Engineer who designs gels to mimic human tissues wins Canada’s top science prize


A Toronto chemical engineering professor has won the $1 million Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal, the country’s top science prize, for her work designing gels that mimic human tissues.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) announced Tuesday that Molly Shoichet, professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto is this year’s recipient of the award, which recognizes “sustained excellence” and “overall influence” of research conducted in Canada in the natural sciences or engineering.

Shoichet’s hydrogels are used for drug development and  delivery and regenerative medicine to heal injuries and treat diseases.

NSERC said Shoichet’s work has led to the development of several “game-changing” applications of such materials. They “delivered a crucial breakthrough” by allowing cells to be grown in three dimensions as they do in the body, rather than the two dimensions they typically do in a petri dish.

Her collaborations with biologists have led to applications to treat cancer, stroke and degenerative blindness. 

Hydrogels are polymer materials — materials such as plastics, made of repeating units — that become swollen with water.

“If you’ve ever eaten Jell-o, that’s a hydrogel,” Shoichet said. Slime and the absorbent material inside disposable diapers are also hydrogels.

Shoichet’s hydrogels are specially designed to mimic tissues inside the human body.

“Most of our tissues are very soft, and that’s what hydrogels are.”

The work of Molly Shoichet, right, and members of her research lab, including Katarina Vulic, left, involves developing new materials that mimic human tissues. Her collaborations with biologists have led to applications to treat cancer, stroke and degenerative blindness. (Roberta Baker/University of Toronto)

Shoichet was born in Toronto, and studied science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. After graduating, she worked in the biotech industry alongside “brilliant biologists,” she said. She noticed that the biologists’ research was limited by what types of materials were available.

As an engineer, she realized she could help by custom designing materials for biologists. She could make materials specifically suit their needs, to answer their specific questions by designing hydrogels to mimic particular tissues.

“There’s no existing material that has the properties we’re looking for,” she said. “And so we end up inventing these new materials.… that’s so exciting.”

Her collaborations with biologists have also generated three spinoff companies, including AmacaThera, which was recently approved to run human trials of a long-acting anesthetic delivered with an injectable hydrogel to deal with post-surgical pain.

Shoichet noted that drugs given to deal with that kind of pain lead to a quarter of opioid addictions, which have been a deadly problem in Canada and around the world.

“What we’re really excited about is not only meeting that critical need of providing people with greater pain relief for a sustained period of time, but also possibly putting a dent in the operation,” she said. 

Shoichet added that she was caught up in the excitement of the biotech sector in Boston in the 1990s, and wants to create that kind of community in Toronto. Many of her students end up pursuing careers in the U.S., she said. “But really, Canada has invested so much in their education. And wouldn’t it be great if we had more opportunities for students to get work?”

Secret kept for 5 months

Shoichet, 55, previously served as Ontario’s first chief scientist and has won dozens of accolades for her work, including the Canada Council Killam Prize for Engineering. She has been named a L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Laureate and an officer of the Order of Canada.

“But,” she said, “I think this is the pinnacle.”

She first got the overwhelming news by phone in May, which was when NSERC had intended to announce the award before postponing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shoichet and the students and staff in her lab are finally able to share their big secret after five months.

The money will fund their research and give Shoichet’s team the opportunity to ask and answer scientific questions on a broader scale, since it’s not tied to a particular project, she said.

“We make our biggest discoveries and advance knowledge the greatest when we just have that opportunity to think and be creative,” said Shoichet. “It’s wonderful just to have that opportunity to explore.”



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