Bowen Li, a UW Bioengineering Ph.D. student, recently received the 2019 College of Engineering Student Award for Research. The award recognizes students who demonstrate merit in research through publications, external recognition and invited presentations, and through innovation and creativity.

“As Bowen’s Ph.D. advisor, I must say that he is among the very best students I have ever worked with,” wrote Shaoyi Jiang, Boeing-Roundhill Professor of chemical engineering and adjunct professor of bioengineering, in support of the award. “I believe that he will make great contributions to the future of science.”

Working in Dr. Jiang’s lab, Bowen has been developing novel zwitterionic biomaterials for protein and drug delivery, nanomedicine and other biomedical applications. Zwitterions are molecules that have both a positive and a negative charge, such as amino acids.

BioE PhD student Bowen Li with award by Greg DeBow

BioE Ph.D. student Bowen Li accepts the COE Student Research Award at an event May 23. Photo: Greg DeBow

His work on the interactions between zwitterionic biomaterials and immune systems revealed that zwitterionic polymers bear a much lower tendancy to trigger an unwanted immune response than the current gold-standard poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG). In research published in Angewandte Chemie in October 2018, he showed that PEGylated proteins, used extensively for drug delivery, generate a high level of anti-PEG antibodies that can render the medicine ineffective, and that zwitterionic polymer-protein molecules do not raise anti-polymer antibodies. Based on this important finding, he developed a unique zwitterionic nanocage for protein encapsulation, which could significantly improve the effectiveness and safety of protein drugs by completely preventing unwanted immune responses, even after multiple injections.

“This is the first reported strategy that convincingly addresses the efficacy loss encountered by current polymer conjugated biologics,” notes Qiuming Yu, UW professor of chemical engineering. The research was featured on a April 2018 cover of Advanced Materials.

More recently, Bowen developed a new class of naturally-inspired functional zwitterionic materials, which are expected to find a broad range of biomedical applications, along with a new method to deliver protein drugs to lymph nodes, which are difficult to reach via conventional delivery methods.

To date, Bowen has co-authored 25 papers in top-tier journals; he is first author or co-first author on nine of the papers, which are published in top-tier journals in the field, such as Science Advances (in press for 6/14/19), Angewandte Chemie, Advanced Materials and ACS Nano, among others. He is first or corresponding author on four additional papers currently in press or in preparation.  He is also a co-inventor on three patent applications.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical science at China Pharmaceutical University in Nanjing, he knew his goal was to improve societal health.

“After three years of undergraduate research in the lab, I deeply understood how important the multidisciplinary background is in the development of new drugs or therapies,” Bowen said. When applying for graduate school, he wanted to expand his horizons by learning more about material science, immunology and bioimaging. “My hope is to apply this interdisciplinary knowledge to develop novel drug delivery systems or therapeutic strategies.

“The Department of Bioengineering at UW works at the interface between the College of Engineering and the School of Medicine and gives unique opportunities to bridge medical and physical sciences, with physiology and actual practice of human healthcare,” he says. “It provides me with a lot of research flexibility and is the ideal place for me pursue my academic goals.”

Bowen especially enjoys the challenges that research poses. “Research has an innate autonomy that allows me to take on a project I am passionate about and see it grow,” he says. “During this process, I am continually challenged to trouble-shoot, analyze critically and think more deeply. I feel excited to confront these challenges, which push me to think boldly and creatively. They instill a lot fun into my life and help me grow as an independent researcher.”

Bowen recently began volunteer teaching STEM courses for the Somali Community Services of Seattle, and he has also served as a teaching assistant and lab mentor to other students at UW. Suzie Pun, professor of bioengineering who served on Bowen’s supervisory committee and taught him in a drug delivery class that he later TA-ed for her, commented, “The final project for the course was for students to prepare and present a drug delivery design, and Bowen was always very astute in recognizing the major weaknesses of students’ proposals. He obviously is able to apply this high standard to his own research, which I believe contributes toward his high productivity level.”

On May 29, Bowen defended his doctoral dissertation, “Engineering Zwitterionic Biomaterials for Immune Modulation and Drug Delivery.” After graduation, he’s heading to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for post-doctoral training and will begin seeking a faculty position in academia.

Learn more about the College of Engineering Awards