Spotlight on Students: Peter DelNero
Peter DelNero began his graduate studies in the Nancy E. and Peter C. Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Cornell in 2011. He hopes to earn his Ph.D. in August of 2017. So, by his way of thinking, he is just past halfway there. “I like endurance sports and I am a distance runner,” says DelNero. “Like any marathon runner will tell you, the halfway point is not Mile 13; it’s Mile 20. I’m in my sixth year here and it feels like I am halfway,” DelNero adds with a smile.
DelNero is part of Professor Claudia Fischbach’s lab, where he works on custom 3-D microfluidic platforms that allow researchers to mimic conditions inside the body. In this way, DelNero hopes to learn more about the complex chemical and physical interactions involved in cancer angiogenesis and metabolism.
DelNero grew up in Overland Park, Kansas. His mother studied mathematics and his father is a civil engineer, but DelNero says it was not always clear he would end up in a technical field himself. “I was drawn to everything in high school,” says DelNero. “I liked the science fair, but I also participated in math and writing competitions.” DelNero went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN for his undergraduate studies. He majored in chemical engineering and minored in writing.
When it came time to decide on a path for graduate school, DelNero had a tough decision: English Literature or Engineering? When confronted with difficult decisions, DelNero says that he usually chooses the option that seems most challenging. In this case, that meant a doctoral program in biomedical engineering at Cornell. “At Vanderbilt I was part of the Systems Biology and Bioengineering Undergraduate Research Program (SyBBURE) and I got involved in biomedical research and microfluidics,” says DelNero. “I also spent a summer at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) where I did work in tumor engineering. In the end, the decision was not that hard because Cornell offered a terrific opportunity to extend my research interests.”
DelNero joined the Center on the Microenvironment and Metastasis (CMM) at Cornell. The CMM is a Physical Sciences Oncology Center supported by the National Cancer Institute, and their goal is to better understand the interaction of physical properties and chemical cues in cancer progression. Fischbach and DelNero are using tissue engineering strategies to create in vitro environments that mimic the in vivo environment of a tumor. The closer they can match the conditions present in a living body, the more they can learn about the behavior of actual cancer cells. “We are not trying to use a reductionist approach,” says DelNero. “Rather, we are trying to reproduce some of the complexity you would find in the body.”
DelNero is especially interested in the relationship between cancer cells and blood vessels. To grow, tumors need a blood supply. To create an increased blood supply, tumors secrete factors that lead to the growth of more blood vessels. In effect, tumors are an invasive species that hijack the body’s own plumbing in order to provide themselves with nutrition. The growth of blood vessels is called ‘angiogenesis,’ and DelNero wants to learn more about how tumors accomplish this task. The more researchers know about tumors and their behavior, the more options there will be to tune the microenvironment of the tumor and possibly starve it of what it needs to survive.
In addition to his research in the lab, DelNero has discovered a parallel passion for erasing the borders between academic researchers and the people their work aims to help. “I spent two years in the lab with all sorts of materials and tools, working on these microfluidic platforms, but I never spent a minute with cancer patients or survivors,” says DelNero. “The more I thought about that, the more it bothered me.”
So DelNero connected with Bob Riter at the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes (CRCFL) in Ithaca and helped organize a Patient-Researcher Seminar series. “It has been such a rewarding part of my grad school experience,” says DelNero. DelNero was recently awarded a grant to continue his work with the CRCFL. The award came from the Engaged Graduate Students Grants program of Engaged Cornell. It will allow DelNero and Riter to evaluate their collaboration, publish their results, and produce resources for patient advocacy and support organizations as well as for other research institutions.
“My advisor is terrific,” says DelNero. “Professor Fischbach has been extremely supportive of everything I have taken on here.” The more researchers learn about cancer, the clearer it becomes that cancer is not just one disease. There are many different sorts of tumors; even within one tumor the cells in one area can be different from the cells in another area due to mutations and other factors. With his work in the lab DelNero hopes to better understand how this complexity influences effective treatments. With his work outside of the lab, DelNero says he “hopes to fill in some of the empty spaces where basic and applied sciences meet the real world.”
Click here to see another side of Peter DelNero: http://www.cornell.edu/video/big-red-pumpkin-regatta-2014