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April 13, 2017

MSU awarded $1.2M grant for international health research collaboration

A Michigan State University researcher, in collaboration with other researchers in Australia and Germany, has received a three-year, $1.2 million Human Frontier Science Program grant to study how human cells respond to certain stressors associated with disease and aging.

The Human Frontier Science Program offers international research support that aids scientific advancement through research grants, fellowships, workshops and awards.  

“This grant enables me to participate in an international collaboration with extraordinary researchers,” said Alex 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. I am honored to receive this grant and I’m very excited about this new direction! 

The international research team will include Dickson, Danny Hatters with the University of Melbourne, Simon Ebbinghaus with Ruhr-University Bochum and Hannah Nicholas at the University of Sydney.

According to Dickson, proteins are made as strings of amino acids, but need to “fold” to a particular conformation in order to do their job in the cell. 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.  

“This research project will use a novel biosensor that can measure the health of a chaperone system inside the cell,” Dickson said. “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.”

Out of 851 proposals, 60 applications were received and 21 program grants were awarded. The MSU team ranked No. 4 overall in the process. A complete list of 2017 grant awardees can be viewed online.