Meet the Newest DOVS Faculty Member: Shaoqin (Sarah) Gong

The UW Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences is pleased to welcome Shaoqin (Sarah) Gong, PhD, as our newest faculty member. Gong comes to DOVS with more than 20 years of experience as a scientist, researcher and educator, and is already a familiar face on campus. A UW-Madison professor since 2010, she has held appointments with the UW Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, and has previously collaborated with other DOVS faculty members on various research projects.

Here are three things to know about our newest faculty member.

A Diverse Research Background

Gong’s research interests are diverse, with her work touching everything from cancer immunotherapy to CRISPR genome editing. But as a basic science researcher with a background in biomedical engineering and materials science, a lot of her hands-on work involves the creation and manufacturing of new biotechnologies aimed at improving human health – including vision.

“Much of my research actually involves targeted drug delivery,” Gong says. Frequently, that means finding new ways of getting therapeutic agents to where they need to go.

One of the ways that Gong and her team of nearly a dozen lab members do that is by creating multi-functional nanoparticles, or extremely tiny carriers that can be used for the diagnosing or treatment of disease.

That work has implications for not just treating eye diseases, but many other types of diseases as well, including vascular diseases, brain diseases, liver diseases, lung diseases, and cancer.

A Cross-Campus Collaborator

Due to the nature of her work, which has developed a reputation for quality and innovation, many researchers across campus actively seek out Gong to help bring their ideas to life. As a result, her list of research collaborators is lengthy, and includes members of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences like David Gamm, MD, PhD.

“It has been a great pleasure collaborating with David over the years and we have several on-going collaborative projects ranging from tissue engineering scaffold to gene therapy,” Gong says.

For instance, when Gamm’s research team successfully created new photoreceptor cells from human stem cells, they turned to Gong’s lab to help develop a technology to get the cells to the retina – and keep them there.

The result was a tiny, implantable photoreceptor patch designed to go under the retina.

In the realm of gene therapy, Gong has also collaborated with both Gamm and Bikash Pattnaik, PhD. Among other initiatives, they’ve turned to CRISPR gene editing to seek new ways of treating genetically inherited eye diseases, such as Leber congenital amaurosis.

Beyond that, she’s also collaborated with other DOVS faculty and McPherson Eye Research Institute members, including Robert Nickells, PhD, and Olachi Mezu-Ndubuisi, MD. Additionally, she’s about about to launch a new collaboration with Curtis Brandt, PhD.

While her list of collaborators is lengthy, Gong wants her new colleagues at DOVS to know that she’s more than willing to take on new projects and is eager to lend her expertise.

“I’m really looking forward to collaborating with more people in this department,” Gong says. “The eye is the second most complex organ in the body. I’m interested in learning more about eye diseases and building future collaborations.”

A WARF Innovation Award Winner

One of Gong’s collaborative research projects recently caught the eye of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF).

In December, a team of interdisciplinary researchers – including Gong and Zach Morris, MD, PhD – was recognized with a WARF Innovator award for their project, “Nanoparticles to Render Tumors More Susceptible to Treatment.”

In oncology, radiation therapy has long been relied upon to treat a variety of cancers and tumor types. But in recent years, immunotherapy – treatments that augment or suppress various immune functions to help fight disease – has become an increasingly viable option in treating advanced cancers, but it still sometimes needs some help to work at peak effectiveness.

Combining radiation and immunotherapy is an approach that’s seen early success, but researchers are seeking to make this combination more effective to create longer lasting remissions and even cures.

For Gong’s team, the solution was to create a particle that can be injected into an irradiated tumor to stimulate a stronger immune response to fight the cancer.

“We basically engineered a multi-functional nanoparticle to greatly enhance the in-situ vaccine effect of radiation therapy,” Gong said.

More information about the project can be accessed here.