A Meeting of Minds
Christopher Lambert, research associate professor in WPI's Bioengineering Institute and Norman Garceau, president and chief scientific officer of Blue Sky Biotech.
by Michael I. Cohen
Can a building be a catalyst for innovative collaborations? From its inception, that was the hope for WPI’s Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center (LSBC) at Gateway Park. By design, the center was intended to break down the traditional barriers between academic departments and between university and corporate research programs. In theory, by comingling these groups in one building where they would share core facilities and work side by side in open laboratory bays, people and ideas would come together in new ways. Over the past two years, that theory has become standard practice.
Serendipity at the Elevator
"The project we’re working on now started a year ago during a conversation we had while waiting for an elevator," says Christopher Lambert, research associate professor in WPI’s Bioengineering Institute. "And what’s come of it is really quite exciting."
That chat with Norman Garceau, president and chief scientific officer of Blue Sky Biotech, a contract research organization that moved to the LSBC in 2007, has since resulted in innovative research to help those affected with diabetes. It was the first of many talks, often while passing in the hallways or over coffee in the cafeteria. The discussions became more focused as Lambert learned of Blue Sky's expertise in protein synthesis and analysis, and Garceau became more familiar with Lambert’s work engineering surfaces to interact with biologic molecules.
"Even before we moved to Gateway Park, we knew of WPI and wanted to collaborate, but it just never happened," Garceau says. "Proximity is important. Our old location was only a mile and a half across town, but that proved to be a real barrier. You had to plan a meeting, get in your car, and drive to WPI. Now, it’s much easier."
While they worked in different fields, Garceau and Lambert were both interested in diabetes and the biological mechanisms involved in processing insulin to regulate blood sugar. They came up with an idea: combine their expertise and see if they could create an engineered surface that models a
human cell membrane capable of holding a protein known as an insulin receptor. If it works, it could become a new screening tool to develop drugs for diabetes. "The project really builds on both our strengths," Garceau says. "It's just the kind of thing we hoped would happen when we came to Gateway Park."
The insulin receptor is like an antenna that sticks through a cell's outer membrane. When the receptor interacts with insulin in the bloodstream, it signals the cell to begin taking up sugar. Type 2 diabetes arises when the receptor fails, allowing sugar to build up in the blood; type 1 diabetes is caused by a failure of the insulin-making machinery. A drug that could mimic the signals sent by insulin receptors could be an effective treatment for both types of the disease.
The problem is that early-stage drug screening involves isolating a potential drug target and then mixing it with various molecules to see if they affect it; the process doesn’t work well for proteins like the insulin receptor. "When you take a receptor out of the cell membrane, and put it in solution for screening, it doesn’t function normally," Garceau says. "It is dependent on being in that membrane to work properly, so it’s very hard to test with current assays, especially in a high-throughput way."
The Lambert and Garceau work is advancing toward a prototype for testing. If all goes well, Blue Sky Biotech hopes to commercialize the technology. "The beauty of this project is that we didn’t have a plan right away," Lambert says. "We just got along with each other, became interested in each other’s work, and decided to find a way to work together."
Minds Meet at Journal Club
The elevator isn't the only place potential collaborations coalesce at the LSBC. Faculty, graduate students, and company researchers regularly gather for "journal clubs" to review the latest publications of mutual interest, or to make informal presentations of new data from their labs. These meetings are open and fluid discussions designed to be crucibles for constructive criticism and new thinking.
For Jennifer Makridakis, a graduate student studying in the lab of George Pins, associate professor of biomedical engineering, one such meeting was the start of a two-year project with researchers at CellThera, a company that moved to the LSBC in 2007.
Makridakis was working to get cells to adhere to thin collagen threads developed in Pins's lab. The long-term goal was to create a model of muscle fibers that might replace damaged muscles. At the same time, CellThera was working to reprogram human muscle cells so they could regenerate muscle tissue. "We had the muscle cells," says Raymond Page, chief science officer for CellThera. "George's lab had a potential delivery system to place cells at a site of injury. Working together seemed like a perfect fit."
"The whole reason CellThera is here at WPI is because we felt that by having more minds thinking about the clinical problems we're working on, we'd have a better chance of making progress."
During the summers of 2008 and 2009, Makridakis worked in the CellThera lab, learning tissue culture processes, experimenting with different ways to seed bundles of collagen threads with CellThera’s human muscle cells, and observing how the seeded cells reacted under various conditions. "It was a great experience for me," says Makridakis, who earned her master's degree in the fall of 2009. "Not only did I learn a lot, but it helped me direct my research toward a clinically relevant goal."
In continued collaboration with WPI, CellThera is further studying the thread/cell construct to test its potential for use in wound healing, says Page, who is also a research associate professor in WPI's Center for Regenerative Biosciences."The whole reason CellThera is here at WPI is because we felt that by having more minds thinking about the clinical problems we’re working on, we’d have a better chance of making progress," he says. "And I believe these collaborations are helpful for students, because it gives them a sense of what it will be like to work in a company when they graduate."
"It was a wonderful project. We plan to use this new technology in our ongoing studies."
A Bright Idea for RXi
Opportunities for collaborations in the LSBC are not limited to faculty and graduate students. "We've had WPI undergrads in as interns in our lab, and I’ve been impressed with their abilities," says Joanne Kamens, director of discovery at LSBC tenant RXi Pharmaceuticals, the company co-founded by Nobel Laureate Craig Mello to develop drugs based on RNA interference. "Our first intern, Will Stanney, was so good we hired him right after graduation in 2009."
While still an undergrad, Stanney did his MQP (Major Qualifying Project) at RXi, adapting a new technology for screening test results in RXi's lab. The technology uses glowing molecular labels known as fluorophores, which are attached to segments of RNA that carry messages from a specific gene. Much of RXi's work focuses on stopping messages sent by particular genes that cause disease. Using the technology Stanney adapted, RXi's scientists can quickly see through the microscope how effective an experiment was at stopping the RNA messages. "It was a wonderful project," Kamens says. "We plan to use this new technology in our ongoing studies."
These are just three of the many examples of cross connections between the university and corporate research programs ongoing at the LSBC. Others can be found in the Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives incubator facility, where several small start-ups make use of core facilities or contract with WPI labs for research and development support. "It's gratifying to see our hopes for this building play out in practice," says Eric Overstrom, head of the Biology and Biotechnology Department and LSBC director. "As WPI's life sciences programs continue to grow, I know we will see many more such collaborations, and the work that flows from them will solve important problems."