Scientists develop new sensor to capture calcium activity in cells

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Georgia State University researchers have developed a new method to detect calcium activity in cells. Jenny Yang, Regents' Professor in Chemistry, conducted the study. It demonstrated the effectiveness of a biosensor that monitors calcium activity at specific sites within cells. This discovery could help us better understand the molecular basis for human diseases.

Calcium is vital for many physiological functions, including the function and health of the nervous, circulatory, digestive, and muscular systems. Calcium increases signaling molecules, triggers cells to respond, controls neurotransmitters (chemical messengers from neurons), stimulates muscle contraction and aids fertility. Calcium is essential for bone formation. Many cell processes require calcium.

This wide variety of functions makes calcium levels and movement useful indicators for biological changes and mechanisms. Unfortunately, attempts to develop calcium sensors that monitor rapid signaling changes were unsuccessful in the past due to slow response times of the sensors.

Yang is the associate director of Center for Diagnostics and Therapeutics and the director of Advanced Translational Imaging Facility. Yang said that the challenge lies in capturing these rapid changes in specific locations. "For instance, if my muscle is injured, it causes a calcium change in the muscle cells and it happens very quickly."

Yang and her collaborators have developed a method to create a calcium binding site on the surface of fluorescent proteins in order to better capture these signals. The study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie shows that the R-CatchER red calcium sensor is sensitive to calcium signals from multiple cell types. Yang and her team have spent decades refining and developing their method. This breakthrough is Yang's. In the journal iScience, they published a paper about the development of a green calcium sensor (known as G-CatchER+).

Yang stated that the protein Yang is using can detect and measure calcium activity. "We can monitor calcium changes in healthy cells and observe how they change in diseases."

R-CatchER can be used for lab research and studies. For example, it could help determine if there is a link between calcium changes and a specific disease. Their technology could be used to aid in drug discovery.

"We have a unique approach for understanding how calcium affects aging and disease states," Yang said. Yang stated that this tool could be used to determine the signal pathway associated with a disease or how it changes after treatment with a drug compound. It could pinpoint the exact location where the drug must be directed to be effective.

Researchers say that the next step will be to use the technology in animal models in order to better understand the role of different cell events in disease.

Yang is a pioneer in the field she calls calciomics, which combines protein chemistry and biology to create computational studies and calcium sensor instruments. In recognition of her contributions, she was named a National Academy of Inventors Fellow.

The study's co-authors include Xiaonan Deng (chemistry doctoral student), Donald Hamelberg (chemistry professor) and Xinqiu Yoo (postdoctoral associate for chemistry).

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