UIC researcher receives Allen Distinguished Investigator Award

Gary Mo
Gary Mo

Gary Mo, an assistant professor in the UIC Department of Pharmacology and Regenerative Medicine, is among 16 awardees of the Allen Distinguished Investigators Award.

The Allen Distinguished Investigator program supports early stage researchers who conduct groundbreaking research in the field of biology and medicine. This year, The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group is supporting eight new projects with $10 million in funding to investigate key breakthroughs that can potentially transform the emerging fields of protein lifespan and nutrient sensing.

Along with nucleic acids and lipids, proteins are one of the pillars of biology. The cells in our body rely on proteins not just for physical supports, but also for computing information. The form, amount, location and other properties of each type of protein are cues for how to run the programs that our cells have evolved to handle the myriad of circumstances we run into.

To understand a problem like the lifespan of protein — how long each protein remains useful before it is past its “best before” date — one must first get the proteins from the cells. Mo likens this to cellular surgery. But the current ways to obtain large numbers of proteins from individual cells invariably require mechanically or chemically breaking cells open. This is so disruptive that it kills the cells — in this way it is more like surgery back in the 17th century.

“What we need”, Mo said, “are advances like those throughout the 20th century that permitted surgery on living and surviving patients and powered a rapid growth in our understanding of the systemic organization of the human body. To similarly understand the systematic organization and interaction between the many proteins in our cells, we should perform surgery on single living cells and examine the proteins as they perform normal cellular functions.”

To do this, Mo is developing nano-scalpels that precisely extract proteins from individual cells. They will create small, temporary cuts on the cell surface that can be healed on command, allowing Mo and his team to take tiny biopsies from inside cells. By keeping cells alive and functioning throughout such nano-surgery, they aim to follow and reveal the key features of proteomic balance within living cells. While the analyses of the samples for protein lifespan will take time and care, Mo said that the nano-scalpel tools have a broad utility, and he hopes they will have a transformative effect across many fields.

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