UNC scientists Marcey Waters, Brian Strahl & Xian Chen receive a W.M. Keck Foundation award to study protein methylation

Three scientists at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill have received a grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation’s Medical Research Program to study a widespread but largely unexplored phenomenon that may be implicated in many diseases, including cancer.

The phenomenon, called protein methylation, has added a new dimension in our understanding of how genes and other aspects of the cell are regulated, explained Marcey L. Waters, principal investigator of the project and professor in the department of chemistry in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. Proteins are modified with these chemical tags, which in turn change their behavior in ways that are important for turning on or off their functions.

“However, protein methylation is challenging to study,” said Waters, “largely because we lack the right tools to study it. The goal of this grant is to help us develop the tools to better characterize this phenomenon – how many proteins are methylated in different cells, what happens when protein methylation goes awry, and how this influences other chemical interactions that regulate gene expression.”

The new tools will provide researchers with a map of these chemical tags and the patterns with which these tags decorate the surface of different proteins. A visual and/or chemical representation of these patterns may provide breakthrough insights into why certain cells become diseased while others stay healthy. Furthermore, Waters and her co-principal investigators, Drs. Brian D. Strahl and Xian Chen, associate professors in the department of biochemistry and biophysics in UNC’s School of Medicine, plan to use these new tools to pinpoint precisely which molecular interactions within cells break down and lead to disease. This could open the door to the development of highly specific and targeted therapies. Drs. Xian Chen and Brian Strahl are also members of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

More information on the W.M. Keck Foundation can be found here.

College of Arts and Sciences contact: Dee Reid, (919) 843-6339, deereid@unc.eduUNC News Services contact: Thania Benios, (919) 962-8596, thania_benios@unc.edu

About drbrianstrahl

Brian David Strahl, a Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), started his research lab in 2001. His research areas include cancer biology, epigenetics and gene regulation. At UNC, Dr. Strahl provides instruction to undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students in his laboratory. Over the years, Brian Strahl has received a number of important awards for his work in the field of gene expression and epigenetics. In 2009, he received the Ruth and Phillip Hettleman Prize for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement from UNC. In 2008, the National Institutes of Health awarded him a EUREKA (Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration). His alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, awarded him a Young Alumni Award in 2006 for scientific achievement. Brian Strahl has also won the ASBMB Schering-Plough Research Institute Award, a major biomedical award. In 2003, Dr. Strahl was honored by the White House for his achievements and was awarded a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. In 2004, Brian was a PEW Scholar in Biomedical Sciences. Dr. Strahl is a member of several professional organizations, including the American Society for Microbiology and the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
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