A Griffith University researcher is the latest recipient of an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship valued at nearly $1 million to progress his work in engineering protein ‘cages’ as a potential means of controlling agricultural pests in soil.

Dr Frank Sainsbury, a Research Leader within the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD), was awarded $968,816 for his four-year project that will develop robust protein cages derived from the empty shells of viruses – or capsids – to protect and deliver sensitive cargo such as RNA.

It will do so by directed evolution of non-infectious capsids in the lab, which will uncover the molecular mechanisms underpinning the response of viruses to chemical and biological signals to create a new class of RNA delivery vehicle.

This synthetic biology approach combines virology and protein engineering to establish a platform biotechnology for stable and effective delivery.

“This new stage of of the project is important, because it will stabilise sensitive cargos such as RNA, which is very sensitive to degradation,” Dr Sainsbury said.

“Currently, that limits the use of mRNA technologies, like vaccines, to clinical settings with freezers, for example.

“Because deployment in the field is generally in uncontrolled conditions – especially with respect to temperature and pH – RNA is susceptible to degradation.

“Encapsulating RNA inside a protein cage – like a virus capsid but non-infectious – stabilises it. We aim to use this approach to control agricultural pests in soil, for example.”

Dr Sainsbury joined GRIDD in 2019. His research uses protein engineering and biophysical techniques to study the self-assembly of proteins as tools in basic science and technology.

He is an author on >60 scientific publications and inventor on five patents. He has expanded his research program on virus-like particles and protein surfactants for the design of biomimetic and hybrid biomaterials.