SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Stacy Hrizo, an assistant professor of biology at Slippery Rock University, has turned a family difficulty with dementia into a research project with promising results in slowing, or even halting, a neurodegenerative disease.
Hrizo is working in concert with University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine researchers under a $1.2 million National Institutes of Health grant. She has been awarded $9,718 for the first year of a three-year ($48,406) study.
Formally the project is titled "Protein Quality Control Mechanisms of Novel Soluble Substrates."
Her work is in a similar vein as this week's Nobel Prize winners in chemistry. Americans Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka received the top chemistry award, and $1 million, from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Wednesday for their "studies of G-protein-coupled receptors," a program that also involves cell protein study.
Hrizo, who teaches cell biology, principles of biology and human biology classes at SRU, said her research is complex, but basically involves examining why and how proteins in cells are destroyed and what factors control the destruction of misfolded proteins.
Her work, if successful as anticipated, could be used in understanding a number of human health problems, including Alzheimer's disease, cystic fibrosis and alpha 1 anti-trypsin deficiency, she said.
"Specifically, I am looking at TPI deficiency, which is a neurodegenerative disease due to a change in the ways the body metabolizes sugar. What we have found is that the protein that should be doing the job gets degraded or destroyed by the cell, thus becoming ineffective. We believe this is the underlying cause of the disorder, or at least contributing to it," she said.
"I am looking at all of the factors that target that protein to be destroyed with RNAi screening which examines hundreds of genes for a role in the protein destruction process," she said. "We have the ability to knock down the level of a certain protein and then study its effects to learn what type of cellular targets it is involved in destroying. Once we know that information, drug companies may be able to develop drugs that counteract the destruction of different proteins that are the root cause of some human diseases," she said.
"A problem we are studying includes looking at the different proteins that are targeted for destruction and seeing what is similar or different in the way they are identified and destroyed. We have seen different factors involved in the actual degradation of different types of proteins." Hrizo said. She said the regulation of protein degradation play a key role in many human diseases including cystic fibrosis, the leading cause of lung transplants, and in liver failure as well as Alzheimer's disease and prion diseases such as mad cow disease.
Hrizo said her work is being done on fruit flies [Drosophila melanogaster], in large part because they are easy to manipulate in a laboratory setting. Factors that can be controlled include how and what they are fed, the amount of light they receive as well as the temperature of their environment. "It is easy to work on the genes of fruit flies, and it is easy to maintain a control group to assure that our findings are correct. Thus far, the work involves about 1,000 different fruit fly lines," she said.
Her work is mostly done in the summer on the University of Pittsburgh Medical School campus, but some research is conducted at SRU and has involved SRU biology students as research assistants.
She and Isaac Fisher, a May biology graduate from Gibsonia, currently have a paper concerning their preliminary findings with collaborators on compounds that improve TPI deficiency in fruit flies out for publication review.
Hrizo's work is funded through 2016 and will actually screen between 600 and 800 different genes as part of the process "so it is going to take a while," she said. "I am predicting we will be through the screening process in the next two years, then we will use the third year to confirm our findings."
The payoff could be five to six years out, she said.
Hrizo completed her undergraduate work in biology at West Chester University and then earned her doctorate in cellular, molecular and developmental biology at the University of Pittsburgh.
She joined the SRU faculty in 2009.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.