Erin Jablonski is used to working under the microscope. An assistant professor of chemical engineering, Jablonski studies flow in microfluidic devices. With the help of a National Science Foundation grant, Jablonski and her students are manipulating flow in microchannels to learn more about how cancer drugs are transported and absorbed in the human body.

Jablonski and her research team, which includes Bucknell juniors Janet Tesfai and Stephanie Evans and graduate students Andrew Litzenberger and Renee Perry, have developed semi-permeable channels, a first step to mimicking tumor vasculature.

By studying how molecules diffuse into channel walls of varying permeability, the group is gaining insight into how drugs are transported into cancerous versus healthy tissue. The microfluidic channels are on the order of 100 microns – about the width of human hair. “It is very similar to how flow occurs in capillaries,” Jablonski says. “We are getting into biologically relevant fluid flow.”

The ability to tailor permeability of the microchannels is essential to this study because, compared with healthy tissues, tumors are generally more permeable to drugs and tend to retain fluids for a longer time. Results from the microfluidic studies are expected to reveal ways to tailor chemotherapy drugs to enhance this combined permeation and retention effect. This would allow the drugs to act more selectively in tumors, making the treatments more effective and reducing side effects. 

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