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George Mason receives $1.2 million to revolutionize Lyme disease testing

George Mason receives $1.2 million to revolutionize Lyme disease testing
Colleen Rich
Wed, 05/15/2024 – 14:42

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George Mason University researchers have received $1.2 million in federal funding from the U.S. Department of the Army to revolutionize Lyme disease detection and diagnosis with urine testing. Scientists from George Mason’s College of Science and  College of Public Health aim to harness the many advantages of urine testing over other methods and increase mainstream adoption.

“We have developed a urine test for Lyme disease that detects the bacteria (Borrelia species) that causes Lyme disease, making it a direct test to confirm an infection soon after the tick bite,” said principal investigator Alessandra Luchini. “This leads to earlier treatment when necessary and could prevent the long-term debilitating effects of the disease.”

The current standard of care test for potential Lyme disease is an antibody blood test, which measures the immune system response to the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. In contrast, the George Mason test detects molecules derived from the bacteria themselves, which have the advantage of high specificity (accuracy) and early detection. The test matches the exact amino acid sequences (the building blocks of the bacterial molecules) that are found only in Borrelia and not in other organisms. For example, one of the proteins the George Mason scientists studied is part of the Borrelia flagellum, which allows the bacterium to move around the body.

In Mason’s clinical research trials, urine tests had a 90% true positive rate (sensitivity) and close to 100% specificity (true negative rate).

Researchers will use banked samples from cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of acute Lyme patients from the Lyme Disease Biobank and banked specimens from Johns Hopkins University, respectively, who are recognized leader in clinical Lyme disease research. 

Utilizing her 15 years of Lyme disease bacteria (Borrelia) research, Ashley Groshong, PhD, unit chief of the Bacterial Physiology and Metabolism Section of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a part of the National Institutes of Health, is collaborating on the project by evaluating the suitability of diagnostic indicators based on bacterial physiology.  

Additionally, the George Mason study will pilot a collapsible urine collection cup shipped to a lab through the mail, making collection and diagnosis easier for more people to access through telehealth. 

“A urine cup will offer a private, comfortable and convenient way to collect the sample at home without compromising the accuracy of the lab test,” said Lance Liotta, professor in the College of Science, co-director of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine, and co-principal investigator on the study. “Shipped in a semi-dry state that will preserve target proteins and protects again specimen degradation, this approach will improve specificity, which has been a weakness of previous testing approaches.” 

Lyme disease is the most common animal-to-human transmitted disease in the United States with approximately 476,000 people diagnosed and treated each year—and it is on the rise. If not treated quickly and properly, those bitten can suffer from prolonged symptoms (called Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome), such as concentration and memory issues, dizziness, fatigue, body aches, depression, and difficulty sleeping. 

“This is a significant collaboration to advance diagnostics for Lyme disease,” said Melissa J. Perry, dean of the College of Public Health and co-investigator of the study. “This study will have a major impact on the timely diagnosis of Lyme. In my capacity as an epidemiologist, I am thrilled to work with Drs. Luchini, Liotta, and [Virginia] Espina, and Dr. [Jenna] Krall in her capacity as a biostatistician.”

This three-year study will take place in the same Mason CAP/CLIA Clinical Proteomics Laboratory that implemented the innovative saliva COVID test. The lab is run by Espina, who is a collaborator on the grant.  

In 2022, Luchini, Liotta, and the CAPMM team were one of 10 Phase 1 winners of the LymeX Diagnostics Prize by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation.

In early 2023, CAPMM received $820,000 in federal funding to establish a clinic that will help combat Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. The project, championed by U.S. Representative Jennifer Wexton, was part of the federal omnibus appropriations bill that President Biden signed into law to fund the government through Fiscal Year 2023. The federal funds will be used to launch the clinical deployment of diagnostic testing that will allow for a quicker and more efficient diagnosis.

This work will be supported by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs through the Tick-Borne Disease Research Program, endorsed by the Department of Defense. Opinions, interpretations, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the Department of Defense.

 

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Mason postdoc leads scientific breakthrough that could revolutionize cancer treatment

It isn’t often that someone graduates with a PhD and a scientific discovery, but George Mason University researcher Marissa Howard was no ordinary student.

Marissa Howard

Howard, BS Bioengineering ’17, PhD Biosciences ’22, leads a team of scientists who have discovered a way to “eavesdrop” on cellular communications that could revolutionize treatments for cancer and other maladies.

All cells are constantly communicating with other cells using what Howard calls “an internet of molecular information.” Researchers at Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM), where Howard has worked since she was an undergraduate, are the first scientists to successfully tap into this communications system, which tumors use to trick or block the immune system and attract normal cells.

Howard was recently awarded a $200k grant from the National Cancer Institute to further this work. It is a medical breakthrough that could drastically change the way cancer is treated.

