Outstanding TMU Graduate: Dr. Thomashire Anita George
Source: Office of Global Engagement
Published on 2023-02-10
Anita George always had a strong interest in science. She loved math and chemistry, and was originally offered a spot in the University of Sierra Leone’s engineering program.
But she also carried a strong sense of compassion, and when an offer came to study at the University’s Department of Medicine, she jumped at it. She specialized in obstetrics and gynecology, and began serving as an attending physician in the nation’s armed forces, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Still, Dr. George felt a need to do more. She looked at various Ph.D. programs, but nothing captured her interest. Her supervisor at the time was in contact with Dr. Thierry Burnouf, who was visiting Sierra Leone from Taipei Medical University on a project related to the Ebola virus. Dr. Burnouf suggested a program at TMU’s College of Biomedical Engineering, and Dr. George decided to give it a try.
Moving halfway around the world is a difficult transition, especially for one so connected to her country and people, and Dr. George isn’t ashamed to admit shedding a tear when reality set during the flight. But those emotions also led her first experience with Taiwanese hospitality; a young Taiwanese girl sitting next to her struck up a conversation and the two chatted for the rest of the flight. The youth even helped organize a cab when they arrived.
Integration into a new environment was the next step. Besides attending the first year’s courses, Dr. George began attending a local church and participating in the OGE host family program. It was a fun and productive first year, but the necessity of finding an advisor with matching research interests and an open slot was looming ever closer. A stroke of good luck struck when a fellow student invited Dr. George to sit in on a meeting with a prospective advisor of his own. By the chat’s end, they’d determined the better fit would be between Dr. George and Dr. David Lundy, assistant professor of Graduate Institute of Biomedical Materials and Tissue Engineering, and she had a prospective advisor.
Dr. Lundy was looking for more efficient ways to deliver cancer drugs to tumor sites, and wanted to leverage his work on nanocarriers with a group of chemicals discovered by a TMU chemistry researcher. Lundy thought these chemicals could be encapsulated within a liposome to better treat triple-negative breast cancer, and Dr. George headed to the library for a deep-dive into the literature. She realized that the concept was not only sound, it could lead to improved cancer therapies of national, and indeed global, benefit.
The first task was to figure out which of eight previously developed molecules was the most effective at killing cancer cells. They also needed to develop a liposomal formulation of the drug – essentially packaging the chemical within an extended-release fat droplet – to allow better targeting of tumors and a reduction in sudden toxicity. But before the actual experiments were complete, no one know for sure if liposomal encapsulation was even possible.
Dealing with the uncertainties of research is part and parcel of the Ph.D. experience, and though it can feel crushing when things don’t work out as expected, both researchers agree that dealing with negative results is part of an authentic Ph.D. experience. Understanding that these feelings are normal can help students push through. “Unless you’re a genius, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” Dr. Lundy says.
It also helps to have an enthusiastic scientist with a slightly stubborn streak for a mentor. “Dr. Lundy is a person who, when he thinks he’s right, will just keep on going, unwavering,” says Dr. George. “I’m the type of person who doesn’t do things because I’m told, I need to understand it, then I can come back and make it better. He let me go through that period … I don’t feel like if I make a mistake somebody is going to nag me. You catch his enthusiasm and it becomes contagious.”
After a successful breakthrough in figuring out a process for liposomal encapsulation, the next, and perhaps most difficult, step was getting the packaged drug delivered to breast cancer tumor cells. First in vitro then with animal models, Dr. George proved that the drug packaged using her method could be delivered to tumors where it had potent anti-cancer effects, clearing cancerous tissue without detrimental effects on normal biochemical markers.
Dr. George now plans to build scientific and health care capacity in her own country by establishing an institute of biomedical engineering, with possible projects to include investigations into local plant-based medicines. Taiwan’s example of a nation developing into a center of scientific research helps give Dr. George a sense of optimism for her own country’s development. The road may not be easy, but, “with persistence, you might get things working.”
Dr. Anita George, one TMU’s Outstanding Graduates of 2022, certainly will.