STEM SIGHTS: The Concordian who investigates light-activated nanomedicine
Since the early 2000s, advancements in the fields of nanotechnology and nanomedicine have led to the creation of many “targeted” drug-delivery systems.
Conventional approaches require drugs to be absorbed through a biological membrane — either by oral or intravascular injection. These methods have significant impacts on how much of a dosage reaches the intended part of the body.
In comparison, drug delivery via nanomedicine is directed toward only the parts of the body where it is needed. Thus, targeted systems can help reduce the frequency of dosages a patient requires and cut back on the extent of unintended side effects.
Gabi Mandl is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry working under the supervision of John Capobianco. As part of the Lanthanide Research Group, she is interested in the synthesis, characterization and spectroscopy of lanthanide-doped upconverting nanoparticles.
‘I’m developing a type of drug-delivery system that is minimally invasive’
How does this specific tool relate to your research at Concordia?
Gabi Mandl: The laser shown in the image is one of the most important pieces of equipment in our lab. It emits light of a 980-nanometre wavelength, which is in the near-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum.
When we illuminate our nanoparticle samples with this laser, they absorb the light and, through a process called “upconversion,” emit light with higher photon energy than the laser that is exciting them.
Of particular importance to me is the UV light produced by the nanoparticles.
What is the hoped-for result of your project? And what impact could you see it having on people's lives?
GM: The goal of my project is to construct a near-infrared light-responsive hydrogel using the nanoparticles that I synthesize. I hope to incorporate a drug into the gel matrix and use near-infrared light to release it. The hydrogel would be applied subcutaneously.
This could be done by post-operative application to a tumour site after it has been removed or by a small incision and insertion of the gel near the tumour site, below the skin.
This type of drug-delivery system is particularly advantageous because it can be used for targeted drug therapy that is minimally invasive and uses light, which allows for a localized and highly specific release mechanism. This could potentially be used to reduce the side effects associated with the drug.
What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?
GM: One of the major challenges I face in my research is the new materials that I am developing. Since I am working in a new area being developed in our lab, when I encounter a roadblock it tends to take me a little longer to resolve the problem.
What person, experience or moment in time first inspired you to study this subject and get involved in the field?
GM: I was really lucky to have an amazing high school science teacher. Back then, I was really bad at chemistry and he always did his best to help me get through it. His love of the discipline made me fall in love with it too and I ended up being the only person in our class to pursue chemistry as a degree.
As far as working in Capobianco’s lab goes, a good friend of mine was doing her undergraduate project there and I became interested after hearing about her work. I began working at the lab in my third year of undergrad, first as a research assistant and then to do my honours project.
I loved the research so much that I wanted to stay for a graduate degree!
How can interested STEM students get involved in this line of research?
GM: I suggest taking Nanochemistry (CHEM 451). Capobianco teaches one section of the class and there is a group project required, so you would come and work in our lab for a term! It’s a great way to experience the work we do in nanochemistry and to introduce yourself to the field.
If you are unable to take that class then I really suggest just talking to your TAs and looking at the Concordia student profiles online. Find some research that interests you and then talk to the professor to see how you can get involved.
What do you like best about being at Concordia?
GM: My favourite part about being at Concordia is that there is no atmosphere of competition between students. I am from the United States, so coming to a new city where I didn’t know anyone was difficult.
I am so thankful that at Concordia it feels more like a family than just a school, and it is super easy to make friends. Everyone is so helpful and kind and that’s what made me want to stay here for grad school.
Are there any partners, agencies or other funding/support attached to your research?
GM: The funding agencies attached to my research are the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Centre québécois sur les matériaux fonctionnels, the Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies and Concordia University.
Find out more about Concordia’s Lanthanide Research Group.