May 2, 2019

Naturally Inspiring

Mahoney Life Sciences Prize honors UMass Chemistry Professor Thayumanavan

University of Massachusetts Amherst Professor of Chemistry Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan has been awarded the 2019 Mahoney Life Sciences Prize for his high-impact innovation of a way medications can deliver proteins into a cell body—by “shrink-wrapping” them.

Thayumanavan is recognized for his paper “Shrink-Wrapped Proteins as Next Generation Biologics,” published in Journal of the American Chemical Society. At the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Showcase held in the Life Sciences Laboratories Conference Center on April 29, Thayumanavan was formally presented the award, and gave a talk explaining his research, followed by a lively round of questions from the audience.

Thai Thayumanavan

Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan

But what does it mean to shrink-wrap a protein? And why would you do it?

Thayumanavan’s ingenious research solves a conundrum that has long vexed biomedicine. While protein-based drugs are more effective for targeting specific genetic deficiencies than current pharmaceuticals based on small molecules, there have been challenges to translocating proteins across cellular membranes while keeping them intact, and circumventing responses by the immune system.

Thayumanavan innovated a strategy that overcomes these challenges, by creating a polymer sheath that encapsulates—“shrink-wraps”—proteins, thereby preserving their integral structure and function, and releases them only when the assembly enters the cell cytosol. The polymers do not provoke an immune response and the biocompatible sheath can be designed to release its payload under specific conditions. Through his start-up company, Cyta Therapeutics, Thayumanavan is currently working with industry partners to create beneficial applications for his research, which he describes as a “platform technology” that can be developed in different directions according to need.

In his presentation, Thayumanavan acknowledged his collaborators and students “who do most of the work,” giving especial notice to co-authors doctoral student Kingshuk Dutta and Research Assistant Professor Jiaming Zhuang, before he accepted the prize trophy from benefactor Robert Mahoney ’70. “The shape of the prize is indicative,” said Mahoney. “Little steps, then all of a sudden a breakthrough.”

Established by alumni Richard ’55, ’83G, Robert ’70, and William Mahoney ’55 , the $10,000 Mahoney Prize recognizes researchers from the College of Natural Sciences whose work significantly advances connections between academic research in the life sciences and industry. The prize is bestowed annually to a faculty member who is principal author of a peer-reviewed paper about original research that has translatable applications to society.