Apr. 11—EAU CLAIRE — The term "amazing" popped up repeatedly as UW-Eau Claire students described their collaborative laboratory research with Mayo Clinic Health System.
Four students who didn't know what kind of research they might get involved with as undergraduates now find themselves working on a project that eventually could improve cancer treatment for patients around the world.
"It's amazing to see that what I'm doing in this lab ... in future years will lessen the side effects and make getting treated for cancer so much easier," said Marshall Apps, a freshman from Green Bay who plans to go into the medical field.
The research project stems from work that Dr. Jeremy McBride, an interventional radiologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, was involved with several years ago during his fellowship at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
In 2013, McBride's mentor suggested it would be great if someone could develop an injectable foam that could shield nearby organs from damage when doctors treat tumors through ablation — a needle-based treatment that destroys cancer cells through exposure to extreme cold or extreme heat.
With his hospital duties limiting his research time, McBride said he kept the concept in the back of his mind until 2019 after he heard about the research partnership between Mayo Clinic Health System and UW-Eau Claire.
He contacted Elizabeth Glogowski, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at the university, and the project sprang to life.
In a recent group Zoom interview hosted by Mayo, Glogowski said the foam idea fit with her research experience in soft materials and the project offered a great opportunity for students to use their creativity and get involved in meaningful research. Two years into the project, she called it a "fruitful collaboration" that has enabled students to test and optimize materials that could be used for real world medical applications.
McBride said the premise of the groundbreaking research, funded by Mayo Clinic Health System and UW-Eau Claire's Materials Science and Engineering Center, is that the foam will stay in place better than the liquid currently used and will just degrade in the body, causing no harm.
So far, he said, "The results are very encouraging."
The foam, already being tested in pigs in Rochester, must be approved by Mayo's institutional review board before it can be tried on human patients. That could happen within a year or so, McBride said.
Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire typically does about six ablation procedures per month, with each representing a new cancer case, he said.
"It can save lives in that we cure people of their cancer using this ablation technology and this would help us do that," McBride said, noting that the outpatient procedure also helps patients avoid major surgery and hospital recovery time.
Student researcher Aaron Ellefson, who has been involved with the project from the outset, said they started by making some rudimentary foams and have continued to optimize the formulations.
"It's incredible to see what we can accomplish with this partnership," said Ellefson, a senior materials science major from Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
Freshman Kira Haus of Elk River, Minnesota, said she had no idea what research was all about when she started college in the fall. She described her experience with the research project as "super awesome" and said one day she likely will be proud to say she played a role in a medical advance that helped people. Haus revealed that the research has been so rewarding that she already has changed her major to biomedical engineering.
Cuyler Monahan, a senior materials science and engineering major from Mount Horeb, said the goal is to develop foam with insulating and protective properties for human organs.
It's exciting, Monahan said, to get the opportunity to directly apply knowledge gained in the classroom to the medical field.
"I'm so happy that I've been able to be part of this important project, especially knowing we're going to be helping people, changing lives," he said. "We know that one day this material will be used in people and help them recover faster."
Ellefson and Monahan received a major award last summer from WiSys, a nonprofit organization that helps patent technologies developed in UW System schools, for their research "demonstrating significant innovative, economic and societal impact."
After receiving the award, Ellefson called cancer research particularly rewarding, saying, "It is encouraging to know that this project will pave the way for more treatment, more cancer success stories and more time with loved ones."
For McBride, what's almost as satisfying as seeing the progress on his medical innovation is watching the students get a chance to do hands-on research and learn an important lesson — that people can accomplish greater things when they share their knowledge and work together.