Following a competitive review process, the Macromolecules Innovation Institute (MII) has awarded seed funding to two research projects through its Interdisciplinary Collaborative Seed Program, now in its second year.

The program is a one-year funding opportunity designed to support and enhance collaborations between MII research groups in different departments and colleges at Virginia Tech. Because emerging collaborations among faculty in different disciplines often originate from their students seeking help from their peers, this program is specifically designed to support the stipends of the talented student collaborators.

This year, funding has been awarded to a team investigating methods for enhancing the effectiveness of mRNA vaccines as well as a team seeking to improve methods for studying liver fibrosis.

“These two teams represent a total of four different departments, meaning that they are bringing diverse areas of expertise to the table,” said Robert B. Moore, professor of chemistry and director of MII. “The students, along with their advisors, will create new knowledge that transcends disciplines needed to foster discoveries in the heath frontier that greatly benefit our society. Their focus on macromolecular materials in medical advancements is something that we are immensely proud to be able to support.”

One woman speaks to another, while gesturing toward a computer screen displaying a graph with multicolored lines.
Graduate students Fiorella Mazzini (at left) and Teshani Kumarage discuss data probing the effect of cholesterol binding on model biopolymer membrane formation. Photo by Reilly Henson for Virginia Tech.

Because MII’s most successful collaborations are often initiated through working relationships between its motivated students, this funding will be dedicated to supporting a student in each of the two collaborating groups. Each of the four students in the two teams selected in this year’s competition will be designated as MII Interdisciplinary Graduate Collaborative (IGC) fellows.

The Interdisciplinary Collaborative Seed Program supports MII’s mission to advance innovations in macromolecular science and engineering through synergistic interdisciplinary teams as well as to provide state-of-the art education for students, who will be the future leaders in these fields.

Four people sit around a conference table smiling and having a conversation.
(From left) Teshani Kumarage, Kevin Edgar, Rana Ashkar, and Fiorella Mazzini discuss their plans for getting their seed funding project started. Photo by Reilly Henson for Virginia Tech.

Synergistic Molecular Designs Toward Stable, Biocompatible Vaccine Nanocarriers

Led by Rana Ashkar, an assistant professor of physics in the College of Science, and Kevin Edgar, a professor of sustainable biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. IGC fellows are Fiorella Mazzini, a GlycoMIP Scholar and graduate student in macromolecular science and engineering, and Teshani Kumarage, a graduate student in physics.

With the increasing demand for mRNA vaccines, such as those recently developed for coronavirus, methods for further enhancing the effectiveness of vaccine delivery have become a major area of research. This particular project will use an innovative molecular design for synthesizing a new form of cholesterol that binds to biological polymers similar to those coating our cells.

The team will introduce this molecule in current formulations of vaccine carriers to determine its efficiency in stabilizing mRNA carriers. This will be done through a suite of molecular characterization methods that examine the physiochemical properties of this proposed molecular modification, with the ultimate goal of improving the vaccine’s ability to reach its destination within the body while maintaining the highest level of safety.

Three people stand looking at a computer screen, while a fourth person sits in front of the computer, displaying a dark-colored scientific figure.
(Clockwise from top left) Professor John Matson, Ishani Sarkar, Professor Padma Rajagopalan, and Neeti Gandhi look at immunofluorescence images taken on a microscope. Photo by Reilly Henson for Virginia Tech.

Molecular Design of Biomaterials for Treating Liver Fibrosis via Regenerative Medicine

Led by John Matson, a professor of chemistry in the College of Science, and Padma Rajagopalan, a professor of chemical engineering in the College of Engineering. IGC fellows are Neeti Gandhi,  graduate student in chemical engineering, and Ishani Sarkar, a graduate student in chemistry.

A crucial part of medical research involves in vitro studies, which are cell-based experiments done outside of a person’s body, often using test tubes, culture dishes, or critically, soft materials that mimic native tissue. For such a study to be effective, researchers must have access to cells and materials that closely replicate the conditions inside a person’s body. In this project, the researchers will create substances that can be used in in vitro studies of liver fibrosis, which is a widespread chronic disease. They will develop a type of polymer that can mimic the signals that pass between cells in the liver, ultimately leading to more effective medical studies of organ disease. 

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