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University Relations

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Aug. 14, 2008
Contact: Kevin Boatright, Office of Research and Graduate Studies, (785) 864-7240.

KU-led collaborative lands $10 million grant for protein structure research

LAWRENCE — A collaborative University of Kansas-led program for health-related basic research in protein structure and function will continue for another five years, thanks to a $10.1 million grant awarded recently by the National Institutes of Health.

The COBRE in Protein Structure and Function, one of 80 Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence in 23 states, is directed by Robert Hanzlik, a professor of medicinal chemistry on KU’s Lawrence campus. Other institutions participating in the grant are the KU Medical Center, Wichita State University and Kansas State University. The COBRE receives administrative support from KU’s Higuchi Biosciences Center and additional funding from the KU Center for Research and the Kansas Technology Enterprise Corporation.

“Building a COBRE center means building something bigger than any one lab,” said Hanzlik. “Our center brings together colleagues, core service laboratories and specialists at four campuses. As a result, we learn from each other, accelerate each other’s research and enable things that couldn’t be done by individuals working alone. In addition, we’re helping to train a new generation of faculty researchers and their students. That’s what makes it all so worthwhile.”

The COBRE in Protein Structure and Function focuses on identifying and understanding cellular proteins responsible for normal cell functioning, as well as cell dysfunction in diseases, such as cancer, said Hanzlik. To develop therapeutic remedies for those diseases, it’s necessary to understand the proteins involved. This requires broadly trained scientists with expertise in a number of areas, as well as specialized equipment in core labs.

During the initial five years of the COBRE, also funded at $10.1 million, the center supported 23 investigators from 12 departments at the four participating institutions. Ten junior faculty researchers were mentored to the point they received major independent investigator grants from NIH. Other outcomes of the first grant included six scientific conferences, three grant writing workshops, 226 peer-reviewed publications and 69 additional research grants to participating researchers totaling more than $22 million.

“All of our initial goals for the COBRE have been met and, in most cases, surpassed by a wide margin,” said Hanzlik.

The committee that reviewed the renewal proposal agreed. In its recommendations it described Hanzlik and associate director Mary Lou Michaelis, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at KU, as “outstanding, highly productive scientists, with a strong record of success during the initial funding period that attests to their ability to plan and execute this program.”

The committee report went on to say, “There is a critical mass of strong, productive investigators collaborating in a multidisciplinary research center pursuing important and long-term health-related research.”

The original funding of the COBRE in Protein Structure and Function helped support the remodeling of 6,000 square feet of lab space at KU. It also helped inspire construction of a 17,500-square foot Structural Biology Center at KU. That facility houses an 800 MHz nuclear magnetic resonance instrument for the study of protein structure and function. It’s also home to the Protein Purification Group, the Protein Structure Laboratory and related laboratories of the KU Molecular Structures Group. Two major additions to SBC are scheduled for completion this year.

The COBRE in Protein Structure and Function is one of two such centers at KU’s Lawrence campus. The Center for Cancer Experimental Therapeutics is directed by Barbara Timmermann, chair and professor of medicinal chemistry, and also involves researchers at the KU Medical Center, Emporia State University and Kansas State. It was established in 2000 and renewed in 2005. Each of those awards was for $10 million.

The KU Medical Center hosts two COBRE programs: Novel Approaches for Control of Microbial Pathogens and Nuclear Receptors in Liver Health and Disease. A fifth COBRE is based at Kansas State: Center for Epithelial Function in Health and Disease. Both the Lawrence and KU Medical Center campuses are participants in that COBRE.

Junior investigators who have “graduated” from the COBRE in Protein Structure and Function or one of its pilot projects are:

— Brian Blagg, associate professor of medicinal chemistry, KU
— Roberto De Guzman, assistant professor of molecular biosciences, KU
— Heather Desaire, associate professor of chemistry, KU
— Susan Egan, associate professor of molecular biosciences, KU
— Julian Limburg, assistant professor of chemistry, KU
— William Picking, professor of molecular biosciences, KU
— Emily Scott, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry, KU
— Jeffrey Staudinger, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology, KU
— Liskin Swint-Kruse, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, KU Medical Center
— Anna Zolkiewska, associate professor of biochemistry, Kansas State

Current COBRE investigators or pilot project leaders include:

— James Bann, assistant professor of chemistry, Wichita State
— Chris Fischer, assistant professor of physics, KU
— Scott Hefty, assistant professor of molecular biosciences, KU
— Todd Holyoak, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, KU Medical Center
— Mario Rivera, professor of chemistry, KU
— Wonpil Im, assistant professor of molecular biosciences and bioinformatics, KU
— Liang Tang, assistant professor of molecular biosciences, KU

The renewed grant was supported in part by the National Center for Research Resources’ Institutional Development Awards Program, which helps build research infrastructure to enhance institutions’ research capacities and competitiveness for NIH grants. For more information, visit


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