Announcing the Russo Grant Recipients

Dean Rosenblatt is pleased to announce that the Russo Grant Committee has selected two more proposals for funding from the Russo Grants. The application submitted by Akiko Hata and Navin Kapur entitled "Circulating microRNAs and collagen turnover profile as biomarkers in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy" and the application submitted by Ekaterina Heldwein and John Coffin entitled "Structural basis of receptor recognition and fusion triggering by Avivan Leukosis Virus Env protein" were chosen from a group of proposals put forth by a pool of talented researchers. The proposal overviews are outlined below.

Akiko Hata, PhD and Navin Kapur, MD, Investigators

The ability of a virus to enter a host and infect cells is a critical early step in its ability to cause disease.  Blocking infection at this step can be targeted by host defenses and also is often the target of vaccines.  Viruses combat these defenses in a variety of ways, but one important mechanism by which they accomplish this involves changes that alter the interaction of the virus with the cellular receptor, a host molecule that mediates virus entry.  Such changes can also allow the virus to interact with new hosts, thereby broadening the spectrum of infection and sometimes altering disease induction.  Understanding how the interaction between viruses and their cellular receptors work at the molecular level reveals important clues to the ways viruses acquire the ability to interact with new hosts. 

These changes have been particularly important for retroviruses, a large group of infectious agents that includes HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.  The team of Ekaterina Heldwein, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology & Microbiology and John Coffin, Professor of Molecular Biology & Microbiology will work to understand the structure of the retrovirus protein, a molecule called Env that interacts with cellular receptors.  Using a panel of mutant avian retroviruses that differ with respect to the types of cells they infect, these investigators will work to obtain crystals of the Env molecule so that the molecular details of the virus entry process can be understood.  Their experiments could help us understand the ways in which viruses evolve and how these changes affect the ability of these pathogens to infect cells in new hosts.

Ekaterina Heldwein, PhD and John Coffin, PhD, Investigators

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or HCM is a genetic disease that affects about 1 in 500 individuals.  Changes in eleven different genes can lead to this disorder.  Cardiac fibrosis accompanies the disease, which is often undiagnosed because many people with this condition do not display symptoms.  However, in some people, the thickening of the heart muscle can lead to life-threatening arrhythmias and sudden death.  Good biomarkers for HCM are not available and currently the fibrosis that accompanies HCM can only be assessed using MRI and this approach does not give quantitative information that allows treatments to be assessed for their efficacy.  The team of Akiko Hata, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Navin Kapur, Assistant Professor of Medicine will test the possibility that levels of particular micro RNAs (miRNAs) in the circulation can be used as a biomarker in HCM.  miRNAs are small RNA molecules that can affect gene expression patterns and are known to play important regulatory roles in many diseases.  They hope to uncover an miRNA signature that is unique for HCM and use this approach to improve diagnosis and monitoring of HCM patients. In the longer term, their approach might also uncover better ways to monitor patients suffering from other conditions including cirrhosis and pulmonary hypertension.

Research Spotlight

Read up on the research of our featured PhD student and faculty member in our Research Spotlight.