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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2016

Medicine by delivery

New innovations are changing the way diseases are treated, says Molly Shoichet

[Roberta Baker / Engineering Strategic Communications / University of Toronto]
[Roberta Baker / Engineering Strategic Communications / University of Toronto]
Healing people with polymers has been the life work of University of Toronto biomedical engineering professor Molly Shoichet, and her research in regenerative medicine could someday improve the lives of critically ill patients.

“In our laboratory we tackle big problems using engineering and chemistry,” said Shoi­chet, who also holds the Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering. “I often describe what we do as a kind of FedEx for medicine, because our job is to deliver cells and medication where they’re needed.”

Shoichet employs 30 people at her lab. With her team of technicians, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, she works on developing treatments for serious illnesses like breast cancer, brain cancer, and diseases of the central nervous system.

Her team is crafting “vehicles” for nanomaterial delivery to very small and very precise parts of the body. The technology has the potential to help treat chronic illnesses such as blindness, spinal cord injuries and the after-effects of strokes.

“With spinal cord injuries, the ultimate goal will be to get people walking again,” said Shoichet. “But in the short term our aim is to allow people who are suffering to recover some of the functions they lost, such as control of their bladder. The same principle applies for blindness. Restoring a person’s ability to see would be ideal, but it would already be an accomplishment if we could restore just a part of their sight.”

In 2015, Shoichet received the Sandford Fleming Medal and Citation from the Royal Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Science, as well being named the North America winner of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award. She is also the only person ever elected to all three of Ca­nada’s science academies.

For as long as she can remember, Shoichet has always been attracted to mathematics and chemistry. Growing up, “I didn’t really know what I was going to do, but I really loved science,” she recalled. ‘I was lucky to live in a home where learning was encouraged and valued and to have teachers in who inspired me.”

She completed her BSc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it was there, with access to top-level laboratories and researchers, that her interest in medical science really took off. She went on to complete her PhD at the University of Massachusetts in engineering and the science of polymers.

Despite her personal success, Shoichet believes the scientific world still suffers from sexism. ‘We live in a world that strives for equality, but we still have a long way to go before achieving equality of the sexes,” she said.

She notes the controversial comments made last year by British scientist Tim Hunt about the “trouble with girls” working in laboratories are symptomatic of the problem. “Normally, people don’t say that sort of thing out loud,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean they’re not thinking it. Sexism still exists. You have to know it to see it. Personally, I get incredible support from the University of Toronto, but there are concrete examples of sexism and not just anecdotal evidence. If the same scientific proposal is made by a man or a woman, it will be evaluated differently.”

She says key to her success is the community of people around her. “In the lab, we work as a team,” she said. “I have amazing mentors and a fantastic support system. I have a family and a fascinating job, but I didn’t do it all alone. In that sense, I hope to serve as an example to young women and prove to them that they can have everything they desire. I was lucky to have a husband who values my career as much as I do.”

Nevertheless, she feels more should be done to attract women into areas of the academic world that are still dominated by men. Women who get their first job in aca­demia after graduating in science or engineering tend to be older and closer to wanting to start a family, and that can be stressful, she said.

“If, collectively, we all want to see more female engineering professors, then we should change our approach. We need to see more women studying engineering and more women teaching engineering. But for that to happen we have to be proactive and start changing things now.”