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Peyton and Forbes Win Manning Prize Given by the UMass Amherst Institute of Applied Life Sciences

Shelly Peyton in her lab

Shelly Peyton

Neil St. John Forbes

Neil St. John Forbes

Associate Professor Shelly Peyton and Professor Neil St. John Forbes, both of the Chemical Engineering Department, were two of the six winners of the inaugural Manning Prize given by the UMass Amherst Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS). The mission of so-called Manning/IALS Seed Grants of $100,000 apiece, according to the IALS website, “is to move the cutting-edge science at UMass Amherst into the real world.”

The seed grants announced in late October were awarded after a competitive process that narrowed 35 teams to six winners. Faculty researchers will not only receive seed funding of $100,000 each over three years, but they will also get business training and mentorship from IALS, the College of Natural Sciences, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, and the Isenberg School of Management, among others. See Business West article.

Peyton’s Manning Prize will support her research into what she calls “GelTech” to enable tissue-specific drug discovery and help eliminate potential false-positive hits from screening. She heads the Peyton Research Group.

With the Manning funding, Peyton is developing the new synthetic, 3D, tissue-like material called GelTech to replace tissue-culture polystyrene, which is currently used in high-throughput screening while studying cell behavior, disease, and the efficacy of potential life-saving drugs. One major problem with tissue-culture polystyrene is that it produces numerous false-positive hits during screening.

To address this critical issue, the Peyton team has created GelTech. “We expect that this technology will eventually enable tissue-specific drug discovery and help eliminate potential false-positive hits from screening,” says Peyton, “improving drug discovery in the pharmaceutical industry and hypothesis testing in basic research settings. GelTech will have a long-lasting impact in the field.”

Peyton adds that many researchers are craving tunable, physiologically relevant environments such as GelTech will provide, and GelTech will save much of the time and money “wasted on drugs that fail out of the pipeline, potentially because they were initially screened in non-physiological environments.”

The Manning Prize will support Forbes and his study of “bacterial delivery of therapeutic peptides to treat advanced hepatocellular carcinoma.” Forbes runs the Forbes Research Group, which researches at the interface of engineering and medicine.

“We use fundamental principles to understand and control the mechanisms of human disease,” as Forbes explains. “The central theme of all projects is molecular transport in biological systems. The research is composed of experimental and computational techniques at the intersection of biomedical engineering, tumor biology, microbiology, and synthetic biology. Projects are focused on developing treatments for cancer, but this technology can be applied to many diseases and biomedical problems.”

In addition to his research supported by the Manning Prize, Forbes has been working since about 2002 to engineer what he has called “super-safe Salmonella bacteria” to act as Trojan Horses and deliver cancer-killing agents directly into tumors. His Salmonella vectors are designed to steal into cancer tumors, interrupt essential cell processes there, destroy cancer cells, eliminate cancer stems cells, reduce tumor volume, and block the formation of metastases.

The Manning Prize was created earlier this year, when alumnus Paul Manning and his wife, Diane, committed $1 million through their family foundation to establish the Manning Innovation Program. It provides three years of support in advancing a robust and sustainable pipeline of applied and translational research projects from UMass Amherst. (November 2019)

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