Lazzara Lab News

    Lazzara Lab Wins Presenter Awards at Commonwealth of Virginia Cancer Research Conference

    February 22, 2022
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    Brooke McGirr Brown and Karl Kowalewski, Ph.D. students in associate professor of chemical engineering Matt Lazzara’s lab at the University of Virginia, recently won breakout session presentation awards at the Commonwealth of Virginia Cancer Research Conference.

    Brown earned the breakout session award for presenting, “Signaling regulation of epithelial-mesenchymal transition in the hypoxic tumor microenvironment of pancreas cancer.” Kowalewski won for “Cancer-associated fibroblast signaling regulation of epithelial-mesenchymal transition in pancreas cancer.”

    Cancer of the pancreas is one the most deadly cancers, in large measure because the tumors don’t respond well to standard therapies. Both Brown and Kowalewski focus on the mechanisms that cause the tumor cells to resist therapy, with the goal of identifying what processes to target with cancer-killing drugs to overcome the resistance and improve outcomes. Kowalewski specifically homes in on how fibroblasts, cells that form connective tissue and scarring, contribute to therapy resistance.

    The annual Cancer Research Conference, hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center, invites cancer research trainees, such as graduate students and postdoctoral and clinical fellows, to present their work in oral sessions. A goal of the conference is to promote collaboration and networking among clinicians and researchers interested in basic, translational and clinical cancer research.

    Research Roundup

    July 02, 2021

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    Carlos Weiler, a Ph.D. student in William S. Epling’s Environmental Catalysis Lab, readies a reactor to run experiments simulating diesel engine aftertreatment systems.

    The Department of Chemical Engineering’s work to build research strengths with great people has never shown more than in the past year. Whether developing new materials for applications in medicine, energy or national security, understanding cell behavior that leads to disease, or addressing environmental challenges, faculty and Ph.D. students are relentlessly pursuing new knowledge to make the world better. 

    Here is a brief roundup of recent awards, plus links to stories on these projects.

    UVA Chemical Engineering and School of Medicine Researchers Try Different Tack on Cancer Suicide Gene Therapy

    October 15, 2020

    University of Virginia associate professor of chemical engineering Matthew Lazzara and Benjamin Purow, a professor and neurologist at the UVA School of Medicine, recently received an exploratory research grant from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health for collaborative research.

    The $415,245 award is a multiple principal investigator grant, a category of funding for projects requiring a team science approach. UVA Engineering’s proximity to a world-class medical school and health system facilitates collaborative efforts with clinicians and researchers at UVA and partner institutions.

    The project is titled “Engineering ERK-specificity for cancer suicide gene therapy.” Preliminary data for the proposal was based upon the doctoral thesis work of recent Lazzara lab graduate Evan Day.

    “Suicide gene therapy is an approach to trick cancer cells into killing themselves. The suicide gene product converts an otherwise innocuous prodrug into a toxic substance,” Lazzara said.

    The technique has been tried before and even undergone clinical trials, but the UVA team is onto something new.

    “We designed a way to promote the expression of these suicide genes in cancer cells exhibiting high activity of the ERK pathway, which is a frequent driver of resistance to therapy across many types of cancers,” Lazzara said.

    ERK, short for “extracellular signal-regulated kinase,” is a highly studied signaling protein involved in communicating information from receptors on the cell’s surface to the cell nucleus, where it regulates the transcription of numerous genes. It’s a biochemical pathway that cells use to regulate their proliferation and survival — and cancer cells frequently find ways to activate this pathway as a way to survive treatment.

    “Our approach could be a way to develop more selective and effective suicide gene therapies that will have preferential effects on cancer cells rather than normal tissue. The design also turns a common escape mechanism from therapy — the cell’s ability to turn up ERK signaling — into a lethal vulnerability. In other words, it takes a biochemical escape route that cancer cells like to use and turns that against the cancer cell,” Lazzara said.

    Lazzara, who holds a courtesy appointment in biomedical engineering and is a member of the UVA Cancer Center, is a noted researcher in the areas of cell-signaling and cellular decision-making. Purow is a clinician-scientist whose clinical practice focuses on neuro-oncology and whose research is focused on improved therapeutic approaches for brain cancer.

