Using the Power of Light to Revolutionize Drug Efficacy and Safety — with Spark Fund awardee Dr. Sunny Zhou

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Some of the best, world-changing ideas have been ideated in the most unlikely of places — such was the case one February morning in 2017, when Northeastern researcher Sunny Zhou thought of a revolutionary new way to make drug delivery more specific, efficacious, and safe, as he made his way to campus on the Orange line.

Dr. Zhou’s idea addresses one of the biggest challenges that drug developers face — ensuring that a new drug is both effective and safe for human use. This is such a tricky problem because biology is often not as specific as researchers hope for. This means that drugs can have unintentional interactions in different places in the body, leading to serious side effects and toxicity. This is often referred to as off-target effects or off-target toxicity.

Sunny Zhou & Bryan Spring
Photo by Joshua Brown

However, Zhou’s idea was that photomedicine — an exciting field that combines physics, chemistry, and biology — could enhance temporal and spatial control over drug administration. It can help decrease off-target effects and therefore has the potential to treat many diseases that currently have no treatment due to specificity issues.

So, Northeastern researchers Dr. Sunny Zhou and Professor Bryan Spring, along with their team of about a dozen students and collaborators, have invented a photomedicine platform that enables highly specific drug administration.

Using Photomedicine to Make Drug Administration Highly Specific

Zhou’s invention and approach are to mask or “cage” peptides and proteins in a drug, rendering the therapeutic molecules inactive until they are administered to a specific site in the patient. After administration to the patients, the mask is removed with exposure to light (or other stimuli), which creates the active form of the drug. This enables the therapy to be delivered with precise spatial and temporal control, so it only treats the area of interest and minimizes or eliminates any off-target effects.

Zhou’s initial area of focus is Uveal Melanoma, a deadly and hard-to-treat type of eye cancer that can also lead to loss of vision.

“Ophthalmology is ideal for photomedicine because it is easy to administer light to the eye,” says Zhou. “Generally speaking, oncology has the most unmet needs that our technology can address, so that is where we are starting our focus, but many other diseases and conditions can also be treated with photomedicine, such as dermatology and pain management.”

In several years, Dr. Zhou envisions their lead candidates entering clinical studies and being approved for clinical applications.

Commercialization with the Spark Fund

Sunny Zhou
Photo by Joshua Brown

Zhou notes that commercialization can be challenging for an academician, because having a good invention with strong supporting research is typically not enough to succeed. Instead, successful commercialization primarily requires innovation that creates something that sells. While there are countless unmet needs that researchers could hope to address, it can be challenging to demonstrate viable solutions that can sell and are better than all other competing approaches.

For this reason, he notes that working with the Spark Fund was a very educational and informative process. “The best parts were going through self-evaluation and receiving feedback from the Spark Fund judging panel,” Zhou says. “Of course, the funding is a great help, but the continued feedback and support from CRI are equally valuable.”

“Commercialization is a long and trying process that requires a full team effort,” says Zhou. “This award is crucial for further development of our research and the CRI’s support, guidance and network have been essential for our success. Moreover, the people at CRI have been wonderful to work with over the years.”

Learn more about Dr. Zhou’s research and the six other 2022 Spark Award grantees here.

Written by Elizabeth Creason

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