Son’s cancer diagnosis inspires UT-Dallas bioengineer’s research

dr. Shashank Sirsi has studied neuroblastoma for over ten years. Then the unthinkable. The same cancer struck his own son.

RICHARDSON, Texas — A bioengineer from the University of Texas at Dallas who has devoted the first decade of his career to the study and treatment of a rare childhood cancer was given a powerful extra motivation during the pandemic: the diagnosis for his own son.

dr. Shashank Sirsi, an assistant professor of bioengineering at UT-Dallas, is studying less invasive ways to treat cancer, especially neuroblastoma.

“What we’re doing in this lab is essentially creating sound-sensitive particles,” he explained.

“We encapsulate drugs, we deliver them to the site of the tumor,” he said of the approach that uses microbubbles, gas spheres smaller than 10 micrometers, which can transport drugs to a specific location and are “imploded” to deliver drugs on command. to release . It is a method that, according to Sirsi, could replace radiation treatments that often have lasting negative effects.

“These are all things that happen because of the therapy itself, not the actual cancer,” he said of radiation damage. “That was my motivation to start with childhood cancer in the first place. Because those effects can show up 20-30 years later.”

But he is a bioengineer who works in an office and a lab and admits that in his decade of research he had never met a neuroblastoma patient.

That is, until his own son was born.

“It’s surreal. It’s still hard to believe,” he admitted. “When it was confirmed, it was an absolute shock to both me and my wife.”

Neuroblastoma, the most common cancer in infants, affects approximately 800 children in the US each year. And JD, the son of a scientist who studies it, was suddenly diagnosed with it too. It started with a lump on his stomach when he was just 3 months old. An ultrasound showed seven lesions on his liver.

“It still surprises me a bit,” Sirsi said.

But this neuroblastoma story is working its way to a happy ending.

JD is now 20 months old. He responded very well to traditional chemotherapy. He is in remission.

His father, a bioengineer, and his mother, an internal medicine physician, were able to quickly give him the help he needed.

“For many, there are so many hurdles to overcome,” said Dr. Priya Joshi, JD’s mother. “We’re just really grateful and lucky to be lucky with his prognosis and with the outcome.”

The result for a father who studies this cancer is that he knows he has chosen the right medicine. And he knows he will work even harder now.

“Neuroblastoma will always be the main target,” he said of his area of ​​focus.

“One of the first questions I’m going to ask myself now is if, God forbid, something would happen. If my son’s cancer came back, I’d be happy to share what we’re developing in our lab on my own son.” to give? “

A son and a survivor who is all the motivation a scientist and a father will ever need.

dr. Sirsi’s research at the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science at UT-Dallas is supported in part by more than $1 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health. The co-principal investigator is Dr. Sonia L. Hernandez, associate professor of research at the University of Chicago.

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