Zhen Gu, an assistant professor in the joint biomedical engineering program at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been named a 2016 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow in chemistry.
The Sloan Research Fellowships are awarded to 126 American and Canadian researchers each year. Given annually since 1955, the fellowships go to early-career scientists and scholars whose distinguished performance and unique potential identify them as rising stars.
“It is an honor to be recognized by the Sloan Foundation for my work in advancing our understanding of fundamental chemistry tools that can address biomedical challenges in cancer and diabetes treatment,” Gu said.
In 2015, Gu was named one of MIT Technology Review’s “Innovators Under 35” for his work on developing novel drug-delivery systems for treating cancer and diabetes.
Gu joined NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012, and has since created dozens of technologies and techniques aimed at precisely delivering the right drug to the right place at the right time to maximize the impact of therapeutic medications. Gu’s work is truly interdisciplinary, drawing on biomolecular engineering, materials chemistry, nanotechnology and other fields in his efforts to develop more effective drug-delivery tools and techniques.
Gu’s work on diabetes includes the development of a “smart insulin patch” that mimics the function of pancreatic cells and multiple injectable nanoscale systems that can help to regulate insulin. Gu is currently working with pharmaceutical companies to move these inventions into clinical trials.
Gu has also created a suite of “programmed” approaches for targeting the delivery of anti-cancer drugs, the release of which can be promoted inside the tumor microenvironment or cancer cells.
Gu’s lab has developed “nanococoons,” nanocapsules and a delivery system activated by the presence of the “energy molecule” ATP, all of which have ways of tricking a cancer cell into absorbing them before triggering the release of the anti-cancer drugs – like tiny, anti-cancer smartbombs.
Other advances include liquid metal “nanoterminators” and microscopic drug depots that target cancer cells, as well as a technique for disguising anti-cancer drugs as platelets to better target tumors. Gu has also invented an efficient delivery tool for genome editing using self-assembled DNA balls. Gu has already launched a startup company to expedite commercialization of technologies developed in his lab.
“The Sloan award serves as a reminder that our work is important not only to the research community, but for everyone engaged in the fight against cancer and diabetes,” Gu says.
The Sloan fellowships are awarded in eight scientific fields: chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics. Fellows receive $55,000 to further their research. Sloan Research Fellows have gone on to win 43 Nobel Prizes, 16 Fields Medals, 65 National Medals of Science, 14 John Bates Clark Medals, and numerous other distinguished awards.