to kill cancer cells

Each year the National Science Foundation awards research grants to select faculty in higher education who are studying questions whose answers can significantly expand our understanding of immense challenges such as cancer in its many forms.

Blanka Sharma, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering at the UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, has just received one of these NSF awards. Over the next five years, Sharma will study natural killer (NK) cells, immune system cells that have the ability to recognize cancer cells. Her work will demonstrate the pathways by which these cells penetrate the physical and biochemical barriers in tumors in order to destroy them. 

Sharma and her team will build a three-dimensional environment for tumors using hydrogels. Hydrogels have a flexibility very similar to natural tissue due to their significant water content, thus providing a “test tube” environment much like the tumor’s surroundings in the human body. Tumor cells from known tumor cell lines will be introduced into the environment along with components that compose the tumor’s extracellular matrix; then natural killer cells from derived from blood samples will be added. Sharma will study the methods the tumor cells use to evade the NK cells and observe which extracellular components assist or inhibit the NK cells’ invasion of the tumors.

Sharma is focused on both short- and long-term results from her research. “In the near term, we hope to understand the fundamental mechanisms by which the NK cells enter the tumors in order to attack and destroy them,” she said. “In our long-term vision, we hope to describe therapeutic strategies that can be designed in order to improve cancer therapy.” Today, immunotherapy is making great strides as a treatment method, but some patients respond while others don’t. Sharma’s research may help improve the odds for more patients.

In addition to the research she will be accomplishing, Sharma will be using a portion of her Early Career Award grant to educate middle school STEM students – especially girls and minorities – about what biomedical engineers do as they study and control the environments of cells and why this work is so important.