Researching enzymes could help save lives

12 March 2013

A University of Canterbury scientist's research into how enzymes work could have many downstream benefits for the health and well-being of New Zealanders.

Researching enzymes could help save lives - Imported from Legacy News system

Dr Penelope Cross

A University of Canterbury scientist’s research into how enzymes work could have many downstream benefits for the health and well-being of New Zealanders.

Dr Penelope Cross at UC’s Biomolecular Interaction Centre (BIC) has been investigating enzymes which are essential to bacteria including organisms that cause bacterial meningitis or tuberculosis.

"As this research progresses the potential implications extend beyond direct health effects and some of the work has applications towards the development of biosensors or molecular switches,’’ Dr Cross said.

"We are looking at nature and retracing molecular evolutionary events to understand how the activity of enzymes, or biological catalysts, are controlled. By copying nature, we are working towards the creation of tailor-made enzymes that are able to be precisely switched on and off. 

"We have uncovered how an enzyme, required by bacteria, is regulated. We have mimicked this natural example to engineer a ‘designer’ enzyme that we can control.

"This work has taken about four years of physical and mental work to progress. Not only does working with enzymes involve the hands on work of making, genetically modifying and testing the enzymes, but these studies also require extensive planning, design and incredible amounts of resilience for when things don’t appear to be going according to plan.

"As far as we are aware this is the first example where parts of different enzymes have been combined in this way to make a functional new enzyme,’’ Dr Cross said.

She said UC scientists were competitive on the world stage in research through a combination of their novel ideas, good equipment and motivation. They were prepared to work hard to solve major science questions. 

With her supervisor Professor Emily Parker, Dr Cross recently published in US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most widely read journals in basic sciences around the world. Its online edition elicits over 24 million hits a month. This journal only publishes research which, it views, as being of exceptional importance.

Dr Cross won a best student poster award at the international Protein Structure and Conference in Lorne, near Melbourne last year and she was chosen to represent Australasian protein scientists at the world protein conference in Boston in September 2012.

"This is exciting cutting-edge research we do here. Enzymes, usually proteins, are biological catalysts which are made by living things to speed up the rate of reactions.

"Without enzymes, most critical reactions within the body would happen too slowly to support life.  The importance of enzymes is obvious when you look at the diseases that occur when things get out of balance. By copying natural enzymes, we have engineered a biological catalyst which we can control.

"I was an accountant in a travel firm but left that job to study and then work here at UC as I wanted to know that what I was doing with my life would potentially save someone else’s one day,’’ Dr Cross said.

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University of Canterbury
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