Science & Research

Prof. granted $1.6M for diabetes research

State’s most powerful spectrometer used to visualize key proteins involved in the disease

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wolfgang Peti, associate professor of medical science, sits beside New England’s second largest magnet, a machine that provides atomic-resolution images of proteins. He will use it to research type 2 diabetes.

The American Diabetes Association awarded $1.6 million to Wolfgang Peti, associate professor of medical science, for his research on type 2 diabetes earlier this month. 

Peti was one of five researchers to receive a special award given to those just entering the diabetes research world, according to the association’s website.

Peti said starting to focus his work on diabetes was a logical step based on his lab’s research on a specific group of proteins called phosphatases. “Some of them play a really important role in diabetes, so I’m taking my knowledge of that type of enzyme and applying it to diabetes research,” Peti said.

Peti’s research on type 2 diabetes targets three areas of interest, with the aim of one day improving the lives of those with the disease.

His team will examine insulin receptors and how insulin binds to them, especially in the “TK” domain, the part of the receptor that is responsible for initiating the metabolism of glucose.

“We know the structure of this domain, but what we want to know is, how is that protein moving? How is it changing its plasticity?” Peti said. Understanding the answers to these questions could help researchers modify the receptor in the future.

As a component of this investigation, Peti will work with Professor of Biology Marc Tatar to study mutations of these enzyme receptors in fruit flies.

Peti and his colleagues also plan to focus their research efforts on an enzyme that plays a direct role in the regulation of insulin. Peti said he will focus on lesser known parts of the enzyme’s structure to stop its activity without triggering undesirable side effects, something previous research has been unable to do.

His final project involves understanding the structure of a group of enzymes that controls a cell’s balance of stored and usable glucose, according to a University press release. Peti said people have been studying this particular enzyme complex for years to understand how it actually functions.

Peti will undertake his work using Brown’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer, a powerful instrument that allows researchers to view the composition of individual substances and how they interact with one another. Brown’s NMR spectrometer was installed last January and is the second-most powerful spectrometer in New England, The Herald reported at the time.

Nicolas Fawzi, assistant professor of medical science who is not working on Peti’s research, described NMR spectroscopy by comparing atoms to bells. “Each bell has a different note, and we distinguish the different atoms by their different notes — these different frequencies,” he said. “Proteins are made up of all these different atoms, and we can distinguish each atom by its different ringing frequency, its note.”

Peti said his current research would not be possible if not for the NMR magnet’s installation last year. “We went up to Brandeis (University) in the past to measure there, but protein samples don’t usually travel so nicely,” he said.