Nanoparticles for treating bacterial infections take top prize at Research Expo 2017
|Research Expo winners pose with Jacobs School Dean Albert P. Pisano.|
San Diego, Calif., April 24, 2017 -- B.J. (Byungji) Kim, a materials science and engineering graduate student at the University of California San Diego, won the grand prize at Research Expo 2017 for her work on nanoparticles that help the body’s immune system fight infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria—without the use of antibiotics. Kim received the Lee Rudee Outstanding Poster Award and a $1,000 cash prize, as well as the Katie Osterday Best Poster in mechanical engineering, which came with a $500 cash prize.
Kim bested more than 200 graduate students who were presenting their research during the event, which is in its 36th year. More than 90 judges graded the posters, focusing on the students’ ability to explain their research and communicate why it’s important.
“This event showcases our graduate students,” said Albert P. Pisano, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. “Their research moves the needle. It truly changes the world.”
In addition to the Lee Rudee Outstanding Poster Award, one poster in each department was recognized. This year, the winner in the Department of Bioengineering received the first Shu and K.C. Chien Best Poster award. The award was established thanks to a generous gift by UC San Diego alumna Ann Lee-Karlton. Now a vice president at Genentech, she earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Bioengineering at the Jacobs School. The award is named in honor of Shu Chien, a professor in the department and recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Science, among many other honors. Chien also is one of only 11 scholars in the United States to be a member of all three national academies: Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Many of the alumni who volunteered their time as judges for the event said they were amazed at the quality of the graduate students’ work. Sarah Guthals, who earned a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in computer science from the Jacobs School, was impressed both by the inter-disciplinary quality of the students’ work and by their ability to explain it. “The presentations were concise and clear,” she said. “And I got answers to all my questions.”
Aaron Sathrum was back on campus after earning a Ph.D. in materials science here. He got his first job through a Research Expo connection six years ago. In 2011, one of General Atomics’ hiring managers was there as a judge and stopped by his poster. The company then contacted Sathrum after the event and hired him later that year. “It’s a great opportunity for industry and aspiring academics to mingle, talk about their projects, learn fresh ideas and get some feedback,” he said.
In addition to industry judges, the six winners of the best department poster had to present to a jury made up of six Jacobs School faculty members. That is when Kim’s poster, titled “Tweaking the Immune System: targeted fusogenic nanoparticles for immunogene therapy against bacterial infection,” came out on top.
|B.J. (Byungji) Kim, a materials science and engineering graduate student at the University of California San Diego, won the grand prize at Research Expo 2017.|
Staph bacteria are the leading cause of skin and soft tissue infections. In some cases, Staph can cause blood infections, bone and joint infections, pneumonia and other serious infections. And with the rapid rise of antibiotic-resistant strains, researchers such as Kim are seeking alternative therapies that don’t rely on antibiotic drugs.
“Nature has already given us a powerful weapon to combat threats to our bodies—the immune system. A therapy that can harness and enhance its existing healing power would be a big advance for the field of medicine,” said Kim, who is doing her research in the materials sciences program under the guidance of UC San Diego professor Michael Sailor.
When a bacterial infection occurs, the immune system responds by sending cells called macrophages to the infected site to destroy the invaders. As part of this response, blood leaks into the infected site, causing inflammation. And while inflammation is part of the body’s healing process, it can cause major damage if left unchecked. The problem occurs when prolonged inflammation signals the initial army of macrophages to recruit more and more soldiers to the battleground, explained Kim. That can promote the buildup of harmful plaque and lead to other serious issues like organ failure.
Kim’s research addresses this problem using specifically designed nanoparticles that can turn off the macrophages’ inflammatory signal. The nanoparticles are coated with a lipid surface that specifically targets macrophages and fuses to their surface. Once fused, the nanoparticles deliver a payload that inactivates the cell’s inflammatory response.
The nanoparticles were administered to mice with Staph infections. Within a week, the bacterial counts of the mice returned to a healthy level. Researchers observed a 100 percent survival rate among mice that were treated with these nanoparticles. The nanoparticle treatment even healed mice whose infections were so severe that they were on the verge of death.
And this treatment doesn’t affect healthy cells or tissues, so it could eliminate a lot of the harmful side effects typically encountered with standard antibiotic treatments, Kim pointed out. “By boosting the body’s pre-existing immune system, we can become less dependent on small molecule drugs and more reliant on our own bodies. It’s time for us to look inward, rather than outward for solutions,” she said.
Shu and K.C. Chien Best Poster, Bioengineering Best Poster
Presenters: Mridu Bhashini Sinha, Hannah Mack and Julietta Jupe
Advisors: Stephanie I. Fraley and Todd P. Coleman
Related story: New method to identify bacteria in blood samples works in hours instead of days
Computer Science and Engineering Best Poster
Presenters: Michael Ostertag, Sean Grady, Nima Mousavi, Chris Taylor
Advisor: Tajana S. Rosing
Electrical and Computer Engineering Best Poster
Presenter: Ahmed Taha Elthakeb Youssef
Advisor: Andrew Kahng
Katie Osterday Best Poster, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Best Poster
Presenter: B.J. (Byungji) Kim
Advisor: Michael Sailor
NanoEngineering Best Poster
Presenter: Yue Zhang
Advisor: Liangfang Zhang
Related story: Gel filled with nanosponges cleans up MRSA infections
Structural Engineering Best Poster
Presenter: Adel Mashayekh
Advisor: Chia-Ming Uang
ViaSat was the lead sponsor of this year’s event. Research Expo also was supported by: ASML Cymer, Cubic, Northrop Grumman, Leidos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Promotional sponsors were Cleantech San Diego, Connect, the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation and the San Diego Workforce Partnership.