Warren Chan is a Distinguished Professor of Nanobioengineering at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) at the University of Toronto. He is an internationally recognized researcher leading the way in nanoengineering, working with quantum dots and nanoparticles that are helping researchers develop portable and cheaper diagnostic equipment for infectious diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, malaria and syphilis.
Professor Chan has been the recipient of the Kabiller International Nanomedicine Award (2015), NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Fellowship (2012), as well as a Canada Research Chair in Bionanoengineering from 2006-2016. He has previously served as the collaborative program director (2008-2011) in IBBME. He is currently an Associate Editor of ACS Nano and director of the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME).
In this interview, I talk to Professor Chan about how he first developed an interest in his current research and some of the challenges facing his field today.
Can you please tell me more about your work with quantum dots and nanoparticles? How and when did your interests with these things first develop?
We are working in two areas of research: development of nanoparticles for targeting cancer and developing of point of care diagnostics for infectious diseases.
I started being interested in both of these topics when I was in graduate school. In graduate school, I was focused on developing quantum dots for biomedical applications. I worked on the synthesis and surface modifications of the quantum dots so that they can be soluble in polar solvents. Once I was able to accomplish this, I started to wonder what can you use the quantum dots for. At that time, I was interested in developing the quantum dot for in vitro and in vivo imaging applications. For the in vitro applications, it seemed obvious to use them for bio-detection, and that idea led me to think of how to incorporate them for ultrasensitive and multiplex detection given their properties. I was influenced to go into infectious disease detection because when I started in Toronto, SARS hit the city and hit it hard (so I started working on the use of quantum dots for infectious disease detection).
For the cancer application, it was all about early detection. Given the properties of quantum dots, I thought it would be incredible to use them as contrast agents for early detection (detection of fewer tumor cells because of the bright quantum dot signal). I did my post-doc work in an interdisciplinary lab where I can test some of these ideas. My ideas also aligned with my principle investigators. I realized when I started working with animals that we had no idea where the quantum dots ended up or what they were interacting with as they move through the body. That lack of understanding influenced me to study how particles transport in the body (as an independent investigator), with the ultimate goal of understanding these principles to help us design nanoparticles to target the tumor, for early detection and better therapy. I recognized that understanding how particles are “delivered” into the tumor is critical to the utility.
What are the major challenges facing your field today? What are some things that would help overcome these challenges?
For the cancer nanomedicine, the major challenge is a lack of understanding of how nanoparticles interact with biological systems (nano-bio interactions). We just lack a fundamental understanding of how the nanoparticles are working in the body. Without a better understanding, we are just shot-gunning, and most of the time, it does not work. Researchers should spend more time focusing on the basics.
For the diagnostic space, it is a lack of focus on clinical validation/testing of the device. When you use human fluids for testing, your results vary significantly because of matrix effects. Additionally, there is variability with patients. Researchers need to go to human studies that help improve the design of diagnostics.
Your work helps researchers develop portable and cheaper diagnostics equipment for infectious diseases, have you had anyone tell personal accounts on how your work has affected them?
We are still in the development phase. This technology has not been used in patients yet. We are hoping to commercialize these technologies in 3-5 years. We have already set up a company that will hopefully be the recipient of these technologies.
What do you think is the most interesting and/or important unsolved problem in your field?
Understanding how nanoparticle design influences their delivery, targeting, and distribution in the body.
What are some recent research discoveries that you’ve found to be interesting? How does it affect or contribute to your work?
I found a lot of tools that have been developed that have been critical to my field. The development of LC-MS-MS techniques, light-sheet microscopy, tissue clearing methods, and new computational tools. These techniques allow us to do our studies.
Have you received any good advice that stuck with you? How has it helped you within your career?
Yes. I think the key advice is to ask good questions. Good questions allow you to define your projects.
What advice would you give people who want to pursue a career in science? If you had to start over again, what advice would you give yourself?
My advice is that “science is all about people.” You need to find good, smart, and organize people to work with. After that, it is all about vision, structure, organization, and teamwork. If I start over, I would tell myself to “be patient.”
Read Some of Professor Chan’s Publications:
Diagnosing COVID-19: The Disease and Tools for Detection
ACS Nano 2020, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX
The Future of Nanotechnology: Cross-disciplined Progress to Improve Health and Medicine
Acc. Chem. Res. 2019, 52, 9, 2405-2405
What Is the Value of Publishing?
ACS Nano 2018, 12, 7, 6345-6346
Integrated Quantum Dot Barcode Smartphone Optical Device for Wireless Multiplexed Diagnosis of Infected Patients
ACS Nano 2015, 9, 3, 3060-3074