IBT Graduate Student Cracks Tough Biomedical Research Problem

January 19, 2006

A paper published this month in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry and the awarding of an international patent chips away at scientific dogma about the nature of sugar molecules.

Yongde Luo of the Texas A&M Health Science Center’s Institute of Biosciences and Technology (IBT) located in the Texas Medical Center demonstrates that the structure of a sugar molecule is not random as scientists have believed. He has shown this even though the complexity of sugars makes them extremely difficult to work with.

If Luo is correct, then scientists can determine the structure of a sugar molecule and design a drug that works with that structure. Under the old dogma, if negative charges were randomly distributed on sugars, no drugs could be rationally designed.

Luo will soon be awarded his Ph.D. from Texas A&M University System Health Science Center. Not only has he had to overcome difficult science problems to earn his doctorate, but he has also surmounted political and family issues as well.

Luo came to IBT in a unique program with universities in the People’s Republic of China instituted by Dr. Wallace L. McKeehan. If Chinese graduate students were outstanding enough to be selected by their professors, they came to IBT to perform their doctoral research. McKeehan became the Chinese graduate students’ thesis supervisor and mentor and was also an adjunct professor at the students’ home universities.

“The beauty of this system,” says McKeehan, “was that the professors in China never made a mistake in their selections.”

After only one year, Luo had a paper accepted by an American scientific journal and his scientific future was looking assured. Then politics intervened.

After a regime change in China, Luo’s university went back on its promise to grant his Ph.D. In 2002 he was told to return to China or forfeit his doctoral degree. At this point, he had a wife, baby daughter and promising career in McKeehan’s lab. Luo stayed in Houston.

Because Luo was a brilliant graduate student who had done all the research necessary for a Ph.D., McKeehan gave him a research staff position.

Through all his difficulties and uncertainties, Luo continued his work on the structure of the heparin sulfate molecule, a macro sugar molecule that is produced by the liver. Finally he was able to demonstrate that the placement of its negative charges was important and the placement was not random, as scientific dogma dictated.

“Advances in scientific instrumentation have made my breakthrough possible,” says Luo, “in China I got a good grounding in theory but here I work even harder because the facilities are so good. The Institute of Biosciences and Technology has the latest in new and better equipment. Our new mass spectrometer helps me a lot.”

McKeehan concluded, “Yongde Luo has persistence and guts. He never gives up. Essentially he has earned two doctorate degrees because he has done research on two different projects. His mentor in China survived the Cultural Revolution and he himself has survived everything that fate has thrown at him since leaving China. Sugars are much harder to work with than other molecules and I take my hat off to him. The research has been tough, and his conclusion is controversial. Now we will wait and see if it is accepted.”

The Texas A&M Health Science Center provides the state with health education, outreach and research. Its five components located in communities throughout Texas are Baylor College of Dentistry, the College of Medicine, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the Institute of Biosciences and Technology and the School of Rural Public Health.

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