Manuel Lema is on a Mission to Create Synthetic Mucus Proteins

August 10, 2022

Chemistry Ph.D. student says synthetic mucins have huge commercial potential.

Manuel Lema
Manuel Lema continues with his mucins research as a Chemistry Ph.D. student at the Graduate Center. (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

This spring, researchers at the Advanced Science Research Center at the CUNY Graduate Center (CUNY ASRC) published their findings on a group of curious proteins in the journal Macromolecules. The topic was mucins — the glycoproteins found in mucus — which the team had set out to reproduce as a synthetic polymer. In a breakthrough, they were able to develop a scalable method to create synthetic mucins to mimic the traits of natural mucus.

Slimy and Highly Functional

“Mucus is a viscous liquid secreted by humans and animals,” said Manuel Lema, the study’s lead author and an incoming student in the Graduate Center’s Ph.D. Program in Chemistry. “Mucins are one of the protein components in mucus. They’re found in saliva and also in our intestines.”

Mucins have special properties that serve a range of important biological functions: They form mucus hydrogels that lubricate the eyes, lungs, and gastrointestinal tracts, among other organ systems, and form barriers that protect the body against invading pathogens.

Mucins are already in use as ingredients in skincare products and wound care treatments. And they’re being developed for a variety of applications — as lubricants for medical implants and biomarkers to diagnose certain cancers, for example.

The slippery stuff is so promising that Lema decided to make them his research focus. “There are so many possible applications with mucins,” he said. “It's a really a new field with a lot of potential.”

Trials and Errors

Lema, a native of Ecuador, first learned about mucins as an undergraduate chemistry student at Hunter College in 2019. Around this time, his mentor, Professor Adam Braunschweig (GC/Hunter, Chemistry),  had begun to study mucins in his lab at the CUNY ASRC.

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Outside of his office sits a freezer filled with animal mucus — frozen at minus 80 degrees Celsius — from a zoo-like collection of wildlife including hippos, frogs, snails, slugs, and salamanders.

“Every animal secretes at least three, and as many as 24 different mucus,” explained Braunschweig. “Animals use mucus to fill a wide variety of needs. They’re deployed as adhesives, lubricants, protective barriers, and many other applications. They have essential roles in defense, reproduction, homeostasis, and other essential functions.”

a garden snail and flowers
The mucus of Cornu aspersum, also known as the brown garden snail, has been used for centuries to treat skin conditions and other ailments. Manuel Lema and his fellow researchers are trying to create synthetic polymers that mimic the structure and function of natural mucins. (Photo: By Jon Sullivan, Wikimedia Commons)

Co-led by Lema, Braunschweig’s lab group ran a series of experiments to find a way to develop a synthetic polymer that could be scaled-up for production. “After a lot of trial and error, Manuel finally hit upon a strategy for creating synthetic mucus materials that reproduced both structure and properties of their natural counterparts,” said Braunschweig.

“Out of 40 different reactions conditions that we studied, we found one to make a new, scalable glycopolymer,” Lema added. The team’s next steps are to develop a glycopolymer engineered to mimic the behavior of natural mucins.

Down to Business

The experience inspired Lema and other group members to co-found Nomi Materials, a biotech startup that will design synthetic mucins for different market uses. “Skincare is one of the applications that we’re targeting,” he said.

Lema pointed to the phenomenal success of Korean snail-mucin skincare products as an example of the commercial potential of mucins. We’re creating a synthetic alternative, so we don't have to use snails to perform the same functions,” Lema said. “But there are so many applications to choose from. There are still a lot of things to be discovered.” 

When asked about his plans for the future, Lema says he considers himself fortunate to have the opportunity to make a contribution to science. “My dream was to get a doctorate in chemistry,” he said. “Along the way, I found this opportunity to start a company and become part of this amazing group. Now, I see a lot of open doors.”

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