BSPS student spends summer researching drug development for neuropsychiatric disorders


August 19, 2019

Ricchezza, Keck photo
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While summer break is a time to relax for many undergraduate students, Joseph Ricchezza, a second-year BSPS student, found himself gaining invaluable research experience alongside nine other undergraduate students from around the country.

Through the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates Site in Biomedical Materials, Devices, Therapeutics, and Emerging Frontiers at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, Ricchezza worked in the lab of Thomas Keck, PhD, on a research project focused on pharmaceutical drug development for patients with Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric disorders.

As one of 10 students from seven states and 10 universities, Ricchezza gained a close-up look at the shortcomings of current and future drugs used to treat neuropsychiatric disorders.

“Currently, the medications on the market for these disorders are not very selective in the brain receptors and signaling pathways that they activate in the body, and this results in bad side effects for patients along with a low level of drug compliance,” Ricchezza said. “There is a clear need for new and more selective medications to be developed in order to correctly treat the symptoms of people with these diseases and disorders.”

The research project involved working with another lab that used 3D modeling of the dopamine D2 receptor in the brain. The lab screened drugs that could bind to this receptor and possibly continue to medication development. Ricchezza grew and maintained stably transfected and genetically modified cells and ran binding screens and other assays based on the results that the 3D modeling had produced.

“I worked with radioactive materials such as [3H]N-methylspiperone and [3H]7-OH-DPAT in competitive binding studies with our possible drug compounds in order to analyze and calculate the potential drug’s binding affinities to the D2 receptor. Following this, I ran reporter assays to determine which pathways were being activated by these drugs that bound to the receptor,” Ricchezza said. “Through these studies, we have found that there is potential for us to use this data going forward to develop more selective and less harmful medications.”

The research Ricchezza completed this summer will continue to have an impact even after he returns to Parks Hall to start his sophomore year. “In the future, we will be teaming up with a medicinal chemist to engineer new medications that we can then run the same tests on,” Ricchezza said.

Ricchezza will present his project at the Biomedical Engineering Society Annual Meeting in Philadelphia this fall.