PhD graduate Natashya Falcone pioneers hydrogel breakthroughs in cancer therapy at Terasaki Institute

Headshot of Natashya FalconeNatashya Falcone (ChemE PhD), a recent ChemE PhD graduate, specializes in peptide-based hydrogel materials with diverse applications. Her research delved into stimuli-responsive properties, such as pH and temperature sensitivity, along with their biocompatibility. Notably, she explored hydrogels for enzyme support, stem cell matrices, and controlled drug delivery systems. Her work garnered prestigious awards like NSERC-CGS-D and QEST-II. Currently, as a Terasaki Fellow at the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles, she continues her groundbreaking research in biomaterials and is advancing cancer therapy delivery systems and 3D in vitro modelling.

Can you tell us about your role and company? Feel free to talk about big projects you have worked on, career milestones and achievements, etc.

I defended my PhD May 2021 from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry at the University of Toronto. During my PhD, I worked on synthesizing and developing peptide conjugates capable of forming hydrogel materials. I explored the stimuli-responsive properties (pH, redox, temperature, and solvent) as well as biocomptaible nature of the peptide gels. I also explored these hydrogels as an entrapment matrix for catalytic enzyme support, as a multi-component matrix for mesenchymal stem cell support, and as an on-demand delivery matrix for antimicrobials using a LASER-controlled stimuli responsive method. Here I was awarded NSERC-CGS-D and QEST-II.

I then joined the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation (TIBI) in June 2021 in Los Angeles, California to do a post doc under Prof. Ali Khademhosseini, who is a world leader in the biomaterials field. TIBI is is an independent non-profit research foundation that has a sponsored research agreement and research collaboration with UCLA. TIBI focuses on the development of personalized solutions that utilize micro-and nanoscale technologies and functional biomaterials to enable a range of therapies for tissue and organ regeneration, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. TIBI researches the use of patient-derived stem cells to engineer tissues and cell-based therapies; organ-on-a-chip systems that aim to mimic the human physiology and pathology for drug screening in a personalized manner; and the development of functional biomaterials and microdevices.

I was awarded the postdoctoral fellow ship from NSERC. In January 2021 I became a Terasaki Fellow here at TIBI. Through my time here, I am advancing the field of hydrogel biomaterials through their use in cancer chemo and immunotherapy delivery applications as well as 3D in vitro modeling. I used different formulations of materials to deliver the therapeutics to treat hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer (accepted to Advanced Functional Materials). I also used a different class of hydrogels to mimic the extracellular matrix of the tumor microenvironment and designed a pancreatic cancer in vitro model for personalized drug testing (published in Bioactive Materials). I am now focused on designing novel nanofibrous peptide-based hydrogels for the delivery of cancer vaccines while simultaneously possessing adjuvant-like properties (review in Advanced Healthcare Materials)

What motivated you to pursue a career in your current field/industry, and how has your experience been working in this field/industry so far?

I have also been a curious person in terms of wanting to know how things work which sparked my interest in science at a very young age. I did my bachelors in biological chemistry which provided me with the foundation knowledge of basic cells and pathways and chemical reactions, however, I like the applications of science more which led me to do my PhD in engineering. I felt that it was more applicable and I always wanted to make a difference in the world or translate whatever I am doing i the lab to the real-world. I love the field that I am in I believe it is constantly evolving so I am never bored, I am always thinking of new ideas and innovative solutions to big health care problems and I love that I can come up with a wild hypothesis and through rationale and experimental planning go straight to the lab to see if it works and possible develop something life-changing.

What skills or qualifications do you believe are crucial for success as a chemical engineer in your industry, and how did your education at ChemE contribute to your development in these areas?

My education at ChemE not only taught me a lot of theoretical knowledge which I believe is very important. I took courses as well as learned fundamental research in how to synthesize different materials and their characterization as well as biological processes. It also taught me a lot of transferable skills that I take with me everywhere. I know how to perform a literature search and search for knowledge gaps to come up with a research problem, I learned how to communicate effectively and present my research in an appealing way, I learned collaboration and how to write a good article and perform experiments in a timely and efficient manner to be successful.

Can you share some insights into the industry or field your company operates in and the opportunities it offers to potential candidates?

Although TIBI is a research institute, I believe we are advantageous over other traditional academic institutions because of many reasons. First, we are multi-disciplinary, we have chemists, engineers, biologists, data scientists, and clinicians all working together to solve big problems. You can still advance your specialty here but you can also learn many new skills as well as push projects forwards faster due to the view points of many expertises. Second, we have an innovation team, so not only do we want to do amazing science and publish articles but there is an opportunity to translate whatever you are working on in the lab to either a start-up company or work with industries to see your technology really helping patients or the environment.

How do you stay connected with the ChemE community as an alum, and are there any opportunities for current students or recent graduates to engage with your company? This would be a good spot to talk about the job opportunities.

I would love to be involved in ChemE more! I would love to come back and give lectures about the research that we do here, I would love to help mentor other undergraduate and graduate students on their journeys. We are always looking for talented researchers to join our team here at TIBI so if the field interests you Im more than happy to have people reach out to me to gain some more knowledge or to apply to join our research team.

What advice would you give to current students or recent graduates who are starting their careers?

I would say try to find an area of research you are interested in because then working on it doesn’t feel like work, it is enjoyable. I think finding good mentors is important to help guide you in how to conduct efficient research in the lab, how to present your ideas in an interesting way, and how to write articles and grants. I would also say you cant get discouraged easily. Research fails a lot of the time and it is alot of trial and error to get something to work or to get a meaningful result so perserverance when something fails is important to be successful. Have fun with it! The science and engineering and research field is amazing, you can do so much and learn so much so try to enjoy the whole process of learning failing and pushing forward.