A look at the mindset and advice of Juliane Nguyen, Ph.D., an AAPS Emerging Leader, and her outreach to underserved students.
By Mark Crawford
Only seven years into her pharmaceutical sciences career, Juliane Nguyen, Ph.D. and associate professor in the Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics, Eshelman School of Pharmacy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has won the 2019 AAPS Emerging Leader of the Year Award.
The achievement recognizes scientists and pharmaceutical professionals who are early in their careers and have already made significant impacts through the pharmaceutical sciences that promote public health.
Nguyen’s research focuses on developing safe and effective next-generation biotherapeutics for life-threatening diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Her research team has discovered novel biomaterials that allow unprecedented loading of stem-cell derived exosomes with therapeutic cargoes, paving the way for cell-free therapeutics for many diseases, including cardiac regeneration after myocardial infarction. She has also advanced the development of immunomodulatory protein-based agents to suppress the growth of triple-negative breast cancer and other aggressive cancers. In addition, Nguyen has contributed over 40 high-impact papers and patents to the pharmaceutical sciences literature during her short career.
Developing Life-Saving Biotherapeutics
Nguyen received her Pharm.D. and Ph.D. from the Philipps University of Marburg in Germany with Dr. Thomas Kissel and completed her postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Francisco under Dr. Francis Szoka. Prior to joining the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019, she was an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, New York (2013-2019).
Because coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, killing about 7 million people per year, Nguyen has been sharply focused on developing more effective therapeutics that can greatly reduce that death toll and improve quality of life. Current treatments for myocardial ischemia, she notes, increase survival but do not restore lost cardiac function.
“Our work shows that exosomes loaded with miRNAs using new biomaterials we have developed induce significantly more angiogenesis than exosomes loaded using conventional approaches,” she says. “This is highly significant as, after acute myocardial infarction, neovascularization is crucial for restoring blood perfusion to infarcted tissue. Rapid blood vessel formation to bypass occluded coronary arteries helps restore blood flow in the border regions of necrotic tissue, thereby reducing the extent of lost myocardial function.”
Two patents have been awarded for this promising technology, which has already been licensed by a company.
Nguyen’s lab has also developed immunomodulatory protein-based agents that specifically target and block inflammatory monocytes and macrophages. This technology focuses on the treatment of patients with triple-negative breast cancer and other cancers in which tumor-associated macrophages promote aggressive, poor-prognosis disease. Studies have shown that patients with triple-negative breast cancer with a high number of infiltrating macrophages have larger, more rapidly growing tumors, a higher risk of distant metastasis, and an overall lower disease-free survival. “With clinical development, we hope this discovery will significantly change how patients with triple-negative breast cancer are treated in the future,” says Nguyen.
Making a Difference in the World
There are many research topics that Nguyen would love to tackle with her postdocs and students in the lab. “We are working hard to further develop our technologies into clinically viable therapeutics and hope that one day they will help improve the lives of patients suffering from incurable diseases,” states Nguyen.
One topic she would like to better understand is how exosomal communication can be enhanced or regulated to improve therapeutic outcomes. Exosomes are tiny vesicles secreted by cells in the body; although they are essential to maintain physiological conditions, aberrant exosomal communication can lead to the development of cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. “We are developing materials to redirect and modulate cellular communication mediated by these exosomes for therapeutic applications,” she says.
Being a teacher is especially rewarding to her.
“I will always support my students and postdocs to achieve their dreams and goals,” Nguyen says. “Being part of their scientific discovery process is very exciting and rewarding.”
Over the longer term, Nguyen wants to expand the division’s STEM outreach program to high schools. A high attrition rate in STEM-related subjects is due in part to the poor delivery of scientific content, especially for high schools with high rates of minority students.
“Ineffective teaching typically results in poor understanding of the subject matter and ultimately affects career choices,” she says. “Although animations significantly enhance student learning through visual-pictorial and auditory-verbal means, these technologies are still underutilized in science classes.”
