Eli Lilly faculty fellowship provides drug discovery experience

Author: Brandi Klingerman

Notre Dame researcher developing medication delivery system to combat diabetes

Haifeng Gao 2

Diabetes is a metabolic disease in which the body has an inability to produce enough insulin. In the United States alone, it is estimated that the illness affects nearly 30 million diagnosed and undiagnosed people, and treatment often includes patients using an intravenous or IV method to get insulin into their system. This uncomfortable and inconvenient form of treatment can require anywhere from two to four injections a day, but a Notre Dame researcher is working to combat this problem with a less frequent, oral delivery system.

Haifeng Gao, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry as well as an affiliated member of ND Energy and NDnano, works at the newly opened McCourtney Hall. His focus is to engineer soft nanomaterials and develop a polymer, or substance that has a molecular structure consisting of mostly large numbers of similar units bonded together, that could potentially carry insulin throughout the body. For the polymer to work, it would need to survive the harsh environment of the stomach, control the encapsulation of the insulin, and program the release of medication in a way that is as effective as current treatment methods. To do all of these things, Gao’s goal is to develop a unimolecular polymer carrier with multiple domains and functional groups, which utilizes several components that can work synergistically.

“No one likes to get poked by a needle, especially if you have to do it multiple times a day,” said Gao. “If we can create an oral medication for diabetes, patients could possibly take it twice a week instead of using a needle for insulin multiple times per day. This would not only be less painful and more convenient, but also potentially help diabetes patients be more compliant with taking their medication.” 

Gao’s general interest in polymer-based nanomedicines gave him the opportunity to be the first Notre Dame researcher to participate in the Notre Dame-Eli Lilly and Co. Fellowship Program in Drug Discovery. The new program allows for faculty members to be a visiting scholar and experience first-hand the drug discovery and development process at Eli Lilly and Co. in Indianapolis. 

“Throughout the program, I was tasked with meeting with different scientists and to get to know their research, as well as introduce my own so that I could make a connection between our work,” said Gao. “While working with the scientists at Lilly, I learned so much about the complexity of the drug discovery pipeline, which already helped me adjust my own fundamental research to better align with clinical research and drug development needs.” 

The Notre Dame-Eli Lilly and Co. Faculty Fellowship Program in Drug Discovery is now open for applications, with the formal fellowship beginning the summer after applying. Faculty research projects must align within the areas of Lilly’s current drug discovery interests, including oncology, diabetes, neurodegeneration, autoimmune disorders, and pain. To learn more about the fellowship program, please click here

Originally published by Brandi Klingerman at research.nd.edu on November 17, 2016.