Why some cancers are resistant to chemotherapy treatments is a question that assistant University of Montana professor Erica Woodahl is trying to figure out.
"Cancer is evading our ways to kill it," said the researcher, who works in UM's Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
One way to answer that question is to examine how prescription drugs move, or in some cases don't move, through human cells. And thanks to a recent competitive grant secured by UM's Center for Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics, Woodahl can further examine why certain proteins won't allow toxic agents to penetrate some cells.
UM was awarded a $9.9 million health grant over the next five years aimed at helping scientists in rural states enhance research in biochemistry, physics and atomic structure. UM was one of four universities in the country selected to receive this particular competitive research grant.
UM's Center for Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics, which consists of faculty from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the Division of Biological Sciences and the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, aims to advance research at the intersection of these disciplines, which include bacteriology and virology.
The grant was awarded from a National Institutes of Health program aimed at boosting funding in states that have historically received a disproportionately low amount of competitive research dollars. Montana is one of 23 rural or geographically smaller states with Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence, or COBRE. Thirty percent of the nation's researchers reside in these 23 states, but they receive only 15 percent of competitive National Institutes of Health grants, said Stephen Sprang, director of the Center for Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics.
UM was unsuccessful securing a COBRE grant in 2006 when the center first applied shortly after its inception, Sprang said. The center applied again in 2009 and learned over the summer that it was one of four COBRE grants selected this year.
UM has received three COBRE grants since the program began in 1999.
"It came as a nice surprise," said Klara Briknarova, assistant chemistry professor and one of four scientists whose research projects will be funded by the grant.
Briknarova is a structural biologist who develops three-dimensional structures of proteins of Arenavirus to learn how it invades human cells. While the virus found in South America and Africa has a 30 percent mortality rate in rodents, and occasionally humans, Briknarova doesn't work with the actual virus. Her team builds a protein to use for testing and data collection. Building a protein, collecting data and creating a three-dimensional structure can take more than a year and is expensive, she said, but the grant will allow to increase the scope of her work.
Woodahl had come to a crossroads in her research on a family of proteins that transport drugs at the cellular level.
"Without money, it would be hard to continue the project in a really meaningful way," she said.
With this new influx of money, Woodahl will continue to study how these proteins protect cells from potentially toxic substances. In cases of pharmaceutical drugs, specifically cancer treatments, doctors want these toxins to enter the cell. There have been proteins discovered in cancerous tumors that resist chemotherapy treatments.
The proteins that Woodahl studies keep some cancer treatments from entering the cell and makes them less effective.
These proteins are complex, and researchers such as Woodahl are still trying to figure out exactly how they function.
"Manpower is what we're lacking," she said.
The grant will allow Woodahl to hire a full-time technician or graduate student to devote time to the research project, as well as pay for graduate research assistants, she said.
About half of the grant will fund four total research projects on campus, Sprang said. The remainder will pay to hire several more faculty members and for lab start-up costs, holding workshops and bringing in speakers. Also, some of the money will fund a number of pilot research projects. Sprang solicited research ideas from the faculty, and he hopes small $25,000 grants will be enough for faculty members to develop research ideas and produce sufficient data so that UM can later go after more substantial grants, Sprang said.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.