“It’s fun to be able to get to the source of tumors and actually figure out what’s going on there,” said Howard, who completed some of this work as part of her dissertation. “That’s what all cancer researchers want to do—figure out what the tumor is ‘thinking’ so we can get better outcomes for patients.”

Howard and the team have been focused on a component of the cellular communication system called extracellular vesicles (EVs), which are packages of concentrated information housed within tiny membrane-enclosed bubbles. The EVs are shed from the surface of cells and can travel long distances to be received by distant cells, causing a change in the behavior of the message recipient.

In the past, EVs were studied in cultured cells or were captured from a patient’s blood, but the Mason team created a way to study the cancer EVs within a solid living tumor at their source by sampling the interstitial fluid (IF), the wet environment that bathes all cells within tissues. This is the first portrait of the tumor EV communication system at its origin. Their findings, with Howard as first author, were published in the Journal of Extracellular Vesicles.

Their research also showed a dramatic difference in the communication function of the different major types of tumor tissue EVs. The scientists isolated the two major types of tumor EVs and then used nanoparticles, a Nanotrap technology created by CAPMM researchers, to deliver them to a draining lymph node.

Howard said that the treatment of the lymph node with the two separate classes of EVs was associated with dramatic differences in the growth of distance metastasis in the lung. “Repeated tests done in mice proved one class of isolated mitochondrial EVs capable of preventing the metastasizing of cancerous breast tumors while another class promoted cancerous growth.”

The discovery means doctors could more quickly gauge the effectiveness of existing cancer treatments and make real-time adjustments based on the information derived from the cellular communications.

Marissa Howard with CAPMM Director Lance Liotta and College of Science Dean Fernando Miralles at Mason Innovation Awards. Photo by John Boal Photography

It’s for that reason that the team’s discoveries have further implications beyond cancer, according to Lance Liotta, a Distinguished University Professor at Mason and the cofounder and codirector of CAPMM.

“These specific markers for mitochondrial health allow EVs to be a novel biomarker/diagnostic tool for cancer and other mitochondrial disorder diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, or muscular dystrophy,” Liotta said.

Howard first began working with Liotta and other CAPMM scientists as a bioengineering major participating in Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program, where she spent the summer studying the electrical properties of their Nanotrap technology.

“I really loved it,” she said of the work. “[The CAPMM scientists] were excited by the work I was doing and asked me to continue working with them. I’ve been in the CAPMM lab since 2016.”

Howard is also an inventor and shares several patents with her CAPMM colleagues. For her senior capstone project, Howard led a team of bioengineering students to create a noninvasive urine-based tuberculosis (TB) test using CAPMM’s Nanotrap technology, and the invention, called TB Assured, garnered a lot of attention for the team and many awards, including a $15,000 prize from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering’s Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) challenge to help develop the test further.

Everything that’s in the urine is captured by the Nanotraps, and you don’t need a centrifuge or other equipment,” said Howard, who completed her bachelor’s degree in bioengineering in 2017. “People loved it. They keep asking when it is going to be available at their local pharmacy.”

“I love the research space and the creative potential that comes with it,” Howard said. “You never know when your next idea is going to pop up.”

In addition to Howard and CAPMM’s Liotta, the EV research collaboration also included Alessandra Luchini, Amanda Haymond, and Fatah Kashanchi within the College of Science; collaborator Robyn Araujo at Queensland University in Australia; graduate students James Erickson, Zachary Cuba, Weidong Zhou, Purva Gade, Rachel Carter, Kelsey Mitchell, Heather Branscome, Fatimah Alanazi, Yuriy Kim; and high school students Shawn Kim and Daivik Siddhi.

Colleen Kearney Rich contributed to this article.

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Mason scientists in I-SPY 2 trial discover first ever signatures of global resistance and response to prioritize breast cancer treatment selections, including in triple negative cases

The proprietary LCM-RPPA protein activation mapping technique of breast tumors identifies three biomarkers associated with global resistance and response, several new drug targets and predictive signature that may help prioritize future treatment selection.

A team of George Mason University molecular biologists at its Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) has identified novel proteomic based signatures of global resistance for certain breast cancer patients and specific therapeutic strategies needed to overcome resistance. The work recently described in Cell Reports Medicine identifies new drug targets activated in human breast cancer, and described a new HER2-EGFR protein activation/phosphorylation signature called HARPS that could provide for better outcomes for patients with triple-negative breast (TNBC) cancer disease that previously had no specific precision therapy strategy identified.

Mason scientists Rosa Isela GallagherJulia Wulfkuhle, and Emanuel Petricoin, used their laser capture microdissection (LCM) and reverse phase protein array (RPPA) technology to map the protein drug target activation architecture of more than 700 breast tumors from the I-SPY 2 TRIAL, collaborating closely with genomics and bioinformatic scientists within the Departments of Laboratory Medicine and Surgery at University of California, San Francisco, and members of the I-SPY 2 TRIAL. This correlative study involved women with high-risk stage II and III early breast cancer who were enrolled in the first eight experimental arms of I-SPY 2 plus concurrent controls.

