Second year MCO graduate student Devon Stork has been named one of the five winners of a Landry Cancer Biology Research Fellowship, which are awarded through Harvard’s Landry Cancer Biology Consortium (LCBC). The fellowship covers 18 months of tuition with a stipend, as well as extra funding for attending conferences on cancer biology and to promote professional development.
Stork, who is currently working in the labs of both MCB Professor Ethan Garner and HMS Professor George Church, impressed the fellowship committee with his proposal to research the human microbiome.
“I actually saw the fellowship announcement in December out of the MCO office, and did not think to apply because I was not doing what I thought of as cancer research,” Stork said. “My advisor Ethan sent me an email saying that I should think about applying, especially because the fellowship promotes collaboration across the river, and I am working jointly between two labs on opposite sides of the river.”
Stork’s proposal involves studying ways to manipulate the microbiome in order to treat or prevent cancers, specifically those related to chronic inflammation.
“Devon has aimed his research at making small peptides that will act as antibiotics on only small taxons of bacteria, so hopefully it can be used to treat patients without disrupting the healthy bacteria,” said Professor Church. “Eventually it might be incorporated into an engineered bacteria that helps regulate the human microbiome to keep people healthy, avoiding inflammation that can lead to cancer.”
“My primary finding so far is that there are peptides with very high homology to MciZ [a protein that inhibits cytokinesis in Bacillus subtilis] in several related spore-forming bacteria, including a few therapeutic targets,” Stork said. “Up to this point MciZ has been very well characterized in Bacillus subtilis but not beyond that, and I’m hoping to find variants that work just as well on their host species as MciZ does on bacillus.”
“This is a challenging project, but Devon is a very careful and diligent student,” said Professor Garner. “He’s also really inventive, and he came up with combining knowledge of the evolutionary diversity of bacterial toxins with computational protein design to design these peptides.”
“After a short period of mentoring Devon, it has become apparent that he has great determination and capacity to drive forward on projects of his own choosing and design,” said Professor Church. “His work and presentation were strikingly advanced in terms of research quality and rigorous communication of the results, than would be expected for a student at this stage.”
Stork graduated from Harvey Mudd in 2015, where he majored in biology and chemistry, with a concentration in philosophy. According to Professor Church, Stork excels at creating an efficient and productive team environment in the labs, and shows an aptitude for teaching and mentoring.
“Devon has placed himself in a position to greatly advance society by contributing to the field of synthetic biology and its applications to real world problems,” said Professor Church.