Levandoski includes students in work

April 29, 2010

Peggy Elliott

 Peggy Elliott

Grinnell College Associate Professor Mark Levandoski plans to add to basic scientific knowledge with the three-year $373,000 grant his research was awarded last week by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. His past research, furthered by work under the new grant, Levandoski says, may possibly point to new approaches for addressing some of humankind's most intractable diseases, including Alzheimer's, epilepsy, Parkinson's and schizophrenia.

Levandoski integrates students into his research, noting that recently-published research on which the new grant builds listed four student co-authors beside his name. Grinnell College ranks eighth among all U.S. colleges in the number of graduates per capita who later earn doctoral degrees in the sciences. One reason for that may be the access Grinnell undergraduates have to high-level lab equipment and to professors engaged in research like Levandoski. All four of the students who worked on the previous grant are now in doctoral programs.

When Levandoski arrived at Grinnell in 1999, he already had several years of work behind him on the receptors in the human brain activated by nicotine, among other substances. "My students and I study the family of proteins in the nervous system that respond to nicotine. These proteins act as molecular portals - opening, closing, and reacting to 'keys' as a means of communication between cells," Levandoski says.

Several substances that unlock the receptors are already known to scientists, Levandoski continues. He and his students "stumbled" across a new key during that previous research. Levandoski likens the known substances including nicotine to metal keys and the effect of the new substances to finding an electronic key card and card reader no one knew was there.

Levandoski is clear that his work is fundamental research which may have practical applications to be found by others. He points out that several diseases have strong but indirect connections to faulty or low-functioning receptors. With better research on the new "key," he adds, other researchers or drug company laboratories may find the direct connections which could enable new approaches to treatment for diseases.

For Levandoski, the grant allows pursuit of two goals: basic knowledge of a part of the human brain that fascinates him and inclusion of students in his work.

"My goal is always that students grow in independence as the project progresses," he explains. "In the ideal case, by the end of a summer or after a couple years working before they graduate, they have contributed their own intellectual 'property' to the project - not to mention their blood, sweat and tears. I have certainly seen some great eureka moments and contributions from several of the students with whom I've worked, and honestly, that's one of the main reasons I do what I do where I do it."

Levandoski and his students will study what he calls a "system," made up of the nicotine receptor, the cell housing it, and the molecules that trigger the receptor. They will start with lab-synthesized RNA, the part of a cell that carries the recipe for making new cells, and grow receptor cells in a particular kind of frog eggs known to host proteins well.

"When they're being gates, when they open, ions move across the membrane of the cell. That constitutes an electrical signal, and we can measure that," he explains.

"They [the receptors] have a native function doing something in our brains that we don't really know that much about, but we know that they also respond to nicotine," Levandoski notes. "There's the possibility that these receptors being on or off contributes to disease states. We want to know how does that extent of communication vary with a different kind of molecule. By serendipity we stumbled on this set of molecules. What we want to know is how they work. They have a big effect. What we're after is how are they exerting this effect?"

The grant, part of federal stimulus funding, will provide summer research stipends for Levandoski and his students as they continue their studies in biochemistry and electrophysiology labs in Grinnell's Robert N. Noyce '49 Science Center. The grant also funds the addition of a lab technician for ongoing research support.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke specifies that the content of any grant is solely the responsibility of its authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or its parent organization, the National Institutes of Health.  

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