UNC scientist’s drive for a cancer cure inspired by the father he doesn’t remember

Zhen Gu, a biomedical engineer at the University of North Carolina and N.C. State University, is featured in STAT News for his work on cancer.

UNC scientist’s drive for a cancer cure inspired by the father he doesn’t remember click to enlarge Zhen Gu, PhD

Editor's note: This an excerpt of the full story first appeared in STAT News. Read the full story here.

By Marla Vacek Broadfoot, PhD

Media contact: Michelle Maclay, Michelle_Maclay@med.unc.edu, (919) 843-5365

RALEIGH, NC – Last summer, a young, unheralded scientist named Zhen Gu unveiled a “smart” insulin patch, yet another in a string of biomedical creations that could be traced back to his early childhood.

This one stood out: Headlines hailed it as the beginning of the end of painful injections for diabetes.

The biomedical engineer’s inbox was flooded with emails from patients eager to try out the thumbnail-sized device, covered with more than 100 tiny needles like a miniature bed of nails. “Thanks so much for your interest and encouragement!” Gu would patiently respond to each, trying to let them down easy. “We are currently planning to do large animal tests … if successful, we will move to clinical trials. We will update you!”

Shortly thereafter, MIT Technology Review recognized Gu as one of the world’s top 35 innovators under 35, putting him in the company of previous winners Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page. “I would not hesitate to say that Zhen is one of the most creative people with whom I have ever worked,” said renowned MIT inventor Bob Langer, who nominated his protégé for the honor. “Zhen never seems to run out of ideas.”

The range of Gu’s intellectual curiosity was clear from the moment I walked into his office on North Carolina State University’s sprawling campus in Raleigh. Neat stacks of papers covered his desk and were crammed into every vertical inch of the bookcase in the corner. Framed journal covers adorned another wall, displaying the most impressive of his 75 or so scientific publications.

Gu pointed to one picture that — to my untrained eye — evoked a ream of wax paper dotted with old-fashioned, rainbow-colored candy buttons. He explained that the illustration depicted his graduate work at the University of California, Los Angeles, on a technique for printing molecules into orderly arrays for sensors or diagnostic tools. He moved on to another frame, this one showing the tip of a hypodermic needle squirting tiny green and red droplets: microscopic particles Gu created during his postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to treat diabetics for days at a time.

“People often ask why I don’t find one approach and stick with it. But I think it is better to keep trying new strategies, to develop new ways of solving problems. Why focus on one when you could do many?” said Gu, a solidly built man with an easy smile, closely cropped jet black hair, and rectangular, semi-rimless glasses.

Later, he told me that relieving the suffering of diabetics — though admirable — was never his aim; rather, he has always been drawn to cancer, tugged along by the marionette strings of the father he wished he knew.

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