Photo by: Ron Aira/Creative Services/George Mason University

“This effort, the largest proteomic analysis of clinical tumor epithelium samples of any cancer type ever, is a culmination of a decade of work, in collaboration with dozens of clinicians and researchers in the I-SPY 2 TRIAL,” shared Emanuel Petricoin, co-director of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine. “The team used the LCM-RPPA platform to map the protein drug target activation landscape of breast tumors prior to the patients receiving any therapy and then identified specific proteins  that predicted response and resistance. No other precision oncology trial in the world is doing this,” said Petricoin, a Distinguished University Professor in the Mason Science School of Systems Biology.

The I-SPY 2 TRIAL, among the most widely known personalized medicine trials in the world today, pioneered the use of adaptive design strategies for rapid identification of targeted therapies that could benefit women with Stage II-III breast cancer.  Over 2,750 women at 40 clinical sites around the US have enrolled in I-SPY 2 since its inception. 

Researchers identified three specific proteins activated and expressed in human breast cancer that did not respond to any treatment. “The identified biomarkers associated with global resistance are cyclin D1, estrogen receptor alpha, and phosphorylated androgen receptor,” Mason Science Senior Research Scientist, Isela Gallagher said. “Because we found that global resistance to all drugs tested in the study was based on these 3 proteins being elevated and/or activated, we can target or turn off these proteins directly which will help the I-SPY2 TRIAL clinicians and their pharmaceutical partners prioritize new therapeutic strategies that target these proteins,” said Gallagher.

The team found that 11 specific protein activation-based signatures defined the breast cancers evaluated in the study, and identified specific precision therapeutics that would be optimized for best response. The CAPMM team also identified a novel signature called HARPS that can be used to stratify TNBC, the hardest to treat breast cancer subtype into HARPS+ who would best respond to anti-HER2 therapies or HARPS- who are predicted to best respond to immunotherapy. “The use of HARPS in TNBC could result in ~80% response rate compared to the current 30-40% response rate,” explained Mason Science Research Professor, Julia Wulfkuhle.  “We hope that ongoing and planned rigorous clinical validation of HARPS as well as the numerous predictive and prognostic signatures we describe in our paper will allow the eventual use of these candidate biomarkers in the clinical management of breast cancer patients”, Wulfkuhle said.

“The CAPMM team at George Mason University has served as essentially the I-SPY protein biomarker engine since its inception,” shared Laura Esserman, I-SPY 2 TRIAL primary investigator and Professor of Surgery and Radiology at UCSF.  “This novel approach gives our trials a powerful multi-omic molecular angle that is really unique in the precision oncology ecosystem,” explained Esserman, the Director of the UCSF Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center.

“More importantly, the results give us clear targets that we can use to identify promising agents and test them in the I SPY 2.2 TRIAL- now that is bench to bedside translational research!” Esserman enthused. 

“We are extremely inspired by the work being done by the team at George Mason University and are proud to be able to commercialize these efforts,” shared Faith Zaslavsky, President and CEO of CAPMM partner, Theralink Technologies. “Breakthroughs like this will save lives and dramatically reduce the cost of unnecessary and ineffective treatments.”

This research effort was supported by funding from many partners including the Quantum Leap Healthcare Collaborative, various National Institute of Health grants, the Gateway for Cancer research grants, The Atwater Trust and the SideOut Foundation. Further information and requests for resources or data should be directed to and will be fulfilled by Rosa I. Gallagher (rgallag3@gmu.edu).

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Mason named to top 100 list for patents awarded in 2022

Mason named to top 100 list for patents awarded in 2022
Colleen Rich
Thu, 10/12/2023 – 09:30

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It isn’t surprising the George Mason University, a university that has been recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, would be among the top 100 universities in United States for patents. This fall, the National Academy of Inventors ranked Mason No. 91 in its list of the top 100 universities granted patents during 2022.

“Mason is in the business of discovery,” said Andre Marshall, vice president for research, innovation, and economic impact. “Our researchers are curiosity-driven. As such, we don’t always know where our research will lead or what impact it may have. I am absolutely delighted that the Mason Enterprise tech transfer team is working with our researchers on inventions and patents to transform our discoveries into impact.”

In 2022, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued 15 utility patents to Mason inventors including a method to monitor physical cues for people in recovery, a wearable device for knee injuries, a system for detecting power grid states and determining appropriate actions, and therapeutics for dealing with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), to name a few. Utility patents cover the creation of a new or improved—and useful—product, process, or machine.

