The GPCR Gang Gets to Work

Inside Rourke Lab at Mount Allison University

It is fair to say that most people’s idea of summer vacation doesn’t include microscopes and data points, but these five university biochemistry students wouldn’t want it any other way.

This summer The Rourke Lab, lead by Dr. Jillian Rourke at Mount Allison University, is host to honours students (L-R) Madelaine Russell, Rachel McDougall, Madeline Power, Brandon MacKinnon and Nick Fernandez who together compose the GPCR Gang (Gang Proudly Conducting Research). 

Rourke Lab covers a variety of research interests concerning “G protein-coupled receptors (GPCR) and their cell signalling, cell function, as well as aspects of endocrinology including hormone secretion with implications in obesity and diabetes,” as described on their website.

GPCRs describe a wide variety of receptors, each with their own specialization. As a protein embedded in the outer layer of the cell that connects to both inside and outside of the cell, a GPCR acts as what MacKinnon (below) describes as “an inbox for messages that come in the form of peptides, lipids, sugars, and proteins.”

For example, if sugar is detected outside a cell it would bind to the exterior GPCR causing the correct G-protein inside the cell to “switch on” and initiate a cascade of events resulting in a change of cell function.

Together, Fernandez and MacKinnon are researching the relationship between orphan GPCRs found in human  cells and artificial sweeteners. This research involves de-orphanizing GPCRS, a process of identifying new binding partners (ligands) for a GPCR that does not have a known activator to bind to. 

Fernandez explains their research sets out to characterize the more than 700 member GPCRome family of receptors “many of which have been used as FDA-approved drug targets.” Their research also has the potential to uncover long-term metabolic effects of artificial sweeteners. 

In the same lab, Power (below) is also searching for currently unknown ligands (a molecule the receptor can bind to) for orphan GPCRS through the use of a combination of amino acids. Power hopes to identify new ligands in order to better understand GPCRs and “contribute to the development of new treatments through nutrients found in our diet or in the development of new drugs.” 

Russell’s research concerns the intercommunication of GPCRs involved in lipid metabolism. Russell explains her mission to better understand the ways in which protein and lipid metabolism communicate can potentially uncover solutions associated with “diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and the metabolic syndrome.”   

Along the lab bench, McDougall is investigating the ability of human cells to function properly after being exposed to the toxic effects of gold nanoparticles. McDougall explains that gold nanoparticles are an essential tool for diagnosing and treating several forms of cancer. 

The learning taking place in Rourke Lab goes beyond research. Power shares that this summer she’s learned that “progress in research is rarely a linear path… The best thing I did was jump right in with the understanding that mistakes are going to happen but that they are our best teacher.”

Dr. Rourke’s passion for research and teaching has profoundly impacted her students. As Fernandez says, “the positive and empowering atmosphere that Dr. Rourke fosters in her lab” made his decision to pursue research “the natural choice.’

Stay up to date with Rourke Lab by following them on Instagram and Twitter @Rourkelab. Visit their website for more information.  


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