With a better understanding of the mechanisms that underlie biological signaling, Thomas Selby can design inhibitors that can interrupt a signaling pathway gone awry. Such inhibitors could someday treat cancer and other failures of cellular communication systems.

Millions of cells die every day in an adult human body.

"Individual cells are not supposed to live as long as the body does," said Thomas Selby, assistant professor of chemistry.

Luckily, in a healthy person, an equal number of cells is also born each day. This continual cycle of destruction and renewal is carefully regulated by messenger proteins. When the cellular equivalent of the grim reaper comes knocking, a cell essentially commits suicide through a process called programmed cell death. Flaws in the signaling pathway can result in a proliferation of cells that refuse to die, such as cancer, or cells that die before their time.

Selby studies how the structure of messenger proteins, such as those that regulate programmed cell death, relates to their function. With a better understanding of the mechanisms that underlie biological signaling, he then uses that information to design inhibitors that can interrupt a signaling pathway gone awry. Such inhibitors could someday treat cancer and other failures of cellular communication systems.

Selby uses a combination of X-ray crystallography, which provides three-dimensional information, at the atomic level, about a protein's structure, and computer modeling to predict how a given signaling molecule will interact with an inhibitor. While X-ray crystallography provides a good picture of the stationary protein, Selby also uses nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, to look at protein dynamics. Bucknell is fortunate to own a high-powered NMR spectrometer.

"I think that speaks to the level of research being done here," Selby said.

Posted Sept. 22, 2008

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