Alumna Laura Ensign receives Rising Women in Science Award
What if doctors solved problems like engineers? Better yet, what if engineers solved medical problems?
The honor is just the latest in a string of notable achievements for Ensign, who has achieved a great deal since graduating from The Ohio State University in 2007 with her bachelor of science degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering, followed by her 2012 PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
Ensign is the inaugural recipient of the Marcella E. Woll Professorship in Ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University and vice chair for research at the John Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute-Nanomedicine Division. Many of the faculty at the Center for Nanomedicine are actually engineers who don't see patients or have a medical background. By being at the Wilmer Eye Institute, they can not only work with its clinicians but with collaborators around the world to identify new opportunities and patient needs so that better therapeutics can be engineered to address those conditions and diseases.
"One of the great opportunities we have with drug delivery is that we can not only make therapies more efficacious but we're really improving quality of life for patients, and that's where the real excitement comes in and why it's so important to be here at the Wilmer Eye Institute," Ensign said.
Her research efforts have the potential for clinical translation with major health impacts and significant implications for the biopharma industry. She mainly focuses on the characterization of biological barriers in health and disease in order to design more effective formulations for prophylactic and therapeutic drug delivery. With this work, she utilizes two different approaches--injectables and topical drug administration--that lead to increased and sustained drug delivery to precisely targeted cells and tissues, which minimizes side effects and reduces the frequency of doses.
An example of her work with injectables is the development of nano drugs that can disperse slowly over time--something that is especially important to patients when the traditional way of treating a disease involves frequent, painful injections.
"People with age-related macular degeneration have had to go through monthly eye injections for the rest of their lives, but with the engineered drug delivery we've employed, we can reduce the frequency to once every four to six months, which improves treatment efficacy as well as quality of life for the patient," she said.
Ensign's second area of focus is on topical approaches. Patients at the Wilmer Eye Institute often have to administer multiple kinds of eye drops multiple times a day. It is not only unpleasant for the patient, but it is hard to remember all the drops. So Ensign is working on longer-lasting drops that can be administered once a day or even once a week, sometimes even combining drugs into a single drop, eliminating multiple bottles.
Prior to joining the Eye Institute, Ensign worked on two drug delivery methods to address specific aspects of women's health. The first was a novel mucus-penetrating particle that overcomes the body's natural mucosal barrier that inhibits drug delivery to rapidly and evenly provide improved vaginal protection against an HIV infection.
Another endeavor was to investigate the role of vaginal progesterone delivery in cervical remodeling and preterm birth with a major grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund's Preterm Birth Initiative.
A role model for young researchers, Ensign brings a rare combination of scientific curiosity, a relentless pursuit of scientific goals, and a superior intellect to her work, excelling as both a scholar and researcher. As a student, she was at or near the top of her class at both Ohio State and Johns Hopkins, winning such prestigious honors as the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Fellowship, and the RPB Sybil B. Harrington Special Scholar Award, Research to Prevent Blindness.
Ensign's Rising Women in Science Award was given by the Controlled Release Society (CRS), a worldwide organization for experts dedicated to the delivery of drugs, cosmetics, flavors, fragrances, pesticides and other active substances. CRS grants the Rising Women in Science honor to a woman scientist with fewer than 10 years of post-PhD experience who is dedicated to excellence in science, leadership, and the promotion of women in their communities.
In receiving the award, Ensign referenced the many faculty, peer students, and professional colleagues who helped her along the way, including CBE professors Jessica Winter and David Tomasko, as well as faculty emeriti Michael Paulatis (now at Johns Hopkins University) and Jack Zakin (now deceased).
In addition to the Controlled Release Society's Rising Women in Science Award, Ensign has received the following honors:
- NAI Fellow, National Academy of Inventors, 2019
- AIMBE Fellow, American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, 2020 (1,500 Fellows represent only the top two percent of the medical and biological engineering community nationwide)
- Maryland Outstanding Young Engineer, Maryland Academy of Sciences, 2015
- Maryland E-Nnovation Initiative Fund (MEIF) Award, State of Maryland, 2018
- Outstanding Engineering Alumni Award, Texnikoi (College of Engineering, The Ohio State University Engineering Alumni Association), 2019
- Controlled Release Society Young Investigator Award
- Controlled Release Society College of Fellows
No doubt many more awards for research, leadership, and entrepreneurship are on the way.
Ensign has two patents and over 65 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including Biomaterials, Nature Biomedical Engineering and Nature Communications.
Ensign has also been active in promoting STEM to involve more women in the field and has worked for Habitat for Humanity.
Read more about Ensign's work in this Nature Biomedical Engineering article.