The Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience awarded $50,000 to three interdisciplinary teams under its Petit Bioengineering and Bioscience Collaborative Seed Grant program, which was created to support early-stage innovative biotechnology research. Proposals were submitted by teams comprised of two Petit Institute faculty with appointments in different academic colleges.
"The purpose of the program is to catalyze new collaborations that will tackle problems that require an interdisciplinary approach," said Robert E. Guldberg, PhD, executive director of the Petit Institute.
The new team of Raquel Lieberman, PhD, associate professor from the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Ross C. Ethier, PhD, Gellerstedt and Georgia Research Alliance Professor from the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, have proposed to lay the foundation for a new treatment for glaucoma by testing a new hypothesis for the molecular basis of disease. Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness affecting approximately 70 million people worldwide.
"The grant will expand our understanding of the role of myocilin, a protein closely linked to certain forms of glaucoma," said Ethier. "Further, we will develop animal models to support our long-term goal of developing a novel small molecule therapy for glaucoma."
"In parallel, we are taking a chemical biology approach to develop tailored new reagents to identify myocilin amyloids that could be adapted for a therapy," Lieberman added. "We have already discovered several promising lead compounds."
Another team that was awarded was John McDonald, PhD, professor from the School of Biology and Todd Sulchek, PhD, assistant professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. They will be developing a new class of anticancer agents, or bead-size molecules, that will recognize and activate the immune system against them.
"Cancer cells frequently display proteins or other molecules on their surface that are not present on the surface of normal cells. Inducing the production of antibodies against these cancer-specific surface molecules or antigens is the key to cancer immunotherapy," said McDonald. "We propose to generate a new class of synthetic micro and nanobeads that will enhance the exposure of the immune system to these cancer antigens."
Facilitating the exposure of the natural immune response to diseased cells is a strategy that may be applied to combat many cellular sources of disease in addition to ovarian cancer.
"By combining the capability to selectively target cancer cells while stimulating the immune system, we hope to create an environment that can overcome immuno-evasive or -suppressive strategies by cancer cells," Sulchek explains. "This innovative approach of targeted immune activation could lead to drugs capable of treating a variety of diseases."
The third team to be awarded was, Tom Barker, PhD, associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering and Alberto Fernandez-Nieves, PhD, Dunn Family Assistant Professor from the School of Physics, who proposed the development of a new class of deliverable biomaterials.
"One of the primary challenges in the regenerative medicine field is the development of biomaterials that are robust when delivered but that can also enable rapid cell invasion," explains Fernandez-Nieves. "Currently researchers have been able to optimize one property (mechanics) or the other (cell migration), but optimization of both simultaneously represents a significant hurdle."
To address this problem the team will take a new approach; incorporating a colloidal assembly, or a system which has highly deformable, "squishy", microscopic hydrogels that partition into discrete large pockets rather than dispersed consistently throughout a dense fibrin-based.
"To our knowledge the specific approach used here has not previously been explored. The findings thus far could not have been predicted which leads to the uniqueness of the system," Barker said. "The long term strategy for this project is to be able to assist better with healing and tissue regeneration."
Funding for the new seed grants comes chiefly from the Petit Institute's endowment as well as contributions from the College of Sciences and the College of Engineering. Each team will receive $50,000 a year for two years; however, the second year of funding will be contingent on submission of an external collaborative grant proposal.
“This initiative highlights the Petit Institute’s interdisciplinary mission, supporting cutting-edge research at the interface of bioengineering and the biosciences,” Guldberg added. “We look forward to seeing how these teams leverage this initial seed funding into larger grant proposals."