Zhen Gu, PhD, assistant professor in the UNC/NC State joint department of biomedical engineering, 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 who represent the most promising scientific researchers working today. Their achievements and potential place them among the next generation of scientific leaders.
“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,” said Gu, who is also a member of the UNC Diabetes Care Center, and faculty member in the UNC School of Medicine and the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy.
The Sloan fellowships are awarded in eight fields: chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics. Fellows receive $55,000 to be used 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.
Gu also recently received a grant through an expanding collaboration between JDRF, a global organization dedicated to funding research exclusively for type 1 diabetes, and Sanofi, a global health care company focused on creating treatments for a variety of diseases, including diabetes. The total grant amount for four researchers in the United States and Australia is $4.6 million dollars.
Last year, 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 to precisely deliver the right drug to the right place at the right time to maximize the impact of 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 cancer drugs, the release of which can be promoted inside the tumor microenvironment or cancer cells.
Gu’s lab has developed a delivery system activated by the presence of the “energy molecule” ATP, liquid metal “nano-terminators,” and microscopic drug depots that target cancer cells, as well as a technique for disguising 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.
Gu said that the Sloan Fellowship and the JDRF/Sanofi grant serve as reminders that his lab’s work “is important not only to the research community, but for everyone engaged in the fight against diabetes and cancer.”
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