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Professor Frank Gu (ChemE) is part of C20/20 Innovation Hub, which is working to improve drug delivery to both the front and back of the eye. (Photo: Submitted)

Professor Frank Gu (ChemE) is part of a multidisciplinary team that has been awarded the 2023 Brockhouse Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).  

The award recognizes outstanding Canadian teams of researchers from different disciplines, celebrating collaborative efforts that drive innovation and knowledge forward.   

In this case, the winning team, C20/20 Innovation Hub, is targeting several priority eye diseases outlined by the World Health Organization, including leading the development of novel treatment methods for glaucoma, retinal neovascular diseases and myopia.  

To say that we are honoured would be an understatement,” says Gu. “We are electrified, inspired and immensely grateful for this recognition. To be a part of this award is truly an honour.”  

C20/20 Innovation Hub, which is led by Professor Heather Sheardown, Dean of Engineering at McMaster University, is working to improve drug delivery to both the front and back of the eye. 

The award recipients include Professors Todd Hoare (Chemical Engineering, McMaster) Judith West-Mays (Pathology & Molecular Medicine, McMaster), Varun Chaudhary (Surgery, McMaster), Lyndon Jones (Optometry and Vision Science, University of Waterloo), and Dr. David Wong, who is the Ophthalmologist-in-Chief at Unity Health Toronto-St. Michael’s Hospital, Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences at U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at McMaster University.  

“My contribution to the team includes engineering nanomedicines using biodegradable polymers to achieve controlled release applications on the front of the eye. These polymers are used to formulate medicated eye drops,” says Gu.   

Glaucoma, one of the leading causes of blindness in Canada, is currently treated using eye drops, two to three times daily.   

However, since eye-drop solutions are rapidly diluted by tears, 98% of medications can be lost within five minutes, says Gu. This means treatment for many eye diseases must be administered frequently — a regimen that can be too stringent for elderly patients and lead to noncompliance.  

My proposed research aims to overcome the rapid clearance of current eye drops by employing nano-scaled mucoadhesive drug carriers,” says Gu. “The technology developed in this proposal may serve as a platform for treating a broad range of eye diseases by providing long-lasting delivery of therapeutic agents.”  

Mucoadhesion occurs when two materials, at least one of which is mucus membrane, are held together for extended periods by interfacial forces. These formulations entail complex interactions between drugs and mucosal surfaces that necessitate a comprehensive understanding of molecular dynamics and binding kinetics. 

The Brockhouse Prize is accompanied by a team research grant of $250,000. This support will help drive Gu’s research to deepen the understanding of nanostructured materials and facilitate their customization for drug delivery applications.  

“This funding will enable my lab to help synthesize mucoadhesive nanoparticles and understand the material-biological structure interactions, with an overarching goal of improving the efficiency of targeting molecules on the ocular surface,” he says.   

The ultimate goal of my contribution to the team research is to lead to the development of novel therapeutics to delay or prevent irreversible blindness caused by glaucoma.”  

Gu’s journey into this field of research stems from a combination of academic curiosity and personal experiences, he says. It all began 15 years ago, when he was invited to work with Sheardown on her NSERC Strategic Network on Ophthalmic Materials. 

“Through my interactions with the researchers, clinicians and patient advocates, I became fascinated by the complexity of the human eye and the intricate mechanisms that enable our vision,” says Gu. “I was drawn to the challenge of unravelling its science to develop innovative solutions to prevent blindness.  

“This research will drive innovations to effective glaucoma medications that could lower the burden on Canadian health care costs. I am motivated by these social benefits that will improve the health and quality of life of Canadians.” 

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