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SQI: Simpson Querry Institute

Meet the Researchers: Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent is a graduate student in biomedical engineering who is co-advised by Mark Johnson and SQI member Evan Scott. He recently delivered a Rising Stars of SQI Lecture titled “Controlling Interactions at the Nano-Bio Interface to Enhance Drug Delivery Vehicle Performance.” In this interview, Vincent discusses his primary projects in the Scott Lab and the work he is currently doing at Grove Biopharma, a startup based on technology developed in the laboratory of SQI member Nathan Gianneschi.

How would you summarize your Rising Stars Lecture topic?

That lecture was about engineering the nano-bio interface to perform at a high level in drug delivery applications. I work in the field of targeted drug delivery, where our goal is to increase drug accumulation at the site of action, and when possible, to also minimize drug uptake by off-target cell types.

Michael Vincent
Michael Vincent

This is important because more drug at the site of action enhances efficacy, whereas minimizing off-target uptake can prevent certain side effects from occurring. There are generally two different things you can do to achieve that. You can either engineer drug delivery vehicles, which we call “nanocarriers,” to have physical and chemical properties that will enhance their accumulation within a specific cell type, or you can engineer them to display active targeting moieties. These moieties are molecules, such as peptide ligands, that bind to specific receptors that are enriched at the cell type of interest but not elsewhere, which will drive an increase in uptake by that cell. And of course, these two strategies can also be combined in different ways. 

I presented a few different projects in the SQI talk. Two of them focused on engineering the physical and chemical properties of targeted drug delivery vehicles to control protein adsorption in blood. Protein adsorption is an inevitable event where proteins from biological fluids, like blood, stick to the surfaces of biomaterials and change their downstream biochemical and cellular interactions. The idea is that if you can control different aspects of protein adsorption, you can use those inevitable events to direct nanoparticle uptake by the cell type of interest. (This work is detailed in 2021 publications in Nature Communications and Advanced Therapeutics).

The other work I presented involved active targeting where we displayed a lipid-anchored FLT4-binding peptide on the surface of nanoparticles to increase their uptake by pressure-regulating cells in the eye. That project, published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, focused on the development of this strategy as a novel glaucoma nanotherapy.

You recently started a job in industry. Can you share your plans for graduation and what you are doing now?

I’m in the final stage of editing my dissertation and my defense is within the next month or so. I just joined a small startup in downtown Chicago called Grove Biopharma, which is based on work from Professor Gianneschi’s lab. We’re creating protein-like polymers (PLPs) that consist of a polymeric backbone connected to an array of functional peptides. It’s a modular platform that can be used to develop novel therapeutics in a variety of areas.

What attracted you to the Scott Lab for your PhD work?

First, I enjoyed my conversations with Evan and I liked the multidisciplinary nature of his research. Also, he uses a polymeric material called poly(ethylene glycol)-b-poly(propylene sulfide), or PEG-b-PPS for short, which is a versatile platform for engineering nanocarrier technologies. I was drawn to that versatility because it enables the creation of nanocarrier libraries that can be used to systematically probe important phenomena in biomaterials, pharmaceutical science, and targeted drug delivery. Evan and I discussed many potential projects that leveraged the customizability of the PEG-b-PPS platform and I thought it was an exciting time to join the Scott lab.

I’m also co-advised by Mark Johnson, who is a glaucoma expert that is very passionate about ocular biomechanics, transport, and drug delivery. My work with Mark involved using PEG-b-PPS nanocarriers and peptide ligands to target glaucoma therapeutics to pressure-regulating cells in the eye. This was an interesting application for active targeting. The collaboration between Mark and Evan was in its early stages when I started my doctoral research in the department. I was intrigued by the opportunity to work on the glaucoma project as a part of my studies and it ultimately became a major focus of mine. I’ve learned a lot from both of my advisors during the past few years, and I’ve enjoyed my time working for them. I wouldn’t change anything about it.

What are some of your hobbies outside of research and finishing your PhD?

I’m a big sports fan, so I like watching Northwestern sports and the teams from the University of Michigan, where I received my undergraduate and master’s degrees. I also enjoy working out and spending time with friends and family.

How did you decide to pursue the industry track?

Initially, I strongly considered staying in academia because I enjoy doing research, leading projects, and providing mentorship in that environment. Over time, I found that industry had a lot of exciting things to offer as well. I became especially interested in opportunities in industry where I could help develop a technology that might make it into the clinic and improve people’s lives. 

In the last few years, I worked on a large proposal with Nathan Gianneschi and I got to know him and his research better in the process. We had a lot of great conversations about issues with modern therapeutics and preclinical development efforts. More recently, we discussed his lab’s work in developing protein-like polymer technologies, and I became very interested in contributing to it. I later interviewed with Grove and ultimately became a Principal Scientist at the company. I’m excited to see where we can take the PLP platform.