Mahoney Life Sciences Prize Honors ‘Shrink-wrap’ Approach to Protein Therapeutics

UMass Amherst recognizes new strategy for tackling ‘undruggable’ therapeutic targets
Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan
Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan

AMHERST, Mass. – Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan, professor of chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been chosen to receive the campus’s 2019 Mahoney Life Sciences Prize for his paper, “Shrink-wrapped Proteins as Next Generation Biologics.”

Established by UMass Amherst alumni Richard, Robert and William Mahoney, the $10,000 annual prize is awarded to a faculty member who is principal author of peer-reviewed original research and is intended to recognize CNS scientists whose work significantly advances connections between academic research and industry.

Thayumanavan’s study addresses major challenges in delivering protein-based drugs and devices across a cell membrane while keeping the protein stable and avoiding unwanted immune responses. He and colleagues developed a new method of “shrink wrapping” bioactive proteins in a polymer coating that retains their shape and function, then dissolves away after the protein is delivered inside.

As he explains, many human diseases are considered incurable, “undruggable,” when drugs do not work on the target. But targets can be converted to druggable if specific proteins, antibodies, can be delivered to them. “We could treat many disorders much more effectively if we had a way to get the specific protein delivered intact, inside the cell,” Thayumanavan says. “That’s what we set out to do.” His 2017 paper offers a “robust and sustainable” strategy to accomplish this: polymers self-assemble to form a sheath around the protein. He says this opens exciting potential applications in therapeutics.

A panel of expert judges from the life sciences selected the winning paper. They praised Thayumanavan’s work as “a major step forward that takes on a long-standing problem,” and “a large advance in the field.” He will receive the prize and present his research as part of a Celebration of Innovation and Entrepreneurship on campus on April 29.

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy says, “The Mahoney Life Sciences Prize, like much of what the Mahoney brothers have done for their alma mater, seeks to inspire and recognize the groundbreaking translational research being conducted by our faculty. The Mahoneys are truly visionaries, who are helping to catalyze the connections between UMass scientists and industry to benefit us all. We are deeply grateful for their extraordinary support.”

Tricia Serio, dean of the College of Natural Sciences (CNS), says,“It is an exciting prize, recognizing not only ground-breaking science, but also encouraging new connections between research and industry, pairing science with real-world applications in the Commonwealth. Thai’s approach, to have the protein template its own packaging, is the type of innovative and out-of-the-box thinking that enables transformational advances in science. His work embodies the spirit of this award.”

Richard Vachet, chemistry department head, says, “Thai is a very creative scientist who has a remarkable ability to turn fundamental chemical understanding into new materials that solve real-world problems in biomedicine. His work is a great example of how UMass Amherst researchers are doing translational research.”

Looking ahead, Thayumanavan says, “There are a variety of things we could do next. One is to work on the medical therapeutics and delivery of biologics, proteins and antibodies. But this work gets us over the biggest hurdle, especially for when the target is inside a cell.” His work, supported by the National Science Foundation among others, in biomimicry, autonomous capabilities and artificial self-activating systems, holds promise for a number of wide-ranging applications and advances.

Winner of the first Mahoney prize in 2018, Jeanne Hardy, associate professor of chemistry, was recognized for her work on Alzheimer’s disease treatments. She says, “Winning the Mahoney prize has had a hugely positive impact on the caspase-6 neurodegeneration research in my lab. Thanks to the connections we made through the prize, we have established a fruitful interaction with a multi-national pharmaceutical company to help to move our compound toward clinical testing in humans.”

Richard Mahoney, former president and CEO of Monsanto, says, “We had two purposes in establishing the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize. To let science-based companies see the extraordinary R&D being done in their field by UMass scientists and to show UMass scientists that the corporate life sciences community places a high value on research that they can use to solve problems or provide future growth opportunities.”

Eight other CNS faculty were named Mahoney Life Sciences featured scientists, including: Lynn Adler, biology; Peter Chien, biochemistry and molecular biology; Lili He, food science; Yeonhwa Park, food science; Leonid Pobezinsky, veterinary and animal sciences; Vincent Rotello, chemistry; M. Sloan Siegrist, microbiology, and Richard Vachet, chemistry.

Expert research reviewers for the prize were Stefan K. Baier, associate fellow at PepsiCo; Richard Brown, president and founder of Avia Biosystems; Dennis Guberski, president of Biomere; James McColgan, director of site technical services at Pfizer Global Manufacturing; Vic Myer, chief technology officer at Editas Medicine, and Chuck Sherwood, founder and retired president of Anika Therapeutics.