Haynes brings expertise in synthetic biology to ASU's biomedical engineering program

February 21, 2012

Karmella Haynes jokes that she has opened up career opportunities for herself by being “a proactive, pragmatic bigmouth.”

Haynes, who joined Arizona State University last year as an assistant professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, was recently elected for a two-year term as a councilor for the Institute of Biological Engineering (IBE). Kaymella Haynes synthetic biology Download Full Image

She’s now one of five councilors who serve as liaisons between IBE members nationwide and the organization’s executive committee. The position gives her a role in setting the agenda for the IBE’s annual conferences – gatherings that have an impact on shaping the course of education and research endeavors in the biological engineering field.

Haynes, whose area of expertise is synthetic biology, figures her outspoken nature is part of what brought her to the attention of the institute’s leaders.

She had written a blog commentary voicing objections to judging practices for the international Genetically Engineering Machine (iGEM) competition in synthetic biology for university undergraduate students.

“Instead of seeing [the blog post] as an affront, they viewed it as constructive criticism from someone who cares about IGEM,” she says.

Not long after her commentary, Haynes was offered a place on the 2011 IGEM judges committee, and she was able to help improve the judging rules for the competition.

While not timid in expressing her opinions, Haynes points out that her approach “is not only to complain but to follow up with what you want to see done, to offer a solution.”

She sees such earnest dialogue as important to the progress of synthetic biology, a growing and vibrant field but one that is still in the process of defining its goals, she says.

Haynes’s work focuses on combining natural materials to develop various kinds of engineered systems.

“Instead of using materials like plastic and metal, and other materials you would normally associate with engineering, we are using parts from nature,” she explains.

Among other things, she is working on “making a synthetic protein that has a predictable behavior in cells,” which can aid development of safer methods of injecting medicinal drugs into the body.

By engineering a protein to take the place of chemicals in the drug-delivery process, a specific amount of drugs can be more effectively delivered to specific locations in the body.

“The cool thing about proteins is that you can control what they do,” she says.

Synthetic biology also has promising applications in renewable fuel production and even in art (some living bacteria can be made to emit a neon-like luminescence in various colors that has been used for artistic purposes). “There is a lot of potential in the field,” Haynes says.

Her road into the field began as a high school student in St. Louis, where she developed a fascination for mathematical equations and puzzles. “It was like a fun language to me,” she says.

That fascination evolved into an interest in science and engineering when she discovered how mathematics could be applied to the quantitative side of biology.

She remembers her interest also being stoked by an unlikely source, the popular film “Jurassic Park,” with the plot revolving around the bioengineered re-creation of dinosaurs. “My dad was tickled that his 15-year-old daughter could point out the bloopers in the movie,” she recalls, referring to the inaccuracies of the science portrayed in the story.

Haynes was awarded scholarship to study biology at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. Her undergraduate achievements there earned her a summer trip to Boston for an internship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that sparked an interest in genetics. It would then lead her to Washington University in St. Louis to earn a doctoral degree in molecular genetics.

She began turning toward synthetic biology in a post-doctoral research position at Davidson College in North Carolina, where her success earned her an opportunity to do more advanced work in the field as a researcher at Harvard University for nearly three years.

While there she helped develop a synthetic protein that is able to control gene expression and slow down the growth of cancer cells. She’s continuing that work at ASU.

“We want to create proteins that have an even stronger effect, that act only in certain types of cells, and that can be used to turn stem cells into useful tissues for regenerative therapy,” she says.

Haynes accepted the offer to join ASU because she saw the engineering program is “sincerely invested in advancing synthetic biology” and in having the subject taught in the hands-on fashion she prefers.

 “I saw the potential to come in as a junior faculty member and be given an opportunity to make an impact and see my contributions taken seriously,” she says.
She was also attracted to an academic culture that encourages undergraduate students to work with faculty members. 

“There are mechanisms in place to keep the students engaged with the professors. It’s an environment in which undergrads will volunteer, unsolicited, to assist with research,” Haynes says. “You don’t see things like this happening at many major universities.”

Two undergrads, in fact, helped Haynes start up work in her own research lab on campus.

For more on her team’s research, see The Haynes Lab website.

