May 26, 2006

Young VUMC neuroscientists take home divisional top honors at national pharmacology meet

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Keith Henry, Ph.D., and Julie Field, a graduate student, both in Randy Blakely's lab.
Photo by Dana Johnson

Young VUMC neuroscientists take home divisional top honors at national pharmacology meet

A graduate student and a research instructor in the laboratory of Randy Blakely, Ph.D., took two of the top awards for best paper in their division at the 2006 annual meeting of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET).

With more than 4,200 members, ASPET is one of the oldest and most prestigious pharmacology societies in the world.

Julie Field won first place in the “Graduate Student Young Scientist Award for Best Paper” category, and L. Keith Henry, Ph.D., placed second in the “Postdoctoral Young Scientist Award for Best Paper” category. The awards were presented by the ASPET Division of Neuropharmacology, one of 10 divisions of the society. More than 60 abstracts were considered for the awards.

“This is quite a coup for Vanderbilt, and of course I am very proud of them as coming from my group,” said Blakely, director of the Center for Molecular Neuroscience.

“It was amazing that, among the sea of posters, two trainees from the Blakely lab came home with first and second place,” said Elaine Sanders-Bush, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and the newly-installed president of ASPET.

Field and Henry presented their research on the serotonin transporter — a protein that clears the neurotransmitter serotonin from the space between neurons (the synapse).

The serotonin transporter is a target for therapeutic drugs including antidepressants like Prozac, and for drugs of abuse such as cocaine and ecstasy.

Both Field and Henry have been investigating the serotonin transporter's structure and how specific amino acids in the protein are involved in the mechanism of moving serotonin and binding drugs and ions like sodium and chloride.

They are collaborating with Jens Meiler, Ph.D., assistant professor of Chemistry and Pharmacology, and the Vanderbilt Center for Structural Biology to create high-resolution models of the human serotonin transporter, based on the recently published structure of a related bacterial transporter protein.

“Hypotheses derived from these structures can be tested biochemically in the lab and then fed back into the computational modeling, creating a wonderful synergy between the computational and biochemical analysis of this transporter family,” Henry said.

“We are inordinately proud of our honored graduate students and postdocs in Pharmacology,” said Heidi Hamm, Ph.D., Earl W. Sutherland Jr. Professor and Chair of Pharmacology. “These scientists are our representatives to the world, and our future.”