IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Biotechnology faculty tackle human health challenges
A revolutionary biotechnology and biomedical research and teaching facility being built at CU-Boulder will tackle a wide variety of pressing human health challenges ranging from cancer, aging and cardiovascular disease to inherited diseases, vaccine development and tissue engineering.
The new facility, the Jennie Smoly Caruthers Biotechnology Building, will offer the opportunity for a wide swath of researchers to collaborate, said CU-Boulder Distinguished Professor and Nobel laureate Tom Cech. Cech is director of the Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biotechnology, or CIMB, which will use the new building as a springboard to further research, teaching and technology at the intersections of life sciences, physical sciences, math, computational sciences and engineering.
The Caruthers building will host more than 60 faculty members and more than 500 researchers and support staff. In addition to CIMB, the department of chemical and biological engineering and the biochemistry division of the department of chemistry and biochemistry will benefit from the state-of-the-art research space, said Cech.
“One of the most exciting features of this building is the chance for those in chemistry, biochemistry and biology to interact with engineers, physicists, chemists and computer scientists on problems in modern biology best approached in interdisciplinary fashion,” Cech said. The modern equipment in the facility also will give biotech companies the chance to come in and collaborate with CU-Boulder faculty and students and use powerful biochemical, genetic and pharmacological screening instruments, for example, to better understand biochemical processes and further drug design, Cech said.
One interdisciplinary research effort that will take place in the Caruthers building is being led by Professor Kristi Anseth of the chemical and biological engineering department to continue the development of injectable, biodegradable “scaffolds” to regenerate cartilage for human joints. The team led by Anseth, who also is a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator (HHMI), has shown the methods also can be used to stimulate the regeneration of skin, blood vessels and bone.
In addition, Anseth is collaborating with Professor Leslie Leinwand of the molecular, cellular and developmental biology department on an effort to develop replacement heart valves through tissue engineering. Leinwand, former director and current chief scientific officer of CIMB, also will be using the new facility for collaborative research on hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic disease marked by heart muscle thickening that can obstruct blood flow and which is the No. 1 killer of young athletes.
“One of the things that distinguishes what we have done from many other higher education biotechnology initiatives is hiring new faculty that are not tied to particular departments or colleges,” said Leinwand, who leads a $1 million undergraduate research and education program and has spun off two successful biotech companies from CU. “This gives them much more flexibility to tackle biomedical challenges by adding brain power and talent from other research disciplines.”
Another MCD biology faculty member, Dr. Robert Garcea, heads a team that will use high-tech microscopy in the Caruthers building to generate images of single virus particles. The work led by Garcea – who is collaborating with colleagues at CU-Boulder and the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus – is expected to lead to the development of vaccines for pathogens like the Human Papilloma Virus, which infects skin and mucous membranes and can lead to various types of cancer.
Cech, Leinwand, Anseth and Garcea all hold joint faculty appointments at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine.
Cech said the wide breadth of basic science being done on the Boulder campus is a “great fit” with clinical and medical research at Anschutz. The Caruthers facility also will host researchers hoping to eradicate some ill effects of Down syndrome, a genetic disorder often associated with impaired cognitive ability and physical growth.
Cech, who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry, is leading a research group that involves CU students and researchers from HHMI focused on the activity and regulation of telomerase, a key enzyme for replicating the ends of chromosomes and which is linked to both cancer and aging. Cech, who returned to CU last spring after a 10-year stint as HHMI president and who remains an HHMI Investigator, is teaming with biophysicists and chemists on furthering the understanding of telomerase and its potential in the development of new pharmaceuticals.
Other interdisciplinary research groups will be hunting for biomedical traits known as biomarkers that can be used as indicators of the progression of diseases or the effects of medical treatments. "Biomarkers can be used in the discovery and treatment of many conditions, from detecting early signs of cancer to helping to determine how individuals might respond to different types of chemotherapy,” said Leinwand.
Professor Rob Knight, who holds joint appointments in chemistry and biochemistry and computer science, is heading a team to study communities of bacteria that inhabit the human gut – many of which are beneficial – that can be altered by disease and antibiotics. The team is using high-powered DNA sequencing tools and will be comparing microbial differences in individuals as diagnostic tools for disease.
Cech said the activities within the Caruthers building will also have a powerful educational component that involves K-12 teachers and students and CU-Boulder undergraduates. CU-Boulder offers funding to hundreds of undergraduates annually for biomedical research and brings hands-on science education to thousands of Colorado K-12 teachers and their students through teacher workshops, courses and outreach programs to schools.
The research teams in the new facility will come from eight departments on campus, including applied math, chemistry and biochemistry, chemical and biological engineering, computer science, ecology and evolutionary biology, integrative physiology, MCD biology and physics.
“People from diverse disciplines need to work side-by-side on a daily basis in order to make new biomedical discoveries, and this next-generation facility will allow this to happen on a large scale,” said Leinwand.
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