Faculty Research (published on 05.16.2017)

Biologist Receives $417,300 Award from NIH

imageNikolas Nikolaidis, associate professor of biological science, was awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant for $417,300 over four years for his project “Interaction between HspA1A, a seventy-kDa heat shock protein, and lipids in stressed cells.” Nikolaidis and his students research the evolution and function of the cellular stress response, a process that aims to keep our cells alive after stress. Their current focus is a set of heat-shock proteins that are approximately 600 amino acids long, called Hsp70s. “These molecular chaperone proteins are the major orchestrators of the cellular stress response and play an indispensable role in cell survival after heat-shock (e.g., fever), heavy metal exposure and diseases, such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases,” he explains. “In addition to their critical role inside our cells, Hsp70s are also found at the plasma membrane and the extracellular space of stressed and cancer cells where they function as ‘danger’ signals and activate our immune system. However, how, when and why these proteins move from their intracellular location to their extracellular place remains a mystery. A prominent hypothesis is that Hsp70s bind to specific lipids and this interaction recruits them to the plasma membrane of cancer cells and allows their secretion.” The grant will allow the team to further test the hypothesis and provide vital information on this new function of Hsp70s, which is directly related to the survival of cancer cells. “Our work aims to determine the conditions that trigger the binding of a particular Hsp70 to lipids and the molecular mechanism of the interaction,” Nikolaidis says. “Understanding how this protein is recruited to the membrane will elucidate its secretion pathway. This knowledge might enable us to modulate Hsp70 membrane localization and secretion, a process occurring in more than 80 percent of tumors, and has been associated with poor prognosis.”