BU Ignition Awards Announced; BUSM Faculty Play Prominent Role

From the Lab to Your Life: Awards help fast-track commercialization of promising new research

Each year, BU Technology Development helps to fast-track promising new efforts by providing up to $75,000 to a few select projects. “There are loads of great ideas on campus, but they often need some help to get to a point where they can eventually be adopted and put to use,” says Mike Pratt, managing director of Technology Development. “Having early, promising research doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the tangible proof required to motivate someone to invest their time or money into the development of a new product or service.” The Ignition Award program helps to bridge that gap, he says. In addition to a financial grant, award winners receive coaching and support to bring their products to market.

There are nine winning projects this year. Read about three of them here or click to learn about all nine.


Stopping Kidney Failure

Headshot of Dr. BorkanKidney injury comes in many forms. Some damage takes years to develop; some occurs over a few days or even hours. In the latter case, blood flow to the kidneys is often disrupted, starving the organ of oxygen and nutrients, which kills its cells. Steven Borkan, associate professor of medicine/nephrology, has discovered a new signal that triggers this cell death, and has worked out a way to stop it in its tracks. The signal works using two proteins that exist within kidney cells: one called Bax, and another called nucleophosmin. Normally, they’re separate, harmless molecules—but when they bind together, the resulting complex kills the cell. Borkan has developed a molecule that prevents the two proteins from binding in the first place, stopping the cell death signal from being created. So far, it’s been used successfully in lab mice, saving their kidneys from an early demise and preventing the animal from dying of kidney failure. Borkan is currently working to improve his molecule’s efficacy, and has begun the process of turning it into a drug that can be tested in humans at high risk of acute kidney injury.

Probing RNA-Binding Proteins

Headshot of Dr. CifuentesHuge numbers of diseases, from neurological ailments to some forms of cancer, are caused by faulty regulation of RNA, the molecule that carries information to make new proteins in the body. If a second protein latches onto that RNA in the wrong place or at the wrong time, the information within the strand can’t be correctly read by the body, resulting in a deformed version of the protein that the RNA set out to create. In order to treat these sorts of ailments, researchers must find a specific stretch of the RNA where a drug might attach and correct the instructions it contains. Daniel Cifuentes, assistant professor of biochemistry, is aiding this process by developing a new means to evaluate where and how strongly a protein attaches to RNA. Cifuentes’ new technology can decipher both the exact spot where a protein attaches to an RNA strand and how strong that attachment may be. “It used to take days to develop an assay to see if binding occurred on RNA, and even then, we didn’t know how robust that binding was,” says Cifuentes. “Our technology lets us test all of that at the same time in living cells, so researchers can more quickly develop drugs that target those spots.”

Delivering RNA with Nanoparticles

Headshot of Dr. Gouon-Evans
Valerie Gouon-Evans

Liver damage can sometimes be irreversible. Whether it’s caused by an alcohol dependency or an overdose of common drugs like acetaminophen, the outcome is the same—the organ is in such dire shape that it can’t repair itself quickly enough to save a dying patient. Valerie Gouon-Evans, associate professor of medicine/gastroenterology, and Arturo Vegas, a CAS assistant professor of chemistry, are speeding up that rehabilitation process using a new type of nanoparticle. It’s made of a polymer sphere with a strand of messenger RNA nestled inside it. The sphere can home in on liver cells, enter their cell membrane, and release its payload of RNA—which then instructs the cell to make a regenerative molecule that helps it repair damage. “It actually works in a similar way to major COVID vaccines, but instead of giving instructions to your immune system, it’s instructing liver cells,” says Gouon-Evans. If this sort of treatment is given to patients early enough, she thinks it might help save the lives of people with acute liver injury. Gouon-Evans and Vegas are currently working to make the technology more robust, and plan to introduce it to drug companies in the near future.