Biologists Win Major Awards

By Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

Two members of the Biology faculty, Assoc. Prof. Clare O'Connor and Asst. Prof. Donna Fekete, recently were awarded major grants to continue research which could provide new insights into the aging process and deafness.

O'Connor has received a four-year, $962,552 grant from the National Institute on Aging for her project "Methylation of Atypical Protein Aspartyl Residues," while the National Institutes of Health awarded Fekete a five-year, $917,973 grant for "Developmental Studies of the Vertebrate Inner Ear."

O'Connor's research focuses on an enzyme called protein isoaspartyl methyltransferase (PIMT), which modifies abnormal proteins damaged by age. She hopes to identify pharmacological agents which can be used to alter PIMT activity in cells, which could have potential value in treating age-related disorders involving defects in protein metabolism.

"PIMT is a fundamental part of the way cells take care of proteins," said O'Connor, who joined the department this year. "One implication of the research is that if we can keep this enzyme functional, we might keep proteins healthy, thus retarding some of the deterioration observed during aging and in neurodegenerative diseases and age-related disorders such as Alzheimer's Disease."

Fekete believes her research on the inner ear could serve as a basis for interpreting and designing experiments aimed at correcting deafness. She is trying to determine which genes control the development of the inner ear in chickens, and is examining the functions of balance and hearing. Chicken ears resemble those of humans, Fekete said, and she hopes that the defects caused by altering normal development in the chicken may mimic human birth defects that cause deafness.

Much of her research focuses on the cells which give rise to hair cells necessary for hearing. Chickens can regenerate these cells, she said, while mammals cannot. Fekete, who has been collecting data in this area for two years, said, "There has been no direct evidence - until now - that the hair cells are related to supporting cells by lineage." She added, "If we can understand this process and determine how the hair cells regenerate themselves - whether it be by giving birth to new cells or by reverting to embryonic cells - then perhaps the process can be recreated in humans."

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