The enabling technology of polymer design

Author: Hamideh Emrani, 02/10/16

Another in the series: “What drives research in the field of biomaterials?”

Molly Shoichet (photo credit Brigitte Lacombe)

Molly Shoichet (photo credit Brigitte Lacombe)

“What makes Canada cool?” asks Dan Taekema of The Toronto Star, and among the handful of influential figures that he writes about is the “rock star” researcher, Professor Molly Shoichet. I was ecstatic to read this post right around the time I was editing my interview with this Canadian bioengineering pioneer. Clearly Mr. Taekema and I feel the same way about Dr. Shoichet.

Professor Molly Shoichet, University of Toronto, is an expert in the study of polymers for drug delivery and tissue regeneration. She completed her undergraduate degree in Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Chemistry and her PhD from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in Polymer Science and Engineering.

Prof. Shoichet is the recipient of 41 prestigious national and international awards. She was one of Canada’s Top 40 under 40 (2002), is the prestigious L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Laureate for North America (2015), and was appointed University Professor. This last distinction was in recognition of her dedication to the advancement of knowledge, and her excellence as a teacher, mentor and researcher. This is the University of Toronto’s highest distinction and is held by less than 2% of the faculty.

In addition, she founded two spin-off companies and is actively engaged in translational research with several industry partners and science outreach programs. In 2015, Professor Shoichet launched a national social media initiative, Research2Reality, aimed at educating the public on the importance of scientific research.

“Rock star” researcher indeed! You can read more about her many awards and accomplishments here. Following is my interview with Professor Shoichet.

Can I fairly summarize your research projects into designing a polymer for delivery of cells and drugs? And can you please explain a bit more about your research?

Yes. We design biomaterials that have various applications in regenerative medicine, drug delivery and personalized medicine.

In regenerative medicine, stem cell therapy has such great potential to be used for regenerating many cells and tissues. However, in some tissues, such as the nervous system, one main challenge has been to have the transplanted cells survive, then integrate and actually become part of the neural circuitry. In drug delivery and personalized medicine, one main challenge for drug delivery into various disease or injury sites is to have the drugs safely delivered to the site and have them stay there long enough to be effective.

Our group designs biomaterials that can be used in strategies to address these concerns. We make polymers that are able to enhance cellular survival and integration, or provide a safe delivery method for drugs. We also design polymers to allow cell growth in the lab thereby better mimicking the environment that these cells have in vivo. Since many primary cell lines do not grow well in traditional culturing methods, these biomimetic cell culture strategies may enable personalized medicine.

As an example, we design hydrogels. Hydrogels are water-swollen materials, like jello, that mimic the mechanical properties of soft tissues such as the brain and the eye quite well. We can also introduce chemical properties into them. For instance, from many in vivo studies, we know some of the signaling molecules that are needed to increase cell survival or differentiation post transplantation. We can incorporate those signaling molecules into our hydrogels. (Here is a more detailed report on one of these hydrogels.)

In a sense we provide an enabling technology. We think about what we need to achieve success in cell and drug delivery and then use that to establish a set of design criteria for our polymers. Our group doesn’t discover drugs or stem cells, but we work effectively and collaboratively with drug and stem cell experts to provide the technology to make those potent therapeutics effective.

Your background is in chemistry. What started your attraction to regenerative and personalized medicine?

Growing up I was always interested in medicine. I studied chemistry in university because I really enjoyed it and I was really good at it. I did my undergraduate at MIT where there’s a very rich research culture. I had a lot of research experiences there, which opened my mind to different possibilities.

It was in one of our advanced organic chemistry labs where we made a polymer. I thought this was really cool because it was something that I could see. Most chemistry happens in solutions and you maybe get a powder as a result, but it’s hard to actually see what you made at the end. However, in this case it was immediate and really fun to see the end product. This class led me to the exploration of what polymers were and what applications they could be used for. So I got my PhD in polymer science and engineering.

With medicine in the back of my mind, I was really interested in using science as a way to advance health. Having the core knowledge, fused with this interest, my first job out of graduate school was in a biotech company. It was one of the first regenerative medicine companies and I consider myself lucky to have worked there. It was all about cell therapy and using polymers to encase cells to protect them from being destroyed. There, I was more exposed to biology driven research and that’s where I observed how polymers enabled the biology to work better. So, when I came to University of Toronto I was really excited about the opportunities in this new emerging field.

As someone with an industrial background, what made you decide to come back to academia? These days usually people in industry don’t come back, is that true?

That is true. First of all, I think it is easier to make that transition from industry to academia in engineering than basic science. For me what I really wanted to do was to pursue the field of regenerative medicine. I had just realized how exciting it was. I grew up in Toronto and had been living in the U.S. for 12 years and was exploring different opportunities back in Toronto. And you are right: I looked into industry first, but was just more excited about opportunities in academia and worked really hard to make that happen. But there is always luck too.

One of the big news items this summer was about the huge funding that Medicine by Design received. Is there anything you would like to add about this news? (Here and here are a couple of news links.)

I think Medicine by Design gives us the opportunity to do things differently. We already know regenerative medicine brings a diversity of backgrounds together in engineering, basic biology, and translational medicine. Medicine by Design continues that trajectory, but brings in some other disciplines as well in terms of more fundamental work such as systems biology. With that level of funding, we can harness many disciplines that underpin the success from a basic science perspective. Working collaboratively with the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) allows us to move forward and launch more companies and successful technologies.

Which part of your research do you enjoy most? And which part is the most challenging?

I love exploration, working at the interface of different fields, and challenging dogma. The best part for me is working with the scientists in my lab and all of our collaborators. It gives me an opportunity to learn from so many different people. And then together we’re trying to make a difference.

We are tackling problems that nobody has solved before. So there is not a single recipe to follow. Of course we are not the only people trying to solve these problems. But, we are trying to solve problems that nobody else has really figured out how to solve yet. And so they’re all hugely challenging.

As an example, it is difficult to access the injured or diseased site of the central nervous system as traditional methods don’t work. You have to be innovative at every step. For instance, even if you have got the right drugs, which nobody really knows, you need to figure out how to deliver them.

And that’s what makes it enjoyable as well. Research in this area somehow gives you the opportunity to try different ideas that at first might seem crazy. And sometimes they are and you throw them out. But at times, after you try them, you learn they are actually working or have the potential to work. So in a way the challenge is also fun.

So in a way you get to be creative in research.

Absolutely. You have to be.

Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs in this field?

For sure you have to be tenacious. But, I think you also have to be practical as an entrepreneur. The end goal in research is to advance knowledge. However, in business you need to have a product to sell. You have to be able to make money.

Your ultimate goal can be for great purposes and to give people better lives. However, you will need to be practical and think in terms of how to get a product to the market. Think about multiple products that you can get into the market faster and then you will have time to do the big projects in regenerative medicine.

Let me give you an example. We are really excited about our retinal-cell delivery project to overcome blindness. We know all the important details: which cells are dying and need to be transplanted, what type of cells can be used, and where and how to inject the cells. But even for a project that is seemingly well defined, it will take us a significant amount of time to bring that to people. Even the clinical trial will take five years; you will need to show safety, efficacy, enroll a high number of patients, etc.

I think it is really hard for businesses, especially in Canada, to raise money and to wait for that period of time to see results. So if you can have a product that you can take to the market faster, where you can make money faster, then your investors may be sufficiently patient to wait for the bigger vision to be realized.

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Hamideh Emrani

Hamideh Emrani is a freelance communicator specializing in scientific communications. She earned her B.Sc. in Cell and Molecular Biology at UC Berkeley and finished her M.Sc. at the University of Toronto (U of T), Faculty of Dentistry, the Bone Interface Lab. She was an intern at the Carnegie Institute at Stanford University, honours research student at UC Berkeley and has won awards for best podium and best poster presentations at the Faculty of Dentistry and IBBME at U of T. She is passionate about science and loves to talk and write about it. You can follow Hamideh on Twitter at @HamidehEmrani.
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