First round of funded projects announced from the Benkovic Research Initiative

Four projects received first-round seed funding in Spring 2022


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The first round of projects to receive seed funding from the Patricia and Stephen Benkovic Research Initiative has been announced.

The Patricia and Stephen Benkovic Research Initiative is a funding mechanism designed to directly support research projects at the interface of chemistry and the life sciences. In order for projects to be considered, they must be deemed too risky or untested to receive traditional sources of funding. It’s this kind of science that the couple, as a team, said they feel truly passionate about and they are hoping to inspire the next generation of scientists to carry the torch of innovation and discovery to even greater heights.  

“The Benkovic Research Initiative is meant to fund risky but highly innovative research that has the potential for breakthrough discovery,” Stephen Benkovic said. “We were fortunate enough to have funds to test ideas that would not have been supported by conventional sources, and I want to give other people the opportunity to do things a bit out of the ordinary.” 

The couple’s initial gift, announced in January, will directly support preliminary research for four projects chosen from the first round of proposals submitted in Fall 2021.

For detailed information about the projects, visit the Huck website for expanded summaries.

The four projects are:

"Targeting Cryptic Viral Epitopes for Pandemic Preparedness and Rapid Response through Integrative Cryo-EM and Mass Spectrometry"

Project researchers include Ganesh Anand, associate professor of chemistry, and biochemistry and molecular biology, Huck Institute of Life Sciences; Susan Hafenstein, Huck Chair of Structural Virology; professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, director of the Center for Structural Biology; and Neil Christensen, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, and microbiology and immunology.

Concept: Integrate structural biology, chemistry, and immunology to fast-track target antivirals.

Technical: Using amide hydrogen/deuterium exchange mass spectrometry (HDXMS) combined with cryo EM to create a “map” of an RNA virus to identify targets for novel treatments. This combined technical approach will use poliovirus, the virus that causes the disease polio, as a model system and develop both biologics and small molecules as antivirals.

Potential application: The eradication of poliovirus, advance future RNA virus pandemic preparedness.

Potential risks: Skepticism among the virology community.

"Development of Antibiotic Adjuvants to Avert Resistance Conferred by Radical S-adenosylmethionine-dependent Methyltransferases"

Project researchers include Squire J. Booker, Evan Pugh University Professor of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; John N. Alumasa, associate research professor of biochemistry and molecular biology; and Olga A. Esakova, assistant research professor of chemistry.

Concept: Combat antibiotic resistance in Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) a species that possesses a chloramphenicol–florfenicol resistance gene (Cfr). Compounds that target the Cfr in MRSA could be used in combination with antibiotic therapy to prevent these bacteria from becoming resistant.

Technical: A combination of crystallographic and computer-aided drug discovery techniques to identify key structural elements of compounds that bind to the active site of Cfr.

Potential application: New strategies for combating multidrug-resistant superbugs like MRSA.

Potential risks: The tools needed to prove the concept have not been developed successfully.

"Nanoengineered Biomaterials to Prevent or Reverse Antimicrobial Resistance"

The project researcher is Amir Sheikhi, assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering (by courtesy).

Concept: Combat antibiotic resistance by targeting natural selection itself, to break the connection between antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance.  

Technical: Create biomimetic anti-antibiotic compounds that would be used along with antibiotic treatment. The antibiotics would treat bacterial infection, and the anti-antibiotics would prevent antimicrobial resistance.

Potential application: The anti-antibiotic biomaterials will potentially protect the partner antibiotic from resistance. 

Potential risks: Complete absence of any anti-antibiotic candidate compounds. 

"Novel Methods for Non-invasive Neuropeptide Administration to the Brain"

Project researchers include Nikki Crowley, assistant professor of biology and biomedical engineering; and Scott Medina, assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

Concept: To overcome technological and biochemical hurdles to the precise delivery of therapies to the brain through a collaboration between engineering and neuroscience.

Technical: A stimuli-responsive delivery system will deliver therapeutic agents across the blood-brain barrier to specific targets in the brain with millimeter precision.

Potential application: New, non-invasive precision drug delivery strategies to the brain will allow for greater treatment efficacy with fewer side effects.

Potential risks: No pilot data available.


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