September 12, 2016 | by Jay Fernandez
One of the great benefits of medical breakthroughs is their potential for drawing great new curious minds to the field of medical science. The Hope Experiment, City of Hope’s newest educational outreach program, hopes to accelerate that process and inspire budding young scientists by making its expertise in biomedical research and cancer-treating innovations accessible to students and the public, along with some of the institution’s most promising and dedicated staff.
A native of China Spring, Texas, 27-year-old Ethan White graduated summa cum laude from Baylor University in nearby Waco with a degree in chemistry, though he took a number of biology courses, as well. A recipient of the 2011-2012 H.N. & Frances Berger Foundation Fellowship during his first year at City of Hope’s Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences, he’ll graduate this year with a Ph.D. in biological sciences.
One area White has found increasingly fascinating is the use of nanoparticles for targeted cancer therapy. Scientists are figuring out how to use these tiny particles (nano- means one billionth; nanoparticles are measured in nanometers, or one billionth of a meter) to deliver drugs to specific parts of the body, specific cells or even specific locations within a cell. White is particularly interested in using nanoparticles to target and activate immune cells within brain tumors that can slow tumor growth or even eradicate the tumor all together.
He spoke with us about what City of Hope uniquely offered him as a student, why nanoparticles continue to intrigue him, and what keeps him inspired and sane while working in a challenging field.
What inspired you to move toward science, medicine and research? Was there a moment in particular that really clicked for you and most pushed you in that direction?
I was always interested in science, even from an early age watching “Looney Tunes.” I remember watching several episodes featuring a mad scientist and thinking, “that laboratory looks really cool.” I also loved watching the nature shows, where they’d go into amazing places like the Great Barrier Reef or the savannahs of Africa. But what really drove me to my current research area were some truly excellent science teachers. In particular, I had a high school biology teacher that really piqued my interest in the intersection between chemistry and biology, and I had a couple of really good college professors that inspired me to look into immunology and molecular biology.
Why did you join City of Hope?
It really comes down to the people. I was accepted into quite a few graduate programs. The reason I chose City of Hope’s is because of the people that work here: the grad students seemed a lot happier, the professors were much more accessible and they all seemed to get along really well. Here at City of Hope it’s kind of got that small-town feel, everybody knows everybody, so there are many more interdisciplinary interactions. Those interdisciplinary interactions can be a great source of innovation because you talk to people that just think differently than you do.
What keeps you engaged and motivated as a researcher in the day to day?
People, again. When you do science, 90 percent of all the stuff you do simply doesn’t work, and even when it does there are always problems. That’s research. You’re an explorer at the cutting edge of scientific knowledge, and you fail an awful lot. You work hard, you work long hours and sometimes it feels like you’re not making any progress. If you have a really good team that you work with, then every day you go to work with your friends. Whenever you can say that about your work environment, the frustrations and failures associated with research are much more bearable. It is very motivating and inspiring to be able to work with people that I love and respect and enjoy being around when the science isn’t being very nice to me.
What most attracted you to nanoparticles, and why are they important?
I was attracted to nanoparticles for several reasons. First of all, research into the use of nanoparticles in medical applications only really started to become popular in the early 2000s or so. It’s got a lot of potential. It’s still the wild, wild west — there are a lot of things we don’t know, a lot of new research areas popping up all the time. Another thing that I really like about nanoparticle research is its interdisciplinary nature — you have to know a little about chemistry, you have to know a little about biology, you have to know a little about material science.
In terms of the reason it’s so important, one of the big goals of nanoparticle research is to alter where drugs go within your body — the idea of targeted drug delivery. You see, killing cancer cells isn’t a problem. What is a problem is trying to kill cancer cells while not killing healthy cells. Selectivity is the key. And that’s one of the things that I think nanoparticles can bring to the table — they have the potential to allow us to control where toxic, cancer-fighting drugs go within the body, adding a new layer of selectivity to cancer treatment. We’re obviously not there yet, but the potential in the field is quite exciting.
What new research or potential breakthroughs in nanoparticles are you most excited about?
I’m really interested in cancer immunotherapy. There’s a growing interest in using nanoparticles to harness and modulate the power of the immune system to attack the cancer. One of the reasons that’s a particularly interesting area is because nanoparticles are very readily taken up by immune cells. The immune system is already trained to look for nano-sized things. Whenever you’re trying to deliver drugs to cancer cells that’s a frustrating obstacle that has to be overcome. But cancer immunotherapy may give nanoparticle researchers a nice opportunity to take this normally annoying attribute and turn it into something beneficial — to use the nanoparticles to activate immune cells and direct them toward the cancer. There’s already some work being done in this area, and it’s got an awful lot of really cool potential.
Why do you think The Hope Experiment is useful, and are you going to attend?
I’ll be one of the students there helping, leading some of the activities. I think it’s a really excellent event simply because it gives people the opportunity to come and talk to scientists. One of the things that really helped drive my interest in science and helped me choose this career path was the people I interacted with. Talking to people is key. Hopefully as we are out there talking to the general public, we’ll have the opportunity to inspire some kids, answer some questions, allay some fears and give everyone a glimpse into some of the cool research that we do here at City of Hope.
What advice would you give to a high school or college student weighing medicine and research as a career path?
Talk to people who are in the field. If you’re interested in being a doctor, talk to people who are doctors. If you are interested in being a scientist, talk to people who are scientists. At first, this can seem pretty intimidating. But there are an awful lot of people in the science field — doctors, researchers, etc. — that would love to share their experiences and encourage the next generation.
What outside interests do you have that help keep you balanced in life?
Well, I don’t have a lot of free time, frankly. One of the things I do outside of work that really helps keep me grounded is I spend time working with my local church. It’s really easy when you’re in research to get tunnel vision. When your experiments stop working, it’s tempting to get frustrated and wallow in self-pity, or become angry and short-tempered. Your priorities in life get messed up. It’s really nice to step back from the research for a little while and spend time with people who are overcoming monumental problems — financial issues, issues with drugs and other addictions — that I’ve never had to deal with and yet still care enough to ask about my comparatively insignificant struggles. Spending time with people like that, well, it’s inspiring and humbling. That’s what helps me reorient my priorities and remember how truly blessed I am no matter how frustrating my day may be at the moment.
For more information on nanoparticles and City of Hope’s groundbreaking research into their potential for fighting cancer, visit The Hope Experiment, an educational pop-up event that will take place at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, Wednesday, Sept. 14, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hosted in partnership with Cal-HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America) and Emmy-nominated actress Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”), who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, the event will showcase City of Hope’s commitment to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) through hands-on, interactive activities and the opportunity to speak with City of Hope scientists and students such as Ethan White.