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July 17, 2013 - USA Researcher Receives $1 Million NIH Grant

Dr. Donna Cioffi came to the University of South Alabama College of Medicine as a graduate student in 1999. Her plan was to take a hiatus from her work in the private sector, earn her doctorate and then return to the corporate world.

As is the case with most research projects, this scientist’s life plan didn’t follow a straight line. After starting the program at USA, Dr. Cioffi developed a deep appreciation for the academic environment that surrounded her. In 2006, she earned her Ph.D. from USA and after a three year post-doctoral fellowship, joined the medical school faculty.

Today, she serves as an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the USA College of Medicine and is actively involved in the many the roles of a medical professor, including that of a scientist.

Recently, the National Institutes of Health awarded Dr. Cioffi a four-year $1 million grant to better understand a niche in medical research that she’s been studying since a student at USA. Her project focuses on better understanding how the cells that line the blood vessels of the lungs called endothelial cells function when challenged by disease or illness.

Her work focuses on store-operated calcium (SOC) entry in endothelial cells in the lung. When SOC entry is activated, calcium levels in the cells increase. These high levels of calcium result in cell gaps and endothelial barrier disruption indicating that SOC entry regulation is crucial to healthy lung function.

Dr. Cioffi hypothesizes that the ratio of two large immunophilins, FKBP51 and FKBP52, are important in controlling SOC entry in endothelial cells. Immunophilins are groups of proteins that show the ability to bind to specific immunosuppressive agents.

Based on her hypothesis, the team will research the mechanisms by which FKBP51 and FKBP52 regulate SOC entry. The scientists hope that an understanding of SOC channel regulation will lead to the development of new, beneficial therapeutics.

“Although many scientists are involved in SOC channel regulation research, very few are focusing on endothelial cells,” explained Dr. Cioffi. “Even fewer, around four or five groups, are looking at immunophilins and SOC entry, and we may be the only ones who are specifically focusing on immunophilins and SOC entry in the lung” she added.

According to Dr. Cioffi, her lab’s work could potentially lead to better treatments for life-threatening medical conditions such as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS.)

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