Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Jennifer Cochran, Bioengineer

Dr. Jennifer R. Cochran was born and raised in Newark, Delaware. She recalls being a multitasker from a young age, constantly needing to keep her hands busy while watching TV, whether it be by sewing or doing needlepoint. Early on, she dreamed of becoming a musician and performed in garage bands and acapella groups. However, this career ambition swiftly turned on its head when she enrolled in a chemistry class at a community college and fell in love with the subject. Cochran then went on to pursue a degree in biochemistry at the University of Delaware in 1995 and obtained her Ph.D. in biological chemistry from MIT in 2001. After her doctorate, she remained at MIT for a postdoctoral fellowship in biological engineering.

She joined Stanford University’s faculty in 2005 and is currently a Professor of Bioengineering and, by courtesy, Chemical Engineering and a member of the Cancer Biology, Biophysics, and Immunology graduate programs. She also serves as the Director of the Stanford/NIH Biotechnology pre-doctoral training program and Co-Director of the Stanford NIST pre-doctoral training program. From 2014 to 2018, she served as the Director of Graduate Studies for Stanford’s bioengineering department. Additionally, she is the head of the Cochran Laboratory that utilises interdisciplinary methodologies in biophysics, chemistry, and engineering to examine and control intricate biological systems, and the lab focuses on generating innovative technologies for fundamental science and biomedical implementations. Furthermore, they use combinatorial and logical approaches to create designer protein and peptide ligands for numerous applications, such as wound healing, cardiac tissue engineering, and cancer imaging and therapy.

While her professional career itself is immensely impressive, her true strength is the extensive list of her research publications. She has published over 120 articles in various scientific journals with over 50 co-authors. One of her most influential focus areas has been in developing protein ‘missiles’ to target tumor cells. Most cancer drugs used in chemotherapy cause unpleasant side effects for the patient. Thus, Cochran has engineered the aforementioned protein ‘missiles’ to guide treatment drugs directly to tumor cells and do not permit them to affect the rest of the body. After joining Stanford’s faculty in 2005, she noticed that scientists had begun work on knottins, a group of tiny, compact proteins that existed like knots. They could adapt to the harshest of conditions, even living in boiling acid in certain instances, and so, it seemed plausible that they could be well-suited to the harshest environment: our bodies. “What if we could use them as a scaffold to design new drugs and diagnostics?” Cochran wondered. In particular, she pondered whether she could engineer them to target tumor cells. After years of difficult and sometimes seemingly impossible laboratory work, in 2015, she and her postdoctoral adviser, Karl Dane Wittrup, launched a startup, Nodus Therapeutics, to develop engineered knottins for immunotherapy applications. By combining antibodies with knottins and drugs, she observed incredible responses in mice and hopes to observe the same in human trials in the coming years.

Jennifer Cochran & fourth-year graduate student

Another key achievement of hers in the field of cancer biology is her work in creating an experimental drug that targets a type of lung cancer that kills over 500,000 people annually and is considered to be ‘untreatable’. Their paper proved that through the neutralisation of a single protein, researchers were able to slow the spread of the cancer in the mice with that form of cancer. Although the results are tremendously promising, it may need decades of intensive drug development and further experimentation before the researchers can begin trying this treatment for humans. However, Cochran is confident that the drug can be utilised safely by humans, seeing that there was not any evidence of harmful side effects in mice. “As these studies show, when we combine detailed knowledge of a particular disease mechanism with bioengineering prowess, we can achieve some pretty powerful results,” she commented.

Dr. Cochran has received numerous prestigious awards and honors including the NIH/NCI Howard Temin Award in 2004, Sidney Kimmel Scholars Award for Cancer Research in 2007, the Martin D. Abeloff Scholar Award from the V Foundation for Cancer Research in 2008, named the 47th Mallinckrodt Faculty Scholar from the Edward Mallinckrodt Jr. Foundation in 2017, and elected to the College of Fellows from the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) in 2018. She was nominated, reviewed, and elected by peers and members of the College of Fellows for ‘fundamental advances in protein engineering, the development of tools for discovery, diagnosis and therapies, and for leadership in bioengineering’. Other awards she won include the Hellman Faculty Scholar Award from the Hellman Foundation in 2008, McCormick Award from the McCormick Foundation in 2007, and the Translational Partnership Award from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation in 2006 and 2007.

by Raina Talwar Bhatia

References

AIMBE. (2019). Jennifer R. Cochran, Ph.D. https://aimbe.org/college-of-fellows/cof-3024/

Cochran Lab. (2012). Home- Cochran Lab. Cochran Lab — Stanford University. https://cochranlab.net/

EMedEvents. (2020). Jennifer R. Cochran — Chair, professor of biotechnology in Stanford, California, United States of America | eMedEvents. CME Conferences 2020 | Medical Conferences in 2020 | Medical Meetings. https://www.emedevents.com/speaker-profile/jennifer-r-cochran

Pandika, M. (2019, October 6). She thinks cancer drugs could use a bit of protein. OZY. https://www.ozy.com/the-new-and-the-next/she-thinks-cancer-drugs-could-use-a-bit-of-protein/83726

ResearchGate. (2020, September 17). Jennifer R. Cochran’s research works | Stanford University, CA (SU) and other places. https://www.researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/Jennifer-R-Cochran-38374672

Stanford University Medical Center. (2019, November 7). Protein decoy stymies lung cancer growth in mice, study finds. Medical Xpress — medical research advances and health news. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-11-protein-decoy-stymies-lung-cancer.html

Stanford University, Stanford, California. (2020). Jennifer R. Cochran. Stanford Profiles | Stanford University. https://profiles.stanford.edu/jennifer-cochran?tab=bio

Topio Networks. (2020). Jennifer Cochran, PhD in biological chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. www.topionetworks.com. https://www.topionetworks.com/people/jennifer-cochran-4fe42ee29029a80dde0048a8

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Rediscover STEAM sheds light on the stories of underrepresented women throughout history and aims to empower the next generation of female change-makers.

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