UTHealth professor receives $2.6 million NIH award for brain research

The National Institutes of Health has presented its Maximizing Investigators' Research Award to Vasanthi Jayaraman, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology with McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). It is a $2.6 million, five-year award.

The award provides long-term support to experienced investigators with outstanding records of research. The idea is to give researchers the opportunity to take greater risks, to be more adventurous in their lines of inquiry or to take the time to develop new techniques.

"We are working to enhance learning and memory, as well as to pave the way for new treatments for Lou Gehrig's disease and other neurodegenerative conditions," Jayaraman said.

Described as one of the final frontiers in science, the process by which brain cells communicate with each other largely remains a mystery.

To learn more about how the brain functions, Jayaraman's laboratory is studying a family of proteins - glutamate receptors - that play a major role in the conversion of chemical signals into electrical signals.

Her team is developing high-resolution images of these proteins, which can potentially be used by pharmaceutical companies to develop drug targets. "We want to learn more about how these proteins work," she said.

"Vasanthi is a leader in the field of structure function investigations of ion channels. She has over 50 publications, appearing in leading journals," said Rodney Kellems, Ph.D., professor and chair of biochemistry and molecular biology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.

"Vasanthi is not only a leader in research, as indicated by the NIH Award, she is also an excellent educator and mentor and was recently notified that she is a recipient of a University of Texas System 2017 Regents Outstanding Teacher Award," he said.

Jayaraman is a past recipient of grants from the NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which supports basic research that increases understanding of biological processes and lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Her research has appeared in Science, Nature Chemical Biology, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and The Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Jayaraman is the co-director of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Graduate Program and a 2016 McGovern Scholar. Jayaraman and Kellems are on the faculty of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

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