Home > Archives > December 2015 > Features > Research in Action: December 2015

Research in Action: December 2015

Main Content

NIH Grant Enables Cavener Lab to Discover Mechanisms to Improve Insulin Regulation

A typical day for Doug Cavener, the new dean of the Eberly College of Science, is anything but typical. While he spends most of his week attending to administration and fundraising duties for the college, one may also find him sitting at a microscope looking at fluorescent pancreatic beta cells with one of his graduate students or analyzing giraffe genome sequences at his computer. That’s because in addition to his administrative responsibilities, Cavener runs a research lab focused on the developmental and physiological regulatory processes that are important in the regulation of metabolic and neurological diseases.

Recently, the Cavener lab received a four-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study insulin regulation. Maintaining a narrow range of circulating insulin is critical to ensuring normal blood glucose levels and preventing the onset of diabetes and its plethora of negative downstream effects on human health. “The regulation of insulin has been intensely studied since its discovery in 1921, but the molecular and cellular mechanisms that integrate insulin synthesis, quality control, trafficking, and secretion are poorly understood. The goal of our work is to understand these mechanisms and apply them to the treatment of diabetes,” said Cavener. Barbara McGrath, senior research associate in the Cavener lab, added, “This new award from the NIH not only provides us funding to keep our momentum going, but it also signals to us that many of our peer researchers share our enthusiasm. That is enormously gratifying!”

Cavener and McGrath, along with postdoctoral researchers and graduate and undergraduate students, have been studying the function of the protein PERK, an eIF2α kinase, since its discovery in 2001. PERK is among a small number of genes that is so important for pancreatic beta cell function that its absence results in permanent neonatal diabetes in humans and mice. Permanent neonatal diabetes appears within the first six months of life for humans and persists throughout the lifespan due to the body’s inability to make enough insulin. Studies from the Cavener lab over the last few years have implicated PERK as a critical coordinator of insulin folding, quality and quantity control, trafficking, and secretion. This newly awarded grant from the NIH will allow Cavener’s team to reveal the mechanisms by which this important regulation is achieved and then apply these discoveries to the treatment diabetes.  —Carrie Lewis

NSF Grant Helps to Further the Search for Earthlike Exoplanets

A four-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is allowing scientists in the Eberly College of Science to better search for Earthlike planets outside of our solar system.
Jason Wright, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics and principal investigator on the grant, is searching for exoplanets, or planets that exist outside of our solar system and orbit a star instead of our sun. To do this, Wright and his team use data from some of the largest telescopes in the world: telescopes from the W. M Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is a joint venture between Penn State and three other universities, and was designed by Larry Ramsey, distinguished senior scholar and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State. Because the Hobby-Eberly Telescope was built in the late 1990s, it is getting a series of major hardware upgrades to make it even better at searching for exoplanets, which in turn requires updated software to collect the telescope’s data, says Wright. “We are working to develop new software for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope’s high-resolution spectrograph so that it performs at a world-class level.”

The $356,000 grant makes the high-resolution spectrograph software upgrade possible. The upgraded software will increase the Hobby-Eberly Telescope’s precision and will also take advantage of new data analysis techniques to retroactively improve the data from the telescope’s former spectrograph.

To discover exoplanets, Wright and his colleagues use Doppler spectroscopy, or the wobble method, to find Jupiter analogs, or exoplanets that are similar in size to Jupiter in our solar system. Jupiter analogs are large and exhibit some gravitational pull on their star, causing the star to “wobble.” Using the spectrograph, Wright can measure the radial velocity and Doppler light shifts of a star to determine if Jupiter analogs exist in that star’s system.

“Using this method, we can determine which stars are likely to have planets like Earth,” he says. “We can also find the Jupiter analogs orbiting stars already discovered to have Earth-sized planets by NASA's Kepler spacecraft.”

Searching for Jupiter analogs is an important step in the search to find Earthlike planets. “We can’t find things like the Earth yet, but we are starting to find things like Jupiter, and that’s a game of patience, because Jupiter takes twelve years to go around the sun,” Wright says. “The goal of the grant is to find the Jupiter analogs as signposts for the interior planets that might be like Earth that we can’t detect yet.”
—Whittney Gould