Podocytes may save lives

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded $620,000 to UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics for research on the cell biology of kidneys and their responses to insulin.

Biology professor and leader of the research project Stuart Dryer said the research would expose his team to a new field.

‘In the past, we have always been interested in brain function, in particular the molecular basis for the electrical behavior of nerve cells,’ Dryer said.

Interest in this field was fueled by research designed to study the brain over a period of 15 years, Dryer said.

‘We obtained some preliminary tests that were surprising to us. They led us to believe that some of the same things that we’re studying in (the) brain may be going on in the kidney as well,’ Dryer said. ‘ ‘Some of the same protein-protein interactions we’ve seen in the brain were happening in a particular cell type in the kidney.’

Kidneys regulate blood composition, and the amount of water, sodium and potassium the body needs to survive. Waste products are filtered out of the kidney and into urine. Parts that are not waste products, such as protein, stay in the blood.

‘In diabetic kidney disease, you start to detect small amounts of protein,’ Dryer said. ‘That’s a sign that something is not right.”

Dryer’s research group will focus on cells called podocytes found in the kidneys.

‘(The) Podocyte plays a major role in making sure that there’s no protein in your urine,’ Dryer said.

Diabetes is classified into two types. People with type 1 diabetes produce little or no insulin, while those with type 2 have bodies that either resist the effects of insulin or do not produce enough. The human body uses insulin to convert sugars and foods into energy.

The research will show how insulin affects podocytes.

‘We have shown that the effects of insulin on the podocyte are very similar to some of the effects that our studies on brain tissue have shown,’ Dryer said. ‘They have many features in common with nerve cells.’

Along with post-doctorate partner Eun Young Kim, Dryer is working with three graduate students and one undergraduate student.

‘No professor can be successful without having students working in the lab,’ Dryer said.

According to biochemistry graduate student Mark Anderson, who has participated in research projects, the primary reason he is attending graduate school as opposed to medical or professional school is because graduate school relies heavily upon doing research.

‘ ‘It better prepares you to think independently and formulate solutions to problems as opposed to just learning facts and figures,’ Anderson said. ‘As a medical doctor, they have to know an incredible amount of information, but it isn’t so much of solving an unknown problem. The answer is already there. They just have to diagnose the disease.’

Dryer hopes the research will shed more light on diabetes in order to help them better understand the disease.’

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