Pranam Chatterjee: Engineering the Reproductive System, One Protein at a Time

September 30, 2021 | Michaela Kane

New faculty member Pranam Chatterjee uses AI to design proteins that promote, preserve and prolong reproductive health

Pranam Chatterjee

Pranam Chatterjee

Pranam Chatterjee will join Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering beginning July 1, 2022. By using computational methods to design new and useful proteins for stem cell engineering, Chatterjee explores how to develop cells and tissues that can improve reproductive longevity and fertility.

Chatterjee earned his PhD from the MIT Media Lab, where he integrated experimental and computational methods to develop powerful CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing enzymes. Similar approaches also helped him create novel peptide formulations that can degrade specific targets, like pathogenic proteins produced by certain types of cancer or viral proteins produced by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Currently the Carlos Varsavsky Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School, Chatterjee works in the lab of George Church, who is widely recognized for his numerous contributions to genomic science, chemistry and bioengineering. Chatterjee’s primary focus in the lab involves using state-of-the-art algorithms and high-throughput screening methods to both identify and design natural transcription factor proteins for stem cell engineering. These transcription factors help guide the evolution of pluripotent stem cells into targeted cell types, like neurons, lung cells or skin cells.

But in his new role at Duke, Chatterjee will explore how to design novel transcription factors to more efficiently guide stem cells as they evolve into cell types found in the reproductive system.

“We’re interested in bringing our protein design and engineering capabilities, whether it’s in genome editing, protein modulation or cell state engineering, to the field of reproductive biology, which is a new, exciting frontier for this work,” says Chatterjee. “The big goals of my lab will be to promote, preserve and prolong reproductive health spans.”

According to Chatterjee, this means the lab’s projects could range from designing new transcription factors that can more efficiently turn stem cells into oocytes­­–– the cells produced by ovaries that mature into eggs–– to generating new ovarian tissue. These approaches would ideally be used to help address issues caused by infertility or help lengthen a woman’s reproductive timeline.

“We have a long way to go before there are any specific clinical applications of this work,” Chatterjee says. “But we’re building the design principles that will enable us to get to those end goals.”

Although his work in reproductive biology will be a relatively new research area for Duke BME, Chatterjee is already looking forward to prospective collaborations with several faculty, like Charles Gersbach, who has helped pioneer the CRISPR gene-editing technology, and Samira Musah, who uses pluripotent stem cells to study kidney disease and other kidney-related issues. Chatterjee also sees potential for collaborating with Daniel Reker, who similarly uses machine learning and other computational approaches to design and develop small molecules and drugs for use as potential therapies for cancer or infectious diseases.

“The work that I do is very interdisciplinary, and I was really drawn to Duke BME because the department has cultivated a very collaborative culture, where you’re encouraged to work with diverse research groups,” says Chatterjee. “And with the medical school so close by, I’m also going to be able to work with experts in reproductive biology and fertility. My lab wants to solve these big ambitious problems, and I’m excited to have access to a large resource of experts to help accomplish those goals.”

Chatterjee’s transition to Duke also provides him with a new opportunity to serve as a mentor to a new community of students.

“I want students to be inspired by the material and to retain information that will be directly helpful to them as they progress through Duke and into their careers. If I can accomplish those two things, then everything else is a bonus,” says Chatterjee. “I come from a big family of teachers, so I’ve always really enjoyed teaching. I find that while it’s exciting to do the research, it’s even more exciting to teach students who are going to become the next generation of scientists.”