Rebekah Watkins and Robert Burnham

Bin Team
Assistant Professor Bin Xu (right) and undergraduates Robert Burnham and Rebekah Watkins study biochemical and molecular structure-function relationships of proteins. Their work offers insight for human health conditions, like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

Hands-on training prepares two undergraduates for careers in life science research

Two years ago, Robert Burnham and Rebekah Watkins joined the lab of Bin Xu, an assistant professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate.

During that time, they learned the ins and outs of studying microscopic cell parts and their roles in human diseases like diabetes, obesity, and infection, said Xu, who is also a faculty member in the Virginia Tech Center for Drug Discovery and the Fralin Translational Obesity Research Center.    

Here’s a glimpse of what they have learned and where they are headed.

Robert Burnham is on a mission to understand how small parts like proteins fit into greater wholes, like the human body's immune system.

How a virus steals the show

Robert Burnham respects a virus for its ability to take over a host’s immune system.

“We can learn a lot about how our immune system works by studying how a virus evades it,” Burnham said. “A lot of what we know about the immune system has come from how pathogens like viruses evade, subvert, or hide from it.”

Viruses like herpes take over the body’s immune system by mimicking host proteins. Though researchers aren’t exactly sure how, often viruses make their own version of a host’s protein by using bits of DNA. Sometimes viruses get lucky and find specific proteins, called interferons, that are sent out by infected host cells to warn neighbors of the infection.

Burnham looks at large, double-stranded viruses that offer a lot to work with, he said. They allow him to study the structure and function of important proteins within host-pathogen interactions using highly efficient computational methods.

“The functionality of proteins is relevant because it teaches us the functionality of the virus,” said Burnham. “Once we see functions, we get clues as to where the protein came from and how it was captured.”

Doing what’s called protein refolding, Burnham attempts to make recombinant viral proteins to find further clues about how a virus fits within the immune system.

“I like the simplicity of viruses,” he said. “They only have a couple of dozen proteins, but at the same time they interact with extremely complex host systems that they are completely dependent on. For example, despite that fact that influenza only has 11 proteins and we have several thousand, the virus still works brilliantly at the host-immune response. All of our body’s complexity falls apart in the face of something so simple.”

Burnham recently graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a minor in Interdisciplinary Engineering and Science, which is part of the university’s Scieneering Program, bringing together science, engineering, and law.

He also jointly presented and won a poster award at the 2013 Virginia Tech Center for Drug Discovery symposium for a project related to his research in the Scieneering program.

In 2014, he received the Ann L. and John L. Hess travel award to attend the American Association of Immunologists conference in Pittsburg, PA and was selected as an outstanding senior in the Department of Biochemistry in Virginia Tech’s College of Science.

In the fall, Burnham will begin his Ph.D. in molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke University.

Watch out, proteins. Rebekah Watkins has a plan for you.

Little bits may go a long way 

Rebekah Watkins’ experience taught her that sometimes it’s important to sweat the small stuff. In this case, that small stuff is irisin, a newly discovered hormone secreted by muscle tissue during exercise. Little is known about how, but it – as well as other proteins – may be key to fighting obesity and diabetes.

Working with Xu lab members Dr. Ling Wu, a research scientist, and Lu Zhai, a Ph.D. student, Watkins engineers different versions of irisin to figure out the important parts of its structure, and how altering it might change its function.

Another protein she works with is amylin, a small peptide hormone naturally released in the body along with insulin.

“Because more insulin is released in Type 2 diabetes, more amylin will be released as well,” said Watkins. “In the process, amylin forms toxic plaques in the pancreas, so it will actually start killing off cells. As a result, less insulin is produced, which may cause diabetics to need even more insulin.”

Watkins also works with Ph.D. student Paul Velander in an effort to inhibit amylin’s growth, as well as perfect techniques to study and produce it in the lab.

“Amylin is difficult to study because it is extremely small and misbehaves in solution,” Watkins said. “It tends to clump together and slide off the gel.”

Watkins is also writing a review paper on nanoparticles and natural compounds – matter produced by our bodies and other living organisms. Small particles, referred to as nanoparticles, that carry natural compounds into the body could be used to treat conditions like cancer, infectious diseases, and diabetes.  

“We’ve known that certain natural products have potential anti-cancer, anti-diabetes, and anti-inflammation abilities, but many of them are not soluble in water and would require us consume a lot each day,” said Watkins. “We’re hoping that getting these compounds into nanoparticles will increase the available amount in the body, which will mean consuming less for the same effect.” 

Watkins received the 2015 James Lewis Howe award from the Virginia Tech Biochemistry Blue Ridge Chapter of the American Chemical Society. In the fall, she will be a Ph.D. student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Bin Team 2
Xu and his team work closely to find the latest molecular knowledge. Great work, team Xu!

Posted June 19, 2015

By Cassandra Hockman, communications coordinator at Fralin