Category: BME News
Funding to Enable Scale-Up of Counterfeit Drug Detector
By Mark Dwortzan
One of the biggest challenges in global health is the proliferation of drugs that do not perform as labeled, due to false claims about their effectiveness or faulty manufacturing and storage practices. Up to 50 percent of medicines distributed in developing countries are either counterfeit or significantly substandard, and procedures used to check their quality are largely inaccurate, not to mention slow, expensive and complicated. The result: hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths each year.
To address the problem, a team of Boston University biomedical engineers and public health researchers led by Associate Professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute ProfessorMuhammad Zaman (BME, MSE) has spent the past four years developing and field-testingPharmaChk, a user-friendly, low-cost, portable, fast and accurate detector for screening counterfeit and substandard medicines. Once deployed on a large scale, the technology could substantially improve fragile health systems and save countless lives—including those of mothers and newborns suffering from malaria, sepsis and other diseases—in many developing nations.
Recognizing the potential of PharmaChk to vastly improve health outcomes for this population, theSaving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development program has awarded Zaman’s team with a $2 million “transition-to-scale” grant to demonstrate the impact of its technology at scale—one of only four such awards among 30 announced at the Saving Lives at Birth’s annual DevelopmentXChange conference in Washington, DC.
The PharmaChk team was among 52 finalists at the conference (winnowed down from an original field of 550 teams from dozens of countries) competing for funding to realize and scale disruptive technologies and other innovative ideas to save the lives of mothers and newborns in the poorest places on the planet. Zaman’s team was the only engineering group to receive a “transition-to-scale” grant and one of a select few to do so within two years of receiving a $250,000 seed grant from the program,
“This is a huge honor not only for our team but also for Boston University, and underscores the university’s leadership and strong commitment to technological innovation and global health,” said Zaman. “We are deeply honored to be the first team at BU to be awarded the transition-to-scale grant and are eager to work with our partners in Boston and around the world to address this huge global challenge.”
Named one of “Ten World Changing Ideas” in its 2013 year-end roundup article on proven, scalable innovations that could dramatically impact society in the near future, PharmaChk was developed by Zaman and graduate students Darash Desai (BME), Nga Ho (BME), Andrea Fernandes (SMG, SPH) and research scientist Atena Irani Shemirani (BME). The user places a pill into a small testing box which instantly reports the amount of active ingredient found in the pill. The device is simple to operate and verifies a drug’s safety in a matter of minutes, thanks to complex, microfluidic, lab-on-a-chip technology developed in the Zaman lab.
Building on earlier work testing a prototype in Ghana, the team plans to use the new funding to incorporate feedback from local users of PharmaChk and scale the technology with the help of partners in Ghana and the US Pharmacopeial (USP) Convention in Rockville, Maryland. By ensuring that essential medicines are safe at all points along the supply chain—from manufacturers to distributors to suppliers in rural areas—Zaman’s team aims to have a profound impact on the health of mothers and newborns.
The device’s clear potential to dramatically improve health outcomes in resource-limited countries has attracted significant funding over the past two years from the USP Convention under the Promoting the Quality of Medicines (PQM) program funded by USAID. USP has provided both financial and logistical support in Ghana through its Center for Pharmaceutical Quality Research Center. PharmaChk has received additional funding from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, and support and mentorship from the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT) (including critical assistance from CIMIT Accelerator Program Executive Wolfgang Krull), and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.
Launched in 2011 to stimulate innovative preventative and treatment methods to improve health outcomes for mothers and newborns around the time of delivery, the Saving Lives at Birth partnership includes the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Government of Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada (funded by the Government of Canada) and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). Supported by a $50 million commitment, Saving Lives at Birth has funded 59 innovations in its first three rounds, aiming to address the 289,000 maternal deaths, 2.9 million neo-natal deaths, and 2.6 million stillbirths that occur each year.
By Sara Cardelle, USAID
Imagine rummaging through your medicine cabinet for a vital prescription. Once found, you pop the lid and tap out a few pills into your palm. If you live in a country that strictly regulates pharmaceutical production and distribution, you assume the pills are safe and take them without a second thought.
But what if these protections were not provided? What if you were stricken by an illness that required medication that you couldn’t be sure was safe or effective? What if you learned too late that this medication contained no active ingredient, was degraded, or mixed with toxic components?
