Sam Lai, Ph.D.
Director, Pharmacoengineering Program, Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics
Professor, Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics
Adjunct Assistant Professor, UNC Department of Biomedical Engineering
Sam Lai, Ph.D., was born in Hong Kong and spent his childhood in both Hong Kong and Vancouver. After completing high school at Phillips Academy, Andover, he attended Cornell University and received his BS in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in 2003. He then undertook doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins University, receiving his PhD in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in 2007. Following a one-year postdoc, he became a research assistant professor at Johns Hopkins in fall 2008 before joining the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy in fall 2010.
Lai’s previous research focused on nanoparticle-based delivery of bioactive molecules to mucosal tissues. He helped pioneer the development of mucus-penetrating particle technology, a breakthrough that formed the basis of Kala Pharmaceuticals, launched in 2009. Kala completed its IPO in 2017, and has two FDA-approved drugs based on the technology. His prior inventions have also been licensed by Graybug Vision, which completed its IPO in 2020 and is in late stage clinical development. Since moving to UNC, he has established a rigorous research program at the interface of engineering, immunology, biophysics and biomaterials. His lab has spun out a number of startups. His pioneering work on muco-trapping antibodies led to the formation of Mucommune, LLC, a startup focused on harnessing antibody-mucin interactions for female reproductive health, and Inhalon Biopharma, a startup focused on treating acute respiratory infections. These two companies have received over $20M in federal contracts, and Inhalon is set to become clinical stage company in 2021. He is also a co-founder of AI Tracking Solutions, a startup based on applying machine learning to video microscopy data analysis. He has received numerous prestigious awards for his research, including the NSF CAREER Award and the Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering.
Lai’s current research interests span a diverse number of disciplines, include mucosal immunology and mucosal barriers to infectious disease, antibody response to synthetic materials, targeted nanoparticle delivery and viral gene therapy using bispecific antibodies, microbiome engineering, computational modeling and artificial intelligence. For more info, please see his lab website.
Note that the Lai Research Group is actively recruiting highly motivated members at all levels (postdoc, graduate students, undergraduates) from across all disciplines.
Education, Entrepreneurship and Outreach
To promote entrepreneurship and innovation among graduate students, professional students and postdocs, in 2016 Lai launched the E(I) Lab program, an 8-month long experiential education program that bring together students from diverse disciplines across UNC to conceive, develop and test innovative solutions to unmet needs in healthcare.
Lai has also collaborated with the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center to develop laboratory module and education curriculum for middle school students titled What’s Snot to Like [PDF]. The curriculum is part of the Morehead Mobile Labs program.
Lai also served as Faculty Director of the Young Innovators Program from 2018-2020.
- Engineering antibodies for mucosal applications, including infectious disease and contraception
- Elucidation and methods to overcome polymer-specific immune responses
- Gene vectors for immune cells engineering
- Gene therapy of the microbiome
- Computational modeling and artificial intelligence
Sam Lai News