Cyclone Engineer Tom Mansell receives prestigious NSF CAREER award

A researcher wearing a lab coat and safety glasses stands in a laboratory

Tom Mansell, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, has received a National Science Foundation CAREER award to create engineered probiotics that may be a new way to treat illnesses like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

CAREER awards are the NSF’s most prestigious awards given to early-career faculty. The support aims to build a firm foundation for leadership in integrating research and education. Mansell will receive more than $500,000 over the next five years to support his project.

Eat your cure

Our gut microbiome – a collection of complex and varied microbes –­ is important to health far beyond our digestive tract.

We know that too much “bad” bacteria can make us ill, but the opposite may also be true. Engineering “good” bacteria could be key to fighting illness.

Mansell seeks to overcome one big challenge of introducing new good bacteria into the gut environment: When we eat foods rich in live cultures or take a supplement that introduces probiotics into our gut, then the probiotics themselves need something to feast on if they are to multiply and remain in place.

Engineering unique pairs

Mansell’s CAREER project will create a two-step strategy so that probiotics can be successfully introduced – and flourish.

His team will first create new prebiotics, nutrients that are not normally found in the gut, and genetically modify probiotics so that they can use these unique energy sources. Step two will be introducing these engineered probiotic-prebiotic pairs to the gut to create an environment where the probiotics can thrive.

Disease fighting from the inside out

When probiotics grow strong on a steady diet of custom-paired prebiotics, they can be engineered to add disease-fighting capabilities.

“Probiotics may someday be able to make the drugs right in the gut, providing a pain-free way to deliver protein-based drugs that now require injections, to deliver anti-inflammatory agents or to secrete antimicrobial peptides to cure infection,” said Mansell.

Inspiring future problem solvers

Mansell’s CAREER project also includes the development of an interactive lab that will show high school and undergraduate students first-hand the competition between engineered gut bacteria and native gut bacteria. Inspired by games like Pokémon Go, the activity will assign certain attributes to each strain, then allow students to predict the outcome of the culture “battle.”

Mansell’s group will also create an interactive educational module about the microbiome to be featured on LearnGenetics.com, a popular resource used by teachers and students.

“Tom’s CAREER project is poised to both offer innovative, disease-fighting engineering solutions and to inspire the next generations of students to study engineered health,” said W. Samuel Easterling, James L. and Katherine S. Melsa Dean of Engineering. “Congratulations to Tom on the CAREER award, which is evidence of his exceptional creativity and vision.”