Two UB faculty win Fulbright awards

Diana Aga and Robert M. Straubinger are UB's newest faculty recipients of the prestigious international award

By Tessie Mar and Kara Sweet

Release Date: September 27, 2021


BUFFALO, N.Y. — The University at Buffalo has two new Fulbright winners: Diana Aga and Robert M. Straubinger.  

Aga, PhD, director of the UB RENEW Institute and Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, will travel first to Portugal and then to the Philippines to complete her Fulbright Global Scholar Award.

In both countries, she will conduct research to understand and control the spread of antimicrobial resistance in the environment through discharges from municipal wastewater treatment plants.

Straubinger, PhD, a UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, will travel to Belfast, Northern Ireland for the 2021-22 academic year, where he will hold the Fulbright-Queen’s University Belfast Visiting Professorship.

His project is to develop nanotechnology approaches and bio-inspired therapeutic agents to improve treatment of fatal cancers, specifically pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

Studying antibiotic resistance

The Fulbright Global Scholar Award requires grantees to spend at least one month in at least two countries in two different world regions, with a total of three to six months abroad.

While exact details of her arrival and departure to the host countries remain uncertain due to COVID-19, Aga tentatively plans to travel to Portugal in March 2022, and to the Philippines in May 2022.  

Antimicrobials in the environment are particularly insidious because of the numerous pathways through which they may enter the environment.

When humans take antibiotics, our bodies do not completely absorb them, Aga explains. The excess drugs are excreted and go into the wastewater, which can contribute to the emergence of antibiotic resistance in bacteria that are exposed to low concentrations of these drugs.

Industrial and agricultural wastes are other avenues through which antibiotics enter the environment, where they may also contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistance.

“Some pathogenic bacteria that infect humans are no longer responding to antibiotics because they have developed resistance to these drugs. They have been dubbed as ‘superbugs’ because they can survive treatment by multiple antibiotics. This is a huge problem because the existing antibiotics are now rendered useless against them,” Aga explains. 

The problem of antimicrobial resistance is worsening due to outdated wastewater treatment plants’ inability to filter them out of wastewater, an issue impacting many parts of the world, including regions of Asia, Aga says. In Manila, the Philippines, Aga will study cost-effective solutions to treat water before it is discharged into the environment.

In Portugal, Aga will work alongside with an environmental microbiologist at the Catholic University of Portugal – Porto, School of Biotechnology. She will learn techniques to study the diversity and ecology of bacteria in human-impacted areas, and determine the risk of antibiotic resistance transmission from the environment to humans.

Aga’s Fulbright work ties into her broader research. She is also supported by a U.S. National Science Foundation grant through the Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) program, where she and students and researchers from other universities examine water samples from all over the world to characterize residues of antibiotics and presence of antibiotics resistance genes.

Researching pancreatic adenocarcinoma treatments

Researchers have projected that pancreatic adenocarcinoma will soon become the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

Straubinger will spend six months at the Patrick G. Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) collaborating with scientists there to develop new leads for clinical trials for this highly fatal cancer.

“This visit to QUB will provide an opportunity for sustained interaction with colleagues and potential collaborators, during which we will build an expanded sphere of research into novel pancreatic adenocarcinoma treatments,” Straubinger says.

Straubinger’s research focuses on both delivery mechanisms to optimize treatment of difficult-to-access solid cancer tumors, and nanoparticle carriers to exploit temporary breaches in the tumor drug-delivery barrier.

This work draws heavily on predictive mathematical modeling of cancer therapeutics to understand mechanisms involved in tumor progression and responses to therapy, and how to employ novel nanoparticulate drugs and antibody-targeted therapies.

More recently, Straubinger’s research has emphasized treatments impacting pancreatic cancer, where he obtained five years of support from the National Institutes of Health and funding agencies in the United Kingdom and Ireland to lead a three-nation collaborative research project, “Tumor priming sequences combined with novel nanoparticle drug carriers for enhanced therapeutic efficacy in pancreatic cancer,” with overall funding of $4.8 million. Research partners are QUB and the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology, located at Dublin City University in Ireland.

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Charlotte Hsu is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.