Sandun Fernando, Ph.D., P.E., was recently appointed to the Dow Chemical Endowed Professorship in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.
Fernando is a professor of biomolecular and bioprocess engineering in the department. His role at the university includes studying biomolecular interactions related to agriculture, public health and energy production.
His endowed professorship of $50,000 will serve as additional support for this work over the next five years.
The Dow Chemical Endowed Professorship was established in 1990 and fully funded in 1995. The endowment’s goal was to enhance Texas A&M University’s role as one of the leaders in engineering and life sciences.
Patricia Smith, Ph.D., Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering head, said Fernando’s work studying biomolecular interactions is moving departmental research in an exciting new direction. The endowed professorship will strengthen his lab’s ability to perform cutting-edge research and prepare students to enter a rapidly advancing field.
“Dr. Fernando’s program continues to show incredible promise in a field that relies on advanced skills, knowledge and technology,” she said. “We are excited to see what he and his lab can accomplish over the coming years as they seek solutions to some of society’s most important problems, including human and animal health and energy.”
Fernando said he was excited about the opportunity.
A key goal for the Dow Professorship will be to leverage funds to secure highly competitive federal grants. Fernando said he has a strong vision for utilizing endowment funding to pursue research excellence and position the department to compete for multi-disciplinary multi-institutional grants.
“In general, there are some significant knowledge gaps that need to be filled to combat pathogens in living beings whether that work relates to human, plant or livestock health,” he said. “My goal in this position is to utilize bioprocessing principles combined with biomolecule engineering to fill those gaps.”
Endowed professorship to advance biomolecular research
Fernando has worked in the biological/bioprocess engineering field for the past 18 years. He holds two patents, published over 90 peer-reviewed articles in high-impact journals, and brought in over $4 million in federal funding to his programs from agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
Since joining the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering in 2008, Fernando’s laboratory has developed molecules and tools to control biological processes at the molecular level. Ongoing projects are relevant in several fields from agriculture to plant, animal and human health, and energy.
Fernando said much of his work related to health in biological systems is focused on producing therapeutics that address resistance. Resistance is a growing problem in agriculture as diseases and plant and insect pests adapt to biocides – fungicides, herbicides and pesticides. It is also a concern in human health as resistance to medicines like antibiotics and antivirals continue to become more prevalent.
“We are learning how these molecules work,” he said. “There are certainly promising applications when it comes to resistance to biocides, but there are challenges, including safety and scale-up that we must work through.”
Seeking health, energy solutions
Fernando and colleagues recently received $6.2 million in USDA funding to find antimicrobial peptides and small molecules that target citrus greening bacteria based on convincing preliminary data. The professorship funding will help optimize a disease-specific design, delivery and scale-up of the peptide-based therapeutics.
“Our laboratory has developed tools to design peptides from scratch that can specifically bind to a given protein target, arming us with powerful weapons when combating pathogens,” he said. “The lab welcomes collaborations to evaluate the ability to design and optimize peptides or even antibodies to combat other bacterial, fungal and viral diseases.”
Another promising study produced good evidence that adding self-mutating molecules have the ability to inhibit three significant vector-borne viruses – West Nile, Zika and Dengue, he said. Fernando said the therapeutic has shown broad-specturm antiviral properties.
Moreover, the therapeutic continued protection by self-adapting as the viral enzymes mutate, he said. A team of researchers led by Fernando has submitted a $3.7 million grant to the National Institute of Health regarding the development of broad-spectrum and mutation-adaptive flavivirus inhibitors.
“This has the potential to revolutionize the way we treat many viral, bacterial and fungal diseases that are increasingly becoming resistant to conventional drugs,” he said. “There is certainly more we need to learn and investigate with the utmost care, but this technology has the potential of addressing many mutation-prone diseases that are hard to control with traditional antibiotics and antiviral drugs.”
Discovering, testing and scaling up the production of therapeutics are all part of the challenge, Fernando said.
Scale-up and optimization are also a challenge Fernando’s lab faces when it comes to harvesting algal biomass for biofuels. There has been a resurgence in federal interest and investment in the prospect of using biological systems like algae to produce fuel for trucks, rail, ships and airplanes.
Fernando’s lab developed two patented technologies to address challenges algal biomass concentrations in the growth medium and the presence of oxygen in the fuel product. He hopes the projects and further optimization of the technologies can produce algae fuels at necessary scales to compete with other sources.
“I intend to use the Dow Professorship funds to solve challenges associated with synthesizing and scaling up these novel molecules and processes,” he said. “These properties represent high impact advancements that would ripple through agriculture, human health and energy. It is exciting to work on projects where breakthroughs could provide incredible benefits to so many aspects of life from disease prevention, crop protection, energy production and the environment.”
Focused on innovation, collaboration and education
Fernando is also looking forward to the collaborative and educational nature of the professorship.
He is committed to sustained success for the department and its students. The lab will provide opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students entering the biomolecule engineering field, he said. Fernando’s service on the College of Engineering Graduate Instruction Committee and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Graduate Program Council will help guide his academic goals for the professorship.
Investment in advanced technology and cutting-edge equipment is an important and impactful commitment for student instruction and research, he said.
His lab is already investing in new, cutting-edge technology with the help of Texas A&M AgriLife and the department. Texas A&M AgriLife has also invested in Biolayer Interferometers that can quantify molecular interactions and powerful microscopes for cell imaging that can validate molecular applications.
“It is important right now to equip our students with the knowledge and skills necessary to enter industry or academia because the field is changing very fast,” he said. “I am concentrating on investing in our technological capabilities because they provide a dual impact.”
Fernando said collaboration will continue to be the key to project success. Advancing the science requires cross disciplinary expertise and collaborating with researchers at Texas A&M, other academic institutions and industry.
He is active within the American Society of Biological Engineering, including as chair of the Biobased Energy, Fuels and Products Committee and as an associate editor for three journals.
“Collaboration is the nature of applied problem solving,” he said. “We need expertise, people who are good at the science, computations, engineering and scaling these solutions up. Collaboration is absolutely necessary, and the beauty is that this mingling of ideas introduces new perspectives that can enlighten the project.”