Rutgers researchers are seeking to develop the technology to modify or edit protein molecules in the body—an advance that could spur major breakthroughs in human health. While such research is in its early phases, the Rutgers team has received support from a National Science Foundation (NSF) program that provides funding for boldly conceived research.
“This research, if successful, would build the technology to allow precision editing of proteins,” says Sagar Khare, the principal investigator on the project and a professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences. “The ability to edit proteins will widen our understanding of fundamental human biology as well as lay the foundation for therapies that could selectively destroy or correct defective proteins associated with disease.”
The research team, which includes faculty members from multiple disciplines on the New Brunswick and Camden campuses, recently received a three-year $1.5 million grant from the NSF Molecular Foundations for Biotechnology program for high-risk-high-payoff research that could set new directions in 21st-century science.
Proteins are the workhorses of biology—responsible for making cells function in all living things. Everything from the immune system to respiration to thought and emotion are carried out by complex protein molecules, each with its own 3D shape that determines its function. Defective or misfolding proteins are associated with illnesses from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases to cancer.
“Pathologies often arise because protein function goes awry,” says Khare, who is also graduate program director at the Institute for Quantitative Biomedicine. “That is where we come in and try to fix function by selectively modifying particular types of protein.”
The goal, in short, is to build molecules, or “protein editors” in the lab that can recognize, attach to, and modify proteins in the body. That would require a high degree of precision: There are an estimated 10,000 to several million protein molecules in human cells. Accordingly, the project encompasses chemistry, biophysics, robotics, computer science, and statistics.
The team includes Jean Baum, a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in SAS, Adam Gormley, a professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering, Guillaume Lamoureux, professor of chemistry at Rutgers University-Camden, and Sijian Wang, professor of statistics in SAS.
The project would use machine learning, a subfield of artificial intelligence, to train computer models to recognize or predict complex patterns of protein shapes and sequences that can edit a given target protein—like building a lock around a key, says Khare. Modeled proteins would then be synthesized and tested in molecular science labs. The back-and-forth interplay between sophisticated data science and wet lab work would continue over the course of the project, producing increasingly precise models of editors.
The project comes amid the rise of gene editing technologies that are transforming science and medicine by allowing scientists to modify an organism’s genetic material.
Khare says protein editing is the next frontier. “There is no such technology for proteins. But we have some ideas, which makes us think we can do it. And the potential benefits are enormous.”
Story originally appeared in Rutgers SAS.
The Rutgers Institute for Infectious and Inflammatory Diseases made worldwide news last year when its researchers developed a multivariant COVID-19 test that was faster, easier and cheaper than anything previously available. Now leaders of the institute believe Rutgers researchers are poised to make far greater contributions to global health in years to come.
Ongoing projects seek to produce everything from revolutionary allergy treatments to rapid tests for other pathogens to high-tech bandages designed to make wounds heal faster and better.
Nicholas Bessman, a recent recruit from Cornell University, is researching a nutritional treatment that would fight cancer and inflammatory bowel disease by creating a healthier gut microbiome. Karen Edelblum, a researcher recruited from the University of Chicago, has identified an immune cell population in the intestinal barrier that may be targeted for the treatment of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Mark Siracusa, originally recruited from the University of Pennsylvania, has recently formed a company called NemaGen that is marketing a novel treatment that targets mast cells to control severe allergic reactions, Their different projects all share a similar basic strategy: targeting harmful components of the immune system while favoring the beneficial functions that guard against infectious diseases.
“We’re at this incredible period in history when advances in our fundamental understanding of both infection and inflammation give us an unprecedented opportunity to create better more personalized treatments for a wide range of conditions: AIDS, malaria, influenza, diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease and many more,” said William C. Gause, director of the institute and a Rutgers professor of medicine and a senior associate dean for research.
“We saw both this big opportunity for innovation and a relative lack of research organizations in the space, so Rutgers jumped in with both feet and launched the institute as a major initiative in 2016,” Gause said. “Our team has been doing important work from the start, but after six years of both internal and external recruiting, we have assembled a large team of brilliant people, and the pace of innovation continues to accelerate.”
