Targeting diseases’ power source

$1.5 million grant fuels research that aims to cut off energy to damaged mitochondria DNA

| Author: Gary H. Piatek

As a firefighter targets the fuel of a fire, Central Michigan University chemistry and biochemistry faculty member Linlin Zhao is targeting diseases such as Parkinson's and cancer by focusing on the fuel of a human cell, its mitochondria.

Mitochondria are in the cells of every complex organism and produce about 90 percent of the chemical energy that cells need to survive. What is special about the "powerhouse of the cell" is that they have their own genetic material, or DNA. But when their DNA gets damaged through internal or environmental causes, the results are linked to cancers, neurological disorders and some hereditary diseases.

Zhao and student researchers in his lab in the College of Science and Engineering are using a recently received five-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to determine how the damaged mitochondrial DNA breaks down.

"Once we know that, we can design ways to manipulate mitochondrial functions, so down the road we can go after the mitochondria of the diseased cells to cut off the cells' energy source," Zhao said.

“The fact that we won the grant speaks to the quality of our research and the caliber of students we have at CMU.” — Linlin Zhao, faculty member

Fortuitous timing

The grant has come at the best time because of the just-launched biochemistry cell molecular biology graduate degree program, Zhao said.

The program provides research-based training in biological, biochemical and biomedical sciences.

The first class of students, about 20, started this fall, and Zhao said a number of them will be a part of his research group that includes a postdoctoral fellow and graduate and undergraduate students.

"They will be tackling the frontier of mitochondrial biology and biochemistry research," he said proudly.

He also is proud of the fact that CMU won the grant. CMU competed against doctoral universities from around the country that were rated higher for research activity.

"The fact that we won the grant speaks to the quality of our research and the caliber of students we have at CMU," he said.

From Saudi Arabia to CMU

One of Zhao's lab workers is Feris Samkari, a senior from Saudi Arabia majoring in biomedical, cellular and molecular biology.

Samkari received a scholarship from his country to attend one of many universities in the United States. He chose CMU because of its educational quality and affordability, he said.

His original goal was to go to medical school after graduation.

"But now that I have been working in research, I really like what I do," he said.

"Now I better understand the concepts I learned in class and how they translate to actual research."

He is applying to graduate schools, including CMU, to continue to do research.

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