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Sabrina Iskandar (left) and Jasmine King.

As part of the annual Eshelman Institute for Innovation (EII) student and postdoctoral grant process, the EII Rankin Innovator Acceleration Award is given annually to the student(s) with the highest rated, commercially focused proposal.

This year’s recipients include Ph.D. students Sabrina Iskandar and Jasmine King. Each student will receive $10,000 to support their proposal, and participation in entrepreneurism and business training opportunities. The award is funded by The Lawson and Gisele Rankin Endowment, and is currently matched with an annual gift.

“The Rankin family understand the importance of translation of scientific innovation into real products and services that have an impact on society. These awards recognize that need and support our young talent to learn early about what that type of translation requires. We are extremely grateful to have this kind of support at the School,” said John Bamforth, director of the EII.

Iskandar’s proposal centers around improving a powerful drug screening technology called mRNA display. She said this technology uses the ribosome to translate a large number of peptides for in vitro screening against a protein target. While the screening is extremely efficient, she said it can only be used on certain types of molecules (i.e. peptides), as opposed to other high throughput screening techniques. Iskandar proposes to use promiscuous orthogonal tRNA synthetases to expand the chemical functionalities that are translatable, and therefore screenable, in mRNA display. This would ultimately help improve the ability of the technology to find high affinity ligands of medically relevant protein targets.

About receiving the award, Iskandar said she’s thrilled. “It’s a rare opportunity to be able to cultivate both scientific and entrepreneurial training during a Ph.D. I’m used to thinking about research and experiments, but receiving this award made me excited to learn the business perspectives needed to be successful in the biotech startup world.”

King’s proposal focuses on glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer. King said glioblastoma research efforts have focused on genetically modifying stem cells to selectively target and kill cancer cells. Tumor homing neural stem cells have shown great promise as an attractive delivery approach for the treatment of post-surgical glioblastoma. However, she said rapid stem cell clearance and poor retention in the resection cavity remain a major challenge that limits efficacy of stem cell-based therapy. To overcome these challenges, King is developing an innovative hydrogel technology that can serve as a reservoir to “house” neural stem cells to provide a controlled, sustained release and facilitate their local delivery after surgery.

“I was very excited to be selected as a recipient of the Rankin Innovator Accelerator Award. I am very grateful for the donors and I cannot thank them enough for contributing to the development of future scientists like myself,” King said.

Moving forward, King said she has her eyes set on career goals that include a tenure-track faculty position, becoming a scientific entrepreneur to promote the development of student researchers, and developing and commercializing new technologies to improve cancer treatment. One day, she plans to make a significant impact in cancer research and drug development that fosters and improves bedside treatment.

Iskandar said she pictures herself working for a company that aims to develop new medicines or technologies to improve patient outcomes.

About the award, she added, “The Rankin Award will allow me to learn about business fundamentals – specifically through the lens of commercializing science technologies – which, in tandem with my Ph.D. training, will equip me with knowledge of both the scientific and economic aspects of drug development and beyond. I have no doubt this perspective will prove advantageous in starting a career in the biopharma industry.”

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