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Bristol academics scoop three Wellcome Trust Investigator Awards

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16 September 2014

Three academics in the Faculty of Medical and Veterinary Sciences have received prestigious Investigator Awards from the Wellcome Trust.

Dr Ariel Blocker in the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine gains a New Investigator Award, while Professors Ian Collinson and Peter Cullen, both in the School of Biochemistry, have become Senior Investigators.

The awards provide funding for scientists in established academic posts who have an excellent track record. They offer the recipients the opportunity to tackle the most important questions in their field.

The groups of all three investigators focus on the general area of protein transport. Proteins are large, complex molecules that play a critical role in the body. They do most of the work in living organisms and are required for the structure, function and regulation of cells, tissues and organs. Understanding how proteins are transported to specific places within cells is a key concern of modern biology. This delivery process is carried out based on information contained in the protein. Correct sorting is crucial for the cell; errors can lead to diseases.

Dr Ariel Blocker won her award for research into the molecular mechanisms powering a bacterial toxin injection device.

Dr Blocker’s team studies tiny injection-type protein targeting devices, which are the principle means of the interaction of many microbes, called bacteria, with animal or plant hosts. These apparatuses serve to inject bacterial protein toxins into host cells to manipulate them during infection. This involves the proteins passing across three biological membranes (two from the bacterium and one from the host cell).

Dr Blocker’s group will perform a thorough biochemical, functional and structural study of the central protein secretion machinery of these systems, located in the bacterial inner membrane. Insight into this complex process could be used to develop a new type of anti-microbial drug in the fight against infectious diseases.

Professor Ian Collinson will use his award for research into understanding mitochondrial protein import and membrane insertion.

Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell, providing the energy ‘currency’ of life. They are also responsible, among other things, for lipid biogenesis, metabolic control, calcium homeostasis and programmed cell death. Their dysfunction is linked to health problems including neuromuscular disorders, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and ageing.

In spite of the importance of mitochondria for healthy cells, scientists’ understanding of their biology is poor. The research will use a wide range of state-of-the-art methodologies, including new developments in genome editing and high-resolution biological imaging by electron microscopy, to examine mitochondrial biogenesis and its links to human health.

Professor Peter Cullen’s research project focuses on defining the role of retromer in endosomal sorting in health and disease.

Cells contain membrane-encircled compartments containing proteins and lipids. For cells to function normally, proteins and lipids must be efficiently transported to the correct compartment within this maze of membranes. If the wrong proteins and lipids are delivered to the incorrect compartment, cell function can be adversely affected, which in turn leads to the development of disease. Establishing the mechanisms through which cells achieve regulated protein and lipid transport is vital to our understanding of human disease.

Professor Cullen’s team will build on work that examines these mechanisms, specifically in relation to a protein complex called retromer. With lowered levels of retromer implicated in conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, it is hoped that this work could lead to the development of treatments for diseases that affect the nervous system.

Professor George Banting, Dean of the Faculty of Medical and Veterinary Sciences, said: ‘The faculty is absolutely delighted that Wellcome Trust Investigator Awards have been awarded to three more of its outstanding staff – there are now six holders of these prestigious awards in the faculty. This is testament to the high quality of research activity across the faculty and the recognition of that fact internationally. These research leaders are not only at the cutting edge in their disciplines, they are also inspirational for the students they teach and mentor.’

Further information

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in health by supporting the brightest minds.

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