June 27, 2018
A biology professor and an engineering-biology team were awarded research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this month for innovative projects pertaining to cancer research, biofluidics, and the microbiome. These new grants not only recognize fruitful interdisciplinary collaborations on campus, but also mark a prestigious accomplishment for the Department of Biology, because now every tenure-track and tenured professor in the department has received research funding from the NIH.

“This is quite rare in any university. It reflects the high quality of research pursued by our faculty, which integrates both basic as well as translational research to address some of the critical questions in cell and molecular biology,” said Venigalla Rao, department chair. “This also means that the biology department continues to build a very strong research base, engaging a large number of undergraduate and graduate students in cutting-edge research.”

Byung Min (Justin) Chung, an assistant professor who focuses on cell structure and cancer biology, received an NIH grant for his research studying the role of keratin 19 (K19) in cancer cells. Keratins are a group of cytoskeletal proteins associated with supporting the structure of cells, but recent findings indicate that they also have a role in gene expression. Chung’s research will take a closer look at these novel functions in the hope of developing a better understanding of what causes cancer and how the disease progresses. 

“Once we study how K19 works in cancer and how cancer cells progress, then we can not only detect cancer, but we can begin to develop functional or efficient treatment options,” said Chung. “Our goal is to study those cancer cells that have K19, because if K19 is helping to drive cancer cells, that will help us identify how to target and kill those cancer cells.”

Chung said he chose to focus his research on cancer because the disease is the second leading cause of death in the world. He also appreciates how cancer research can be a reference to learn about other diseases.

“What you can gather from cancer research and all this information about molecular mechanisms can be applied to other diseases as well,” Chung said. “I don’t feel like I’m only a cancer biologist, omitting all other diseases. I really feel like I’m a cell biologist, studying the well-being of cells.”

Chung said he is very pleased to receive the NIH grant because it will support the expensive, but necessary, experiments needed for his work in cellular biology. He is also proud to be a part of a biology department that has received so much NIH support.

“In this day and age, when the funding rate is so low, I think that’s remarkable and a testament to every faculty member as well as the leadership in the department,” Chung said.  

An interdisciplinary team including Xiaolong Luo, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and John Choy, an assistant professor in biology, also received a NIH grant in support of their collaborative research. Choy and Luo have been working and publishing together for several years. The joint NIH grant aims to create a biological platform that will enable researchers to learn how groups of various bacterial species interact.

“It’s clear that bacteria and other microorganisms inhabiting our body have a profound effect on our health as well as when health goes awry,” Choy said. “Our collaboration is to try to develop a very simplified system and then build on it to try to understand how these microorganisms interact and how the chemicals they produce can affect changes in behavior between those different species that could lead to disease or protect health.”

Together, the professors have designed highly flexible microfluidic devices that can provide a livable habitat for multiple species of bacteria and yeast, even if each has different nutritional needs. The platform will also have a common area, where the different species will be free to interact.

“A biological platform of this kind will allow research that is not possible with standard microbiological techniques,” Luo said. “Up until now, scientists typically study microorganisms in pure cultures or observe interactions between microbes that share the same nutritional requirements. With the new platform, scientists will be able to study the interactions of more diverse species on a single cell level or as entire populations.”

Though the current experiments are aimed at studying mixed cultures of two species of bacteria with a single species of yeast, Choy and Luo hope to one day build a platform that will allow them to dissect the complex signaling networks that connect many more species, akin to what we find in the human microbiome (the populations of microorganisms living on and in human beings). They also hope to learn how to fine-tune each platform to provide an optimal environment for specific microorganisms to thrive.

Luo said he was very excited to work on the project and called the grant an important step to go to the next level. “This grant can energize us to work more and focus more on this,” he said. “This is a platform I think could be very useful.”

Choy said he was happy to be working across disciplines to develop something so innovative.

“I think if you look at science, it’s becoming more interdisciplinary, because the new technologies that are being developed are being used to address long-standing biological questions,” he said. “The convergence that has been happening in the past 10 years has really moved us ahead in our understanding of basic biology and could lead to advances in health care which could make a difference in diagnosing and curing diseases. I’m really excited to move forward.”