Published September 12, 2013
Sheldon Park arrived at UB in 2006 with a plan.
He knew there was no simple and effective way to study proteins on the surface of live cells. He wanted to change that: Doing so could open new frontiers in research and, possibly, shed light on diseases linked to protein mutations.
Never mind that others tried to accomplish this without success for the past 20 years. Never mind that he was just starting his research career. Never mind it would require more than six years of work.
Park stuck with the plan and developed a synthetic protein called monomeric streptavidin that scientists worldwide are using for everything from HIV research, drug delivery and the molecular analysis of peptides, proteins and other cellular components.
“Although my students and I encountered many setbacks, we weren’t deterred. We knew the technology had, and continues to have, the potential to help scientists around the globe answer tough questions in medicine, biotechnology and other fields of research,” says Park, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
Park’s ingenuity caught the attention of the National Science Foundation, which in 2011 awarded him a $400,000 CAREER grant, the foundation’s most prestigious honor for young investigators. In August, the foundation committed another $300,000 to Park so he could expand his research into protein engineering.
“Proteins are the workhorse of everything going on inside our bodies,” he says. “They appeal to me because of the diversity of their function. These molecules are made with simple chemical building blocks, yet there doesn’t seem to be any limit to what they can do.”
Among other things, proteins regulate metabolism, assist the immune system, aid digestion, provide structural support in cells and transport molecules throughout the body.
Park studies how natural proteins function to make synthetic proteins with biotechnology applications. For example, synthetic proteins could be useful in determining causes as to why certain genetic mutations, such as cancer, chronic inflammation and neurodegenerative diseases, develop.
He also is investigating a cure for Crohn’s Disease, a form of inflammatory bowel disease that affects roughly 500,000 people in the U.S. The illness affects the gastrointestinal tract, causing frequent and unpredictable flare-ups that can lead to abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss and other symptoms.
Scientists have known since 2001 that a defective protein contributes to the disease, Park says, but no one understands why.
He engineered a peptide which has shown promise in reversing the effects of the mutation. He is conducting additional studies with University of Michigan researchers to confirm the finding in animal models and patients.
Park hopes the research will translate into a drug to help people suffering from the debilitating condition.
Park, who earned a PhD in biophysics from Harvard University and did postdoctoral research in chemistry and chemical engineering at the University of Philadelphia, runs a research laboratory in Furnas Hall.