    Graduate Student From Lazzara Lab Wins Presentation Award

    October 23, 2019

    Evan Day, a student in Associate Professor Matt Lazzara’s lab, is the 2019 winner of the W.H. Peterson Oral Presentation Award given by the Division of Biochemical Technology of the American Chemical Society. The award is for his presentation on work that led to the creation of a new tool to evaluate the in vivo (taking place in a living organism) efficacy of targeted inhibitors for cancer. Evan presented the research, titled “Engineering a bioluminescence-based protein kinase reporter for in vivo, longitudinal studies of receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitor response,” at the division’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., last spring. The award will be presented at the American Chemical Society Biochemical Technology Division 2020 annual meeting, which will be held in March in Philadelphia.

    “The deployment of this tool will lead to better preclinical in vivo data, and greatly reduce the numbers of animals needed to evaluate drug efficacy, at least for a particular class of drugs,” Professor Lazzara said. “The basic design principle behind it may eventually be adapted for use with other types of drugs.”

    Professor Lazzara Awarded NIH Cancer Systems Biology Grant

    August 30, 2019

    Associate Professor Matt Lazzara was awarded a new five-year U01 grant from the National Cancer Institute to apply systems biology methods for the rational design of combination therapy for pancreatic cancer. The award was made through the institute’s funding opportunity for Emerging Questions in Cancer Systems Biology and establishes the Lazzara Lab as a member of the NCI Cancer Systems Biology Consortium. Lazzara and his team will collaborate with investigators at the UVA School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and University of Delaware on the project.

    ChE Second-year Appointed to Biomedical Data Sciences Training Program

    June 18, 2019

    Paul Myers, a second-year Ph.D. student in Associate Professor Matthew Lazzara’s Cell Signaling Engineering Lab, has been appointed to the Biomedical Data Sciences training program. The Biomedical Data Sciences Training Program aims to prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers to address the monumental challenge of multi-type biomedical big data manipulation, analysis and interpretation. It proposes a curriculum and a set of programmatic activities to create an interdisciplinary training ground wherein teams of students will work across key disciplines, benefit from a true co-mentoring and interdisciplinary environment, and develop the technical and leadership skills necessary to succeed as independent scientists making groundbreaking new discoveries enabled by biomedical big data.

    ChemE Welcomes Promising Ph.D. Students Thanks to New Fellowships

    June 09, 2019

    The Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia School of Engineering has welcomed the first Gaden, Gainer and Kirwan fellowship recipients to Grounds. The newly arrived Ph.D. students met two of the fellowships’ namesakes, retired chemical engineering professors John Gainer and Donald Kirwan and their wives, and Jenny Gaden, wife of the late Elmer Gaden, at a lunch in the students’ honor. Also attending were department chair Bill Epling and their faculty advisors Matt Lazzara, Chris Highley and Gaurav “Gino” Giri. The fellowship recipients are Prince Verma (Kirwan Fellowship), William Hart (Gainer Fellowship) and Greg Grewal (Gaden Fellowship).

    The fellowships, created in 2018 through donations in honor of Gaden, Gainer and Kirwan, will support the graduate students during their first year. The fellowships provide additional funding to bring talented Ph.D. students to the chemical engineering program, boosting the volume and impact of the department’s research while enriching undergraduate education as teaching assistants and mentors.

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    Back row, from left: Greg Grewal, Assistant Professor Chris Highley and Chair and Professor Bill Epling. Middle row, from left: Associate Professor Matt Lazzara, Will Hart, John Gainer, Assistant Professor Gino Giri, and Mary and Donald Kirwan. Front row: Jenny Gaden, Susie Gainer and Prince Verma.

    Chemical Engineering Second-Year Receives NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

    April 26, 2019

    Brooke McGirr, a second-year Ph.D. student in Associate Professor Matt Lazzara’s lab, received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. This program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in National Science Foundation-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees. This fellowship will support Brooke in her doctoral studies for the next three years.