This Caribbean immigrant has changed the face of cancer treatment with her invention

BY Preta Peace Namasaba June 13, 2024 6:26 AM EDT

Causing approximately ten million deaths per year, the different kinds of cancer are some of the leading global health challenges. Naturally, this means that a lot of time, effort, and money is dedicated to combatting cancers. A standard cure for cancer remains elusive with treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy being used to cure, shrink, or stop the progression of cancer.

But Arlyne Simon, a biomedical engineer, developed a blood test that is altering the expected painful and often lengthy cancer treatment process. Her invention detects when cancer patients reject a bone marrow transplant, reducing the risk of excessive bleeding and infection.

“I definitely heard the words “inventing” and “patenting” earlier in my life. I don’t think I really associated those terms with something that I would have or a space that I would participate in. It really wasn’t until graduate school, when my advisor, Dr. Takayama, said, “Hey, I think we should file an invention disclosure on this.” And even then, I was confused as to, “Why would we patent this?” Simon said about her journey to becoming an inventor.

Simon’s fascination with nature nurtured her love for science. Growing up on the small Caribbean island of Dominica, she was surrounded by waterfalls, black sand beaches, and tropical forests. She collected caterpillars from the garden and watched them turn into butterflies, made homemade shampoo from hibiscus leaves, and took care of the fish. Science was everywhere. Alongside her mother, Simon at age five conducted her first experiment, testing whether sand, salt, and pepper sauce were soluble in water. Uncannily, her dissertation research project ended up being on a similar subject,  polymers and their solubility in water.

At 17, Simon and her family moved to the US so that she and her brother could attend college. She studied for a year at a community college before earning a spot at Georgia Institute of Technology where she was a chemical engineering major. She went on to pursue graduate studies in macromolecular science and engineering at the University of Michigan and got to tap into her creative side. At the time, Simon was very interested in polymer science and its applications in biomedical engineering. With a lab team, Simon explored the use of aqueous two-phase systems which are two polymers that dissolve independently in water.

The opportunity to permanently transform cancer treatment came when they filed their first invention disclosure.

Someone at the Innovation Center at the University of Michigan who knew about the team’s work thought it could be taken further. She connected them with a clinician in the Cancer Center who was working with cancer protein biomarkers that are elevated when cancer patients reject a bone marrow transplant. They met and began to brainstorm how to collaborate and advance their technologies into the clinical realm. Together, they started the work to develop a blood test that detects when cancer patients are rejecting a bone marrow transplant.

In 2011, Simon received her first patent for the blood test.

She was not done inventing. While still in her doctoral program, Simon co-founded PHASIQ, a life science startup to commercialize her work. She helped to develop bioassays for detecting graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) in cancer patients and earned three patents from her work with the company. PHASIQ was able to successfully get the Phase I and Phase II Small Business Innovation [Research] grants from the National Science Foundation. Due to the highly competitive nature of the industry, the company closed shop after five years. Its technology, however, is still available for licensing.

Simon currently works as an AI systems architect at Intel where she designs machines. Alongside a cross-disciplinary team of mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineers, she helped to develop one of the world’s fastest supercomputers. Simon has often been the only female or person of color on her project teams throughout her engineering career. She was inspired by this lack of diversity to write the children’s book, “Abby Invents Unbreakable Crayons”, to encourage more children of color to pursue STEAM careers.

“There was a period during my time at the University of Michigan where I was the only woman in a lab of 17. I asked myself, ‘What can I do to get more girls into science or at least know about the possibility of becoming an inventor?’” Simon explained why she is passionate about inspiring the next generation.