Mason professors Padmanabhan Seshaiyer of the Department of Mathematical Sciences and Holly Matto, Department of Social Work, share a patent for systems and methods for biobehavioral-regulation treatments. Their invention provides recovery support for users by monitoring their biobehavioral state and strategically delivers, in real time, personalized recovery cues to treat and prevent relapse. It is the first patent for the Department of Social Work.

Researchers Marissa Howard and Lance Liotta at Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine patented a wearable device that measures, tracks, and monitors a wearer’s physical physiological conditions during a rehabilitation period. The device collects metrics, such as temperature, patellar shifting, limb circumference, and acceleration, and communicates them through a networked communication system so medical personnel and patients can stay updated with the patient’s rehabilitation progress and make adjustments.

Mason alum Eniye Tebekaemi, PhD Information Technology ’18, and Duminda Wijesekera of the College of Engineering and Computing were awarded a patent for a secure overlay communication model for decentralized autonomous power grids. The model is a logic-based system deployed onto computing devices in power grid stations and substations. In response to detecting various power grid faults, such as line failures and over-current states, the system can automatically rearrange power line configurations.

Researcher Yuntao Wu, a professor in Mason’s School of Systems Biology and the Center for Infectious Disease Research, was awarded two patents in 2022 for his work on HIV: “Targeting the Cofilin Pathway” and “Method and System for Inactivating Virus Infectivity for Producing Live-Attenuated Vaccines.” Wu has devoted his career to HIV research. In 2013, he founded the biotech company Virongy after licensing an HIV drug-screening technology that was developed in his Mason lab.

“The Office of Technology Transfer takes great pride in the quality of patented innovations brought forth by our dedicated researchers,” said David Grossman, senior director of  Technology Transfer and Industry Collaboration at Mason. “We are honored to help these innovators transition their groundbreaking concepts from the laboratory to the marketplace. This collaboration between academia and industry underscores our unwavering commitment to harness the full potential of research for the betterment of society.”

The academy’s Top 100 lists are created using data provided by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Other Virginia universities in the top 100 included University of Virginia at 52 and Virginia Commonwealth University at 86.

According to the National Academy of Inventors press release, “This new list was created to highlight and celebrate American innovation and to showcase the universities that play a large role in advancing the innovation ecosystem within the U.S. and beyond.”

 

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Innovation Awards celebrate Mason researchers

On May 9, George Mason University celebrated its research enterprise with Innovation Awards, recognizing the Innovator of the Year and a Mason start-up, and those who received and/or licensed a patent.

Michael Buschmann’s team accepted the Innovator of the Year award from Vice President Andre Marshall (holding plaque) on his behalf. Photo by John Boal Photography

According to David Grossman, senior director of technology transfer and industry collaboration in Mason’s Office of Research, Innovation, and Economic Impact, this was the first time since 2010 that the university formally recognized researchers. Going forward it will be an annual event.

“At the Mason Innovation Awards, we were privileged to recognize the tireless pursuit of knowledge and the transformative impact of our faculty’s discoveries,” said Grossman. “Through their dedication, these researchers are helping shape the world with their groundbreaking technologies and pushing the boundaries of what is possible.”

The Innovator of the Year Award was awarded posthumously to Michael Buschmann, Eminent Scholar and the former chair of the Bioengineering Department within Mason’s College of Engineering and Computing. Buschmann help found the start-up AexeRNA Therapeutics Inc., in partnership with the university’s Office of Technology Transfer. He and his team licensed the commercial rights of four patents to the company. The technology AexeRNA is working on will make mRNA vaccines less costly and more readily available worldwide. Members of Buschmann’s AexeRNA team were recognized at the ceremony.

Saleet Jafri was awarded the Mason Start-up Award. Photo by John Boal Photography

The Mason Start-up Award was presented to Saleet Jafri, director of Mason’s Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience and professor in the School of Systems Biology, College of Science, for his company Pathodynamics. Pathodynamics has licensed three Mason patents and is developing a technology that solves the problem of cancer drug resistance, which is responsible for more than 90% of cancer deaths. Jafri has also received a Small Business Innovation Research award for the technology and is working with the Virginia Small Business Development Center’s Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP).

Lance Liotta (left) and David Grossman holding Liotta’s Lifetime Disclosure Award. Photo by John Boal Photography

University Professor Lance Liotta, cofounder and codirector of the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine, was recognized with a Mason Lifetime Disclosure Award. During his career, Liotta has filed more than 120 patent disclosures. Disclosures are the first step toward a patent by making a public claim about an invention or discovery. Liotta has 100 inventions to date and the prototype of one of these inventions—Laser Capture Microdissection, a method to procure subpopulations of tissue cells under direct microscopic visualization—is in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection.

