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2015 Minnesota Futures Awards Aim to Boost Human Health

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Medical research brings about the breakthroughs in technology that allow people around the world to lead longer, healthier lives.

This year’s Minnesota Futures grants include two projects that are pushing to improve human health by developing new approaches to disease treatment. The two-year grants, provided by the University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research, fund research opportunities that cross disciplinary and professional boundaries and support in-depth research that aims to address society’s grand challenges.

Here are the 2015 award recipients.

Bacterial Polyphosphate Metabolism: An Unrecognized Contributor to Dental Diseases?

Co-investigators: Jake Bailey, earth sciences; Robert Jones, pediatric dentistry; Cavan Reilly, biostatistics; Beverly Flood, earth sciences

More than 12 million children between the ages of 6 and 11 in the U.S. suffer from dental cavities, making it the most common childhood disease in the country and an enormous public health concern. Managing long-term tooth decay is challenging because scientists do not fully understand how the specific types of bacterial communities found in dental plaque affect the teeth.

The researchers collaborating on this project have found an overlooked bacterial process that may play a crucial role in determining how plaque buildup affects phosphate and calcium levels, which both affect tooth health. They will study how different types of bacteria in plaque contribute to forming a molecule called polyphosphate, and will investigate how that molecule may block beneficial phosphates from reaching the tooth. Polyphosphates may lead to more tooth decay and reduce the benefits of using tooth paste and other topical therapies that try to provide helpful phosphate to the teeth.

Glycoengineering of Therapeutic Biologics by Systems Design and Combinational Synthesis

Co-investigators: Wei-Shou Hu, chemical engineering and materials science; Timothy Griffin, biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics; Michael Smanski, biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics; Nikunj Somia, genetics, cell biology and development

Many new pharmaceutical treatments are now developed using therapeutic biologics — drugs produced by materials that are obtained from living human or animal cells, which scientists can reproduce in the lab. Current methods for generating the cells, however, alter their genetic material and structure, affecting the chemicals they produce and ultimately the quality of the drugs made from those chemicals. Right now, scientists have no way to prevent these effects or to ensure the drugs meet production standards beyond continually monitoring their quality and adjusting them.

In this project, researchers will combine strengths in genome engineering, synthetic biology and systems biotechnology to develop technologies that generate cells in a way that does not alter the cells’ genetic material or structure. The new technology will ensure in advance that the drugs produced meet quality standards, and will also help scientists discover new disease treatments in the future.

About the Minnesota Futures Program

Modeled after the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative, the Minnesota Futures program supports extraordinary research by nurturing interdisciplinary ideas. The program, which helps develop projects to a point where they become competitive for external funding, covers expenses of up to $250,000 over two years and is supported by technology commercialization revenue. Since 2008, the Minnesota Futures grant has supported research by faculty who go on to win substantial grants and whose innovations reach the market to potentially improve the lives of millions.

For more information on current and past awards, see the Minnesota Futures Grant Program page.

Kevin Coss

Kevin Coss

Kevin is a writer with the Office of the Vice President for Research.

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