The research work of a Franklin & Marshall College professor and her students could one day lead to such developments as a blood substitute.
“It’s going to provide some integral information that can be applied to future applications,” said Assistant Professor of Chemistry Christine Phillips-Piro. “It’s of interest to the National Institutes of Health because I’m working with a heme protein that binds gases.”
For her research on the gas-binding protein, Phillips-Piro has received a $371,000 grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.
The heme protein likes to bind oxygen or nitric oxide, Phillips-Piro said. To understand how the protein chooses to bind one gas over another or tune how tightly it binds each gas may be explained by specific molecular interactions probed by her research. Understanding and being able to tune the molecular interactions necessary to bind certain gases with specific affinities is crucial for the future development of a synthetic blood substitute.
“We all have hemoglobin, an oxygen-binding protein, running around our bodies doing really important work delivering oxygen,” Phillips-Piro said. “If we can design another protein that also binds oxygen as hemoglobin does, it could, in theory, be a blood substitute.”
A blood substitute could address blood shortages and the shelf life of donated blood, she said.
For the moment, though, the research remains in the basic science stage, Phillips-Piro said.
“What we’re working on is incorporating unnatural amino acids to better understand this protein and to tune the gas-binding affinity,” she said.
For the last two years, Phillips-Piro has been working with students on the heme protein and various unnatural amino acids to alter how tightly the protein interacts with oxygen.
With the three-year NIH grant, Phillips-Piro will be able to purchase new equipment for this research, work with students in the F&M chemistry lab, travel with them to the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Lab outside of Chicago to collect diffraction data for obtaining crystal structures, and attend conferences.
“I’ll bring students to national conferences, where they will present their research,” Phillips-Piro said. “The grant is going to allow me to continue everything I’ve been doing at F&M.”