Biochemistry professor James Horn awarded grants from American Heart Association, NSF

James Horn

James Horn

NIU assistant biochemistry professor James Horn is reaping a windfall of grants that will help him and his students study how proteins interact with other molecules—work that could have far reaching benefits from improving our understanding of biological regulation to detecting and treating disease.

Horn is receiving $294,000 from the American Heart Association over the next four years to study how single-domain antibodies interact with small molecules and peptides.

Additionally, he received a highly competitive Faculty Early Career Development CAREER grant of $631,000 from the National Science Foundation.

That grant will be used over the next five years. NSF gives only about 400 CAREER awards throughout the nation each year to junior faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.

“This study includes two parts,” Horn said. “The first part involves the research portion. We’ll be studying how proteins recognize other proteins with a focus on generating methods to reversibly control protein binding. It’s analogous to installing a dimmer switch on a light. The ability to engineer new control into existing proteins has great potential to open new opportunities in biotechnology.”

The second component of the CAREER award study will involve integrating his research findings with student education. For instance, a biochemistry lab will be redesigned to incorporate new learning approaches. Also, to help attract student interest in the sciences at NIU, a new course will be developed. Its aim is to introduce undergraduate students to cutting-edge research in biology and chemistry. 

In collaboration with NIU STEM Outreach, this course will be adapted to summer workshops for high school students and teachers to help increase scientific literacy. The CAREER project also includes partnerships with NIU’s STEM Outreach and Latino Resource Center to provide opportunities for high school students and undergraduate students to perform research in the laboratory.  

While both grants deal with protein research, they fund two separate studies. The American Heart Association grant will involve the study of small domain antibodies that recognize small molecules. Antibodies, which play an important role in strengthening the body’s immune system and fighting disease and infection, can be used in applications including medical diagnostics.

Horn’s lab will develop synthetic antibody libraries to discover antibodies capable of recognizing specific small molecules, including those that could lead to new cardiovascular disease diagnostics. The long-term goals of the project include developing reliable, test tube-based methods to generate single-domain antibodies against any small molecule/biomarker of interest without the use of animals.

by Gerard Dziuba

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