Dan Hayes, an assistant professor in the LSU AgCenter Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, has been awarded a $400,000 Career Award grant from the National Science Foundation.

The five-year research-education-outreach grant will allow Hayes to continue his research in nanotechnology as well as provide educational opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate university students and younger students in kindergarten through twelfth grade.

The grant project involves using a microRNA delivery technique to improve the control of wound healing and tissue repair processes.

MicroRNA is a tiny piece of RNA that joins matching pieces of messenger RNA to make it double-stranded and repress its function. Messenger RNA is the substance that translates the DNA's genetic code in a cell and controls its function.

Traditionally, scientists used either chemicals or a virus to deliver short-strand RNA to cells, Hayes said. “We use nanoparticles. There’s no chemical toxicity, and we can provide more selective delivery in terms of space and time compared with a virus.”

These extraordinarily small particles are measured in nanometers, which are one billionth of a meter. “One thousand nanoparticles arranged in a line would be about the diameter of a human hair.”

Hayes’ process uses light activation to control when a specific RNA turns on. In this case, the researchers are looking at how the process can be used in wound-repair therapy.

“We can deliver this gene therapy to an area where tissue or bone is damaged and then use light to ‘turn on’ the genes to repair wounds,” Hayes said.

“We’ve demonstrated that it works. We can send cells down a bone pathway, for example, to begin repairing a trauma.”

Because the light source is a small laser beam, the therapy can be used anywhere in a body that can receive light.

“There’s no toxicity,” Hayes said. “It’s light controlled.”

The grant will allow Hayes to begin proof-of-concept research with laboratory mice.

In addition to providing research opportunities to university graduate and undergraduate students, Hayes will be using grant funds to produce lessons for high-achieving students beginning at the kindergarten level.

“We want to present basic concepts and engage them in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math,” he said.

To help design the materials for pre-college students, Hayes has partnered with Jennifer Jolly, an associate professor in the LSU School of Education.

“When we’re finished, we should be able to provide a curriculum that teachers can use in their classrooms,” Hayes said.