Rice University News reports that work on a new type of patch for failing hearts is one of four research projects and a scientific conference that will be supported by the latest round of funding from the John S. Dunn Foundation. Each project involves scientists based at Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC) and their collaborators at other institutional members of the Gulf Coast Consortia (GCC) which brings together the strengths of its six six prominent and geographically proximate Gulf Coast institutions — Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, University of Houston, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
The GCC provides a unique, cutting edge collaborative training environment and research infrastructure beyond the capability of any single institution. The GCC’s mission is to train the next generation of biomedical scientists and to enable scientists to ask and answer questions that cross scientific disciplines to address the challenging biological issues of our time and, ultimately, to apply the resulting expertise and knowledge to the treatment and prevention of disease, building interdisciplinary collaborative research teams and training programs in the biological sciences at their intersection with the computational, chemical, mathematical, and physical sciences.
In addition to the heart patch, the fourth round of seed grants in the decade long program will support research on low-cost diagnostics for sickle cell anemia, new antimicrobial agents to battle drug resistance and strategies to fight brain cancer. The scientific meeting will focus on the burgeoning field of telehealth, the delivery of health-related services via telecommunications.
The awards of almost $100,000 each support projects that foster interdisciplinary and interinstitutional research at the BRC. The GCC administers the program.
Sickle cell anemia
Rice bioengineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Russell Ware, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) and Texas Children’s Hospital (TCH), are developing a point-of-care diagnostic test for sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder that affects 300,000 babies in sub-Saharan Africa, almost all of whom die before the age of 5.
The test will rely on recent advances in low-cost paper microfluidic devices that will capture blood from a finger-prick sample and diagnose a child with a handheld reader.
Dr. Richards-Kortum is the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Rice 360˚: Institute for Global Health Technology. Dr. Ware is vice-chairman of global health at BCM and TCH, director of the Texas Children’s Center for Global Health and director of the Texas Children’s Hematology Center.
Biochemist Janet Braam of Rice and microbiologist Heidi Kaplan of the University of Texas Medical School are seeking solutions to the growing problem of resistance to drugs by pathogens that cause tuberculosis, pneumonia and life-threatening diarrhea. Their strategy will be to disrupt specific pathways that are essential for microbial life but have no effect on human health.
That will require screening large collections of possible drugs through a trio of innovative, inexpensive and robust screens that specifically target methylerythritol phosphate (MEP) pathways. The researchers’ technique, inspired by basic plant biology and informed by clinical microbiology, involves E. coli bacteria engineered to mimic both microbial and human pathways; the bacteria become unique screens for pathway inhibitors that have little effect on human pathways.
Dr. Braam is a professor and chair of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice. Dr. Kaplan is an associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Texas Medical School.
Ka-Yiu San, a Rice bioengineer, and Ching Lau, a BCM pediatrician, will target the stem cells in tumors that relapse in children with brain cancer.
The researchers plan to establish a method to identify such cells in medulloblastomas, the most common malignant brain tumors suffered by children. They then will follow how the stem cells respond to treatment. Dr. Lau’s group recently observed that these cancer stem cells seem able to thrive under low-oxygen conditions that are harmful to normal cells. The researchers hope their results will lead to novel therapies for this disease and other cancers that resist conventional therapy.
Dr. San is the E.D. Butcher Professor of Bioengineering at Rice. Dr. Lau is an associate professor of pediatrics at BCM.
Jeffrey Jacot and Rafael Verduzco of Rice and Iki Adachi of BCM and TCHare developing sheets of material that will make it easier to culture and condition heart muscle cells that can help treat and even reverse heart failure.
The multilayered, liquid crystal material has microwrinkles that direct seeded heart cells to align in patterns as they respond to heat, ultraviolet light and electric and magnetic fields. The researchers expect the process to improve the sheets’ ability to grow and integrate upon implantation as they help hearts regenerate healthy muscle.
Dr. Jacot is an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice and director of the Pediatric Cardiac Bioengineering Laboratory at TCH. Dr. Verduzco is an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice. Dr. Adachi is an assistant professor of surgery at BCM and an associate surgeon, congenital heart surgery, at TCH.
Telehealth Research Institute
A Telehealth Research Institute (ThRI) summit will be held at the BRC to refine a vision for the institute, a collaborative research initiative under development by Rice, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.
Topics will include the diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of cancer and diabetes, information technology, computer science, robotics and health care policy. The ThRI mission also includes expanding the reach, efficacy and cost efficiency of telemedicine by developing relevant policy.
Project leaders are Jan Odegard, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice; Robert Satcher, an assistant professor of orthopedic oncology at MD Anderson; Michael Twa, an assistant professor of optometry at the University of Houston; and Mary (Cindy) Farach-Carson, a professor of biochemistry and cell biology and bioengineering and vice provost for translational bioscience at Rice.
Five teams of scientists also earned research seed grants awarded this year by the John S. Dunn Foundation. The awards support new collaborations by researchers at Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC) and their partners at other institutional members of the Gulf Coast Consortia (GCC).
Winning projects include a nanotherapeutic treatment for cancer and novel strategies for vascular health and cancer diagnostics. The John S. Dunn Collaborative Research Award Program also funded a workshop on plant-inspired energy conversion and storage. Research seed grants in the program’s fifth year are worth almost $100,000 each. The workshop award is $8,000. The awards support projects that foster interdisciplinary and multi-institutional research at the BRC. The GCC administers the program.
