Students Develop Nanoscale Structures to Probe Neurons
By Mark Dwortzan
In November a group of five undergraduates became the first Boston University team to participate in BIOMOD, an international student biomolecular design competition focused on the systematic assembly of biological molecules into complex nanoscale machines that can perform useful tasks. Having designed and implemented their project over the summer, they presented it to a panel of judges at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard in November at BIOMOD’s annual Jamboree, and emerged as one of 13 gold winners.
Competitors included many top-tier colleges and universities across the globe, from Columbia University to the Tokyo Institute of Technology, advancing biomolecular devices capable of everything from fighting cancer to detecting the presence of pathogens.
The BU team, Terriergami, sought to design a novel approach to fabricate DNA origami, or nanoscale objects made of folded DNA, to reach brain cells in an efficient manner. To achieve their goal, the students systematically folded DNA into barrel-shaped structures, attaching a peptide to the surface of the barrel to improve brain cell targeting capability.
Terriergami’s nanoscale objects could be developed to sense a neuron’s cellular environment or deliver drugs directly to it, and ultimately enable clinicians to diagnose or treat brain disorders.
“To my knowledge, this is one of the first proof-of-principle demonstrations of delivering DNA origami to neurons,” said Assistant Professor Xue Han(BME), who worked with these students in her lab. “The team did a great job presenting their research and representing the College of Engineering and BU.”
Supervised by Han and BME postdoctoral fellow Richie Kohman, the team includes three BME seniors, Prakash Iyer (also majoring in Neuroscience), Aditya Sengupta and Harvin Vallabhaneni; one junior, Steve Man (Computer Science); and one BME sophomore, Sangeeta Satish. The undergraduates joined the team eager to explore DNA origami and its applications, and came away with new skills and insights.
“Over the summer we used DNA as building blocks and self-assembly methods to create tiny delivery ‘cages’ out of the DNA,” said Vallabhaneni. “These were all concepts I studied in introductory courses. Through BIOMOD, I was expected not only to understand these concepts, but also to apply them to solve problems.”
“I was drawn by the idea that we could use the body’s own materials, its DNA, in order to target and possibly treat diseases,” said Man. “There is a large focus in medicine on ensuring that the body’s own immune system doesn’t reject treatments. Disguising these medical compounds underneath the human body’s own biology is an elegant and practical way of overcoming this obstacle.”
Building on their BIOMOD work, the BME seniors on the team will further explore the use of DNA origami in neurons in Han’s lab as part of their senior design project.
The BU team’s project was funded through the College of Engineering, BME Department and BU’s Peter Paul Fellowship.
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