By Vishwas Rai and Bozena B. Michniak-Kohn
Dr. Mansoor Amiji is a distinguished professor and chairman in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the School of Pharmacy, Bouvé College of Health Sciences, at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A. He is also the laboratory director for Biomaterials and Advanced Nano-Delivery Systems (BANDS) at Northeastern University.
Dr. Amiji obtained his B.S. in pharmacy (magna cum laude) from Northeastern University and Ph.D. in pharmaceutics/biomaterial science from the Department of Industrial and Physical Pharmacy, School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences, Purdue University, U.S.A., in 1992 and has served in multiple important positions at Northeastern University since then. He is a member of the CRS Board of Scientific Advisors, fellow of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS), and has won several awards and recognition in the field, including the AAPS Meritorious Manuscript Award and the Nano Science and Technology Institute (NSTI) Fellowship Award for outstanding contributions toward advancement in nanotechnology, microtechnology, and biotechnology. Under Prof. Amiji’s supervision, Dr. Arun Iyer, a research assistant professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Northeastern University, was recently awarded the prestigious 2012 CRS T. Nagai Postdoctoral Research Achievement Award from CRS.
2011–2012 CRS President Dr. Martyn Davies (right) poses with 2012 CRS T. Nagai Postdoctoral Research Achievement Award recipient Dr. Arun Iyer (center right) and his advisor Prof. Mansoor Amiji (center left), along with 2012–2013 CRS President Prof. Kazunori Kataoka.
The overall research focus of Prof. Amiji’s lab is development of imaging and therapeutic technologies for addressing challenging problems in cancer, inflammation, cardiovascular diseases, and infectious diseases. Active projects in his labs include the following:
- synthesis of novel biomaterials and nanosystems like chitosan-based biomaterials with poly(ethylene glycol) and heparin surface modification for encapsulation of hydrophilic and hydrophobic drugs, small interfering RNA, peptides, and genes;
- enhancing drug delivery efficiency using nanoparticle systems that can preferentially localize in the tumor, overcoming cellular resistance by lowering tumor apoptotic threshold and silencing genes that contribute to resistant phenotype, and affecting the role of tumor metabolism and especially aerobic glycolysis in resistance;
- use of macrophage-targeted nanoparticle-based delivery technologies to transfect plasmid DNA producing anti-inflammatory therapeutics, such as IL-10, and down-regulate TNF using a targeted specific siRNA;
- preparation of oil-in-water nanoemulsions developed specifically with oils rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) for delivery of compounds to the brain to treat CNS diseases;
- development of cancer vaccines using a multi-compartmental delivery strategy that can encapsulate different types of payloads and efficiently target antigen-presenting cells upon systemic administration;
- preparation of nanoparticles for enhanced delivery efficiency and efficacy of potent antimicrobial and antiviral agent; and
- development of novel constructs that incorporate optical and scattering-based targeted image contrast agents for early disease detection (e.g., oral precancer lesions) and imaging (e.g., endoscopy guided OCT imaging in colon cancer).
The projects are supported by multiple grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), and private industries.
Prof. Amiji was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and moved to the United States in 1983. He is happily married to his wife, Tusneem, and they have three lovely daughters: Zahra, Anisa, and Salima. In his personal life, Prof. Amiji likes to play sports, read, travel, and spend time with his family and friends.
Q Please tell us a little bit about your graduate school experience at Purdue University. What made you choose Purdue? What kind of research were you involved in? How did you approach the research questions?
A As an undergraduate pharmacy student at Northeastern University, I participated in a research experience focused on novel drug delivery that strengthened my resolve to attend graduate school for a doctoral degree in pharmaceutics. After applying to several schools with excellent pharmaceutics programs, I was invited to visit the Purdue campus and meet with faculty, postdoctoral associates, and students. A good friend of mine from Northeastern, Bill McLaughlin, was also attending Purdue at the time. I joined Purdue in August 1988 and spent a few months in selecting an advisor and research area that I wanted to work on for my doctoral dissertation.