For millions of people in developing countries, these questions are all too real.
In 1995, a meningitis epidemic hit Niger, in West Africa. Although the Government of Niger carried out an efficient vaccine program, more than 50,000 people were administered fake vaccines that contained no active ingredient, resulting in 2,500 deaths. The vaccines, donated by a country that thought they were safe, had been bottled and labeled to look like true vaccines.
Similar incidents continue to occur worldwide. Counterfeit drugs, which are estimated to be as high as 30 percent of all drug sales in the developing world, can cause severe side effects or death or, because they often don’t contain the correct amount of active ingredients, can allow for disease progression and cause drug resistance. Globally, more than 100,000 people die every year as a result of these dangerous drugs and this likely represents a significant underestimation. High profit margins and minimal risk, along with lack of political commitment and weak medicines regulation and enforcement drive the counterfeit market.
A parallel problem exists with substandard medicines, whether imported or produced locally. In these cases, drugs are not produced in accordance with accepted good manufacturing practices or shipped or stored properly, rendering them ineffective at best. In 2012, a contaminated cardiovascular medicine was linked in Pakistan to the death of more than 200 patients in just a few days and was responsible for sickening 1,000 after lethal amounts of an antimalarial drug were accidentally mixed with the medicine during manufacturing.
This is the dire and sometimes fatal scenario that a promising and innovative new device called PharmaChk is hoping to prevent. PharmaChk, a fast, easy and inexpensive screening technology for counterfeit and substandard medications, is being developed at Boston University to help combat the perils of poor quality drugs in the developing world.
Several programs at USAID, including Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development, have backed this effort.
“Our goal is to comprehensively address the limitations of current technologies and provide detailed information on drug quality at all points in the supply chain,” says Muhammad Zaman, an associate professor at Boston University and the lead researcher developing the device.
Zaman, who teaches biomedical engineering, has both a professional and personal interest in combatting counterfeit drugs in the developing world. He grew up in Pakistan and remembers that his “mother would take us all across the town so we could get our medicines and vaccines at a reputable place.” Those long treks would eventually inspire him to tackle the counterfeit and substandard medicine crisis.
Read more, here.
Asst. Prof. Xue Han talks about her work in the new field of optogenetics
By Barbara Moran, BU Today
Xue Han investigates Parkinson’s disease with an unusual tool: light. Han is a pioneer in the young field of optogenetics, in which scientists reengineer nerve cells, or neurons, to respond to light, using molecules called opsins. Like ice cream, opsins come in many flavors—there’s rhodopsin in the human eye and halorhodopsin in bacteria, for instance—but they all share one key characteristic: they change shape when exposed to light.
By finding ways to implant opsins into neurons, Han, a College of Engineering assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has given researchers a simple tool to turn neurons on and off, and thereby study their function. The technique is now widely used to study brain activity, and it is leading to a better understanding of diseases and treatments.
In April 2014, Han traveled to Washington, D.C., where President Obama awarded her a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the US government’s highest honor for science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.
BU Today spoke recently with Han.
BU Today: Who came up with the idea of using light to turn neurons on and off?
Han: Using light to control cells is not so new. In our retina there are all these rhodopsins that naturally are sensitive to light, but we can’t easily engineer the whole system into neurons. So the really novel part was sensitizing neurons to light so they’re easy to use.
So how did I get involved in this whole thing? I started my postdoc at Stanford in 2005, and that’s the same time that Ed Boyden, now an MIT associate professor, along with Karl Deisseroth, used this molecule called channelrhodopsin. They put it in neurons, and they were able to drive neural activities with the light. And the beauty of channelrhodopsin is that it’s a very small protein and it’s very easy to use.
Then Ed and I were thinking, since there’s a technology to excite neurons, can we also silence them? That led to the discovery of halorhodopsin, which allowed us just to do that. But it doesn’t do it really well. Who knows why? These are from bacteria, and you’re putting them in mammalian cells. That’s the complexity of biology.
So we said, let’s find a better one. We screened a whole bunch of proteins similar to halorhodopsins, and we found some other things that were similar, like proton pumps. We did not think they would work, but we thought, you know what? Let’s throw a couple in and see what happens. And we did that, and found that these proton pumps are way more effective in silencing neurons. And more importantly, from what we have tested, it’s safe for the neurons. It’s a powerful engineering tool—that we can excite or silence neurons now.
