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Dr. Mehdi Mollapour

Upstate researcher lands five-year NIH grant for $2.2 million to study chaperone proteins linked to cancer

An Upstate Medical University researcher and professor has received a five-year $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the chaperone code, which plays an important role in cancer and neurodegenerative diseases

Mehdi Mollapour, PhD, vice chair for translational research for the department of urology, received a highly prestigious Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA or R35) award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), which is part of NIH. The $2.2 million, five-year MIRA/R35 grant focuses on decrypting the chaperone code. Mollapour, a professor of urology, biochemistry and molecular biology, has studied the chaperone code for nearly 20 years.

The MIRA program supports investigators’ overall research programs through a single, unified grant rather than individual project grants. The goal is to provide investigators with greater stability and flexibility, thereby enhancing scientific productivity and the chances for important breakthroughs.

Mollapour’s work for the past two decades has been aimed at understanding and deciphering the chaperone code. Molecular chaperones are a group of proteins that are involved in looking after other proteins that play an essential role in health and maladies, such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. One such chaperone, Hsp90, is a guardian of cancer that can be targeted by small molecule inhibitors. These drugs are currently being evaluated in Phase III clinical trials in cancer patients.

“While the genetic code specifies how DNA makes proteins, the chaperone code controls how proteins are folded to produce a functional proteome,” Mollapour said. “Deciphering or cracking the code is important in understanding how chaperones work in normal cells as well as cancer cells. It will also allow us to improve the efficacy of chaperone drugs (Hsp90 drugs) in treating cancer patients.”

Mollapour credits the work of everyone in his lab as well as department leadership for help obtaining this grant. “This kind of work is only possible in a department like ours because Gennady Bratslavsky, MD, the chair of Urology, has created a research environment that allows us to conduct high-level research.” The Journal of Biological Chemistry recently published an invited review by Mollapour on this subject.

In 2020, Mollapour and his colleague, Dimitra Bourboulia, PhD, an assistant professor of urology, biochemistry and molecular biology at Upstate, and Andrew Truman, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, organized a first-ever International Symposium on The Chaperone Code. The event was held virtually and more information can be found here: www.chaperonecode.com/past-meetings.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic we were forced to hold this meeting virtually, but the good news was that we had more than 300 attendees,” he said. “We also have a speaker every month presenting their research via webinar. This is exciting as the chaperone code has attracted so many researchers.”

Mollapour is currently planning a 2021 Chaperone Code meeting.