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USC Researcher Uses Novel Technique to Battle Cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s

Sangpil Yoon

Sangpil Yoon is the first postdoctoral fellow to receive the Pathways to Independence Award from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. (Photo/Valentina Suarez)

A USC researcher is using a novel technique to deliver very large molecules to treat cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Sangpil Yoon is using high-frequency ultrasound, called acoustic-transfection, to deliver molecules such as proteins, through the human cells to treat deadly diseases. The promising research has led to Yoon being the first Viterbi School of Engineering postdoctoral fellow to win a prestigious Pathway to Independence Award, or K99.

“I’m very happy and excited for him,” said K. Kirk Shung, the Dean’s Professor in Biomedical Engineering and Yoon’s senior adviser. “This is a highly competitive award and his winning it means that USC BME [biomedical engineering] research is taking a small step in gaining peer recognition.”

A long-term project

The five-year, $932,000 award will fund Yoon in his long-term quest to engineer an ultrasound device that can transfect cells or transport customized drugs and biomolecules across the cell membrane. This approach, Yoon said, avoids the use of foreign materials such as nanoparticles to the cells and promises to be more targeted and effective than existing methods.

The National Institutes of Health administers the K99 awards to support innovative postdoctoral research and increase the likelihood of award winners landing university tenure-track or equivalent research positions.

Yoon said USC Viterbi’s “cutting-edge facilities and equipment make it possible to transform preliminary ideas and sketches into reality.” He also said that his research center, directed by Shung, has been an ideal place to work and experiment.

Yoon credits Shung for nurturing him to come up with his own ideas, adding that his senior adviser is “always there to help and encourage me and has given me confidence.”

“I just love research. Speculating first in my mind and then trying to make that idea into a reality is really fascinating to me,” Yoon said. “Whenever I see a roadblock or hurdles, I just want to overcome them, to jump over the problem.”

Work ethic

A South Korean native, Yoon studied mechanical engineering at Yonsei University and earned an MS in aerospace engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. After Georgia Tech, Yoon went to work at Samsung Electronics in Korea for three years.

A newfound interest in ultrasound imaging and acoustics led him back to the academy. In 2012, Yoon earned his doctorate in mechanical and biomedical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

Yoon has developed a reputation for his unrivaled work ethic.

“I may come to office at 7 a.m. and he is already here,” Shung said. “I don’t know when he sleeps. Once he starts working, he doesn’t stop.”

By Marc Ballon

USC Viterbi Researcher Uses Novel Technique to Battle Cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s was originally published on the University of Southern California's website.