News Release

October 13, 2005

Contact: Kristina Goodnough, 860-679-3700

Federal Grant to Help UConn Health Center Unlock Secrets of Biological Pathways

FARMINGTON, CONN. – The UConn 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 (NIH) as part of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, which aims to support multidisciplinary projects to accelerate progress in medical research. The Health Center is one of only five National Technology Centers for Networks and Pathways in the country.

“Biological processes or functions, like wound healing or muscle contraction, for example, depend on communication among genes, proteins and cells through multiple interactions or pathways,” says Leslie M. Loew, Ph.D., professor of cell biology 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,” says Loew, who 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, Ph.D., associate professor, molecular, microbial and structural biology, who is project manager for the grant.

Some of the new tools under development include:

  • 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 colleagues. The Virtual Cell is made up of hundreds of servers, some of which compute, 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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