Danté Johnson, a PhD candidate in the lab of Lisa M. Jones, PhD, in the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy’s (UMSOP) Pharmaceutical Sciences program, has received the 2022 Graduate Translational Research (GTR) award, which recognizes important translational research performed by a University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) graduate student or postdoctoral fellow. Her research has contributed to the development of an innovative method for analyzing proteins in live cells.
“I came into graduate school with a background in biology and chemistry,” Johnson said. “Never did I expect I would be tackling a project so rich with engineering and technology. It was challenging, but this endeavor gave me the opportunity to grow as a scientist. We have definitely developed something that has great potential to advance the field of proteomics.”
Presented in coordination with the University of Maryland Graduate School’s annual Graduate Research Conference, the GTR award embodies the mission of UM Ventures Baltimore to translate outcomes from basic research into real-world applications.
UM Ventures is a joint initiative of the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore through a formal collaboration for innovation, the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State (MPower), which was created to maximize innovation and impact through collaboration between the two universities. This year marks MPower’s 10th anniversary.
Currently, there is a chasm between the biological findings from an in vitro system and those that would be obtained in an actual cellular environment. To help eliminate this gap, Johnson worked with Jones to pioneer the use of a new automated, six-well, plate-based, in-cell Fast Photochemical Oxidation of proteins (IC-FPOP) platform. Coupled with mass spectrometry, this novel FPOP technology is capable of identifying and characterizing proteins and tracing their dynamic molecular interactions in both healthy and diseased states.
This high-throughput FPOP labeling strategy is a potential service for scientists interested in analyzing the higher-order structure of proteins in various biological systems to identify protein-protein, protein-ligand, and protein-drug interactions, epitope mapping, and protein folding dynamics in cell models. It could be useful for analyzing drug target engagement — an area of strong interest to the pharmaceutical industry and academia, both of which desire innovative and practical solutions for today’s demanding biological and industrial questions and applications.
“Danté’s project and its real-world potential was not only very exciting for the UM Ventures team, but also for many of the UMB scientists attending the Graduate Research Conference,” said Nancy Cowger, PhD, director of licensing at UMB. “Once we learned more about her project and the steps she was pursuing that could lead to broader use and commercialization of her work, such as participating in the I-Corps program, it became clear to our team that commercial applications are likely around the corner.”
Since joining Jones’ lab, Johnson has secured a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, an institute of the National Institutes of Health, rethought and altered aspects of the original platform, assisted her colleague Ben Punshon-Smith with the development of an integrated software that automates the device, and helped design experiments to validate the new platform.
Johnson, who is in her final year, plans to join a biotech or pharmaceutical firm where she can continue to apply the skills she’s developed in the PhD program at UMSOP.
This year’s judge panel included senior licensing technical officer Melissa Blackman, PhD, who presented the award; Cowger; senior licensing technical officer Jeff Purnell, PhD, and director of new ventures Rana Quraishi, PhD.