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Levental part of research group awarded HFSP grant

April 17, 2019
Tracey Barnett

Photo of GSBS faculty member Ilya Levental BCB award

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences faculty member Ilya Levental, PhD, along with researchers from Ohio, Finland, and Germany were awarded a three-year grant worth over $1 million from the Human Frontier Science Program to research the regulation of membrane receptor function in the brain by lipid composition and dietary inputs. Levental has been a GSBS faculty member since 2012; and is affiliated with the Program in Biochemistry and Cell Biology.

The joint project involves research from Levental, Ilpo Vattulainen, PhD, from the University of Helsinki; Mikael Simons, MD, from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Munich; and Adam W. Smith, PhD, from the University of Akron in Ohio. Together, these researchers are investigating how membrane receptors in the brain are regulated by their surrounding lipid composition, and how these lipid compositions are in turn influenced by diet. The multidisciplinary team includes experts in biophysics and biochemistry, lipidomics and neuroscience, as well as scientific computing, taking a comprehensive approach to solve the long-standing riddle of how dietary factors affect neuronal signal transduction.

From epidemiological studies, it is clear that dietary factors contribute to nearly all health and wellness outcomes. However, the mechanisms underlying many of these effects are still poorly understood. It is also clear that neural cells have unique membrane lipid compositions that are functionally important, evidenced by wholesale brain lipid alterations in many neurological disorders. Dr Levental and his team will explore the mechanistic links between brain lipid compositions, their diet-induced alterations, and neurological disorders. These links have been previously unexplored because no single lab can couple lipidomic analyses of living tissue with biophysical, molecular, cellular, and organismal analysis of the phenotypes resulting from membrane disturbances. This synergy will be enabled by the HFSP grant to test the paradigm-changing idea that lipid composition affects receptor function in the brain, and that modulation of that composition by dietary inputs can have robust pathological or beneficial effects.

“Our lab has recently realized that the membranes that enclose our cells are remarkably susceptible to dietary lipid inputs," said Levental. "Diet-induced changes to membranes can guide stem cells to differentiate or cancer cells to die.  But we do not yet understand how these processes work. This grant from the HFSP will allow us to take a major step in this project by linking dietary fats, cell membranes, and neuronal function from the molecular to the organismal level”

The Human Frontier Science Program is an international program of research support implemented by the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) based in Strasbourg, France. Its aims are to promote intercontinental collaboration and training in cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research focused on the life sciences.

Information for this story came from a HFSPO press release.

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