Molly Shoichet: Saving lives with material science

Molly Shoichet’s University of Toronto lab is working to identify drugs that will be more efficacious in treating cancer, promote functional repair in blindness through cell transplantation and decrease society’s dependence on opioids for post-surgical pain.

They don’t sound like the sorts of thing a chemical engineer might do, but knowing Shoichet’s background sheds some light on her various missions.

The world-leading researcher in tissue engineering began her post-secondary studies thinking she would go into medicine, but after completing a bachelor’s of science in chemistry at MIT, she decided she would pursue a PhD instead.

“The reason that I pursued a PhD and not an MD was because I was inspired by the idea of inventing the future,” says the 2020 recipient of the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, Canada’s most prestigious award for science and engineering research. “I’m definitely motivated to make a difference and I’m using the tools that I have to do that.”

One such tool is her knowledge of material science. With that, her research team has been working on how to emulate the way cells grow in people in the lab. To do that, they had to create a material that would mimic how cells grow in humans and do it in three dimensions. She and her team designed a series of materials called hydrogels — water-swollen Jell-O-like materials — to mimic the environment in which cancer cells grow and to then search for better drugs to treat the deadly disease.

“We wanted to mimic the types of cancer cells that are highly invasive,” she says. “When we think about metastasis — when the primary cells leave and go to all different parts of the body — they have to invade different tissues to do that. We felt that we were missing a lot by screening drugs that were growing cells on hard plastic dishes.”

The research began with one simple question: “Can we guide cell growth in three dimensions?” They then developed the tools to answer that question.

“That’s how we ended up with cancer and drug screening,” she says. “So now, what we can do for the first time is evaluate whether a drug is toxic to cells and whether it will impact the invasive properties of those highly invasive cells.”

The Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal recognizes the innovation her team has done in creating the material science and the engineering.

Over the course of her research, she also discovered other hydrogels will be useful in the field of regenerative medicine. Regenerative medicine is the focus of one half her lab while the other half focuses on cancer.

“On regenerative medicine, where we’re trying to promote cell survival and really overcome and reverse disease progression,” she says. “In the context of blindness, due to age-related macular degeneration, there are two cell types at the back of our eyes that die and that’s how you start to lose vision.”

In an effort to restore vision loss, Shoichet’s team has been working at transplanting the cells that die. They do that by delivering the cells in another hydrogel they’ve invented.

“In both cases [cancer and macular degeneration], the hydrogels create an environment in which the cells will survive,” Shoichet says. “In the cancer, we’re not killing them with our hydrogel, we’re killing them with the drugs. In the retina application, we’ve designed different hydrogels that serve as the vehicle for cell delivery and we can incorporate additional pro-survival proteins into the hydrogel that make it an even better vehicle.”  

Shoichet holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering and is a professor of chemical engineering & applied chemistry and biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto.

“Our innovations are all in chemistry and engineering, and our motivation is to answer questions in biology and solve problems in medicine,” she says. “You have to understand the biology and medicine sufficiently so you can develop useful engineering solutions.”

Her lab has published hundreds of papers and has 40 material science patents. She has also spun four companies out of her lab, the most recent one being AmacaThera. It is commercializing the hydrogel that Shoichet’s lab invented for cell and therapeutic delivery to help find a way to treat post-surgical pain.

“At AmacaThera, we are reformulating pain drugs so they last longer,” she says. “This we hope will put a dent in the opioid crisis because a lot of people get sent home post-surgery with a prescription for opioids. By making these non-opioid, potent drugs last two or three days, we will get patients over that key threshold, thereby reducing their need for opioids.”

Shoichet uses Compute Canada Federation resources to do her research and says she couldn’t run her lab without them.

“In one of our cancer studies in the 3D hydrogels, we did a genetic analysis of the cells on the surface and the cells deep in the hydrogel,” she says. “We ended up generating an enormous amount of data and then using computational tools and, through the U of T, had access to super-computers that allowed us to do that analysis and look for how the genes differed between the cells that are invading and the ones that are staying on top.”

In addition to running her lab and teaching, Shoichet is also engaged in science outreach and science engagement. To shine a light on world-class scientists, she started a website called Research2Reality with feature film producer Mike MacMillan.

“We wanted to take advantage of the power of film to tell research stories,” she says. “It’s been very successful — and an enormous amount of work.”