Rice recruits two faculty for cancer research

Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas helps bring Yang Gao, Kevin McHugh to Houston

Rice University will add two tenure-track faculty members this year with the help of grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

Structural biologist Yang Gao and bioengineer Kevin McHugh will both start on July 1, with offices and labs at the BioScience Research Collaborative. Rice won a pair of $2 million CPRIT grants to recruit them to the university.

Yang Gao.

Yang Gao

Gao will join Rice from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Laboratory of Molecular Biology, a branch of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. He earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Science and Technology of China and his doctorate at Iowa State University.

Gao turned to structural biology as a postdoctoral researcher at NIH.

“We look at how proteins work on DNA, how they replicate and how they repair DNA,” he said. “When this process goes wrong, it leads to all kinds of diseases, most importantly cancer.”

At Rice, he plans to further his analysis of key proteins in DNA replication and repair, of mutations generated when the process fails and of replication/repair pathways for cancer treatment.

McHugh comes to Rice from the Langer Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is a senior postdoctoral associate. He earned his undergraduate degree at Case Western Reserve University and his doctorate at Boston University, both in biomedical engineering.

Kevin McHugh

Kevin McHugh

McHugh focuses on biomaterials for drug delivery and regenerative medicine. He was lead author of a September 2017 Science paper on 3D printing of fillable microstructures for drug delivery.

“As a postdoc, my focus has been on a single-injection vaccine to get the specific release kinetics that will confer some benefit for the developing world, where you don’t necessarily get to see a patient more than once,” he said.

McHugh plans to adapt his delivery platforms for immunotherapy drugs called stimulator of interferon gene (aka STING) agonists.

“If we can reignite the immune system inside a tumor, where it’s normally dormant, we can have immunotherapy that is a lot more effective,” McHugh said.

The grants are among more than $31 million CPRIT awarded in the current round to recruit eminent cancer researchers to Texas. CPRIT was approved by state taxpayers in a 2007 ballot initiative,  providing $3 billion to support cancer research statewide. To date, the agency has awarded $2.3 billion in grants to Texas researchers, institutions and organizations through its academic research, prevention and product development research programs.

About Mike Williams

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