Nanotube detectors – Robert Bast, Kathleen Beckingham
Definitive detection of tumors is the focus of a project led by Rice biochemist Kathleen Beckingham and Robert Bast of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. They are developing infrared probes that use fluorescent single-walled carbon nanotubes to find and monitor cancer biomarkers, focusing first on ovarian cancers.
They expect the new materials will aid in cancer detection in two ways. First these probes will expand the range of cancer markers that can be monitored simultaneously, thus increasing diagnostic certainty. In addition, using infrared light to specifically heat and destroy cancer cells bound to nanotube probes should allow tumor detection and ablation without surgical intervention.
Dr. Beckingham is a professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice, and Dr. Bast is a professor of medicine in the Department of Experimental Therapeutics, the Harry Carothers Wiess Distinguished University Chair for Cancer Research and vice president of translational research at MD Anderson.
Noninvasive colonoscopy – Pratip Bhattacharya, Dan Carson
MD Anderson researcher Pratip Bhattacharya and Rice biochemist Daniel Carson are developing a noninvasive MRI-based colonoscopy system that uses “hyperpolarized” silicon nanoparticles for early detection of colon cancers.
The nanoparticles, which increase the sensitivity of widely available magnetic resonance scans by a factor of 10,000, will be modified to seek out and attach themselves to proteins overexpressed by colon cancer cells. The researchers hope their technique will help find cancers in the small intestine that standard colonoscopies cannot reach.
Dr. Bhattacharya is an associate professor in the Department of Cancer Systems Imaging at MD Anderson. Dr. Carson is dean of Rice’s Wiess School of Natural Sciences, the Schlumberger Chair of Advanced Studies and Research and a professor of biochemistry and cell biology with a joint appointment in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at MD Anderson. He is also Rice’s vice provost for strategic partnerships.
DNA detectives for cancer – Marsha Frazier, David Zhang
A project led by Rice bioengineer David Zhang and MD Anderson epidemiologist Marsha Frazier screens for colon cancers by detecting cancer-specific DNA circulating in the blood. Thousands of nucleic acid (DNA, RNA) biomarker molecules can exist in early stage colorectal cancer patients and may allow for frequent screening in primary or point-of-care settings.
Every milliliter of blood has more than 10 quintillion DNA or RNA nucleotides, of which fewer than 10,000 are biomarkers. To effectively detect their “needle-in-a-haystack” targets, the researchers are developing probes that can capture these rare mutants for analysis. Though the initial target will be colon cancer, the researchers expect their work will lead to a general platform for detecting signs of many types of cancer.
Dr. Zhang is an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice, and Dr. Frazier is a professor in the Department of Epidemiology in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences at MD Anderson.
Cancer-killing viruses- Junghae Suh, Yujie Lu
Rice bioengineer Junghae Suh and University of Texas Health Science Center researcher Yujie Lu will use modified viruses to target and kill metastatic cancer cells. The researchers have developed “smart” gene-delivery viruses that find and are activated by specific enzymes present in high concentrations at metastatic cancer sites. When it finds cancer cells, the virus “turns on” and delivers toxic genes into the cells. The researchers will use next-generation imaging platforms to track the efficiency of their fluorescent-tagged viruses in metastatic prostate cancer models.
Dr. Suh, assistant professor of bioengineering, heads the Laboratory for Nanotherapeutics Research. Dr, Lu, assistant professor at the Institute of Molecular Medicine, is Tomography Core lead in the Center of Molecular Imaging.
Modeling vascular growth – Jordan Miller, Mary Dickinson
Rice bioengineer Jordan Miller and Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) physiologist Mary Dickinson will use large models of engineered tissue to study the patterns and critical points of development in the vascular system that delivers vital oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body. They will use sophisticated imaging to track the growth of blood vessels to see if the same forces and molecular players that regulate such growth in laboratory models can be applied to patients, especially those that could benefit from regenerative medicine.
Dr. Miller is an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice, and Dr. Dickinson is a professor of molecular physiology and biophysics and director of the Optical Imaging and Vital Microscopy Core at BCM.
Plant-inspired solar energy
Researchers from Rice, the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and the University of Houston will present a workshop to stimulate the development of a chemical device to turn sunlight into usable energy inspired by the chloroplast, the engine of photosynthesis within plant cells. The goal is to form a multidisciplinary team of polymer materials scientists, plasmonic experts, engineers, spectroscopists and theoreticians to pursue interdisciplinary research.
Dr. Christy Landes, an assistant professor of chemistry, will lead the effort, with the assistance of Stephan Link, an associate professor of chemistry and chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice; Neal Waxham, the William Wheeless III Endowed Professor in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Texas Medical School; and Richard Willson, the John and Rebecca Moores Professor and the Huffington-Woestemeyer Endowed Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a professor of biochemical and biophysical sciences at the University of Houston.
The John S. Dunn Foundation is a longtime supporter of collaborative research through the GCC, which builds interdisciplinary teams and training programs in the biological sciences that involve the computational, chemical, mathematical and physical sciences. GCC member institutions include Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, University of Houston, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
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