To make STEM teaching more effective, Nguyen’s lab has developed animated PowerPoint lectures and experimental modules for high school outreach, using visualizations to help students grasp complex biomaterial science and pharmaceutical sciences. “We have shared these educational videos on social media and have received a lot of positive feedback,” she says.
Leadership and Failure
Michael Jay, chair of the Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, believes Dr. Nguyen has all the key qualities of an emerging leader.
“She has a highly-productive and well-funded research lab and is also breaking ground in cutting-edge research areas,” he states. “In addition, her leadership qualities have been recognized by others, as evidenced by her being appointed as an early-career member of a journal’s editorial advisory board, as well as being selected to organize and lead a research presentation session on nucleic acid delivery at a national meeting.”
One way Nguyen has gained leadership skills is through the management of multi-disciplinary teams, which can be challenging at times. “I decided to study pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences because they combine a broad range of scientific disciplines that are critical to the discovery and development of new drugs and therapies,” she says. “It is a multidisciplinary endeavor that requires knowledge in pharmaceutics, chemistry, engineering, biochemistry, biologics, pharmacokinetics, drug metabolism, and biology.”
Good leaders are also empathetic toward others and the factors that impact their team interactions and how they do their jobs. As the first member of her family to attend college, and raised by refugee parents, Nguyen fully understands the hurdles faced by students from underprivileged backgrounds. “Coming from underprivileged backgrounds, many students lack self-confidence and don’t believe in themselves,” she says. “I have seen how these students change when instilled with confidence; when this happens, they can suddenly move mountains. This inspires me even more to help them reach their potential, contribute fully to society, and realize their career aspirations.”
Finally, Nguyen has learned that good leaders do not fear failure.
“I have realized that, by learning from my failures, I allow myself to grow and evolve from them,” she says. “Failure is often perceived as something negative; we need to change this thinking and take pressure away from younger scientists to allow them to grow to their fullest potential.” Grant rejections, she notes, are a great example. “While it is tough to read the critique, I have learned that if you take the criticisms as an opportunity to grow, your research will expand into new directions.”
Nguyen has enjoyed being a member of AAPS since 2009.
“AAPS has given me the opportunity to learn about the latest, most innovative research in the field, as well as meet many fantastic scientists along the way,” she enthuses. “The conferences are amazing because they cover such a broad range of topics related to drug development, from early stages of preclinical development to manufacturing and clinical trials. It really is the hub where scientists from industry and academia come together to find new treatment solutions for patients.”
Nguyen served as the inaugural sub-track chair for the new track “Discovery and Basic Research.” The track focuses on the latest developments at the cutting-edge of the microbiome, vaccines, new cancer therapeutics, and even the future of space medicine. “In shaping this track, it was really important for me to bring together scientists from academia, industry, and government agencies,” says Nguyen.
Attending conferences and networking are vital for making contacts and learning about the latest research. This exposure to innovative discoveries also helps motivate young scientists think “outside the box.” “Good research ideas need to make you slightly uncomfortable,” she advises. “That’s when you know your idea has the potential to transform how research is being done, or how drugs are being developed that could be used to treat patients better.”
Nguyen tells her students and postdocs to follow their passion and give their best at whatever they do. She believes is it important for them to work on things they enjoy, rather than pursuing a safer route, which provides more opportunities for professional growth and recognition.
She also counsels students who are seeking their next position by discussing the key milestones they need achieve to remain competitive—especially publishing research papers. “This is a very attractive attribute when they go in for interviews,” she says. “For those going into academia, it involves thinking about in which areas of pharmaceutical sciences they would like to create their unique niche.”
Ultimately, Nguyen believes persistence is the key to success. “Keep learning, don’t stop asking questions, and embrace change,” she says. “This is scary at times, but you will discover immense opportunities for both personal and professional growth. And again, don’t be afraid of failure—it has always been a key step in the scientific process and teaches you in ways that success cannot.”