Bioscience grants benefit cutting-edge research

Mike Williams

Bioscience grants benefit cutting-edge research

Gulf Coast Consortia announces Dunn Foundation seed grants to study genome editing, micro-temperatures, blood stem cells and brain function 

Four teams of scientists at Rice University and other Gulf Coast Consortia (GCC) institutions have earned research seed grants from the John S. Dunn Collaborative Research Awards, and a fifth group won a grant to support a cancer symposium.

This year’s winning researchers will study ways to ensure the safety of genome editing with CRISPR/Cas9, take temperatures inside cells, decode how hematopoietic stem cells turn into many kinds of blood cells and gain a wider picture of synaptic networks in the brain.

The annual program that began in 2008 supports new collaborations between researchers at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC) and their partners at other institutional members of the GCC. The program is funded by the John S. Dunn Foundation and administered by the GCC.

The 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, the Institute of Biosciences and Technology of the Texas A&M Health Science Center and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

The research seed grants are for $98,000 each. A separate workshop award is for $8,000. The awards support projects that foster interdisciplinary and multi-institutional research at the BRC.

Self-destructing viruses to deliver gene therapy 

Gang Bao of Rice and William Lagor of Baylor College of Medicine plan to improve the safety of genome editing by generating custom viruses that deliver CRISPR/Cas9 machinery to edit a disease-causing gene and then self-destruct when the job is done.

They will test the self-deleting CRISPR/Cas9 system packaged into adeno-associated viral vectors in a mouse model of a rare lipid disorder to determine if the system can successfully edit a therapeutic target gene and then promote its own removal from the liver. Ultimately they hope to develop techniques that reduce off-target effects from CRISPR/Cas9 and keep the Cas9 nuclease, a bacterial protein, from provoking immune responses against cells or tissue.

Bao is the Foyt Family Professor of Bioengineering at Rice, and Lagor is an assistant professor of molecular physiology and biophysics at Baylor.

Fluorescent particles may take cells’ temperatures

Angel Martí of Rice and Steven Curley of Baylor will develop a way to measure the temperature of microscopic domains where standard thermometers do not work.

Their probe will sense temperatures via luminescence. For some molecules like metallic iridium, the time they take to emit light depends on local temperature. Quantifying that time at various temperatures will allow the researchers to measure conditions in a variety of situations by inserting the molecule and triggering its fluorescence. They eventually hope to measure the temperature distribution of cancer cells at the subcellular level with and without the exposure to radio frequencies used in noninvasive therapeutic hyperthermia.

Martí is an associate professor of chemistry, bioengineering and materials science and nanoengineering at Rice. Curley is a professor in the Department of Surgical Oncology at Baylor.

Modeling blood stem cell differentiation 

José Onuchic of Rice and Yun Huang of the Institute of Biosciences and Technology (IBT) at Texas A&M Health Science Center will combine Onuchic’s expertise in computational modeling of biological systems and Huang’s expertise in cancer epigenetics to understand how hematopoietic stem progenitor cells develop into all types of blood cells.

These stem cells are primarily found in bone marrow and depend on a complex regulatory network of genes to differentiate. The Rice and IBT labs hope to unveil the network’s operating principles and predict how the stem cells make decisions under normal and diseased conditions. Such models could help them understand cancer-associated epigenetic mutations and open a path to novel therapies.

Onuchic is the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Chair and a professor of physics and astronomy and co-director of Rice’s Center for Theoretical Biological Physics. Huang is an assistant professor in the Center for Epigenetics and Disease Prevention at IBT.

Dynamic view of how neural cells interact 

Tomasz Tkaczyk of Rice and Kimberley Tolias of Baylor plan to observe the dynamic behaviors of living neural cells through genetically encoded fluorescent probes. Their aim is to develop a quantitative understanding of brain circuitry and function, as well as the nature of brain diseases.

It will require the development of fluorescent contrast agents and a spectrometer able to capture wide images of multiple probes at high speeds in living tissue. Current imaging techniques, they wrote, are akin to “watching a football game with the ability to see only one or two players per game.” Their new technique will deliver a more complete picture of neural dynamics and allow them to directly observe interactions between signaling pathways, monitor multiple steps in a signaling cascade in a single cell, rapidly screen cellular responses to stimuli whose receptors are unknown and study many events in the context of other events in living cells.

Tkaczyk is an associate professor of bioengineering at Rice. Tolias is an associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Baylor.

Metabolism in cancer symposium 

Pratip Bhattacharya of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Deepak Nagrath of Rice, Dan Frigo of the University of Houston and Arun Sreekumar of Baylor will use their workshop award to organize a daylong symposium that assembles and fosters collaborations between Texas Medical Center scientists and clinicians in the emerging field of cancer.


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Related materials:

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Gulf Coast Consortia:

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About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.