Prof. Kinam Park and his wife, Dr. Haesun Park, were working on several very exciting projects. Dr. Park had recently transferred to Purdue from the University of Utah, and there were five of us who started with him in 1989. During his postdoctoral work at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Park focused on evaluation of blood-biomaterial interactions that lead to thrombosis and other complications with implantable devices. I decided to join the Park group at Purdue and worked on surface modification of biomaterials with water-soluble polymers to improve blood compatibility. We modified different types of materials by surface adsorption and covalent grafting of poly(ethylene glycol)-based polymers and studied the interactions of blood proteins and cells, such as platelets. This work led to several general concepts of biomaterial surface modification that requires tight anchoring of the water-soluble polymers to prevent displacement, flexibility and extension from the surface in aqueous environment, and optimization of the surface density to prevent “bridging phenomena.” The Park lab did some really innovative science and instilled in me the passion to tackle big problems and find innovative solutions at the interface of scientific fields. We used relatively sophisticated experimental and computational tools at the time, such as image acquisition and analysis, to study cell-material interactions and quantify platelet adhesion and shape changes using area and circularity measurements.
Prof. Nick Peppas was also at Purdue in the Chemical Engineering Department, and I had the privilege of taking courses with him and having him on my thesis committee. It was also relatively easy to find scientific collaborations and access to resources at Purdue. I was able to take advanced courses and learn how to use electron microscopes, flow cytometers, and other sophisticated equipment in the university’s core facilities. The Veterinary School at Purdue was also a great place for collaborative research, especially in terms of access to different animal models.
Although it was initially a shock to go from Boston to West Lafayette, Purdue was a great place for me to learn and get trained. Excellence in scientific inquiry and the collaborative environment that exists at Purdue are unique hallmarks of the institution. Those of us in the Park research group at the time also had an amazing camaraderie and developed life-long friendships. We celebrated each other’s birthdays and other milestones, such as graduations, and had Thanksgiving dinners each year at Dr. Park’s home.
Q What made you choose an academic career over the pharmaceutical industry? It also appears that you have preferred to be in the New England area. Is there any special reason for that?
A Few months before graduating from Purdue in 1992, I applied for positions in both academia and industry. I was interviewed by Northeastern University, my alma mater, AstraZeneca, Pharmacia/Upjohn, and Columbia Research Labs, which was started by the late University of Wisconsin professor Joseph Robinson. I took the Columbia position since it involved working on a drug delivery project. I was in Madison from July to December 1992, when Columbia closed its R&D operation. Luckily for me, the Northeastern position was still open, and I was able to join as an assistant professor from January 1993. I really enjoy being in academia. I get to interact with the most talented students and postdocs and work on problems of my own choosing. I also really enjoy teaching—either large group such as in pharmacy courses or one-on-one with graduate students and researchers in the lab.
My wife and I first met in Boston in 1987 when I was a student at Northeastern and she was a student at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. We both moved to the Midwest—I was at Purdue in West Lafayette and she worked as a nuclear pharmacist at Syncor in Chicago. After we got married, returning to Boston was natural to both of us since we had spent so much time there, had friends, and knew the city well. Boston is a wonderful metropolis with many higher education institutions and cultural centers. The opportunity to collaborate with researchers from other universities or medical research centers is truly remarkable. Additionally, almost every major pharmaceutical and biotech company has a research hub in Boston/Cambridge area.
Q Your lab focuses on research areas like inflammatory bowel disease, tumor drug resistance, modulation of BBB transport (neurological disorders), ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, and so on. How do manage the time and resources on each project apart from teaching responsibilities?
A I am fascinated with disease pathology and find the opportunities for drug or gene delivery in almost every subject area that I investigate. In each of these diseases, we are always thinking of innovative strategies that can improve therapeutic outcomes. The basic driving force for us is in deeper understanding of the problem and then finding a novel solution. For example, in inflammatory bowel disease, we have focused on a multi-compartmental delivery system for oral gene therapy (with IL-10 expressing plasmid) or gene silencing (with either TNF-a or cyclin D-1 silencing siRNA). In overcoming tumor resistance, our focus is to understand the phenotypic alternations in tumor cells based on micro-environmental selection pressures and then finding novel solutions. We have explored glucose metabolism inhibition, intracellular ceramide modulation, and gene silencing strategies, in combination with cytotoxic chemotherapy, to improve outcomes.
