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Faculty Profiles

Vivian, Cody
Cody, Vivian, PhDProfessor, Structural Biology Department, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
Email: vcody@buffalo.edu
Phone: 898-8614

Specialty/Research Focus:
Computational Chemistry; Drug Design; Structural Biology; X-ray Crystallography; Bioinformatics; Protein Folding

Research Summary:
The long-term goal of my research has been to understand the role of key active site residues in the mechanism of molecular recognition among various classes of proteins. The primary focus has been study of folate-dependent enzyme pathways, in particular dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR). These enzymes from pathogenic Pneumocystis species are of interest for the design of selective inhibitors for the treatment of AIDS-related pneumonia. Analysis of the structural data from several classes of protein has revealed a great degree of conformational flexibility for ligand binding that result in novel modes of binding to the same active site. Understanding the role of such flexibility has aided in the design of new scaffolds for inhibitor design. Additionally, my lab has the expertise to carry out the necessary molecular biology experiments to clone, express and purify proteins for crystallographic study using both bacterial and insect cell host systems. We have a long-standing, successful collaboration with the Queener lab to study DHFR, particularly from the opportunistic pathogens Pneumocystis jirovecii (pj) and Pneumocystis carinii (pc), found in man and rats, respectively. Our lab is also studying transthyretin (TTR), the thyroid hormone transport protein, characterizing the human protein bound to inhibitors with potential to stabilize the tetrameric structure and ameliorate the effects of filbril formation. Transthyrtetin from lamprey is of interest as it is thought to be the cross-over species in the change of function from a hydrolase to hormone transport function.

Jian, Feng
Email: jianfeng@buffalo.edu
Phone: (716) 829-2345

Specialty/Research Focus:
Neurology; Neurodegenerative disorders; Pathophysiology; Apoptosis and cell death; Cytoskeleton and cell motility; Molecular and Cellular Biology; Molecular genetics; Neurobiology; Protein Folding; Gene Expression; Transcription and Translation; Signal Transduction; Toxicology and Xenobiotics

Research Summary:
My research is aimed at finding the cause and a cure for Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease (PD) is defined by a characteristic set of locomotor symptoms (rest tremor, rigidity, bradykinesia and postural instability) that are believed to be caused by the selective loss of dopaminergic (DA) neurons in substantia nigra. The persistent difficulties in using animals to model this human disease suggest that human nigral dopaminergic neurons have certain vulnerabilities that are unique to our species. One of our unique features is the large size of the human brain (1350 grams on average) relative to the body. A single nigral dopaminergic neuron in a rat brain (2 grams) has a massive axon arbor with a total length of 45 centimeters. Assuming that all mammalian species share a similar brain wiring plan, we can estimate (using the cube root of brain weight) that a single human nigral dopaminergic neuron may have an axon with gigantic arborization that totals 4 meters. Another unique feature of our species is our strictly bipedal movement, which is affected by Parkinson’s disease, in contrast to the quadrupedal movement of almost all other mammalian species. The much more unstable bipedal movement may require more dopamine, which supports the neural computation necessary for movement. The landmark discovery of human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) made it possible to generate patient-specific human midbrain dopaminergic neurons to study Parkinson’s disease. A key problem for dopaminergic neurons is the duality of dopamine as a signal required for neural computation and a toxin as its oxidation produces free radicals. Our study using iPSC-derived midbrain dopaminergic neurons from PD patients with parkin mutations and normal subjects shows that parkin sustains this necessary duality by maintaining the precision of the signal while suppressing the toxicity. Mutations of parkin cause increased spontaneous release of dopamine and reduced dopamine uptake, thereby disrupting the precision of dopaminergic transmission. On the other hand, transcription of monoamine oxidase is greatly increased when parkin is mutated. This markedly increases dopamine oxidation and oxidative stress. These phenomena have not been seen in parkin knockout mice, suggesting the usefulness of parkin-deficient iPSC-derived midbrain DA neurons as a cellular model for Parkinson’s disease. Currently, we are using iPS cells and induced DA neurons to expand our studies on parkin to idiopathic Parkinson’s disease. We are also utilizing the molecular targets identified in our studies to find small-molecule compounds that can mimic the beneficial functions of parkin. The availability of human midbrain DA neurons should significantly speed up the discovery of a cure for Parkinson’s disease.

Feng, Qin
Email: qin@buffalo.edu
Phone: (716) 829-6030

Specialty/Research Focus:
Ion channel kinetics and structure; Membrane Transport (Ion Transport); Molecular Basis of Disease; Molecular and Cellular Biology; Protein Folding; Protein Function and Structure; Signal Transduction

Research Summary:
Work in my lab seeks to elucidate the transduction mechanisms of ion channels involved in thermal sensation and pain, such as the heat-activated vanilloid receptors (TRPV1-4) and the cold-activated TRPM8 – the so-called thermal TRP channels. Expressed in peripheral afferent nerve endings, these channels function as an array of thermometers for sensing ambient temperature from noxious cold to noxious hot. While all proteins are thermally sensitive, thermal TRP channels are gated by temperature and possess unprecedentedly high temperature dependence. But the mechanisms of their temperature gating has remained mysterious, in contrast to our abundant knowledge on other types of ion channel gating (e.g. voltage or ligand-driven). Thermal TRP channels are also distinct for their polymodal responsiveness. TRPV1, for example, is responsive to heat, voltage, pH, capsaicin (i.e. the hot ingredient of chili peppers) among many other irritant compounds. The channels are thus informative for deciphering how biological proteins achieve multitasking. Thermal TRP channels also have receptor-like roles in mediating intracellular signaling. The calcium influx through the channels has potentially a broad spectrum of functional consequences, one of which is the desensitization of the channels themselves, a phenomenon that is believed to underlie peripheral analgesics. Our research is centered on problems like these, and we approach them by a combination of techniques such as recombinant mutagenesis, patch-clamp recording, fluorescence measurements, quantitative modeling, etc, which together allow us to draw insights into functions of the channels at mechanistic levels. Complementing our experimental studies, we are also interested in development of methodology to ever extend experimental resolutions. For example, to time-resolve temperature-dependent activation of thermal TRP channels, we have developed a laser diode-based temperature clamp apparatus, which achieves for the first time a submillisecond resolution (>105 oC/s) while capable of clamping temperature constant. For the past decade we have also been developing sophisticated algorithms for statistical analysis of single-molecule measurements such as single-channel patch-clamp recordings, which can help unravel the richness of data pertaining to molecular mechanisms at high resolutions. Together, these approaches provide us with unique abilities for in-depth studies of structure-mechanisms of ion channels.

