LAWRENCE — Regents Distinguished Professor Blake Peterson of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry has received a $500,000 grant to study the fundamental biology of cells. The research could lead to discoveries that could one day assist physicians with new ways to treat a variety of diseases, including some forms of diabetes and cancer.
The three-year project, funded by the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Charitable Foundation, will create synthetic molecules that are designed to mimic receptors found on cell surfaces. The receptors of interest are often missing or bear inactivating mutations that lead to loss of important cellular functions such as programmed cell death.
Mutations that inactivate cell surface receptors cause a wide range of cellular dysfunction, Peterson said. When receptors that normally transmit signals from the surface to the interior of cells, such as those that control cellular growth, death and other processes are damaged via mutation, few non-genetic options exist to reactivate these pathways. In an unprecedented approach, Peterson seeks to create the first synthetic cell surface receptors that control specific signal transduction pathways.
“We are particularly interested in creating new ways to gain control over signaling pathways that affect cellular death because appropriate patterns of development and a wide range of other processes in animals require that certain cell types accept signals to die when they should,” Peterson said. “Using techniques of synthetic organic chemistry, biochemistry and cellular biology, we are working to create compounds with the potential to be administered to cells, insert into cellular membranes and simultaneously bind specific proteins both outside and inside of cells to allow reactivation of defective signaling pathways.”
Howard Chester, the foundation executive director, said the organization finds this research both compelling and innovative.
"We believe the project, while grounded in basic science, could have huge translational research implications. We are happy to provide financial support and eagerly look forward to project developments,” he said.
School of Pharmacy Dean Ken Audus said support from the foundation will enable Peterson and his students to pursue this idea at a very early stage.
“The potential for this work to reshape the way scientists and clinicians across the life sciences investigate their cellular systems is potentially transformative," Audus said.
The foundation also supported a team of developmental biologists, Professor Charles Little and his colleagues Associate Professor Brenda Rongish and Associate Professor Andras Czirok in the Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology at the University of Kansas Medical Center. They study the role of biomechanics in embryogenesis.
Peterson earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Nevada, Reno, and a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles. He was a Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University from 1995-1998. His honors and awards include American Cancer Society Research Scholar in 2003, Camille Dreyfus Teacher Scholar in 2003, Kansas Biosciences Authority Eminent Scholar in 2008 and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2013.
About the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Charitable Foundation
Established in 1975, it has been the mission of the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Charitable Foundation to support fundamental basic research in the life sciences. The foundation has supported researchers and their teams for specific projects at top universities and independent research institutions across the United States.
Photo: Blake Peterson, distinguished professor of medicinal chemistry, works with a student in this 2009 file photo. Credit: KU Marketing Communications.