Bio-inspired nanomaterials set to radically change how patients are treated
Dr Peter Wich combines organic chemistry and polymer materials, with biology and medicine, to create future applications in the area of personalised medicine.
Originally trained as an organic chemist, Dr Peter Wich completed his undergraduate studies and his PhD at the University of Würzburg in Germany before moving to UC Berkeley in the U.S. for his postdoctoral research. It was there that he got his deeper insights into macromolecular chemistry and nanomaterials, which marks an important milestone in his career.
He returned to Germany, to the University of Mainz, to explore and develop these emerging areas of interest and in the process set up his independent research group, the WichLab. The focus is to create next generation dynamic biomaterials by applying chemistry to explore new areas of nano- and biotechnology, and in six short years the lab has been incredibly successful.
Overall, Wich has successfully attracted more than €2 million (AUD $3 million) in support packages and competitive funding as lead- and co-investigator. He has also supervised six PhD students to completion and won several prestigious national and international awards.
In 2018 he was ready for a new challenge and seeing numerous synergies between his work and the research being undertaken at UNSW, he decided to relocate WichLab to Australia and now leads the Research Lab for Functional Biopolymers, a sub-team within the Centre for Advanced Macromolecular Design (CAMD) at the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering.
“We combine organic chemistry and polymer synthesis, with biology and medicine, to create future applications in the area of personalised medicine. That’s one of the main goals, to design and produce biocompatible materials, in particular functional nanomaterials, that can help to treat highly challenging diseases like cancer or immune system-related disorders,” he says.
“I’ve always been fascinated with, and inspired by, nature which provides a large range of readily available biopolymers, like carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and polypeptides. Our research group applies a variety of methods from the toolbox of bioorganic chemistry to produce ‘bio-inspired’ nanomaterials in order to mimic and modulate biological functions, while maintaining biocompatibility and degradability.”
According to Wich, personalised applications will be the future of medicine. “Let’s say you have a specific type of cancer or a special genetic disorder. I envisage a future where your disease will be identified, and a drug produced specially for you. We won’t design the drug itself, but we will, for example, develop the nanoparticle systems that can deliver the drug exactly where it is needed,” he explains.
“Let’s say you have a specific type of cancer or a special genetic disorder . I envisage a future where your disease will be identified, and a drug produced specially for youWe won’t design the drug itself, but we will, for example, develop the nanoparticle systems that can deliver the drug exactly where it is needed.”
Dr Peter Wich, Research Lab for Functional Biopolymers, UNSW Chemical Engineering
Another approach to personalised medicine, says Wich, involves designing nanoparticles and biomaterials to reprogram the immune system in order to teach your own body to fight diseases. He anticipates that both approaches will minimise the costs and increase the efficiency of therapeutic drugs, not to mention be less invasive and save lives.
Although this sounds futuristic, progress is rapid, and he estimates this type of delivery will become standard practice in various therapeutic approaches within the next 10-20 years. “There are already nanosystems in use for treating different types of diseases, and nanoparticles that can be used in gene therapy,” he says.
Wich says he decided to join UNSW because during his time in Germany and at UC Berkeley he crossed paths with many Australian researchers. “When I was looking to expand my research, I looked to Australia for opportunities and UNSW stood out as the best choice. I haven’t been disappointed. The research environment is excellent with world standard research equipment and analytical facilities,” he says.
“I’m also surrounded by people I’m keen to work with. My close colleagues include researchers working in macromolecular chemistry, material and polymer science. But since the area I’m working in is interdisciplinary, it’s also very easy to reach out to other colleagues, e.g. from Medicine, Chemistry or Biomedical Engineering to set up research projects,” he explains.
In addition to his research, Wich has always had a keen focus on outreach and education, and says it is not only fun, but exciting to spread scientific knowledge to a wide audience that includes schools and the general public. Back in Germany he regularly appeared on national TV in edutainment segments involving chemistry-related aspects of everyday life, with wide-ranging topics like the chemistry behind ice cream, the toxicity of food additives, and, everyone’s favourite, more extreme topics involving fire and explosions.
“Outreach activities are very important, particularly these days where people seem more sceptical about scientific evidence. There is almost no age limit at which you can start promoting science, and it can easily be made relevant to young students and people with no prior scientific knowledge,” he says. Now in Australia he is keen to continue these outreach activities and is particularly interested in interacting with high schoolers and undergraduates, which is something UNSW Chemical Engineering already has a great reputation for.
“Promoting science and teaching the next generation of researchers is highly important to me and I am looking forward to seeing how my work in Australia unfolds.”
WichLab is looking for enthusiastic and dedicated new team members. Interested undergraduate and graduate students in the fields of (bio)organic chemistry, chemical engineering, material science, nanotechnology (and neighbouring fields) are welcome to get in touch. Visit their website for more details about current open positions and the application process: www.wichlab.com/join