Aug. 30, 2007

N.Y. state provides $2.25 million to fund Cornell research with commercial potential

The New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR) has awarded grants of about $750,000 each to three Cornell faculty members, Matthew DeLisa, Dan Luo and Johannes Gehrke, to pursue high-technology research with commercial potential.

DeLisa, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, is being funded to engineer humanlike glycosylation pathways in bacteria.

By inserting DNA that codes for human proteins into bacteria, biotechnologists have created factories to produce such proteins as insulin for medical use. But bacteria have been unable to manufacture glycoproteins, which consist of chains of amino acids with sugars attached. Important glycoproteins include antibodies used in vaccines and erythropoietin used to treat anemia. By inserting an array of new genes into E. coli bacteria, DeLisa has enabled the bacteria to add bacterial sugars to proteins. The goal of the new, three-year project is to adapt these bacteria to use human or humanlike sugars.

Luo, associate professor of biological and environmental engineering, is being funded to produce recombinant proteins in an in vitro system called P-gel.

Luo previously developed a method for building hydrogels -- spongy materials that hold water -- out of synthetic DNA. In the new research he will use a special gel he calls P-gel -- for "protein-producing" -- to make proteins from DNA templates in a cell-free environment. The system will produce proteins that are difficult to make using conventional biotechnology methods that employ bacteria or yeast cells, and can produce in 24 hours what might take several months by cell-based methods, Luo says. The process also has application in the production of vaccines.

Gehrke, associate professor of computer science, is being funded to develop declarative languages that will allow scalability and extensibility in massive evolving databases.

Gehrke is creating languages that will allow programmers to easily insert large numbers of entries into databases. The work can be applied to multiplayer video gaming, allowing, for example, the automatic creation of large numbers of sophisticated "nonplaying characters," and to scientific simulations with many elements, such as simulations of the schooling of fish, flocking of birds, social behavior in insects or complex human social and political behavior. Ultimately, Gehrke hopes his ideas can simplify the programming of large parallel computers.

NYSTAR has provided more than $13.1 million for 29 Faculty Development Program grants between 2000 and 2005. As a result of this investment, the agency says, institutions receiving these funds have generated more than $64.7 million in impacts in New York and have resulted in the founding of seven new companies. This equates to a $4.93 return to the state for each dollar invested, NYSTAR calculates.