I also give freedom to my students and postdocs to find solutions on their own. For example, Mayank Bhavsar, a Ph.D. graduate from my lab, came up with the idea of a nanoparticles-in-microsphere oral system (NiMOS) for oral gene delivery. Lara Milane, another Ph.D. graduate, suggested that we evaluate the role of aerobic glucose metabolism (or Warburg effect) in cancer on development of drug resistance. The senior researchers in the lab are also very effective in assisting younger students, especially those who are in the M.S. degree program. This helps me tremendously with time management.
I also do a lot of work remotely with the use of electronic communications, Skype, and teleconferencing. I am able to send emails from almost anywhere, including while coming to work in the morning in commuter rail or when I am at airports going from one place to another.
Q Could you please identify a couple of research articles that you value as of high importance coming out of your lab?
A Over the span of my career, I have published four books and close to 150 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. It is hard to select a few that have been impactful, but here are five examples from the last decade:
Lynn, DM, Amiji, MM, Langer, R. pH-responsive biodegradable polymer microspheres: Rapid release of encapsulated material within the range of intracellular pH. Angew. Chem., Int. Ed. 40(9): 1707-1710 (2001).
After getting tenure and promotion to associate professor in 2000, I had a unique privilege to do a sabbatical at MIT in Prof. Robert Langer’s lab. This publication came out of my work in the Langer lab with Dr. David M. Lynn, who is currently an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Our effort in combinatorial synthesis of poly(beta-amino esters) and high throughput testing led to extended collaborations with several Langer lab alums, including Dr. Stephen R. Little, who is now at the University of Pittsburgh.
Kaul, G, Amiji, M. Tumor-targeted delivery of plasmid DNA using poly(ethylene glycol)-modified gelatin nanoparticles: In vitro and in vivo studies. Pharm. Res. 22(6): 951-961 (2005).
This paper, published in the AAPS journal Pharmaceutical Research, is part of the dissertation work done by my second Ph.D. student, Goldie Kaul. This was our first attempt at designing type B gelatin-based nanoparticles using a solvent displacement method as a noncondensing hydrogel-based plasmid DNA delivery system for in vitro and in vivo gene transfection. In 2007, this publication received the Meritorious Manuscript Award from the AAPS.
van Vlerken, L, Duan, Z, Seiden, M, Amiji, M. Modulation of intracellular ceramide with polymeric nanoparticles to overcome multidrug resistance in cancer. Cancer Res. 67(10): 4843-4850 (2007).
Over a period of about 10 years now, our work has been focused on a multimodal strategy to overcome tumor drug resistance. This seminal paper, published in the AACR journal Cancer Research, resulted from the doctoral dissertation of Lilian van Vlerken. The research was done in collaboration with Dr. Zhenfeng Duan, who is at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, and Dr. Michael Seiden, who is currently the president and CEO of Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For the first time, we showed that intracellular modulation by nanoparticle-mediated delivery amplified apoptotic signaling, leading to efficient cell death in an mdr-1 positive ovarian adenocarcinoma model.
Bhavsar, MD, Amiji, MM. Oral IL-10 gene delivery in a microsphere-based formulation for local transfection and therapeutic efficacy in inflammatory bowel disease. Gene Ther. 15(17): 1200-1209 (2008).
Mayank Bhavsar, a doctoral student in my group, came up with the idea of a multicompartmental delivery system for oral gene therapy. Using type B gelatin nanoparticles that were further encased in poly(epsilon-caprolactone) microspheres, Mayank showed that they can deliver reporter (GFP and beta-galactosidase expressing) and therapeutic (murine IL-10 expressing) plasmid DNA orally in Balb/c mice. The IL-10 expressing plasmid was effective in treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. This paper describes the in vivo gene transfection and therapeutic efficacy of the NiMOS in a trinitrobenezenesulfonic acid (TNBS)-induced acute colitis model.
Milane, L, Duan, Z, Amiji, MM. Development of EGFR-targeted polymer blend nanocarriers for paclitaxel/lonidamine delivery to treat multi-drug resistance in human breast and ovarian tumor cells. Mol. Pharmaceutics 8(1): 185-203 (2011). DOI: 10.1021/mp1002653.
