Faculty-Student Research

Four years ago, Lise Thomas began studying transient receptor potential ion channels-specific proteins that alter the amount of calcium in a cell. If calcium levels are too high or unregulated, they could become toxic and potentially fatal for a cell, explained Thomas, associate professor of biology.

So, she focused on the external factors that influence TRP ion channels' maintenance of calcium levels. "It's a field I have been working in for a very long time," said Thomas, who began her research in 1987, before most of her students were born. "This particular avenue is new."

The National Institutes of Health found this research valuable as well, awarding Thomas a three-year, $262,835 grant to research the role that the ion channels play as environmental sensors. The grant also provides funding for student participation in research.

The amount of calcium in the cell regulates a number of metabolic processes. "Calcium is an important ion in the body and it plays many roles," Thomas said. "The body has to be very careful about how it responds to calcium, so it has evolved many systems for sequestering calcium. We are interested in learning how that works."

Thomas added that it is important to have calcium at the right time at the right concentration. "To regulate the calcium amounts, you need a protein to release or sequester the calcium. A TRP channel is one such protein. What we are studying is what parts of the protein are important for its proper function, which stimuli cause the channel to open, and ultimately, the cellular consequences of channel activity," she said.

TRP channel dysfunction has been linked to diseases ranging from polycystic kidney disease to bipolar disorder. An understanding of how these channels are regulated in their cellular environment is necessary to understand the mechanism underlying TRP channel pathologies. "The idea that TRP channels release calcium from intracelluar stores is relatively new and unexplored," she said. While TRP channels have been studied, the amount of research in this context is limited, she said.

She estimates that about 10 other people around the world are studying similar processes. Thomas' grant supports projects in schools that have not traditionally been major recipients of NIH funds, such as primarily undergraduate institutions. NIH Academic Research Enhancement Awards are intended to strengthen institutions' research infrastructures and engage students in the inquiry process.

The grant is supporting student summer research projects, money for supplies, and funding for students to attend scientific meetings to present their data, Thomas said. "The undergraduate students will experience the entire scientific process, from designing and performing experiments through presenting data," she said.

The research is still in its early stages, but Thomas said she is happy with the progress being made. "It is a real honor to receive the grant," she said. "It will provide access to many new and different resources, and will allow me to substantially increase both the size and breadth of my research team."

 

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