Dissecting the inner workings of mucus barrier could yield better drugs, prevent disease
Katharina Ribbeck, the Eugene Bell Career Development Professor of Tissue Engineering at MIT, diagrams the molecular structure of mucin, which has a protein backbone and a brush-like array of attached sugars, or glycans. Photo: Denise MacPhail
Call it slime, call it snot, or just call it mucus - mucus serves vital functions in our bodies.
Diseases like cystic fibrosis and problems like premature child birth and dry eye all share a common linkage, unhealthy changes in the bodily mucus that is needed to limit passage of bad germs and wet and lubricate the lungs, eyes and other organs. Katharina Ribbeck, the Eugene Bell Career Development Professor of Tissue Engineering at MIT, is leading an effort to understand the mechanisms of how mucus works and to develop substitutes that can be used when its natural production fails.
"Your mouth and nose contain very delicate cells; they have to be embedded in water all the time," Ribbeck said. When mucus dries out, the cells it normally protect don't work as well."
Mucus depends on mucins, biopolymers with a protein backbone and attached forest of sugar molecules, which Ribbeck says for a long time were thought to be mostly structural elements.
MIT post-doc Thomas Crouzier discovers substitute that restores water-absorption
Thomas Crouzier holds a gold-coated quartz crystal microbalance which is used in a fluorescent microscope to measure the watery content of coatings on natural and modified pig gastric mucin.
Dr. Thomas Crouzier, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT's Laboratory for Biological Hydrogels, recently demonstrated through research on mucus from pig stomachs that sugars attached to the mucin molecules play a key role in mucin's ability to absorb water and provide lubrication. And he discovered a way to promote its recovery.
Crouzier, working with Johnson & Johnson scientists and MIT colleagues showed that substituting polyethylene glycol chains for missing sugar molecules can partly restore mucin's water-absorbing capacity and lubricating potential.
"This is a first step in the direction of creating synthetic mucins, and we're following up on that in different ways. We know now that muucin-associated sugar molecules are really important for hydration and lubrication of wet body surfaces," MIT professor Katharina Ribbeck said.
Manipulating charges on molecules facilitates transport, MIT Post-Doc Leon Li demonstrates
Dr. Leon Li , post-doctoral associate in the Laboratory for Biological Hydrogels at MIT.
Recent research by MIT postdoctoral associate Dr. Leon Li shows that ionic charges on molecules and the spatial arrange
ment of those charges each play a key role in transport through mucus.
Li created a microfluidic device that creates a tiny mucus barrier, mimicking the body's own."We first made some microfluidic devices to study acid transport through mucus barriers. I realized that could be used to study protein transport and drug transport, so I adapted those devices," Li said.
"The mucus interacts with the peptides to change the transport of these peptides in very specific ways depending on what peptide it is and how the charge is distributed on that peptide," he said. By using isomers of a peptide - peptides consisting of the same number of atoms but with different spatial arrangements of their atoms and charges - Li and colleagues were able to show that spatial arrangement of ionic charge can affect transport. These changes take place on a very small scale, on the order of nanometers, Li said.
The new findings point to a new tool for designing drug and gene carriers.Read more
Summer Scholars Applications Now Being Accepted
Watch a video of our 2013 Summer Scholars in the labs at MIT.
Each year for nine weeks during the summer, the MPC co-sponsors a Research Internship Program. The program has brought hundreds of the best science and engineering undergraduates from across the country, to conduct graduate-level materials research. Students can select from a wide array of available projects.
This year's Summer Scholar Internship Program will run from June 8 - August 9, 2014. For more information about the Internship Program, please refer to the Summer Scholar Quick Facts and the FAQ portions of our website.
Application deadline is February 12, 2014. Register
MRS to Honor Institute Professor Millie Dresselhaus
Carbon researcher to receive Von Hippel Award in Boston on Wednesday, Dec. 4
The Materials Research Society will confer its highest honor, the Von Hippel Award, on MIT Emerita Institute Professor Millie Dresselhaus during the Awards Ceremony of the 2013 MRS Fall Meeting in Boston on Wednesday, December 4, at 6:30 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton Boston Hotel. Dresselhaus also will present her award lecture, "Memories of Arthur von Hippel, 1960-2013."
Dresselhaus is being recognized for her "pioneering contributions to the fundamental science of carbon-based and other low electron density materials, her leadership in energy and science policy, and her exemplary mentoring of young scientists." The award includes a $10,000 cash prize, honorary membership in MRS and a unique trophy - a mounted ruby laser crystal, symbolizing the many-faceted nature of materials research. The award recognizes those qualities most prized by materials scientists and engineers - brilliance and originality of intellect combined with vision that transcends the boundaries of conventional scientific disciplines, as exemplified by the life of Arthur von Hippel.
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