Mehmet Şen’s Research Takes a Closer Look at Immune Cell Receptor Structures
Mehmet Şen, assistant professor of biochemistry, is embarking on several projects at the University of Houston made possible through his newly funded five-year CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.
The award recognizes early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and who can advance the mission of their department or university.
With the NSF funding, Şen’s research is focused on understanding how immune receptors change their adhesiveness and shape simultaneously, while also modifying functions of immune cells. This is a phenomenon known as allostery in biochemistry.
Şen’s laboratory will use biophysical and biochemical approaches to map the biological “wiring network” that creates the highly complicated immune system’s response against infection and cancer.
“I’m interested in not only furthering my research in structural immunology, but also in preparing future scientists who will be able to look at human immunity through the lens of someone trained in chemistry and physics,” said Şen.
Studying and Tuning the Immune System
“Immune surveillance is perhaps the most complicated and diverged system, and you cannot easily relate events of immunity happening in mice and humans,” said Şen. “Therefore, we are challenged to study these events using unconventional techniques beyond classical biology.”
The keys to understanding immunology lie in innate and adaptive immunity and how they work coherently. Innate immunity is the human body’s first line of defense; it is non-specific and provides a robust response. Adaptive immunity, unlike innate immunity, is temporally developed, and thus highly specific.
“In our laboratory, we investigate what takes place at cross-talk events between adaptive and innate responses and then design unique drugs to fine-tune both of the immune branches,” said Şen.
Şen’s laboratory, which includes graduate and undergraduate students, uses biophysics, biochemistry, structural biology and protein chemistry techniques to investigate shape shifting of immune receptors at the molecular level, which, in turn, inform how white blood cells function in health and diseases.
Promoting STEM for Students and Future Educators
Şen’s work is also benefitting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students from pre-high school through graduate school, including those who are planning future careers as STEM educators.
Funding from Şen’s CAREER award will also support a biotechnology summer workshop that was launched in 2021. His goal for students participating in the workshop is to instill a better understanding of protein structure and function and to provide hands-on training in computer-aided drug discovery.
“During previous workshops, it was highly informative, as well as stunning, for students to observe that the current COVID-19 antiviral drugs, Remdesivir or Favipiravir, bind to one of the COVID-19 proteins, yet hydroxychloroquine does not,” said Şen.
The workshop also creates a collaborative environment between UH students and biochemistry professors. Faculty who participate in the workshop partner with graduate and undergraduate students from many majors, including students from NSM and the College of Education. Undergraduate students serve as mentors for younger students when working on projects.
Currently, the workshop is open to all students regardless of their grades or academic status and is free of charge. “Students just need to bring their curiosity,” Şen added.
Students interested in the biotechnology summer workshop should email Şen (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Bulent Dogan (email@example.com).
“Through my years of training, I have garnered a passion for the mechanics of immunobiology which has driven my desire to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of how our immune cells execute and function in health and disease,” said Şen.
He hopes that his award will create more scientific discoveries and scientific training opportunities for students who are attracted to a career in biophysical and biochemical sciences.
- Chris Guillory, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics