Rice bioengineer seeks better signals from cells

Jerzy Szablowski wins NIH Trailblazer Award to monitor gene therapy in the brain

Jerzy Szablowski earns NIH support to research noninvasive reporters that monitor gene therapy in the brain.

The cells in your body are pretty good at monitoring themselves, but they don’t always signal what’s going on to the outside world. A Rice University bioengineer has plans to enhance their ability to communicate.

Jerzy Szablowski, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering and a core faculty member in the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative, is developing technology to measure gene expression in deep tissues, particularly in the brain. His noninvasive, site-specific reporters will be secreted by cells to report on what they find.

Jerzy Szablowski earns NIH support to research noninvasive reporters that monitor gene therapy in the brain.
Jerzy Szablowski. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

This could be particularly useful to monitor gene therapy treating neurodegenerative disorders like epilepsy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Huntington’s disease, as cells modified to make their own drugs would also make proteins that confirm their expression.

Szablowski’s research now has support from the National Institutes of Health through a three-year Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant (aka the Trailblazer Award) to develop these reporters, which can be easily transported from known regions of the brain into the blood. Then a simple blood test can be used to analyze them.

“This is a critical problem in gene therapy research,” said Szablowski, an assistant professor of bioengineering. “In most cases, once the therapy is delivered there are few if any methods to evaluate whether the genes are being expressed in cells deep in the body.

“There are markers that naturally tell you about disease, but there are also diseases or processes that don’t have markers in blood, and that’s inconvenient,” he said. “So why not make markers for these processes so they are easy to detect? Why not equip the cells with the capability of informing us about these diseases?”

Szablowski’s proposed solution is elegant in its simplicity. Reporters are the marker molecules cells are programmed to make only if they’ve incorporated the newly delivered genes. The amount of reporters in a sample is often a gauge of the success of the gene delivery treatment: The more reporters, the more cells that have accepted and incorporated the new genes.

Finding and measuring reporters is typically done through microscopic analysis of tissue samples. In clinical trials, such samples could only come from major surgery, which is often either financially infeasible, too risky for patients or both.

“It’s impractical or impossible to bring the tissue to the microscope, but we don’t have to if we can design the reporters to leave the cells and enter the bloodstream,” Szablowski said.

If the method works as intended, measuring the success of gene therapy in any tissue in the body could be as simple as drawing blood and submitting it for lab tests.

To demonstrate the technique, Szablowski is designing reporters that can tell whether gene expression is taking place in the brain, one of the most inaccessible parts of the body. That means getting reporters expressed by cells through the blood-brain barrier and into the bloodstream, where they can be collected.

His lab’s strategy is to enhance vascular permeability in selected regions of the brain and allow proteins to diffuse into the blood. The project will also incorporate protein engineering, pharmacology and biodistribution studies, as well as gene delivery to the brain.

Szablowski said the same techniques can be applied to the spinal cord, eye, ear and potentially other tissues.

The Rice Neuroengineering Initiative is a strategic effort to improve lives by advancing the world's understanding of the brain.

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Jerzy Szablowski earns NIH support to research noninvasive reporters that monitor gene therapy in the brain.


CAPTION: Jerzy Szablowski. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Related materials

Packard Foundation backs Rice bioengineer: https://news.rice.edu/news/2021/packard-foundation-backs-rice-bioengineer

Laboratory for Noninvasive Neuroengineering: https://www.szablowskilab.org

Department of Bioengineering: https://bioengineering.rice.edu

George R. Brown School of Engineering: https://engineering.rice.edu

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Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 4,240 undergraduates and 3,972 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 1 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.