Jun 21, 2024

Jamie Wu wins 2024 Jennifer Comyn Graduate Award for Cancer Research

Awards, Trainees
Jamie Wu standing in front of forest in autumn
PhD Graduate Jamie Wu
By Anika Hazra

The Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research recognizes outstanding graduate students conducting cancer research in its labs with the Jennifer Comyn Graduate Award for Cancer Research.

The inaugural recipient of the award is Jamie Wu, a recent PhD graduate in biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto who was conducting research under the supervision of Warren Chan, Canada Research Chair in Nanobioengineering and professor of biomedical engineering.

“The Jennifer Comyn Graduate Award selection committee is delighted to offer the 2024 award to Jamie Wu,” said Gary Bader, professor of molecular genetics at the Donnelly Centre and chair of the Jennifer Comyn Graduate Award for Cancer Research selection committee. “As the first recipient of an award that celebrates achievement and supports progress in cancer research, Jamie exemplifies the dedication and creative problem-solving skills required to advance cancer treatment. Her cancer nanomedicine project to study how drug-loaded nanoparticles can target and kill tumour cells promises to greatly improve patient outcomes in the future.”

The new award was established in 2023 by the family of Stephane Angers, professor and director of the Donnelly Centre, as a tribute to Jennifer Comyn, a loving mom and spouse and an advocate for cancer research.

The award has supported Wu’s dissertation research by funding a project aimed at answering a fundamental question in the relatively new and fast-growing field of cancer nanomedicine: how do nanoparticles get into tumours?

Nanoparticles are used to package drug treatments and transport them to tumours. Researchers need to determine the processes through which the nanoparticles can most efficiently and effectively reach their tumour targets, without producing side-effects, to optimize nanoparticle design.

Through the funded project, Wu found that the endothelial cells lining blood vessels in tumours take in nanoparticles through a specific form of endocytosis. Wu observed that this process occurs more often in tumours than healthy tissues, which could explain why nanoparticles tend to accumulate in tumours.

Earlier in her PhD career, Wu and her colleagues identified the specific nanoparticle receptor that cancer cells use to bind to a nanoparticle’s surface, which then allows the nanoparticle to enter the cancer cell. They achieved this by combining CRISPR screening, mass spectrometry and bioinformatics.

Identifying the receptors and pathways used in nanoparticle transportation to tumours, and the cancer cells within them, will help improve existing treatments for cancer patients by increasing the precision of nanomedicine.

“Jamie is a spectacular researcher,” said Chan. “She conducts the most interesting experiments, with impact in engineering nanoparticles for treating cancer.”

Wu started her academic career at U of T as an undergraduate student in engineering science. During her second year, a research exchange program that took her to the University of Tokyo introduced her to the world of biomedical engineering; she became fascinated with the possibility of manipulating human biology through engineering strategies.

Wu was introduced to the Chan lab in her final year of undergraduate studies as a thesis student. She had returned from a one-year professional experience placement in Boston, where she gained exposure to cancer nanomedicine, and sought out Chan for his reputation and expertise in this area.

While undertaking her undergraduate thesis in the Chan lab, Wu worked with a PhD student to investigate how serum proteins in blood interact with nanoparticles depending on nanoparticle size. Working from the knowledge that large nanoparticles are able to direct the transportation of proteins that attach to them while smaller nanoparticles function more like cargo being transported by proteins, Wu dedicated her summer to learning how this size-based relationship impacts nanoparticle uptake into cancer cells.

“I think my brain is most happy when I learn how something works,” said Wu. “It’s a bonus if I can improve that process through engineering. These two things – understanding biological mechanisms and advancing biomedical technology – go hand-in-hand.”

Wu decided to join Chan’s lab as a PhD student after graduating, as she appreciated and shared his desire to explore the mechanisms behind nanoparticle drug delivery. She felt she had only scratched the surface of cancer nanomedicine as an undergraduate student and was excited to delve much deeper into the field as a graduate student.

“Warren is the best PhD advisor I could have imagined having,” said Wu. “I knew from working with him previously that he would be an amazing mentor, so it was an easy decision to continue my training with him. Everyone in our lab develops skills to become impactful scientists, including asking research questions, designing projects, breaking projects down into manageable pieces and understanding how these pieces fit together to tell a story.”

Wu successfully defended her PhD dissertation in May 2024. She plans to continue pursuing research, but now with a focus on both drug delivery and genome editing in the hopes of moving closer towards being directly involved in nanoparticle delivery of therapeutics.