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NameEmailPhD ProgramResearch InterestPublications
Fenton, Owen

EMAIL
PUBLICATIONS

PHD PROGRAM
Pharmaceutical Sciences

RESEARCH INTEREST
Biomaterials, Drug Delivery, Drug Discovery, Nanomedicine, Translational Medicine

The broad aim of research in the Fenton Laboratory is to develop and evaluate synthetic drug delivery platforms to treat neurodegenerative disorders in the brain using RNA therapeutics. RNA therapeutics represent a particularly promising class of therapeutics for neurodegenerative management given their ability to tune levels of specific protein expression in living systems. For example, protein downregulation can be achieved by administering short interfering RNAs (siRNAs); alternatively, proteins can be upregulated by messenger RNA (mRNA) administration. Despite this promise, fewer than 0.05% of the world’s clinically approved drugs are RNA therapeutics, and their translation to neurodegenerative disorders in the brain warrants further study at the fundamental and clinical levels.

To address these challenges, our group focuses on the discovery and development of molecular carriers and technology platforms to improve the targeting, safety, and efficacy of RNA drugs within target cells. Specifically, our group leverages an interdisciplinary approach to develop lipid nanoparticles (LNP) as well as soft matter hydrogel platforms that can serve as carrier systems and/or drug delivery models for RNA drugs. Further, our group also explores the development of technological platforms to further expand the potential of RNA drugs within resource limited settings. Lastly, given that mRNA drugs can be engineered to encode for virtually any polypeptide or protein based antigen, our group also aims to leverage our platformable LNP technologies for the study and prevention of cancers and infectious disease. In undertaking such an approach, the goal of our research is to equip students with fundamental skillsets for the development of next generation drugs while simultaneously developing clinically-relevant carrier platforms and technologies for the study, prevention, and treatment of human disease.

Willson, Tim
WEBSITE
EMAIL
PUBLICATIONS

PHD PROGRAM
Pharmaceutical Sciences

RESEARCH INTEREST
Chemical Biology, Drug Discovery

A unifying goal of my research is the use of chemistry as a tool to illuminate human biology. For over two decades I have led programs to develop potent cell active chemical probes to identify and study the biological function of their target proteins. Starting in 1992 with the orphan nuclear receptors, my lab developed chemical probes to uncover the roles of PPAR, PPAR, LXR, FXR, CAR, and PXR in human physiology. The release of our chemical probes into the public domain supported research across the global scientific community and resulted in multiple drug candidates to treat diseases of human metabolism entering clinical development. I am co-discoverer of the FXR agonist obeticholic acid, which was approved by the FDA in 2016 as a drug for the treatment of Primary Biliary Cholangitis.

In 2007, I started a collaboration with the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) to discover chemical probes for the enzymes and reader domains involved in epigenetic regulation. Together, we built a consortium with support from public funders and eight pharmaceutical companies that has released over 40 high quality chemical probes into the public domain. We demonstrated that the bromodomain family of acetyl lysine reader domains were highly tractable targets for drug discovery, which led to the development of BRD4 inhibitors for the treatment of various rare cancers.

In 2015, I established the first US site of the SGC at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill to expand the footprint of open science in US academia. I have assembled a team at SGC-UNC to create chemical tools for understudied (‘dark’) kinases, identify inhibitors of molecular targets that cause rare diseases, and develop chemical probes for proteins associated with neurodegenerative diseases. With support from the NIH Illuminating the Druggable Genome program we assembled a Kinase Chemogenomic Set (KCGS): the largest, highly annotated and publicly available collection of small molecule kinase inhibitors. We used KCGS to identify kinases whose inhibition prevents replication of coronaviruses including SARS-CoV-2. Medicinal chemists at the SGC-UNC are also developing chemical probes within the Med Chem Core of the NIA Target Enablement to Accelerate Therapy Development for Alzheimer’s Disease (TREAT-AD) program at UNC.

Axtman, Alison
WEBSITE
EMAIL
PUBLICATIONS

PHD PROGRAM
Pharmaceutical Sciences

RESEARCH INTEREST
Cell Biology, Cell Signaling, Chemical Biology, Drug Discovery

In my lab, we are exploring the roles that kinases play in neurodegeneration through the creation of high-quality, small molecule tools. Our team designs, synthesizes, and evaluates small molecules capable of kinase modulation, sometimes targeting kinase inhibition and sometimes kinase activation. In order to accomplish our aims, we work closely with X-ray crystallographers within the larger SGC and with biologists, including experts in using stem cells to model neurodegenerative diseases. We seek enthusiastic students with an interest in neuroscience who are willing to learn and apply techniques that span chemistry and biology to better understand and address neurodegeneration.

