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Two VCU professors earned prestigious Maximizing Investigators' Research Awards intended to enhance “scientific productivity and the chances for important breakthroughs.” (Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

With potential for drug development, treatment of cancer and other diseases, VCU professors’ projects earn national award

Alattin Kaya and Brian Fuglestad are the first VCU faculty members to earn Maximizing Investigators’ Research Awards.

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Two Virginia Commonwealth University assistant professors have earned prestigious Maximizing Investigators’ Research Awards from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. These are the first MIRA grants awarded to VCU.

Brian Fuglestad, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Alaattin Kaya, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, are recipients of the awards, which are intended to enhance “scientific productivity and the chances for important breakthroughs,” according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the NIH unit that administers the MIRA program.

A photo of a man wearing a suit and tie from the chest up.
Brian Fuglestad, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry. (Contributed photo)

Fuglestad’s five-year project, “Peripheral membrane proteins and disease: tool development, basic investigations, and inhibitor design,” received first-year funding of more than $388,000 in August. It will focus on creating new tools to better understand peripheral membrane proteins and their potential in drug development as a method of delivering medication. The project, continuing through 2027, is expected to receive a total of more than $1.9 million.

“Peripheral membrane proteins are very important in cellular health and are central to many disease processes,” Fuglestad said. “These proteins are difficult to study, so oftentimes little is known about them, especially when they are interacting with membranes. We are focusing on developing new tools to study these proteins, learn more about their function at the molecular level, and using this information to develop potential treatment options for diseases such as cancer and inflammation.”

Fuglestad and his team will use a molecular assembly, called a reverse micelle, to mimic cellular membranes.

“We are the first to apply our newest versions of reverse micelles to the detailed study of peripheral membrane proteins,” he said. “We are currently working on designing potential drugs for these proteins as well, which we hope one day may lead to new and more effective treatments for certain cancers and inflammatory disorders.”

A portait of a man wearing a sportscoat and button up shirt.
Alaattin Kaya, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biology. (Contributed photo)

Kaya’s five-year project, “The role of mitonuclear communication in the adaptation to mitochondrial dysfunction and stress resistance,” received first-year funding of more than $369,000 and will explore mitonuclear interactions. Interaction of the two genomes at a cellular level change over time with age, but they can also change when a person has metabolic diseases.

“Disrupted mitonuclear interaction results in mitochondrial dysfunction and initiation of different types of stress that has been associated with a plethora of diseases, such as Huntington’s disease, Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy and type 2 diabetes mellitus,” Kaya said. “Understanding the genetic network regulating mitonuclear interactions and how cells are adapting the stress through the changes in both genomes may allow us to identify new targets for treatment or intervention for diseases associated with harmful consequences of mitochondrial dysfunction.”

The project, continuing through 2028, is expected to receive more than $1.9 million. It is a part of ongoing studies in Kaya’s lab aiming to identify conserved regulator of aging and age-associated diseases.

These are the first MIRA grants VCU has received, said John Ryan, Ph.D., associate vice president for research development at VCU and professor in the Department of Biology.