U of T prof talks on biomedicine at Summit

Molly Shoichet researches drug delivery and cancer treatment, advocates science outreach

Drug delivery is an engineered technology that transports thera-peutic compounds directly to a target, such as cancer cells. Molly Shoichet, a professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the University of Toronto, talked about her research on targeted cancer treatment at the Mansbridge Summit Panel Discussion on Friday, Nov. 20. Soichet explained her research designing drug-containing nanoparticles to target cancer cells and new techniques in growing tissues used in drug testing.
Chemotherapy, the use of anti-cancer drugs, is one of the most common types of cancer treatments. The drugs used in chemotherapy can be effective in destroying cancer cells, but also attack healthy cells. Targeted therapy aims to make chemotherapy safer and avoid healthy cells.
“A small-molecule drug can permeate healthy tissues and can-cerous tissues. So the problem with chemotherapeutics is not that they are not potent, it’s that they are not specific,” said Shoichet.
Shoichet and her team synthesize biodegradable nanoparticles to deliver anti-cancer drugs. These particles have a hydrophobic, or water-repelling, core which can hold these drugs and a hydrophilic, or water-attracting shell which facilitates their circulation through the bloodstream. These nanoparticles are also equipped with antibodies which recognize only cancer cells to enhance the binding specificity of this delivery system. Shoichet collaborates with a number of researchers in the rapidly growing field of targeted drug treatment and said their results have been promising, as drugs delivered by this novel approach mainly accumulate in tumors.
Shoichet said screening drugs is challenging because they are tested on flat tissue cultures in two dimensions, which do not represent the conditions in our bodies. Her lab solved this problem by creating a three-dimensional environment using hydrogel, a material in which temperature and growth conditions are adjusted to mimic the environment of the human body. This method was used to grow cancer cells isolated from breast cancer tissue to understand the cells’ metastasis in different physical and chemical environments possible in the body.
“I thought that the research they were conducting was unbelievably cool, and it was interesting to hear how the value of collaborating in science helps several fields advance in unpredictable ways,” said Adam Palayew, a third-year biology student who attended the talk. “We got a glimpse at research that is cutting edge in the biomedical field.”
Shoichet is the founder of Research2Reality, a website which provides education films on various science topics including health, technology and science policy. Shoichet said the aim of the site is to get the public engaged in science and research.
“What is so great about science is that if you are willing to say ‘yes’ to trying new things and are up to new ideas, you can really make a difference and come up with something unexpected,” she said.
Shoichet recently received the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science, an annual prize which recognizes the accomplishments of female researchers and encourages young women to pursue careers in science and technology.

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