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The award recognizes School of Medicine investigators whose research has provided novel insights that can lead to the improvement of human health
Guolin Ma, PhD, research assistant professor with the Center for Translational Cancer Research at the Texas A&M Health Institute of Biosciences and Technology (IBT), has received the inaugural Research Excellence Award for postdoctoral fellows, research scientists and research track faculty.
This new Research Excellence Award was established in 2022 to honor the most experienced scholars and bench scientists within the Texas A&M University School of Medicine’s research enterprise, including postdoctoral fellows, research scientists and non-tenure track faculty (research assistants and associate professors). This competitive award pays tribute to the research accomplishments of up to two outstanding scholars each year. In addition to a cash prize, awardees have the opportunity to present their research in a college-wide seminar, in coordination with a leading researcher in the same field.
“Receiving this award is among the most significant events of my research career,” Ma said. “It is a powerful and timely support for my independence and career development.”
Ma, who holds a PhD in bioinorganic chemistry, joined the Institute of Biosciences and Technology in 2013 as a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of Yubin Zhou, MD, PhD. This marked the beginning of a near decade-long research career investigating calcium signaling and its potential for counteracting mammalian disease models, notably cancer. During his nine years with the School of Medicine, Ma transitioned from a postdoctoral researcher to a full-time research scientist position, and in 2020, to a research-track assistant professorship.
Among his most prominent research focuses, Ma has developed and incorporated cutting-edge molecular techniques to investigate a highly-selective calcium signaling pathway called Store-Operated Calcium Entry (SOCE). Aberrant activity within this pathway inhibits healthy transmission of calcium across a cell membrane, contributing to immunodeficiency, cardiac hypertrophy and cancer metastasis. In addition to interrogating the specific functions of SOCE mechanisms, Ma has engineered a cell-based fluorescence sensor for monitoring calcium activity, which he employed to identify specific proteins that regulate calcium entry into the cell. Furthermore, Ma’s research has identified a tumor-promoting component in glioblastoma cells, which when inhibited, reduces cancerous cell proliferation and growth.
Ma’s research places exceptional emphasis on not only identifying biological factors that underly illness, but on translating laboratory findings to therapeutic intervention with his own implementation studies. For example, Ma’s lab has used optogenetics—a technology that combines optics with genetics to control cellular activity—to “instruct” immune cells to kill cancerous tumors. Optogenetics further allowed Ma’s lab to selectively control calcium activity and calcium-responsive gene expression, and trigger cancer cell-specific immune response. Other than studying tumor production, Ma notes that “this technique has been extended to study immune, heart and other types of cells that use calcium to perform their tasks in the lab.”
Currently, Ma is focusing on developing a biological toolkit to be incorporated in immunotherapy practices. By selectively-blocking SOCE activity, he aims to tightly control T-cell activity in cancer patients and overcome the shortcomings of existing FDA-approved cell therapy treatments. Separately, Ma is also developing a new optogenetic tool to regulate calcium signaling non-invasively, which would allow for precise control of cellular activity in a laboratory setting.
Upon receiving this Research Excellence Award, Ma expressed enthusiasm for engaging in more interdisciplinary collaboration. “This award will bolster my efforts to secure external grant supports and establish an independent research program,” he said.
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