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Health Center receives $12.3m federal grant for biological research

by Kristina Goodnough - October 24, 2005

The Health Center has received a $12.3 million federal grant to help build the tools and technologies needed to understand the networks of molecules that make up living cells and tissues.

The grant comes from the National Institutes of Health as part of the agency’s Roadmap for Medical Research, which supports multidisciplinary projects to accelerate progress in medical research. The Health Center is one of just five National Technology Centers for Networks and Pathways in the country.

“Biological processes or functions such as wound healing or muscle contraction depend on communication among genes, proteins, and cells through multiple interactions or pathways,” says Leslie Loew, a professor of cell biology at the Health Center and principal investigator for the grant. “If we understand the pathways, we can begin to understand whether disturbances in pathways contribute to disease and how normal function can be restored.”

Loew led a multidisciplinary team of scientists in developing the complex grant proposal that resulted in the award, one of the largest ever received by the Health Center.

“We need to develop new tools for measuring things, like amounts of protein in a living cell and the number of proteins in different locations in the cells,” says Ann Cowan, an associate professor of molecular, microbial, and structural biology, who is project manager for the grant.

Some of the new tools being developed are:

  • fluorescent molecules that flash under light and act as indicators;
  • polymers that act as fences to keep molecules at certain places inside cells; and

  • laser tweezers that can move micro-particles.

Measuring concentrations of proteins and manipulating the interactions yields vast amounts of complex information, which can be understood using the Virtual Cell, a computational modeling platform developed at the Health Center more than a decade ago by Loew and his colleagues.

The Virtual Cell comprises hundreds of servers, some of which compute and some of which store information, and software that can handle the massive computations necessary to make sense of the information collected.

“Because the Virtual Cell is linked to the Internet, it can serve as a central repository for scientists around the world for the tools, technologies, and information we develop,” says Loew.

To ensure that the new technologies are relevant to real biological processes, they will be developed and applied to specific projects, including:

  • how cells move;
  • how neurons direct movement of RNA molecules;
  • how cells change their shapes;
  • how cells fuse into complex tissue; and
  • how external signals are transmitted to turn on genes in the cell nucleus.

“The Health Center has been extraordinarily supportive and farsighted in bringing together such a multidisciplinary team of chemists, physicists, and computational scientists,” says Loew. “By focusing on biomedical problems and issues, we ensure that the new technologies we develop will ultimately have a positive impact on health.”

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