Carnegie Mellon University
August 29, 2019

Huaiying Zhang Receives Kaufman Foundation New Investigator Award

Carnegie Mellon University Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Huaiying Zhang has received a New Investigator Award from the Charles E. Kaufman Foundation. The $150,000 grant will support her research on the physics and chemistry of liquid condensation in live cells, which could inform the development of new treatments for cancer.

“Charles Kaufman was a visionary in recognizing that collaborative and interdisciplinary research could lead to huge quality-of-life improvements across the landscape of human experience,” Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation said in announcing the grants. “He committed his philanthropy to our Foundation to ensure that what was funded followed that vision, and I believe these grants are evidence that the Scientific Advisory Board has done just that. The funded projects offer real prospects for breakthroughs.”

Human cells are organized into functional compartments called organelles. Most organelles, like the nucleus and mitochondria, are encased by lipid membranes. Others, like stress granules and nucleoli, do not have a membrane. In the last decade, researchers have discovered that these membrane-less organelles are condensed liquid droplets formed by liquid-liquid phase separation.

Zhang has developed optogenetic tools ­that control genetically engineered proteins using light to study how condensation occurs within the complex cellular environment and the role it plays in cellular function. Specifically, Zhang uses these tools to study membrane-less organelles called APBs that are associated with telomeres in some cancer cells. Telomeres, the protective endcaps of chromosomes, play an important role in cancer. In normal cells, telomeres shorten over the cells’ life span and when they reach a certain length, they trigger cell death. In cancer cells, telomeres maintain their length, allowing the cancer cells to live indefinitely.

Under the Kaufman grant, Zhang will attempt to determine the physics that underlies APB condensation and the chemistry behind the formation of APB and its material properties. Her interdisciplinary research stands to reveal insights into the foundational physics and chemistry of phase separation in live cells. It may also yield important information that will allow researchers to manipulate conditions within the cell to determine how APB condensation and properties can be altered to prevent telomere elongation, which could lead to new avenues of research in cancer therapy.  

Grants from the Kaufman Foundation, a supporting organization of the Pittsburgh Foundation, go to institutes of higher learning in Pennsylvania for scientists pursuing research that explores essential questions and/or crosses disciplinary boundaries. New Investigator grants are awarded to scientists transitioning to independent appointments and are meant to empower promising scientists at the beginning of their careers.