Thomas Chang embodies the drive and ambition that has always been the hallmark of McGill students. In 1956, while living in Douglas Hall, he invented the world’s first artificial blood cell in his dorm room. Working with improvised materials, Chang created a permeable plastic sack that would effectively carry hemoglobin almost as effectively as a natural blood cell.
The New Scientist described the invention as an “elegantly simple and intellectually ambitious” idea that “has grown into a dynamic field of biomedical research and development.” His creation has also been termed “the forerunner of modern nanotechnology, nanobiotechnology and nanomedicine” and gave rise to many developments inspired by his work.
Many research groups have extended his idea of artificial cells for use in drug delivery systems including the use of microcapsules, microparticles, nanocapsules, nanoparticles, liposomes and more. Recent interest and progress in biotechnology, molecular biology and stem cells has allowed the development of his other earlier basic research. For example, bioencapsulation of cells is being developed around the world for the treatment of diabetes, liver failure, kidney failure, genetic diseases, endocrine diseases, and cancer.
His remarkable career continued as director of the Artificial Cells and Organs Research Centre at McGill, a position he still holds. In the late sixties, he discovered that enzymes carried by artificial cells could correct some metabolic disorders and also developed charcoal-filled cells to treat drug poisoning, now a widely used technique. His work on finding a safe blood substitute brought him to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, earning him an Order of Canada. He has twice been nominated for the Nobel Prize. In 2011, Dr. Chang received the most votes in the Greatest McGillian contest organized by the McGill Alumni Association.
Dr. Chang has remained resolutely focused on science, and largely indifferent to the commercial aspects of his work. “To me as a scientist what is most important is what is most useful to the patient, not what is good for your reputation or what pays the most money. The sick patient should be the most important stimulus for our work.”