During the program, Gisele Stolz, senior director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Programs at Mason, was recognized for recently receiving an Impact Award from the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative for mentoring students. Stolz has helped place more than 150 Mason students in internships with cyber-related start-ups.

Participants of the Virginia SBDC ICAP and national I-CORPS programs and Mason researchers who have patented or licensed a technology or invention were also recognized.

The awards for patents and licensed technologies are Plexiglas hexagons with magnets so researchers can add to their award over the years as they receive patents/licensing.

A list of those Mason researcher licensing technologies follows.

Mason Licensed Technology Awards

“Microscopic Particles for Target Bio-markers,” licensed to Ceres NanoSciences
Lance Liotta, Emanuel Petricoin, Alessandra Luchini Kunkel, Barney Bishop, Virginia Espina, Marissa Howard, and Fatah Kashanchi

“Self-Cleaning Intrusion Tolerance” licensed to SCIT Labs
Arun Sood

“Pre-Shot Sniper Detection” licensed to First Guard Technologies
Kenneth J. Hintz

“Cauldron” licensed to Cyvision Technologies
Sushil Jajodia

“Antiretroviral Compositions” licensed to Lentx
Yuntao Wu

“Biological Materials” licensed to Kera FAST
Barney Bishop, Monique van Hoek, Robin Couch, and Yuntao Wu

“Atomic Magnetometer” licensed to Twinleaf
Karen Sauer

“Protein–Protein Interactions” licensed to EMD Millipore
Alessandra Luchini Kunkel, Lance Liotta, and Virginia Espina

“Antiretroviral Cyclonucleotides” and “Pseudovirus Platform” licensed to Virongy
Yuntao Wu and Brian Hetrick

“Packet Flow Watermarking” licensed to CyberRock Tech
Xinyuan Wang                     

“Encryption IP Cores” licensed to Chaologix
Gaj Krzysztof and Panasayya Yalla

“Personalized Therapy” licensed to Avant Diagnostics
Emanuel Petricoin and Julia Wulfkuhle

“Thromboembolism Sleeve” licensed to Phase II Consulting and Staffing
Lance Liotta and Marissa Howard

“Laser Capture Microdissection” and “Tissue Molecular Profiling” licensed to Targeted Biosciences
Lance Liotta, Alessandra Luchini Kunkel, Virginia Espina, Amanda Nicole Haymond Still, Marissa Howard, and Philip Andrew Pappalardo

“Cancer and HIV Therapeutics” licensed to Targeted Pharmaceuticals
Catherine DeMarino, Fatah Kashanchi, Lance Liotta, and Virginia Espina

“HIV Vaccine” licensed to Viropeutics
Yuntao Wu

“Protein Painting” licensed to Monet Pharmaceuticals
Alessandra Luchini Kunkel, Amanda Nicole Haymond Still, Lance Liotta, Mikell Paige, and Virginia Espina

“Antidepressant Selection” licensed to Teahorse
Farrokh Alemi

“Honeybee Hive Therapy” licensed to Tri-State Proteomics
Alessandra Luchini Kunkel, Lance Liotta, and Rocio Solange Prisby

“mRNA Delivery Lipids” licensed to AexeRNA Therapeutics
Michael Buschmann, Mikell Paige, Suman Alishetty, and Manuel Carrasco

“COVID Contact Tracing” licensed to Vericord
Farrokh Alemi and Janusz Wojtusiak

“Wearable Devices for Managing Substance Abuse” licensed to LifeSpan Digital Health
Holly C. Matto and Padmanabhan Seshaiyer

“Precision Oncology” licensed to Pathodynamics
Mohsin Saleet Jafri and Soukaina Amniouel

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Mason Honey Bee Initiative

The George Mason University Honey Bee Initiative (HBI) is an interdisciplinary effort supported by the work and expertise of colleagues across the university (College of Science, College of Education and Human Development, College of Computing and Engineering, College of Visual and Performing Arts, School of Public Health, and the School of Business).

The initiative offers opportunities to engage in sustainable beekeeping, perform scientific research, design art projects, connect with the community, and even study abroad.

Partnerships with the government, for-profit businesses, non-profit organizations, and community members are vital to the success of the initiative.

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Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton helps Mason land federal funding for projects to benefit the well-being of residents across the state

Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton helps Mason land federal funding for projects to benefit the well-being of residents across the state
Colleen Rich
Mon, 01/30/2023 – 13:08

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George Mason University researchers will soon be building upon their impact on the physical well-being of residents in both the Northern Virginia region and across the state thanks to a pair of projects championed by U.S. Representative Jennifer Wexton (D-VA).

Mason will receive more than $1 million for a center that will help in the fight against the growing opioid epidemic, and another $820,000 to establish a clinic that will help combat Lyme Disease and other tick-borne illnesses. Federal funding for both projects came as part of the federal omnibus appropriations bill that President Biden recently signed into law to fund the government through Fiscal Year 2023.

