Research News

A Copper Bullet for Tuberculosis

Bacteria Mycobacterium TuberculosisTuberculosis is a sneaky disease. The bacteria hide from antibiotics inside the very immune cells that are supposed to kill them, making treatment long and difficult. But in the November issue of ACS Infectious Diseases, UConn chemists report a new antibiotic that can find and kill tuberculosis bacteria where they hide.

Tuberculosis is the number one cause of death from infectious disease worldwide. About 25 percent of people on the planet are currently infected. Most of those infections will stay dormant, but one in 10 will become active, infectious, and often fatal if untreated.

Tuberculosis is caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Because of Mycobacterium’s unique lifestyle, in which they allow themselves to be eaten by macrophage immune cells and then grow inside of them, they are very hard to treat. People infected with tuberculosis must typically take a cocktail of antibiotics diligently over many months, because the bacteria are only susceptible to the drugs when they break out of the macrophage in which they were born and search out a new one to invade.

UConn chemist Alfredo Angeles-Boza and his then-graduate student, Daben Libardo, and colleagues from the Indian Institute of Science, the Max Planck Institute, and MIT, decided to make an antibiotic that could make its way into the macrophages and hit the Mycobacteria where they hide. Angeles-Boza and Libardo had previously worked with antibiotics produced by fish, sea squirts, and other sea creatures. Many of these sea creatures make antibiotic peptides – small pieces of protein-like material – with a special chemical talent: when they bind to copper atoms, they enable the copper to shift its electrical charge from +2 to +3 and back. Copper with this ability becomes aggressive, ripping electrons away from some molecules and adding them to others, particularly oxygen-containing molecules. The oxygen-containing molecules become free radicals, dangerous chemicals that attack anything they encounter, including Mycobacteria.

Human macrophages infected with Mycobacteria also use copper to attack the bacteria, but they do so in a less sophisticated way. They trap the bacteria in a bubble and then inject copper +1 ions – that is, plain copper atoms with a plus one charge (Cu+) – into the bubble. But the Mycobacteria can handle that. To them, the bubble is a safe haven, and the Cu+ ions are mere annoyances. The bacteria can steal an extra electron from the Cu+ to make it Cu2+. The copper becomes unreactive and safe that way. And when enough Cu2+ surrounds the Mycobacteria, other, more dangerous kinds of copper can’t get close.

Surrounded by defanged copper, “the bacteria can grow in peace. It’s elegant!” says Angeles-Boza. But if Angeles-Boza and Libardo have their way, the copper camouflage will become Mycobacteria’s downfall. If the antibiotic peptides can get close to the bacteria, they can grab onto one of the copper ions and weaponize it. The trick is getting the peptide close to the bacteria.

To do that, the chemists put the peptides into little bubbles similar to the kind cells use to move around packets of protein ingredients and other tasty stuff. When the bacteria snags one for a snack, the peptide works its chemistry and kills it.

The antibiotic peptide developed by Libardo and Angeles Boza effectively kills Mycobacteria living in macrophages in the lab, but they haven’t been able to cure tuberculosis in mice yet – peptide drugs have various problems that make them tricky to use in mammals. The next step in the research is to use the same chemistry in smaller molecules that can be taken as pills like more typical antibiotics.

This research was funded by grants from NSF.

Article by Kim Krieger, Courtesy of UConn Today

Polymorphism in Benzene-1,3,5- Tricarboxamide Supramolecular Assemblies in Water

Dr. Yao Lin, Associate Professor of Chemistry/Polymer Program, and fellow collaborators were recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Below is a description of the research:

The control of reaching a specifically designed morphology in supramolecular assembly is one of the key aspects for future success in the area of supramolecular materials, As different structures can be formed by different pathways or by a temperature dependent polymorphism, novel strategies have to be established to obtain a desired structure in the resulting materials. Supported by an NSF CAREER grant and the “Research Opportunities in Europe for NSF CAREER Awardees,” Prof. Yao Lin got an opportunity to attack this challenge by working with Prof. Bert Meijer at the Eindhoven University of Technology. Together, they discovered that increased dynamics is required to provide enough flexibility of the system to form defect-free structures in water. Without this flexibility, the assemblies are frozen into a variety of structures that are very similar at the supramolecular level, but less defined at the mesoscopic level.

To read the full article, click here:


Smart Phone Soup

In the bottom drawer of your desk at home lie all the “must-haves” of yesteryear — a bundle of knotted earphones, a broken computer mouse, some overplayed CDs, a flip phone, an iPod. A study in The Global E-waste Monitor 2017 reported that in 2016 humans generated 44.7 million metric tons of electronic waste (e-waste). And in that graveyard of a desk drawer, the basement, or a landfill, all these devices will rot for hundreds, even thousands, of years before degrading. The glass used in just one cell phone takes some 500 years to decompose.

But what if the future smartphones and tablets were made of edible materials? To chemistry professor Challa Kumar, a future where you can pop your cell phone in a pot of water, swirl it around, bring it to a boil, and have yourself a yummy iPhone stew is not science fiction but a future reality of his research in bionanotechnology, or what he calls “edible chemistry.”

Kumar and his team of graduate students created a white LED light from bovine serum albumin (BSA), a waste product of the meat industry. White LEDs are used in electronics like phones and TVs that emit white light from their screens. Kumar’s “hamburger protein” LEDs emit white light at a higher resolution than current LEDs and, says Kumar, “When you are done with the device, you could eat it.”

“We are the only group in the world doing this where both products and reactants are edible ­— to humans, plants, or bacteria,” he adds.

