Closeup portrait, young scientist in white lab coat doing experiments in lab, academic sector.

Four teams of scientists at Rice University and other Gulf Coast Consortia (GCC) institutions in America have secured research grants from the John S. Dunn Collaborative Research Awards.

GCC member institutions include Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, the University of Houston, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, the Institute of Biosciences and Technology of the Texas A&M Health Science Center and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the research grants are for $98,000 each.

Gang Bao of Rice and William Lagor, of Baylor College of Medicine, plan to improve the safety of genome editing by generating viruses that deliver CRISPR/Cas9 machinery to edit a disease-causing gene then self-destruct when the job is done.

They will test the self-deleting CRISPR/Cas9 system’s impact on a rare lipid disorder to determine if the system can successfully edit a therapeutic target gene then promote its own removal from the liver.

Angel Martí, of Rice, and Steven Curley, of Baylor, will develop a way to measure the temperature of microscopic domains where standard thermometers do not work.

Their probe will sense temperatures via luminescence and the team eventually hope to measure the temperature distribution of cancer cells at the subcellular level with and without the exposure to radio frequencies used in non-invasive therapeutic hyperthermia.

José Onuchic, of Rice, and Yun Huang, of the Institute of Biosciences and Technology (IBT) at Texas A&M Health Science Center,  will combine expertise in computational modeling of biological systems and cancer epigenetics to understand how hematopoietic stem progenitor cells develop into all types of blood cells.

These stem cells are primarily found in bone marrow and depend on a complex regulatory network of genes to differentiate. The Rice and IBT labs hope to unveil the network’s operating principles and predict how the stem cells make decisions under normal and diseased conditions. Such models could help them understand cancer-associated epigenetic mutations and open a path to novel therapies.

Tomasz Tkaczyk, of Rice, and Kimberley Tolias, of Baylor, plan to observe the dynamic behaviors of living neural cells through genetically encoded fluorescent probes. Their aim is to develop an understanding of brain circuitry and function, as well as the nature of brain diseases.

Their work will require the development of fluorescent contrast agents and a spectrometer able to capture wide images of multiple probes at high speeds in living tissue.

Current imaging techniques, they say, are akin to ‘watching a football game with the ability to see only one or two players per game’. Their new technique will deliver a more complete picture of neural dynamics and allow them to observe interactions between signaling pathways, monitor multiple steps in a signaling cascade in a single cell, rapidly screen cellular responses to stimuli whose receptors are unknown and study events in the context of other events in living cells.