Wexton is a member of the House Appropriations Committee whose 10th District includes Manassas, where Mason’s Science and Technology Campus is located, as well as two Mason and Partner (MAP) Clinic locations that provide clinical care to underserved populations in Fairfax and Prince William counties.

Mason faculty member Rebecca Sutter (left) with Representative Jennifer Wexton during a February 2020 visit to a Mason and Partners (MAP) Clinic. Photo by Lathan Goumas/Strategic Communications

With its one-time federal investment of $1,037,519, the future Empowered Communities Partnership Center will leverage public and private partnerships in addressing abuse among high-risk individuals experiencing substance and opioid abuse disorder. That collaboration will include existing Virginia statewide and local criminal justice and public health partners for expanded coordination of care for those with opioid use disorder reentering the community following their release from incarceration.

“This federal funding that I’ve delivered for George Mason will help high-risk Virginians struggling with substance-use disorder get the help they need as they reenter the community after incarceration,” Wexton said. “The opioid crisis has hit Virginia communities hard, and it is an issue I’ve worked closely on throughout my career in public service. I applaud Mason’s efforts to establish this new center, which will help leverage public-private partnerships among local community leaders in our Commonwealth to prevent overdoses and save lives.”

According to state statistics, clients with substance abuse disorders transitioning from incarceration are up to 129 times more susceptible to overdose in the first two weeks following their release.

The center will work to prevent overdose opioid use and limit the burden to the state healthcare system by coordinating care across systems of support and developing new models of community care. The project will document the differential impacts substance abuse has on underrepresented populations and use that evidence to support effective new implementation approaches that improve connection to and engagement with integrated community services.

Rebecca Sutter, a professor of nursing within Mason’s College of Public Health and the co-director of the Mason and Partners (MAP) Clinics and the Empowered Communities Program, will oversee the center.

“We are building upon our programs to expand our impact,” Sutter said. “This is a partnership center with the local community guiding its work while acting as a learning laboratory for the next generation of public health strategists and leaders.”

Nationwide, federal and local officials are reporting alarming spikes in drug overdoses, with evidence suggesting that continued isolation from the global pandemic, economic devastation, and disruptions to the drug trade are fueling the surge. This partnership center will help improve coordination and promote readiness among health departments, community members, healthcare providers, public health, law enforcement and government agencies for local, regional, and state impact.

“Funding for mental health and substance use prevention allows the College of Public Health and our Mason and Partner (MAP) Clinics to expand our impact and prepare future providers for evidence-based practice in screening and assessment, treatment, and recovery,” said Melissa J. Perry, dean of the College of Public Health. “We are grateful to Representative Wexton for her continued support for these mission-critical areas of research and practice and for her commitment to meeting the needs of high-risk individuals experiencing substance and opioid use disorder. Through the new partnership center and learning laboratory, we look forward to continued collaboration with the local community and our elected officials to make a lasting impact in Northern Virginia.”

According to the most recent data from the Virginia Department of Health, overdoses in the commonwealth resulted in more than 21,000 emergency room visits in 2021, and more than 10,800 from opioids alone. The number of fatal overdoses from all substances that year was an increase of 69 percent from 2019, while the number of fatal opioid overdoses in 2021 had increased by 80 percent since 2019. Fentanyl was involved in nearly 72 percent of all of Virginia’s drug overdose deaths in 2020.

Available data indicate that a disproportionate number of opioid overdose deaths are in persons living in rural areas of less privileged socioeconomic status.

Lance Liotta. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

The Center for Advanced Testing: Tick-Borne Disease Diagnostic Clinic is the other project for which Wexton successfully fought to have funded to meet the needs of Northern Virginians by combating the rising number of tick-borne illnesses throughout Virginia.

Buoyed by the one-year federal investment of $820,000, the center will provide a suite of unmatched Mason technologies for diagnostic testing that will lead to improved early intervention and reduce illness.

“I’m proud to have secured federal funding that will help George Mason begin their unique diagnostic testing technology for tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease,” Wexton said. “Mason scientists have been leaders in helping to prevent long-term illness and disability from these diseases, which are becoming more common in Virginia and across the country. I’m grateful to Mason for their work on this issue, and look forward to this next step in their groundbreaking program which will keep more Virginians healthy and safe.”

Like many parts of the United States, Virginia is experiencing an increase in tick-borne illnesses, with particularly high numbers of confirmed cases in Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William, and Rappahannock counties. Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses are causing great suffering and economic loss to the state.

Early diagnosis for tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease is critical in preventing significant morbidity and mortality, but there is currently a shortage of adequate and accessible testing throughout Virginia.

