Cell Surgery Without the Incision

Visual representation of different cell types that would turn red or bright green when exposed to ultrasound.

It's been quite a year for NYU Abu Dhabi senior Farah Shamout. She was on the winning team at the International Hackathon for Social Good, received the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship from the University of Oxford, and now, as an undergrad, she's a published researcher in the field of biomedical engineering.

21-year-old Shamout spent four months during her sophomore study-away semester working with Dr. James Choi at Imperial College London researching ways to deliver drugs to diseased cells using only ultrasound. The research, published in the Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine & Biology, aims to create non-invasive surgery techniques to treat cancer and heart disease. In short, surgery without the incision.

Farah developed a technique to deliver model drugs across the membrane of cells using ultrasound and acoustic particles.

Dr. James Choi, Principal Investigator

How did this internship come about?

Farah: I was going abroad during my sophomore year to London and asked my biology professor at NYUAD if he knew anyone there I could do research with. He got me in touch with Dr. Choi at Imperial College London and I joined the lab while taking courses at NYU London.

Dr. Choi: When Farah contacted me, our laboratory was just starting up and had only two other full-time researchers. We needed more researchers to develop our ideas. I interviewed Farah and I could tell that she was very bright and motivated. I had a challenging project that needed someone to push forward so I asked her to join us and take it on.

What's the research?

Dr. Choi: We use biology, engineering and physics to develop innovative devices and methods to perform surgeries and biopsies for cancer and cardiovascular disease without having to cut a patient.

Why is this research important?

Dr. Choi: Many drugs being developed today have been shown to be extremely effective at slowing, halting, or even reversing the course of a disease. However, many of these drugs can’t get to where they need to be due to the cell membrane. Cell membranes encase the contents of a cell and tightly regulate the exchange of nutrients and waste across it in order to survive and function properly. When the cell fails, as in the case of atherosclerosis, the cell membrane becomes a barrier to treatment by blocking the intake of drugs. Our technique allows us to deliver drugs across the cell membrane so that we can heal the cell.

Farah Shamout, Class of 2016, Rhodes Scholar

The field of non-invasive surgery is growing. I think we are part of something revolutionary.

Farah Shamout, NYUAD Class of 2016

What were the results?

Farah: The technique uses microbubbles that oscillate when under ultrasound pressure and form a pore in the cell which causes the drug to enter the cell. The ultrasound is on top of the skin, which means there's no surgery required. We got the highest reported drug delivery rate, which was 65%. It means 65% of the cells got the drug and remained viable afterward (they didn't die) To our knowledge, this study generated the highest drug delivery rate coupled with high cell viability in a physiologically relevant in vitro flow system.

Dr. Choi: Even as an undergraduate, Farah met the challenge head on and produced excellent work.

Farah: I had only four months to complete the research and I had to learn everything on my own, like how to do cell culturing. Dr. Choi always challenged me to find the answers myself.

What's next?

Dr. Choi: Our aim is to develop this technology further and push its use into the clinic to treat atherosclerosis.

Farah: I'm graduating in May and will be attending the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. I plan to continue studies in biomedical engineering.