Three teams of Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine researchers have been named winners of the 2020 John S. Dunn Collaborative Research Awards.
Projects by this year’s winners focus on smart wound dressing, genome analysis toward treatment of tuberculosis and gene therapy for neurodevelopmental disorders.
The annual program that began in 2008 supports new collaborations among researchers at two or more Gulf Coast Consortia (GCC) institutions. The program is funded by the John S. Dunn Foundation and administered by the GCC.
Taiyun Chi, a Rice assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Swathi Balaji, an assistant professor of surgery at Baylor, are developing an artificial intelligence-assisted smart wound dressing to expedite wound healing. The method would use adaptive machine learning to deliver personalized treatment through biosensors that assess the state of the wound in real time and actuators that deliver biochemical and biophysical stimulation where and when they are needed. They intend to transform healing of chronic wounds or traumatic burn injuries by reducing the need for continuous screenings, eliminating incomplete healing with scarring and reducing the risk of infection and amputations.
Isaac Hilton, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice, and Andrew DiNardo, an assistant professor of infectious disease at Baylor, are working on CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing techniques that pave the way for treatment of tuberculosis by reversing pathological DNA methylation — aka hypermethylation, the silencing of transcription in immune-signaling pathways — and restoring host immunity in patients. The researchers will use mycobacterial colonies to find the mechanism by which locus-specific and global DNA hypermethylation contributes to the exhaustion of immune cells.
Mingshan Xue, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor, and Jerzy Szablowski, a Rice assistant professor of bioengineering and a core faculty member of the university’s Neuroengineering Initiative, are working on region-specific and brainwide gene therapy for neurodevelopmental disorders. Because current treatments are only able to alleviate symptoms without addressing the genetic causes, researchers have a long-term goal to identify targets and develop methods to deliver gene therapies. They first plan to target pathogenic STXBP1-encephalopathy binding proteins associated with intellectual disabilities and epilepsies.
The Dunn Foundation is a longtime supporter of collaborative research through the GCC, which builds interdisciplinary research teams and training programs in the biomedical sciences that involve the computational, chemical, mathematical and physical sciences. GCC member institutions include Rice, Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Houston, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB), the Institute of Biosciences and Technology of the Texas A&M Health Science Center (IBT) and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.