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Fall 2019: Faculty Notes: LOCKR Unlocks Cell Function

LOCKR Unlocks Cell Function

That headline on the front page of the July 24 edition of the Washington Post announced “a milestone in synthetic biology.” And one of the designers of the new artificial protein is Professor Wally Novak. 

During his sabbatical in 2016, Novak worked at the University of Washington (UW) in the lab of biologist David Baker, where, with two other scientists, he designed the prototype of the protein, called LOCKR (Latching Orthogonal Cage Key pRotein). LOCKR is completely artificial and interacts with other molecules in a cell to modify—or even take over—the cell’s circuitry. Because LOCKR can be “programmed” to modify gene expression, it could lead to all sorts of applications, including new therapies for cancer, autoimmune disorders, and many other diseases. 

Novak says seeing the article in the Post was “a great way to share with my extended family the work I did at UW, but, as a scientist, I was more excited about publishing in the journal Nature, where fellow scientists can read about the work. We believe the LOCKR system has incredible potential.” 

Novak’s students also benefited from his sabbatical work. He returned to the classroom only days after doing the first testing on part of LOCKR. 

“The experience completely energized me in terms of research, and students in my lab are using the Rosetta protein design software I used at UW to design new proteins.”