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ECU chemist receives NIH grant

GREENVILLE, NC   (Oct. 6, 2008)   —   Colin S. Burns, assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics at East Carolina University, has received an Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) from the National Institutes of Health to support research on a protein responsible for Mad Cow’s Disease.

The grant is worth $199,000. It’s the first time ECU’s Department of Chemistry has received this award.

Burns said one purpose of the grant is to involve students, particularly undergraduates, in meritorious research to encourage them to continue studies in the biomedical sciences. “AREA grants allow faculty to provide a hands-on research experience for students, exposing them to issues at the forefront of the biomedical field,” he said.

With the NIH funds, Burns will be investigating the molecular aspects of copper and zinc promoted prion-prion interactions. A prion is a protein found in the central nervous system of birds and mammals, including humans. According to Burns, this protein plays a role in many neurodegenerative diseases, including Mad Cow’s Disease.

“The precise function of the prion protein is still unclear,” Burns said. “Research over the past decade has made it clear that prion is a copper binding protein and may also be a zinc binding protein. These metals play key roles in numerous metabolic processes in humans and all other organisms.”

Learning about the protein’s interactions with copper and zinc will help clarify the role of the prion in the body, Burns said. This may lead researchers to a better understanding of the development of many diseases caused by the protein and how they can be treated or even prevented.

Burns has received $223,000 in research grants this summer. The North Carolina Biotechnology Center recently awarded him $25,415 to develop anti-HIV agents.

Rickey Hicks, chair of the Department of Chemistry, called Burns “one of ECU’s rising stars in science.” “The department has been very fortunate with the support of Vice Chancellor Mageean of the Office of Research and Graduate Studies and Dean White of the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences to be able to recruit a number of excellent, young faculty members like Colin. I feel confident that Dr. Burns’ achievement is just the tip of the iceberg for the forthcoming success of this group of faculty.”

Prior to joining the ECU faculty in 2003, Burns served as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz from 1998-2003. He received his doctoral degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1998 and his bachelor of arts degree from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, in 1993.

For additional information, contact Burns at 252-328-9790 or



Contact: Colin Burns | 252-328-9790