We hypothesized that hypoxia, aerobic glycolysis, and lactate production in tumors contribute to the development aggressive phenotype, including development of multidrug resistance (MDR). Lara Milane, another doctoral student, worked on evaluation of the role of hypoxia in MDR development and the role of hexokinase-2 inhibitor, lonidamine, in overcoming drug resistance based on inhibition of glucose metabolism. Using EGFR-targeted PLGA/PCL blend nanoparticles, Lara evaluated the delivery efficiency and cytotoxicity in vitro and in vivo in MDR breast and ovarian cancer models. This paper describes Lara’s work, in collaboration with Dr. Duan at MGH, on in vitro evaluations of paclitaxel/lonidamine cotherapy in drug resistant cells.
Q Could you also please shed light on some research papers (from other labs) that have made significant contributions in the fields of interests like inflammatory bowel disease, tumor drug resistance, modulation of BBB transport (neurological disorders), ovarian cancer, and pancreatic cancer?
A Rather than any specific disease areas, we tend to focus on research and new technologies that are published by pharmaceutical scientists and chemical engineers working in the field of drug and gene delivery systems. For hydrogel-based drug formulations, Kinam Park’s and Nick Peppas’s groups continue to inspire us with some very innovative ideas. We also closely look at publications from the Langer lab, Sangeeta Bhatia, Dan Anderson, and Paula Hammond from MIT on different types of nano-delivery systems. Patrick Couveur, Tom Kissel, Gert Strom, and other European pharmaceutical scientists are also doing excellent work on drug and gene/siRNA delivery systems. From Asia, we look at literature published by South Korean and Japanese groups, especially Prof. Kataoka and other prominent researchers in the field. Recently, I have been reading on adjuvants and vaccine delivery systems, especially coming from Aliasgar Salem’s group at the University of Iowa, Krish Roy’s group at the University of Texas at Austin, Darrell Irvine at MIT, and some of the older publications that Derek O’Hagan and Manmohan Singh published from Chiron and Novartis Vaccines.
In addition to publications, I also get inspired by discussions with colleagues, especially clinicians like Dr. Duan at MGH, Dr. Edward Whang at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and others who are collaborating with us. Industrial collaborations are also important in framing our thoughts and plans. We are working closely with scientists at Nemucore Medical Innovations, a start-up company that has licensed our nano-emulsion technology.
Q Please tell us about the combinatorial-designed formulations approach for preparing novel multifunctional polymeric nanosystems. Can they be used for different disorders? What is the rationale behind designing a particular nanosystem in any system?
A With funding from the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, we have been examining nanotherapeutic strategies for overcoming tumor drug resistance. One of the challenges we observed in developing nanotherapeutics for cancer was that there was a large diversity in the physicochemical properties and delivery needs of the therapeutic agents as well as MDR modulators. In some cases, we were working with hydrophilic drugs (e.g., doxorubicin) and a hydrophobic MDR modulator (e.g., ceramide). Alternatively, the drugs may be hydrophobic (e.g., paclitaxel) and the resistance is modulated by a gene silencing approach using siRNA duplexes. To overcome the need to develop new nanoparticle systems for each of the payloads independently, we focused on a LEGO®-based assembly process in designing different formulations that meet the payload and delivery needs. For this, we make about 50–100 different polymeric derivatives and assemble them with the individual payloads in varying proportions leading to a large library of drug- or siRNA-containing formulations. The polymeric derivatives are based on functional blocks that contain different-sized lipid tails, different numbers and types of amine groups, thiol groups for intermolecular disulfide crosslinking, PEG modification, and having targeting ligands. Additional blocks with endosomal escaping moiety and fluorescence or radioactive label are also feasible. These functional blocks are then assembled with the different types of payload and optimized for delivery efficiency in vitro and then in vivo in relevant animal models. Currently we are using the combinatorial-designed nano-formulation approach for encapsulating different types of anticancer drugs from cisplatin and doxorubicin to paclitaxel and ceramide. Additionally, we have also encapsulated native and modified siRNA sequences for silencing PLK-1, survivin, and bcl-2 genes. All of this work is focused on overcoming MDR in ovarian and lung cancer models.
