March 9, 2010

The Scientist: Matthew DeLisa

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Sometimes, even chemical engineers have reason to party.

On February 4th, 2010, the chemical engineers of Cornell gathered to celebrate Prof. Matthew DeLisa, chemical and biomolecular engineering. He received tenure in May 2009, but decided to postpone the celebration until Olin Hall’s renovation was complete. Although postponed, the party went on.

DeLisa’s group research integrates the fields of engineering and science, utilizing tools of protein engineering and molecular biology. His group focuses on understanding the functions and structures of naturally existing protein machinery and creating microorganisms with artificial proteins machinery.

Protein molecules play a critical role in every living creature, as they participate in making structures in the cell and working as the liaison in signaling between molecules. The ability to engineer protein machinery provides control of what proteins can do and cannot do. This generates potential treatments for many health disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

One of his team’s members currently works on bacterial “glycosylation” in Escherichia coli (E.coli). Glycosylation is an essential process which produces sugars, which are attached to organic molecules, such as proteins and lipids.

E.coli is a bacterium that usually inhabits the lower intestine of warm-blooded organisms. E.coli is used widely in biotechnology as a host cell to produce recombinant proteins. Because it lacks the necessary machinery, E.coli cannot perform glycosylation.

Glycosylation is an important feature for the stability of “therapeutic proteins,” or proteins used in drugs.

Consequently, as the most common expression host for such proteins, E.coli’s ability to produce proteins that can be modified for glycosylation is advantageous. DeLisa’s group examines ways to use the glycosylation machinery in E.coli for stability engineering. Ultimately, his works in this topic will lead to “humanizing” proteins, which are produced by E.coli cells.

“The implication is huge, as this will affect the vast majority of protein drugs that are used to treat humans,” said DeLisa.

From efficient biosynthesis of complex protein therapeutics to discovery of new modes of drug delivery, DeLisa seeks to impact a wide range of problems in human health, specifically those that cannot be solved using natural systems.

DeLisa is also a co-founder of a small Pharmaceutical company called Glycobia, Inc. The company was incorporated in January 2009, and his first Ph.D student is heading the company with five employees. He serves on the scientific advisory board for Glycobia and another pharmaceutical company called Vybion. Both companies are located in Ithaca. He is also a member of the scientific advisory board for the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation.

For all his successes and achievements so far, DeLisa acknowledges his positive attitude to failures and adversities. “Academic research is like riding a roller coaster; there are high peaks, but also deep valleys, and you just have to keep reminding yourself that you can always go up.”

Deviating from the traditional petroleum engineering for chemical engineers, the discipline of creating and improving microorganisms is one of the biggest research realms within chemical engineering.

“[When I started in graduate school] I wanted to do research to make difference, and bioengineering seemed to be a good way to use chemical engineering training to impact society and humanity,” said DeLisa.

Original Author: Eugene Choi