Chemistry prof receives Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award

Ryan Hili

Darwinian evolution in a lab. That’s how this year’s winner of the Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award, Assistant Professor Ryan Hili, concisely describes what he does in his chemistry lab at the Faculty of Science.

It’s also what won him the Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award, a distinction that recognizes outstanding early career faculty. The award program is a commitment by Petro-Canada (now Suncor Energy Inc.) and York University to encourage excellence in teaching and research that will enrich the learning environment and contribute to society.

He isn’t content, however, to use conventional Darwinian evolution. “I want to refine Darwinian evolution even further,” said Hili, who also won the Early Researcher Award from the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation this year and the Thieme Chemistry Journal Award last year.

In his lab, Hili and his team, Hili Group, combine synthetic organic chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology to use nature’s methods to achieve simple results to complicated problems.

He has already evolved modified nucleic acid polymers as artificial antibodies, called aptamers, using technologies developed in his lab. He is working on a way to use the artificial antibodies to track down biomarkers such as overexpressed biomolecules on the cell surface. Not just any biomarkers, though.

Hili is developing a way to make the aptamers capable of targeting certain diseases, such as cancer, to discover them in patients early on. If the aptamer binds to a biomarker, that can indicate the person has cancer or some other disease.

“Every disease has a biomarker, which is implicated in the disease,” he said. “There are commercial antibodies on the market now, but less than 50 per cent of them are selective for their target.”

That lack of selectivity creates many false positives and, worse, false negatives that cost biomedical researchers in the United States millions of dollars annually.

Hili is also hoping to evolve DNA to make it more robust than typical antibodies that tend to be unstable, but also more chemically diverse. Recent research proves chemical diversity is essential to getting antibodies to bind to their protein targets.

In addition, he wants to use DNA fragments attached to small molecules, which encodes the structure, called DNA-encoded molecules. This is important as it provides a way to analyze millions of molecules to identify those with the necessary functional properties. This could lead to faster drug development.

“Hili has already achieved much for a researcher so early in his career,” says Faculty of Science Dean Esaias Janse van Rensburg. “He is a true explorer and innovator, and that’s what this award seeks to acknowledge. I’m interested to see where he goes from here.”

Hili’s research has been published in leading chemistry journals, including the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Angewandte Chemie and Chemical Science. He has received funding from several agencies, including the National Science Foundation (U.S.) and the National Institutes of Health (U.S.).

The Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award presents $7,500 to recipients in the form of a research grant. The Major Awards Advisory Committee of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation adjudicates the nominations.