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The Fight Against Deadly Fungus

By Pegeen Hopkins

Life-threatening fungal infections are on the rise, according to the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. Hospitalizations rose more than 8 percent a year from 2019 to 2021, and the infections themselves can be hard to treat — and diagnose. Last year, Seton Hall’s 3B Lab received an extremely competitive grant from the National Institutes of Health for research that could fight fungal infections better. Seton Hall magazine editor Pegeen Hopkins spoke with the head of the lab, Gregory Wiedman, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, to learn more.

Tell me about your lab: the 3B Lab.
The name reflects my philosophy about the lab’s focus. 3B stands for biochemistry, biophysics and biomaterials. It emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of what we do. We use techniques from all these disciplines. Our current focus is on addressing infectious diseases; we work a lot with fungi and a bit with bacteria, finding ways to combat them and keep people healthy and safe.

Why is this interdisciplinary work important?
There was the assumption that once scientists found a drug to treat a disease, that was it, it was solved. What has happened over time is that many microbes — and even viruses — change. They respond to what we do to stop them, and they often change in unpredictable ways. So, we need to work with the mindset that these microbes are always going to change. We must keep up!

You received an NIH grant. What does it entail?
I came up with the idea with my colleague at Rutgers, Chaoyang Xue, to address what happens when you change the composition of molecules on the outside versus the inside of the fungus Cryptococcus neoformans, which is a leading cause of fungal meningitis. People can encounter it through soil or out in nature. The grant is to develop ways to trap lipid molecules on the outside of the cell to enable people whose immune systems are compromised to better fight off the infection. What our lab has been able to do so far is develop several small molecules called peptides that block a certain enzyme, and what we’re trying to prove is that this stimulates the immune system. Seton Hall alumnus Robert J. Tancer, Ph.D. ’22, now a postdoc at Rutgers, is helping us do exactly that. In fact, it works well enough in an incubator that we were able to get a patent on it.

What’s next?
We worked with the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps Program to study the potential market for our peptide. We asked infectious disease doctors and nurses what changes they would like to see in their treatment of patients. We talked to people who understand the financials and to people in insurance to understand how these things would be covered. I hope to apply that new business model, for either the peptide or for other molecules. I’d also like to work with other students and professors who are interested in commercializing their own technologies.

How do bioengineering and biophysics fit in?
Bioengineering and biophysics have gone into the design of membrane-active peptides that can interact with a cell membrane to open holes in it. A former student, Cristina Ventura, was working on a project where we opened the pores of a membrane when shining light on it. This may be useful for drug delivery. And with colleagues at the Universidad de Los Andes in Colombia, we’re looking to see if the molecules can be used for bioremediation to clean up oil spills and water, for example. These are new research areas that we also hope to explore in the future.

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