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Snake Venom Drives Research into the Heart of the Body’s Electrical System

May 15, 2013

Dr. Sebastien Poget (left) has received an NSF CAREER grant to study ion channels.

Dr. Sebastien Poget was recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER grant totaling $1.18 million—the highest total ever for a CAREER proposal from the College of Staten island—for his work studying ion channels, very important components of our nervous systems that allow the flow of electricity in our bodies.

The research has potential far-reaching implications, as conditions such as epilepsy and sudden cardiac arrest are often caused by improperly functioning or malfunctioning channels.

Dr. Poget’s proposal, “Structural and Mechanistic Analysis of Potassium Channel Modulation by a Novel Activating Snake Toxin,” aims to determine how the ion channels—tiny semipermeable membrane proteins that allow electrical communication throughout the body—are affected by a particular component in the venom of the Eastern Green Mamba, a snake indigenous to Southern and East Africa.

Dr. Poget, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at CSI, is studying this Eastern Green Mamba toxin because of the curious way our ion channels react to its venom—while the venom from most snakes and arachnids shut down the channels, this Green Mamba toxin actually forces the ion channels in our bodies to open, thereby overloading our nervous system with electrical impulses.

While research on this phenomenon is still in its early stages, Dr. Poget believes that understanding how the toxin affects the channels will be the first step in developing treatments for diabetes, heart disease, epilepsy, and even insecticide development. “Understanding this particular mechanism will help us gain a better understanding of how these ion channels are regulated,” stated Dr. Poget. “We could then begin creating compounds that could be developed into drugs.”

With this grant, Dr. Poget hopes to establish a scientific program that is integrated with educational efforts. With Dr. Poget heading this research, there will be one post-doctoral and one graduate student carrying out research in the lab and working as mentors to the three to five undergraduate students who will assist. “We plan on having our undergraduates performing valuable research as well as providing outreach with local high schools,” explained Dr. Poget. “From there, we will create modules with the high school science teachers so they may teach this research to their students.”

Like many members of the faculty at CSI, Dr. Poget believes that part of working at the College is “exposing students to world-class, hands-on research opportunities that are unavailable anywhere else.” As part of the grant, Poget plans to integrate peer education to high school teachers to effectively engage high school students with the research, as well as integrating undergraduate and graduate students at CSI into the lab. Preliminary papers are already being planned. Dr. Poget emphasized that CSI students working with him on this research will “most likely be a part of publishing the research.”

Dr. Poget’s research team will be studying the ion channels in two groups run by the post-doctoral and graduate students, with assistance from the undergraduates. One group will be using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy in order to be able to view the toxin and the channels in a 3D space. The other team will study the electrophysiology of the channels, determining the function of single channels in the membrane using sensitive amplifiers to measure the current.  “We make the proteins ourselves, figure out the 3D structure, and how the toxin interacts with the channels,” explained Dr. Poget. “Then, we come up with a hythesis of how this all works.”

By Carlo Alaimo, Ken Bach, and Dr. Sebastien Poget

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