When you think of gold, it’s normally associated with wealth rather than health. SUNY Potsdam alumnus Ty Santiago ’17 is turning that perspective on its head while researching new methods for administering chemotherapeutics through gold nanoparticles.
“We load them up (gold nanoparticles) with our anti-cancer drugs and it acts as a vehicle and carries them to the target site,” said Santiago. “You’re not seeing damage to healthy tissue to the extent that you would with the traditional method.”
The problem with current chemotherapy practices is that although the drugs kill cancerous cells, they also attack healthy tissue. Santiago’s research has been exploring the viability of using gold nanoparticles as carriers for Gemcitabine, an anti-cancer drug that attacks pancreatic, breast, ovarian and lung cancers.
“Our goal is to develop a new method of administering chemotherapeutics as to eliminate the harmful side effects…It’s not necessarily a new way of attacking as much as it is a new way of administering. The effect that we’re achieving is a targeting effect, but it’s less that we’re saying, ‘hey go hit that target’ and more that we’re saying ‘don’t hit the innocent bystanders,’” Santiago said.
His nanoparticle research, with SUNY Potsdam professors Dr. Maria Hepel and Dr. Katarzyna Kurzatkowska, was recently featured in a prestigious international science journal, Biosensors and Bioelectronics. The collaboration among Hepel, Kurzatkowska and Santiago is unique and it has allowed Santiago to experience graduate level research at the undergraduate level.
“The (chemistry) department is fantastic, they all really want to see us succeed and it shows in their teaching and they get involved with us…they want to help us improve,” Santiago said.
In the summer of 2015, he worked closely with Kurzatkowska, a post-doctoral researcher from Poland. They spent almost 200 hours working on the gold nanoparticle research in a lab at SUNY Potsdam.
“She was one of the biggest influences I’ve had as a scientist. She was an amazing role model…It was a really fantastic and unique experience, I don’t think a lot of undergraduates get to do that kind of thing,” Santiago recalls.
Through a collaboration with a lab at SUNY Albany, Santiago was able to design an experiment to test the viability of his nanoparticle research. He’s now in the process of preparing samples to be sent to SUNY Plattsburgh to test his research on live rats.
This fall he will be heading to the University of Buffalo to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry with a concentration in nanomedicine. He initially thought that he would explore a different type of research in graduate school, but he’s decided to stay focused on nanoparticle, anti-cancer research after his dog recently lost a battle with cancer. “It was definitely one of the hardest experiences of my life so far,” Santiago said.
In addition to losing his dog, he has dealt with other challenges as an undergraduate student. During his first year at SUNY Potsdam he was commuting to campus from Watertown. There were times when he would work from 3 a.m. until 8 a.m., drive to Potsdam for his 10 a.m. organic chemistry class, be on campus all day, and then drive back to Watertown. During that first year he had three cars break down, often missing full weeks of school at a time.
Santiago decided to take a year off. He worked two jobs plus some construction on the side, as he saved money for tuition and a new car. After a year, he moved to Massena, but still faced financial struggles as he tried to put himself through school. He worked at Advanced Auto Parts and at the St. Lawrence Centre Mall in Massena while balancing all his coursework in the chemistry department.
“I ended up basically doing everything on my own financially…it was never easy at any point,” he said. “I’m coming into the lab some days where I’m like an hour late and I’m covered from head to toe in grease and my knuckles are bleeding because I had to fix my car on the side of the road,” Santiago recalls.
In light of these personal challenges, he started to question whether or not he should continue with his degree in chemistry. He approached Hepel who was very supportive and gave him the guidance and confidence to continue his work.
“She said, ‘you know what, you can do it, we’re going to make this happen.’ She got me setup in one of her labs—It’s been one of the greatest experiences ever for me…If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be going to UB (the University of Buffalo) this fall,” Santiago said.
Hepel praised Santiago as a student who works hard and has been a very successful undergraduate researcher at SUNY Potsdam. She said he is a “student with the rare ability for independent and critical thinking.” In addition, she said he is “very effective at producing good data in the lab and his oral and writing skills are excellent.”
He leaves Potsdam with impressive lab experience, a published paper and the confidence gained by presenting his research to other scientists in the field. He won an award for the best oral presentation during the American Chemical Society’s local meeting at Clarkson University. He also delivered an oral presentation at the Northeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Binghamton, an event where many graduate students discussed their work, but Santiago was the only undergraduate student on stage presenting his research.