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Awards fund research on copper-based disease

Jan. 26, 2007

KALAMAZOO--A Western Michigan University chemist recently received two grants to fund research toward understanding the cellular acquisition of copper and how in-born defects of this process lead to a rare disease.

The National Science Foundation awarded Dr. David Huffman, assistant professor of chemistry, $595,000 to conduct research on the molecular details of copper transport. A portion of the grant will be used to promote science both locally and as far away as institutions in Kenya.

Huffman also received $30,000 from the Wilson Disease Association, the first grant awarded by the association.

The NSF's five-year grant was made through the organization's Faculty Early Career Development Program, known as the CAREER Program. CAREER grants recognize and support the early career work of teachers-scholars who are expected to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. They number among NSF's most prestigious and competitive grants and are based on faculty proposals for creative career development plans that effectively integrate research and education.

Huffman's CAREER project, "Characterizing the Mechanism of Copper Exchange in Copper Transfer Proteins," looks at how copper-transporting proteins interact with each other to make sure that copper reaches its correct target in the cell.

"Copper is an essential nutrient for life, vital for the functions of cell growth and maintenance," Huffman says. "Copper is required for cellular respiration, assists in iron transport and helps detoxify dangerous free radicals."

Huffman is working with a team of six graduate students, three undergraduates and one local high school student to explain the chemical details of copper transport and to understand how defects in this process can lead to Wilson disease, a rare affliction occurring in only about 1 in 30,000 people. This genetic disease only occurs when an individual receives a defective gene from both parents and results in the buildup of copper in the brain and liver that can cause neurological symptoms and liver disease.

Huffman will use a portion of the grant to train local high school teachers to promote science careers to students, develop a career component within the University's biochemistry curriculum and create partnerships with universities in Kenya to foster student training and faculty exchanges with WMU.

He has already initiated this educational component of his work by traveling this past October to the University of Nairobi and Egerton University in Kenya.

In addition to the CAREER award, Huffman's Wilson Disease Association grant will help study the mutations of the Wilson protein that cause the genetic disease.

"We first need an understanding of why these mutations cause the disease. This could provide a basis for new treatments," Huffman says.

He earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry from Bob Jones University in 1983, a master's degree in inorganic chemistry from Illinois State University in 1989 and a doctoral degree in inorganic chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1994.

He subsequently spent seven years at Northwestern University conducting postdoctoral work in bioinorganic chemistry before coming to WMU in 2001 as an assistant professor of chemistry.

Media contact: Deanne Molinari, (269) 387-8400, deanne.molinari@wmich.edu

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