“This is really going to be special,” said Lance Liotta, a University Professor and center co-director and medical director of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine within Mason’s College of Science. “Our unique medical technology to diagnose tick-borne diseases began many years ago with a Mason summer student Temple Douglas working in Alessandra Luchini’s lab, and has been developed and perfected by funding from the [National Institutes of Health], the Cohen Foundation, and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Our team is thrilled to expand our clinical trial under this special funding to now offer routine testing for the entire commonwealth. Early diagnosis of Lyme disease can be followed by immediate treatment to prevent suffering.”

The federal funds will be used to launch the clinical deployment of diagnostic testing that will allow for a quicker and more efficient diagnosis.

Mason scientists have developed a technology for patient sample self-collection that does not require refrigerated shipment and storage. One patient sample can be used to detect signatures derived directly from all the major known tick-borne pathogens.

The technology, which has undergone scientific peer review and been supported by NIH funding, is amenable to epidemiologic surveillance and will be used to screen high-risk outdoor workers exposed to tick bites, as well as hikers along the Appalachian Trail and others.

The Mason test addresses the urgent unmet need of accurately diagnosing and treating early-stage tick-borne infections before they progress to cause chronic suffering and disability, including cognitive impairment and cardiac failure. Urine samples or ticks collected from patients who come to the clinic with a tick bite will be shipped out for rapid analysis. Results will be communicated to the requesting physician within 24 hours, enabling immediate initiation of appropriate therapy if pathogens are present.

Mason officials anticipate seeing 600 samples per month, and will be relying on high-tech automation equipment to help meet the demand from the five clinics set up throughout Virginia’s 10th District.

“Mason scientists possess a strong commitment to leverage our research, intellect, and creativity to solve grand challenges that positively impact our communities, both locally and around the world,” said Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm, dean of Mason’s College of Science. “We are grateful to Representative Wexton for her continued support for these critical areas of research and for her commitment to helping us address these medical needs of Northern Virginians.”

The conventional serology test for Lyme disease, which has low sensitivity and specificity, usually takes about 6 to 12 days to process at major diagnostic laboratories. In contrast, the Mason test turnaround time will be as soon as 24 hours, and can test the ticks as well as the samples.

Mason’s proposal was submitted by Liotta and Ali Andalibi, the senior associate dean and chief scientific officer for the College of Science.

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Alessandra Luchini honored by SCHEV with Outstanding Faculty Award

Alessandra Luchini honored by SCHEV with Outstanding Faculty Award
Melanie Balog
Thu, 01/12/2023 – 16:50

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George Mason University’s Alessandra Luchini is among the 12 educators statewide set to be formally recognized by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) with a 2023 Outstanding Faculty Award.

Alessandra Luchini
Photo by Creative Services

Luchini, a professor in Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) within the College of Science, is Mason’s 28th faculty member to be so honored since the award’s inception in 1987.

“This has been unbelievable,” said Luchini, the director of the Biosciences PhD Program within the School of Systems Biology, “because it is the highest honor in Virginia, and there are so many thousands of faculty with huge impact in their research. It is a complete honor, and I am incredulous.”

Outstanding Faculty Awards recognize faculty at Virginia’s public and private colleges and universities who exemplify the highest standards of teaching, scholarship and service. The award includes a $7,500 gift from the Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation when they are formally recognized at an in-person ceremony in Richmond on March 7.

Mark R. Ginsberg, Mason’s provost and executive vice president, lauded Luchini for her efforts.

“Professor Luchini is an exemplary member of the Mason faculty,” Ginsberg said. “I am delighted she has been recognized for her dedication to the education and development of her students and her outstanding and higher consequential research. She exemplifies the Mason spirit and is setting an example for future educators and scientists who will no doubt stand on her shoulders.”

Luchini’s research interests include developing technologies that improve current diagnostics and therapeutics for diseases, including cancer and inflammatory and infectious diseases.

She is a co-founder of Ceres Nanosciences Inc., which was created in 2008, and Monet Pharmaseuticals, created in 2019. In 2011, Luchini was named one of Popular Science’s Brilliant 10.

Most recently, Luchini contributed to the fight against Lyme disease by help leading a team of CAPMM researchers that was named one of 10 Phase 1 winners of the LymeX Diagnostic Prize by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation.

“Lyme disease is probably what I have been closer to,” Luchini said. “I interact with doctors who recommend patients for our clinical trials, I interact with patients and I hear their stories and, hopefully, my research allows them to understand a little bit more about what they have and how they can improve their health. It is a good reality check and a good reminder of why we do what we do—which is to help people.”

Outstanding Faculty Award nominees are selected by their institutions, reviewed by a panel of peers and chosen by a committee of leaders from the public and private sectors. SCHEV received 74 nominations this year before the group was narrowed to 24 finalists and the 12 eventual winners.

