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Advances in Health and Medicine

Preventing Disease Via Protein Folding


As proteins develop, the amino acids that comprise them fold—a twist here, compression there. How proteins function depends on their structure. Pitt structural biologists study the folding process.

Pitt professor Angela Gronenborn uses magnets to watch proteins fold. Understanding this process could help yield insight into Alzheimer’s disease, in which fibroid amyloid proteins entangle into plaques in the brain.

Professor Ron Wetzel is chasing a tail; in people with Huntington’s disease, a mutated form of the protein “huntingtin” ends in a repetition of the amino acid glutamine. Wetzel had thought the tail formed slowly, and step-by-step, but his research indicates the truth is messier and more complex.

Professor James Conway calls the research “black arts” because it focuses on subjects so small visible light can’t affect them. Conway uses cryoelectron microscopy—freezing viruses and protein complexes—to produce detailed images of their structures.