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Scientist’s drive for a cancer cure inspired by the father he doesn’t remember

Zhen Gu
Zhen Gu at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.
Justin Cook for STAT

RALEIGH, N.C. — Last summer, a young, unheralded scientist named Zhen Gu unveiled a “smart” insulin patch, yet another in a string of biomedical creations that could be traced back to his early childhood. This one stood out: Headlines hailed it as the beginning of the end of painful injections for diabetes.

The biomedical engineer’s inbox was flooded with emails from patients eager to try out the thumbnail-sized device, covered with more than 100 tiny needles like a miniature bed of nails. “Thanks so much for your interest and encouragement!” Gu would patiently respond to each, trying to let them down easy. “We are currently planning to do large animal tests … if successful, we will move to clinical trials. We will update you!”

Shortly thereafter, MIT Technology Review recognized Gu as one of the world’s top 35 innovators under 35, putting him in the company of previous winners Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page. “I would not hesitate to say that Zhen is one of the most creative people with whom I have ever worked,” said renowned MIT inventor Bob Langer, who nominated his protégé for the honor. “Zhen never seems to run out of ideas.”

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