Faculty News

Award Announcements

Two University of Connecticut Chemistry professors recently received Research Excellence Program (REP) awards. Dr. Eugene Pinkhassik recently received the award for his proposal, “Catch and Release of Nucleic Acids with Porous Nanocapsules.” Dr. Yao Lin was awarded for his proposal, “Mechanics of Processive Enzymes that Degrade Crystalline Polymers and Its Implications in Designing Macromolecular Machines.” Congratulations!

New Compound Helps Activate Cancer-Fighting T Cells

By Colin Poitras, UConn Communications

An illustration showing interactions between components of the AH10-7 compound (yellow), an immune system antigen-presenting cell (gray), and an invariant natural killer T cell (green and blue) that spark activation of iNKT cells in ‘humanized’ mice. (Image courtesy of José Gascón/UConn)
Researchers Amy Howell and José Gascón of the chemistry department discuss a molecular simulation on a laptop monitor in the academic wing of the Chemistry Building. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells are powerful weapons our body’s immune systems count on to fight infection and combat diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, and lupus. Finding ways to spark these potent cells into action could lead to more effective cancer treatments and vaccines.

While several chemical compounds have shown promise stimulating iNKT cells in mice, their ability to activate human iNKT cells has been limited.

Now, an international team of top immunologists, molecular biologists, and chemists led by University of Connecticut chemistry professor Amy Howell reports in Cell Chemical Biology the creation of a new compound that appears to have the properties researchers have been looking for.

The compound – a modified version of an earlier synthesized ligand – is highly effective in activating human iNKT cells. It is also selective – encouraging iNKT cells to release a specific set of proteins known as Th1 cytokines, which stimulate anti-tumor immunity.

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New Method Unearths Climate Data from Ancient Soils

Hren By Elaina Hancock, UConn Communications

In Scientific Reports today, UConn researchers report a novel approach to reconstructing ancient climates using analyses of organic compounds in sediments and soils.

This method was developed by former UConn postdoctoral scientist Yvette Eley (now in the Department of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, U.K.) and assistant professor Michael Hren in the UConn Center for Integrative Geosciences. Their new approach makes use of organic compounds found in the waxy, lipid-rich cuticle of plants. These waxy surfaces are critical to plant survival, as they minimize water loss and provide protection from factors such as UV radiation.

The distribution of organic compounds in leaf waxes records information about their growing environment. For instance, when confronted with stressful conditions such as shortage of water, plants can respond by changing the distribution of organic compounds in their leaf wax to combat water loss and improve their chances of survival. Various environmental parameters can therefore result in plants with different distributions of lipids, and these profiles can reveal a lot about the climate those plants were growing in. Continue reading

Professor Kumar Wins Provost Award

Professor Challa Kumar’s proposal to The Provost’s General Education Course Enhancement Grant Competition entitled “Science Writing: Portable, adoptable and comprehensive writing course for various science departments” has been selected for funding. The proposal offered an explicit fit to the competition objectives and had multiple innovative elements, including flipped classroom exercises in which videos were combined with assignments, and assessment that involved an oral presentation, a poster, and a multimedia e-book. The course also included a substantial research component. Professor Kumar was awarded $7416 for the 2018 Fiscal Year.

Chemistry Professor Nationally Recognized for Inventions

By Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

Altug Poyraz, left, a graduate student, with Steven Suib, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. According to Suib, some of the greatest benefits of being an academic inventor are the opportunities it allows him to provide to his students, many of whom will work in industry after graduating from UConn. (Peter Morenus/UConn File Photo)

Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Steven L. Suib has some advice for early career faculty and student researchers who are interested in inventing. Given that Suib was recently named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI), it would probably be smart to grab a pencil.

“Ask a lot of questions, know the literature, don’t be afraid to move on from ideas that just aren’t working. But above all, keep an open mind and work with other people,” offered Suib.

Throughout his nearly 40-year research career, Suib has lived by these words. As a preeminent expert in solid state chemistry and the synthesis of novel materials with a strong environmental focus, his work has produced numerous discoveries with a variety of applications in several industry sectors.

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Tailoring Treatment to Combat Diseased Cells at the Genetic Level

By Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

Jessica Rouge, Assistant Professor talking with Ph.D. student Josh Santiana in her research lab in the Chemistry building on Nov. 29, 2017. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

A new drug delivery system that uses a synthetic-biological hybrid nanocapsule could provide a smart technology for targeted treatment of a variety of serious diseases at the genetic level.

The hybrid offers a way to correct diseased cells at the genetic level – while at the same time leaving healthy cells alone – to increase the effectiveness of treatments and reduce unwanted side effects.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all delivery system,” says Jessica Rouge, assistant professor of chemistry at UConn, and author of a new paper on the technology in Bioconjugate Chemistry. “The beauty of this system is that it is programmable, modular, and has the ability to rapidly integrate diverse peptide sequences. It can be tailored to combat new disease challenges as they emerge.”

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