Combinatorial-designed nanoformulations can certainly be very useful for other diseases. In collaboration with Dr. Morris White at Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School, we are looking at liver-specific gene silencing using hyaluronic acid-based self-assembled nanostructures for treating insulin resistance in type 1 diabetes. There are also very interesting drug delivery opportunities in inflammatory and infectious disease areas that we are interested in pursuing using the combinatorial-designed nanoformulation approach.
Q When performing targeted delivery, what efficiency have you achieved from your polymeric nanosystems? Were you able to control the target-based approach based on chemical modifications in your chemical systems? Please give us a few examples.
A We have worked with both passive- and active-targeted delivery systems. Overall, our results show that passive targeting in tumors is effective in delivering about 10% of the injected dose, if there is high degree of vascularity and the tumor size is large enough such that the pores of the blood vessels are larger than the diameter of the long-circulating nanoparticles.
Active targeting, on the other hand, enhances the initial availability of the nanoparticles and more selective interactions with the cells that have the target of interest. We can get up to about 20% of the injected dose in tumors with EGFR peptide-based targeting over a 12–24 hour period. Surface density of the ligand and flexibility of attachment through a spacer is critical. As such, for specific localization of the nanoparticle formulations injected intravenously, we have found that you need both vascularity and overexpression of the target. The balance between these factors is critical to ensure adequate delivery enhancement without significant influence of the systemic clearance mechanisms.
I am also a big fan of using the inherent material properties or external stimuli to enhance delivery efficiency. I don’t think that surface modification of delivery vehicles should be the only approach. For example, Abraxane® is known to preferentially accumulate at tumor sites due to albumin affinity to glycoprotein receptors and the presence of SPARC in tumors. We selected type B gelatin for similar reasons as there are several RGD units from denatured collagen that remain in gelatin. Recently, our focus has shifted to hyaluronic acid based on its affinity to CD44 receptors. Other investigators have shown that external stimuli, such as heat, can enhance thermally responsive liposomal delivery efficiency and permeability in solid tumors.
Q How efficient has gene silencing with nanoparticle-encapsulated siRNA been in overcoming tumor multidrug resistance?
A Using hyaluronic acid–based self-assembling nanosystems, we can achieve up to 90% gene silencing efficacy in vitro with a 100 nM siRNA dose and up to 70% gene silencing in vivo in CD44-expressing MDR tumors with three 0.5 mg/kg intravenous doses.
We continue to optimize the formulations to achieve even better efficiency by using chemically modified siRNA sequences with greater potency, preventing premature siRNA degradation, enhancing intracellular delivery, and improving endosomal escape in cell culture systems. For in vivo specific delivery, avoiding premature degradation and clearance, target-specific localization, intracellular delivery, and cytoplasmic release are major factors that will influence success. The combinatorial-designed system is sufficiently versatile that we can tailor the formulations by addressing each of the barriers independently.
Q In your view, how can we improve the current cancer therapy?
A Cancer is a major clinical challenge of our time. Most epidemiological projections show that cancer mortality will supersede even cardiovascular diseases within a few years in the United States and other parts of the world. The biggest challenges in cancer, especially in those that are associated with high mortality rates, are lack of early diagnosis, heterogeneity of the tumor cells and variability between patients due to constant mutations and adaptations, nonspecificity of currently therapy, and poor systemic delivery efficiency. The majority of cancer mortality is attributed to disease metastasis and development of aggressive phenotype that leads to drug resistance.
There are many other efforts across the globe that are yielding important insights into the biology of cancer, micro-environmental signals that affect metastasis and resistance, and strategies that can improve therapeutic outcomes. Isolation of rare circulating tumor cells (CTCs) from patient blood, for example, is providing important clues on phenotypic differences between primary tumor cells and those that have disseminated. CTCs also are important biomarkers of anticancer therapy effectiveness. Understanding the biology of tumor initiating (or stem) cells is critical in developing new approaches, such as rational combination therapeutic strategies, to mitigate the incidence of resistance development. There is also tremendous interest in harnessing the power of the immune system in attacking tumors. Although there have been some breakthroughs in vaccine development, more needs to be done to improve vaccine and immune therapy effectiveness in cancer.
