Courtesy of seas.yale.edu

Rebecca Byler GRD ’21, a biomedical engineering graduate student at the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science, received the Philanthropic Educational Organization, or PEO, Scholar Award last week.

The Philanthropic Educational Organization grants the merit-based award to women in doctoral programs in the United States and Canada who demonstrate exceptional academic achievement, global experiences and the potential to have a positive impact on society through their work. Byler was selected as one of 100 winners selected from a pool of 928 nominees and received a monetary award to fund further study and research.

While Byler is completing her Ph.D. at Yale, she spent three years of her dissertation doing research in residence at Centro Internacional de Entrenamiento e Investigaciones Médicas, or CIDEIM, in Colombia. During that time, Byler studied under the guidance of the CIDEIM Director Nancy Gore Saravia, who has held adjunct positions at Yale, and Themis Kyriakides, associate professor of pathology and biomedical engineering and Byler’s Ph.D. advisor at Yale.

“My dissertation combines cutting-edge areas of biomedical engineering including dermal drug delivery, biomaterials, tissue engineering, nanotechnology, and human-centered design to tackle a neglected tropical disease, cutaneous leishmaniasis,” Byler wrote in an email to the News.

Cutaneous leishmaniasis, or CL, is responsible for a large burden on healthcare around the world, Byler explained. It is known as a “flesh-eating” parasitic disease, generally identifiable by its disfiguring dermal lesions and chronic nature. The disease’s severity is often dependent on the body’s ability to repair the wounds that it creates. However, there are no front-line treatments for CL that focus on promoting lesion healing or locally delivered treatments to the wounds, according to Byler. She explained that the standard treatment involves a 20-day course of inefficient and painful injections that reduce the number of parasites in the body.

Byler identified the development of a single-application, topical delivery system that releases both anti-parasitic drugs and lesion-healing compounds as a potential improved CL treatment option.

“By collecting and analyzing engineering, clinical, public health, and ethnographic data, I leverage a human-centered design process to develop and evaluate multifunctional therapeutic patches that consider the properties and structure of ulcerative CL lesions, the preferences of CL patients and medical providers, and available medical infrastructure,” Byler wrote in an email to the News. “This work has direct implications for CL control in rural endemic areas where existing treatments are otherwise unfeasible and unacceptable.”

Byler considers herself an “engineer with a global health focus,” as her main aim is to apply engineering approaches to tackle otherwise neglected diseases that disproportionately impact low- and middle-income countries.

Kyriakides said he believes Byler’s creativity and dedication won her the award.

“Those two characteristics are what [empower] her to take on very difficult projects that are challenging not only technically, but also physically and mentally, as they involve travel and working in a foreign country,” Kyriakides said. “It takes a lot of creativity to navigate this. Not many students would be able to persevere and move forward.”

Byler was nominated for the award by Richard Sleight, associate dean for graduate student advising and academic support. 

Following her nomination, Carla Heister, a member of the Connecticut PEO Chapter and former librarian at Yale, interviewed Byler and wrote her a letter of recommendation for the award.

“She can look at health problems not just as a scientist working on an esoteric question but also as a humanitarian finding out how the delivery of novel medications can best help suffering humans to be treated and cured,” Heister wrote in an email to the News. 

According to Byler, her passion for the field was first sparked in high school when she spent two summers in rural Panama and Nicaragua and saw the devastating impact of infectious diseases firsthand. As an undergraduate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, she experimented with applying her coursework to a range of diseases. During that time, she realized that people were her priority, rather than simply developing a novel model or technology. Upon graduation, she decided that nothing appeared more worthwhile than combining disciplines to alleviate human suffering.

“Despite extensive transmission across 89 countries, CL does not occur in the US, so research interest and funding are scarce,” Byler wrote in an email to the News. “Inspired by this knowledge, I initially chose to develop novel drug formulations … and targeted delivery systems (biodegradable nanoparticles, carbon nanotubes).”

But although her early work was initially scientifically promising, interactions with CL patients in India and Colombia in the third year of her dissertation established that her ideas were not viable as she had thought — given that medical infrastructure is inaccessible and inadequate in areas affected by CL. In response, she moved to Colombia as a predoctoral fellow at CIDEIM. There, she developed a successful iteration of a topical sustained application which would target the parasite that causes CL.

Kyriakades believes Byler’s solution is unique because after the treatment is applied to the wound site, it can carry out the sustained release of multiple types of drugs at different times into the lesion. 

“Based on the chemistry of the materials we used, we can control the timing for the release and can deliver different drugs at the time in which it would be most effective,” he said. “We can also cope with parasites, promote healing and deal with inflammation in a sequential fashion. We are now looking at multicomponent drug delivery from a single patch. This is made possible by all the research she was able to collect from the patients when characterizing the lesions created by the parasite.”

Byler also explained the potential implications of her research on the future of skin disease treatment and her future career goals. 

She said that her treatment model can also be used for other skin diseases and that, apart from this area of study, she hopes to one day create an “innovative research approach” that can be used to better address other public health problems around the world.

“As a future university professor, I will lead multidisciplinary bioengineering research programs to solve complex global health crises,” Byler wrote. “I will be the engineer who equilibrates research efforts to global disease burden by designing and innovating for the least represented.”

The PEO Scholar Awards program was established in 1991.

Mai Chen | mai.chen@yale.edu