Are the tools getting closer to being used in patients?
Right now, my group is interested in how, in a disease like Parkinson’s, deep brain stimulation works. There are all these hypotheses about deep brain stimulation and its therapeutic effects. So the idea is that if you use light, then we can understand the mechanism and simultaneously see how the neurons respond and how they are contributing to Parkinson’s disease. These neurons in the Parkinsonian brain tend to oscillate or synchronize at a frequency of 20 hertz or so.
All the neurons in the brain, or just the Parkinsonian ones?
The Parkinsonian ones in a particular part of the brain.
All the neurons affected with Parkinson’s in a certain part of the brain are talking to each other at 20 hertz?
Not all of them. But somehow, more are talking to each other than normal.
But that’s what people find. If you think about Parkinson’s in particular, it’s a dopamine neuron loss. We are trying to figure out how this dopamine loss leads to the generation of these pathological oscillations in the brain. And then what’s the relationship of these oscillations to the symptoms?
Do other neurological diseases have different pathological oscillations?
That’s a great question. Can we establish some sort of oscillations as biomarkers of specific mental disorders? I think this is definitely a very interesting area. There’s certain evidence that a frequency around 40 hertz is associated with schizophrenia, but a coherent understanding would really help.
Why does Parkinson’s interest you?
I think for Parkinson’s, we are at a stage that things are converging. There’s a very good animal model for Parkinson’s, and the symptoms can be easily quantified, more easily than major depression or other types of mental disorders, like schizophrenia.
You’re married to Ed Boyden, who is also a leader in optogenetics. Do you two collaborate?
Well, we collaborate still. It’s hard not to collaborate, right? But you know, we have two small kids, so as soon as we start a conversation someone spills milk, and that conversation goes nowhere.
Do you tell your kids about your work? Are they interested?
Certainly there are scientific terms we use that our babysitter would not really understand. This morning my son was asking me how the Earth was generated. I told him the Earth was here when he was born, and I told him I was here, and so I started to explain it to him a little bit. It’s hard not to.
Where do you think diagnosing and treating neurological diseases will be 20 or 30 years from now? How will your work fit it?
A lot of parts can be replaced, but when it comes to the brain, we are not there yet. In Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, we know the neurons are dying. Is there some replacement we can do? If we have a biomarker, we can probably start to develop more human therapies. So that’s what I’m hoping: we’ll treat these disorders before we’re old enough to get them ourselves. So we need to hurry up.
See video (courtesy of WBUR).
Klapperich inventing technology that could change future of primary care
By Barbara Moran, BU Today
Catherine Klapperich moves fast, talks fast, and has at least 15 different ideas rolling through her head at the same time. How, for instance, can she keep her postdocs on track, guide 134 undergrads through their senior project, and meanwhile invent new technology that may change medicine as we know it? She arrived a few minutes late for an interview, preoccupied with a more immediate concern: she had accidentally spilled water on her iPhone. She ran down to her lab to stick it into the vacuum oven, hoping that would dry it out. Then she ran back to her office and sat down to talk.
Klapperich holds three associate professorships at BU, in the College of Engineering biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering departments and in the Division of Materials Science and Engineering. She also directs the Center for Future Technologies in Cancer Care. Her lab creates point-of-care diagnostics—tools, like a pregnancy test stick, that doctors and consumers can use to immediately test such conditions as high cholesterol or diagnose illnesses like strep throat. One critical need in the developing world is a rapid test for HIV viral load—the amount of HIV in a patient’s blood. The number helps doctors monitor the disease, decide when to start treatment, and determine if HIV medications are working.
BU Today recently spoke to Klapperich about her work.
BU Today: A lot of your work focuses on public health issues. Where does that interest come from?
Klapperich: When I got my PhD at Berkeley, I was studying artificial hips and knees. They have a metal part and a plastic part, and we were engineering the plastic part. I became interested in how cells interact with biomaterial surfaces. And that led into my postdoc, which focused on how cells interact with biomaterials at the level of gene expression.
At that time, gene chips were just becoming a routine tool in the laboratory. And I was completely floored by all the steps to use them: breaking the cells open, getting the DNA or RNA out, amplifying it, putting it on a chip, and then turning on the reader to figure out the expression levels. It was a huge number of steps. As an engineer I thought, why? So I became really interested in doing this stuff in a turn-crank way, where I wouldn’t have to do all the little steps.
