Pharmacist reprograms cells to treat brain cancer

Research assistant professor Jasmine King also mentors Black and brown girls interested in STEM-related research.

Jasmine King wearing a white shirt and rainbow-colored blazer in front of research equipment.
As a teen, Jasmine King accompanied her grandmother to her chemotherapy appointments, an experience that led her to research about cancer treatment. (Megan Mendenhall/UNC Research)

Jasmine King ‘23 (Ph.D.) is a in the UNC-Chapel Hill/North Carolina State University joint biomedical engineering department. She develops innovative and novel drug-delivery platforms to treat cancer.

How did you discover your specific field of study?

When I was around 15 to 16 years old, I would accompany my grandmother to the infusion clinic for her chemotherapy regimen for breast cancer. Visit after visit, I would watch her and other individuals receive their treatment. I noticed that my grandmother wasn’t the only individual that was (1) drained from the multiple infusion visits and (2) drastically changed physically from the multiple cycles of chemotherapy.

One day, I decided that I needed to know more and thought that there had to be a safer approach for delivering these therapies. During one of my grandmother’s visits to her oncologist, I blatantly asked him: “Why haven’t you discovered a safer drug or a new way to deliver the existing drugs?” He proceeded to tell me more about his area of expertise and explained that researchers in the field of pharmaceutical sciences design and create novel approaches to improve delivery of drugs. From that moment, I knew that I wanted to pursue a professional career in pharmaceutical sciences or a pharmacy-related field.

Academics are problem-solvers. Describe a research challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it.

During my Ph.D. (in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy), I helped develop an innovative, injectable hydrogel technology to deliver cells for various diseases, and I was specifically focused on brain cancer. To determine how well the cells will persist in the hydrogel after implantation into the brain, I tracked the cell signal over time in mice. To my surprise, I couldn’t detect any viable cells.

Did all the cells clear from the brain in 24 hours? Was there an issue with the implantation technique? And then a sounder explanation hit me: The long injection time could cause the cells to die, and I may need to adjust my imaging parameters to ensure I’m capturing the signal at peak time. I designed a few experiments to test the hypotheses and develop better formulation preparation and imaging parameters for all the in vivo studies for this project.

Who or what inspires you? Why?

My daughter, Jordyn. I’m a first-generation underrepresented minority and the only person in my family who has obtained a doctoral degree. It is my mission and purpose to re-present the image of a scientist. My daughter inspires me to be the change I want to see in STEM-related fields and, particularly, the academic sector. She inspires me to do the work to become a great leader, advocate and mentor for young Black and brown girls who aspire to pursue STEM-related degrees and research.

In addition to this, I also instruct local government practitioners in North Carolina. Their unwavering commitment to public service, even under challenging circumstances such as the recent pandemic, never ceases to amaze me.

If you could pursue any other career, what would it be and why?

Medicine. To me, the best researchers are clinician-scientists. As a pharmacist, I somewhat fit into this category, but I’m not at the forefront of the medical problem. My goal is to create translational drug delivery technologies that can be implemented into clinical practice. If I could obtain a medical degree and offer 25% effort to treating patients in the clinic, I could be very impactful on the bench to create innovative technologies and devices to improve the quality of care not only for my patients but globally.

Read more Q&As in the series.