Elizabeth Gillies’ development of degradable polymers (plastic) could soon benefit everything from fertilizer used by farmers to cancer drugs administered by physicians.
With potential to improve the effectiveness of life-saving medication and to address issues such as environmental pollution, her research was recognized earlier this week with a E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The award honours some of the country’s outstanding and highly promising scientists and engineers.
Every year, NSERC awards up to six fellowships ($250,000 over two years), allowing researchers to take a break from teaching and administrative duties in order to devote all their time and energy to research.
Gillies, a professor of Chemistry and Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at Western, is working to develop polymer molecules that respond to a specific trigger and degrade at specific times and locations. Whether they contain medication or something like fertilizer, most of the commonly used polymers today take time to degrade; they break down inefficiently, either in the body or in the environment, causing negative side-effects.
Gillies’ research group is focusing on the development of a mechanism to “turn on” a polymer’s release properties under specific conditions. Consider, for instance, what happens when a patient is prescribed cancer-fighting drugs.
“Researchers have developed many potent drug molecules to treat cancer, but one of the problems is, when we administer these drugs, they tend to go everywhere throughout the body. When they don’t go to the cancer cells themselves, but to other cells where they are not needed, this leads to toxicity and many of the bad side-effects we see with cancer drugs,” she said.
“So now, in the case of these anti-cancer drugs, rather than having them spread indiscriminately throughout the body, we can release them when, and where, they are needed.”
Think of the polymers as little degradable plastic suitcases, Gillies explained. As the suitcases head out on their journey, be it in a farmer’s field or the human body, they’re not going to ‘unpack’ until they’ve arrived at their destination.
“Each suitcase is responsive to particular stimuli such as light, heat or a specific chemical that is found in places like cancer,” she said. “When these suitcases encounter those particular stimuli, they unzip and release whatever they’re carrying.”
In collaboration with Western biologists Hugh Henry and Zoe Lindo, Gillies is also applying her polymer research to fertilizer coatings designed to release specific nutrients in response to the needs of plants. This approach could greatly reduce the quantities of applied fertilizer, thereby mitigating the significant negative effects caused by the run-off and greenhouse gases that arise from the huge excess of nitrogen fertilizer currently applied.
“Researchers have figured out pretty much what nutrients they want to give to the plants, and when, but with rain, most of it washes away. The plant doesn’t get to use them as effectively, and it ends up essentially as a pollutant in the environment,” said Gillies. “We’re looking at being able to use the fertilizer much more effectively by packaging (the molecules) up and releasing them just when they’re needed.”
Professor T. K. Sham, Chair of the Research Award Committee in the Department of Chemistry, said Gillies’ NSERC recognition is well deserved.
“I have personally witnessed the fantastic performance of Dr. Gilles since she joined the department. (Her) outstanding research accomplishments have spanned several areas and collaborations,” said Sham. “Gilles is one of those phenomenally versatile researchers and mentors who do not come around very often. She is clearly an emerging star.”
Recognized last month with the Fallona Family Interdisciplinary Science Award at Western, for her interdisciplinary work across campus, Gillies said any work or application you look at today requires collaboration with researchers outside your own discipline.
Gillies has also worked extensively with Chemistry professor Paul Ragogna on phosphonium-containing materials that possess functions such as bacteria killing and the ability to self-repair, and with Chemical Engineering professor Kibret Mequanint on polymeric materials to promote the regeneration of vascular tissues.
More recently, she began working with professors Lauren Flynn (Chemical and Biochemical Engineering) and Frank Beier (Physiology and Pharmacology), members of the Bone and Joint Institute, to develop materials for repairing musculoskeletal tissue.
“An application can be in biology or medicine, but to scale up and produce things, then that’s engineering. We definitely collaborate very extensively here,” she said. “For many years, people were working within their discipline and solving many problems. It’s not to say there are problems still not solved within disciplines, but there are many, many problems to be solved at the interfaces. People are talking to each other now and trying to solve them together.”
Some of the recent winners of the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship at Western include Daniel Ansari (2015) and Jody Culham (2010), both from the Department of Psychology.
Watch Elizabeth Gillies explain her research here.