Largest R01 Grant ever for CSU could unlock a cure for sleeping sickness
Bibo Li, Ph.D., Professor of Biological Science at Cleveland State University and a member of CSU’s Center for Gene Regulation in Health and Disease (GRHD), has been awarded a five-year renewal grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) totaling nearly $2.2 million.
This is the largest R01 Grant ever received by CSU.
Professor Li has significant expertise on telomeres, the special regions of DNA and associated proteins at the ends of linear chromosomes. “Telomeres are like the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces that prevent fraying,” as the Nobel Laureate Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, an icon in the telomere field, once explained. Dr. Li further explains that telomeres are essential for cellular functions as telomeric proteins protect chromosomes from deterioration or from fusion with neighboring chromosome ends.
Professor Li’s research specifically examines how telomeres affect antigenic variation in Trypanosoma brucei, a parasite that causes fatal sleeping sickness in humans. When the parasite enters the human bloodstream, its protein coat (constituted of surface antigens) triggers an immune response from the human host. However, T. brucei can regularly switch to express a different surface antigen and put on a new protein coat by a mechanism called antigenic variation. This makes it difficult for the immune system to recognize the switched cells, allowing the parasite to establish a long-term infection and making it easier for the disease to spread.
Professor Li determined that the telomeric protein RAP1 is critical for proper expression of the major surface antigen and helps regulate the switching of the parasite protein coat that allows the parasitic cells to fool the host’s immune system. Her discovery was featured on the cover of the prestigious journal Cell in 2009.
With her renewed funding, Professor Li will further investigate the functions of RAP1, in hopes of identifying methods to “sabotage” the effective antigenic variation. This could be a key to curing sleeping sickness, which threatens millions of people around the globe.
“Dr. Li is conducting vital research that has the potential to save many lives,” says Jerzy Sawicki, Ph.D., Vice President for Research at CSU. “The continuing support from the National Institutes of Health for her efforts is yet another testament to the high caliber of work coming out of Cleveland State University’s Center for Gene Regulation in Health and Disease. Dr. Li’s award also provides an impressive example of CSU’s growing funded research in science and engineering.”
At CSU, Professor Li and her GRHD colleagues are conducting research at the forefront of personalized medicine. With more than $20 million in funding from the NIH, the National Science Foundation, the American Heart Association and other sources, GRHD researchers are working side by side with CSU students to treat infectious and cardiovascular diseases, develop anticancer drugs and prevent birth defects.