UNC Health Talk

Biomedical engineer Zhen Gu, PhD, tabbed as top young innovator

The editors of the MIT Technology Review announced its annual list of 35 Innovators Under 35, and UNC researcher Zhen Gu, PhD, is part of this elite group. Gu, an assistant professor in the joint UNC-NC State biomedical engineering department, uses nanotechnology to create new ways to deliver drugs to treat cancer and diabetes. His latest invention, “the smart insulin patch,” is still in development, but it could revolutionize the way diabetes patients monitor and lower blood sugar.

The Tech Review began its annual list in 1999 to highlight talented young innovators from around the world who work in a variety of fields. Previous winners include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

“It is very exciting to be recognized for my innovation and passion for using science and technology to help people and – hopefully, eventually – both improve peoples’ quality of life and save lives,” Gu said.

Gu, 34, joined NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012 and has pioneered dozens of technologies designed to deliver drugs in such ways that their therapeutic capabilities have the greatest effect.

Gu’s research on insulin regulation was recognized by the American Diabetes Association earlier this year with a $1.6-million grant as part of the association’s Pathway to Stop Diabetes initiative. Gu is currently working with pharmaceutical companies to move these inventions into clinical trials. He has also created new targeted approaches to attack cancerous tumors.

Gu has created nanoscale “daisies” and graphene “flying carpets” that deliver anti-cancer drug cocktails directly to cancer cells. His lab has also developed “nano-cocoons,” 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.

These techniques are not ready for clinical application, but Gu plans to launch a start-up company to commercialize his technology.

“This award is extremely encouraging, and energizes me to find new ways to help people live longer, healthier lives,” Gu said.