Professor’s Fight Against Leading Cause of Blindness Inspires Campus-Wide Collaboration

By Jami Kunzer, ‘94

You could say Professor Elizabeth Gaillard has had her eye on this for decades.

She spent years of toiling away in the lab determined to help detect and find a cure for leading causes of blindness. Years of patents and research funding sought and granted, of published papers in top journals, of students mentored and relied upon for their talent, ingenuity and ambition. From undergraduates to Ph.D. students, Huskies contributed to novel research while gaining vital interdisciplinary skills.

It’s all culminated in Dr. Gaillard’s latest venture—Therome Innovation Partners, a startup company designed to distribute a new drug-delivery system for those suffering from age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. Both can lead to blindness. Both require regular injections to the eye.

Dr. Gaillard’s new system would deliver a time-released drug, reducing the frequency of the painful shots from monthly to once every 12 months or so. The shots slow down the loss of sight. It’s such a simple act, but so meaningful to those suffering.

“Anything that can be done to improve their vision, even a little bit, is a huge improvement in the quality of life for them,” said Dr. Gaillard, who has become one of the leading researchers of macular degeneration in her nearly 23 years as a professor and distinguished research professor in the Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Biological Sciences at NIU.

Both the chemistry behind the project and the story of its fruition are inspiring and represent the widespread innovation continually at work at NIU.

LEVERAGING EXPERTISE

Dr. Gaillard’s Therome Innovation Partners already has patented technology on biomarkers for ocular inflammation and potent antioxidant drugs in its portfolio.

Her journey to creating the startup has involved colleagues as well as professors and students in the Colleges of Engineering and Business, the Northern Illinois Research Foundation (NIRF), the Medical Laboratory Sciences and the Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships, to name a few.

“With the creation of Therome Innovation Partners, Dr. Gaillard’s passion for ocular therapeutics and diagnostics will allow her to transform her research from basic research and development into real-world products that have the potential to diagnose and treat millions of people suffering from a variety of diseases,” said Karinne Bredberg, ’14, M.P.A. ’19, assistant director for Commercialization and Innovation for NIU’s Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships.

Along with the time-released drug delivery technology, Dr. Gaillard has developed a methodology and database to diagnose diabetes and prediabetes several years earlier than blood tests. She’d like to see the product accessible in places like drugstores, similar to blood pressure machines. With patents pending on both creations, they’re among a slew of inventions earning NIU widespread recognition.

In the past 20 years—the typical lifespan of a patent—the University has been issued about 100 patents in the United States and worldwide.

Also in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Distinguished Teaching and Research Professor Emeritus Dr. Chhiu-Tsu Lin has multiple patents in nanocoating technologies. He created his own startup, ChemNOVA Technologies, Inc., in 1999. Two “molecular fan” patents licensed to ChemNOVA are used to keep hot technology, such as CPUs, computers and cellphones, cool.

Professor Emeritus Dr. Sen-Maw Kuo and Dr. Lichuan Liu, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, invented a wireless active-noise control system that enables newborns in incubators to hear their mothers’ voices while reducing harmful noises and maintaining communication of infant cries, coos and breathing signals. The technology is licensed to a startup in San Antonio, Texas, for commercialization in hospitals.

The leap from the lab to the market isn’t simple, though. That’s where collaboration comes into play.

“Faculty at NIU are great researchers, striving to create innovative solutions to everyday problems through research, teaching and engagement, but creating a startup also involves skills in business that researchers in the life sciences may not particularly have,” Bredberg said.

“By leveraging the expertise of others, Dr. Gaillard is able to fill those business and prototyping gaps. Additionally, the collaborations between other colleges provides the students involved real-world, hands-on experiences.”

(L-R) Caroline Machado, Michael Vega, Elizabeth Gaillard

DOWN TO BUSINESS

Dr. Gaillard teamed up with business students this past spring after a talk she gave as part of the NIRF, a nonprofit organization that promotes scientific research at NIU.

A foundation member, College of Business Dean Balaji Rajagopalan suggested she work with students in the college’s Experiential Learning Center (ELC). The center brings together teams of six to eight students every semester from a variety of majors within the college to work on real-world business issues.

