New funding boosts research on how cells communicate

Laura Burrus studies proteins that can make the difference between life and death. The professor of biology investigates proteins that help living cells communicate with each other and are essential for repairing damaged tissue in adults and guiding the healthy development of embryos. 

A photo of SF State Professor of Biology Laura Burrus.

Professor of Biology Laura Burrus

With a recent grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Burrus is embarking on a new line of inquiry into how these proteins work. Understanding how they function -- and how they sometimes go wrong -- could shed light on the prevention and treatment of birth defects and diseases, such as cancer.

"These proteins can instruct neighboring cells to move, divide, die, or become a particular kind of cell," Burrus said. "They determine the shape and structure of developing embryos and are important for cell repair in a wide range of animals, including humans."

Much of Burrus' work to date has focused on a group of these signaling proteins known as "Wnts." In order for the proteins to send the right signal to nearby cells, scientists believe a series of chemical reactions must happen to them first. A few years ago, Burrus and others discovered that a key step in this process was the addition of a fatty acid to the Wnt protein, and that this reaction relies on the help of another protein called Porcupine.

Burrus and her students are now examining the role of both proteins in the development of chick embryos. With her latest NSF grant, they will also study the biochemistry of the proteins and how they interact with each other.

"This grant allows me to return to my roots as a biochemist," said Burrus, who studied lipids (fatty acids) as a graduate student in biochemistry. "I'm excited to take what we're already doing on chick embryos and put it together with biochemical research in a whole new way."

Using the $581,000 grant, Burrus will use an emerging technique called "Click Chemistry," in which molecular components are joined together.

Burrus and her team will use this approach to observe the chemical reaction in which the Porcupine protein adds a fatty acid to the Wnt protein, and they'll use a specially modified fatty acid, which glows under infrared light. The purchase of a state-of-the-art infrared scanner, funded by the grant, will allow the researchers to detect the fatty acid.

"This is a great chance for my students to learn new techniques," said Burrus, whose NSF funding will enable graduate and undergraduate students to assist with the project. "They'll each have their own line of research that will contribute to the project as a whole."

In addition, Burrus hopes that successful development of this novel methodology could open doors for other researchers in her field.

"In the nervous system alone there are 200 proteins that have a fatty acid added to them, and many of these could be targets for therapeutic interventions, such as anti-cancer drugs," Burrus said. "But at the moment there's no good way to measure how fatty acids are added to proteins. We hope to change that."

--Elaine Bible