OMRF receives $2.2 million to study protein's role in reproduction, cancer

Published: Tuesday, October 6, 2020 By: Staff Reports Source: VeloCity

The National Institutes of Health has awarded the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation $2.2 million to study a cellular protein’s role in reproduction and cancer.

OMRF researcher Jian Li, Ph.D., received a five-year grant that will investigate the role that a cellular protein called HSF1 plays in cell division and growth.

“Reproduction and cancer may seem unrelated, but at a basic level, they both have to do with how cells divide,” said Li, who joined OMRF from Northwestern University in Chicago in 2017. “In reproduction, cells need to divide properly. And in cancer, cell division is out of control, which grows and spreads the disease.”

The protein his lab has zeroed in on is proven to have an important role in healthy cell division, Li explained, but studying it in the context where something has gone wrong is crucial.

“We want to better understand the role this protein plays when reproduction doesn’t go as it should, such as in infertility. Knowing that, we could provide ideas that could aid in successful pregnancy through therapies that target the protein,” Li said. “And on the flip side, if we know exactly what to turn off, it could also be a target for drugs that can stop the spread or growth of certain cancers.”

The grant is Li’s first independent funding from the NIH. It was awarded under a program for promising scientists still early in their careers, known as the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award, or MIRA. The competitive federal program offers long-term support, the flexibility to pursue new research directions and favors bold, risk-taking science.

An assistant member in OMRF’s Aging and Metabolism Research Program, Li completed his doctoral studies at Penn State and a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University. His lab at OMRF was launched with support from the Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program, which helps junior scientists establish independent research programs. OMRF scientist Linda Thompson, Ph.D., leads the program.

“We are thrilled that Dr. Li received this MIRA award; he is highly deserving, and it enables him to ‘graduate’ from our COBRE program as an independently funded investigator,” said Thompson, who holds the Putnam City Schools Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research at OMRF. “This is exciting work with important human health implications.”

The grant (1 R35 GM138364-01) is funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a part of the NIH.

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