Emily Ricq, a University of Arizona undergraduate researcher, spent the bulk of last year working in a laboratory at the Université Pierre et Maire Curie in Paris on a project to improve how drugs move into cells.
While there, Ricq began studying special lipopeptides – organic compounds – that have cell-penetrating properties.
"This is so interesting because it opens up a new array of drug targets within the cell," said Ricq, a Flinn Foundation scholar and UA Honors College student studying chemistry.
"It's basically a Trojan horse," said Ricq, who is currently working on a project with two UA laboratories. "And the beauty of this research is that it can be applied to a vast variety of biological targets."
The project in France earned her an award last month through a program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Of about 150 entrants, Ricq was one of five to earn a science award. Art students also presented at the event.
As Ricq explained, one of the most challenging aspects in developing new pharmaceutical drugs is making the drugs able to cross the cell membrane. Without a transporter, many drugs cannot enter the cell and reach their targets.
Research has shown that cell-penetrating peptides can act as carriers, but making them tends to be expensive and results in a low yield.
But Ricq had a novel idea.
She began working to develop a new process for synthesizing cell-penetrating peptides in "solution phase," as oppossed to using "solid support." For her specific application, Ricq found that working in solution instead of on "solid support" was more beneficial.
While the concept of connecting a drug compound to a cell-penetrator is not new, the process Ricq devised is. And what is key about the process she developed is that it resulted in fewer steps, a higher yield of organic matter and is more cost-efficient than most processes currently in use.
For that reason, Ricq was honored with the 2009 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science for Life Undergraduate Creativity Award. The award was presented last month during a conference and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute celebration in Florida, which was co-hosted by the University of Florida and Morehouse College.
Ricq was involved in one of the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates, or REU, programs, which landed her the position in Paris. Because of her involvement with the REU, she was asked to attend the invitation-only conference last month.
Though her work in France is done, Ricq continues her research at the UA alongside Lynne A. Oland, a research scientist in the UA's Arizona Research Laboratories Division of Neurobiology, and also Robin Polt, a UA chemistry professor and BIO5 Institute member.
"The work she produces is done with minimal guidance," Oland said. She directs the lab that belongs to Leslie Tolbert, a Regents' Professor and the UA's vice president for research, graduate studies and economic development.
Oland also said Ricq is a strong contributor – both conceptually and in practice – to the research in the labs.
"Emily is a great student to have around and is challenging in the best sense of the word," she added "She is persistent, focused and loves what she is doing.
Ricq has worked with Oland since 2005 and Polt since 2007 and is currently involved in studying biological and biochemical effects of glycolipid-inhibiting drugs in Manduca sexta, which is a type of moth. She is also studying the role of dienyl ceramide, which has unique qualities and may influence metabolism in the moth.
Oland said she has been impressed with Ricq and her work from the start, particularly because she is also involved in several other activities. Ricq is also a UA College of Science Ambassador and has directed the nonprofit Best Buddies for two years.
Oland also said Ricq, with her interest in chemistry and biology, has helped to create an interdisciplinary synergy between the two labs.
Ricq began studying a cell line and the role of glycolipids played. It appeared that glycolipids helped certain classes of neurons in the cells survive, Oland said. While the lines have been available to the lab for some time, they were only used minimally, she added.
But, because of Ricq's research, "we now have a very solid understanding of them. Her data provide foundational information for future projects and also provide insight into biological processes that inform other projects in the lab" on which the research team has already begun working.
"She set the stage for us to understand and to use the cell line," Oland added. "It would not have been done without her."