A machine would do it instead?
The machine would do it. The gene chip is a wondrous thing. And yet it took two and a half days to make the material to go onto that chip. So I became very focused on the sample preparation process. Then it became clear to me that this is why point-of-care diagnostics do not exist in the numbers that they should. Because yeah, we have this chip and it can tell us all this information, but all this prep requires someone with a lot of laboratory skill.
So you want to take the diagnostic chip, have some patient spit on it, and then have the answer show up without two and a half days of sample prep?
Right. And so for DNA and RNA it’s hard, because most of it is inside of our cells or inside the bugs that infect us. So you have to break cells apart and amplify the DNA or RNA—make many, many copies. Then you tag them with something like a fluorescent protein that allows you to see them. So we need to do three things: we need to extract, we need to amplify, we need to read. Let’s do those three things as simply as we can, in as few steps as we can, as reliably as we can. We want to be the test kitchen for this work.
This field has grown a lot, even in the last 10 years.
Yeah—now you can walk into Walgreens and there’s a little blue sign hanging over the aisle, where it says things like Foot Powder and Toothpaste, and it says Diagnostics. And I remember the first time I saw that a few years ago. I thought, what? That’s crazy! This is now a thing in the aisle.
It’s a noun.
Exactly. There are the glucose strips, there’s a cholesterol test. You can buy a drug test—
A drug test for what?
For your kid. This is the marijuana one.
Really? This box you’re showing me is a marijuana test kit?
Yeah. This is great. You can buy the 4-drug test, the 7-drug test, or the 12-drug test. You can test your kid for depressants, barbiturates, methadone, benzodiazepines, opiates, ecstasy, amphetamines, methamphetamines, cocaine, marijuana, and Oxy. It’s pretty amazing. And it’s just pee. I think it really empowers people to have information about their own health. If you think about cholesterol tests, and HIV yes/no, respiratory infections, strep, these things can be done by the patient. That can save an office visit, which saves money; it saves the potential of infecting other people; it saves the time of the clinician. I think it will change the primary care model a lot.
What’s the first thing out of your lab that might make it into Walgreens?
It’s an HIV viral load test that we’re working on with a company in San Francisco. A colleague told me last week, from his clinic in South Africa, “We need a viral load test. If people come to see me and I tell them, ‘I’m going to take your blood, come back to get the results,’ 50 percent of them just don’t come back. Something that would help tomorrow is if I could give that person their results right there. And if their viral load is suppressed, then I don’t have to expend any resources seeing that person until the following year.”
They’re testing that right now in South Africa. That could be deployed in a primary care clinician’s office, and that’s the first thing that will come from our laboratory.
That will be cool.
Yeah, it will be very cool.
By Mark Dwortzan
A chronic disease afflicting more than 27 million Americans and 630 million worldwide, osteoarthritis occurs as the protective cartilage coating on joints in the knees, hips and other parts of the body degrades. No cure for osteoarthritis exists, but treatments can slow its progression, reduce pain and restore joint functioning. Now a team of researchers led by Professor Mark Grinstaff (BME, Chemistry, MSE) has developed a sensitive imaging method that promises to enhance diagnosis of osteoarthritis and enable improved care through earlier detection and more targeted treatments.
The method combines nanotechnology, engineering and medicine, and exploits new, biocompatible nanoparticles as contrast agents to image surface and interior regions of articular cartilage (the smooth, water-rich tissue that lines the ends of bones in load-bearing joints) — regions that traditional X-ray illumination cannot detect. The research, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, is described in the June 30 issue of Angewandte Chemie.
“In the short term, these contrast agents could be used to image cartilage over time to monitor the efficacy of proposed osteoarthritis drugs,” said Grinstaff. “With continued development, they may enable clinicians to diagnose and stage the disease so that the most appropriate course of treatment could be followed.”
