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Chemist receives grant to study protein

GREENVILLE, NC   (Aug. 30, 2004)   —   A grant from the American Chemical Society will enable an East Carolina University chemist to study the binding process between metals and proteins found in many neurological diseases.

Colin Burns, a chemistry professor at ECU, received the $35,000, 2-year grant from the American Chemical Society's Petroleum Research Fund for his project, "Metal cofactors in natively unstructured proteins: Exploring zinc binding in prothymosin-alpha."

Burns said he will research how a specific set of proteins often found in neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's or Huntington diseases, binds with metals. The human body requires specific proteins to absorb metal nutrients such as zinc, iron and copper and Burns wants to track their binding process.

"The body controls the use of metals and has proteins that bind them in a specific way," he said. "I want to understand how these proteins bind metals because it's not yet well-characterized."

For the ACS grant, Burns will focus specifically on zinc and prothymosin-alpha protein group in an effort to develop general rules about the relationship between metals and proteins. He hopes that the research will eventually help scientists understand the paths cells take to reproduce and the follies they may encounter during the reproductive process. Should the research prove fruitful, said Burns, it could be applied to disease research in other disciplines such as biology or in medicine.

"By understanding their behavior in binding zinc, we can find out what part of the protein binds metal, how much of it binds and what is the problem," he said.

In addition to purchasing chemicals and other materials for his research, the grant will enable Burns to hire three student research assistants. The ECU chemistry students who will assist Burns with the grant this fall are: ECU junior James Bryant Pollock, senior Brandi Neel and graduate student Chris Wilson.


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