This month we are pleased to interview Dr. Ozan Kumru, who serves as Research Assistant Director at the University of Kansas Vaccine Analytics and Formulation Center, which is associated with the Pharmaceutical Chemistry Department. The VAFC is quite well known in the field of biologic formulation and has been instrumental in supporting advances in translational medicine, with a steady stream of scholarly publications on methods for assessing stability of vaccines and other biopharmaceuticals, analytical services provided directly to biopharma, and trained alumni who have gone on to careers in major biopharmaceutical companies and government labs. Thankfully, Dr. Kumru was able to devote some time from his busy schedule, which is all the more intense with the current push to develop vaccines against COVID-19, to relate his career path and how it intersects with Wyatt Technology.
Please tell us about your background: where you grew up, what you studied and the field you chose.
I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska and attended Kansas State University where I received a B.S. in Microbiology. I then received a Ph.D. in Microbiology in 2011 from the University of Kansas Medical Center where my dissertation focused on lipoprotein transport and characterization of the surface proteome of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease: Borrelia burgdorferi.
During graduate school I received an NIH graduate student fellowship in multidimensional vaccinogenesis and took a class on vaccine development. This class piqued my interest and led to learning more about the pharmaceutical aspects of vaccine formulation and stabilization. I then took a post-doctoral fellowship in the Vaccine Analytics and Formulation Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS to receive training in large molecule stabilization and formulation, which includes vaccines, live viruses, viral vectors, and monoclonal antibodies.
Over nine years later, the “two-year post-doc” turned into something much more, since now I am a scientific assistant director in the VAFC. Throughout my time at the VAFC I have learned many skills including development of liquid and lyophilized formulations, the use of countless pieces of analytical instrumentation (including many light scattering instruments), and multiple virus titration assays.
What led you to choose those fields? What are the challenges that excite you?
As a freshman in high school, my biology teacher assigned the class “The Hot Zone” to read and write a book report. The book really piqued my interest about viruses and infectious disease research. I entered college as a pre-med major not really knowing about the research track, but found out more about scientific research through classes, conversations with graduate students and my advisor. I ended up joining a lab in the Vet School at K-State as an undergraduate research assistant.
During the first year my job consisted of “cleaning/autoclaving glassware, making buffers, filling carboys with MilliQ water, etc.” After about a year of that, my PI received a small grant to fund an undergraduate research project, so I gained some experience working in the lab. I soon fell in love with science and knew it was something that I would be doing for the rest of my life. After further conversations with professors, graduate students, and my advisor I decided to apply for graduate school. What I love about science is that there are always problems to solve and you have to get creative and innovative to find the answers.
What does your current position entail? How does it tie into your previous experience, and where is it going?
Our center primarily focuses on formulation and stabilization of vaccines and monoclonal antibodies. We have several projects where we collaborate with large and small pharmaceutical companies as well as non-profit organizations such as PATH and the Gates Foundation. Our projects are highly collaborative: I am the lead scientist on some projects, while a contributor/advisor on others. Since most of our work involves vaccines one must have knowledge of not only microbiology and immunology, but also biochemistry, organic chemistry, pharmacokinetics, and molecular biology.
In what context did you first learn about light scattering and Wyatt instruments?
Protein aggregation is a big concern when stabilizing macromolecules, since aggregation can lead directly to a loss of protein function; it is very important that we understand the aggregation behavior of our macromolecule of interest.
I learned about DLS and SEC-MALS soon after joining the VAFC as tools to detect and, in some cases, quantify aggregation. I then attended LSU in 2011 to learn about SEC-MALS and how to use the DAWN® instrument. I still reference the training manual to this day and use it as a resource for training new staff!
How does your research benefit from Wyatt instruments?
Wyatt instruments are the workhorse equipment in our lab for light scattering applications. We perform high-throughput formulation screening in the DynaPro® Plate Reader, with minimal hands-on time, by running automated DLS on temperature ramps in 384 well plates. The instrument is really a life saver and an invaluable tool for detecting aggregation of virus-like particles (VLP).
The ability to generate large amounts of data, with minimal sample consumption yet without sacrificing data quality, has enabled high-throughput excipient screening to quickly solve formulation problems and gain insights as to how excipients prevent or enhance aggregation in proteins or VLPs. We also measure reversible self-association of mAbs or other proteins using the Calypso® composition-gradient system equipped with the DAWN MALS detector.
Any personal anecdotes that would help illuminate your career, interests, connection to Wyatt or outlook for the readers?
When I train new students, post-docs, or staff in the use of SEC-MALS, I always tell them that calculating the molecular weight of an unknown protein based on a column calibration curve is a bad idea that can lead to the wrong answer. In fact, we find that this provides an inaccurate molecular weight more often than not. To determine the accurate molecular weight you must use SEC-MALS. When I give classroom-type training I use the knowledge (and some of the slides) I obtained from LSU. Whenever I have an application question, Wyatt technical support is quick to respond to answer any questions I may have and are always very pleasant to work with.
Outside of work I have a wife and three children (7, 5, and 3 months) that keep me very busy. When I’m not busy chasing my kids around I enjoy home brewing craft beer in my basement, of which I have turned a significant portion into a small-scale brewery.
The DynaPro Plate Reader enables us to quickly solve formulation problems relating to protein or virus-like particle (VLP) aggregation.