Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Brilliant Distinguished Faculty Lecture on Smart Therapy: The Search for Better Targeted Delivery Systems in Disease Treatment

Imagine if one could construct drug delivery systems that would, for example, in the case of cancer, target tumors precisely - traveling through the bloodstream and releasing life-saving drugs precisely where they were needed. Thus, healthy cells would not be negatively affected as in today's chemotherapy but only cancerous tumors.

Today, I had the pleasure, after a busy day of teaching, holding office hours, and even reviewing a paper, to listen to Dr. S. “Thai” Thayumanavan, Professor of Chemistry, deliver a Distinguished Faculty Lecture. Professor Thai is a neighbor of mine and not only was I fascinated by the topic of his talk but I also wanted to support him.

This is the 40th year that UMass Amherst has been hosting the Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series at which UMass faculty are recognized for exceptional scholarship and, after their lectures,  are awarded the Chancellor's Medal.

Our new Provost, Dr. Katherine Newman introduced Professor Thai since our Chancellor was at the cybersecurity event in Boston.

I had the honor of being a Distinguished Faculty Lecturer in 2000 and the topic of my presentation was "Networks for Fun and Profit."  I had some competition that day because the Nobel laureate in literature Seamus Heaney was speaking at the same time. 

After the lecture there is a reception and then a dinner in honor of the recipient for family member and invited guests with also some top administrators resent.

The Bernie Dallas Room of the Goodell building was packed for Professor Thai's lecture, which was very clear and captivating. He began with images of his sons, his students, and colleagues and talked about what does it mean for a material to be "smart." He emphasized the importance of  "sense and respond" in various systems especially in nature. He noted that these concepts are also important in business models and in neural networks (I was very happy to see an image of networks in his presentation) and spoke about the macro to the molecular level emphasizing the different time scales involved and how imperative it is to bridge them.

Professor Thai has graduated 25 PhD students and is presently supervising 25 doctoral students. He holds 12 patents and is the recipient of many major awards. He is an organic chemist and noted that he himself has never built a polymer but his students certainly have!

He also noted the relevance of connecting inputs to outputs and structure to function.

His visualizations and animations of polymers being constructed and drugs being enveloped in nanogels for smart delivery were beautifully done. His approach is not to attach a drug to an antibody because it then has to be released but, rather, to encase it in an antibody.

He posted the constraints that researchers are up against to develop an ideal drug delivery system, which includes that it should be non-toxic; easy to make, and doesn't dissolve prematurely. The drugs must be able t differentiate tumors from healthy cells.

He also spoke about the frontiers of drug delivery systems over the next ten years and, interestingly, he said that big pharma is not pursuing these questions - sensing and exploiting imbalances in proteins.

Lucky are we in academia, who are "always in school," and can learn from such colleagues and Professor Thai, a true trailblazer in scientific research.
In the above photo, our Provost is presenting the Chancellor's medal.