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UD undergrad explores biopharmaceutical research

Editor’s note: This Q&A is one of a series of articles exploring the research that University of Delaware students have been pursuing. Though COVID-19 continues to shape some plans, students still can participate in hundreds of remarkable projects, in-person and remotely. Follow our “Frontiers of Discovery” series as UDaily highlights some of these scholars.

The hunt for new medicines to treat pain and fight disease is a critical and never-ending quest that Toni Akin-Adenekan, a University of Delaware chemical engineering major from Lagos, Nigeria, wanted to learn more about firsthand this summer.

At the Ammon Pinizzotto Biopharmaceutical Innovation Center on UD’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus, researchers are advancing the cutting-edge field of biopharmaceuticals. These drugs are produced from living cells and target only specific molecules versus traditional synthetic drugs that are produced using chemical processes. Akin-Adenekan expects to graduate from UD in May 2023.

Q: What are you studying and with whom?

Akin-Adenekan: I am studying differentially expressed genes in Chinese Hamster ovary (CHO) cells with Professor Mark Blenner. CHO cells are a cell line derived from the ovary of the Chinese hamster — they are very important in the pharmaceutical industry because they are easily adaptable to different cultures and media [a mixture of critical nutrients].

Q: What draws you to research?

Akin-Adenekan: Research is interesting to me because it challenges you to learn so much about topics you may have never thought about. It is really exciting to know that you are working on a topic — no matter how small — that has not been studied before, and you will be bringing new knowledge to the industry.

Q: What motivated you to study this topic?

Akin-Adenekan: I attended a seminar recently hosted by Bristol Myers Squibb about the biopharmaceutical industry. I found it very interesting to know that with a chemical engineering degree, I could still play an important role in the production of drugs. Therefore, when Professor Blenner proposed this topic, involving the production of medical therapeutics, I knew I would love to be a part of the research.

Q: What have you found most surprising about the work so far?

Akin-Adenekan: What I have found the most surprising so far is how sensitive mammalian cells are to contamination. We work with these cells in a separate lab and biosafety cabinet (BSC), whilst spraying everything we take into the BSC with ethanol, but we still observe contamination in the media where the cells are growing.

Q: What are the possible real-world applications for your study?

Akin-Adenekan: This study will be useful in the production of any medical therapeutics that are derived from cells, such as insulin production.

Q: How would you explain your work to a fifth grader?

Akin-Adenekan: Let’s compare CHO cells to us humans for a second. We take in oxygen to survive and give out carbon dioxide. When CHO cells are grown in media, which is like their home, a similar exchange occurs. The cells take in nutrients and give out other nutrients, such as glucose and lactose. When there is too much of these products in the media, the cells start to die. These dead cells and the products in the media make it hard for the live cells to survive, so they start to die also. Currently, this is avoided by taking cells from their current media and putting them in fresh media to continue growing. This process takes a lot of time and it is very expensive.

In this research, the plan is to force cells to grow in a new home where it is so hard to survive and observe which cells survive. We will still be taking cells out of their current media, but instead of putting them in fresh media we put them in media that contains dead cells. This is like a survival of the fittest test. By getting the strongest cells, we will observe what makes those cells so strong that they withstand the stress caused by dead cells and nutrients in the media.

Q: How does this experience align with your career goals?

Akin-Adenekan: I am currently considering attending graduate school. This experience is teaching me a lot about the work I will be doing in graduate school.

Q: What do you do when you are not doing research?

Akin-Adenekan: I work out at the gym, hang out with friends and catch up on a lot of series. Currently watching Grey’s Anatomy and Elite.

Q: What advice would you give your fellow students who may be considering pursuing undergraduate research?

Akin-Adenekan: My advice to students pursuing undergraduate research is to try their best to read papers relating to their research (asking their graduate student for recommendations) because there will probably be so much about your research you know nothing about. Asking your graduate student questions when you have them is very important. It does not make you look less intelligent, but more open to learning.