Professor receives Powe award for targeting therapeutics

Brian Meckes stands in the lab

Brian Meckes, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has received a prestigious 2021 Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from Oak Ridge Associated Universities for his research about subcellular targeting for nanotherapeutic delivery in order to better treat diseases.

Meckes and his research team are exploring better ways of delivering nanoparticle therapeutics to targeted cells by taking advantage of changes in the cell membrane that occur in diseased cells. They are using nanolithography — the process of creating patterns on the nanoscale to create incredibly small structures — and other tools to study these interactions.

They hope by studying these nanoparticle therapies that they’ll be able to help find better treatments for conditions such as cancer, osteoarthritis or fibrogenesis. A focus of their study is to find more about how cells respond to different mechanical signals that trigger cancer or other disease progression.

“We really want to understand how nanoparticles interact with a cell membrane interface,” Meckes says. “In particular, we are interested in the interplay between mechanical and chemical signaling.”

They also are studying what the differences in cytoskeletal forces — the softness or stiffness of the cell — indicate in terms of disease state. Meckes hopes to discover better ways of determining which cells to target based on these forces to make therapeutics more effective.

“The research shows that cancer cells that are very metastatic — the most aggressive cells — tend to be the ones that are stiffer,” Meckes says. “In targeting by the nanoparticle, we can look and see if there a difference between the membrane structure in a cell that is soft and a cell that is stiff. And now we have a potential therapeutic target.”

Meckes believes that the completion of this project will have a significant impact on understanding how cells respond to stresses at membrane interfaces on the nanoscopic level. Such knowledge could be leveraged for improving subcellular targeting in next-generation nanotherapeutics.

The Powe award enhances the research and professional growth of young faculty and is awarded to professors teaching engineering, sciences, mathematics, policy management or education. Awards from Oak Ridge, a consortium of 127 major Ph.D.-granting universities nationwide, can be used as funds for graduate student salary, travel, equipment or other assistance relevant to the faculty member's research.

“This grant will provide my group with seed funding to pursue some novel therapeutic directions that have a big impact on how we treat disease,” Meckes says. “I am honored to be recognized by my peers and am excited for this project.”