Alumna Dr. Laura Suggs’ Work to Combat Cancer

By Taylor Birk, B.S. biomedical engineering ’13
Courtesy of Vector, the student engineering magazine
Editors-in-Chief: Arnold Hechanova and Lucy Xie

Professor Laura Suggs in a white lab coat and gloves working with samples in the labThe engineering stars are among us – many of the best and brightest engineers in the world are right here on The University of Texas at Austin campus. As students, we often overlook the incredible accomplishments of our very own faculty. Groundbreaking medical research occurs every day in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, where professors are investigating cancer diagnosis and prevention, tissue engineering, viral vaccinations, and novelties in drug delivery.

One such professor is Dr. Laura Suggs. Dr. Suggs received her Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering here at UT Austin. She received her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Rice University, where her thesis focused on developing an injectable, biodegradable implant for cardiovascular applications. She has won several prestigious grants including, the NSF ADVANCE Fellowship in 2002.

A recent three-year, $900,000 Cancer Prevention and Research Institute (CPRIT) grant is now funding Dr. Suggs’s investigation of tumor cells and the progression of breast cancer. The goal of her work is to unravel the mechanisms of cancer cell growth. Through a new understanding of of cancer progression, some of the guesswork can be taken out of cancer treatment. Recently, Dr. Suggs encountered literature suggesting that the stiffening of the area around cells, specifically the extracellular matrix that forms the perimeter outside of a cell, can actually drive the cancer metastasis. Cancer metastasis is the spread of cancer cells throughout the body.

Dr. Suggs has been working with several student researchers to develop a hydrogel-based system that mimics the stiffening conditions of the body. It is not possible to isolate the real biological system, so the hydrogels provide a way for the researchers to study this process outside the body and with some degree of control. The hydrogels are made of a seaweed-derived alginate that can be combined with gold nanoparticle and calcium. The hydrogels can also be injected with breast cancer cells for research.

The stiffness of the hydrogels can be controlled through the release of calcium and citrate. Calcium causes stiffening, and citrate reverses the stiffening. The process is controlled using near-infrared. The near-IR light activates gold-nanorods within the cells or gels, causing a release of calcium from the liposomes. Liposomes are artificially made vesicles in a cell that can hold molecules such as calcium. There release of calcium causes the desired stiffening. Now that the researchers have figured out how much stiffening can be induced by the light system, they want to refine their biomimetic process to conditions that match the stiffening around tumors in the body. The researchers can then investigate the use of drugs to soften the tissue, preventing the spread of cancer cells. Through this process, the researchers can explore the mechanisms that change normal cells into malignant cancer cells.

Like Dr. Suggs, the engineering faculty members at UT Austin are truly living the engineering dream. They pursue their passions in understanding and shaping the future of medicine, advancing computer technology, and leading discoveries in areas such as renewable energy research . As students, it is important for us to recognize the accomplishments of our very own engineering stars.


1: “Unravelling the Cancer Cell”. 11 February 2013. Cockrell School of Engineering.

2. “Laura Suggs, PhD”. 2011. Department of Biomedical Engineering.

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