MSU Seeks to Improve Medical Imaging; Explores Gene Therapy for Cystic Fibrosis

Medical researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing are involved in two separate projects: one to improve medical imaging and another to explore gene therapy treatment for cystic fibrosis.
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MSU graduate students Alexander Bricco (left) and Iliya Miralavykomsari with an MRI. // Courtesy MSU
MSU graduate students Alexander Bricco (left) and Iliya Miralavykomsari with an MRI. // Courtesy MSU

Medical researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing are involved in two separate projects: one to improve medical imaging and another to explore gene therapy treatment for cystic fibrosis.

Two MSU professors, Assaf Gilad and Wolfgang Banzhaf, are developing molecules inspired by nature to help medical diagnostics such as MRI scans keep pace with emerging therapies that can treat diseases more precisely while improving patient safety. Their approach has drawn a $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“In the past, a lot of science has been attributed to a single person, whether it’s Albert Einstein or Jonas Salk,” says Gilad, a professor of biomedical engineering at MSU and chief of the Division of Synthetic Biology and Regenerative Medicine in the Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering, or IQ.

“I think people are now starting to realize that it’s the interaction between disciplines that normally don’t interact, between people that don’t normally work together, that’s letting science answer the really challenging questions,” Gilad says. “That’s where the magic happens.”

Banzhaf, chair of genetic programming in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, says, “This project shows the synergy between a computational modeling approach that is virtual and an experimental approach that’s measuring things in the lab. It’s proving you can bring more efficiency to the scientific discovery process.”

The collaboration leverages the Banzhaf lab’s expertise in predictive programming to help optimize the Gilad lab’s prowess in engineering new or improved functions into biological systems. In the case of this grant, the team is creating proteins and peptides — biomolecules that are the building blocks of proteins — that can help with medical imaging and diagnostics.

For example, sometimes doctors need to use what’s known as a dye or contrast agent to enhance MRI scans. Physicians will inject the dye into patients to get a better look at what’s going on to make more detailed and accurate diagnoses. These contrast agents typically incorporate a metal known as gadolinium.

Gadolinium is a bit of a blunt instrument, especially in comparison to emerging treatments that act only on specific cells or parts of cells. And, in some cases, gadolinium-based dyes can lead to health complications.

The Spartan team is working to reduce or replace conventional contrast agents with biocompatible peptides and proteins that, like the more precise therapies in development, target specific parts of a patient’s biology.

Elsewhere on the banks of the Red Cedar, Xiaopeng Li, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Human Development, has been awarded a $2.1 million federal grant to study a gene therapy treatment for cystic fibrosis, a potential cure for the rare, lethal disease that afflicts more than 30,000 people in the U.S. and 70,000 worldwide.

The grant from the National Institutes of Health will allow a team of researchers led by Li to study how CFTR gene (the causal gene for cystic fibrosis) mutations in the small airways in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients lead to life-threatening infections.

The funding, which covers four years, is “critical for this research,” Li says. “One reason we got the grant is we have a lot of data to show this is a feasible approach to treating the disease.”

Li will lead a team that includes College of Human Medicine researchers Jeremy Prokop and Christopher Waters. The team also includes four pulmonologists — Reda Girgis, Susan Millard, and John Schuen from Spectrum Health and the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Cystic Fibrosis Center, and Ryan Thomas from MSU’s College of Human Medicine.

“Marrying basic science and clinical medicine is a goal that is driving the collaboration between MSU and Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital/Spectrum Health,” says Dr. John Schuen, chair of the Cystic Fibrosis Translational Research Program. “This relationship has already led to significant grant opportunities and published literature. Together, we will help uncover important discoveries at the cellular level that we hope will benefit our CF patients in the future.”

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