Heinzen, Erin
WEBSITE
EMAIL
PUBLICATIONS

PHD PROGRAM
Bioinformatics & Computational Biology, Pharmaceutical Sciences

RESEARCH INTEREST
Genetics, Genomics, Neurobiology, Systems Biology, Translational Medicine

Nguyen, Juliane
WEBSITE
EMAIL
PUBLICATIONS

PHD PROGRAM
Pharmaceutical Sciences

RESEARCH INTEREST
Biochemistry, Bioinformatics, Biomaterials, Drug Delivery, Immunology, Translational Medicine

The Nguyen lab develops the next generation of effective and safe biotherapeutics for life-threatening diseases such as cancer and myocardial infarction. We engineer novel immunomodulatory carriers based on genetically encoded materials and lipids that home to the site of disease, respond to changes in the microenvironment, and effectively deliver nucleic acids and drugs.

Drewry, David H
WEBSITE
EMAIL
PUBLICATIONS

PHD PROGRAM
Pharmaceutical Sciences

RESEARCH INTEREST
Cancer Biology, Chemical Biology, Drug Discovery, Pharmacology, Structural Biology

The Drewry lab is focused on designing, synthesizing, evaluating, and sharing small molecule chemical probes for protein kinases. These tools are used to build a deeper understanding of disease pathways and facilitate identification of important targets for drug discovery. Through wide ranging partnerships with academic and industrial groups, the Drewry lab is building a Kinase Chemogenomic Set (KCGS) that is available to the community for screening.

Hingtgen, Shawn
WEBSITE
EMAIL
PUBLICATIONS

PHD PROGRAM
Pharmaceutical Sciences

RESEARCH INTEREST
Biomaterials, Cell Signaling, Drug Delivery, Stem Cells, Translational Medicine

Imagine a naturally intelligent therapy that can seek out and destroy cancer cells like no other available treatment.  In the Hingtgen Lab, we are harnessing Nobel Prize-winning advancements to create a new type of anti-cancer treatment: personalized stem cell-based therapies.  We use a patient’s own skin sample and morph it into cells that chase down and kill cancer. We take advantage of a little-known aspect of stem cells- they can home in on cancer by picking up a signal through receptors on the cell surface. All the while, the therapeutic stem cells are pumping out potent anti-cancer drugs that selectively kill any cancer cell nearby while leaving the healthy brain unharmed. Our initial studies focused on aggressive brain cancers, however we quickly expanded our testing to a variety of cancer types. Working at the interface of basic science and human patient testing, our ultimate goal is to translate this novel approach into the clinical setting where it can re-define treatment for cancers that currently have no effective treatment options.

Aubé, Jeffrey
WEBSITE
EMAIL
PUBLICATIONS

PHD PROGRAM
Chemistry, Pharmaceutical Sciences

RESEARCH INTEREST
Drug Discovery, Pharmacology, Translational Medicine

Our lab develops new chemistry, and chemical agents as biological probes and drug discovery candidates. Current interests include the discovery of unconventional opioid agents, anti-tuberculosis drugs, and basic biochemistry of androgen biosynthesis inhibitors.

Liu, Rihe
WEBSITE
EMAIL
PUBLICATIONS

PHD PROGRAM
Pharmaceutical Sciences

RESEARCH INTEREST
Biochemistry, Biophysics, Cell Signaling, Chemical Biology, Nanomedicine

The research interests of the Liu Lab are in functional proteomics and biopharmaceuticals. Currently we are working on the following projects:  (1). Using systems biology approaches to decipher the signaling pathways mediated by disease-related proteases such as caspases and granzymes and by post-translationally modified histones. We address these problems by performing functional protein selections using mRNA-displayed proteome libraries from human, mouse, Drosophila, and C. elegans. (2). Developing novel protein therapeutics and nucleic acid therapeutics that can be used in tumor diagnosis, treatment, and nanomedicine. We use various amplification-based molecular evolution approaches such as mRNA-display and in vivo SELEX to develop novel single domain antibody mimics on the basis of very stable protein domains or to generate aptamers on the basis of nuclease-resistant nucleic acids, that bind to important biomarkers on the surface of cancer cells. We further conjugate these biomarker-binding affinity reagents to small molecule drugs or nanoparticles for targeted delivery of therapeutic agents. (3). Identifying the protein targets of drugs or drug candidates whose action mechanisms are unknown. We combine molecular proteomic and chemical biology approaches to identify the protein targets of drugs whose target-binding affinities are modest.

Liu, Jian
WEBSITE
EMAIL
PUBLICATIONS

PHD PROGRAM
Pharmaceutical Sciences

RESEARCH INTEREST
Biochemistry, Chemical Biology, Molecular Biology, Structural Biology

The overall goal of our research is to develop an enzyme-based approach to synthesize heparin- and heparan sulfate-like therapeutics.  The lab is currently focusing on improving the anticoagulant efficacy of heparin drug as well as synthesizing heparin-like compounds that inhibit herpes simplex virus infections.  We are also interested in using protein and metabolic engineering approaches for preparing polysaccharides with unique biological functions.