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University of Missouri

Engineering Against Cancer

Researching cancer-fighting biomaterials shaped one undergraduate’s career dreams.

Barcellona portrait

Marcos Barcellona got hooked on biomaterials research after one semester in the lab. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Marcos Barcellona thought he was destined for a career in prosthetics. He wanted to work in an important, health-related field that relies on science. Then he joined the lab of Matthew Bernards, assistant professor of chemical engineering in the College of Engineering. Barcellona found a new destiny.

Bernards put the freshman to work on a project developing an implantable biofilter that catches tumor cells circulating in the blood. Such cells enable malignant tumors to spread from the original tumor to new sites.

I’m fascinated by it,” he says of biomaterials research. “There’s so much you can do in that field.”

Barcellona, now a senior, never left Bernards’ lab. His current project is a hydrogel membrane surgeons could implant directly on a tumor, where it would act as a slow-release capsule for chemotherapy. Releasing the drugs at the tumor site, rather than into the blood stream, would limit side effects, and the time-release property could potentially transform chemotherapy from a weekly occurrence to an annual one. Barcellona measures how quickly various chemotherapy molecules, which come in different sizes, move through the membrane to see which will work best.

Barcellona hopes to continue his education toward a doctorate in biomaterials or biomedical engineering. He credits his lab experience and Bernards’ mentorship for his undergraduate success.

It’s opened a lot of doors,” says Barcellona, whose family moved to Chesterfield, Missouri, from his native Argentina 10 years ago. He has attended science conferences and conducted research at the University of Kentucky through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. “I don’t think these are things I would have gotten the chance to do if I hadn’t started doing research with Bernards.”