‘Perfect fit’ opens door to new opportunities

Special to Western News

On June 19, Biomedical Engineering student Ian Villamagna will join more than 300,000 Western alumni living around the world as a newly minted graduate and member of the Western Class of 2020

It was quite the finish to Ian Villamagna’s PhD career at Western.

In January, he successfully defended his thesis, was lauded by the Arthritis Society of Canada for being part of the Top Research Advancements of 2019 and had already began his new job at a nanomedicine development company in the San Francisco area.

“I got in right under the wire in late January,” said the Biomedical Engineering grad. “By the time I defended I had already started my job. Fortuitous timing on my part with all that’s happened since.”

On June 19, Villamagna will join more than 300,000 Western alumni living around the world as a newly minted graduate and member of the Western Class of 2020

After finishing his master’s degree in the United States, the Montreal-born Villamagna decided to return to Canada. He was looking for a research project at the intersection of chemistry and physiology, giving him the chance to create something in the lab while, at the same time, also studying its effects biologically.

He soon connected with Chemistry professor Elizabeth Gillies and Physiology and Pharmacology professor Frank Beier about their work around the treatment of osteoarthritis.

“When I got here, it was like an instant fit. I was so excited about that,” Villamagna said. “I look back now and it was a no-brainer that I made the right decision.”

Impacting more than four million Canadians, osteoarthritis occurs when the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of bones wears down over time. Most commonly, it affects joints in your hands, knees, hips and spine.

While there’s already pain medication being used for treatment, its effectiveness is limited, Villamagna said.

“Coming into this, I quickly came to realize while there are a number of treatments for osteoarthritis, they don’t really do much,” he said. “So, the ability to take something that was already being used – admittedly used to various levels of success – and try to improve on that from a formulation standpoint, a bio-material standpoint, was really exciting.”

Drug treatments for osteoarthritis currently circulate throughout the whole body, often having undesirable side effects, such as muscle loss or affecting organs such as the liver.

Villamagna, along with Gilles and Beier, had been working towards developing a new delivery method for an anti-inflammatory drug that could be injected directly into the joint to help minimize side effects and maximize benefits.

“The attraction for me in working on this project was the ability to spend one day in a chemistry lab and then another day in a physiology lab,” he said. “It was great experience for me going into my new career.”

Villamagna now works as a field application scientist in California for the Vancouver-based Precision NanoSystems Inc. He works as a consultant for companies developing nanomedicines, such as DNA and RNA gene therapy.

While San Francisco-based, Villamagna said he still has family in Canada. His 10-year-old daughter practically grew up in London and his second child was born halfway through his PhD.

“I foresee a lot of trips back to London and to Western,” he said.