Bio Prof. Wins Grant to Probe Craniofacial Disorders

Prof. Derek Applewhite receives $400K from NIH to investigate a gene linked to cleft palate.

By Gabriel Zinn ’15 | September 22, 2017

What do fruit flies and the musculature of your face have in common? More than you might think, argues Prof. Derek Applewhite [biology], who has just been awarded a  $399,824 grant by the National Institutes of Health to investigate a gene linked to cleft palate and other craniofacial disorders.

The grant, part of the NIH R15 Academic Research Enhancement Award, will go towards understanding the gene SPECCL1, mutations of which are thought to play a role in a spectrum of disorders, most prevalently orofacial clefts, which affect 1.2 to 1.7 of every thousand births.

“SPECC1L has been identified in a number cranial-facial disorders resulting in a type of cleft palate in people who inherit these mutations,” says Prof. Applewhite. “Understanding SPECC1L’s role in regulating cellular contractility may someday help people who inherit these mutations.”

The theory is that SPECC1L affects a molecular motor protein called non-muscle myosin II (NMII), which generates cellular contractility, and influences, as a result, how cells interact with their environment and with another. Applewhite’s research will pair quantitative imaging approaches with biochemical, proteomic and genetic approaches to explore the ortholog (genes in different species with a shared ancestry) of SPECC1L that appears in Drosophila (the humble fruit fly).

Prof. Applewhite says he was “was extremely excited when I got the news.” However, he was also quick to turn attention away from himself and point out the benefits to Reed and its students, and to medical research. “This grant will offer Reed students an opportunity to learn a whole host of techniques I use in my lab as well as help to uncover how non-muscle myosin II regulates cell migration and adhesion in the context of disease.”

One of his collaborators on the project is Peter Gillespie ’81, the associate vice president for basic research at Oregon Health and Science University, who will lend his expertise in biochemistry, proteomics, and mass spectrometry to the experiments.

Prof. Applewhite and Prof. Anna Ritz [biology] also recently won a $589K NSF grant to investigate the role of NMII in determining how a cell takes its shape

Tags: Awards & Achievements, Academics, Institutional