Two members of Grinstaff’s lab, MD/PhD student Jonathan Freedman (Pharmacology) and Postdoctoral Fellow Hrvoje Lusic (BME and Chemistry), synthesized a new nanoparticle contrast agent made of tantalum oxide that diffuses into the cartilage, thus enabling clinicians to use CT-scans to assess cartilage thickness and pinpoint lesions and injuries in osteoarthritic tissue. Guided by their clinical collaborator, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School physician Brian Snyder, Freedman and Lusic used the nanoparticles to successfully image rat articular cartilage in in vivo and ex vivo experiments, as well as in a cadaverous finger joint.
They chose tantalum as a contrast agent material because it absorbs a greater fraction of X-rays produced at clinical scanning voltages than traditional materials. In addition, the tantalum nanoparticles’ positive charge automatically directs the particles to the cartilage, which carries a negative charge. Building on their initial success, the researchers plan to conduct additional in vivo experiments in animal models.
The impetus for exploring new and better contrast agents came from Snyder, who sought better ways to diagnose and assess treatment of osteoarthritis. Grinstaff sees the new method as especially promising for early detection of the disease.
“Today we have very poor capability to detect early stage osteoarthritis,” said Grinstaff. “Most patients come into the clinic at stage three when the pain becomes significant, but if diagnostics based on our method is done proactively, many patients could get the treatment they need much earlier and avoid a lot of discomfort.”
A Promising New Method for Engineering Mammalian Cells
By Mark Dwortzan
At the heart of synthetic biology is the assembly of genetic components into “circuits” that perform desired operations in living cells, with the long-term goal of empowering these cells to solve critical problems in healthcare, energy, the environment and other domains, from cancer treatment to toxic waste cleanup. While much of this work is done using bacterial cells, new techniques are emerging to reprogram eukaryotic cells—those found in plants and animals, including humans—to perform such tasks.
To engineer useful genetic circuits in eukaryotic cells, synthetic biologists typically manipulate sequences of DNA in an organism’s genome, but Assistant Professor Ahmad “Mo” Khalil (BME), Professor James J. Collins (BME, MSE, SE) postdoctoral fellow Albert J. Keung (BME) and other researchers at Boston University’s Center of Synthetic Biology (CoSBi) have another idea that could vastly increase their capabilities. Rather than manipulate the DNA sequence directly, the CoSBi engineers are exploiting a class of proteins that regulate chromatin, the intricate structure of DNA and proteins that condenses and packages a genome to fit within the cell. These chromatin regulator (CR) proteins play a key role in expressing—turning on and off—genes throughout the cell, so altering their makeup could provide a new pathway for engineering the cell’s genetic circuits to perform desired functions.
Using synthetic biology techniques, the researchers systematically modified 223 distinct CR proteins in yeast to determine their impact—individually and in various combinations—on gene expression in yeast cells. Described in the journal Cell in a paper featuring Albert Keung as first author, their findings could provide a new set of design principles for reprogramming eukaryotic cells.
“Albert’s paper is one of the first to show how we can harness chromatin as a pathway for gene regulation,” said Khalil. “This approach represents a new paradigm for manipulating the structure of chromatin for engineering a biological system.”
Among the researcher’s findings was the discovery that selected CR proteins can regulate the expression not only of single genes, but clusters of nearby genes. They also determined that chromatin modifications induced by CR proteins got passed down to new cells once existing cells divided, endowing them with “memory” of specific functions. This memory retention could enable sets of engineered cells to sense a fleeting signal and remember it over a long period of time even as cells divide. Cells within a bodily organ, such as the brain or liver, also require memory of their tissue type in order to maintain their function and avoid becoming cancerous.
“Exploiting the major role that chromatin plays in gene regulation provides us with another layer of control in reprogramming cells to perform specific functions,” said Keung, who envisions the new approach leading to a better understanding of cell biology and a more powerful synthetic biology toolkit.
The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Science Foundation, Boston University College of Engineering, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
First IEEE-University Innovation Challenge Sparks Big Ideas
By Mark Dwortzan
When researching anatomical data to develop new biomedical devices, engineers have no universally accepted, reliable resource to rapidly and consistently obtain the information they need. So Benjamin Hertz and Bhavesh Patel, two students in BE 700, Advanced Biomedical Design and Development, have proposed a solution: a software tool called “Interactive Virtual Human” that provides an interactive virtual human body displaying searchable anatomical information obtained from scientific journal articles. For example, a search on “sternum” will highlight the sternum on the virtual body and show average sternum data for males and females, such as dimensions, material properties, and links to related research.
