University of Colorado Boulder associate professor Amy Palmer of the BioFrontiers Institute has been awarded a coveted Director’s Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health, a five-year, $3.7 million grant made to select researchers showing exceptional creativity in solving pressing biomedical and behavioral research problems.
Palmer, a faculty member in the chemistry and biochemistry department, is studying how metals, including zinc, affect the health of humans. Zinc is involved in a wide array of biological functions, including the creation of the human genome. Zinc also plays a role in the susceptibility of humans to illnesses and infections.
Only 10 researchers nationwide were awarded NIH Pioneer Awards in 2014. The Pioneer Award challenges investigators to develop groundbreaking approaches that potentially can impact broad areas of biomedical or behavioral science.
While many people are aware of the role iron can play in human health, zinc is at least as important and is involved in a much wider array of biological functions, said Palmer. Some 10 percent of the proteins used to build our cells and tissues, for example, are believed to bind with zinc. A lack of zinc can cause life-threatening diarrhea, a decrease in the ability to heal wounds and delayed growth in and maturation in children.
“This is a really enabling award,” Palmer said. “It is intentionally designed to allow you to take your research program in a new and different direction. It lets you do pioneering work that is unlikely to be funded by other research grants. It’s for high-risk, high-reward science, and it will allow us to start an entirely new program.”
Since zinc availability in the human body is highly dynamic, Palmer is hoping to find out how it functions at a basic level – in the cell. She is investigating the prospect that zinc may be a global regulator of protein function, which may help to explain why it is involved in so many cellular processes, and why disruption of zinc is associated with a diverse array of diseases from cancer and neurodegeneration to diabetes.
To accomplish this, she’ll develop new technology to map sets of proteins that bind zinc and define how changes in zinc affect gene expression and cellular metabolism. Palmer hopes to gain an understanding of how zinc changes as certain diseases progress, which may result in biomarkers that could identify illnesses early on in their development. “Learning how zinc interacts in the cell may fundamentally change how we think about cellular regulation and how nutrition affects organisms,” Palmer said.
“As a graduate student, I studied copper, which is also an essential metal that plays important roles in biology,” she said. “After working with copper, I started reading about zinc in the brain. As far back as the 1950s, doctors studied zinc-rich areas of the brain, and nobody was sure what it was doing there. Metal ions, like zinc, play such an important role in biology. We can’t live without them, but the misbalance of metals is central in many diseases.”
Despite the widespread effects of zinc deficiency among humans, it is currently difficult and expensive to test for it in the doctor’s office, Palmer said. The World Health Organization estimates that 30 percent of humans are currently zinc deficient, and as many as 800,000 children die every year because of zinc deficiencies.
In fact, zinc supplementation is considered to be as important as providing clean water for the prevention of human death in some developing countries, according to Palmer. She hopes the new research effort may bring greater understanding as to how it is used by our bodies, and what it can tell us about our health.
“Supporting innovative investigators with the potential to transform scientific fields is a critical element of our mission,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins. “This program allows researchers to propose highly creative research projects across a broad range of biomedical and behavioral research areas that involve inherent risk but have the potential to lead to dramatic breakthroughs.”