All Lit Up

Summer 2016

The membranes of our bodies’ cells contain signaling proteins called receptors. By interacting with peptides, drugs, hormones, and other molecules, receptors control the cell’s response to its environment. These protein interactions are implicated in diseases like cancer. But scientists don’t fully understand them, which has limited the development of effective drugs.

A photo of Kalina Hristova“When you’re trying to target a receptor for designer therapeutics, it’s good to know exactly how it works,” says Kalina Hristova, professor of materials science and engineering at the Whiting School.

Hristova and her team have now come up with a fluorescence-based technique that allows them to precisely measure receptor interactions in living cells. Described in Integrative Biology, it relies on intelligent software written by Hristova’s graduate student Christopher King for a special microscope called a two-photon spectral microscope. The software uses theoretical models and complex math to tease out molecular interaction details from the fluorescence spectra.

With the new “fully quantified spectral imaging” method, the researchers can determine if and exactly how the proteins interact in cell membranes. That paves the way for developing techniques to inhibit harmful interactions—an exciting implication for drug development.