Morgridge metabolism fellowship seeks to strengthen the research network

A graduate fellowship launched this year by the Morgridge Institute for Research will help bring “fresh eyes” to the growing pursuit of metabolism research at UW–Madison.

Launched by Dave Pagliarini, director of the Morgridge Metabolism Theme and UW–Madison professor of biochemistry, the fellowship program will support a new graduate student each year for three years. The goal, says Pagliarini, will be to seek out new areas of campus where metabolism research is currently under-represented and might blossom.

“The whole idea behind this fellowship is to take advantage of some of these pockets of research excellence we have all over campus,” Pagliarini says. “Can we bring in different talent pools to our community who don’t typically think about metabolism?”

Andrew Buller

The program did exactly that by funding the first fellowship in the UW–Madison Department of Chemistry. Andrew Buller, an assistant professor of chemistry, hired graduate student Prasanth Kumar through the program to expand work on developing unique amino acids with medical and industrial potential. Amino acids are naturally made compounds essential to growth, digestion, repair and many other biological functions.

“Amino acids are one of nature’s premiere building blocks,” says Buller. “In medicinal chemistry and natural products, it’s found that modifying amino acids — a chlorine here, a hydroxyl group there — creates this really rich and medicinally valuable palette of functionality. We would like to find easy ways to access this compound metabolically, without needing to go to the hood and do traditional organic synthesis. We’ll give it a boost, but we want to have the cells make this stuff on their own.”

Buller notes that nature is full of bioactive compounds with healthful properties, including the ability to fight cancer and other disease. But they often don’t make good medicine in their native form. They need small modifications in their structure to make them more medically useful. With Kumar’s help, the Buller lab will attempt to use a cell’s metabolism to make these tweaks in living cells.

Prasanth Kumar

One such example is the amino acid tryptophan, a common element in many foods, which has been chemically modified into a clinically used anti-cancer compound called topotecan.

“We’re a very young lab, and we’re not sure what’s going to work yet, but we want to build a big base to jump from and follow what works,” he says.

Pagliarini says chemistry was a great place to start the program “because it’s a science at the core of many disciplines. When you talk about metabolism as ‘the chemistry of life,’ you need to have chemists in the room.” But other future fellowships could support building new tools to measure metabolism, or support computational biology or engineering.

“This is in the spirit of the Morgridge Institute, where one of the promises of interdisciplinary research is to invite people who aren’t thinking about your problems to see them with fresh eyes and ideas and tools you didn’t know existed,” he says. “I’m excited to see where this goes.”

The fellowships are one element of the Morgridge Metabolism Initiative, designed to enhance the pace, productivity, and international profile of metabolism-related research in Madison. The effort focuses on attracting talent, investing in must-have technology and building community.