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NSF CAREER Award Could Lead to New Disease Treatments

Daniel Fologea, Physics, CAREER Award, Photo by Allison Corona

A protein extracted from the fluid of earthworms is providing researchers with valuable information that could help treat deadly diseases or eventually even lead to a cure for cancer.

Daniel Fologea, assistant professor of biophysics, is using lysenin protein in his five-year, $505,000 CAREER award from the National Science Foundation’s Biomaterials program.

The CAREER award is the NSF’s most prestigious award supporting junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. It is intended to give promising researchers an early career boost by providing stable research funding over an extended period of time.

Titled “Single molecule characterization and controlled transport using lysenin channels inserted into lipid membranes,” Fologea’s project integrates physics, biology, mathematics, engineering and education to advance the understanding and applications of lysenin channels for scientific, technological and biomedical purposes.

Here’s how it works. Proteins are inserted into insulating lipid membranes, forming nano-sized channels through the hydrophobic wall (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter). When an electrical current is passed through that channel, the passage of molecules through the pore produces tiny changes in the current flow. Watching for these changes allows researchers to detect and identify even a single molecule — such as a cancer marker — as it passes through the channel.

“One molecule is the ultimate sensitivity you can ask for,” Fologea said. The use of proteins to identify a single molecule in a solution could be extremely important for early diagnosis of cancer, much earlier than is possible with current technology.

The pores found in the lysenin proteins from earthworms (Eisenia foetida) are unique in that they are larger than pores from other sources, allowing researchers to analyze bigger molecules. But an added benefit is that the pores are also regulated, meaning they can be opened and closed using physical and chemical stimuli.

“One of our goals is to reconstitute the pores in artificial nanocarriers capable of transporting drugs into tumors, and then releasing them in a highly controlled manner by manipulating their opening and closing,” he said. “Using chemical and physical stimuli, we also want to introduce foreign materials into cells such as genes and drugs — molecules that are capable of changing the cell’s metabolism or functionality.”

Hypothetically, this method could be used to target a gene responsible for cancer and simply turn it off or to introduce new genes into a cell in order to correct a current, but deficient, gene.

The project also includes a robust educational outreach element. Fologea will incorporate his research activities into his interdisciplinary teaching practices with undergraduate, graduate and high school students.

A summer program for undergraduate students will be developed in partnership with a local community college, and he’ll offer a full-year tutoring program for high-school students. Engaging students in outreach activities at local schools and educational centers will develop their ability to effectively share their interest in science, energize young students to pursue STEM careers, and cultivate a greater understanding of the merits of scientific research in the public at large, he said.

These educational objectives will be implemented and assessed with assistance from the Center for Teaching and Learning, and from the NSF WIDER-PERSIST program at Boise State.

Fologea notes that this award would not have been possible without the continuous support of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Physics, the Biomolecular Sciences Ph.D. program and the Biomolecular Research Center. He also recognized numerous undergraduate and graduate students who helped with the research activities in his lab over the past few years.

This is the latest in a growing number of NSF CAREER awards to Boise State faculty, including two announced earlier this year: one to Paul Simonds in physics and another to Trevor Lujan in engineering.