Postdoctoral researcher earns Fulbright to create preliminary cancer test

Jeffrey M. Halpern, a postdoctoral researcher and double alum, has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to help develop a breath test that would identify early cancers.

“A goal is to create a test used during office visits—check-ups—as a first screening for cancer,” Halpern, 31, said.

He will spend 20 months at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, working in the lab of Hossam Haick, professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute, beginning Jan. 1, 2013.

For Halpern, who grew up in Pittsburgh and has been at Case Western Reserve University as a student and postdoc the last 12 years, it will be his third new field in a young research career.

Halpern earned his PhD developing diamond microelectrodes used for neurostimulation and neurosensing, under the guidance of chemical engineering professor Heidi Martin and biology professor Hillel Chiel.

He’s in his second year as a postdoctoral researcher, funded by a National Institutes of Health Musculoskeletal Training Grant, in the laboratory of Horst von Recum, professor of biomedical engineering.

In the lab, he’s been involved in several projects evaluating and developing drug delivery systems that use molecular interactions to control the rate of release. Among them is a system that uses the affinity between a ring of sugar molecules, called cyclodextrin, and antibiotics, to deliver antibiotics for months following implantation of orthopedic devices.

Come December, Halpern, his wife, Abigail, and 2-year-old son, Raphael, will travel to Haifa.

There, he will enhance a nanoscale version of a cancer-sniffing dog’s olfactory system, developed by Haick. The synthetic nose already is capable of sniffing out biomarkers of late-stage lung, colon, breast and prostate cancers from a patient’s breath.

Halpern will increase the sensitivity and tune the nose to identify early stage cancers. “You breathe into the device like you would an alcohol breathalyzer, but instead of reading alcohol levels, this reads gaseous biomarkers of cancer,” he said.

He applied to work with competing researchers in Asia and Europe but was sold on Israel after finding the research would last 20 months instead of the more typical nine or 12-month stint. “This really allows you to sink your teeth into a serious project.”

Halpern is one of approximately 1,100 U.S. faculty and professionals selected through the United States Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board for the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program this year.

In addition, he has been awarded a Lady Davis Fellowship through the 2012-2013 academic year. The Lady Davis Fellowship Trust was established 38 years ago to provide the scientists and scholars, post-doctoral researchers and doctoral students from abroad to teach, study and participate in research at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.