Two faculty recognized with NIH New Innovator Award

9/30/2010 9:04:00 AM

Two College of Engineering faculty members—Jianjun Cheng and Sheng Zhong—have been chosen to receive the New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health.

Jianjun Cheng
Jianjun Cheng
Cheng, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, joined the Illinois faculty in 2005. His winning proposal, “Developing Clinically Applicable, Cancer-Targeting Polymeric Nanoconjugates” aims to “develop a new paradigm of drug delivery nanomedicine with characteristics distinctly different from the current polymeric nanoparticles.”

According to Cheng, current polymeric nanomedicine still relies on conventional conjugation or encapsulation for drug incorporation, which results in inevitable heterogeneity during nanomedicine formulation.

“The formulation heterogeneity in particle size, size distribution, drug distribution and variation between batch-to-batch for the drug loading and incorporation efficiency creates tremendous problems for the clinical translations of these nanomedicine delivery vehicles and for utilizing nanomedicine for cancer targeting,” Cheng explained. “We propose to study an unprecedented approach to bridge the gap between the control offered by modern polymerization chemistry and the lack of control of current nanomedicine formulation. More specifically, we aim to develop polymer-drug nanoconjugates that can target cancer cells precisely and deliver anticancer agents to kill these cancer cells.” 

Using various multifunctional chemotherapeutic agents as the model drugs, Cheng’s research group has demonstrated that gram- or larger-scale, highly loaded nanoconjugates can be formulated with several hours. The simplicity for the preparation of large-scale nanoconjugates with controlled loading and release characteristics suggests its great potential for clinical translation.

“To study the in vivo applicability of nanoconjugates, we aim to develop polylactide-docetaxel nanoconjugates with integrated aptamer ligand for the targeted treatment of the advanced prostate cancer,” he added.

Sheng Zhong
Sheng Zhong
Zhong, who also joined the faculty in 2005, is an assistant professor of bioengineering. His proposal, “Rewirable gene regulatory networks in the pre-implantation embryonic development of three mammalian species,” reflects his research group’s efforts to model the evolution of gene regulation and animal development.

“Mammalian pre-implantation embryonic development (PED) is thought to be governed by highly conserved processes,” Zhong said. “While it had been suggested that some plasticity of conserved signaling networks exists among different mammalian species, it was not known to what extent modulation of the genomes and the regulatory proteins could ‘rewire’ the gene regulatory networks (GRN) that control PED.”

Using gene expression and protein-DNA interaction data, Zhong’s group has identified a series of physical principles and evolutionary rules that control gene regulation in developing embryos and in embryonic stem cells. Zhong believes these principles can be used to develop efficient procedures of making stem cells (induced pluripotent cells) and guiding these cells to differentiate into other useful cell types.

“We found that 40.2% of the genes shared by humans, mice and cows are expressed differently in early stages of development. Some of these differences result from altered gene regulation. In some cases, mutations affected the binding of regulatory proteins. In others, transposons, or ‘jumping genes,’ had hopped in front of the genes, changing their regulation. This variation among species suggests that multiple gene networks can guide embryo development, and could be harnessed to generate embryonic stem cells.”

According to the NIH website, “The NIH Director's New Innovator Award addresses two important goals: stimulating highly innovative research and supporting promising new investigators. Many new investigators have exceptionally innovative research ideas, but not the preliminary data required to fare well in the traditional NIH peer review system. As part of NIH's commitment to increasing opportunities for new scientists, it has created the NIH Director's New Innovator Award to support exceptionally creative new investigators who propose highly innovative projects that have the potential for unusually high impact. This award complements ongoing efforts by NIH and its institutes and centers to fund new investigators through R01 grants and other mechanisms.”

Contact: Jianjun Cheng, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, 217/244-3924.

Sheng Zhong, Department of Bioengineering, 217/265-6589.

If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Rick Kubetz, Engineering Communications Office, 217/244-7716, writer/editor.