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Academia in Action: Targeting small receptors for huge impact

Do you know what Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, MS, gastrointestinal disorders, kidney and liver diseases and bone dysmorphias all have in common? According to University of Utah biochemistry professor Justin English, they are “all strongly driven by dysregulation of G-protein coupled receptors.”

These small receptors play a vital role in human health. On a cellular level, they detect what’s going on outside a cell and tell it how to respond accordingly. This means they assist in a human’s sense of smell and taste as well as mood and immune system regulation. Already about 40% of all prescribed drugs target G-protein coupled receptors because of this relationship. That’s where English and his lab enter the picture. “Our goal is to both understand how they work and control their function pharmaceutically, so we can improve patient health,” he said.

English said he has found that his research often involves slowing down rather than changing course completely. By slowing down, “you can make strong foundations for answering projects or delivering on technologies that you think are the most impactful that you can generate.”

This “recollecting” ensures that English and his lab are able to continue forward on their projects by focusing on process and developing methodology and quality control. “When we pivot we’re speeding along toward a particular project goal but then hit roadblocks where things aren’t progressing the way that we anticipate and we really need to switch gears to understand where it is that we’re coming up short.”

In the two years English has been at the U, he and his lab have made significant strides toward their goals. Along with the lab’s research into G-protein coupled receptors and directed evolution, they have collaborated with industry partners like Eli Lilly and started a company with the help of the PIVOT Center. With PIVOT, English is working to develop IP around applications in the startup. All this work helps English and his team progress toward their hope and goal to develop ways of treating patients with unmet needs or largely untreatable diseases.

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