Undergraduate in Lodish lab doubly awarded for “outstanding” research
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Rhogerry “Gerry” Deshycka has received one of MIT’s two Randolph G. Wei Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) awards for 2017. The prize recognizes the achievements of undergraduates who have made “the most outstanding contribution in undergraduate research at the interface of the life sciences and engineering.” Deshycka, who is a graduating senior working in the lab of Whitehead Institute Founding Member Harvey Lodish, was honored with a cash gift, certificate, and a luncheon. In addition, Deshycka has been given MIT’s 2017 John L. Asinari Award, which commends an undergraduate Biology major for “outstanding research in the field of life sciences."
Lodish, who nominated Deshycka for the UROP award, is impressed with the important research the young scientist has conducted so early in his career.
“Gerry already functions independently and at a high level in the laboratory, at a level equal to an excellent advanced Ph.D. student,” says Lodish, who is also a professor of biology and a professor of biological engineering at MIT. “And he has enormous potential to develop into a top independent research scientist.”
Deshycka started in the Lodish lab in his first year at MIT. Initially, he worked on a method to lower cholesterol by altering red blood cells so that “bad” LDL cholesterol would stick to them. At the end of the red blood cells’ three-month lifecycle, the LDL would be removed from the bloodstream. But allowing LDL to linger that long could trigger blood vessel-narrowing plaques to grow. After listening to a lecture by Lodish and reading some related research papers on his own, Deshycka struck on another method that avoids plaques by tapping into the basic biology of LDL and its receptor.
Liver and some other cell types have LDL receptors on them. When a molecule of LDL binds to a receptor, the LDL is taken into the cell, where it is degraded. After delivering its payload, the receptor reemerges on the cell’s surface, ready to snag more LDL. However, when a specific enzyme, called PCSK9, binds to the LDL receptor, the receptor is dismantled within the cell. With fewer receptors around to capture and assist in the degradation of LDL, LDL builds up in the bloodstream.
In the lab, Deshycka decked red blood cells with specific fragment of LDL receptors, which act as decoys for the PCSK9 and sop up the enzyme. With lower levels of PCSK9 around, more LDL receptors are available to degrade LDL, thereby lowering bloodstream levels of the bad cholesterol. Although it has not yet been tested in people, his method shows great promise in mice. According to Lodish, they are in the process of patenting Deshycka’s engineered cells, and he thinks that those cells could have the potential of becoming “a blockbuster cholesterol-lowering strategy.”
Deshycka had questioned coming to MIT as an undergraduate—he wanted to help people and planned to focus on medicine and become a doctor. But his current work has the potential to improve the health of people around the world, including in his native West Sumatra, where heart disease and high cholesterol is a serious issue.
“I’m very hopeful,” says Deshycka. “If this can actually become a therapeutic, it will be so useful for so many people.”
Motivated by his Whitehead experience, Deshycka is putting medical school on the back burner; he will continue his work in the Lodish lab for another year and plans to have a career in research.
“He’s a bright, independent undergrad,” says Nova Pishesha, an MIT graduate student, who is also Deshycka’s mentor in the Lodish lab. “It’s been a privilege to watch him grow as a researcher, and I’ve learned a lot from him, too.”
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Harvey Lodish’s primary affiliation is with Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, where his laboratory is located and all his research is conducted. He is also a professor of biology and a professor of biological engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Lodish serves as a paid consultant and owns equity in Rubius, a biotech company that seeks to exploit the use of modified red blood cells for therapeutic applications.
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