Dr. Won Min Park

Department: Chemical Engineering

Departmental Website

To increase the success of cancer treatment or prevention, it is critical to detect cancer at an early stage. Hypercalcemia, a condition with an elevated calcium level in the blood, is associated with early-stage cancer. Accurate monitoring of calcium levels in the blood for the long term is a promising way to detect hypercalcemia and cancer. Also, calcium signaling in the microenvironment of the primary tumor and metastatic sites plays an important role, which can be targeted as a new opportunity for therapeutic intervention. This would require the development of robust and functional biomaterial tools that operate within biological fluids and tissues.
Our research is focused on the development of protein-based nanomaterials that monitor calcium levels in biological fluids or modulate the calcium signaling in the tumor microenvironment. Proteins are a class of biomaterials with exceptional biocompatibility and genetically programmable functionalities. Genetically encoded calcium indicator proteins bind to calcium ions and emit fluorescence for precise quantification of calcium concentration. Many proteins that are involved in calcium signaling in the tumor microenvironment are considered potential tools for therapeutic intervention. We harness these features of proteins in the design and engineering of functional nanomaterials for cancer detection and therapy. Using recombinant proteins as building blocks, we study the self-assembly of protein nanomaterials in controlled size and shape, while programming calcium sensing and signaling functionalities into the self-assembled protein nanomaterials. This approach will lead to specific localization of protein nanodevices, controlled molecular transport in the tumor microenvironment, and enhancement in fluorescent signal transduction. The fundamentals elucidated using the protein nanodevices will lead to a better understanding of calcium dynamics associated with cancer progression and its intervention.