Health Sciences Fellowship- Introduction

Hello everyone! 

My name is Alexandra Hughson. I am currently an undergraduate Biological Sciences major and a Chemistry minor. This summer I am pursuing research through the Health Sciences Fellowship in the VanDemark lab in the Biology Department here at Pitt. This fall I will be a fourth year student and will begin pursuing my MPH in the Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology through a 4+1 program offered through the Graduate School of Public Health. 

Through the Health Sciences Fellowship this summer, I hope to strengthen my ability to communicate my research to a wide audience with different backgrounds. As I move into a more social science focused graduate career, I want to make sure that I can explain things in a way that everyone can understand. This is something the HSF is directly focused on as we regularly share information about our research in meetings. 

This summer, my project is focused on developing an assay to assess the binding capabilities of a protein called profilin. Profilin is a protein known to be involved in angiogenesis, another name for new blood vessel formation. When a traumatic eye injury is sustained, pathogenic ocular angiogenesis can occur which causes blood vessels to form in a way that causes vision loss or blindness. Profilin is known to interact with cytoskeletal filaments like actin to assist in the growth of those new blood vessels. However, our collaborators in the Bioengineering Department discovered a drug compound called C74 that is proposed to bind to profilin and has been shown to disrupt angiogenesis from occurring. This disruption caused by C74 suggests that it could be used as a drug therapy to prevent pathogenic ocular angiogenesis after a traumatic eye injury is sustained. Unfortunately, the drug derivative C74 at this time is not potent to be used as a therapy in humans. This is where I come in. Myself and fellow undergraduate colleague (Sara Zdancewicz, Brackenridge Fellow) are working to further characterize profilin’s binding interactions in hope to optimize further iterations of C74 and improve its binding capabilities. Specifically, this summer I am testing how mutants of profilin may or may not disrupt binding with C74. These mutants will allow us to hone in on C74’s exact binding pocket on profilin. Hopefully, these results will allow us to improve the drugs binding capability and ultimately prevent pathogenic ocular angiogenesis in humans.

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