So far, the institute has expanded from just an idea to 53 full faculty members and about 150 associate faculty members, most of whom also have appointments in other Rutgers schools. Collectively, institute faculty attract about $70 million in annual funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to one of four distinct centers:
- Center for Emerging and Re-emerging Pathogens
- Center for Immunity and Inflammation
- Public Health Research Institute (PHRI)
- Center for Covid Response and Pandemic Preparedness (CCRP2)
The institute has also just launched the new Center for Virus-Host-Innate-Immunity (CVHII) and a new program in neuroinflammation that will operate in collaboration with the Rutgers Brain Health Institute.
External seminar series, journal clubs, data clubs and working lab meetings — many of which are open to researchers throughout Rutgers — have promoted extensive cross-laboratory collaborations that have attracted multi-investigator NIH grants.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the dangers of infectious disease apparent to all, but the institute’s founders were discussing these dangers and advocating potential solutions long before COVID-19 even existed.
Indeed, early documents from the institute now seem prescient. A PowerPoint presentation Gause gave at several meetings in 2018 predicted the institute would be able to help global health by developing novel rapid diagnostic tests for rapidly spreading pathogens. In 2021, a team led by David Alland, who directs both the PHRI and the CCRP2, did exactly that.
The test, which Rutgers made freely available worldwide, was the first COVID-19 test to use “sloppy molecular beacon probes,” which are highly sensitive and specific DNA sequences used to detect frequent mutations in organisms. It was developed and validated in just a few weeks.
“We are well positioned to develop many other tools of equal or greater impact,” said Alland, who also is chief of the division of infectious diseases at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “We have a great team and great facilities as well, including some that are truly rare, like an NIH-funded regional biocontainment laboratory — one of 12 in the US — where research on highly infectious select pathogens can be conducted in biosafety level 3 laboratory conditions. That’s a pretty nice thing to have when you’re doing infectious disease research.”
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Today.
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey has added another startup to its current portfolio of 94.
The university has signed an exclusive license with the startup NanoInk Imaging, which is advancing an optical imaging technology based on Rutgers’ patented nanoprobes that enable imaging in the short-wave infrared range. Imaging over this new optical window provides target-specific, high contrast visualization of small tumors.
NanoInk’s first platform will be focused on the pre-clinical research and drug discovery market, where the technology would enable researchers to better monitor tumor responses to experimental drugs in small animal tumor models. According to the company’s website, this would provide stronger therapy-response correlations as well as improved reliability and replicability in preclinical research, thus speeding up the drug discovery process.
The second strategic direction will be in the clinical space, where the technology will help guide cancer surgeons in the OR by allowing them to better visualize cancers and tumor margins, thus improving the quality of cancer surgery outcomes and reducing re-operation rates.
“NanoInk Imaging is working to change how cancer is researched and surgically treated,” said Tatiana Litvin-Vechnyak, PhD, Associate Vice President of Innovation Ventures, the technology transfer team within Rutgers’ Office for Research that negotiated the license with NanoInk. “The technology originated at Rutgers and the company’s leadership is working closely with the university to further develop it. It’s an example of how Rutgers’ innovation ecosystem nurtures and supports entrepreneurs and developing companies as they find solutions to the world’s challenges.”
The NanoInk team was supported by Innovation Ventures to participate in several entrepreneurial training and accelerator programs, including the TechAdvance™ fund and NSF’s I-Corps program at Rutgers and nationally as well as Berkeley SkyDeck and NIH’s C3i programs. The technology that was licensed to the company is being further developed in part through HealthAdvance™, a gap funding program co-sponsored by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub (REACH) to Rutgers.
This support allowed the team to understand the commercial potential of the technology and its ability to address unmet needs in the marketplace. Moving forward, NanoInk is planning to leverage the resources and expertise available within the university’s ecosystem, including Rutgers School of Engineering, Cancer Institute of New Jersey, and the Molecular Imaging Core, to further de-risk this technology and put together a compelling story for potential investors and partners.
