• Science Saturday: From pregnancy to aging, the mysteries of one protein

researcher in a laboratory working with test tubes for clinical trials

When healthy aging is the research goal, scientists benefit from a tenacious mindset. For one researcher, that’s not a problem. Nearly 30 years ago Mayo’s endocrinology division decided to hire a basic scientist named Cheryl Conover, Ph.D., to underpin their clinical research. And now she’s using what she found in the lab to suggest solutions to age-related diseases in the clinic.

When she started, Dr. Conover, says, “these clinicians reached out to me and that impressed me.” As a new investigator at Mayo one of her first projects was looking at insulin like growth factors (IGF) which are similar in structure to insulin and help cells grow.

They are important for regulating cell division, migration, survival and the way one cell changes into a more specialized cell. Dr. Conover and her team were looking at IGFs and their involvement in the work of a wound-healing cell, called a fibroblast. They were looking specifically at how a group of binding proteins controlled the actions of the IGFs. As they prepared to publish some of their findings, a reviewer requested an additional test.

“We thought the reviewer’s suggestion was ridiculous,” Dr. Conover says.

But they did the experiment, and when they checked the cells, the researchers got a shock. One of the binding proteins had disappeared.

“I said, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here,’ and we tried to find out,” Dr. Conover says. But federal funders weren’t convinced the research was a good bet. So, like any enterprising researcher, she turned to others for support.

“Mayo supported me,” she says, “always.”

With Mayo funding, Dr. Conover found a skilled biochemistry postdoctoral fellow, Jim Lawrence, who could navigate the high peaks of chromatography.

“This was a three-year project where he tried over a hundred different techniques,” says Dr. Conover. And in the end, they did it. The team identified the cause. It was a protein associated with pregnancy that had broken down the missing protein.

Which made no sense.

“Our next question was what is this pregnancy protein doing in human fibroblasts,” Dr. Conover says. Read the rest of the article on Discovery's Edge.

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