Pratt Fellow Yamanaka Aims for Gene Therapy in a Pill and Career in Global Health

Yvonne Yamanaka, a biomedical engineering major and Pratt Undergraduate Research Fellow, is developing a method for incorporating the genes encoding insulin into cells of the intestine, a promising new method for the treatment of diabetes. Unlike earlier approaches to gene therapy, which rely on viruses to insert new genes into cells, her research in the laboratory of Biomedical Engineering Professor Kam Leong aims to make gene therapies as easy as popping a pill. Such oral gene therapies would also be less likely than viral approaches to spark an undesired immune response.

Yvonne Yamanaka“The idea is to deliver the insulin gene to intestinal cells instead of requiring diabetic patients to take insulin shots,” Yamanaka said. “Oral gene delivery has a lot of potential for treating many chronic diseases,” she continued. “It might also have application for vaccines, particularly in low-resource settings where clean needles may not be easily available. That’s one reason I’m interested–— because of the larger societal context.”

The work involved in her research has been varied. Early on, she conducted experiments on the delivery of the insulin gene into cultured intestinal cells. Now, she is also focusing her attention on the microcapsules that would carry the genes to their final destination in the living body. The microcapsules are designed to be pH sensitive, a necessity for them to survive the stomach and then degrade to release their gene contents only in specific areas of the intestine, she explained.

Engineering Global Health

Yamanaka’s research as a Pratt Fellow is just one of several ways she has pursued a broader interest in global health as an engineer at Duke. As a member of Duke’s student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), she traveled to a village in Uganda one summer to conduct a water supply project aimed at assessing the quality of existing sources and begin planning for methods to supplement that supply. With that background in hand, another team of students then went back to Uganda to build a rainwater harvesting system.

Last summer, before starting her research with Pratt Fellows, she traveled to Africa again. This time, she went to Tanzania to work on a project in collaboration with another Duke student and a graduate student in public health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. They were surveying people there to examine the connection between their religious beliefs and attitudes toward HIV and its treatment.

While all the results of that study aren’t in yet, she said there was some evidence for a link. For example, people of Pentecostal faith seemed more likely to believe in the power of prayer for healing and to associate HIV with a greater stigma.

Yamanaka also took a course in sustainable design taught by David Schaad, assistant chair of civil and environmental engineering at Duke. In the class, she worked on a team, including engineers of every stripe, to redesign a mechanical aerator first developed by EWB members in an effort to assist shrimp farmers in Indonesia hurt by the Christmas tsunami of 2005. The team presented their design at the Environmental Protection Agency’s People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Student Design Competition for Sustainability in Washington, D.C.

She is also taking a course on biochip engineering taught by professor Richard Fair, who is developing microfluidic “lab on a chip” devices for fast, low-cost medical or environmental testing, characteristics with great promise for developing world countries. Students in the course don’t design a device, she explained, but rather develop potential microfluidics applications and plans for their implementation.

Yamanaka said she is now applying to graduate schools where she intends to pursue biomedical engineering in a field with relevance to global health.