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Molecular analysis of disease pathways focus of new KU research center

Monday, September 10, 2012

LAWRENCE – A new $11 million, five-year grant will enable University of Kansas researchers on the Lawrence campus to better understand the molecular basis of diseases such as cancer and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s.

Funding from the National Institutes of Health will create a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE): the Center for the Molecular Analysis of Disease Pathways. The grant was awarded to Susan Lunte, the Ralph N. Adams Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Chemistry and director of the Adams Institute for Bioanalytical Chemistry.

She is joined on the project by co-investigators Blake Peterson, Regents Distinguished Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, and Professor Erik Lundquist of the Department of Molecular Biosciences, where he is also director of the Genetics Program.

“The center is focused on the use of so-called `model organisms’ to study human disease,” said Lunte. “These include zebrafish, fruit flies and nematode worms, species that share many human genes and molecular pathways. We can study these simpler creatures to better understand molecular signaling pathways that underlie human diseases.”

The grant will facilitate the use of modern, cutting-edge technologies to investigate these pathways, said Lunte. The new center will establish three core facilities that can be utilized by researchers at KU and other universities:

• Lunte’s core will develop and implement tiny “lab-on-a-chip” devices to analyze biological specimens using microscopy and electrochemistry. The core will also develop chip-based methodology to monitor physical and chemical phenomena involved in disease processes.
• Peterson’s core will synthesize and test novel synthetic fluorescent compounds that can serve as probes to visualize cellular and molecular functions in living organisms.

• Lundquist’s core will establish next-generation genome sequencing capabilities on the Lawrence campus, making it possible to sequence an entire human genome in one week for about $10,000. Model organisms can be sequenced even faster and at less cost.

These three cores integrate the analysis of disease pathways, said Lunte. “Genes, proteins or cellular events relevant to human disease can be probed with fluorescent compounds on platforms developed using microfabrication. Genome sequencing can then be used to identify genes associated with the disease pathway.”

The center supports the disease pathway-related research of four other KU faculty members: Prajna Dhar, chemical and petroleum engineering; Michael Johnson, chemistry; and Brian Ackley and Mizuki Azuma, molecular biosciences.

While the grant to Lunte is for five years, it can be renewed for additional years. The Higuchi Biosciences Center at KU currently also hosts two other NIH-funded COBRE centers, both of which were renewed. The Center for Cancer Experimental Therapeutics, led by Barbara Timmermann, medicinal chemistry, is in its 13th year, and the Center in Protein Structure and Function, led by Robert Hanzlik, medicinal chemistry, is in its 10th year.