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The marriage of computer modeling, biophysics and immunology has
landed a University of Central Florida scientist more than $1 million
in funding for her work, which could have profound benefits in the
search for cures to cancer and heart disease.
professor Annette Khaled is conducting research into what triggers the
“death protein.” The “death protein” BAX appears to annihilate
surrounding cells. If its secrets could be unlocked and controlled, it
could be a key tool in saving lives.
By identifying one of the
mechanisms that leads to the fragmentation and ultimately death of the
cells of the immune system, Khaled hopes to develop a peptide-based
therapeutic approach that can be used to either stimulate the death of
diseased or cancerous cells or protect cells whose inappropriate death
causes heart disease or brain damage.
Khaled has put together a team of researchers at UCF with a variety of backgrounds to conduct the research.
NIH is making an effort to foster interdisciplinary research,” Khaled
said because biomolecular research is so complicated. Teams, which use
the strengths of a variety of disciplines to study cell function have
an edge compared to those who stick with one expertise and traditional
“Biophysical approaches and computational modeling methods helped us ‘see’ what is happening biologically,” Khaled said.
she arrived at UCF in 2002 she identified UCF biophysicist, Suren
Tatulian, as having the biophysical “know how” to help her understand
how proteins interact with membranes. UCF protein chemist, Thomas
Selby, has the computational modeling skills that could help her design
new biological experiments.
Together, the three scientists
discovered that the occupancy of a prominent hydrophobic groove within
the molecular structure of BAX could be the key to controlling the
protein’s lethal activity.
Khaled has studied the inner
workings of BAX, a protein that among its activities mediates the death
of cells, since her days as a post-doctoral scientist at the National
Cancer Institute (NCI) more than five years ago. In 2003, she received
$466,000 of National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding in the form of
a career development award to study how BAX is activated to cause the
death of immune cells. Instead of answers her diligent analysis,
employing traditional biological techniques, revealed more questions.
In order to crack the BAX “puzzle” and find those elusive answers, she
needed a new approach. Khaled found that approach in a partnership that
was originally created to help train UCF graduate students in
biophysics and computational modeling of protein structure.
addition to receiving a $1 million grant from NIH, Khaled, Tatulian and
Selby have submitted two manuscripts on the joint work – one describing
the computer modeling side and the other focusing on the biological
Khaled has also received $919,000 from the NIH for a
related study on the function of an immunological signaling protein
known as Interleukin 7 that supports the body’s immune system to fight
off infections and when aberrantly expressed could also underlie the
development of cancer.
“Dr. Khaled is truly an outstanding
Florida researcher to compete with the best in the country and win,”
said Pappachan Kolattukudy, director of the Burnett School of
Biomedical Sciences in the College of Medicine. “We are fortunate to
have her as part of our team, making significant strides in our search
for cures to some of the world’s most common and deadly diseases.”
University of Central Florida
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