Rather than cherry-picking the information they need about a particular organ such as the heart or foot from countless scientific journal articles, “Interactive Virtual Human” would consolidate the information in one spot. By using this tool during the initial design phase of any medical device, research and development engineers could improve their design as they save time and money.
On the strength of their proposal, Hertz and Patel won the top $5,000 prize in the IEEE-BU Innovation Challenge, the first implementation of IEEE’s Co-Creation program designed to leverage the creativity of engineering and business graduate students to develop new tools that its members could use to design engineering products more efficiently.
“Biomedical engineering, which brings engineering, medicine and biology together, is an ideal discipline for which IEEE and university students can co-create new information and data-driven solutions,” said Sandeep Sharma, senior manager of the IEEE New Product Development Group and manager of the program. “Boston University, with its leading biomedical engineering program, was a natural choice as our first partner in IEEE’s pioneering Co-Creation program.”
Offered as an optional activity to all 21 students in BE 700 (a required course for all BME Master of Engineering students), the IEEE-BU Innovation Challenge drew seven proposals from individuals and teams, which were judged on their creativity and market potential by Professor Solomon Eisenberg, the BME Department head; Greg Martin, the BME’s Wallace H. Coulter Translational Partnership program director; and Lavanya Sayam of the IEEE’s New Product Development Group.
“The Challenge allowed the students to use their real-world experience and lessons learned in the course to make product development more efficient,” said BME Professor of Practice Arthur Rosenthal, who teachers the course with Jonathan Rosen, the College’s director of Technology Innovation Programs. “Our students proposed ideas on how to accelerate biomedical device development, but their ideas could be applied to other engineering fields.”
Participants were asked to prepare a PowerPoint presentation identifying the problem and their solution, comparing it with existing approaches, documenting real-world test cases and showing feedback from academia and industry.
“WOW! This is like Google Maps for the body,” said a principal engineer at Medtronic, the world’s largest medical technology company, in feedback on “Interactive Virtual Human.” “I would be able to learn the anatomy and how different parts of the body interact with each other and behave much better than looking at images online and searching through journal articles. But, most importantly, the cited information is exactly what I look for when justifying my design to the R&D team and clinicians for feedback.”
Netting second place honors and $1,000 for her entry, “Anthropomorphic database search tool,” Carolynn Gaut proposed an anatomical search engine that includes the average of sizes, measurements and forces associated with particular components of the human skeleton, such as the spine. Gaut’s tool would save a significant amount of time, money and resources for biomedical device developers who might otherwise sift through hundreds of articles and journals to find a consensus on these numbers.
Receiving commendable mention were two other proposals, “Medical Research Project File,” which facilitates collaboration across multiple institutions on similar projects; and “Project Folder with United Search,” which enables searches across publications, patents and standards.
The IEEE-BU Innovation Challenge was a natural fit for BE 700, a hands-on, graduate biomedical design course providing students with the opportunity to work directly with the clinical community, analyze real-world medical needs, design novel and innovative engineering solutions, build prototypes and reduce these concepts to practice.
Million-dollar grants integrate research with undergrad education
By Rich Barlow, BU Today
Two professional concerns keep David Marchant up at night. One is a possible million-person shortfall in American STEM scientists (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in the coming decade. The other is inadequate science literacy and support among the public.
To stem the STEM decline, Marchant, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth & environment, plans to show some first-year students what it means to be really, really cold.
Taking 15 to 20 first-years from three BU schools—CAS, the College of Communication, and the School of Education—Marchant will turn them loose for a year and a half of research in the CAS Experimental Permafrost Laboratory, which replicates Antarctic temperatures. The students will study geological phenomena and climate change and also will develop media about their work, which may include blogs, documentaries, or popular articles—“products that are both interesting and understandable to the general public,” says Marchant. They’ll also team with local middle school teachers to make lesson plans of their research results for area schools.
As a culminating payoff, the BU students will participate in Marchant’s National Science Foundation–supported Antarctic fieldwork—possibly on site, otherwise through virtual work in a digital image lab—and attend seminars with renowned scientists, which could lead to the students’ getting summer internships with the scientists.
