What is your research about?
I use synthetic cell-membrane systems to study drug-membrane interactions. I isolate, on a silicon chip, the salient parts of the membrane: saturated and unsaturated phospholipids, cholesterol, relevant proteins, etc. By borrowing super-quantitative techniques from condensed-matter physics, such as X-ray and neutron scattering, I determine the structure and dynamics of the lipid bilayers on the molecular level, with unprecedented resolution. Most importantly, I can determine how active-pharmaceutical-ingredients (aka drugs) influence these properties, which are relevant for diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and atherosclerosis.
Why does your research matter?
Much of drug development relies on a lock-and-key model and brute force. Developers will test a library of thousands of candidate drugs for binding affinity to a single protein target, and then use quick assays and animals tests to screen for side-effects in the lead candidates. If side-effects show up in the tests, positive or negative, it is not possible to quantitatively test a membrane-binding hypothesis to explain those effects. My research provides the ability to test, and develop a model for, membranes as a mode-of-action. My models can be used to tune the membrane interaction, reducing or improving the side-effects.
What do you enjoy most about your research?
The term “multi-disciplinary” gets thrown around a lot, but it’s hard to deny that aspect of this research. For any of this to work, I need biological materials, pharmaceutical drugs, cryostats, and nuclear reactors! I never get bored. For example, I just returned from a two-week trip where our research group studied, using neutron scattering at a reactor in France, the effect of aspirin
on membrane phonons
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