A Chat with Frontiers Speaker, Arturo Vegas
May 08, 2023
Frontiers in Nanotechnology speaker Arturo Vegas gave us a preview of his upcoming seminar on using the localization of therapeutic payloads to disease microenvironments.
Q) The title of your upcoming lecture is “Molecular Frontiers in Drug Delivery.” Give us a preview of what we can expect.
In laymen’s terms, my lab is trying to develop a novel strategy to control where therapeutics go inside the body. The most straightforward kind of example that is most relatable is, imagining someone with a tumor; they have cancer; you want as much of the treatment of the drug as possible to get focused and to accumulate in the tumor versus other tissues of the body. Because the more the treatment goes to other tissues of the body, the more you have adverse effects, harmful side effects, and ill effects on the patient, you also reduce the efficacy of the compound of the drug. It always surprises people to know just how much of our treatments go to where they are supposed to go.
Q) It sounds a lot along the lines of rational vaccinology.
We’re supposed to be talking in laymen’s terms, and you pull out that one!
Q) I’m just impressed I used the term correctly.
It goes along the same lines of the same concept of precision medicine, just of a different flavor. Whereas precision medicine is more like you’re throwing a bunch of grenades, but only the ones in the right place will blow up. In this case, I’m trying to throw all the grenades in the right place, to begin with. So they all blow up in the right spot.
Q) You’re at Boston University; what was your journey to get there?
I’ve been in Boston for a long time. I did my graduate studies at Harvard with Stuart Shriver over there, which introduced me to the idea of using chemistry to understand biology and tiny molecules. Then I went to MIT to study with Bob Langer, which got me into the whole drug delivery field, and that’s where I saw a role for chemistry specifically to play in solving some of the grand challenges in drug delivery.
And I’ve carried that forward to my independent lab here at BU, trying to bridge those two training experiences I had. As a result, I am using small molecules, using the power and techniques of chemistry, to solve big problems in drug delivery relevant to disease.
Q) You have your group at BU. How large is the Vegas Lab these days?
I currently have seven trainees.
Q) What big lesson do you try to impart to them before they are sent off into the world on their own?
The most important one is that failure is part of the process of science. You have to bake that into the equation. You’re going to have many more things NOT work to find the few things that DO work. And get them to adopt that into their thinking. Don’t be discouraged if an experiment didn’t work, be more like, “ok, that didn’t work, so now I know not to keep going down that path. How do I adjust and learn from that to design the next experiment.”
Q) A good successful failure.
Yes. I always make the joke that scientists are professional failures. We fail tons and tons of times to have that breakthrough moment finally. The students who pick up on that the fastest they’re the ones who hit the ground running.
Q) You worked with Emily Weiss at Harvard; is that how you heard about our Frontiers Seminar Series?
I’m very good friends with Emily Weiss; she was kind of my connection to the Frontiers series. We were at Harvard at the same time. I think she was a postdoc when I was a grad student. We used to play tennis together. So, I reached out to say, “Hey can I come and give a talk.” And I told her about how this would fit well with the IIN. And the rest is history.
Q) What other projects are you working on right now that you’re most excited about?
One thing that we’re excited about that I’ll talk a little about in my talk, but I can’t go into real depth yet, is a high-risk, high-reward concept from when I first started my lab. We knew of this specific protein, and we thought it would be interesting to have small molecules bind to it, because this protein would be enriched in tumors.
So if you get the molecule to stick to the protein and it has enriched in the tumor, you can see how it enriches whatever you’re trying to transport. We ended up not just having a small molecule that would stick to that protein but found it also blocked the activity of the protein; the signal that the protein sends to cells was cut off. That was very exciting because the dogma was that you wouldn’t be able to develop a small molecule to do this. So we got excited about that. It means there’s a potential therapeutic benefit to the compound we discovered.
Q) Where has that discovery taken you?
That got us thinking that this protein is part of a much larger family of proteins that sends these vital signals all the time. Why wouldn’t it work for the rest if it worked for this one? So, we went on to a bit of a campaign to hit as many family members as possible. These proteins are called cytokines, so we started with IL-4, a particular cytokine, then did 33 more. And now we’ve built this giant map, 33 cytokines against 65,000 small molecules, that now we can see what structures stick to which cytokines. So, we have a roadmap to figure out how to develop things that affect the activity of each of these proteins that are relevant in all kinds of diseases.
Q) You started this research when you began your lab, and it progressed a lot since then. Where does it stand now?
It’s in the early stages still but moving forward fast. We’re at the point where we have compounds that we’re testing for that blocking ability. Once we have that, that’s not just papers; it’s an avenue to see if we have interest in terms of startup companies to see if we can translate the technology, which is essential. We can’t just be academicians; if we have something of clinical value, you must help shepherd it.
Q) Going back to learning from failure, is there a big failure moment that you learned the most from?
I push that lesson on my trainees because grad school for me was not easy. I had four years of things not working. I worked hard and often felt that I was banging my head against the wall, trying to get something to work. But I was always trying something a little different. I wasn’t doing the same things and failing because that’s the definition of insanity. But always trying to tweak and find a way forward, and eventually, after four years, I found that path forward. Thank god!
The problem eventually yields itself. Often not in the way you would have imagined it and not how you would have planned it. But you find a way around it, through it, under it, or whatever method you managed it.
Q) What is your favorite activity to get your mind off chemistry and the lab?
I have four kids, so work is my relaxing activity! Kids change the equation. Before, you would go home to relax from work; now, I go to work to relax from home. When I’m here, if there’s a mess, it’s my making. But I also like to play tennis. So when I need to let off some steam, it’s always good to have friends to play tennis with; it’s excellent physical exercise that helps with extreme stress.
Q) How can people keep track of what you’re working on?