Research News

UConn Funds Five COVID-19 Research Projects, Announces Additional Funding

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) recently announced a new internal funding program to support researchers at all of UConn’s campuses who are using their expertise in fields as diverse as wastewater and chemosensory testing to find novel solutions to help the nation and the world address this crisis. The program will award up to $50,000 to recipients.

The OVPR awarded five awards to researchers from UConn and UConn Health:

James Cole, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Departments of Molecular and Cell Biology, $43,439
Targeting the Endoribonuclease of Coronaviruses
Co-PIs: Mark Peczuh, Chemistry Continue reading

Welcome to Fall 2020

A Message from the Department Head

Dear All,

Welcome to a new semester! The campus and building have come alive once again. We are welcoming new faculty and graduate students to the Department, we have awards and a retirement to celebrate, and we have a large group of students eagerly lining up for general or organic chemistry classes. Alas, this is not going to be a normal semester. Almost everything will be very different and difficult in ways that are predictable and unpredictable. Continue reading

Rouge Group Receives $2 Million NIH Grant

Dr. Jessica RougeJessica Rouge has been awarded an R35: Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) for Early Stage Investigators grant from the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). The award, titled “Achieving enhanced cytosolic delivery and greater efficacy of therapeutic nucleic acids using DNA-surfactant conjugates,” is for $2,000,300 over a 5-year period.

The grant focuses on addressing the critical need for improving the delivery of RNA and DNA molecules to the interior of cells, with a specific focus on nucleic acids that have the ability to treat diseases. These include molecules such as DNAzymes, siRNA and other antisense oligonucleotides that target the mRNA of cells for silencing genes involved in disease pathways. These mRNA are found in the cytosol, and a number of biological barriers need to be overcome to achieve efficient delivery.

The Rouge Lab has a multi-tiered set of chemical approaches to address these issues, ranging from synthesizing new DNA surfactant conjugates that aid in penetrating cell membranes, to the synthesis and use of hybrid nanomaterials for stabilizing oligonucleotides, to the application of enzymes for tailoring the assembly of these materials. The grant will also support the synthesis of new fluorophore-labeled surfactants for assaying the efficiency of nucleic acid delivery into cells and the rate of endosomal escape – two traditionally challenging areas to study due to the chemical instability of RNA and DNA in the cytoplasm of cells.

Mercury Remains a Persistent Poison in Connecticut’s Still River

Early 20th century postcard with an image of a hat factory in Danbury, CT
Hat factories in Danbury, like the one featured on this early 20th century postcard, left mercury pollution in the Still River that researchers are still detecting today. (UConn Library Archives and Special Collections)

Western Connecticut is known for rolling hills, rich history, and industry, such as hat making. Once called the “Hat City of the World,” Danbury thrived. Anyone familiar with Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter may also be aware of the dangers of hat making, due to the industry’s use of the potent toxin mercury. Starting in the late 1700s, Danbury hat factories were a point source of pollution, dumping large quantities of mercury into the nearby Still River.

Fashions change, the use of mercury in hat making was outlawed in 1940, and now all that remains of the once-thriving hatting industry in Danbury is its history – or is it?

A group of researchers from UConn and Wesleyan University spent four years studying a stretch of the Still River, and found that the industrial waste of a century ago is still very much present in 2020.

Kayla Anatone ’12 (CAHNR), a current PhD student at Wesleyan University, was interested in the local history but also in learning if “legacy” mercury was impacting the environment and making its way into the food web. She and co-authors from the UConn Marine Sciences department – including PhD student Gunnar Hansen, Professor Robert Mason*, Assistant Research Professor Zofia Baumann and Wesleyan University Professor Barry Chernoff – recently published the findings in Chemosphere. Continue reading

Bird Eggshells Just Became More Colorful

Two eggs showing novel eggshell pigments: guacamole green and purplish-brown of two tinamous speciesFor well over 100 years, only two pigments have been identified in avian eggshells: rusty-brown protoporphyrin (e.g., brown chicken eggs) and blue-green biliverdin (e.g., turquois eggs of robins). However, tinamou (chicken-like forest dwellers of South America) eggshells display unusually colored eggshells, suggesting the presence of other pigments. The Brückner Group, in collaboration with the ornithologists and eggshell and bird color experts Daniel Hanley (Long Island University) and Richard Prum (Yale University), investigated this. Through extraction, derivatization, spectroscopy, chromatography, and mass spectrometry, they identified two novel eggshell pigments: yellow–brown bilirubin and red–orange uroerythrin from the guacamole-green and purplish-brown eggshells of two tinamous species. Both pigments are known porphyrin catabolites and were found in the eggshells in conjunction with biliverdin. A colour mixing model using the new pigments and biliverdin reproduced the respective eggshell colours. These discoveries expand our understanding of how eggshell colour diversity is achieved. The ability of these pigments to photo-degrade may have an adaptive value for the tinamous – this is the subject of follow-up studies for the ornithologists.

Hamchand, R.; Hanley, D.; Prum, R.O.; Brückner, C. ‘Expanding the Eggshell Colour Gamut: Uroerythrin and Bilirubin from Tinamou (Tinamidae) Eggshells’ Sci. Rep. 202010, 11264.

Read the full article

Atomwise Partnership Enables UConn Researcher to Investigate COVID-19 Drug Target

University of Connecticut professor of molecular and cell biology James Cole* is working on identifying new therapeutics for COVID-19.

Through a collaboration with Atomwise, a California-based company which uses artificial intelligence to advance small molecule drug discovery, Cole is one of the 15 researchers looking at different coronavirus protein targets for COVID-19 treatment.

Cole is focusing on the NSP15/EndoU ribonuclease enzyme the COVID-19 virus needs to replicate as well as degrade viral RNA to hide it from host cell defenses. Cole is looking for a molecule that can inhibit the enzyme and thus inhibit replication of coronaviruses.

“The virus and the host carry out this war,” Cole says. “The virus has to evade the host’s innate immunity response while the host is trying to stop the virus from replicating.”

By inhibiting this enzyme, the body’s innate immune system would prevent the virus from replicating. Continue reading

UConn Researcher Invents Nanoparticle for Overcoming Leukemia Treatment Resistance

UConn associate professor of pharmaceutics Xiuling Lu, along with professor of chemistry Rajeswari M. Kasi, was part of a team that recently published a paper in Nature Cell Biology finding a commonly used chemotherapy drug may be repurposed as a treatment for resurgent or chemotherapy-resistant leukemia.

One of the largest problems with cancer treatment is the development of resistance to anticancer therapies. Few FDA-approved products directly target leukemia stem cells, which cause treatment-resistant relapses. The only known method to combat their presence is stem cell transplantation.

Leukemia presents unique treatment challenges due to the nature of this form of cancer. The disease affects bone marrow, which produces blood cells. Leukemia is a cancer of the early blood-forming cells, or stem cells. Most often, leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells. The first step of treatment is to use chemotherapy to kill the cancerous white blood cells, but if the leukemia stem cells in the bone marrow persist, the cancer may relapse in a therapy-resistant form. Continue reading

IMS Researchers Make Cover of Advanced Materials

May 26th Issue of Advanced Materials cover showing the work of Dr. Greg Sotzing and collaboratorsA molecular engineering principle in which repeat units of fairly rigid fused bicyclic structure and alkenes, separated by freely rotating single bonds, is proposed by Gregory A. Sotzing, Yang Cao, and published as a cover highlight of the May 26th Issue of Advanced Materials in article number 2000499, led by Dr. Chao Wu, a PDF at EIRC, and Ajinkya Deshmukh, a Polymer Program Ph.D. student for energy storage at elevated temperature.

The piston‐like crankshaft structure endows the system with a large bandgap of ≈5eV and flexibility, while being temperature‐invariantly stable. The piston/pendant allows engineering for temperature‐invariant dipolar polarization for energy storage. As part of a UConn lead MURI program, the design strategy uncovered in this work reveals a hitherto unexplored space for the design of scalable and efficient polymer dielectrics for electrical power and electronic systems under concurrent harsh electrical and thermal conditions.

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Blurb courtesy of IMS News

LambdaVision/Birge Group Receives $5 Million from NASA

LambdaVision was awarded five million dollars from NASA to continue their work on the International Space Station (ISS) for an artificial retina that could help patients regain their sight. The award will fund flights to the ISS for the next three years to manufacture and improve the artificial retina technology previously developed by LambdaVision. The layer-by-layer process of producing the protein-based artificial retina requires less materials in a microgravity environment, reducing its cost and production time. In the future, LambdaVision hopes to begin clinical trials for their artificial retina technology.

LambdaVision was founded as part of the UConn Technology Incubator Program (TIP) and is spearheaded by Nicole Wagner (CEO) and Jordan Greco (CSO). Wagner and Greco are alumni of Dr. Robert Birge’s research group and currently serve as Assistant Research Professors in UConn’s Chemistry Department.

Read the full Business Wire article here.

Matthew Howell Awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Matthew HowellCongratulations to Ph.D. candidate Matthew Howell, the recent recipient of a prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. This fellowship will begin in Fall 2020 and continue through Spring 2023. Given the growing crisis of antibiotic resistant bacteria, Matthew—in collaboration with advisor Dr. Alfredo Angeles—is interested in examining the relationships between peptides, metal ions, and antibiotics. Together, they are searching for combinations that demonstrate synergistic killing of these bacteria.