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IUPUI chemist receives prestigious NSF grant

Lisa M. Jones, an assistant professor of chemistry, was awarded a $1.1 million grant for research and the training of minority future researchers

(This article originally appeared in the IUPUI Newsroom:

Lisa M. Jones, an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has received the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award in support of junior faculty.

Jones' $1.1 million NSF CAREER Award funds the development of a novel approach to the study of cell membrane proteins in their native cellular environment -- work fundamental to gaining a better understanding of protein misfolding, which has been linked to life-limiting human diseases including cystic fibrosis. The award also supports state-of-the-art research training for undergraduate students from historically black colleges and universities as well as both undergraduate and graduate students from IUPUI, who will work on the cutting-edge science in Jones' laboratory.

Proteins act as nanomachines in the human body, performing basic cellular functions such as transportation, construction and security. Detailed information on how they work within the body -- as opposed to in test tubes -- will enable better understanding of disease processes and potential therapies.

Specifically, the NSF grant funds the development and use of mass spectrometry technology coupled with in-cell fast photochemical oxidation of proteins, or IC-FPOP. Using this technique, Jones and her team will study protein structure within cells focusing on how the proteins are folded.

Jones' new cell-footprinting technique provides insight into how a protein interacts with other proteins in the actual cellular environment, enabling description of real-life membrane protein function. Currently available technologies require proteins to be purified and studied in vitro. But cell membrane proteins -- a class of proteins that are important drug targets -- are hydrophobic, making them especially difficult to purify and study in the lab.

"We are developing a new way to explore protein structure within cells, taking a snapshot of what a protein looks like and how it is folded," said Jones. "We want to understand how a protein is folded differently in individuals with disease and without. With that information, we can ideally design a drug to get the protein to fold properly."

"IC-FPOP enables us to see what parts of a protein are facing outward and therefore are accessible," she continued. "This gives us a potential site to bind a therapeutic molecule that can partially or completely correct a misfolding -- curing or preventing a disease." 

Jones' new in vivo methodology for the study of proteins is compatible with a variety of protein systems, making it suitable for use in labs with varying research interests. In addition to cystic fibrosis, which Jones studies, other protein folding-linked disorders include Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

Jones says that by giving students opportunities to learn about and conduct cutting-edge science, such as performing in vivo sample preparation, carrying out mass spectrometry experiments and processing sophisticated data, the NSF support allows her to expose students with aptitude and interest in the sciences to career paths other than medical school, especially research.

"My goal is not only to teach students about research but also to provide them with information that I know from personal experience is generally lacking for underrepresented minorities in science," she said. The grant supports contact with a variety of working scientists as well as career counseling for both the undergraduate and graduate students.

The prestigious NSF CAREER award that Jones has received is awarded to individuals who "exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research," as indicated on the NSF website.

"The beauty of Dr. Jones' outstanding work is that it has double value: She herself solves important questions in medicine, and she develops important new tools for other biomedical researchers," said Simon J. Rhodes, dean of the School of Science at IUPUI. "In addition, her commitment to educating STEM graduates who will work in Indiana and across the nation is commendable."

Current School of Science at IUPUI faculty members who also have received the prestigious award include Yogesh Joglekar (physics); Gavriil Tsechpenakis, Murat Dundar and Mohammad Al Hasan (computer and information science); Gregory Druschel (earth sciences); Roland Roeder (mathematical sciences); and Lei Li and Haibo Ge (chemistry and chemical biology).