Innovative research promotes self-regeneration of the brain following stroke

Nitzan Letko KhaitNitzan Letko-Khait, a ChemE postdoctoral fellow from the Shoichet Lab, has won first place for her innovative project during the final pitch and closing session of the Mitacs Invention to Innovation (i2I) skills training. Her winning project, Helping the brain to self-regenerate, offers a potential treatment for stroke patients that could improve the quality of life for millions of people worldwide.

Globally, stroke affects a staggering 12-15 million people annually, cementing its position as a top contributor to long-term disability. Unfortunately, with an aging population, these figures are projected to climb higher. The damage caused by stroke is swift and devastating – a disruption of blood supply to a region of the brain can lead to cell death within minutes, causing irreversible neurological harm. Shockingly, one-third of stroke patients succumb to the condition, while another third face a lifetime of disability. This outcome leads to a significant deterioration in their quality of life, as there are currently limited treatment options available, and none that encourage regeneration of the affected area. Consequently, Nitzan’s research assumes even greater significance.

“Our treatment involves a slow release of an enzyme from a specialized, biocompatible hydrogel that can degrade inhibitory molecules in the brain after a stroke. By degrading these molecules, we believe the brain has a better chance of healing itself,” explains Nitzan.

Her project beat out four other finalists in the final pitch competition, who had ideas ranging from developing novel drugs to biodegradable packaging materials. Nitzan’s winning project relies on results from previous work in the Shoichet lab, including Dr. Malgosia Pakulska’s method to control the release of the enzyme, and Drs. Marian Hettiaratchi and Matt O’Meara’s redesign of the enzyme to be highly stable at physiological temperatures. The Shoichet lab also partners closely with Professor Cindi Morshead’s lab at the University of Toronto’s Department of Surgery for their stroke research.

Nitzan’s project has received funding from several organizations, including the 2022-2023 PRiME-UHN clinical catalyst award, Stem Cell Network, and Mend the Gap, who also funded her participation in the Mitacs i2I program. The project previously received funding from the Collaborative Health Research Program jointly funded by NSERC and CIHR.

The innovative approach taken by Nitzan and her team is a potential breakthrough in stroke treatment and could later be adopted to treat other diseases in the central nervous system. Their work has already received recognition, with a published review paper and a prize that builds on this publication.

“Nitzan’s research is a shining example of the important work being done in our scientific community to help improve the lives of people around the world,” says Professor Ramin Farnood, Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry at U of T.