New faculty member Soojung Claire Hur is using her engineering expertise to build better tools for cancer research.

From advanced transportation systems and clean energy to kitchen appliances and remote controls, mechanical engineers are at the forefront of developing new technologies that will have an impact on our everyday lives. Yet, it might surprise some that mechanical engineers are making great strides in tackling one of society’s greatest challenges – cancer.

SJ Claire Hur, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering, understands the important role that engineering serves in the fight against cancer and other diseases.

“At first, I wanted to become an engineer who builds airplanes. But then I realized I wanted to use my expertise in mechanical engineering – building things by implementing fundamental engineering principles – to make useful tools for the biomedical field. As it turned out, those disciplines matched pretty well,” says Hur, who joined the department in July.

Motivated by her own cousin’s battle with cancer, Hur is working on a microfluidic system that can help catch cancer earlier than traditional screening methods. Her research is promising for both cancer researchers and cancer patients, as earlier detection often leads to more effective treatment and better outcomes.

As a PhD student at UCLA, Hur and a team created a system that can purify, or separate, cancer cells from blood cells. This technique allows researchers to gain a better understanding of cancer progression from blood samples.

“When cells are injected into a really narrow gap –microfluidic systems are about a half of a hair diameter – at very high speeds, fluidic forces push the cells around. How they move depends on how large and how soft the cells are. Because some cancer cells can be relatively large and soft compared to healthy blood cells, we can use this technique to separate those cancer cells from the blood cells,” explains Hur.

She expanded on this work at Harvard University, where she was Rowland Fellow and Principal Investigator from 2011 to 2015. There, she developed a device that delivers molecules into purified cells to correct diseased cells or to identify personalized therapeutic agents.

A device that delivers molecules into purified cells

The core technology behind Hur’s research has been licensed by the biotech startup Vortex Biosciences in Menlo Park, California. After her fellowship at Harvard, Hur spent a year at UCLA researching with the startup before joining the faculty at Johns Hopkins University.

Her greatest challenge is keeping up with a complex, evolving disease. “Cancer is very smart on its own,” explains Hur. “It keeps mutating, so even when you find a good therapy or think you have an answer, a new type of cancer that is resistant to the therapy pops up.”

Nevertheless, the Hur Lab on Microfluidic Biophysics at Johns Hopkins will continue working on innovative techniques to understand and cure cancer. Hur looks forward to teaming up with Hopkins students and faculty as she continues her mission to create tools for people in need.

“Of course, I’m excited to expand my research horizons by tapping into resources at Johns Hopkins Medicine and building collaborations across the university. But what attracted me to this mechanical engineering department in particular is that it felt very collegial, very welcoming. I like the sense of community here,” says Hur.