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Professors Ruggiu, Vancurova, and Vancura

Biology Faculty Members Awarded Nearly $1.5 Million in NIH Grants

Continuing a record of recognition for outstanding research in the Department of Biological Sciences this year, three faculty members have each been awarded Academic Research Enhancement Awards (AREA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Matteo Ruggiu, Ph.D., Assistant Professor;  Ales Vancura, Ph.D., Professor and Chair; and Ivana Vancurova, Ph.D., Professor, have each received $495,000 to support their research programs within St. John’s University.

Ruggiu’s proposal, entitled, “Investigating the Mechanism Regulating Alternative Splicing of Neural Agrin: A Novel Therapeutic Entry Point for Congenital Myasthenic Syndrome,” seeks to investigate the molecular basis of how NOVA, a neuron-specific splicing factor involved in an autoimmune neurodegenerative disease, regulates nerve cell-specific alternative splicing of agrin, a molecule that is the master architect of the synapses between nerve cells and muscle cells at the neuromuscular junction (NMJ), and which is involved in congenital myasthenic syndrome (CMS) in humans. CMS is a group of conditions characterized by muscle weakness that ranges from mild to severe. Said Ruggiu: “Understanding how the NOVA-agrin regulatory switch works may have broad and significant clinical implications in neurodegenerative disorders and pathology of CMS, and modulation of agrin’s splicing can be exploited as a novel entry point for therapeutic intervention not just for CMS, but also for epilepsy and other brain disorders where agrin is involved.”

Vancura’s project, “Transcriptional Regulation and Metabolism,” investigates how metabolism affects histone acetylation and transcriptional regulation – both aspects of gene regulation determining cell growth – and to utilize this information to develop novel strategies for cancer treatment.

“Targeting IKK and HDAC Mediating IL-8 Expression in Ovarian and Prostate Cancer,” Vancurova’s proposal, is also focused on cancer research. She seeks to understand the mechanisms behind how histone deacetylase (HDAC) and proteasome inhibitors induce the pro-inflammatory chemokine interleukin-8 (IL-8) expression in solid tumors. IL-8 promotes tumor progression and metastases, and HDAC and proteasome inhibitors have been tested in clinical studies for the treatment of advanced stages of solid tumors, including ovarian and prostate cancer. Vancurova hopes that further study in this area will lead to the development of more effective anti-cancer strategies.

All three grants will help facilitate graduate and undergraduate research at SJU, and offer students in the biological sciences the opportunity for first-hand experience with biomedical research. “The Institution is very supportive to the training of undergraduate and graduate students,” said the NIH review of Vancurova’s proposal. The cornerstone of that support is faculty mentorship, and these three grants will allow Ruggiu, Vancura, and Vancurova to incorporate more students into their laboratory work. Said Ruggiu: “Direct engagement with students working in the lab can prove a very formative experience for a student’s career, particularly the realization that scholarly research can be the foundation of a creative process.”