Gerecht wins NSF CAREER Award for work in blood vessel formation

Sharon Gerecht (Photo:Will Kirk/JHU)

Sharon Gerecht, assistant professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, has been awarded the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation. The $450,000 prize over five years will help Gerecht in her investigation into how hypoxia, or decreased oxygen, affects the development of blood vessels.

Gerecht’s interdisciplinary research brings together her expertise in stem cell and vascular biology with her background in engineering.  Gerecht said she hopes to discover the mechanisms and pathways involved in the formation of vascular networks, as they relate to embryonic development and diseases such as cancer.

Many medical conditions, such as cancer and heart disease, create areas of decreased oxygen or hypoxia in the spaces between cells. But oxygen is required to maintain normal tissue function by blood vessel networks, which bring nutrients to cells. Likewise, the differentiation of stem cells into more complex organs and structures needs a plentiful supply of oxygen from the vasculature to function.

Gerecht’s study will examine how low oxygen levels impact the growth factors responsible for promoting vascular networks. She also will study the growth of vascular networks in engineered hydrogels that mimic the physical attributes of the extracellular matrix, which is the framework upon which cells divide and grow. Finally, her laboratory will focus on discovering how stem cells differentiate to blood vessel cells and assemble into networks under hypoxic conditions.

She will conduct her research through her role as a project director at the Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center (EOC), a Physical Science-Oncology Center of the National Cancer Institute. Gerecht is also an associated faculty member of the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology, which administers the EOC.

Gerecht earned her doctoral degree from Technion – Israel Institute of Technology followed by postdoctoral training at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She joined the faculty of the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins in 2007.

The prestigious CAREER award, given to faculty members at the beginning of their academic careers, is one of NSF’s most competitive awards and emphasizes high-quality research and novel education initiatives. It provides funding so that young investigators have the opportunity to focus more intently on furthering their research careers.

Story by Mary Spiro

INBT launches Johns Hopkins Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence

Martin Pomper and Peter Searson will co-direct INBT’s new Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (Photo: Will Kirk/Homewood-JHU)

Faculty members associated with the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology have received a $13.6 million five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute to establish a Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence. The new Johns Hopkins center brings together a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers and physicians to develop nanotechnology-based diagnostic platforms and therapeutic strategies for comprehensive cancer care. Seventeen faculty members will be involved initially, with pilot projects adding more participants later.

The Johns Hopkins Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, which is part of the university’s Institute for NanoBioTechnology, is one of several NCI-supported centers launched through a funding opportunity started in 2005. According to the NCI, the program was established to create “multi-institutional hubs that integrate nanotechnology across the cancer research continuum to provide new solutions for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.”

Peter Searson, who is the Joseph R. and Lynn C. Reynolds Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering and director of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology, will serve as the center’s director. The co-director will be Martin Pomper, professor of radiology and oncology at the School of Medicine and the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.

“A unique feature of the center is the integration of research, education, training and outreach, and technology commercialization,” Searson said.

To move these new technologies toward use by physicians, a Cancer Nanomedicine Commercialization Working Group will be established and headed by John Fini, director of intellectual property for the university’s Homewood campus. This group will be responsible for managing and coordinating the translational process.

Another special feature of the center will be its Validation Core, led by Pomper, who is also associate director of the Johns Hopkins In Vivo Cellular and Molecular Imaging Center and director of the Johns Hopkins Small Animal Imaging Resource Program.

“Validation is about assuring that the experimental products and results we generate are on target and able to measure the biological effects for which they’re intended,” he said.

Searson and Pomper said the center will consist of four primary research projects.

One project will seek methods to screen bodily fluids such as blood or urine for indicators of cancer found outside of the genetic code, indicators called epigenetic markers. Led by Tza-Huei “Jeff” Wang, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering; Stephen Baylin, the Virginia and Daniel K. Ludwig Professor of Cancer Research in the School of Medicine; and James Herman, a professor of cancer biology in the School of Medicine, this project will use semiconductor nanocrystals, also known as quantum dots, and silica superparamagnetic particles to detect DNA methylation. Methylation adds a chemical group to the exterior of the DNA and is a biomarker frequently associated with cancer.

A second project, led by Anirban Maitra, associate professor of pathology and oncology at the School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, will focus on curcumin, a substance found in the traditional Indian spice turmeric. In preclinical studies, curcumin has demonstrated anti-cancer properties but, because of its physical size, it is not readily taken up into the bloodstream or into tissues. Engineered curcumin nanoparticles, however, can more easily reach tumors arising in abdominal organs such as the pancreas, Maitra said. This team will try to determine whether nanocurcumin, combined with chemotherapeutic agents, could become a treatment for highly lethal cancers, such as pancreatic cancer.

Hyam Levitsky, professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, will lead a third project, which will seek to use a noninvasive method to monitor the effectiveness of vaccines for cancer and infectious diseases.

A final project will build on the work of Justin Hanes and Craig Peacock, professors in the School of Medicine, to deliver therapies directly to small cell lung cancer tissue via mucus-penetrating nanoparticles.

All research efforts will be supported by a nanoparticle engineering core, led by Searson, which will make and characterize a variety of nanomaterials. Another core, centering on bioinformatics and data sharing, will be led by Rafael Irizarry, professor of biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology

Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center

First annual NCI physical sciences-oncology center investigators’ meeting held

Bryan Smith (Stanford) and Christopher Hale (JHU) shared a PS-OC Young Investigators’ Trans Network Award. (Photo/Mary Spiro)

The First Annual Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers Network Investigators’ Meeting was held April 5-7, at the National Harbor in Washington, D.C. Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center director Denis Wirtz, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering,  presented a tutorial on particle tracking, presented a talk on mechanobiology, and chaired a panel discussion on cancer cell mechanics.

In addition, several researchers affiliated with the EOC were awarded Young Investigators Trans-Network Project Awards. Wirtz’s doctoral student Christopher Hale, working with Bryan Smith of Stanford University, was recognized for the poster presentation “Tracking the Mechanics of Cancer in Living Subjects Using Intracellular Nanorheology.” Wirtz’s postdoctoral fellow Daniele Gilkes, working with colleagues at Cornell University, earned accolades for the poster presentation “Synergistic Effects of Hypoxia and Substrate Stiffness on Cancer Cell Force Generation.”

A total of 13 research posters from Johns Hopkins PS-OC were presented at the three-day meeting.