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King University News :: King College Professor Receives $300,000 Federal Grant

Dr. Vanessa Fitsanakis, chair of the biology department at King College, has been awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).  The grant, which will be distributed over the course of three years, was secured through a rigorous national competitive process with a funding success rate of just 8.5%.  It is one of the largest grants in the College’s history, and represents a major milestone in scientific research at King.

The NIEHS funding will enable undergraduate students in the health sciences, predominantly biology and neuroscience, to engage in hands-on original research that is usually only available to students of large metropolitan universities.  It will also permit Dr. Fitsanakis’ student research team to participate in a host of national and international conferences in places like San Francisco, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Barcelona, Spain, and Milan, Italy.

The grant, entitled “Role of Oxidative Stress and Protein Transporters in Glyphosate and Mancozeb Neurotoxicity”, focuses on the potential ability for widely used pesticides to cause oxidative stress.  In large quantities, oxidative stress may cause severe damage to human cells and tissues.  It is natural for humans to produce oxidative stress in their bodies during normal everyday activities.  In small amounts this is not harmful.  In some cases, however, such as during exposure to excessive sunlight or various human-made chemicals, or due to a lack of proper nutrition, more oxidative stress molecules are produced.  Fortunately, organisms can produce special proteins, or obtain molecules from well-balanced diets, called antioxidants.  In some cases, people who have Parkinson’s disease have increased levels of oxidative stress in various tissues and organs.  In the current grant, Fitsanakis hypothesizes that, in the absence of proper precautions and protective clothing, exposure to some pesticides may lead to increased oxidative stress.

In order to test this hypothesis, King College students in Fitsanakis’ lab will treat small worms, called C. elegans, with various concentrations of these pesticides to see if they show signs of increased oxidative stress.  If they do, further studies are designed to determine how the pesticides enter the worms’ cells and cause damage.  Since Fitsanakis is specifically concerned about Parkinson’s disease, her students will focus their studies on the brain cells, or neurons, in the C. elegans.  It is anticipated that this work will provide greater understanding about how pesticides may cause neurons to die and how environmental chemicals may contribute to Parkinson’s disease.

“It is difficult to overstate the importance of this grant for our students,” said Dr. Fitsanakis. “With the increasing competitiveness surrounding entrance into professional and graduate schools, many of our nation’s leading institutions do not even consider applications from students who have not participated in undergraduate research.  This grant enables students at King College to apply to leading graduate institutions without feeling intimidated by their peers in some of America’s most prestigious universities.”