The nanoprobes were conceived by Rutgers inventors Prabhas Moghe, PhD and Richard Riman, PhD, both Distinguished Professors in the School of Engineering. Other key contributors were Charles Roth, PhD, professor at Rutgers School of Engineering; post-doctoral engineering fellow Mei-Chee Tan, PhD, currently a faculty at the Singapore University of Technology and Design; and Dominik Naczynski, a graduate alumnus of Rutgers.
“Innovation Ventures has been instrumental in the launch of the company,” said NanoInk founders Mark Ravera, PhD/MBA and Ameena Alam-Moghe, MS/MBA, both Rutgers alums. “It was at the I-Corps Site program at Rutgers where we started to build a business model and define the market potential of the technology. Being able to participate in all of these programs allowed us to conduct a strong diligence process on the imaging technology for both the clinical and drug discovery markets prior to licensing.”
“Nanoink’s technology is a great success story coming out of Innovation Ventures’ gap funding programs,” said Pragati Sharma, PhD, Associate Director of Commercialization Funding, part of Innovation Ventures. “In addition to providing funding for development work, this service helps the innovators gather critical input from interactions with industry reviewers as well as feedback from expert mentors engaged by the programs.”
Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Heart, Lung, And Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U01HL150852. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Research.
By Jared Brey
Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden senior Sungao Macauley had doubted herself at first, so she was thrilled to win a spot as one of seven students in the inaugural class of the school’s Undergraduate Nursing Research Fellowship program. She went on to spend six weeks over the summer working with nursing faculty on a variety of research projects that included interviewing residents of an assisted-living facility in Camden and conducting research for a project focused on climate change, health, and environmental justice. “I went to do something that I wasn’t comfortable in, and it opened up my eyes and showed me I could do a lot more than I thought I could,” Macauley says.
Macauley felt particularly inspired after assisting Mei Rosemary Fu, professor of nursing and senior associate dean for research, and Wanda Williams, a clinical associate professor whose research analyzing racial disparities in breast cancer screening in Camden is funded by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant. Williams is a breast cancer survivor, and Macauley found it insightful to work with from someone with lived experience. She also felt motivated by learning from faculty of color who had risen to the heights of the nursing profession. “It’s different when you have somebody who looks like you, and they’ve made it so far,” Macauley says.
Fu, an accomplished nursing scholar who joined the Rutgers–Camden faculty in 2021 after posts at NYU and Boston College, founded the fellowship program to deepen undergraduate student exposure to research. All nursing students at Rutgers–Camden take a research class as part of the core curriculum, but the summer fellowship gives students a chance to dig deeper. Fellows focus on collecting, reading, and analyzing research data, and conducting literature reviews. Fu said with more research studies being conducted by nursing researchers, future fellows will be offered a comprehensive experience that will enable them to conceptualize, complete, and disseminate a study.
Aside from bringing new rigor to their research skills, Fu says, the fellowship also allows students to learn from accomplished scientists and expand their professional networks, opening up new potential avenues in their careers. Opportunities to hone professional skills included making a presentation to the senior vice president and chief nursing executive at Cooper University Health Care.
The ultimate goal of the fellowship, Fu says, is to prepare nurses to play a role in improving the overall quality of health care. “Nursing is a care profession, and you need to develop science and knowledge which are evidence-based,” she says. “That’s the major driver of nursing research—to advance the science and knowledge of patient care.”
Fundraising for year two
Fu began organizing the summer fellowship program soon after she arrived at Rutgers–Camden, raising $10,000 to support the program. That included a substantial donation of her own and significant donations from interim university Provost Donna Nickitas, formerly dean of the School of Nursing, and interim Dean of the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden Marie O’Toole. In all, 25 donors pitched in, which allowed the school to offer each student participating a $600 stipend and free summer tuition. (Fellows earn one hour of course credit for the program.)
Fu is currently seeking donors at all levels to help expand the fellowship and is hoping that it can be offered for cohorts of up to 40 students per year in a few years. She says the program will build research capacity at the school and deepen collaborations with Rutgers and health care systems and communities, as well as prepare a new generation of nurses to provide better care. “Training students from the undergraduate level and providing opportunities for them to observe successful researchers are important for their career development,” Fu says.