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Mason team is one of 10 Phase 1 winners of the LymeX Diagnostics Prize

Mason team is one of 10 Phase 1 winners of the LymeX Diagnostics Prize
John Hollis
Tue, 12/06/2022 – 10:44

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University Professor Lance Liotta is the co-founder and co-director of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine. Photo by Creative Services

A George Mason University team led by Alessandra Luchini and Lance Liotta has been named one of 10 Phase 1 winners of the LymeX Diagnostics Prize by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation.

Each of the Phase 1 winners have received $100,000 and an invitation to participate in the second phase of the contest whose aim—depending on future funding— is to accelerate the development of Lyme disease diagnostics.

“This is an important, direct test for tick pathogens that can be used not only for diagnostics, but also to monitor the success of treatment,” said Liotta, a University Professor and the co-director and co-founder of the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) within Mason’s College of Science. Luchini is a professor within CAPMM.

Research by the Mason team centered around a urine-direct test that targets specific protein molecules made by the Lyme organism itself to provide direct information about pathogen activity and Achilles’s heel targets for acute and persistent Lyme disease, in many ways similar to long COVID.

The ultimate goal of the competition is to help expedite the development of diagnostics for Food and Drug Administration review.

Luchini said she was “honored and excited” about the selection of their work.

Alessandra Luchini is an associate professor within CAPMM. Photo by Creative Services

“This is a great opportunity to bring our research work to the next level, to transform the technology into a test that can be run in any clinical laboratory and help thousands of patients with their struggles with Lyme disease,” she said.

There were 52 entries in the contest’s first phase, using techniques such as radiological imaging, geonomics sequencing and microfluidics, according to the Cohen Foundation. Approaches used for diagnosing other infectious diseases, such as COVID, were incorporated into some of the submissions. Technical reviewers evaluated the submissions before they went to the panel of judges.

“Early detection and treatment are essential in the fight against this debilitating disease. The Phase 1 winning solutions provide hope for a future in which anyone can quickly and easily get an accurate Lyme disease diagnosis,” said Cohen Foundation President Alexandra Cohen. “We look forward to advancing the next generation of innovative Lyme disease diagnostics and providing the necessary structure for winners on their path to FDA review and approval.”

Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States. Caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, it is most often transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache and fatigue. If left untreated, the infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.

The current two-tier serological testing system used to detect Lyme disease relies on the presence of antibodies and can only be used four to six weeks after infection to assess prior exposure. In contrast, the Mason test measures proteins coming directly from the bacteria, thus it provides a real-time reading on the state of the infection.

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Mason team playing a role in the Cancer Moonshot Initiative

Mason team playing a role in the Cancer Moonshot Initiative
John Hollis
Tue, 11/29/2022 – 11:58

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Emanuel “Chip” Petricoin is the co-founder and the co-director of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine. Photo by Creative Services

A team of George Mason University scientists has a role in the White House Cancer Moonshot Initiative, and their work could help in the mission to reduce cancer rates in half over the next 25 years. 

The U.S. government is partnering with researchers to reduce  cancer deaths by bringing together a large community of patients, advocates, researchers and clinicians. 

Researchers from the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) within Mason’s College of Science are working on a molecular profiling technology that would better identify the most effective drugs in the fight against specific cancers.  

“I think it’s very realistic to reduce cancer death rates in half in 25 years,” said Emanuel “Chip” Petricoin, a University Professor and the co-founder and co-director of CAPMM. 

Petricoin cited better technologies and approaches for early detection, a growing cadre of targeted therapeutics and immunooncology drugs that are precision-tuned for specific individuals, and the democratization and commoditization of molecular profiling that allows patients to get therapies tailored to their specific needs as the reasons for his optimism. 

The development of the Reverse Phase Protein Array (RPPA) as part of the Applied Proteogenomics OrganizationaL Learning and Outcomes (APOLLO) network is helping to prepare patients for therapy in future versions of the trials. 

His team’s unique approach and a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment (CLIA)-certified laboratory are two big reasons why Mason’s CAPMM team has been continuously funded by the Department of Defense’s Apollo Moonshot project for the past four years, Petricoin said. 

The CAPMM team has a new initiative to develop a far less invasive “liquid biopsy” assay technology platform that requires a blood sample rather than a tumor biopsy to provide specific drug target information that will better fight the cancer. 

Petricoin likes the direction in which he sees the research headed and says the only potential obstacle would be convincing insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies to pay for and provide the drugs at no cost for those trials. 

“I can easily see cancer death rates even falling by 80 to 90% in 25 years compared to now,” he said. “I predict most cancer will become a chronic disease, managed like we do with other diseases, like diabetes.”

Chip Petricoin can be reached at epetrico@gmu.edu

For more information, contact John Hollis at jhollis2@gmu.edu

About George Mason 

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls nearly 40,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility. Mason celebrates 50 years as an independent institution. Learn more at www.gmu.edu