Michigan State University researcher Alex Dickinson has recently received a three-year, $1.2 million Human Frontier Science Program grant in collaboration with other researchers from Germany and Australia to study how human cells respond to certain stressors associated with disease and aging.
“This grant enables me to participate in an international collaboration with extraordinary researchers,” says Dickson, an assistant professor who holds joint appointments in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology and the department of computational mathematics, science, and engineering. “In my group, we typically study atomic motions in systems involving one or two molecules. This research will bring us in a new direction, as we will use experimental data to model populations of proteins in a cell-wide context.”
Dickinson says proteins are made as strings of amino acids, but need to “fold” to a conformation to do their job in the cell. She adds that under stress, proteins can unfold and aggregate, which can have catastrophic consequences; this is the basis for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which affect millions of individuals in the United States alone. The cell has a built-in system, known as molecular chaperones, to help proteins fold and prevent aggregation.
The international research team will include Danny Hatters with the University of Melbourne, Simon Ebbinghaus with Ruhr-University Bochum, and Hannah Nicholas at the University of Sydney.
“This research project will use a novel biosensor that can measure the health of a chaperone system inside the cell,” adds Dickson. “Using this sensor will allow us to determine the buffering capacity of the chaperone system in healthy and diseased cells. The answer will provide insight into how cells respond dynamically to stresses, how resilient cells are to such stresses, and how quality control systems become degraded or overwhelmed in diseased contexts and upon aging.”
The Human Frontier Science Program offers international research support that aids scientific advancement through research grants, fellowships, workshops, and awards. Out of 851 proposals, 60 applications were received and 21 program grants were awarded. The MSU team ranked fourth overall in the process.