Of the eight teams lined up this fall, teams will work with McDonald’s, the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago and other businesses and corporations.

“The projects these students work on put them in front of the entrepreneurs, the CEOs, partners, board of directors, CIOs, anybody in the chief suites of these organizations we work with,” said Jason Gorham, the director of business consulting in the College of Business who heads up the ELC.

The students created a company logo and website, studied potential investors and found ways for Dr. Gaillard to pitch her products.

The experience has inspired team member Sai Krishna Bharath Nanduri of India, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Information Technology, to become a consultant.

“I never really thought I would work well with a group of strangers,” he said. “I ended up having five great friends. Then I realized I wanted to do this the rest of my life—working in teams and solving problems.”

ENGINEERING A PRODUCT

As business students sharpened Dr. Gaillard’s marketing plan, engineering students furthered her efforts to better diagnose diabetes.

She already had the technology to use fluorescence scanning for non-invasive diagnosis, but needed an instrument to put it to work. Once again, NIRF came in handy.

An NIRF board member, College of Engineering and Engineering Technology Dean Donald Peterson approached Dr. Gaillard at a meeting about his senior design students. Teams of senior-level students tackle projects from businesses and industries as part of a year-long required capstone experience, the pinnacle of their undergraduate education.

“It’s pretty exciting,” she said. “The thought of something you do in the lab, very fundamental research, to have it actually be of value and help society in some way is enormously fulfilling.”

-Dr. Elizabeth Gaillard

Peterson knew of seniors interested in biomedical engineering, but who were unable to major in it because it wasn’t offered during their initial years at NIU. The college launched the biomedical engineering degree program this fall.

Dr. Gaillard’s project allowed team member Kristen O’Connor, ’19, of Hometown, Illinois, who graduated this past spring with a degree in electrical engineering, to take her interest in biomedical engineering to another level in a meaningful way.

“This would greatly increase the amount of screenings people get for diabetes,” said O’Connor, who started a job as an electrical engineer at John Deere this past summer.

The machine O’Connor and her teammates created sends pulses of light into the eye at the press of a button. Diabetes can be detected based on the eye’s reaction to the fluorescent patterns.

Time and financial limitations prevented the team from completely finishing the product, but Dr. Gaillard intends to pitch it again.

“What they took on was an extremely challenging project,” Dean Peterson said of the engineering team. “They carried the baton significantly down the track for, hopefully, the next team to carry on.”

THE SCIENCE BEHIND IT

Dr. Gaillard ’s research revolves around a long-standing fascination with the biochemistry of eye disease, particularly age-related conditions.

Now the number of people living with macular degeneration, currently estimated at 11 million people in the United States, is expected to reach 196 million worldwide by 2020. It is the leading cause of severe vision loss in adults ages 60 and older in industrialized nations.

Diabetic retinopathy has become a force of its own, developing in anyone with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, with more than 3 million cases diagnosed a year in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate more than 1 out of 3 American adults have prediabetes. Of those, 90 percent don’t know they have it.

Available drug treatments help prevent the growth of poorly developed blood vessels in the retina that cause swelling and inflammation, leading to damaged eyesight.

Eye drops are washed away through blinking and tearing, leaving behind little medication to travel to the back of the eye. Pills and intravenous medication won’t reach either.

“The only choice left is direct injection,” Dr. Gaillard said. “The problem with that is people can’t stand the thought of it. Plus, you’re creating a puncture wound in your eye and increasing the chance for bacterial infection. The fewer the injections, the better”, she said.

Her gradual drug delivery method encapsulates drugs in a liposome, a sort of sac of molecules. The key has been finding just the right therapeutic formulation.

To do so, Dr. Gaillard has worked with NIU’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee to test the dosage on rabbits.

“Being able to do those rabbit studies was huge for us because, otherwise, the industry would look at the work we did and say, ‘You did it in the lab, how do we know it’s even viable in a living system?’” she said.

It all comes down to restoring mobility and independence to those suffering. Even a slight improvement can have a dramatic impact.

“It’s pretty exciting,” she said. “The thought of something you do in the lab, very fundamental research, to have it actually be of value and help society in some way is enormously fulfilling.”