Can a study being done partially by Freed-Hardeman University students reveal a clue that would eventually lead to better treatments for disease? FHU biology teacher Rachel Stevens-Salmon and her students are collaborating with Jonathan Lowery, a 2004 FHU alumnus now a post-doctoral research assistant at Harvard, to study how a cell makes proteins from our genes.
“Our research collaboration is studying how cells know which version of a protein to make and when to do so,” Lowery said. Research focuses on BMPR2, a protein important in many human diseases, including cancer, high blood pressure in the lungs, heart health and osteoporosis. “In my work at Harvard, I have found a previously unknown version of this protein that could change the way we think about the way it carries out its function in the body,” Lowery said.
Stevens-Salmon and her students are working with Lowery to determine exactly how this new protein is made. The work requires developing an experimental system that will indicate when and how proteins in a cell are expressed. FHU students have “played a very important role in constructing some of the tools necessary to carry out these experiments,” Lowery said.
“The students in my research group worked with Dr. Lowery to mutate luciferase,” Stevens-Salmon said. “The luciferase gene makes a protein--which causes the ‘glow’ in fireflies. We use the luciferase as a reporter to tell us about gene and protein expression. In our case, mutating the luciferase gene and combining it with another gene, like BMPR2, creates a system where we could determine how BMPR2 protein is being made”
The project is mutually beneficial, according to Lowery. Because he trusts FHU students “to perform capably the experiments” at FHU, Lowery is able to focus on other experiments for the project. In turn, FHU students learn about new research topics currently unavailable locally. “They are helping to lay the groundwork of something that could impact medicine in the future,” he said.
Although he feels he “received an exemplary textbook-based education” at FHU, biomedical research opportunities were fairly limited during his time at the school. In recent years, that has changed. Lowery chose to enlist FHU students in his work because FHU has now made biomedical research opportunities for undergraduates a priority. “I want to support it in whatever way I can,” he said. He calls this experience “critical” for students who want to become physicians, college science professors or biomedical scientists.