Growing up in Iran, Niki Bayat always wanted to use her aptitude in engineering to help people suffering from disease—especially after her father developed glaucoma and was unable to have eye surgery because of other health issues. She placed eighth in Iran’s countrywide university entrance exams and majored in chemical engineering at the country’s top university. For grad school, she set her sights on the University of Southern California and joined a collaboration between the labs of renowned chemist Mark Thompson and Mark Humayun, who developed the first artificial retina. “I convinced them that I could bridge the gap between polymer chemistry and biomedical engineering,” she says.
She did just that, using her chemical engineering expertise to develop materials that can help repair traumatic eye injuries and deliver ocular therapies. Bayat has created squishy, biocompatible polymers called hydrogels that become extremely sticky at body temperature, adhering as strongly as superglue. In cases of eye injury, they can be injected in the field, quickly sealing the wound to prevent blindness. Then, back at a hospital, a surgeon can flush the sealant with cold saline, remove it, and suture the wound. Bayat has also designed versions of these materials that can release glaucoma medication or antibiotics in a controlled manner.
In 2016, while still working on her PhD, Bayat started AesculaTech to commercialize these drug-delivering materials, which can be inserted into the tear ducts and release medication over periods of months—potentially preventing the need for patients to apply eye drops multiple times a day. AesculaTech plans to first seek approval for polymer devices to treat dry eye before trying to introduce drug-releasing versions. Her ultimate goal, she says, is to come up with a new and better treatment for glaucoma.