University of Chicago chemist Weixin Tang receives 2022 Packard Fellowship

Award will support research to develop new directed-evolution technology

University of Chicago chemist Weixin Tang has received a 2022 Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering. Tang is one of 20 early-career scientists and engineers nationwide to receive the fellowship from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Tang, a Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in chemistry, will receive $875,000 over five years to support her research. Tang’s lab specializes in using chemistry-based tools to understand and alter biological processes.

The Packard Fellowship will fund an initiative that seeks to create new ways to make therapeutic molecules with a technique called directed evolution.

Sometimes, as researchers seek treatments for diseases, they would like to make biomolecules that do not exist yet. For example, perhaps they want to design a protein that flags cancerous cells to bring them to the attention of the immune system.

Evolution is very good at creating such molecules, but in nature, the process can take centuries. Scientists instead hope to speed up the process by creating lab conditions that favor the development of the particular functions they’re looking for.

However, most of the directed evolution work so far has used bacteria because they’re simple and easy to take care of. “The problem is, they tend not to produce things that function well in human bodies,” Tang explained.

Tang reasoned that using mammalian cells instead would produce better results—but there is not yet an easily accessible system to do so. So she set out to make one: “We want to set up a robust system that allows us to evolve molecules within the system they’re supposed to work.”

Rather than aiming at a specific function, they hope to develop a platform that any lab can use to create what they need, Tang said. “It’s bigger than a single problem; we want to build a tool that provides the basis for many wonderful new things, not just one,” she explained.

Tang joined the University of Chicago in 2019. Her previous awards include the Searle Scholar Award and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering’s Trailblazer Award.

The Packard Foundation established the fellowships program in 1988 to provide early-career scientists with flexible funding and the freedom to take risks and explore new frontiers in their fields. The Packard Foundation Fellowships Advisory Panel, a group of 12 internationally recognized scientists and engineers, evaluates the nominations and recommends fellows for approval by the Packard Foundation Board of Trustees.