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22 September 2017

2017 DDA Winner: Solving the organ donor shortage

The field of tissue engineering has been around for years, but scientists’ inability to build blood vessel networks to keep those artificial tissues alive has – to date – been a major stumbling block.

Enter Boyang Zhang (PhD, Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, University of Toronto). The 2017 winner of Canada’s Distinguished Dissertation Award in the category of Engineering/Medical Science/Natural Science is the first in the world to create functional heart and liver tissues with built-in, 3-D blood vessel networks that can be surgically connected to the patient’s own system.

As a result of Zhang's research, tissue replacements can now be generated completely from stem cells and synthetic material, to be used as potential replacements for regeneration or models in drug screening applications. It’s part of an emerginxg area of interdisciplinary research referred to as “organ-in-a-dish engineering.”

“The blood vessel network delivers oxygen and nutrients to keep the tissue alive - think of it as the plumbing system in a house, where you depend on pipes to deliver fresh water to your home,” says Zhang.

“It is very hard to replicate because of its complex structure and small size. We borrowed a fabrication technique from the semiconductor industry, which has traditionally been used to make computer chips, to make blood vessels. So instead of having electricity flowing through circuits, we have blood flowing through vessels.

“What we are trying to do is to engineer artificial tissues that can solve the shortage of organ donors. While we won’t be able to generate an entire organ anytime soon, we can help replace parts of damaged tissues in a patient.”

Zhang’s discovery, named AngioChip, is grounded in polymer chemistry. His research was published on the cover of the journal Nature Materials in 2016, which was picked up by news outlets across the globe, including BBC Horizons and CBC the National.

With his supervisor, Zhang also co-founded a start-up company, TARA Biosystems, that focuses on commercializing tissue models for drug screening applications. The company has raised USD $2.75 million to date and has a commercial laboratory in New York City, serving about a half-dozen pharmaceutical companies.

“It is rare to see that the work from an academic dissertation can be translated to commercial use in such short period,” says his supervisor, Milica Radisic, a Canada Research Chair and professor of functional cardiovascular tissue engineering. “It is estimated that the path of bringing a new drug to market costs more than $1 billion over 20 years of development. AngioChip could greatly speed up the process, enabling testing on human tissues with higher relevance to physiological conditions.

“Boyang is a power-house, in terms of scholastic prowess and curiosity,” she continues. “His ideas are transformative and he continuously comes up with new projects and solutions for hard problems. He has outstanding personality traits and professionalism. Boyang will definitively lead in the area of bioengineering and excel as a faculty. He has all of the characteristics that are needed in a strong future leader: a combination of excellence, modesty and willingness to help others.”

Zhang, who is currently completing a prestigious Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship, recently accepted an offer of employment from McMaster University, where he will assume the role of assistant professor in June 2018.

“Dr. Zhang’s work will help save the lives of many Canadians, as well as patients from all over the world,” says CAGS President Dr. Brenda Brouwer. “His ability to think outside the box and collaborate with researchers from multiple disciplines to solve challenging problems is a true inspiration. In a very short period of time, he has successfully applied his research towards making the world a much better place.”

Zhang will receive his award this November when the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies holds its annual conference in Quebec City. He will be joined by Leila Qashu, winner of the Distinguished Dissertation Award for Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.