Science that matters: Master’s student is using 3D printing to help accelerate drug discovery
Megala Ramasamy is developing a low-cost fabrication method for silicone polymers used to create advanced in-vitro eye models that simulate features of the human eye.
In a world where 2.2 billion people have visual impairments, the urgency to revolutionize eye care has never been greater. Conditions like glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration are on the rise, propelling the global ocular implants market to unprecedented growth, from $14.1 billion in 2022 to a monumental $22.1 billion by 2030. Yet, many potential breakthroughs stumble in clinical trials, often due to unforeseen toxicity and efficacy in preliminary research studies.
Currently, most drug release studies are initially performed in simple vial-based systems. Based on those results, 2D in-vitro cell culture studies are performed to test the toxicity of ocular drugs. However, these static environments cannot fully simulate human eye features like tear flow, low tear volume and blinking. Advanced in-vitro eye models are needed to better evaluate therapeutics in the early stages of research.
These advanced in-vitro eye models are made possible by utilizing microfluidics, which involves fabricating devices that are smaller than a mobile phone and have channel dimensions ranging from tens to hundreds of micrometres. The main hurdle in using microfluidic devices is the expensive production method, which involves specialized equipment, clean rooms, and labour-intensive processes.
Polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), a silicone polymer, is the most widely used material in the production of microfluidic devices due to its non-toxic, flexible, biocompatible and transparent properties. The research of Megala Ramasamy, a Master of Science in Vision Science student, aims to develop PDMS using a commercially available 3D printer that costs less than $650. This more accessible and low-cost PDMS could be used to create more cutting-edge in-vitro eye models that can accelerate the pace of drug discovery.
What wider implications to society or industry could your research have?
Our research has the potential to bring about significant positive change for society and the pharmaceutical industry. We're on a mission to speed up the development of safer and more effective medicines, which could mean rapid treatment for people with eye diseases. By using advanced methods like 3D printing, we aim to make the development of advanced in-vitro models faster and more cost-effective, which allows for rapid testing of therapeutics in preclinical studies. Additionally, our research may reduce the need for testing on animals.
Beyond eyes, these methods could transform how we create medicine for many health conditions, ultimately benefitting the well-being of society.
What drew you to graduate studies at the University of Waterloo?
During high school, one of my science teachers, Mrs. Rosy, made a profound statement that stuck with me. She said, "The world not only requires doctors and engineers, but also researchers and scientists for the development of society."
These words left a lasting impact and influenced my decision to major in biotechnology during my undergraduate studies. In my third year of completing my bachelor’s degree, I seized the opportunity to work at Micro Life Innovations, a startup at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT Madras) where I focused on developing protocols for detecting adulterants in milk using paper-based devices.
After completing my undergraduate studies, I gained further experience as a project associate at the tissue engineering and biomaterials lab at IIT Madras, where my work centred on biomaterial development for various tissue engineering applications. Recognizing the critical importance of the human eye and the rising prevalence of vision-related diseases such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy due to lifestyle changes, I was drawn to the Centre for Ocular Research and Education at the University of Waterloo, a leading research group in the field of vision science. Currently, I am nearing the end of my master’s in the School of Optometry and Vision Science and am glad to have chosen Waterloo for my graduate studies.
Working alongside them has been a life-changing experience. They consistently demonstrate their unwavering support and availability at every phase of the project. Their motivation during challenging moments and the invaluable feedback they provide are pivotal in my personal and academic development. They have acted as guiding mentors, initially holding my hand, and then nurturing my growth from crawling to confidently walking the path of research. Collaborating with these eminent researchers in the field of vision science has been a privilege and an honour.
Can you tell us about your experience as a 2023 finalist in the GRADflix competition at Waterloo?
Being a researcher involves not only delving into the depths of knowledge but also effectively conveying complex ideas to a diverse audience, including those without a deep understanding of the subject. GRADflix pushed me to summarize my research in just 60 seconds, refining my communication and video editing abilities. It taught me how to simplify complex concepts for a broad audience and deliver a clear and engaging message. This experience improved my research communication skills and equipped me with valuable multimedia skills for effective presentations.
Have you been involved in any campus activities? And how are you enjoying living in Waterloo?
Waterloo is an exceptional place because I can connect with individuals from diverse backgrounds and cultures. During my time here, I served as the vision science research seminar series representative with the Graduates in Vision Science Council. I planned and successfully executed our annual research conference, overseeing the event logistics.
Additionally, I had the privilege of participating in the NSERC CREATE program, which is Canada's pioneering "needs-first" graduate program, known as Training in Global Biomedical Technology Research and Innovation. This program is offered through the Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology and equipped me with invaluable skills for working in the biomedical technology sector. I engaged directly with key stakeholders, including patients, medical professionals, and biotech industry representatives. This experience allowed me to strengthen my expertise in areas such as design thinking, biomedical commercialization and professional soft skills through hands-on experiences, workshops and lectures. All this has ultimately helped me build a robust foundation for my future career in biomedical technology.