Temple senior uses second degree to create home cancer test

A senior bioengineering major developed the product after women in her own family were diagnosed with cancer.

Senior bioengineering major Emily Kight won a runner-up award at the College of Engineering Design competition on Friday for the at-home ovarian cancer test she began developing in 2017. | CARLEE CUNNINGHAM / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Emily Kight has watched many women in her family be diagnosed with reproductive system cancers.

These experiences prompted her to create an at-home screening test for ovarian cancer.

“I never really met my grandmother,” said Kight, a senior bioengineering major. “…She had so much cancer in her abdomen when she died. And my mom was 38 or 39 when she was having symptoms.”

Kight’s test and store-bought pregnancy tests use lateral flow technology, which absorbs liquids, like urine or blood, to detect proteins that are abundant when cancer is present. The test detects human epididymis protein 4, which increases in women’s blood with ovarian cancer. The prototype is in “proof-of-principle” testing, where drugs or medical devices are tested on a small scale to examine their efficacy, accuracy and safety.

Kight started developing the at-home ovarian cancer test in Fall 2017. She won $20,000 from Fox’s Be Your Own Boss Bowl last year and put it toward developing the test at nanoComposix, a company that manufactures nanoparticles. 

Current ovarian cancer tests are invasive and require a doctor. Only 20 percent of ovarian cancers are detected at early stages because symptoms often appear late, according to the American Cancer Society. In 2019, about 22,350 United States women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, according to American Cancer Society estimates.

A standard test can cost around $650. Kight hopes her inexpensive, non-invasive test will allow high-risk women, like those with family histories of breast cancer, to test themselves easily and frequently.

“What are you going to do, take a $650 test every month?” Kight said. “If you’re middle class, or less, that’s not really going to fly.”

Kight is also working with a software developer on an app that could read the test results and give users a score to help determine if further medical testing is needed. Kight aims to gain Food and Drug Administration approval and patent the test and app. 

Kight hopes to attend graduate school in the fall to continue studying bioengineering and is considering Jefferson University. She was selected for the National Science Foundation’s competitive Graduate Research Fellowship Program and will receive three years of project funding and tuition. 

Kight is a 2011 film and media arts alumna who worked as a freelance photographer before returning to Temple in 2016. 

She struggled to find work where she could use her first degree, she said, but her interest in documenting animal behaviors and collecting data through film steered her in a scientific direction. 

She also developed a cooling scalp cream that quells compulsive hair-pulling and won scholarships and prizes in several competitions, including the Fox School of Business’ Innovative Idea Competition.

“When I started bioengineering, I was like, ‘I’m going to start a company, I’m going to sell products, I’m not going to be in debt, I’m going to get grants and I’m going to get into a Ph.D. program,’” Kight said. 

In Summer 2017, Kight received Temple’s Maximizing Access to Research Careers scholarship. As part of it, she has since worked 15 hours per week in engineering professor Bojana Gligorijevic’s lab, which focuses on metastatic cancer cells.

“She had a bunch of completely insane ideas at first,” Gligorijevic said. “And then, as time progressed, she made them less and less insane as she was learning about the field.”

Jacqueline Tanaka, a biology professor and the director of the Maximizing Access to Research Careers program, said Kight was perfect for the scholarship.

“As a woman in bioengineering, we felt she had a lot of potential and was very deserving of support,” Tanaka said. “She definitely fit the criteria.”

Gligorijevic “wasn’t surprised” to learn Kight won the graduate research grant.

“She should be inspiration for all Temple students to see how much you can do when you’re self-motivated,” Gligorijevic said. 

While Kight’s first degree didn’t go as planned, the learning experience ultimately helped her accomplish her goals, she said. She now hopes to bring a different perspective to the science and technology field. 

“If you want good science, you need everyone’s voice,” Kight said. “It can’t just be privileged kids who had their parents pay to get them into Yale. If that’s the only perspective, it’s not going to be a creative one.”

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