RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Two Triangle university professors have been recognized as leaders in Nanotechnology research by the Foresight Institute.

Homme Hellinga of Duke and Brian Kuhlman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill each received Feynman Prizes. The awards are named after physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, died in 1988.

The awards were announced Friday at the Foresight Institute Feynman Prize Awards as part of its first conference on advanced nanotechnology in Crystal City, VA. The Institute is based in Palo Alto, CA.

Kuhlman, a PhD and a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UNC, received the theory prize along with David Baker, a professor in biochemistry at the University of Washington for their work in development of the RosettaDesign. It is a software program that has had a high success rate in designing stable protein structures.

Baker has been involved in the Rosetta project for nearly a decade. Rosetta has received funding from the Packard Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

According to the RosettaDesign web site, the goal of the project is “to achieve even greater accuracy in the prediction of protein structure from DNA sequences, and also to predict novel DNA sequences that may produce biological effects similar to that of known proteins. The Rosetta team would like to design more effective drugs, and gain a better understanding of biological diversity.”

The Institute noted that the work of Baker and Kuhlman and their colleagues “includes the design of the first protein to be constructed with a backbone fold not observed in nature”. The structure was found to be “extremely stable” and “to match the predicted structure with atomic-level accuracy.” The Institute said the work “marks a milestone on a path to molecular machine systems.”
The RosettaDesign is made available free of charge to researchers and can be licsened by private industry.

Its backers believe RosettaDesign software could be beneficial in the design of new drugs.

Kuhlman received his PhD from State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Another award for Hellinga

Hellinga, a biochemistry professor at Duke, was recognized with the experimental award for progress in engineering “atomically precise devices capable of precise manipulation of other molecular structures,” the Institute said. “Building on a broad base of achievement in computationally directed protein engineering, he has extended this work to the construction of an enzyme. This achievement demonstrates an innovative blend of techniques, applying computational design to reengineer a structure found in nature into a novel one with a different function. This work breaks new ground in engineering devices that transform molecular structures.”

Recently, Hellinga was one of nine researchers to be awarded National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award. It includes an unrestricted grant of $500,000 a year for five years. The awards are intended “to encourage exceptional researchers and thinkers from multiple disciplines to conduct high-risk, high-impact research related to the improvement of human health.”

Hellinga received his PhD in molecular biology from Cambridge University in 1986.

“The Foresight Feynman Prizes in Nanotechnology are given to researchers whose recent work has most advanced the achievement of Feynman’s goal for nanotechnology: the construction of atomically precise products through the use of molecular machine systems,” said Christine Peterson, founder of the Foresight Institute.

The Foresight Prize in Communication went to Howard Lovy, a blogger and a news editor at Small Times, a publication focused on Nanotechnology that is based in Michigan.

The distinguished student award went to Damian Allis, a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University and a graduate fellow at Nanorex Corporation.

For more about the Rosetta project and Kuhlman, see:

For more information about Hellinga, see:

Foresight Institute: