As people their risk grows for a class of diseases known as protein conformational disorders, which occur when certain proteins become structurally abnormal and disrupt the function of body cells, tissues, and organs. Such conditions include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Type II diabetes, and dementia.
Geneticist and biochemist Ling Qi, assistant professor of nutritional sciences, leads a lab researching X-box binding protein, which has a role in both Type II diabetes and neurodegeneration, which leads to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“We have some data that may suggest this protein plays a critical role not only in the aging process, but also in the onset of diabetes,” Qi explained. “We know that it regulates the expression of genes involved in many cell processes.”
In particular, X-box binding protein regulates the functional capacity of endoplasmic reticulum, the part of cells where new proteins are created, folded, and then transported out for use by the cell. When the protein does not fold correctly, it creates stress in the cells.
Studies in Qi’s lab also have shown that X-box binding protein plays a critical role in the creation of fat cells. These fat cells secrete hormones, many of which affect obesity and insulin sensitivity. In two studies, Qi demonstrated that altering fat-cell function changes the outcome of obesity.
“Fat tissue has become the center of the metabolic control,” he said. “If you change the fat mass, you will likely see the changes in insulin sensitivity of the whole system.”
Other research has shown that this same protein is a key factor in the development of neurodegeneration, so understanding its properties and function is essential in the search for treatments for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
“We’re trying to figure out how this protein works,” Qi said. “Does it require other proteins or other factors to facilitate its activation? The ultimate goal for us is to understand the mechanism by which this protein is activated.”
Qi expects that strengthening its activation would increase the capacity of endoplasmic reticulum and reduce the number of misfolded proteins, which could lead to new drugs for diabetes that improve insulin responsiveness, or drugs that prevent neurodegenerative disorders.
Qi’s research is funded by the American Federation for Aging Research, the American Diabetes Association, and the National Institutes of Health.
In the past two years, his lab has tripled in size. They’re taking advantage of new funding sources and advanced equipment provided by Cornell—from high-powered microscopes to statistical modeling services—that investigate new questions about X-box binding protein and other biochemical and genetic functions in the body.
“Scientifically, we are in a much better position to address critical questions using animal models and some unique tools that Cornell provides,” he said. “We’re getting to a very exciting stage.”