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Chemical Engineering Professors to Study Artificial Antibodies

Two faculty members in the Department of Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering, Yong Wang and Lei Zhu, landed a $450,000 grant to develop artificial antibodies capable of locating and destroying tumors. Antibodies are proteins produced in the white blood cells of humans and other vertebrates, and they move freely through blood and fluids, where they identify and attack “foreign objects” such as viruses, bacteria and other so-called antigens. This ability to fight off potentially dangerous invaders lies at the heart of vaccines, which function by increasing the production of antibodies.

Dr. Wang explained that natural antibodies sometimes don’t function as well as we may want them to, for various reasons. For example, many antibodies are simply too large to penetrate the target, such as a tumor, that they are programmed to attack. Other antibodies are ineffective due to poor immunogenicity – the ability to excite a strong response against perceived foreign objects – and owing to the fragility of their cell structures.

Drs. Wang and Zhu seek to improve upon antibody effectiveness, first by gaining a better understanding of the characteristics and functions of natural antibodies, then by developing artificial versions that offer greater stability and functional properties. They have chosen to approach this challenge via two parallel pathways, with biomolecules the focus of one path and artificial polymers at the heart of the second path. Drs. Wang and Zhu contend that natural biomolecules and synthetic polymers may be paired to obtain a more lethal tumor-fighting weapon.

Living things are made up entirely of various types of biomolecules. The type of biomolecule Drs. Wang and Zhu are using in their work is RNA, or ribonucleic acid, a nucleic acid that plays various roles in living systems, such as transporting information between DNA and various protein structures within a cell. These RNA biomolecules are capable of recognizing an antigen with great accuracy, and it is this characteristic that Dr. Wang will seek to better understand and exploit.

The second part of their work involves the use of synthetic polymers, which may be used to transport tumor-fighting medicine to the site of the undesirable object, according to Dr. Wang. Acting in a complementary fashion, explained Dr. Wang, “the biomolecules will control the motion of the polymers to the target disease within the organism.”

The two researchers aim to demonstrate that humans can produce superior-functioning antibodies. Dr. Lei’s group will focus on polymer synthesis, while Dr. Wang’s group will focus on other aspects, such as looking for biomolecules that can target tumor antigens, conjugate them with synthetic polymers, test their functionalities, etc.

The societal benefits that Drs. Wang and Zhu hope to realize include helping scientists to design future nanobiomaterials with superior functionality, and expanded use of these synthetic antibodies in the biomedical arena for drug delivery, bioimaging and tissue engineering. They could be used, for example, in the delivery of cancer-fighting drugs, or as nanoprobes capable of moving through tissue and blood to sense underlying health problems even before symptoms emerge.

The three-year project began in July and is funded by the National Science Foundation.