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Transforming transplants

Researchers typically produce long, detailed proposals when seeking funding for their research and back it with a history of their work detailing past successes as a rationale for funding.

Going from that to pitching an idea in the space of a single page with no mention of previous research successes for a competitive U.S. Department of Defense program might seem daunting by comparison. But not only did MU Chemical Engineering Assistant Professor Bret Ulery and his lab pull it off, the DoD accepted their proposal for funding.

Portrait of Bret Ulery

Bret Ulery’s project, “Novel Immunomodulatory Peptide Polymers for VCA Rejection Prevention,” was recently funded for 18 months via a Concept Award as part of the DoD’s Reconstructive Transplant Research Program.

Ulery’s project, “Novel Immunomodulatory Peptide Polymers for VCA Rejection Prevention,” was recently funded for 18 months via a Concept Award as part of the DoD’s Reconstructive Transplant Research Program.

The program’s goal is to fund cutting-edge research that has potential benefit for improving the quality of life for injured military members and veterans. Ulery and his team’s proposal focused on a method to help lessen the likelihood of a person’s body rejecting a large tissue transplant — hands, faces or legs, for example. The current method of reducing rejection is the use of immunosuppressant drugs, which help the process but also leave the body vulnerable to infection as a result.

Ulery and his team, with their self-proclaimed motto of “cells do it better,” sought out to find a superior way. Previous research indicated that synthetic polymers could be used to deliver specific proteins locally to a targeted area, which could help facilitate acceptance of the transplant without limiting the patient’s health in other ways. But the therapy, when scaled to treat human subjects, would be potentially cost prohibitive.

Taking the previous research further, Ulery and his research team looked at ways to trigger surrounding cells to produce the protein organically rather than introducing it from an outside source. And their proposal indicated that they could potentially accomplish this.

“We discovered a peptide in the literature, which we can synthesize chemically much more simplistically than the protein,” Ulery explained. “We can make this material that will slowly deliver this peptide, and it will induce this local cell population to create and secrete the protein that will attract regulatory cells which can help prevent VCA rejection.”

The goal is to use the DoD grant to get the project off the ground and collect data showing the viability of their method. Ulery said he and his team will apply for additional funding to take the project even further, including an upcoming proposal for a $1.5 million grant from the same DoD program to be submitted in December.