Texas Tech University

Chemical Engineering Professor Pursues Novel Methods of Treating Allergies, Flu

Amanda Bowman

May 26, 2020

Harvinder Gill won the university’s Barnie E. Rushing Jr. Distinguished Research Award.

Harvinder Gill, the Whitacre Endowed Chair of Science and Engineering and an associate professor of chemical engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, has worked to understand how to improve the lives of others.

From developing an immunotherapy to treat peanut allergies to trying to produce a universal flu vaccine, Gill's use of microneedles and nanotechnology in his research is cutting edge.

Harvidner Gill
Harvinder Gill

Gill has been extremely active in research and scholarship working on different aspects of biomedical engineering, from the development of novel vaccine-delivery advancements to the treatment of cancer by incorporating anti-tumor drugs within microneedles. His research is supported by his papers and the testament of distinguished scientists in the field. He is at the forefront of nanoengineering in medicine.

Gill's research is innovative and holds tremendous potential to benefit human health. In appreciation of his excellence, he was awarded the Whitacre College of Engineering Research Award in 2013, the Ed and Linda Whitacre Faculty Fellow in 2014, and the Whitacre Endowed Chair in 2015. He is also a recipient of the Chancellor's Council Distinguished Research Award (2016), the highest research award bestowed by the Texas Tech University System.

In recognition of his impactful work, Gill recently received one of the university's 2020 Barnie E. Rushing Jr. Faculty Distinguished Research Award.

Can you describe your research and its impact, both in academics and society?
My research is broadly categorized under biomedical engineering. We develop novel solutions to solve challenging biomedical problems. For example, we are currently working toward the development of a universal influenza vaccine and a novel treatment for the peanut allergy. My research has the potential to make a significant impact on society through the medical technologies we develop to help improve patient lives.

What projects are you working on at this time?

  • Development of a universal influenza vaccine: In this project, we are engineering a nanovaccine utilizing gold nanoparticles and conserved portions of the influenza virus. Gold nanoparticles are decorated with small sections of the influenza proteins. The small sections we use are conserved across multiple influenza strains, and this helps to focus the immune response such that it can be broadly effective, while the gold nanoparticles help to boost the magnitude of this response.

  • Peanut allergy immunotherapy: We are developing a treatment for the peanut allergy. We engineer painless microneedles coated with the peanut allergen. These tiny microneedles deposit the allergen superficially into the skin. The microneedles are on a small patch approximately the size of a dime. The wear time of the patch is 3-5 minutes. We are in the process of developing this technology and testing it in models. A startup company called Moonlight Therapeutics has licensed this technology from Texas Tech and is working toward its commercialization.

What areas are you interested in for future research?

  • Vaccines against coronavirus other emerging pathogens: The technology we have created for the development of a universal influenza vaccines can be leveraged for the development of other vaccines, including against coronavirus and other pathogens that have the potential to cross over from animals and birds to humans. We have started some of the preliminary work on coronavirus vaccine development.

  • Regenerative medicine and stem cells: I always have been fascinated by the field of regenerative medicine. One day it might be possible to engineer tissues and organs outside of the human body and transplant them back, or to regenerate damaged tissues in the body. Some of the technologies we are working on can be harnessed for application in this exciting field. We have started some preliminary work in this field as well.

What rewards do you get from teaching?
After graduating with my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, I worked in the industry for almost seven years. I was fortunate to work on site where a new oil refinery was being built. I had the opportunity to enter different chemical equipment like large furnaces and distillation columns and saw many pieces of equipment while they were being assembled. During that time, I had many "aha" moments when I was able to connect dots between what I had learned in class to the real world. Now, when I teach, I have a very applied focus and I try to relate the different concepts and topics of the course to real-world applications. My reward comes when, after their interview, students come and tell me that what I taught them helped them do well. I feel an even greater satisfaction when I see them becoming leaders and doing well in the world.

What motivated you to pursue a career in academia?
While working in the industry, I quickly found myself not feeling intellectually stimulated. In the industry, you often have fixed procedures and guidelines, even for designing new refineries or equipment. I found myself feeling bored, and realized it was not for me. Even while I was working in the industry, I felt attracted to academia, so I went on to pursue my doctorate. I was always fascinated by medicine and how chemical engineers have impacted the medical device industry, thus I decided to pursue my doctorate in bioengineering. While working on my doctoral degree, I found excitement and an adrenaline rush, especially when I was able to solve tough research problems. I loved that academia offered me the ability to work on different "cool" and often unconventional ideas. Of course, the catch is that one must find funding to work on these ideas.

How has Texas Tech helped you advance your research and teaching?
Texas Tech's moto is "From here, it's possible." Staying true to this, the university has supported my research and teaching efforts in numerous ways and has helped me reach this point in my career. The university has grown its research infrastructure and invested in student education. Texas Tech's growth and vision has attracted an even stronger pool of students, which has further strengthened research. Texas Tech lights the spark in all of us, and with hard work and determination this spark can turn into a blazing star. We have a growing momentum and even bigger things will come from Texas Tech in the future.

Who has had the biggest impact on you and your career, and why?
I owe my success to my parents, my family, my wife and my son. I belong to the first generation from my family who has received higher education. My father and mother placed high emphasis on education and worked hard so my siblings and I could receive a college degree. Their hard work not only made sure I could receive an education, but their work ethic lives on inside me and I practice it in my everyday activities. Nothing is for free; every success demands a price. I can pay this price only because my wife, Priya, is extremely supportive, and this has allowed me to devote the time and energy required to sustain my research at Texas Tech. And I tell my son, Gurvir, that he is the best boy in the whole wide universe.