Solving Scientific Problems Together – Dr. Molly Shoichet on the Importance of Inter-Disciplinary Research and Collective Effort

Dr. Molly Shoichet’s lab is a prime example of the importance of inter-disciplinary research and collective effort

Can we solve Canada’s opiod crisis with a long-lasting targeted painkiller delivery system? Can we inject drugs directly into the central nervous system to treat stroke and spinal cord injuries? How can we improve stem cell survival and tissue integration after cells are transplanted into the body?

Photo credit Brigitte Lacombe

These are the questions that Dr. Molly Shoichet and her team are answering in their chapter of Canada’s collection of homegrown hero stories. In October 2020, AmacaThera, a company she co-founded, received the go-ahead from Health Canada to move its non-opioid painkiller formulation to phase 1 clinical trial. Their proprietary hydrogel – a water-swollen, jelly-like plastic biomaterial – encases a pain-relieving bioactive molecule and allows it to diffuse slowly at the targeted surgical wound. Its effects could last up to three days, whereas common local anesthetics wear off within a day.

Dr. Shoichet, 55, is the Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering. She is also a professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the University of Toronto and heads the university’s Shoichet Lab, which adopts an inter-disciplinary approach to science. With the motto “Solving important problems – together,” the lab attracts a group of 26 graduate students, researchers and technicians in the fields of chemistry, engineering and biology from around the world, including Germany, Israel, Pakistan and the U.K.

As a leading figure in polymer science and biomaterials, Dr. Shoichet is the only scientist to be a Fellow of Canada’s three National Academies: Canadian Academy of Sciences of the Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Academy of Engineering, and Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.

In November 2020, she added to her list of accolades the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal, which will provide her team with $1 million in research funding.

The Shoichet Lab is known for its pioneering work on hydrogels and their applications in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. It has developed hydrogels that can deliver drugs past the blood-brain barrier, our body’s mechanism of protecting the brain from chemicals, to increase a medication’s impact and restore cognitive functions after a stroke. This special biomaterial can also be used as incubators for stem cells at the back of the eye to stimulate healing and reverse partial blindness.

Dr. Shoichet’s love for science came at an early age. “As a kid growing up, I was encouraged to think and to be curious by my parents,” she recalled. “I was lucky that I really enjoyed science and I had some very inspiring science teachers throughout high school. That led me on this journey of discovery and gave me the passion to try and make it.”

After receiving her Bachelor of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1987, Dr. Shoichet was on her way to becoming a medical doctor when she found another calling, polymer science. “I got so excited about chemistry and polymers, and the idea that with science, we can design future therapeutics, future medicine,” she said.

Driven by the idea of inventing the future, she decided to pursue a research career and earned a doctorate degree in Polymer Science and Engineering from MIT in 1992. After completing her PhD, Dr. Shoichet joined CytoTherapeutics, a U.S.-based biotechnology company working on stem cell transplantation. She was in the regenerative medicine and tissue engineering field before they became the buzzwords. 

With her experience at CytoTherapeutics and knowledge in biomaterial engineering, Dr. Shoichet won a national fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and eventually moved back to Toronto in 1995.

“As I was going through my journey, every time I made a choice, it opened one door and closed another,” she noted. “When I closed that door [to becoming a medical doctor] and opened the door to a career in science and engineering, that led me down a slightly different path. But I’m still passionate about making a difference in medicine.”

Even though she does not see or treat patients, Dr. Shoichet regularly collaborates with leading experts in medicine, as well as elite scientists in biology and chemistry. In 2019, she and Dr. William Bill Stanford at the University of Ottawa’s Cellular and Molecular Medicine department produced a 3D environment to grow a rare lung cancer cell, allowing researchers to screen over 800 drugs for their ability to target tumors.

Dr. Shoichet attributed the opportunity to work with brilliant minds and diverse talents to her success. “The biggest lesson from my career, also a life lesson, is that you don’t have to do it all by yourself. My lab’s slogan is ‘Solving important problems – together.’ We want to work on big problems, but we also want to do it together.”

Working with experts in other fields, she is not afraid of “asking the dumb question” when approaching an issue. “People are always worried about the dumb questions, but they are often the best questions. ‘Why can’t we do it this way?’ That’s where the opportunity lies.”

After a career spanning across 30 years, Dr. Shoichet is still fueled by her unwavering drive to solve problems and make a difference. This encapsulates the spirit at her lab.

“If you love science, the world is your oyster. Life isn’t easy, but there’s great satisfaction in discovery,” she explained. “We’re trying to answer questions nobody has answered before or discover something nobody has uncovered before, so it’s a little bit like the first adventure out into the world.”

While the data Dr. Shoichet and her team have collected are promising, she recognized there is still a lot to do. The regulatory approval process for medical treatments is complicated, since researchers need to demonstrate the technology’s safety and efficacy. For that, they require robust models of disease. Adding to the complexity is the manufacturing capability.

As the head of the lab, Dr. Shoichet must possess both the dogged intellectual curiosity of a scientist and the down-to-earth attitude of a seasoned businessperson.

“We always think in terms of research and development. In academia, labs can only do the discovery and provide the proof of concept,” she notes. “For the development part, we need the corporate sector to step in and commercialize.”

Recently, Tiff Macklem, governor of the Bank of Canada, warned of a potential brain drain. He noted that anti-immigrant rhetoric in the U.S could dissipate under President Joe Biden’s administration and draw more skilled professionals southward.

However, Canada is now on a firmer footing in the race for talent. A report for the Innovation Economy Council showed there were more than 100,000 jobs in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) sectors in December 2020, after a drastic decline due to the pandemic. Enrolment in STEM post-secondary education has also been rising.

The upbeat numbers echo Dr. Shoichet’s excitement for the science landscape in Canada. As the country embraces multiculturalism and openness to immigrants, her lab’s research thrives on the wide range of expertise and talents it attracts.  “When we watch professional athletes, they are at their best when they are challenged by people to be their best. We see runners who train with other runners who push them,” she said. “It’s really the same in science.”

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