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Health & Wellness + Science & Tech

Fighting Disease with Numbers and Tiny Mirrors

BU nabs two state grants for cutting-edge medical science

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ENG’s James Galagan will create predictive models of tuberculosis in order to identify better targets for drug therapies. ENG’s Hatice Altug is developing a diagnostic device that will use tiny crystals to slow down and capture light in order to detect viruses and proteins. Photos courtesy of James Galagan and Hatice Altug

Boston University is poised to be the site of major breakthroughs in tuberculosis research and virus detection.

BU recently received two grants from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-public agency whose purpose is to attract and retain top-notch scientific talent in Massachusetts.

The first award, a three-year $750,000 New Faculty Startup Grant, allowed BU to lure James Galagan, a leader in genomics and computational biology, to the College of Engineering. Galagan, who was codirector of microbial genomics at the Broad Institute, a research collaboration of MIT and Harvard University, is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, a School of Medicine assistant professor of microbiology, and associate director of the Systems Biology of Infectious Diseases Core in BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL).

The NEIDL is being built in Boston’s South End by the BU Medical Center with a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Researchers will study dangerous infectious diseases and develop diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines.

At the NEIDL, Galagan will focus on the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, studying the interactions of the bacteria’s genes and protein networks in order to create a more precise understanding of TB behavior and to find optimal targets for new drugs. It’s a computational approach, integrating massive amounts of data to build a predictive model, a “circuit diagram,” as Galagan puts it, of how a disease responds to different environmental conditions or pharmaceuticals.

“It’s a more targeted way to fighting disease, with less trial and error than previous research approaches,” says ENG Dean Kenneth Lutchen, who wrote the grant proposals along with Selim Unlu, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering, Andrei Ruckenstein, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of physics and the University’s associate provost and vice president for research, and Mark Klempner, the associate provost for research at Boston University Medical Center and the NEIDL principal investigator.

“The nexus of genomics and computational systems biology is the next forefront for advancing infectious disease research,” says Klempner. “James represents someone on the cutting edge of this, and we’re thrilled he’ll be helping to lead our systems biology efforts at the NEIDL.”

In addition to boosting BU’s infectious-disease research capabilities, the Life Sciences Initiative also supported the development of new diagnostic and biomolecule sensors with a three-year, $300,000 New Investigator Grant to Hatice Altug, an ENG assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. Altug is using her photonics expertise to develop a nanoscale device that uses tiny crystals to manipulate light in order to quickly detect the presence of a virus, a protein, or a cancer cell in a drop of blood.

“We should be able to do many detections at once, rather than one at a time,” says Altug, who is collaborating on the project with John Connor, a MED assistant professor of microbiology, and Massachusetts General Hospital cancer researchers. She aims to have a working device within three years that clinicians in remote areas could use to detect disease or that researchers could turn to for a faster means of analyzing protein function. “It will be a high throughput system,” says Altug, “and that’s crucial for drug discovery.”

“Hatice is one of a cadre of extraordinarily talented new junior faculty at ENG who are very comfortable bringing multidisciplinary approaches to complex problems,” says Lutchen. In addition, he says, both Altug and Galagan “are helping to build bridges between the Charles River Campus and the Medical Campus, which will be crucial for moving forward into systems biology approaches to medical discovery.”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

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