In all of the preceding examples, more focus is needed on clinical translation of the ideas so that they ultimately benefit cancer patients. The NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer was established in 2004 with this objective. Over the last eight years, the Alliance has supported many investigators through center, platform, and training grants. The Alliance also established the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory to aid in preclinical development of nanosystems for cancer. One of the most important outcomes of the Alliance effort is that basic scientists and engineers are now collaborating with clinicians with a razor-sharp focus on developing cancer diagnostics, imaging agents, and therapies from bench to bedside. Additionally, the Alliance also stresses industrial collaborations and technology transfer. Many companies were started and some, like Bind, Cerulean, and Nemucore, are actively moving academic research into clinical development. I am very optimistic that in the next few years we will certainly see many more nanotechnology-based solutions in the clinic for cancer patients.
The BANDS research group in 2011. Left to right: Dr. Srinivas Reddy Boreddy, Sunita Yadav, Dr. Amit Singh, Dr. Srinivas Ganta, Darshna Patel, Aatman Doshi, Deepti Deshpande, Prof. Mansoor Amiji, Shardool Jain, Ankita Raikar, Verbena Kosovrasti, Ganesan Venkatesan, Ruchi Shah, Jing Xu, Sravani Kethireddy, Lipa Shah, Faryal Mir, Shanthi Ganesh, Lavanya Thapa, and Dr. Arun Iyer.
Q What are your research goals in the coming 5–10 years? Is there anything specific you would like to achieve in your career?
A I have had a very successful career so far. I have been involved in teaching, research, and service to my institution and to the broader scientific community.
In research, I am very fortunate and feel truly blessed to have had a remarkable group of researchers and students in my lab. Currently, my group has over 20 individuals from research faculty and postdoctoral associates to undergraduate students. One of the biggest threats to sustaining large research programs is the current funding crisis in the United States, especially from federal sources. I am very concerned that my group will shrink significantly in the coming years without adequate resources. As such, sustaining the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer and other programs that support research in drug delivery and nanomedicine is critical.
In the coming years, we will continue to work on exciting research areas by trying to identify novel solutions. I am increasingly fascinated with chronic inflammation, which has a central role in so many diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases. The role of macrophages and other immune cells in propagating and controlling the inflammatory processes is central in any therapeutic intervention. We are currently exploring novel strategies, based on macrophage-specific delivery, to affect inflammation. Diseases of the CNS are also very challenging to treat effectively due to the presence of the blood-brain barrier. We are interested in exploring delivery strategies that enhance permeation across the brain capillaries upon systemic administration. Multimodal strategies that both affect the permeability across capillary endothelium and inhibit efflux transport show promise. We are also exploring intranasal delivery to the brain, especially for large molecular compounds such as peptides, proteins, and gene constructs.
My dream is to see that our research efforts lead to products that can help patients. We are moving in this direction by partnering with companies so they can take academic technologies and develop these into clinically viable therapeutics, such as a targeted nanoemulsion formulation with combination therapy for treating refractory ovarian cancer that is being developed by Nemucore.
Q Who (scientist or otherwise) has influenced your research the most?
A There are four individuals who have had a profound influence on my career. Interestingly, all four of them are also towering figures in the CRS.
First and foremost, Kinam Park has been most profoundly influential through his remarkable intellect, can-do spirit, amazing generosity, and wonderful sense of humor. He and Haesun taught me the value of problem solving in science and never to get fixated on any specific disciplinary boundary.
After graduating from Purdue, I had the distinct honor of working with the late Joseph Robinson at Columbia Research Labs in Madison, Wisconsin. Although I was in Madison for only a few months, Joe’s influence has remained with me throughout my life. Whenever we met at AAPS or CRS conferences, Joe would always ask how my career was going and how he could help.
Vladimir Torchilin joined Northeastern as chair of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Department in the late 1990s. As a pretenured faculty member at the time, access to resources and all the guidance that Vladimir provided was invaluable. He has been instrumental in all of my career decisions, including most recently becoming the department chair.