If forging future scientists and teaching them to teach nonscientists sounds ambitious, Marchant now has the resources to realize his project. He and Muhammad Zaman, a College of Engineering associate professor of biomedical engineering (and materials science and engineering), are BU’s first-ever recipients of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professorships, awarded to researchers with innovative techniques for undergraduate science education. A professorship confers a five-year, $1 million grant. The announcement was made yesterday by the HHMI.
“This is exciting for us and for the BU community as a whole,” says Marchant. “The funds will allow me to pursue STEM education in a deep and rigorous way and combine research in global change with STEM education. I am truly honored to receive this award.”
Zaman will use his professorship to design ways of incorporating global health issues, including, he says, “engineering challenges for resource-limited settings,” into the curriculum. “The goal is to provide students with the context and appreciation of global health challenges, while focusing on rigor and intellectual depth.”
He and his students have worked on various technologies to improve developing world medical care, including a detector for counterfeit and defective drugs flooding poorer countries.
The Maryland-based HHMI promotes biomedical research and science education. Besides awarding professorships, it also names HHMI investigators, an honor awarded in 2008 to ENG’s James Collins, (a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor). In awarding its 2014 professorships, the HHMI whittled down a field of 173 applicants to 15.
“HHMI is committed to the highest level of scholarship and innovation, and this is a great honor for me,” Zaman says, as well as for his department, ENG, and BU.
Marchant believes that in the espoused hat trick of a university researcher—research, teaching, and public outreach—too often the latter two are shortchanged. “Research, education, and outreach are rarely taught in an integrated fashion” to college undergraduates, he says. “Why create artificial distinctions, and why delay training in the methods of outreach and teaching?”
By Mark Dwortzan
Professor Herbert F. Voigt (BME) has received a Fulbright Scholar grant to work at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP) during the 2014-2015 academic year. Voigt will help develop a new biomedical engineering PhD program to be offered jointly by PUCP and Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia . In addition, he plans to work with the Instituto Nacional de Salud (Peru’s version of the NIH) to initiate a research program focused on detecting heavy metals in biological samples.
Voigt is one of about 1,100 US faculty and professionals who will travel abroad through the Fulbright US Scholar Program in 2014-2015. Administered by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars and operating in more than 155 countries, the Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the US government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between citizens of the US and those of other nations.
“I am at once very honored and excited by this opportunity. The Fulbright will allow me to continue working with colleagues at several Peruvian institutions on both educational and research initiatives,” said Voigt. “One of my goals is to create a longstanding and mutually beneficial relationship between these institutions and Boston University’s College of Engineering and School of Public Health.”
Since its establishment in 1946 under legislation introduced by the late US Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the Fulbright Program has given over 318,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists, scientists and other professionals the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.
Findings Could Open New Pathway for Disease Treatment
By Mark Dwortzan
Messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA, is typically comprised of a single strand of nucleotides encoding genetic information that the cell uses to make proteins, which perform most of the work in cells and are essential to the well-being of the body’s tissues and organs. The mRNA molecules tend to fold back on themselves, forming hairpin and loop structures which must be constantly unwound in order to allow the mRNA to transmit its onboard genetic information to the rest of the cell so it can manufacture proteins.
At the heart of this process is an mRNA enzyme called eIF4A, which makes it possible for the mRNA molecules to unwind and thus for cell proteins to be synthesized. Now a team of researchers at Boston University and McGill University led by Associate Professor Amit Meller (BME, MSE) has published a study in the journal Structure that sheds light on how eIF4A gets the job done.
Using a highly-sensitive microscope that can track biomolecular activity at the single-molecule level, they discovered that it takes about one second for eIF4A to unwind 10-12-nucleotide-long mRNA hairpins, and that the mRNA transitions very quickly between wound and unwound states. In addition, they determined that a small organic molecule called hippuristanol can block eIF4A from unwinding the mRNA, by “locking” the enzyme in a closed position.
“Quantifying the molecular processes leading to and controlling protein synthesis in the cell at the single-molecule level will undoubtedly lead to new insights on this complex system,” said Meller. “Furthermore, many human diseases, including cancers and neurodegenerative diseases, are associated with abnormal levels of eIF4A and its associated proteins, so our work could open up new avenues for better understanding and treating these diseases.”
The researchers next plan to investigate a set of proteins that work with eIF4A to unwind mRNA, and quantify the effect of those proteins on the enzyme’s activity. Their work has been funded by the Human Frontier Science Program.