College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Professor hopes research will help patients, improve lives

Story originally published for Iowa State Daily by Katlyn Campbell

A professor in chemical and biological engineering hopes one day to get her research FDA approved to help patients and improve lives.

Surya Mallapragada earned her graduate degree from the India Institute of Technology Bombay, obtained her Ph.D. at Purdue University, had a short postdoc at MIT and is now a chemical and biological engineering professor at Iowa State. Mallapragada is currently working on neural tissue engineering with the long-term goal of getting technologies into the clinics to help patients.

“Our lab mostly works on developing new materials for biological applications, or also we work on looking at biology for inspiration and developing new materials,” Mallapragada said.

Mallapragada’s research focuses mostly on polymers to see how they can be used in specific applications in the area of nerve regeneration and drug and vaccine delivery.

“[The research is aiming] to develop experimental strategies to repair the damaged nervous system using biomaterials and biodegradable polymers; bioactive molecules; and the patients’ own stem cells,” said collaborator Donald Sakaguchi, professor of genetics, development and cell biology.

Sakaguchi said a large part of the research is centered around regeneration.

“We are looking at peripheral nerve regeneration … how we can use materials to help the regeneration process,” Mallapragada said.

The research group of Mallapragada, Sakaguchi, a few postdocs, a couple of graduate students and several undergraduate students has tried to make a degradable polymer conduit that would guide cells to bridge the gap, thereby acting as a guide. However, that wasn’t sufficient enough, so additional agents such as growth factors and stem cells were added to help the process.

“Stem cells are at the forefront of regenerative medicine,” Sakaguchi said.

Sakaguchi cites having an interdisciplinary approach to be a positive aspect in their research project. He said that having biologists, biochemists, chemical and biological engineers and mathematicians is a key aspect to their success.

Mallapragada is also working on a Nanovaccine Initiative that is developing new materials for vaccine delivery and focusing on how the materials made can be used to deliver proteins or DNA from pathogens, which can serve as vaccines.

Mallapragada looks forward to the potential outcomes for her research, saying some of the studies in animal models have shown promising results.

While Mallapragada enjoys the research, seeing students evolve into scientists makes her proud.

“Research is only one part of my job, and then the mentoring of students,” Mallapragada said. “Teaching students not just in the classroom but also in the lab and mentoring them and seeing them grow as scientists … that’s a very rewarding part of my job. That’s something I really enjoy.”