Kenneth, Seldeen
Seldeen, Kenneth, PhDResearch Assistant Professor
Email: seldeen@buffalo.edu
Phone: 716-888-4869

Specialty/Research Focus:
Geriatric Medicine; Nutrition; Molecular and Cellular Biology; Molecular genetics; Protein Folding; Protein Function and Structure; Vitamins and Trace Nutrient

John, Sullivan
Sullivan, John, MD, PhDAssociate Professor of Ophthalmology
Email: js354@buffalo.edu
Phone: (716) 862-6533

Specialty/Research Focus:
Retina; Gene therapy; Neurodegenerative disorders; Pathophysiology; Protein Folding; Gene Expression; Signal Transduction

Research Summary:
I am a Clinician Scientist working in the field of hereditary retinal and macular degenerations. I direct a regional referral service for these diseases at the Ross Eye Institute. My NIH- and VA-funded laboratory is focused on the development of gene-based therapeutics for hereditary retinal degenerations and common age-related macular degeneration.

Sarah, Zhang
Zhang, Sarah, MDAssociate Professor
Email: xzhang38@buffalo.edu
Phone: 716-645-1808

Specialty/Research Focus:
Ophthalmology; Retina; Apoptosis and cell death; Gene Expression; Gene therapy; Molecular Basis of Disease; Molecular and Cellular Biology; Neurobiology; Protein Folding; Regulation of metabolism; Signal Transduction; Vision science

Research Summary:
The research in my lab has focused on two main areas: 1). molecular mechanisms of inflammation, angiogenesis, vascular and neuronal degeneration in retinal diseases; 2). potential roles of angiogenic inhibitors in obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes. The first line of research centers on gene regulation and signal transduction pathways underlying the neurovascular injury in diabetic retinopathy, retinopathy of prematurity and age-related macular degeneration. In recent years, we are focusing our efforts on the function and mechanism of the UPR signaling in normal and diseased retinal cells. The latter one combines basic and clinical research to study biomarkers and mechanism of type 2 diabetes. 1. ER stress and the UPR signaling in retinal neurovascular injury and diabetic retinopathy. The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is the primary site for protein synthesis and folding. Failure of this machinery to fold newly synthesized proteins presents unique dangers to the cell and is termed “ER stress.” In response to the stress, cells have evolved an intricate set of signaling pathways named the unfolded protein response (UPR) to restore the ER homeostasis. In addition, the UPR is known to regulates many genes involved in important physiological processes to modulate cell activity and cell fate. The project in my laboratory is aimed to understand the role of ER stress and the UPR in retinal vascular endothelial cell dysfunction and neuronal degeneration in diabetic retinopathy. Our previous work has implicated several key UPR branches such as IRE-XBP1 and ATF4-CHOP in retinal inflammation and vasculopathy in diabetes. Currently, we are employing integrated genetic tools and animal models to study the function of UPR genes in the retina and to dicepher the molecular links between the UPR signaling and inflammatory pathways in retinal cells. Findings from these studies are anticipated to identify novel therapeutic targets and develop new treatments for diabetic retinopathy. 2. Mechanisms and potential therapies for RPE death in age-related macular degeneration. The retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) plays an essential role in maintaining the normal structure and function of photoreceptors. RPE dysfunction and cell death is a hallmark pathological characteristic of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease that accounts for the majority of vision impairment in the elderly. Using transgenic mouse models, we discovered that the transcription factor XBP1 is a critical regulator of oxidative stress and cell survival in RPE cells. Genetic depletion or inhibition of XBP1 sensitizes the RPE to stress resulting in cell death. Our ongoing studies focus on identifying the target genes of XBP1 in RPE cells through which the protein regulates cell survival. We are also investigating if these proteins could offer potential salutary effects to protect RPE cells from oxidative injury and degeneration in disease conditions such as AMD. 3. Roles and mechanisms of angiogenic/anti-angiogenic factors in obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes. Obesity, insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes are clustered as the most important metabolic disorders, substantially increasing morbidity and impairing quality of life. Excess body fat mass, particularly visceral fat, leads to dysregulation of adipokines (proteins secreted from fat cells), resulting in higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. Our recent findings indicate that angiogenic/anti-angiogenic factors are associated with obesity, diabetes and diabetic complications. For example, pigment epithelium-derived factor (PEDF), a major angiogenic inhibitor, is an active player in adipose tissue formation, insulin resistance and vascular function. In the future, we hope to futher understand the functions and mechanisms of these proteins in lipid metabolism and adiposity. In collaboration with a number of clinical investigators, we are exploring the physiological application of these factors as novel biomarkers and therapeutic targets in the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes, metabolic disorders and peripheral vascular diseases.