Roy Cohen, PhD
To answer big questions about life and develop new technologies that could transform medical care, Dr. Roy Cohen trains his sights on tiny biological machines: calcium channels and enzymes. Calcium channels are responsive little tunnels that shuttle calcium in and out of cells, a process that can trigger chains of events that make big things happen in the body. With the enzymes, Cohen is developing tools to detect markers in the bloodstream that indicate a head injury, cancer, infection, or other conditions.
In one of his current projects, Dr. Cohen is looking for ways to manage and improve diabetes care for dogs, cats, and humans alike by studying calcium channels in the pancreas that can affect insulin release. When the system is working correctly, specialized clusters of cells in the pancreas sense levels of glucose in the blood and secret hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, into the blood stream. This helps control blood sugar (glucose) levels and makes it easier for the body to absorb this sweet nutrient. In this process, glucose stimulates calcium channels on the surface of pancreas cells. These tiny tunnels then allow calcium into the cells, which causes the cell to release insulin, a crucial step for maintaining health. In previous studies, Cohen and his colleagues found that different levels of cholesterol can change how those calcium channels work, and hence, how much insulin is released. This may mean that cholesterol in the diet affects the amount of insulin the pancreas releases, which could have important implications for managing diabetes. Dr. Cohen is interested in finding out whether drugs that target interactions between cholesterol and calcium channels might help treat diabetes by regulating the release of insulin.
Dr. Cohen not only studies the minute details of cells, he’s also putting these discoveries to work for improving medical and veterinary care. To speed up diagnosis of certain common conditions, he and his collaborators are developing sensors that can identify molecules in the blood that signify the patient has a traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, stroke, and other illnesses. At the heart of these technologies are target-specific enzymes and light-emitting enzymes attached to a solid surface. When a blood sample washes over the surface, the target-specific enzymes recognize the marker molecules, which activates them to trigger the light-emitting enzymes to release a flash that is picked up by a light detector. Once they’re perfected, these sensors could be used as screening tools in veterinary offices and hospitals, and in cases of head injury or stroke, the sensors could help track the progress of a patient’s recovery.