The team’s research has clinical significance, too. The edible LED also has inexpensive pH and glucose sensing capabilities. Combined with the team’s food-based batteries, these LEDs could replace current electronic glucose meters for diabetics.

Kumar also is exploring the possibility of using lipids from coconut oil to replace the toxic elements in current cancer cell–targeting treatments. He and his students believe the uses for edible chemistry are limitless, that it is the future of tech­nology as well as environmental awareness.

In the not-too-distant future, they say, we could be watching our favorite Netflix series on screens made from the same materials as last night’s burgers.

-Cara Williams ’18 (CLAS) courtesy of UConn Magazine

Islam Mosa Wins 2nd Place at Postdoctoral Datablitz Competition

Islam MosaChemistry Postdoctoral Fellow, Islam Mosa (Rusling Group), won 2nd place in the 2018 UConn Postdoctoral Datablitz competition for his work on nanogenerators-BioCap systems for implantable pacemakers. The Datablitz competition is a campus-wide competition for all postdoctoral fellows from across disciplines to present their research in 5 minutes. Read more.

Accelerate UConn Winners

Dr.James Rusling with Postdoc, Islam Mosa and Grad Student Esraa Elsanadidy

Prof. James Rusling, Postdoctoral Fellow Islam Mosa, and Graduate Student Esraa Elsanadidy are the recipients of a Fall 2018 Accelerate UConn Grant for their project “Biocap-Harvest.” This project involves harvesting energy using nanogenerators and storing it to create standalone power systems for implantable, wearable, and portable electronics. All winning teams receive special training and a $3,000 seed grant. Accelerate UConn is the University’s National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) site aiming to catalyze innovation and entrepreneurship.

Neighboring Group Participation

Mark Peczuh, Toni Planas, and GroupFor Toni Planas, a sabbatical in rural Connecticut has accelerated a sweet collaboration with Mark Peczuh’s research group.

Carbohydrate chemists are readily familiar with the concept of neighboring group participation (NPG), where the electrons of a nearby functional group accelerate reactions at a given center. A sociological version of NPG operates in the everyday world of scientific collaborations. Antoni Planas (IQS, U. Ramon Llull, Barcelona) has just completed a year-long sabbatical at the University of Connecticut in the laboratory of collaborator Mark Peczuh. His close proximity to Peczuh and his research group has hastened the progress on their project to develop glycosidase enzymes that selectively hydrolyze septanose sugars, making Planas the human equivalent of a participatory neighboring group. Planas, who lived with his family in an old farmhouse on UConn’s main campus, previously hosted Peczuh as a Fulbright Fellow at IQS in 2013 – a visit that initiated the collaboration. Continue reading

UConn Researchers Win Patent

Lu & Kasi in lab
Xiuling Lu, (right) Assoc. Professor of Pharmaceutics and Rajeswari Kasi, (left) Assoc. Professor of Chemistry inside Lu’s lab.

When a researcher develops a drug that can help treat an illness, the next challenge they face is finding a way to actually get the drug delivered to the right location in a patient’s body in the right amount.

Two University of Connecticut professors have been granted a US Patent for a novel polymer they have designed to help deliver anti-cancer drugs to tumors. Rajeswari Kasi from the Department of Chemistry and Xiuling Lu from the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, both are affiliated with the polymer program within the Institute of Materials Science, have created a new copolymer that can self-assemble into nanoparticles in aqueous solutions. The nanoparticles can carry drugs and bio-responsively release drugs in cancer cells. Continue reading

Chemistry Joint Safety Team

Yale Safety PosterOn Friday, July 20, 2018, graduate students Cristin Bosko (Peczuh Group), Jasmin Portelinha (Angeles-Boza Group), and Jessica A. Martin (Pinkhassik Group) attended a “Networking with JST (Joint Safety Team)” event, hosted by Yale University. During the event, Dr. Christopher Incarvito, Director of Research Operations and Technology, led a tour of the facilities and equipment at Yale’s West Campus (formerly the site of Bayer Pharmaceuticals). JST President Victor Beaumont (Loria Group, Yale) then discussed some of the projects the JST has been working on to increase safety awareness in Yale’s Department of Chemistry. Current JST projects include: the production of informational safety posters for the various labs, raising awareness regarding laboratory safety resources, and outreach utilizing social media.

This event nicely complimented efforts by Portelinha and Martin to restart the “Stall Street Journal” publication this summer. “The Stall Street Journal,” found in the bathroom stalls of the UConn Chemistry Building’s Waring Research Wing, is a 1-page monthly flier designed to raise awareness amongst graduate students about chemical safety and to promote career development opportunities.

Given this new source of inspiration and support, these students have a great deal of interest in expanding upon the safety activities in the Department of Chemistry through collaboration with the Safety Committee currently chaired by Dr. Jing Zhao. If you are interested in being part of this endeavor, please contact Jessica A. Martin at, or stop by CHEM R414.

UConn Chemist Wins Patent for Tunable Metal Oxide Synthesis Method

Altug Poyraz, left, a graduate student, with Steven Suib, distinguished professor and director of chemistry on Jan. 9, 2014. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

UConn chemistry professor Steven Suib has been granted a US patent (9,908,103) for a new method developed with his former student, Altug S. Poyraz, now an inorganic chemistry professor at Kennesaw State University. The technology is capable of synthesizing and customizing a type of compound that has unique catalytic and electronic properties.

Suib and Poyraz have patented their process for synthesizing thermally stable mesoporous transitional metal oxides. Their process also allows them to control the size of the mesopores and nano-sized crystalline walls.

Continue reading

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!