Biomedical Engineer Obtains Coveted CAREER Grant

June 28, 2007 -- Jason Papin, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has earned a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program for his cutting-edge use of systems biology and computer modeling to investigate infectious disease processes.

The CAREER award is one of the most prestigious grants available to young investigators in science and engineering.  The five-year grant provides career development funding to junior faculty members who have demonstrated great promise in research and teaching endeavors.

Papin is among an emerging group of interdisciplinary researchers who respond to medical challenges by exploring biological systems in a more holistic manner.  “Traditionally we’ve studied biology in pieces,” says Papin, “but disease is a function of multiple things gone wrong.”  The goal of systems biology is to look beyond individual building blocks such as cells and proteins and try to understand how the pieces work together in a dynamic and complex system.  “In our bodies, nearly all of our cells are replaced over time, and within a cell every protein is replaced over time—so it’s the relationship between the components, not the actual composition, that makes the difference,” explains Papin.

Papin will use his CAREER award to study Leishmania major, an insidious parasite transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected sandfly.  The parasite causes leishmaniasis, a disease currently afflicting about 12 million people, mainly in tropical and subtropical regions such as Brazil and parts of the Middle East and Africa.  Different forms of leishmaniases result in a variety of symptoms, including skin lesions that can lead to deformity and disability, as well as infection, anemia, liver and spleen damage, and death if the disease is left untreated. 

Leishmaniasis has not responded well to vaccines or drug treatments.  Accordingly, the World Health Organization has prioritized research on the infectious disease, and classifies it among the Category 1 “emerging or uncontrolled diseases.”

Papin’s lab will employ existing data about Leishmania major’s genome to create a list of reactions associated with its genes.  They will use mathematical tools to build a matrix that makes predictions about how the organism will respond to different perturbations.  This information can be used to identify potential drug targets.

“We’re building a model of what happens inside the parasite,” says Papin “but we are also interested in how the immune system responds to it.”  Papin’s project will help to bring pathogen-host interactions research to a whole new level.

"Jason’s research directions in computational network analysis of human pathogens linking whole genome/network models of infectious organisms to tissue responses in host organisms are creative and significant,” says Tom Skalak, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.  “Many groups work on either intracellular gene circuits or tissue responses using empirical experimentation, while Jason is already among the world’s leaders in integrative computational methods for studying the principles governing complex behaviors in these multi-species interactions.” 

Papin has a number of creative strategies for fulfilling the CAREER award’s emphasis on integrating his research with teaching, including the development of a web portal for infectious diseases, interdisciplinary graduate level course development, and a systems biology journal club.  In addition, Papin is planning a collaborative effort with several faculty members at U.Va. and in universities across the globe to develop a two-day set of seminars for researchers using computational tools to study infectious disease.

Written by Melissa Maki, research communications coordinator for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.