Lastly, in 2000 after receiving tenure and promotion, I had the opportunity to do a sabbatical in Bob Langer’s lab at MIT. Bob’s impact on the careers of others is legendary. The opportunity to work with talented researchers such as Dave Lynn, Dave Putnam, and Dan Anderson at MIT was inspiring. I am forever indebted to Bob for allowing me to join his group and for supporting my career.
Q As a chairman, could you please tell us about the research focus of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Northeastern? Are there any specific areas you would like to focus on as a department in the future?
A Academic leadership through administrative responsibilities is a wonderful experience, and I have been privileged to lead a vibrant department of 20 faculty members with four centers of research excellence. Northeastern’s School of Pharmacy currently ranks seventh in NIH grant funding of all pharmacy schools and first among private schools. Besides rankings, there are so many other measures of success that our faculty and students are able to achieve. Distinguished Professor Vladimir Torchilin, who is well known to the CRS community, is one of our superstars! My challenge is to continue to sustain the momentum and build on our successes of the past.
I also enjoy the opportunity for entrepreneurship in higher education that fosters development of new educational programs at the interfaces of science, business, and law. I have been involved in launching several professional science master’s (PSM) programs at Northeastern that combine training with practical experience in the form of short-term internships in biotech or pharma companies. I am a big believer of “learning while doing”—the experiential model of education that Northeastern has been a leader in for over a century. I would like to be involved in furthering the experiential model of education at the graduate level, especially by actively engaging with the rich ecosystem of biotech and pharma companies that are in the Boston/Cambridge area. We have initiated several models of collaborations with industry through establishment of graduate fellowships for doctoral students who can work both on campus and at the company. We have also created a unique Ph.D. program catering especially to industrial scientists who have an M.S. degree. I also would like to work with foreign institutions in bringing this model of education abroad.
Q How do you manage efficiency with such a large group of people? How do you achieve the work-life balance between so many responsibilities?
A It is hard to manage large research groups, especially in the face of the current funding crunch. However, I am fortunate to have senior researchers like Arun Iyer and Amit Singh and Ph.D. students who have been in the lab for several years now. These individuals help me by providing assistance to younger students, especially those in the master’s program who are interested in research experience.
I also regularly have meetings with my lab group to make sure that everyone can provide updates of their progress and we can quickly identify the problems they are having. My group is also sufficiently diverse with expertise in synthetic chemistry, biology, pharmaceutical sciences, and biomedical engineering to allow cross-talk and problem solving.
Work-life balance is much harder for me, especially since we have three kids and both parents are working. My wife is a registered pharmacist with Walgreens, and she is now working part time so we can be there for our children. Her love and support have been extremely important for my career. When the kids were growing up, we had to be very creative with our time. I traveled a lot less back then to make sure that we were able to meet the demands at home. Now, our oldest daughter is almost finishing high school and our youngest is in seventh grade. With them being a little older, I was able to take on the administrative responsibilities of the department chair. I also travel a lot more for meetings and other commitments.
Q Please tell us about your favorite free-time activities.
A I like to play sports, read, travel to exotic places, and enjoy spending time with my family. Our youngest daughter, Salima, plays soccer and basketball, and I love going to her games and cheering the kids in her team.
Q What would be your advice to young researchers still trying to decide a career path for themselves?
A Here is my “top ten” list (with apologies to David Letterman):
- Become a universal problem solver—focus your energy on how to solve important societal problems regardless of discipline.
- Never accept the status quo—in science, nothing is ever “perfect.”
- Work in teams—solo players in science are becoming extinct. More and more, you will be required to work in teams and so keep your ego in check.
- Be malleable—in your career, you will be required to change more often than you desire. Being able to fit any mold is critical to success.
- Diversity is the key to learning new skills—hang around with smart people who are different than you.
- Don’t be afraid to fail—failure and learning from one’s missteps makes the successes in life mean even more.
- Be a teacher—share what you know with others. If you share, most people will return the favor.
- Ethics and standards matter—never compromise your long-standing values for any short-term gain.
- Become a serial entrepreneur—learn to market your ideas and products.
- Shatter barriers and stereotypes—but know that success will not land on a silver platter.