By Joanna Sun, Leo Lansky, Larry To, Natasha Paranjapye
Q. You’ve had a lot of incredible research projects; where do ideas for research come from and how do you decide on what project to go forward with?
A. In the early days, I had lots of time to dedicate purely to brainstorming but I no longer have that luxury. Now, new ideas for our research are usually generated during meetings with students or faculty members from different fields. I also try to keep up with literature and seek ideas from other areas. I look for projects that are built on our previous expertise of lab members and collaborators and, of course, contain potential impact and will make it clinically, like PolySTAT.
Q. What’s the next step for PolySTAT?
A. We are raising funds and writing grants for more in vivo testing, so that we can transfer the technology clinically. Eventually we hope to get enough data to move toward clinical trials.
Q. Is there a research project that you are excited about, but hasn’t yet gained nation-wide recognition like PolySTAT has?
A. We have been working on TAxI, a peptide that delivers material to the spinal cord. This originated from a pet project that I came in as an assistant professor and wanted to do. The idea is to hitchhike on motor proteins to shuttle drug delivery vehicles around the cell.
Q. What were some major challenges you faced developing TAxI?
A. Originally, we were trying to rationally-design a peptide for hitchhiking our delivery vehicles to motor proteins, but we worked on it for four years without success. One of my graduate students decided to go for a library screen
(a molecular data bank for protein design) and then a postdoc, Drew Sellers, used phage display directly in the animal to try to find suitable peptides, which worked.
Q. What is the progress on this project so far and where do you see it going?
A. Since we have showed that we can get protein into the spinal cord, our next goal will be testing on whether we
can deliver a therapeutic protein. Another goal is to get a broader delivery to the CNS (central nervous system). To treat degenerative diseases, you would ideally want to get the drug throughout the CNS. The current method is intramuscular injection that could only deliver drug to a localized area of the spinal cord. We are finding other ways of administration or types of peptide that provide broader delivery.
Q. Outside of research, how do you like to spend your free time?
A. Before I had children, I liked listening to music, reading, and running to stay healthy. But now, looking after my children (twins) takes priority over my other hobbies. To maintain a work-life balance, we have to know our priorities. As we get more things to do, we say no to more things.
Q. Where are you hoping to take your research in the distant future?
A. I would love to see my research going forward and making it clinically. I think that macromolecule-based drug delivery can revolutionize treatment. It’s a whole new class of drug that has been relatively under-explored because of past delivery issues.