Above: Dr. Junghae Suh
Taking her cues from cancer’s ability to invade, mutate, and grow while defying normal cellular regulation, Rice University bioengineer Junghae Suh is developing a platform of virus-based materials that not only identify multiple biomolecular signatures of cancer, but are adept to enter the diseased cell’s nucleus and deliver new genes that stop or reverse abnormal growth.
The investigations are supported by a National Science Foundation Early Career Development (CAREER) Award. Suh is the seventh Rice bioengineering faculty member to receive this award.
“Current approaches to targeted gene therapy are limited to modifying delivery vectors, or carriers, that recognize particular cell surface cues. Unfortunately, in complex diseases, such as breast cancer, chances of finding one specific cell-surface biomarker that identifies all cancer cells are low,” Suh said.
Research in Suh’s Laboratory for Nanotherapeutics Research at Rice's BioScience Research Collaborative integrates various fields to investigate how natural biological systems, such as viruses, interface with cellular machinery, and how their behavior can be manipulated to create ‘smart’ nanoscale devices that sense other biological processes and can be programmed to carry out desirable functions for immunotherapy, tissue engineering, biomedical imaging, and national defense.
Suh’s vehicles of choice are adeno-associated viruses (AAV). Approximately 25-nanometers in size, AAVs are extensively investigated non-pathogenic viruses that are highly amenable to genetic and chemical alteration.
The NSF CAREER Award will support Suh’s research vision of programming AAV nanoparticles to detect a precise combination of matrix metalloproteases or MMPs – enzymes that exhibit misregulated expression in breast cancer. Suh seeks to protect the viral capsid, or outer shell, with an encrypted code that only ‘unlocks’ when a unique combination of enzymes exist; thus guiding its entry and passage through intracellular hurdles and access to the cancer cell’s nucleus where it can unload its genetic cargo.
“Viruses have great potential to be used as a means to cure diseases, such as breast cancer. By leveraging cutting-edge advances in protein engineering, we hope to reprogram the natural abilities of viruses and turn them into sophisticated anti-cancer treatments,” Suh added. “With this funding, I have a dual pursuit to generate sophisticated virus-derived materials and to establish an integrated high school to graduate level training, education, and outreach program.”
Suh will work closely with the NSF-funded Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) and Alliances for Graduate Education in the Professoriate (AGEP) to expose underrepresented students to the bionanotechnology research conducted in her laboratory. Through lectures, informal meetings, lab tours, and demonstrations, Suh hopes to inspire and help guide the next generation of scientists and engineers.