Five UMass Amherst Scientists Win 2014 Armstrong Fund for Science Award

Jessica Schiffman
Shelly Peyton
Stephen Nonnenmann
Guodong Zhang
Hang Xiao

AMHERST, Mass. – Five researchers on two different teams at the University of Massachusetts Amherst will share the 2014 Armstrong Fund for Science Award, which this year is granting a total of $60,000 over two years to encourage transformative research on campus that introduces new ways of thinking about pressing scientific or technical challenges. The researchers were recognized at the 2014 UMass Amherst Honors Dinner on April 29.

Jessica Schiffman and Shelly Peyton in chemical engineering, with Stephen Nonnenmann, mechanical engineering, will receive $30,000 for their project, “Nanomechanics, biofilms and cystic fibrosis.” Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease characterized by a polymer layer that grows in the lungs and becomes abnormally thick and sticky and impairs breathing.

While previous collaborations by molecular biologists,immunologists and medicinal chemists have sought new strategies to treat this disease, Schiffman, Peyton and Nonnenmann propose a new, engineering-based approach. “We have assembled a multidisciplinary team of engineers to characterize how mechanical changes influence the outcomes in cystic fibrosis patients. We will create a model system of lung mucus using synthetic biomaterials, then relate mucus stiffening to biofilm formation, and thus learn more about disease progression.”

A second team, Guodong Zhang and Hang Xiao in food science, will receive $30,000 for their project, “Co-administration of DHA and regorafenib synergistically inhibits colorectal cancer.” An estimated 1.25 million new cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed and 600,000 deaths occur each year in the U.S. In 2012, the drug regorafenib was approved for advanced colorectal patients whose disease is resistant to all standard therapies, the researchers explain.

However, this drug can cause adverse effects such as hypertension, which limits its use. Zhang and Xiao say that new strategies to augment the anti-cancer effects and reduce the side effects of regorafenib would be a major advancement in colorectal cancer therapy. Their recent research suggests that a combination of regorafenib and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a major omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil, synergistically increases tissue levels of DHA metabolites, which have potent effects to inhibit tumor growth.

The food scientists plan to test their hypothesis that co-administration of regorafenib and DHA produces enhanced inhibition of colon carcinogenesis. Success could quickly lead to human clinical trials to benefit colorectal cancer patients, they note.

Benefactors John and Elizabeth Armstrong established their Fund for Science in 2006 to identify and support promising research directions that do not yet have enough data for application to standard funding channels. “Elizabeth and I want to promote major scientific advances in society by supporting researchers with bold vision, documented credentials and a passion for results,” Armstrong says.  

The UMass Amherst Office of Research and Engagement headed by Vice Chancellor Michael Malone administers Armstrong grants in a competitive proposal process. He notes, “The campus greatly appreciates the Armstrongs’ generosity and confidence in our institution and faculty. Giving our faculty opportunities to innovate and excel in their research is an extraordinary gesture.”

Armstrong awardees agree to present a public “Science for Non-scientists” lecture when their work is complete.