By Natalie Pierce and Joe Kullman

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Applying medical imaging expertise to battles against kidney disease, nervous system disorder

February 21, 2012

Promising efforts to improve detection of early-stage kidney disease and treat children with neurofibromatosis have earned grants for Arizona State University research projects from the American Heart Association (AHA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Kevin Bennett, a biomedical engineer and physicist at ASU, is playing a leading role in both projects. Bennett is an assistant professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He also is the undergraduate program chair for the school’s Harrington Bioengineering Program. Kevin Bennett biomedical lab Download Full Image

His work focuses on medical imaging, specifically the development and application of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). He has conducted post-doctoral research in the area for the National Institutes of Health.

“I love developing new ways to see things in the body that we weren’t able to see before,” he says.

For the past five years, Bennett has been using MRI to examine kidney structure and function and to detect early stages of kidney diseases.

He and his research team use “magnetic nanoparticles and super high-field MRI to make very precise measurements of kidney structure and function,” says Bennett, who is also an adjunct assistant professor of radiology at Mayo Clinic Scottsdale.

A kidney’s susceptibility to disease can be determined by examining MRI images and determining the amount of nanoparticles that collect in a kidney’s filtering nephrons. Nephrons regulate the levels of water and soluble substances in the blood.

MRI can be used to examine the functionality of nephrons in living organisms to assess risk of kidney disease, as well as “to help measure how well a donor kidney is going to function once it’s transplanted,” Bennett says.

The AHA recently awarded $140,000 to help continue the project. Bennett’s grant proposal was among the 13 percent of requests to be approved for funding.

The grant recognizes the value of his team’s work, he says, because the AHA typically selects projects it considers promising to make breakthroughs and have a significant impact on human health.

Bennett is working on the project with John Bertram, a professor and head of the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology at Monash University in Australia, and Teresa Wu, an associate professor of industrial engineering and director of the Collaborative Decisions Lab at ASU, and an associate professor of radiology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.

Also on the team is ASU biomedical engineering doctoral student Scott Beeman and industrial engineering doctoral student Min Zhang.

Bennett is collaborating with Vinodh Narayanan, a pediatric neurologist and researcher with the Barrow Neurological Institute (BNI) in Phoenix and adjunct faculty member at ASU, to find a drug that can reverse the effects of cognitive deficit symptoms in children with neurofibromatosis.

Neurofibromatosis is an incurable genetic disorder of the nervous system whose symptoms range from tumors to bone disorders. Narayanan, the lead researcher for the project, works with patients who have cognitive deficits caused by a specific gene, which leads to neurofibromatosis.

It’s been proposed that the cognitive deficits in people with the condition are caused by “a certain kind of molecular transport in cells that is being blocked,” Bennett says.

Neuron cells have an axon – a long nerve fiber that transports electrical impulses. Narayanan believes that the axonal transport is what is blocked by neurofibromatosis. He is targeting these axons in his experiments.

As a co-investigator, Bennett is helping by using MRI to view and record the effects of certain drugs targeted to increase the transport rates of cells. He’s introducing manganese ions to cell transport because the ions can brighten MRI images

Manganese ions behave like calcium in cells and follow the same transport paths. So when paired with MRI, the manganese allows researchers to track the rate at which axons are transporting matter through cells.

“We just squirt a little manganese into the nose and we monitor how fast manganese is moved from the nose into the olfactory bulb in the brain,” Bennett says.

The process is then used in combination with certain drugs to test their ability to increase the rate of transport.

Research is being performed at both ASU and the BNI, focusing mostly in Narayanan’s lab and at the BNI-ASU preclinical imaging center.

The project was making advances significant enough to attract support from the NIH. Narayanan’s team has been awarded $275,000 to continue the work. Only about 10 percent of applicants for such funding were selected to receive NIH grants.

The grant comes from R21 funding, which is reserved for high-risk, high-impact projects. Applicants compete with accomplished researchers across the country for the R21 grants, Bennett says.

“I think our success [at winning a grant] can be attributed to Dr. Narayanan’s brilliance and our productive collaboration,” he says.

The Army Research Office initially funded the project for two years with a grant of $120,000.

Bennett says it’s especially rewarding when his team can collaborate on research pursuing solutions to critical biomedical challenges.

“We get to see our work applied to important fundamental research and to clinical problems," he says.

Written by Natalie Pierce and Joe Kullman

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering