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Intellect

Big setback helps student land publication in prestigious science journal

Latest discovery will aid development of medicines

  • Study shows how "G Proteins" assemble
  • G Proteins are related to heart disease and some forms of cancer
  • The study identifies specific places to target with new medicines

Midway through her pursuit of a Ph.D. in biochemistry, Rebecca Plimpton hit a complete dead end with her research.
Rather than quit, she decided to throw out all of her data and start over.

"I initially spent a good length of time doing experiments with this technique that turned out not to work well for this project, and so even though I put a lot of effort into it we didn't end up with any real data from it," Plimpton said. "That was really discouraging to discover at an advanced stage of the project."

Thanks to her perseverance, Plimpton and her faculty mentor have unlocked some mysteries behind "G proteins."

G protein systems control how cells respond to different hormones, growth factors, neurotransmitters, and sensory stimuli such as vision, taste, and smell. Malfunctions in G proteins result in many diseases, including heart disease and cancer.

The failure with Plimpton's first technique for examining the assembly of G proteins prompted her and Professor Barry Willardson to implement an altogether new method.

In the study, Plimpton and Willardson collaborated with Jose Valpuesta's lab in Madrid, Spain to couple advanced biochemical techniques with cryo-electron microscopy imaging and view the process of G protein assembly. Knowing the intricate details of G protein assembly will provide a framework for the development of pharmaceuticals that can treat diseases linked to G protein malfunction. 

"It's very challenging to develop drugs that improve or inhibit G protein folding," said Willardson. "This research will make it easier because it identifies specific places that might be targeted by drugs."

Their work appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the top-ranked science journals in the world.

This study marks Willardson's fifth time publishing in PNAS, quite a feat for someone who carries a full teaching load.

"To have five articles published in that venue is remarkable, and an indicator of the important and exciting research that Professor Willardson is engaged in," said Scott Sommerfeldt, dean of the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. "This results in outstanding opportunities for our students to participate in cutting-edge research that strengthens their education."

Writer: Sierra Naumu Thomas

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