Stephanie Nicole “Nikki” Lewis of Newport News, Va.,  a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s interdisciplinary doctoral program in genetics, bioinformatics, and computational biology, received the prestigious Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award for Predoctoral Research from the National Institutes of Health. 

The award is for her study of a cellular signaling receptor that is associated with chronic inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Lewis is applying a combination of computational modeling and experimental methods to identify molecules that can activate peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (PPAR g), which is a therapeutic target for suppressing inflammation.

The search for drugs targeting the receptor is urgently needed, because use of current drugs to treat type II diabetes by binding to PPAR g — like the recently restricted Avandia (GlaxoSmithKline) — results in adverse side effects.

A goal of Lewis’ research is to identify novel, orally active, naturally occurring compounds with therapeutic potential due to their insulin-sensitizing and anti-inflammatory actions. The computational methods are used to quickly and inexpensively screen large numbers of compounds, from which a small number are selected for experimental validation in vitro and through preclinical animal studies.

This project, titled “Virtual Screening Development to Complement Experimental Screening for PPAR Modulators to Treat Type II Diabetes Mellitus,” is primarily funded through the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of NIH.

Lewis is working jointly with David Bevan, professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Josep Bassaganya-Riera, associate professor in the Nutritional Immunology and Molecular Medicine Laboratory at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute.

“The strength of Nikki’s research lies not only in the combination of computational and experimental methods, but also in her approach that will unravel details of the events that accompany PPAR g activation, thereby making the drug discovery process more rational,” Bevan said.

“Nikki’s successful NIH proposal builds upon ongoing collaborative research between Dr. Bevan and NIMML aimed at streamlining the drug and nutraceutical discovery process,” Bassaganya-Riera said. “In addition, Nikki’s project leverages and extends the scope of studies conducted by the Center for Modeling Immunity to Enteric Pathogens. Specifically, this effort is in line with the goal of discovering novel, broad-based immune therapeutics for gastrointestinal infectious diseases by creating computational models of the mucosal immune system and sets the stage for multi-scale modeling in drug discovery.”

Lewis earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Christopher Newport University. She is affiliated with the Virginia Tech Post-Baccalaureate Research and Education Program and the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development, where she currently serves as a mentor to several students. When Lewis completes her Ph.D., she says she hopes to obtain a faculty position at a research university where she can continue to conduct research on immune-mediated diseases while teaching and mentoring.



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