Industrial Postdoctoral Fellow Anne-Marie Lund Winther, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University, has been awarded a L’Oréal–UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship for her research into the importance of calcium balance for muscle contraction – with particular focus on the heart.
The body’s cells contain the important protein calcium ATPase, which contributes to maintaining the right calcium balance in the cells. This function is particularly important in the heart, where it regulates muscle relaxation after a contraction. Calcium ATPase regulates the balance in collaboration with another protein and, if an imbalance between these proteins occurs, it can have a negative influence on the contraction and subsequent relaxation of the heart muscle. This can lead to impaired blood transport around the body or – at worst – heart failure.
It was almost by coincidence that Anne-Marie Lund Winther discovered the amazing correlation between the protein calcium ATPase and the calcium balance in the cells. She was in the process of studying the interaction between calcium ATPase and an inhibitory molecule, but discovered instead how the protein calcium ATPase works together with another protein – sarcolipin (a regulatory peptide) – that is found in muscle cells and adjusts the effect of calcium ATPase uptake of calcium.
The calcium pump regulates the level of calcium in the cells by transporting calcium ions out of the cells after a muscle contraction, and thereby helps to determine how quickly the muscle relaxes again. It is therefore important to know how the proteins work together in order to control the relationship between them when an imbalance occurs. The discovery of the correlation between the proteins can hopefully help in the development of pharmaceuticals for treating different heart conditions.
Using X-ray crystallography, Anne-Marie Lund Winther constructed small protein crystals that are bombarded by X-radiation. The resulting data can be used to produce 3D models that are studied in more detail. The proteins are actually so small that they cannot even be seen under a microscope.
Further research will be carried out in the nearest future into which substances modify the calcium transport as described. This will include changing the interaction between calcium ATPase and sarcolipin, and – in this connection – the grant of DKK 110,000 will be used to purchase new equipment.
On 15 January 2014, three researchers – including two from Aarhus University – were presented with the prestigious For Women in Science Fellowship at a ceremony held at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. The For Women in Science programme was founded by L’Oréal and UNESCO and it aims to highlight good role models among female scientists, as well as attracting more women to science subjects. The 2013 L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowships were awarded to three women in Denmark for the seventh time. The honour comes with a prize of DKK 110,000.
Anne-Marie Lund Winther
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
Aarhus University, Denmark