UMass immunologists receive $4.8 million research grant

By Katrina Borofski

Courtesy of Lisa Minter
Courtesy of Lisa Minter

Two immunologists at the University of Massachusetts are part of a multi-institutional research team that was recently awarded a five-year, $4.8 million grant from the National Cancer Institute.

Barbara Osborne and Lisa Minter, among researchers from other institutions, will use the grant to investigate diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s through the role of a specific enzyme.

“We are all interested in an enzyme called gamma secretase (GS)” Osborne said in an article published in The Recorder. Osborne, Minter and others hope to manipulate GS, which activates over 100 protein substrates in the body.

“When it acts by cleaving or cutting proteins, many different substrates are activated, including a very important one called NOTCH1,” Osborne explained in the article. “Both Lisa and I have shown, first in a mouse model of multiple sclerosis, that NOTCH1 deregulation leads to many autoimmune diseases.”

Researchers in Florida and Mississippi have also researched both NOTCH1 and GS and their effects on tumor development in cancer and amyloid plaque formation.

GS plays an important role in a variety of diseases and functions of the body. The grant was provided by NCI in order to further explore the purpose of the complicated enzyme.

The immunologists are seeking a way to control the enzyme for its detrimental effects on cancers and diseases while also keeping its beneficial actions in the immune system.

“If we can figure out a way to specifically target some substrates and not others, to control the activity of the enzyme in time and space to maintain beneficial immune system activity which is attacking diseased cells, it would be a great advance,” Minter said.

In order to solve this problem, the UMass immunologists plan to work with other scientists in the chemistry and polymer science fields in developing a biosensor-controlled nanogel that could control the release of the enzyme in order to fight cancer and other types of cells.

Minter and Osborne have designed experiments that would take up to five years in order to further investigate GS.

In addition to this research, Osborne and Minter have both completed work in various fields of science. Beginning as an assistant professor, Osborne has been working in the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences (VASCI) at UMass since 1985. Minter is also working within VASCI. She became affiliated with the University initially while completing her graduate work in Amherst.

“[Lisa] worked on her post-graduate work in my laboratory,” Osborne said. “Then, about four years ago we had a position open in my department looking for exactly what Lisa does. She was in my laboratory for post-doc and now she’s my colleague. We’ve been collaborating since about 2003.”

Minter is also working within VASCI.

While both UMass researchers are working in the field of immunology for this research project, they have both completed projects in other fields.

“Back around 1982 my job was to clone genes in cell death in the immune system,” Osborne said. “And so we’ve been very interested in this process of cell-death. And that can of course relate to cancer.”

In addition to research, Minter and Osborne are both professors at the University. Together the two teach an introductory level immunology course.

“It’s an introduction, but it’s a 500 level class,” Osborne said.

The first half of the course is taught by Osborne, who goes over the cells and organs of the immune system and how they work together to protect from pathogens. The second half of the course is taught by Minter, who takes the basic immunology taught by Osborne and attempts to use real life examples to apply the students’ basic knowledge.

Katrina Borofski can be reached at [email protected]