How research benefits nursing
Samantha Lafferty, a junior, decided to enter the health care field partly because of her experience growing up with a grandfather who had Alzheimer’s. A project she did on genetics as a high school senior sparked her interest in the research side of the profession. She says that helping to analyze and verify data for real research projects led by Fu and others inside and outside the university was an enlightening experience. She saw it as a way to get exposure to many more patients’ perspectives than she would just by doing bedside care. “There’s always a new, better, more efficient way of doing things,” Lafferty says. “I think doing research to find out what those ways are, using evidence-based practice, really can change the way that health care is done.”
Rachael Merrick, a recent graduate who completed the fellowship, says while nursing experience makes you a better researcher, the reverse is also true—having familiarity with research and data can make you a better nurse. “I think it gives you a different edge, a different mindset,” Merrick says. “It makes you a more well-rounded nurse. You bring a different aspect to your care and working with your patients.”
Rutgers microbiologists Martin J. Blaser and Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, internationally esteemed for their pioneering work in investigating the widespread depletion in the diversity of the human microbiome, are the subject of The Invisible Extinction. The documentary chronicles the (married) couple’s research into the link between the microbiome—comprising the trillions of competing and cooperating bacteria, or microbes, teeming in and on our bodies—and diseases like diabetes, cancer, asthma, and autism. The feature-length film, which premiered at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival in March, follows their efforts in advocating for the protection of the microbiome and measures that can be taken to restore lost microbiome diversity—a common malady among populations living in industrialized nations. Contributing to compromised microbiomes are factors such as the overuse of antibiotics, elective C-sections, and the consumption of processed foods. The documentary also reveals the plans of Blaser and Dominguez-Bello to create the Micro-biota Vault—an international repository, modeled after the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway—that would contain strains of all known bacteria, which could be replicated and introduced into people suffering from a depleted microbiome and related diseases.
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Magazine.
By using artificial intelligence and robotics to make therapeutic proteins, a team led by Rutgers researchers has successfully stabilized an enzyme that can degrade scar tissue resulting from spinal cord injuries and promote tissue regeneration. The study, appearing in Advanced Healthcare Materials, reveals the team’s groundbreaking process for stabilizing the enzyme Chondroitinase ABC (ChABC), offering new hope for patients with spinal cord injuries. “This study represents one of the first times artificial intelligence and robotics have been used to formulate highly sensitive therapeutic proteins and extend their activity by such a large amount,” says Adam Gormley, the project’s principal investigator and an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the School of Engineering. “It’s a major scientific achievement.”
The New Jersey State Policy Lab at Rutgers has released a report about the effects of marijuana use on health, education, and law enforcement. The report measures the impact of legalization and identifies disparities among different communities. “This analysis is critical to New Jersey, setting a model similar to other states in recognizing that all people in the state are not the same, and by legalizing cannabis, its impact on different communities is going to vary,” says Charles Menifield, the study’s principal investigator and dean of the School of Public Affairs and Administration. The study uses secondary data to provide a snapshot of present-day usage and law enforcement measures across age, race, and gender lines. It also gauges youth attitudes about marijuana as well as medical and behavioral health factors that could be affected by legalization.
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Magazine.
A popular coral restoration technique is unlikely to protect coral reefs from climate change and is based on the assumption that local threats to reefs are managed effectively, according to a study co-authored by Rutgers, Coral Research Alliance and researchers at other institutions.
The research, published in the journal Ecological Applications, explored the response of coral reefs to restoration projects that propagate corals and outplant them into the wild. Additionally, researchers evaluated the effects of outplanting corals genetically adapted to warmer temperatures, sometimes called “super corals,” to reefs experiencing climate change as a way to build resilience to warming.
The study found neither approach was successful at preventing a decline in coral coverage in the next several hundred years because of climate change and that selectively breeding corals to be more heat tolerant only will lead to benefits if conducted at a very large scale over the course of centuries.
Even then, the researchers said, the benefits won’t be realized for 200 years.
Restoring areas with corals that haven’t been selected to be more heat tolerant was ineffective at helping corals survive climate change except at the largest supplementation levels.
