Interview with Professor Molly Shoichet: Join us for an upcoming public talk

Regenerative Medicine: Finding the Cure at the Intersection of Engineering and Medicine at the University of Toronto  

Article by: Nina Rafeek

In 1963, biophysicist James Till and cellular biologist Ernest McCulloch publishes a ground-breaking study in Nature that demonstrates the existence of stem cells at the University of Toronto.  Since this discovery, stem cells and their potential use in the treatment of disease is studied all over the world.  In 2016, stem-cell bioengineer and U of T Professor Molly Shoichet wins the annual Till and McCulloch award for her exceptional contribution to stem cell research.

Professor Molly Shoichet is on the forefront of research in Regenerative Medicine, which is a field of medicine that promises to revolutionize the way we treat disease through the use of stem cells.  During her talk at the Toronto Reference Library at 7pm on November 21st, 2016, Shoichet will explain how the cure of cancer, blindness and stroke lies in changing the way we look at the cause and treatment of these devastating illnesses.

In the Shoichet Lab, solutions to these challenges begin with change: “If we really if we want to solve these big problems we have to think about them differently”, says Shoichet.

Shattering the glass…dish.

Cancer – a leading cause of death worldwide – starts with just one single cell.  Shoichet is addressing this huge problem by changing the way we look at cells.  The cell culture dish is a hard, flat two-dimensional surface: “99.9 of the world understands everything we know about cells by growing them in a completely artificial environment”, says Shoichet.  Furthermore, our cells are surrounded by auxiliary biological substances such as proteins and signaling molecules.  Her team created a hydrogel which is a “jello-like” water-swollen bio-material to better mimic the soft, spongy and three-dimensional environment of the human body.

In vivo veritas

With this new diagnostic platform, they are able to study the behaviour of cancer cells in a “human-like” three-dimensional sphere to better understand how cancer cells behave in response to different medicines.  The idea is to “treat your cells before actually treating you so we will know which drug you will respond to”, explains Shoichet.  Customized cancer treatment without the aggressive infusion of harmful chemicals or invasive surgery to the body is just one of the many possibilities of Regenerative Medicine.

The “holy-grail” of Regenerative Medicine

Shoichet will also explain how these tools have yielded positive results in the stimulation of resident stem cells in the brain – touted as “the holy-grail” of Regenerative Medicine –  which can potentially be used in the treatment of injury to the brain.

The future is bright

Attendees will also learn how this bio-engineered hydrogel has shown promise in the treatment of blindness through the increased rate of survival and integration of photoreceptor (vision) cells to the retina (back of the eye) during transplantation.  “For so long we’ve been treating the symptoms of disease and what regenerative medicine can do is stop the disease and ideally reverse it.  We want to give someone back their vision who’s lost it”, says Shoichet.

“The take home message is about change: if we really want to do things differently we just have to change the way we do them and what our lab represents is one of those ways”, says Shoichet.

Shoichet is just as passionate about communicating science as she is with discovering innovations in medicine through research. She is the Senior Advisor to the President for the Science and Engineering Engagement at the Uof T and one of the Founding Partners for Research2Reality, which are both concerned with communicating science to the public and enhancing science engagement.  When asked why she accepted the invitation to talk at the Toronto Reference Library, her response was “because I think we should”.  The implications of this research –funded by our tax dollars – has proved to be potentially beneficial to the field of healthcare: “Maybe we’re not treating your aunt or uncle today, but tomorrow we will be”, says Shoichet.

As the winner of L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award, Shoichet says her mom was the most important role model in her life: “she was a real trailblazer when she was growing up… she did things differently”.  At the U of T, Shoichet’s mentors are Michael Sefton and Mitch Winnik who always provide honest feedback in terms of her research.

Only a little over 50 years ago, Till and McCulloch discovered the existence of stem cells.  Today Molly Shoichet and her team are inventing customized tools that compliment stem cells in order to cure – and potentially reverse – the devastation of cancer, stroke and blindness.  It is exciting to think of what the next 50 years will bring.  Join Professor Shoichet, as she leads us through uncharted territory in the field of Regenerative Medicine.

This lecture is open to everyone and registration is not required. It is part of the Toronto Public Library’s Cutting Edge Series. Its purpose is to explore new ideas at the intersection of health and technology.