Metabolic Engineering; Heterologous Natural Product Biosynthesis; Vaccine Design and Delivery
The Pfeifer group focuses on a diverse set of scientific and technical goals possessing high impact potential. Productivity is measured via academic dissemination, student scholar products, and project translation. Students in the group have led studies published in Science, Chemistry & Biology, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Science Advances. Students completing M.S. degrees have transitioned to positions within industry (Pfizer, MedImmune, Biogen Idec) or academia (doctoral positions at The University of Delaware, Boston University, Penn State University, and UB); whereas, Ph.D. graduates and postdoctoral associates have secured postdoctoral positions (MIT, Rockefeller University), assistant professor positions (Key Laboratory of Synthetic Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences; Rutgers University; Shanghai Jiao Tong University), and posts in the commercial sector (Indigo Agriculture, CJ CheilJedang, M.S.Q Ventures). Students have been highly successful in local, state, and national research competitions where, for example, we make a point of sending students to regional, national, and international conferences to present their work. More recently, spurred by the economic development activities across Buffalo and Western New York, students have been active in start-up company formation as a vehicle for commercially translating their research, with a former Ph.D. student serving as CEO of such a venture. Other projects feature similarly applied collaborations with academic and industrial collaborators around the world. As a basis for the above outcomes, research activities have been structured as outlined below.
Cellular and Process Engineering
Generally encompassing the field of biological engineering, the technical platform for the applications within the Pfeifer group is cellular and process engineering. At the cellular level, we utilize molecular engineering to reprogram microbial metabolism. The tools utilized to do so span molecular biology and microbiology, which then serve to enable the reactions or functions supporting various research goals. At the process level, classical unit operation scaling and development techniques include bioreactor design and media/parameter optimization through design of experiments. The biological engineering platform is then directed at the following applications.
Heterologous Natural Product Biosynthesis for Therapeutic Applications
In this theme, our group engineers the biosynthesis of complex natural product small molecules through an approach termed heterologous biosynthesis, in which a surrogate microbial host is utilized to access the compound of interest. The value of this approach is two-fold: First, the natural product contains medicinal value (i.e., antibiotics, anticancer agents) and, second, heterologous biosynthesis provides a solution to a technical challenge associated with obtaining the desired natural products.
Vaccine Design and Delivery Technology
This theme considers the full spectrum of vaccine development and how biological engineering can influence overall success. For example, our group has designed multiple vehicles for vaccine delivery to enhance the final immune response. These delivery devices have included microbial cells engineered (using the tools above) to trigger a strong and directed immune response. Both this and the previous theme of therapeutic natural product biosynthesis focus upon the many important and challenging aspects of finding new options in the medical battles related to cancer (through collaborators at nearby Roswell Park Cancer Institute) and infectious disease (particularly in response to the growing concern of resistance to established antibiotics).
Heterologous Natural Product Biosynthesis for Environmental and Sustainability Applications
Finally, we have also applied natural product biosynthesis to issues of environmental preservation and material conservation. Namely, a compound with broad metal binding capability has enabled us to explore applications in removal and recapture from environmental or industrial water streams. Two interesting outcomes are possible: 1) environmental protection of our water sources (including the regional Great Lakes) and 2) a material balance-based recovery of economically valuable raw materials. We also contribute metabolic engineering expertise within collaborative projects on cellular design for biofuel or related high-value compound production.