“Our previous research shows that corals have the best chance of adapting to the effects of climate change, like warming ocean temperatures, if there is high genetic diversity and if habitat is protected from other local stressors.” said Lisa McManus, who co-led the research and conducted the work as a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers University and is now faculty at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology. “Repopulating a coral reef with corals that have similar genetic makeups could reduce an area’s natural genetic diversity, and therefore make it harder for all corals to adapt to climate change.”
Coral reef restoration techniques are widely applied throughout the world as a way to repopulate degraded coral reef areas. Although the practice has some benefits, such as engaging and educating communities about reef ecosystems or replenishing a coral reef population after an area has been hit by a storm or suffered direct physical damage, more scientists are speaking up about the limitations of conservation approaches that focus solely on restoration.
The authors said focusing solely on coral restoration and genetically engineering corals to be more tolerant of high temperatures is risky. Understanding of the genes that determine heat resistance remains limited and focusing on reproducing just one single trait could undermine a coral’s resilience to other stressors or its natural ability to adapt, they said.
Restoration practices also carry a hefty price tag and require a lot of resources. The median cost of restoring just one hectare (or about 2.5 acres) of coral reef has been estimated at more than $350,000, which doesn’t factor in high mortality rates that often come with such projects and the cost of genetically modifying corals.
“Coral restoration can be an important tool for conserving coral reefs, but restoration is expensive and hard. We can’t use restoration to replace the basics, like improving water quality, avoiding overfishing, and addressing climate change,” said Malin Pinsky, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
The study was co-authored by Rutgers professor Malin Pinsky, and researchers from Coral Reef Alliance, University of Washington, Stanford University, University of Queensland, University of Hawai’i and The Nature Conservancy. The research was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and The Nature Conservancy.
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Today.
With an estimated 6.2 million Americans age 65 and older living with Alzheimer’s, researchers at Rutgers University–Camden are investigating what causes the cellular impairment that prompts disease, both in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients. Biologist Maria Solesio is studying mitochondria, the power centers of neurons in the brain. “We are trying to understand why mitochondria fail in neurodegeneration,” says Solesio, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology. “Mitochondria can get damaged at different levels in active diseases.” By describing mechanisms that damage mitochondria, Solesio and her team, working with grants totaling $1 million, could help researchers trained in drug discovery find pathways to counteract the damage, resulting in life-changing treatments.
“Picturing Black Girlhood: Moments of Possibility,” an international exhibition on view last spring at Express Newark, presented intimate, joyful images of Black girls’ coming-of-age stories, told through the photography and film of Black women and genderqueer artists. Their work, reflecting many decades, generations, and settings, was juxtaposed with images taken by Black girls themselves, sharing their experiences and perspectives and underscoring their agency over their young lives.
Curated by photographers Scheherazade Tillet and Zoraida Lopez-Diago, the show filled all three exhibition floors of Express Newark—a “third space” for students, artists, and activists that brings together the communities of Rutgers University–Newark and the city of Newark through socially engaged art and design.
The exhibition featured roughly 180 works by more than 80 artists, ranging in age from 8 to 94. Among the established artists represented in the show were Carrie Mae Weems, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lorraine O’Grady, Lola Flash, Sophia Nahli Allison, Deborah Roberts, and Tawny Chatmon.
Brimming with images and stories and demonstrating the endless manifestations of the journey through girlhood, the exhibition opened in February and coincided with the seventh annual gathering of Black Portraiture[s]: Play and Performance. This three-day conference explored the theme of play and performance in past and contemporary African diasporic art and performance, and concluded with a series of keynote conversations during the 42nd Annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture, held at the Newark Museum of Art.
Express Newark is under the new leadership of Salamishah Tillet as executive director and Nick Kline as creative director. Tillet, a 2022 Pulitzer Prize winner, is the Henry Rutgers Professor of African American Studies and Creative Writing at Rutgers–Newark. Kline, associate professor in the Department of Arts, Culture, and Media at Rutgers–Newark, works in photography, artists’ books, installations, and socially engaged art. He is the founding director of Shine Portrait Studio in Newark.
A version of this story appeared in Rutgers Magazine, Summer 2022 edition.