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Staff Q&A: Mark Karver, PhD, director of the Peptide Synthesis Core

Mark Karver, PhD

Mark Karver, PhD, is director of the Peptide Synthesis Core and a member of the Simpson Querrey Institute. Karver helps scientists on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses with all of their peptide needs: project design and consultation, synthesis, purification and mass-spectrometry, to name a few.

Where are you originally from?

I grew up in Hobart, Indiana, a relatively small city about an hour outside of Chicago.

What is your educational background?

I started my collegiate career at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, majoring in chemistry and biology. After my junior year I had the chance to do a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program funded by the National Science Foundation at the University of Southern California (USC). There, I worked in the laboratory of Professor Mark Thompson on organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs).

This research experience motivated me to pursue graduate school, and I enrolled in the chemistry PhD program at USC. During my first year at USC, I joined the laboratory of Professor Amy Barrios working at the interface of inorganic chemistry and biochemistry, making and studying gold-based inhibitors of cysteine proteases and tyrosine phosphatases involved in autoimmune diseases.

After the lab moved to the University of Utah, I finished off my PhD in Salt Lake City while still remaining a student at USC, designing and synthesizing a thiol-reactive amino acid which I incorporated into specific peptide sequences for use in screening as tyrosine phosphatase selective inhibitors. After graduating from the Barrios lab, I joined the Center for Systems Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, directed by Dr. Ralph Weissleder, where I worked with Dr. Scott Hilderbrand and Dr. Jason McCarthy as a postdoctoral fellow.

Please tell us about your professional background.

During my postdoctoral fellowship, my wife got a job in Chicago so I had to start looking for opportunities back close to where I grew up, which was exciting, but turned out to be pretty difficult. After searching for around eight months, I finally received an offer from the Sigma-Aldrich Corporation, working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I worked as the product manager for chemical biology products for Aldrich Chemistry.

I was responsible for overseeing a range of products within this specialized category as well as searching for and bringing new innovative products to the market. I was in this role for two years before I found my current position at Northwestern as director of the Peptide Synthesis Core. My research experience with specialty amino acid and peptide synthesis coupled with my newfound business experience allowed me to settle into my new Northwestern position nicely and I’ve enjoyed seeing the facility grow over the years, adding two new full-time technical staff members in the process.

Why do you enjoy working at Northwestern?

There are many things I enjoy about my job and about Northwestern and Simpson Querrey Institute (SQI) in particular. One of my favorite things about my position is the variety of researchers and projects with which we work. Last year we worked with more than 30 different labs, mostly from Northwestern, with scientists from departments ranging from Chemistry and Materials Science & Engineering to Urology and Orthopaedic Surgery.

Having the opportunity to work closely and collaborate with some of the great scientific minds like professor Samuel Stupp and professor Chad Mirkin among others is a unique perk of running a core facility at NU. I really enjoy working with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers as well. Seeing them grow and develop as scientists and getting a chance to be a part of their journey toward the next step in their career is a truly rewarding experience.

Running a chemistry laboratory on the 11th floor of a building in downtown Chicago is interesting as well, not something I ever would have imagined earlier in my career as a scientist.

How do you help scientists and research students at the medical school?

Last year we provided services directly to 12 different labs at Feinberg, helping them with whatever peptide-related needs they had for their research projects. Because of the diverse range of specialty departments at Feinberg, many of the researchers are far removed from their chemistry training — or choose to try to forget it — so I enjoy working with these individuals and helping them apply our peptide chemistry knowledge and skills to their exciting projects.

We have also had the opportunity to train a few undergraduate students and interns in peptide synthesis and purification that have since moved onto medical school or various graduate programs within Feinberg, which is always an enjoyable process.

What exciting projects are you working on?

About a month ago we started working on a COVID-19 project in collaboration with the Stupp laboratory and the Pentelute laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who discovered a peptide that binds with high affinity to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Peptides in general are difficult to use as therapeutic agents on their own due to their susceptibility to rapid enzymatic degradation in biological systems.

We’re now helping the Stupp laboratory test their peptide amphiphile (PA) technology as a platform for enzymatic protection and therapeutic delivery of this peptide from the Pentelute laboratory. This could prove useful in treatment of patients suffering from COVID-19.

Another ongoing project I’ve been a part of involves this same PA technology and is in collaboration with the Stupp laboratory again as well as the Kibbe laboratory. This project involves adding specific peptide sequences to “backbone” PAs that target a protein exposed only in damaged vasculature. After injection of these PA’s, which form cylindrical nanostructures spontaneously, they accumulate in areas of broken blood vessels and even show decreases in blood loss. This project has been funded by the Department of Defense with hopes of eventual application for treating non-compressible torso hemorrhage.