Prof. Omar F. Khan (ChemE MASc 0T6, PhD 1T0) officially joined the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) as an assistant professor on May 1, 2020. After receiving his doctoral degree from U of T Engineering, he began his postdoctoral training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Khan is now back at his alma mater, and excited to bring the entrepreneurial spirit of technology translation to the tech hubs of Toronto.
Writer Qin Dai spoke to Khan to learn more about his academic journey and the research he’ll be conducting at IBBME.
How did you start in biomedical engineering?
My father is an amputee who lost his arm in an industrial accident. Growing up, I was fascinated with his prosthetic arms and the way he adapted to and overcame the challenges associated with the injury.
As I got older, I became more interested in the idea of regeneration, making the University of Toronto a top choice for studying biomedical engineering. I really wanted to pursue my PhD with Dr. Michael Sefton, a pioneer in biomaterials and tissue engineering. I felt that the field of biomedical engineering would be an opportunity for me to contribute to healthcare in an application-driven way and maybe help people like my dad.
The University Health Network was also a major factor. Being at a university that has close research ties and physical proximity to clinicians and renowned hospitals was important to me. That way you get a bit more context than you normally would otherwise, because you are an engineer directly interacting with people working in the field and end users.
What does biomedical engineering mean to you?
As is the case with nurses and medical doctors, biomedical engineers have a special responsibility to the community because their work is meant to help save lives. Personally, I feel that healthcare is an inalienable human right. To me biomedical engineering is a way to apply engineering principles to solve biological problems.
Biomedical engineering is broad with a great diversity of sub-disciplines; however, when we combine our efforts, that diversity gives us added perspective and insight. It is also the clever application of seemingly unrelated technologies to solve biology-centered challenges. As engineers, we are great at inventing, optimizing, looking for new applications and combining our diverse skill sets in teams to solve healthcare problems.
Why did you become a professor at University of Toronto?
Establishing a nucleic acid tech hub in Toronto is important for the ongoing development of Canada’s biotech sector and retaining our Canadian talent. We want our trainees to be successful and gain the experience needed to create their own opportunities here in Canada. In turn, their success will inspire others and continue to attract people from all over the world. I think that’s extremely important in building a healthy research-to-translation ecosystem capable of addressing diverse local and global needs, and that’s why I came back.
In Boston, my U of T graduate and MIT postdoctoral training helped me invent some useful nucleic acid delivery technologies. From there, I got to be a scientific founder, chief engineer and also an entrepreneur. This path allowed me to experience the process of growing an academic idea into a company focused on achieving clinical translation in two very different startups. In order to drive innovation, biomedical engineers should have the courage and support necessary to try new, unconventional and risky ideas. Thanks to exceptional students, faculty, facilities and vision, the University of Toronto’s IBBME is the perfect environment to conceive, develop and incubate new technologies.
What kind of research will you be doing?
The OFK Lab will focus on the application of nucleic acids to improve and promote health via nanotechnology. There are many kinds of useful nucleic acids that, if deployed correctly as nanoparticle payloads, can help regulate genes in a patient’s body to achieve a therapeutic outcome. In our lab, we want to understand how to design these nucleic acids and their complimentary nanotechnology delivery systems to maximize therapeutic effects.
The OFK Lab will also continue my multiplexing work. Many challenging diseases are complex and have multiple aberrant or defective genes. One strategy to address this challenge is to simultaneously deliver many therapeutic nucleic acids with a single nanotechnology. This approach allows us to target multiple genes in the same disease, therefore increasing the treatment efficiency. This is done by optimizing the nucleic acids and building advanced delivery vehicles that control the timing of nucleic acid release, the type of cell they target, etc. This multiplexing approach simplifies treatments because the delivery vehicle takes on the role of coordinating the multifaceted therapy.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
My wife, who is also in science, recently gave birth to our spectacular baby daughter, so our entire multicultural family loves spending time with her. But if I have any other spare time, I’m usually motorcycling, swimming or running batch reactions (baking).