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Shengmin Sang of NCA&T Wins Innovation for Impact Grand Prize

By Barry Teater, NCBiotech Writer

Research to prevent colon cancer by pairing the classic wonder drug aspirin with an active ingredient in ginger has earned a North Carolina scientist a statewide honor that carries an $11,000 reward.

Shengmin Sang, Ph.D., associate professor and lead scientist in the Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologiesat North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University's labs at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, was awarded the inaugural Innovation for Impact Grand Prize Thursday night in Greensboro. The award was presented at Triad BioNight, a celebration of bioscience leadership in the Piedmont Triad region.

The award competition, co-sponsored by SoBran Bioscience and the Piedmont Triad Office of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, drew entries from 17 researchers at universities and emerging companies in North Carolina. The entrants answered the question, “How will your research heal, fuel or feed the world in the future?”

Sang’s winning entry is based on his study of gingerol, an active ingredient in fresh ginger. Recent studies have shown one form of the compound, called [6]-gingerol or 6G, to be a cancer chemopreventive agent that also reduced aspirin-induced gastric lesions in rats.

Sang’s research aims to couple 6G with aspirin to retain the anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties of aspirin while minimizing its harsh side effects on the stomach. Sang’s lab has synthesized a novel prodrug of aspirin, [6]-gingerol aspirinate, that could become a safe alternative to aspirin for the prevention of colon cancer.

As the top prize winner, Sang will receive a pre-clinical research study valued at $10,000 and a cash prize of $1,000. The winnings will allow his lab to conduct a pilot pharmacokinetic study or toxicity study of [6]-gingerol aspirinate, and positive results would help with an application for a National Institutes of Health grant, Sang said in his contest submission. Read more about Sang's work here.

Four other research scientists from three North Carolina universities were finalists in the Innovation for Impact competition and each received $500 cash prizes:

  • Hye Won Kang, Ph.D., assistant research professor of family and consumer sciences at NCA&T

  • Anthony Kennedy, Ph.D., associate professor of analytical chemistry at East Carolina University

  • Perpetua Muganda, Ph.D., professor of biology at NCA&T

  • Nicholas Oberlies, Ph.D., associate professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy at the University of North Carolina Greensboro

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Kang’s lab is investigating the potential of the gut bacterium Akkermansia muciniphila to reduce adipose, or fat, deposits by increasing the metabolic activity of brown adipose tissue. The researchers will test this effect of A. muciniphila in mice as a potential strategy for preventing or reducing obesity in humans.

Kennedy’s lab is researching a potentially safer and more cost-effective method of cryopreserving blood and other cell types than current methods. Preliminary data show that sucralose concentrations of less than 1 percent, compared to 40 percent solutions of glycerol, can reduce the level of water in the cell membrane, reducing hemolysis, or rupturing, in red blood cells.  

Muganda’s lab is researching the role of viruses in triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), a form of the disease that is notoriously aggressive, responds poorly to targeted therapies, and has high rates of relapse and poor prognosis. The scientists are investigating whether specific viral factors that are found in greater quantities in TNBC tumors than in normal breast tissue contribute to the malignant properties, survival, heterogeneity and chemo-resistance of these tumors. If so, they may be useful as biomarkers for diagnosis and treatment.

Oberlies’ lab is developing a class of natural compounds to treat cancer. The alkaloid compounds, called verticillins, can be produced by fungal cultures through fermentation. Researchers were able to encapsulate the verticillin molecules in nanoparticles so they are soluble and can be tested in in vivo models of cancer.

“The excellent work of these five finalists is just another example of North Carolina's global leadership in life science innovation and its importance to humankind,” said Nancy Johnston, executive director of NCBiotech’s Piedmont Triad Office.

SoBran and NCBiotech created the Innovation for Impact Prize to recognize and encourage commercialization of innovation statewide.

SoBran, a 700-employee privately held contract research organization headquartered in Fairfax, Va., established an animal care and research facility at NCA&T and headquarters in the Gateway University Research Park in Greensboro in 2016.

The Innovation for Impact Awards are the newest of the accolades given at Triad BioNight, an event held every couple of years by NCBiotech to celebrate partnerships and entrepreneurship in the Piedmont Triad region.

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