Five teams of scientists 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.
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.
Beckingham is a professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice, and 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.
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.
Bhattacharya is an associate professor in the Department of Cancer Systems Imaging at MD Anderson. 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
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.
Zhang is an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice, and Frazier is a professor in the Department of Epidemiology in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences at MD Anderson.
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.
Suh, assistant professor of bioengineering, heads the Laboratory for Nanotherapeutics Research. Lu, assistant professor at the Institute of Molecular Medicine, is Tomography Core lead in the Center of Molecular Imaging.
Modeling vascular growth
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.
Miller is an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice, and 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.
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 research teams and training programs in the biomedical sciences that involve the computational, chemical, mathematical and physical sciences. GCC member institutions include Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, the University of Houston, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.