UC researcher hopes to use electricity to improve brain cancer treatment

Ph.D. student Ahmet Kaynak presented his research at biomedical conference

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is an extremely aggressive brain cancer with an average survival of just 12-18 months after diagnosis. Current treatments rely on surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati are working on methods to improve treatment options for these patients. 

Ahmet Kaynak, a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, is researching a method that could improve treatment for GBM. Kaynak had the opportunity to present his research in October at the 2019 Biomedical Engineering Society Conference.

Kaynak is working in a lab led by Xiaoyang Qi, professor in UC's College of Medicine at the UC Cancer Center. Qi discovered a combination protein-lipid, SapC-DOPS, that can kill cancer cells without affecting surrounding healthy cells. That discovery led to the creation of BXQ-350, a drug showing promise in clinical trials as a cancer treatment from Bexion Pharmaceuticals. 

The lab’s research focuses on phosphatidylserine (PS), a fatty substance, or acid phospholipid, that protects the cells in your brain and carries messages between them. PS is a cancer biomarker. In normal cells, PS is located within the inside layer of the cell membrane. But in cancer cells PS moves to the outer layer of the cell membrane. This attribute offers the potential to identify and target cancer cells with treatment that would leave healthy cells untouched.

Ahmet Kaynak stands with his poster presentation at the 2019 Biomedical Engineering Society Conference

Ahmet Kaynak presented his research project at the 2019 Biomedical Engineering Society Conference. Photo provided.

In Qi’s lab (also in conjunction with UC’s Daria Narmoneva, biomedical engineering, and Andrei Kogan, physics), Kaynak’s research project focuses on using electricity to make glioblastoma cancer cells more receptive to medications designed to kill them. Electricity can change the surface of the cells to have high PS or low PS. Cells with low PS are more receptive to chemotherapy and irradiation. Cells with high PS are more receptive to treatments using Qi’s discovery, a PS-targeting SapC-DOPS drug. Kaynak hopes to enhance GBM treatment efficiency by modulating the cell surfaces. The long-term goal is to develop an electric field-mediated enhanced targeted cancer treatment with fewer side effects than chemotherapy and radiation. UC has applied for a provisional patent with the preliminary data, Kaynak said.

Kaynak left his native Turkey to pursue his Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati through a scholarship from Turkey’s ministry of education. He came to Cincinnati for the research opportunities and collaborative environment – and he also felt the city was a good place for his young family to live. Kaynak has his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in bioengineering, plus the experience of three years working in industry as a bioprocess engineer. 

He was drawn to the idea that he could make a difference in the lives of people with cancer. The field of cancer research excites him and he said he hopes to continue in academic research after completing his Ph.D. work. 

“I wanted to use engineering principles in medicine to help people with GBM,” Kaynak said. “We’re hoping for an outcome that is helpful for patients who are suffering.”